William Laud

William Laud (1573 - 1645)

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William "Archbishop of Canterbury" Laud
Born in Reading, Berkshire, Englandmap
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Died in Tower Hill, London, Englandmap
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William Laud is Notable.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury 1633-1646, was a prelate in the English church during the reign of Charles I. His attempts to eliminate puritanism from the churches of Great Britain and his advocacy of the divine right of kings led eventually to his execution during the civil war.


William Laud was born in Elizabethan England, 7 October 1573, the only son of William Laud, a prosperous clothier of Reading, and his wife Lucy Webb, widow of clothier John Robinson.[1] The families were notable members of the rising urban merchant class: Lucy Webb's brother William Webb,[2] a member of the Salter's guild in London, was elected Alderman in 1581and made Sheriff of London; he was Lord Mayor of London in 1591. The Robinson family entered their arms at the Visitation of Leicestershire in 1619 . Lucy's elder son, William Robinson, 1567-1642, William Laud's half-brother, also entered the church, becoming Archdeacon of Nottingham and a Canon of Westminster.[3] Unlike Laud, he married and had children.


William Laud attended the Reading School, then St John's College, Oxford in 1589, matriculating 17 October. He was named scholar 1590. He took degrees BA 1594, MA 1598, BD 1604, DD 1608. In 1601 he was ordained deacon on 4 January and priest 5 April. In 1593 he was named a Fellow of the college, and a proctor in 1603. For much of his career he held academic appointments as well as ecclesiastical and political ones. He was president of St John's College 1611-1621 and chancellor of Oxford University 1630-1641.[4]


After the Catholic reign of Mary, the Church of England was re-established as a protestant state church in the Elizabethan Settlement[5] beginning with the queen's ascension to the throne in 1558. As defined by the Act of Uniformity, church and state were indivisible: attacking the church could be treason; attacking the king could be heresy. There was no opting out.

Elizabeth had found it necessary to court the compliance of the nation's Catholics, but by the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603, Catholics had become an oppressed minority, while puritans had grown in numbers and influence, striving for greater reforms in the church to eliminate the vestiges of what they called "popery." The most contentious issues were not so much doctrine and theology but matters of liturgy and ritual, including many issues best described as adiphora: "things indifferent," neither required nor forbidden by Scripture.

Less trivially, there was a movement to eliminate episcopacy in the English church and replace bishops by a presbyterian polity modeled on that of Scotland. King James I, also James VI of Scotland, was all too familiar with the presbyterian model and strongly supported episcopacy, famously declaring: "no bishop, no king."[6] The divide between the positions would only continue to widen in the time of Laud.


William Laud followed an ambitious course of study while at Oxford, almost twenty years between his matriculation and the receipt of his Doctor of Divinity degree; it was not a program for a man content to be the simple minister of a parish church. Oxford was at the time largely in the hands of the Calvinists, but Laud associated himself with a group of dissenters from Calvinist orthodoxy, beginning with his tutor John Buckeridge, who would become president of St John's College in 1605. Buckeridge himself was a protege of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, a notable critic of Calvinism.[7]

William Laud's views did make him enemies at Oxford, most notably Richard Abbot, a polemical Calvinist who publicly denounced Laud in an Oxford sermon.[8] Abbot's brother George Abbott was Archbishop of Canterbury and also an opponent of Laud. However, Laud had sufficient patronage that he did not suffer serious consequences at Oxford from expressing "popish opinions" and support of the episcopacy. His strongest patron in those days was Richard Neile, Bishop of Rochester, whose chaplain he became in 1608.

Bishop of King James

William Laud had ambitions beyond Oxford, but higher preferment was controlled by the king and court, where advancement was a matter of patronage, influence and favoritism. In 1608, Neile's influence gave Laud the opportunity to preach before King James.[7] In 1611, it took the influence of the king, again promoted by Neile, to win him the presidency of St John's College after the retirement of Buckeridge, against the opposition of Archbishop George Abbott.

But Laud did not always please the king. In 1616, James appointed him Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, where the Calvinist bishop, Miles Smith, had supported such practices as placing the communion table in the center of the choir. By removing the table to the east end of the chancel without consulting Smith, he offended his bishop and annoyed the king, who began to see him as a troublemaker.[7] The next year, on a state visit to Scotland with the king, Laud offended the Presbyterian Scots by wearing a surplice.[7] The incidents were typical of Laud's high-handed approach to disputatious matters, which would only become more pronounced the more authority he accumulated.

In the 1620s, Laud acquired the ultimate patron, becoming the confessor or chaplain of George Villiers, later Duke of Buckingham, King James' favorite.[7] The patronage of Buckingham won him his first bishopric in 1621, the See of St David's in Wales.[9] Buckingham's influence was to be even more valuable after James was succeeded by his son Charles I in 1625.

Archbishop of King Charles

King James had been content, as had Elizabeth, with a protestant episcopal state church, and he resisted pressure for alterations of the original settlement. Charles I had other notions, which were quite in line with the views of William Laud. Sources do not agree on which figure had more influence on the other; at the end, they blamed each other for the miscarriage of their policies.[9] But both believed in uniformity of ritual, the "beauty of holiness" in the decoration of churches, prioritizing the altar over the pulpit - the prescibed liturgy over the sermon, the priority of the puritans. Most importantly for Charles I, they were both determined to uphold the doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Shortly after taking the throne, Charles was advised by Buckingham that Laud was "the fittest to be trusted in the conferring of all ecclesiastical preferments."[10] Laud's resulting list of names had two notations: O for orthodox, to be promoted, and P for puritan.[7] Laud himself was named bishop of Bath and Wells, and Dean of the Chapel Royal following the death of Lancelot Andrewes in 1626. In 1628, he was raised to the powerful bishopric of London. At that time, he was promised the Archbishopric of Canterbury when it would next be vacant, but the place was still held by his enemy George Abbott. Abbott could be sidelined but not removed before his death in 1633, when William Laud was raised to the highest seat in the Church of England.[9] But since the accession of Charles, "Whatever his formal position in the Church, (Laud) was now in effective command, sole ecclesiastical adviser of the Crown, directing its prerogative as well as his own. And the prerogative of the Crown stretched far beyond the province of Canterbury."[11]

Wherever his authority reached, Laud pushed to impose his mandate for reforms, which was primarily focused on the ministers. It notably included: wearing the surplice; the use of the Book of Common Prayer; railing in the communion table or altar where communicants would receive the sacrament kneeling; the use of the sign of the cross at baptism; discouraging afternoon sermons. These were not strictly innovations; they were largely derived from the Canon Laws of 1604[12], established at the accession of James I. But more than a generation had passed since that time, and in many places puritan iconoclasm had obliterated such practices, which parishioners did not often recall, resenting the changes and the peremptory way they were imposed.

The consequence was a greatly increased outpouring of puritan emigrants to New England, congregations following their non-conforming ministers, in the six years following Laud's elevation to the Archbishopric.[13] While it is not clear how much this result was his intention, rather than forcing the ministers into conformity, he did say of one Mr Bridges of Norwich: "Let him go we are well rid of him."[14]

Councillor of King Charles

In his sermon at the opening of King Charles' first Parliament in 1625, Bishop Laud declared the king's divine right: "(The king) is God's immediate lieutenant upon Earth; and therefore one and the same action is God's by ordinance, and the king's by execution. And the power which resides in the king is not any assuming to himself, nor any gift from the people, but God's power, as well in as over him."[15] "It never entered into Laud's head that he was doing his best to foment the distraction and discord that he deplored, by teaching Charles the lesson that he was already too prone to learn, that he had nothing but information to look for from his subjects."[16]

The first major crisis of Charles' reign began when the Parliament of 1626 impeached the Duke of Buckingham for mismanagement of the war on the continent. Charles dissolved Parliament rather than dismiss his favorite. Bishop Laud supported Charles' position, writing the speech given by the king to the House of Lords in Buckingham's defense.[17] In 1627, the king named Laud to the Privy Council, which gave him a seat in the royal prerogative court of the Star Chamber, where Buckingham was cleared of wrongdoing. By the time the Duke was assassinated in 1628, to the joy of the nation, Laud no longer needed a patron other than the king.

In 1629 the break between king and Parliament was complete, beginning the period of Charles' personal rule, when he refused to call Parliament.[18] Laud became central to the government. "He sat regularly at the Privy Council Board, in the Star Chamber, on the Court of High Commission. He was added to committees for Foreign Affairs, Overseas Plantations, the Treasury."[19]

With a seat in the Star Chamber, Bishop Laud found a weapon to suppress dissenting opinions, particularly the writings of puritans. Most notoriously, he sentenced zealous writer William Prynne to be mutilated in the pillory in 1634, and again in 1637. Prynne publicly blamed Laud for his persecution and the sentences tarnished Laud's reputation, but he apparently found the censorship effective, as in 1637 the Star Chamber issued a decree further strengthening the control of printed works.[20] During the civil war, Prynne personally oversaw Laud's prosecution for treason.

Bishops' Wars

In 1637, King Charles I and Archbishop Laud initiated the error that eventually cost both of them their lives and brought a temporary end to the British monarchy. They decided to force Laudian reforms on the Scottish Kirk.

King james VI of Scotland[21] had re-introduced dioceses and bishops to Scotland, and in 1618 he imposed the Five Articles of Perth, requiring such practices as kneeling at communion; these however, were not generally accepted or enforced.

It was the intention of Charles I to unify the two national churches and enforce the use of a prayer book, albeit one written by the Scottish bishops. "Officially Laud had nothing to do with the matter, but it was perfectly well understood in Scotland how great his influence was, and the canons and prayer-book were there held to have emanated directly from him whom they entitled the pope of Canterbury."[7] On the first reading of the new liturgy, 23 July 1637, at the Cathedral of St GIles in Edinburgh, riots broke out. (Tradition has it that the first blow was struck by a market woman who flung a stool at the minister's head.)[22]

The Scots acted quickly in defense of the Kirk against popery, expelled their bishops and united under the presbyterian National Covenant.[9] Twice, lacking the support of Parliament, Charles marched an army north to confront the Scots. Many of his advisors were opposed, but Laud supported his ally on the Council, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford in favour of providing, even by unconstitutional measures, for the war. 'Tried all ways'—such at least is the abstract of his speech which has reached us—'and refused all ways. By the law of God and man you should have subsistence, and lawful to take it.' [7] The consequence was military disaster. To pay the indemnities demanded by the victorious Scots, Charles was forced to call another Parliament.


The Long Parliament assembled on 3 November 1640, and before the end of the year both Laud and Strafford had been indicted for treason. Parliament considered Strafford's case the more urgent, and in May 1641 passed a bill of attainder calling for his execution. King Charles had given Strafford his personal guarantee that "upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune."[23] However, when riots in London threatened the queen and royal family, Charles signed the bill. Laud was uncharacteristically critical of his king, calling him a "prince, that knows not how to be, or be made, great."[23] On 12 May, from a window in his cell in the Tower, Laud saw Strafford as he passed below on his way to execution.

While Laud had already been indicted and consigned to the Tower by 1 March 1641, his case was not considered urgent, and he languished there until 1643, when his enemy William Prynne was authorized to seize and search his personal papers for evidence. His trial was in the House of Lords, beginning March 1644, and it followed much the same course as Strafford's; when it became clear that there was insufficient evidence for a treason conviction, the House introduced a bill of attainder. This was passed by the Lords on 4 January 1645.[7] [9] [24]

William Laud was beheaded 10 January 1645 on Tower Hill.[24] On the scaffold, he declared,
"that he could find in himself no offence 'which deserves death by the known laws of the kingdom,' and protested against the charge of 'bringing in of popery,' expressing commiseration for the condition of the English church, and asserting himself to 'have always lived in the protestant church of England.' 'What clamours and slanders I have endured,' he added, 'for labouring to keep an uniformity in the external service of God according to the doctrine and discipline of the church all men know, and I have abundantly felt.'[7]
His king suffered the same fate in front of the Banqueting House on 30 January 1649.[25]


In 1660, with the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy, came the restoration of the Established Church of England. Outwardly, it might appear that little had changed from Laudian days. Samuel Pepys,[26] in London, observed the appearance of ministers wearing the surplice and using the Book of Common Prayer, as well as, which pleased him best, the return of organ music. The Royalist Parliament of 1662 passed an Act of Uniformity. There was no great violent reaction to these measures. The puritans, by winning, had lost; after a decade living under their rule, most people were glad to see the eclipse of "fanaticks".[27]

But the church's monopoly on religion had been broken and would never be re-established. Within a decade, a limited tolerance had begun to take hold.[28] The Star Chamber was abolished.

On 24 July 1663, the body of William Laud was brought home to St John's College in Oxford and reburied in the chapel there.[7]


  1. Camden, William. Visitation of Leicestershire 1619. London: 1870. p. 182: Robinson.[1]
  2. Wikipedia: William Webbe[2]
  3. Venn, John. Alumni Cantabrigienses, vol 3, pt 1. Cambridge: University Press, 1922-1954. p. 475.[3]
  4. 'Labdon-Ledsam', in Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714, ed. Joseph Foster (Oxford, 1891), pp. 868-892. British History Online [4]
  5. Wikipedia: Elizabethan Religious Settlement [5]
  6. Encyclopedia Brittanica: Hampton Court Conference[6]
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. "Laud, William" in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol 32.[7]
  8. Wikipedia: Robert Abbot[8]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Wikipedia: William Laud [9]
  10. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. "Archbishop Laud in Retrospect", From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution. Chicago: University Press, 1992. p. 139.
  11. Trevor-Roper, p. 143.
  12. Canons of 1604[10]
  13. Anderson, Robert C. Puritan Pedigrees. NEHGS: 2018. p. 22.
  14. Sharpe, Kevin. The Personal Rule of Charles I. Yale University Press, 1992. p, 755.
  15. Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. A History of England Under the Duke of Buckingham and Charles I. 1875. p. 171.
  16. Gardiner. History. p. 200.
  17. Gardiner. History. p. 57.
  18. History of Parliament Online: Parliaments: 1604-1629 [11]
  19. Trevor-Roper, p. 144.
  20. A Decree of the Star Chamber, 1637.[12]
  21. Wikipedia: James Vi and I[13]
  22. Wikipedia: Jenny Geddes [14]
  23. 23.0 23.1 Wikipedia: Thomas Wentworth [15]
  24. 24.0 24.1 >BCW Project: Biography of Archbishop William Laud.[16]
  25. BCW Project: Biography of King Charles the First[17]
  26. Pepys, Samuel. Diary, vol 1. 1660
  27. Pepys, Samuel. Diary. vol 3. 1662
  28. Wikipedia: Royal Declaration of Indulgence.[18]

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