The Joyce Hill Column
Usually my article for January deals with some aspect of Epiphany, a major liturgical season which begins on 6 January. But January has several commemorations in the Common Worship calendar, so this year I’ve decided to write about one of these: William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, whom we remember on 10 January, the anniversary of his beheading on Tower Hill.
Laud is often said to have had quite humble beginnings, and to a degree that’s true: his father was a clothier or master-tailor, but his mother was sister of Sir William Webbe, who became Lord Mayor of London. So although not from the gentry, Laud was from a reasonably well-established background, and in1589 he became a student at St John’s College Oxford, graduating as Doctor of Divinity by 1604.
Even at this stage in his career, he was openly hostile to the quite plain way of doing things associated with the Calvinists, who were coming to dominate under the new rule of James I (1603-25). This is what characterises Laud: throughout his public life he fought to restore something of the solemnity of pre-Reformation liturgical practice. He thought the altar was more important than the pulpit, a view not shared by the Calvinists or Puritans; he wished to have the holy altar sited at the east end of the choir and protected by rails, rather than in the centre of the choir, as was more common at the time; and he was a convinced supporter of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, proclaiming that ‘there could be no true church without diocesan episcopacy’. As Laud rose up through the ecclesiastical hierarchy himself, he was increasingly able to enforce his views, despite their increasing unpopularity as the Puritans gradually gained the upper hand. The outcome, perhaps predictably, was that those who held opposing views began to unify against him.
Laud became Dean of Gloucester in 1616, Bishop of St David’s in 1621, Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1626, Bishop of London in 1628, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Charles I (1629-45) at first put a great deal of trust in him, but this waned as Charles came to recognise that Laud’s determined enforcement of ritual was adding to the growing divisions in church and state. This, together with what was Laud’s probably unavoidable entanglement with the increasing political turmoil around Charles, meant that by 1640 Laud’s enemies felt able to accuse him of treason and have him imprisoned in the Tower and then beheaded. In the end he was a victim of the tussle between King and Parliament: it was Parliament that pressed for his execution, despite the fact that no specific treasonable acts were identified, and despite the fact also that the increasingly powerless Charles granted him a royal pardon. History swung in Laud’s favour when, following the Civil War and the puritanical Commonwealth period, the Church of England, in a more monarchical guise, was restored under Charles II. His reputation has grown since then as a result of the increasingly formal liturgical practices adopted by the Church of England in the nineteenth century.
Laud was a considerable scholar and for a time was Chancellor of Oxford, creating professorships in Hebrew and Arabic, donating a considerable collection of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, and carrying through a number of fundamental reforms in the way the university was run. He was also notable in his support of other scholars. But there is no doubt that many of the difficulties he faced were of his own making.