The eldest son of William Parker, he was born in Norwich, in St Saviour's parish. His mother's maiden name was Alice Monins, and she may have been related by marriage to Thomas Cranmer. When William Parker died, in about 1516, his widow married John Baker. Matthew was sent in 1522 to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he is said to have been contemporary with William Cecil; but Cecil was only two years old at the time. Parker graduated BA in 1525, was ordained deacon in April and priest in June 1527, and was elected fellow of Corpus in the following September. He commenced MA in 1528, and was one of the Cambridge scholars whom Thomas Wolsey wished to transplant to his newly founded "Cardinal College" at Oxford.
Parker, like Cranmer, declined the invitation. He had come under the influence of the Cambridge reformers, and after Anne Boleyn's recognition as queen he was made her chaplain. Through her, he was appointed dean of the college of secular canons at Stoke-by-Clare in 1535. Latimer wrote to him in that year urging him not to fall short of the expectations which had been formed of his ability. In 1537 he was appointed chaplain to King Henry VIII, and in 1538 he was threatened with prosecution by the reactionary party. The Bishop of Dover, however, reported to Thomas Cromwell that Parker "hath ever been of a good judgment and set forth the Word of God after a good manner. For this he suffers some grudge." He graduated DD in that year, and in 1541 was appointed to the second prebend in the reconstituted cathedral church of Ely. In 1544, on Henry VIII's recommendation, he was elected master of Corpus Christi College, and in 1545 vice-chancellor of the university. He got into some trouble with the chancellor, Gardiner, over a ribald play, "Pammachius," performed by the students, which derided the old ecclesiastical system.
On the passing of the act of parliament in 1545 enabling the king to dissolve chantries and colleges, Parker was appointed one of the commissioners for Cambridge, and their report may have saved its colleges from destruction. Stoke, however, was dissolved in the following reign, and Parker received a generous pension. He took advantage of the new reign to marry in June, 1547, before clerical marriages had been legalized by parliament and convocation, Margaret, daughter of Robert Harlestone, a Norfolk squire. During Ket's Rebellion, he preached in the rebels' camp on Mousehold Hill, without much effect; and later on he encouraged his chaplain, Alexander Neville , to write his history of the rising.
Parker's Protestantism advanced with the times, and he received higher promotion under Northumberland than under the moderate Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset . Martin Bucer was his friend at Cambridge, and he preached Bucer's funeral sermon in 1551. In 1552 he was promoted to the rich deanery of Lincoln, and in July 1553 he supped with Northumberland at Cambridge, when the duke marched north on his hopeless campaign against the accession of Mary Tudor. As a supporter of Northumberland and a married man, Parker was deprived of his deanery, his mastership of Corpus, and his other preferments. However, he survived Mary's reign without leaving the country. Like Cecil, and the future Queen Elizabeth I of England, he respected authority, and when his time came he could consistently impose authority on others. He was not eager to assume this task, and made great efforts to avoid promotion to the archbishopric of Canterbury, which Elizabeth designed for him as soon as she had succeeded to the throne.
He was elected on August 1 1559; but it was difficult to find the requisite four bishops willing and qualified to consecrate him, and not until December 19 did Barlow, Scory, Coverdale and Hodgkins perform that ceremony at Lambeth. The allegation of an indecent consecration at the Nag's Head tavern in Fleet Street seems first to have been made by the Jesuit, Christopher Holywood, in 1604, and has since been discredited. Parker's consecration was, however, only legally valid by the plentitude of the royal supremacy; the Edwardine Ordinal, which was used, had been repealed by Mary and not re-enacted by the parliament of 1559. The Roman Catholic Church asserted that the form of consecration used was insufficient to make a bishop, and therefore represented a break in the Apostolic Succession; the Church of England rejected this, saying that if bishops met together to consecrate a bishop and believed they had done so then the form of words used made no difference to the substance or validity of the act.
Parker owes his fame to circumstances. The wise moderation of the Elizabethan settlement, which had been effected before his appointment, was not due to him. Elizabeth wanted a moderate man, so she chose Parker. He possessed all the qualifications she expected from an archbishop except celibacy. He distrusted popular enthusiasm, and he wrote in horror of the idea that "the people" should be the reformers of the Church. He was not an inspiring leader; and no dogma, no prayer-book, not even a tract or a hymn is associated with his name. The 56 volumes published by the Parker Society include only one by its eponymous hero, and that is a volume of correspondence. He was a disciplinarian, a scholar, a modest and moderate man of genuine piety and irreproachable morals. His historical research was exemplified in his De antiquilate ecclesiae, and his editions of Asser, Matthew Paris, Walsingham, and the compiler known as Matthew of Westminster; his liturgical skill was shown in his version of the psalter and in the occasional prayers and thanksgivings which he was called upon to compose; and he left a priceless collection of manuscripts, largely collected from former monastic libraries, to his college at Cambridge. The Parker Library at Corpus Christi bears his name and houses his collection.
He avoided involvement in secular politics, and was never admitted to Elizabeth's privy council. Ecclesiastical politics gave him considerable trouble. Many of the reformers wanted no bishops, while the Catholics wanted those of the old dispensation, and the queen herself grudged episcopal privilege until she recognised it as one of the chief bulwarks of the royal supremacy. Parker was left to stem the rising tide of Puritan feeling with little support from parliament, convocation or the Crown. The bishops' Interpretations and Further Considerations, issued in 1560, tolerated a lower vestiarian standard than was prescribed by the rubric of 1559; the Advertisements, which Parker published in 1566, to check the Puritan descent, had to appear without specific royal sanction; and the Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum, which Foxe published with Parker's approval, received neither royal, parliamentary nor synodical authorization. Parliament even contested the claim of the bishops to determine matters of faith. "Surely," said Parker to Peter Wentworth, "you will refer yourselves wholly to us therein." "No, by the faith I bear to God," retorted Wentworth, "we will pass nothing before we understand what it is; for that were but to make you popes. Make you popes who list, for we will make you none." Disputes about vestments had expanded into a controversy over the whole field of Church government and authority, and Parker died on May 17 1575, lamenting that Puritan ideas of "governance" would "in conclusion undo the queen and all others that depended upon her." By his personal conduct he had set an ideal example for Anglican priests, and it was not his fault that national authority failed to crush the individualistic tendencies of the Protestant Reformation.
John Strype's Life of Parker, originally published in 1711, and re-edited for the Clarendon Press in 1821 (3 vols.), is the principal source for Parker's life. A biographical sketch written from a different point of view was published by WM Kennedy in 1908. See also J Bass Mullinger's scholarly life in Dict. Nat. Biog.; WH Frere's volume in Stephens and Hunt's Church History; Strype's Works (General Index); Gough's Index to Parker Soc. Putt.; Fuller, Gilbert Burnet, Collier and Richard Watson Dixon's Histories of the Church; Birt's Elizabethan Settlement; H Gee's Elizabethan Clergy (1898); Froude's History of England; and vol. vi. in Longman's Political History.