10 January 2019

For common folk, a champion to be lauded

Archbishop William Laud

I mean, of course, the much-maligned and wrongfully-executed Archbishop William Laud, hailed by his Church the English Cyprian. One of my intellectual and moral heroes from the college days when I was a fervent Anglo-Catholic socialist, given his closeness to Dr Lancelot Andrewes for whom Fr Nicholas Lossky held such esteem and also given his œcumenical interest in Orthodox Christianity, I feel that returning again to the example of his life and works may be fruitful and elucidating.

William Laud, a native of Reading, Berkshire, the son and grandson of clothiers and tailors on both sides of his family, was encouraged at a very young age by both his father and his mother to attend to learning and scholarship. He attended the local grammar school, and then afterwards St John’s College at Oxford, where he pursued his studies in theology, becoming an Anglican priest in 1601, and in 1603 a chaplain to Charles Blount, the eighth Baron Mountjoy and first Earl of Devonshire. It was here that he began to show a marked and righteous hostility toward the monstrous doctrines of Jehan Cauvin. He also displayed very early a deference to the doctrines and ‘high’ modes of worship of the Early Church; in particular its emphasis on physical and tactile beauty as a means of lifting the mind toward God. His views were considered, at Oxford at least, rather gauche. However, Laud s sermons found a readier reception in the East Midlands: he was welcomed as the rector of the Parish of St Nicholas in Stanford, Northamptonshire in 1607, and later became a vicar under Bishop Richard Neile, who gave him strong recommendations and preferments to later posts. He held a number of priestly appointments, including one as president of St John’s.

The lack of diplomatic tact that was to become a criticism of his later career began to show itself very early on. He was, perhaps on account of his scholarly turn of mind, often over-eager to butt heads with people in positions of authority above him, and often all too ready to court enmity in a cause he felt just. For example: he restored the altar-cloth and moved the altar in the Cathedral at Gloucester when he was made dean there in 1616, to conform with earlier practice, but without the Calvinist Bishop of Gloucester Miles Smith’s permission. The Bishop, offended, refused to set foot in Gloucester as long as Laud was dean there. Laud was made a bishop himself – of Saint David’s in Wales – in 1621. In this office, at the behest of King James I, like Dr Andrewes before him, he engaged in polemical exchanges with the English Jesuit John Percy over the latter’s purported attempts at proselytism in the Buckingham household.

In 1625, when Charles I came to the throne, Bishop William Laud seized his moment. The two of them were of a like turn of mind on the subject of Calvinism, and the new king implicitly trusted Laud’s recommendations of Arminian clergymen to positions of prominence, and discommendations of Calvinists. He defended the reputation of Richard Montague before a hostile House of Commons, Montague having published a disputation against the doctrines of Cauvin, and he made an alliance with Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, who was a staid sæcular supporter of the King. His ascent under Charles I was swift. He attended the deathbed of Dr Lancelot Andrewes and was made Dean of the Chapel Royal in his place. He was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1627, Bishop of London a year later, Chancellor of Oxford University less than a year after that: where he reformed the school regulations, added new buildings, expanded the student body, formally chartered the University printing press, and generally revived a spirit of scholastic paideia at the University. He was at last made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.

The ‘official’ history – that is to say, the history of the Protestantising English gentry – is far less kind to Laud than he deserves after this point in his life. Whig historians tend to view him as the author of all manner of overreaching abuses, both of his own as Archbishop of Canterbury, and of the King’s as an advocate of divine right. But he holds a very different significance for the working class. Archbishop Laud, as stated above, was possessed of two things in abundance: stubbornness in the right as he saw it, and a certain disregard for distinctions of rank (apart from the king). Laud believed in the rights of the Church; and he also believed in the equality of all people before God.

He was therefore a fervent, passionate advocate for the œconomic rights of the peasantry, who looked to the King and to the Church for redress against the encroachments of their landlords. Just as Dr Lancelot Andrewes detested usury with a Patristic passion and preached against it at every possible opportunity, so Archbishop William Laud preached against the abuse of the farmer and the theft of the commons. He also enjoined the lower orders of clergy to speak out against the practice, and against the withholding of funds from free and public schools. As a judge in the Court of Star Chamber, Archbishop Laud could be ruthless in bringing the full severity of the law down upon the heads of the rich who flaunted it by ‘seizing almshouses, common lands, the endowments of free schools, portions of the common churchyards, and walling up the ancient ways’. From his standpoint, the landed rich had immunities enough on their own land, and deserved no additional special treatment in a court of law:

Nothing angered Laud so much as the claim of a great man to escape a penalty which would fall on others. Nothing brought him into such disfavour with the great as his refusal to admit that the punishment which had raised no outcry when it was meted out to the weak and helpless should be spared in the case of he powerful and wealthy offender.

As seen, Archbishop Laud was not particularly vicious or in any way remarkable in that regard. The punishments, admittedly brutal, meted out upon William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were light indeed in comparison to the sadistic horrors meted out upon religious dissenters by Calvinists on the Continent. What the Puritan gentry of southern England truly could not stomach, was that Laud – a commoner, ‘some base clergyman of mean parentage’ – was placed in authority over them; and moreso that he was a foe of what they conceived of as their ‘property’. As Conrad Noel succinctly put it: ‘Laud stood for the people of England.

In doing so, Archbishop Laud was consciously standing in the long and honoured tradition of the English Church, which stood for the people even as (and largely because) it insisted on a set of specific rights and immunities from sæcular interference. It is easy now to read Laud’s ecclesiology as cæsaropapist, as autocratic or as arbitrary. But seen from the overall context of the Reformation and the recent chaos of the Tudor ‘adjustments’, the good Archbishop was actually hewing to a careful middle road: keeping on the good side of what he considered to be the legitimate sæcular authority on the one hand, and making sure neither the state nor private sæcular actors trampled the traditional rights and immunities of the Church on the other.

Laud’s stubbornness brought a backlash in Calvinist presbyterian Scotland, when he attempted to enforce the use of the standard English Prayer Book and high liturgical worship in that country with the power of the Crown. The result was a rebellion, which the King was afterwards at pains (and at want of funds) to suppress. This led the Parliament – then under control of the Puritan party – to move against Archbishop Laud and have him imprisoned as part of their manœuvring against King Charles. Archbishop was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of treason and ‘popery’ in 1640, and eventually moved to the Tower of London, but his trial was held back for nearly three years, until November of 1643. When it came, the procedure was an utter travesty. Laud was clearly innocent of practically every charge levelled at him, and the witnesses against him were largely compromised – but the House of Commons was determined to do away with him as a rebuke to King Charles.

He was sentenced to be executed by beheading. Though he received a pardon from King Charles I himself, this was ignored by Parliament, and the sentence went forward illegally on the tenth of January, 1645. As William Laud was led to the scaffold, he forgave his killers, and spoke the following prayer: ‘The Lord receive my soul, and have mercy on me, and bless this kingdom with peace and charity, that there may not be this effusion of Christian blood amongst them.’ He is remembered today as a martyr in the churches of the Anglican Communion – and deserves to be remembered by the poor and working-class people of England as the champion of their dignity and equality before God and before the law.


  1. My Ph.D dissertation was "Laudian Imagery in the Poetry of Robert Herrick." Herrick, a poet who is famous for the line "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," was an Anglican priest and his loyalties leaned toward the Laudian and Highchurch side of things. This is reflected in his religious poetry. Of Calvinism, Laud says he abominates it because "it makes God, the God of all mercies, to be the most fierce and unreasonable tyrant in the world." This anti-Calvinistic tone is found in Herrick's religious verse as well.

  2. Thank you, Dave, for the comment! I have to confess, my own reasons for rejecting the doctrines of Calvinism are fairly similar to Laud's.