Sanders was born at Chariwood (or Charlwood Place, probably Charlwood), Surrey, the son of William Sanders, once sheriff of Surrey, who was descended from the Sanders of Sanderstead. Sanders was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, where he was elected fellow in 1548 and graduated B.C.L. in 1551. The family had strong Roman Catholic leanings, and two of his elder sisters became nuns of Sion convent before its dissolution. Sanders was selected to deliver the oration at the reception of Cardinal Pole's visitors by the university in 1557.
Sanders was ordained a priest in Rome, and even before the end of 1550 had been mentioned as a likely candidate for the cardinal's hat. During the following years he was employed by Cardinal Hosius, the learned Polish prelate, in his efforts to check the spread of heresy in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia.
In 1565, like many other English exiles, he made his headquarters at Louvain, and after a visit to the Imperial Diet at Augsburg in 1566 (in attendance upon Commendone, who had been largely instrumental in the reconciliation of England with Rome during the reign of Queen Mary I), he threw himself into the literary controversy between Bishops John Jewel and Thomas Harding.
Sanders' De visibili Monarchia Ecclesiae, provided the first narrative of the sufferings of the English Roman Catholics. It was published in 1571. The rest of his life was spent in the struggle to procure the deposition of Elizabeth and the restoration of Roman Catholicism.
Sanders' expectations of the cardinalate were disappointed upon the death of St.Pius V in 1572, and he passed the following years at Madrid, where he was granted a pension of 300 ducats. Attempting to embroil King Philip II in his struggle, he wrote that the state of Christendom depended upon the stout assailing of England, but in his zeal Sanders was sorely tried by the king's sense of caution. Sanders worked with James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald to launch a papal invasion of Ireland. The first of these, Sir Thomas Stukley's projected 1578 Irish expedition, which Sanders was to have accompanied with the blessings and assistance of the pope, was diverted to Morocco during an ill-devised campaign by King Sebastian of Portugal, where Stukley was killed at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in 1578.
In the following year, Sanders and Fitzmaurce landed a force of some 600 Spanish and Italian troops under papal authority at Smerwick harbour in Ireland, which launched the Second Desmond Rebellion. Sanders paraded the papal banner with some ceremony at Dingle, before repairing to the hinterland to meet with Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond and others who might help the cause. But the crown authorities at Dublin Castle reacted quickly: the invasion fleet was immediately captured by Sir William Winter, and in 1580 the troops at Smerwick were slaughtered without quarter by the English forces under Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton in the Siege of Smerwick and Sanders' assistance was cut off. After spending almost two years as a fugitive in the south-west of Ireland, he is believed to have died of cold and starvation in the spring of 1581.
The English exiles on the continent were disgusted at the waste of such material: "Our Sanders", they exclaimed, "is more to us than the whole of Ireland". But Sanders was part of a long line of missionaries sent to Ireland from the continent to combat the spread of Protestantism. His writings have been the basis of all Roman Catholic histories of the English Reformation. The most important was his De Origine ac Progressu schismatis Anglicani, which was continued after 1558 by Edward Rishton, and printed at Cologne in 1585; it has been often re-edited and translated, the best English edition being that by David Lewis (London, 1877). Its statements earned Sanders the nickname of Dr Slanders in England; but a considerable number of his assertions have been confirmed by corroborative evidence, while some were outright falsehoods, e.g. that Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII's own daughter.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nicholas Sanders". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Thomas McNevin Veech D Sc Hist (Leuven), Dr Nicholas Sanders and the English Reformation 1530 - 1581. Louvain, Bureaux Du Recueil 1935. xxiv+310 pp. 8vo. First edition. A copy of this extremely scarce book is held by the Veech Library of the Catholic Institute of Sydney at Strathfield, NSW, Australia. Copies also at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
- Richard Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors (3 yols., London, 1885–1890); Calendar of State Papers: Carew MSS. i, ii, (6 vols., 1867–1873).