The Life and Death of William Laud

by Abigail Sparkes

William Laud was a significant religious and political advisor during the personal rule of King Charles I. During his time as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud attempted to impose order and unity on the Church of England through implementing a series of religious reforms that attacked the strict Protestant practices of English Puritans. Accused of popery, tyranny and treason, Laud was considered one of the key instigators of the conflict between the monarchy and Parliament, which ultimately paved the way for the English Civil War.

William Laud

Laud was born in 1573 in Reading, Berkshire. The son of a wealthy clothing merchant, he began his education at Reading Grammar School, before attending St. John’s College at the University of Oxford, where in 1593 he became a fellow. Whilst completing his studies at Oxford, Laud was ordained as a priest in April 1601, which initiated the start of his prolific religious and political career. With the support of his patron George Villiers, a prominent noblemen and royal favourite of both James I and Charles I, Laud promptly rose through the ecclesiastical ranks of the Church of England and was appointed Archdeacon of Huntingdon (1615), Dean of Gloucester (1616), Bishop of St. Davids (1621), Bishop of Bath and Wells (1626) and Bishop of London (1628).

Laud’s real political significance began in 1625, when Charles I came to the throne. As an immediate royal favourite, Laud was able to capitalise on Charles’ support through advocating the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, arguing that Charles had been chosen to rule by God. The assassination of one of the King’s main advisors and Laud’s patron, the Duke of Buckingham in 1628, intensified the influence of Laud who promised to protect Charles from these ‘bad Christians’ who threatened the Crown. This coincided with Charles’ deteriorating relationship with Parliament and the beginnings of his Personal Rule (1629- 1640), in which Parliament was suspended for eleven years. Laud was then appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, which kick-started the Laudian reforms on the Church of England.

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, the Church became progressively Calvinist in doctrine, which corresponded with the increasing number of Puritans in England. Despite this, Laud openly criticised the nature of the Church throughout his career, arguing that church dogma had become too Calvinist, services too stern and the Crown too involved in religious matters. Laud found backing in his quest for reform from the King and prominent noblemen, as a result of their growing support for Arminianism. This was a strand of Protestantism that rejected some of the key Calvinist doctrines, such as predestination, and instead focussed on the belief that salvation could be achieved through free will.

William Laud

After his appointment to Archbishop, Laud immediately ordered that the Prayer Book had to be used without additions or omissions. This was a much stricter approach to services and attacked local church customs and sermons. Despite Laud reverting the doctrine back to that of the Reformation, he failed to consider that he was impacting a generation that had no experience of this kind of service, causing tension between the Archbishop and the laity.

Moreover, one of Laud’s most controversial actions was his determination to restore church buildings to reflect the aesthetic grandeur of the pre-Reformation church. His conscious effort to reinstate the ‘beauty of holiness’ ensured that traditional clergy vestments, images and stained glass windows re-emerged in churches and cathedrals in order to reflect the divinity of God’s presence on earth. The blatant reference to the Catholic traditions of celebrating icons and elaborate church designs angered Puritans and intensified their concern that Laud was reviving Catholic practices within the established church. This became a particular issue in the early 1630s, when Laud ordered parishes to replicate the imagery of cathedrals, most notably the position of the communion table. The order decreed that the communion table should be made out of stone, not wood, and had to be placed against the east wall of the chancel surrounded by railings, therefore the laity had to kneel at the rails in order to receive communion. The emphasis on Catholic spirituality and superstition was an immediate concern to Puritans who considered the changes intrinsically linked to the Roman Catholic Mass: consequently, protests against the order occurred immediately.

To enforce these changes and punish non-conformists, Laud conducted visitations of parish churches. The visitations were intrusive and ensured that every aspect of the aesthetic and doctrinal policies were in place. Laud’s persistent attack on non-conformists was intensified in 1637 when Puritan writers, William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were sentenced to have their ears removed and cheeks branded after publishing writings against Laud. This was considered a shocking and unnecessary punishment which accentuated the resentment staunch Protestants felt towards Laud and the Church, and created Puritan martyrs out of the victims.

Laud and BurtonWilliam Laud and Henry Burton (1645)

Laud’s final and most damaging error involved his relations with Scotland, when in 1637 he attempted to impose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer on the Scottish Presbyterian Church. For many Scotsmen, this was perceived as an attack on their religion, intensifying their discontent with Charles as King and his constant intervention in Scotland. In response to Laud’s order, the National Covenant was signed in 1638 by leading Scottish officials. This attacked the Pope, removed many Anglican bishops and refused the new Prayer Book. By 1639, the threat of war with Scotland appeared increasingly likely. Unable to gather the troops capable of challenging this invading army, Charles was forced to call Parliament for the first time in eleven years, in order to secure funding for the conflict.

King Charles I

However the ‘Short Parliament’ of 1640 was dissolved after less than two months, when Parliament refused funding until the King dealt with their grievances. This instigated a wave of violent protest against the monarchy and Laud, including rebellions in Ireland and Scotland which completely destabilised the King’s power and resulted in the ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640, and the start of the English Civil Wars. Defenders of Parliament and Puritan leaders detested the Laudian reforms and blamed Laud for manipulating Charles and sought to seek revenge. This lead to Laud’s arrest and eventual trial in 1644. Many politicians hoped that, due to Laud’s age, he would simply die in prison to avoid executing the anointed Archbishop of Canterbury. However, to the disappointment of many Parliamentarians, Laud survived the trial and was later beheaded at Tower Hill on 10th January 1645 after being found guilty of high treason.

By Abigail Sparkes
Postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham, currently studying for a Master’s Degree in early modern history.

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