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Portrait of Archbishop William Laud

Archbishop William Laud  (1573-1645)

WILLIAM LAUD, English archbishop, only son of William Laud, a clothier, was born at Reading on the 7th of October 1573. He was educated at Reading free school, matriculated at St John's college, Oxford, in 1589, gained a scholarship in 1590, a fellowship in 1593, and graduated B.A. in 1594, proceeding to D.D. in 1608. In 1601 he took orders, in 1603 becoming chaplain to Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire. Laud early took up a position of antagonism to the Calvinistic party in the church, and in 1604 was reproved by the authorities for maintaining in his thesis for the degree of B.D. "that there could be no true church without bishops," and again in 1606 for advocating "popish" opinions in a sermon at St Mary's.

If high-church doctrines, however, met with opposition at Oxford, they were relished elsewhere, and Laud obtained rapid advancement. In 1607 he was made vicar of Stanford in Northamptonshire, and in 1608 he became chaplain to Bishop Neile, who in 1610 presented him to the living of Cuxton, when he resigned his fellowship. In 1611, in spite of the influence of Archbishop Abbot and Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, Laud was made president of St John's, and in 1614 obtained in addition the prebend of Buckden, in 1615 the archdeaconry of Huntingdon, and in 1616 the deanery of Gloucester. Here he repaired the fabric and changed the position of the communion table, a matter which aroused great religious controversy, from the centre of the choir to the east end, by a characteristic tactless exercise of power offending the bishop, who henceforth refused to enter the cathedral. In 1617 he went with King James to Scotland, and aroused hostility by wearing the surplice. In 1621 he became bishop of St David's, when he resigned the presidentship of St John's.

In April 1622 Laud, by the King's orders, took part in a controversy with Percy, a Jesuit, known as Fisher, the aim of which was to prevent the conversion of the Countess of Buckingham, the favourite's mother, to Romanism, and his opinions expressed on that occasion show considerable breadth and comprehension. While refusing to acknowledge the Roman Church as the true church, he allowed it to be a true church and a branch of the Catholic body, at the same time emphasizing the perils of knowingly associating with error; and with regard to the English Church he denied that the acceptance of all its articles was necessary. The foundation of belief was the Bible, not any one branch of the Catholic church arrogating to itself infallibility, and when dispute on matters of faith arose, "a lawful and free council, determining according to Scripture, is the best judge on earth." A close and somewhat strange intimacy, considering the difference in the characters and ideals of the two men, between Laud and Buckingham now began, and proved the chief instrument of Laud's advancement.

The opportunity came with the old king's death in 1625, for James, with all his pedantry, was too wise and cautious to embark in Laud's rash undertakings, and had already shown a prudent moderation, after setting up bishops in Scotland, in going no further in opposition to the religious feelings of the people. On the accession of Charles I, Laud's ambitious activities were allowed free scope. A list of the clergy was immediately prepared by him for the king, in which each name was labelled with an O or a P, distinguishing the Orthodox to be promoted from the Puritans to be suppressed. Laud defended Richard Montague, who had aroused the wrath of the parliament by his pamphlet against Calvinism. His influence soon extended into the domain of the state. He supported the king's prerogative throughout the conflict with the parliament, preached in favour of it before Charles's second parliament in 1626, and assisted in Buckingham's defence. In 1626 he was nominated Bishop of Bath and Wells, and in July 1628 Bishop of London. On the 12th of April 162 9 he was made Chancellor of Oxford University.

In the patronage of learning and in the exercise of authority over the morals and education of youth Laud was in his proper sphere, many valuable reforms at Oxford being due to his activity, including the codification of the statutes, the statute by which public examinations were rendered obligatory for university degrees, and the ordinance for the election of proctors, the revival of the college system, of moral and religious discipline and order, and of academic dress. He founded or endowed various professorships, including those of Hebrew and Arabic, and the office of public orator, encouraged English and foreign scholars, such as Voss, Selden and Jeremy Taylor, founded the university printing press, procuring in 1633 the royal patent for Oxford, and obtained for the Bodleian library over 1300 MSS., adding a new wing to the building to contain his gifts. His rule at Oxford was marked by a great increase in the number of students. In his own college he erected the new buildings, and was its second founder. Of his chancellorship he himself wrote a history, and the Laudian tradition long remained the great standard of order and good government in the university. Elsewhere he showed his liberality and his zeal for reform. He was an active visitor of Eton and Winchester, and endowed the grammar school at Reading, where he was himself educated. In London he procured funds for the restoration of the dilapidated cathedral of St Paul's.

He was far less great as a ruler in the state, showing as a judge a tyrannical spirit both in the Star Chamber and high-commission court, threatening Felton, the assassin of Buckingham, with the rack, and showing special activity in procuring a cruel sentence in the former court against Alexander Leighton in June 1630 and against Henry Sherfield in 1634. His power was greatly increased after his return from Scotland, whither he had accompanied the king, by his promotion to the archbishopric of Canterbury in August 1633. "As for the state indeed," he wrote to Wentworth on this occasion, "I am for Thorough." In 1636 the privy council decided in his favour his claim of jurisdiction as visitor over both universities. Soon afterwards he was placed on the commission of the treasury and on the committee of the privy council for foreign affairs. He was allpowerful both in church and state. He proceeded to impose by authority the religious ceremonies and usages to which he attached so much importance. His vicar-general, Sir Nathaniel Brent, went through the dioceses of his province, noting every dilapidation and every irregularity. The pulpit was no longer to be the chief feature in the church, but the communion table. The Puritan lecturers were suppressed. He showed great hostility to the Puritan sabbath and supported the reissue of the Book of Sports, especially odious to that party, and severely reprimanded Chief Justice Richardson for his interference with the Somerset wakes. He insisted on the use of the prayer-book among the English soldiers in the service of Holland, and forced strict conformity on the church of the merchant adventurers at Delft, endeavouring even to reach the colonists in New England. He tried to compel the Dutch and French refugees in England to unite with the Church of England, advising double taxation and other forms of persecution. In 1634 the justices of the peace were ordered to enter houses to search for persons holding conventicles and bring them before the commissioners. He took pleasure in displaying his power over the great, and in punishing them in the spiritual courts for moral offences. In 1637 he took part in the sentence of the star chamber on Prynne, Bostwick and Burton, and in the same year in the prosecution of Bishop Williams. He urged Strafford in Ireland to carry out the same reforms and severities.

He was now to extend his ecclesiastical system to Scotland, where 'during his visits the appearance of the churches had greatly displeased him. The new prayer-book and canons were drawn up by the Scottish bishops with his assistance and enforced in the country, and, though not officially connected with the work, he was rightly regarded as its real author. The attack not only on the national religion, but on the national independence of Scotland, proved to be the point at which the system, already strained, broke and collapsed. Laud continued to support Strafford's and the King's arbitrary measures to the last, and spoke in favour of the vigorous continuation of the war on Strafford's side in the memorable meeting of the committee of eight on the 5th of May 1640, and for the employment of any means for carrying it on. "Tried all ways," so ran the notes of his speech, "and refused all ways. By the law of God and man you should have subsistence and lawful to take it." Though at first opposed to the sitting of convocation, after the dissolution of parliament, as an independent body, on account of the opposition it would arouse, he yet caused to be passed in it the new canons which both enforced his ecclesiastical system and assisted the King's divine right, resistance to his power entailing "damnation." Laud's infatuated policy could go no further, and the etcetera oath, according to which whole classes of men were to be forced to swear perpetual allegiance to the "government of this church by archbishops, bishops, deans and archdeacons, &c.," was long remembered and derided.

His power now quickly abandoned him. He was attacked and reviled as the chief author of the troubles on all sides. In October he was ordered by Charles to suspend the etcetera oath. The same month, when the high commission court was sacked by the mob, he was unable to persuade the Star Chamber to punish the offenders. On the 18th of December he was impeached by the Long Parliament, and on the 1st of March imprisoned in the tower. On the 12th of May, at Strafford's request, the archbishop appeared at the window of his cell to give him his blessing on his way to execution, and fainted as he passed by. For some time he was left unnoticed in confinement. On the 31st of May 1643, however, Prynne received orders from the parliament to search his papers, and published a mutilated edition of his diary. The articles of impeachment were sent up to the Lords in October, the trial beginning on the 12th of March 1644, but the attempt to bring his conduct under a charge of high treason proving hopeless, an attainder was substituted and sent up to the Lords on the 22nd of November. In these proceedings there was no semblance of respect for law or justice, the Lords yielding (4th of January 1645) to the menaces of the Commons, who arrogated to themselves the right to declare any crimes they pleased high treason. Laud now tendered the king's pardon, which had been granted to him in April 1643. This was rejected, and it was with some difficulty that his petition to be executed with the axe, instead of undergoing the ordinary brutal punishment for high treason, was granted. He suffered death on the 10th of January on Tower Hill, asserting his innocence of any offence known to the law, repudiating the charge of "popery," and declaring that he had always lived in the Protestant Church of England. He was buried in the chancel of All Hallows, Barking, whence his body was removed on the 24th of July 1663 to the chapel of St John's College, Oxford.

Laud never married. He is described by Fuller as "low of stature, little in bulk, cheerful in countenance (wherein gravity and quickness were all compounded), of a sharp and piercing eye, clear judgment and (abating the influence of age) term memory." His personality, on account of the sharp religious antagonisms with which his name is inevitably associated, has rarely been judged with impartiality. His severities were the result of a narrow mind and not of a vindictive spirit, and their number has certainly been exaggerated. His career was distinguished by uprightness, by piety, by a devotion to duty, by courage and consistency. In particular it is clear that the charge of partiality for Rome is unfounded. At the same time the circumstances of the period, the fact that various schemes of union with Rome were abroad, that the missions of Panzani and later of Conn were gathering into the Church of Rome numbers of members of the Church of England who, like Laud himself, were dissatisfied with the Puritan bias which then characterized it, the incident mentioned by Laud himself of his being twice offered the cardinalate, the movement carried on at the court in favour of Romanism, and the fact that Laud's changes in ritual, however clearly defined and restricted in his own intention, all tended towards Roman practice, fully warranted the suspicions and fears of his contemporaries.

Laud's complete neglect of the national sentiment, in his belief that the exercise of mere power was sufficient to suppress it, is a principal proof of his total lack of true statesmanship. The hostility to "innovations in religion," it is generally allowed, was a far stronger incentive to the rebellion against the arbitrary power of the crown, than even the violation of constitutional liberties; and to Laud, therefore, more than to Strafford, to Buckingham, or even perhaps to Charles himself, is especially due the responsibility for the catastrophe. He held fast to the great idea of the catholicity of the English Church, to that conception of it which regards it as a branch of the whole Christian church, and emphasizes its historical continuity and identity from the time of the apostles, but here again his policy was at fault; for his despotic administration not only excited and exaggerated the tendencies to separatism and independentism which finally prevailed, but excluded large bodies of faithful churchmen from communion with their church and from their country. The emigration to Massachusetts in 1629, which continued in a stream till 1640, was not composed of separatists but of episcopalians. Thus what Laud grasped with one hand he destroyed with the other.

Passing to the more indirect influence of Laud on his times, we can observe a narrowness of mind and aim which separates him from a man of such high imagination and idealism as Strafford, however closely identified their policies may have been for the moment. The chief feature of Laud's administration is attention to countless details, to the most trivial of which he attached excessive importance, and which are uninspired by any great underlying principle. His view was always essentially material. The one element in the church which to him was all essential was its visibility. This was the source of his intense dislike of the Puritan and Nonconformist conception of the church, which afforded no tangible or definite form. Hence the necessity for outward conformity, and the importance attached to ritual and ceremony, unity in which must be established at all costs, in contrast to dogma and doctrine, in which he showed himself lenient and large-minded, winning over Hales by friendly discussion, and encouraging the publication of Chillingworth's Religion of Protestants. He was not a bigot, but a martinet. The external form was with him the essential feature of religion, preceding the spiritual conception, and in Laud's opinion being the real foundation of it. In his last words on the scaffold he alludes to the dangers and slanders he had endured labouring to keep an uniformity in the external service of God; and Bacon's conception of a spiritual union founded on variety and liberty was one completely beyond his comprehension.

This narrow materialism was the true cause of his fatal influence both in church and state. In his own character it produced the somewhat blunted moral sense which led to the few incidents in his career which need moral defence, his performance of the marriage ceremony between his first patron Lord Devonshire and the latter's mistress, the divorced wife of Lord Rich, an act completely at variance with his principles; his strange intimacy with Buckingham; his love of power and place. Indistinguishable from his personal ambition was his passion for the aggrandisement of the church and its predominance in the state. He was greatly delighted at the foolish appointment of Bishop Juxon as lord treasurer in 1636. "No churchman had it," he cries exultingly, "since Henry VII's time, ... and now if the church will not hold up themselves under God, I can do no more." Spiritual influence, in Laud's opinion, was not enough for the church. The church as the guide of the nation in duty and godliness, even extending its activity into state affairs as a mediator and a moderator, was not sufficient. Its power must be material and visible, embodied in great places of secular administration and enthroned in high offices of state. Thus the church,. descending into the political arena, became identified with the doctrines of one political party in the state — doctrines odious to the majority of the nation - and at the same time became associated with acts of violence and injustice, losing at once its influence and its reputation. Equally disastrous to the state was the identification of the king's administration with one party in the church, and that with the party in an immense minority not only in the nation but even among the clergy themselves.




      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XVI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 278.




Books for further study:

Carlton, Charles. Archbishop William Laud.
            Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1988.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh. Archbishop Laud.
            London: Phoenix Press, 2001.




Archbishop Laud on the Web:


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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
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Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
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c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
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