Archbishop William Laud, 1573-1645

Archbishop of Canterbury whose attempts to bring uniformity of worship and the "beauty of holiness" into the Anglican liturgy precipitated the slide into Civil War.

Portrait of Archbishop 
LaudWilliam Laud was born at Reading in Berkshire on 7 October 1573. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, also named William Laud, and his wife Lucy (née Webb), sister of Sir William Webb, who became lord-mayor of London in 1591. Laud attended the grammar school at Reading, then studied theology at St John's College, Oxford. His tutor was John Buckeridge, one of a group of theologians who led a reaction against Puritanism which influenced Laud's later policies for the reform of church liturgy.

Ordained as a priest in 1601, Laud was ambitious and rose quickly through the hierarchy of the Church, principally through the patronage of Richard Neile, bishop of Rochester, who introduced him into the court of King James I. Despite the hostility of George Abbott, archbishop of Canterbury, with whom he clashed over doctrinal issues, Laud accompanied King James on a visit to Scotland in 1617 as one his chaplains. He was appointed bishop of St David's in 1621 and became chaplain to George Villiers, Marquis (later Duke) of Buckingham the following year.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Laud's career flourished on the accession of King Charles I in 1625. He officiated at Charles' coronation in place of Bishop Williams, the dean of Westminster, who had fallen from favour, and preached sermons at the opening of the parliaments of 1625 and 1626. When Archbishop Andrewes died in September 1626, Laud succeeded him as dean of the Chapel Royal. Laud was appointed to the privy council in April 1627, made bishop of Bath and Wells, then bishop of London in 1628. In 1630, he was elected chancellor of Oxford University, and became archbishop of Canterbury in 1633.

King Charles admired Laud's learning and valued his advice. As well as his church preferments, Laud became increasingly powerful in affairs of state. He was appointed to several important offices close to the King, but he was not a successful politician because of his inflexibility and over-sensitivity to criticism. Queen Henrietta Maria disliked him, and his tendencies to fussiness and pomposity made him an easy target for mockery by more sophisticated courtiers. However, he used his influence with the King to secure preferments for his friends, including Sir Francis Windebank, who was appointed secretary of state in 1632, and William Juxon, bishop of London, was was appointed lord treasurer in 1636.

The Laudian Reforms

Laud's theology was influenced by the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), who emphasised free will over predestination and an acceptance of ordered and uniform practices of worship. Laud's love of ceremony and harmonious liturgy—the "beauty of holiness"—was favoured by King Charles because it encouraged obedience to the King's authority as head of the church. During the eleven-year Personal Rule, Laud worked closely with the King to root out nonconformity. Between 1634 and 1637, Laud authorised methodical "visitations" by his vicar-general Sir Nathaniel Brent in every diocese throughout the kingdom to enforce conformity and to correct irregularities in the conduct of services. Laud believed that he was restoring discipline and order to the Church of England according to the rules laid down in the earliest days of the English Reformation. However, his attempts to force uniformity of worship ran contrary to all shades of Puritan opinion, and his Arminian doctrines were regarded as dangerously close to Roman Catholicism.

Although Laud's severity was often exaggerated by his critics, he was intolerant of opposition and made full use of the courts of Star Chamber and High Commission to punish dissidents. In 1637, the religious radicals William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were tortured and imprisoned for speaking and writing against Laud's policies, which succeeded in making them into Puritan martyrs. The rabble-rousing John Lilburne was persecuted in 1638, provoking further popular outcry against Laud and his bishops.

Looking beyond England, Laud insisted upon conformity from congregations in Ireland and Scotland, and even from the American colonies. He corresponded regularly with Sir Thomas Wentworth in Ireland and collaborated with him in developing the policy of ruthless efficiency and uncompromising devotion to the King's interest known as "Thorough". However, Laud's attempt to force uniformity on the Church of Scotland met with disaster. Riots broke out in Edinburgh when Laud's new prayer book and liturgy were introduced in July 1637. The unrest quickly escalated into a national movement against interference in Scottish affairs by the King and Laud's bishops. United under the National Covenant of 1638, the Scots repulsed King Charles' attempt to impose his authority by military force in the Bishops' Wars of 1639-40.

Impeachment and Execution

King Charles summoned the Long Parliament in November 1640 in response to the crisis brought about by the Bishops' Wars. Rather than criticize the King directly, John Pym and other opposition leaders concentrated their attacks on his closest advisers who were blamed for all the nation's grievances. Amongst the earliest proceedings of the Long Parliament were moves to impeach the King's "evil councillors", Wentworth, now Earl of Strafford, and Archbishop Laud. On 18 December, Denzil Holles, by order of the House of Commons, impeached Laud for high treason at the bar of the House of Lords. On 26 February 1641, articles of impeachment were brought up by Sir Henry Vane. Laud was accused of assuming tyrannical powers in church and state, of subverting the true religion with popish superstition and of causing the recent disastrous wars against the Scots.

Laud was Imprisoned in the Tower of London on 1 March 1641. On the morning of 12 May, he watched from a window as his friend Strafford was led to his execution. Overcome with emotion, Laud fainted before he could pronounce a final blessing on him. Laud remained a prisoner for three years before finally being brought to trial before the House of Lords in March 1644. The prosecution was led by William Prynne, whom Laud had persecuted in 1637. Although the peers who remained at Westminster were unanimously prejudiced against him, Laud defended himself ably. His bitter enemy Prynne was granted full access to his papers and diaries but could not find evidence to prove him guilty of treason. The Lords adjourned without coming to a vote. In November 1644, the House of Commons abandoned its impeachment of Laud and resorted to a bill of attainder to condemn him by special decree. The bill was passed by the Commons on 15 November and by the House of Lords on 4 January 1645.

Archbishop Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill on 10 January 1645 and buried at the church of All Hallows by the Tower. After the Restoration, his body was reburied in a vault under the altar at the chapel of St John's College, Oxford. The day of his execution is commemorated as a holy day in the Church of England calendar. It is closely followed by the holy day of King Charles (30 January), sanctified in the Anglican church as Saint Charles the Martyr.

Apotheosis of King Charles, preceded by Archbishop Laud
Commemorative silver medal struck after the Restoration depicting the apotheosis of Charles the First, preceded by Archbishop Laud.

An infant angel carries the mitre and crozier of the Archbishop towards heaven, followed by two others carrying the crown, orb and sceptre of King Charles, with the London skyline below. The inscription reads: SANCTI CAROLI PRÆCVRSOR*

From a private collection, used with permission. (Click image to enlarge.)


S.R. Gardiner, William Laud, DNB, 1892

Anthony Milton, William Laud, Oxford DNB, 2004

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (London 1955)


Laud's Prayer Book

Van Dyck's portrait of Archbishop Laud: Mercurius Politicus blog