William Gardiner was born at Bristol, received a tolerable education, and was, at a proper age, placed under the care of a merchant, named Paget.
At the age of twenty-six years, he was, by his master, sent to Lisbon to act as factor. Here he applied himself to the study of the Portuguese language, executed his business with assiduity and despatch, and behaved with the most engaging affability to all persons with whom he had the least concern. He conversed privately with a few, whom he knew to be zealous Protestants; and, at the same time cautiously avoided giving the least offence to any who were Roman Catholics; he had not, however, hitherto gone into any of the popish churches.
A marriage being concluded between the king of Portugal's son, and the Infanta of Spain, upon the wedding-day the bridegroom, bride, and the whole court went to the cathedral church, attended by multitudes of all ranks of people, and among the rest William Gardiner, who stayed during the whole ceremony, and was greatly shocked at the superstitions he saw.
The erroneous worship which he had seen ran strongly in his mind; he was miserable to see a whole country sunk into such idolatry, when the truth of the Gospel might be so easily obtained. He, therefore, took the inconsiderate, though laudable design, into his head, of making a reform in Portugal, or perishing in the attempt; and determined to sacrifice his prudence to his zeal, though he became a martyr upon the occasion.
To this end, he settled all his worldly affairs, paid his debts, closed his books, and consigned over his merchandise. On the ensuing Sunday he went again to the cathedral church, with a New Testament in his hand, and placed himself near the altar.
The king and the court soon appeared, and a cardinal began Mass, at that part of the ceremony in which the people adore the wafer. Gardiner could hold out no longer, but springing towards the cardinal, he snatched the host from him, and trampled it under his feet.
This action amazed the whole congregation, and one person, drawing a dagger, wounded Gardiner in the shoulder, and would, by repeating the blow, have finished him, had not the king called to him to desist.
Gardiner, being carried before the king, the monarch asked him what countryman he was: to which he replied, "I am an Englishman by birth, a Protestant by religion, and a merchant by occupation. What I have done is not out of contempt to your royal person, God forbid it should, but out of an honest indignation, to see the ridiculous superstitious and gross idolatries practiced here."
The king, thinking that he had been stimulated by some other person to act as he had done, demanded who was his abetter, to which he replied, "My own conscience alone. I would not hazard what I have done for any man living, but I owe that and all other services to God."
Gardiner was sent to prison, and a general order issued to apprehend all Englishmen in Lisbon. This order was in a great measure put into execution, (some few escaping) and many innocent persons were tortured to make them confess if they knew any thing of the matter; in particular, a person who resided in the same house with Gardiner was treated with unparalleled barbarity to make him confess something which might throw a light upon the affair.
Gardiner himself was then tormented in the most excruciating manner; but in the midst of all his torments he gloried in the deed. Being ordered for death, a large fire was kindled near a gibbet, Gardiner was drawn up to the gibbet by pulleys, and then let down near the fire, but not so close as to touch it; for they burnt or rather roasted him by slow degrees. Yet he bore his sufferings patiently and resigned his soul to the Lord cheerfully.
It is observable that some of the sparks that were blown from the fire, (which consumed Gardiner) towards the haven, burnt one of the king's ships of war, and did other considerable damage. The Englishmen who were taken up on this occasion were, soon after Gardiner's death, all discharged, except the person who resided in the same house with him, who was detained two years before he could procure his liberty.