William Laud, (1573-1645)
Bishop of London, Archbishop of Canterbury.


The policies of Laud reflected his Arminian views (that free will of man determined personal salvation) and ambitions for the Church of England, which were subjoined by the pursuit of uniformity in the whole of Britain. Laud referred to the “Beauty of Holiness” but the changes were seen both in England as early as 1628, and later in Scotland, as an attempt to reverse the Reformation and to threaten social and political power of the nobility and the gentry.  Broadly his policies were:

  • Preference for the doctrine of free will, ie that God`s salvation was open to all and could be won by good works on earth. This was in direct contrast to Calvinism and its belief in predestination.

  • The emphasis of church services should be towards the sacraments and ceremony, and away from preaching and sermons. It favoured the wearing of elaborate vestments, the use of images and the restoration of stained glass windows in churches.

  • Altars should be re-sited in a central place in churches at the east end, not in the nave. This meant some re arrangement of family pews which caused great offence.

  • The clergy to play a greater role in lay affairs and the power for church courts to intervene (interfere) in secular affairs.

  • Although accused of being a papist, Laud came to prominence with the support of the influential Buckingham family and was a prominent opponent of the increasing catholic presence at the Court. His opponents especially resented his drive to secure the benefices of the church (much of which were impropriated by the nobility) for the clergy and insistence that ministers be properly funded; this included proper stipends for appointments made under patronage. Other issues such as improving the quality and status of the clergy, ministers and bishops, were resented by the nobility and genteel landowners who regarded the prelates as upstarts. If he had constrained himself to these policies Laud may have been granted a place in history as a reasonable man doing his best for the church and the clergy. But underlying all was a deep, overweening vanity and a cruelty that few could excel.

    Laud has been described by Hewison in The Covenanters, as :

    a dreamer of dreams and an observer of visions, a medium of  delightful second sight, through which flitted  glorified mitres, cardinal`s hats, rods of office, family ghosts, and other personal properties in the grand ecclesiastical spectacle.” 

    Charles I made him Dean of the Chapel Royal in 1626, at the time he was Dean of Gloucester, and President of St John`s College Oxford and even then a dresser of fashion. He had entered the church and became chaplain to several of the nobility before becoming a chaplain to James I.  He was rapidly promoted  and became Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1626-8, then Bishop of London in 1628, and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1631.

    The son of a Reading tailor, he had enjoyed a good education at St Johns College, Oxford, and developed a complete belief in his own ability. His dominating idea was that the Church of England was the basis for a holy community – a British Patriach-ate.  He accepted much of the ritual  and creed of the  Roman Catholic Church and possessed a hatred of Puritanism in all its form. This included the Presbyterians whom he regarded as empty headed and found that they were much more able opponents than he had given them credit. To this end he saw nothing wrong in sacrificing enemies of `his` God, and was generally unable to recognise that an individual could have spiritual independence.

    In the 1630s Laud and Wentworth (later Earl of Strafford) became close friends and collaborators in the service of the King. Their collaboration was described by Leighton : “they struck a league, like moon and sun, to govern day and night, religion and state.” They were surprisingly of similar minds and temperaments, with both engaging in almost schoolboyish jokes in their correspondence, while each seeking to be `thorough` in the pursuit of their duties. They matched one another in zeal and were both impatient, wanting to get on with things and largely untrusting of their juniors to do the job they wanted. Ironically Wentworth`s own beliefs were Calvinist and he saw no need for the ritual beloved of Laud, who chided him for his belief. But Wentworth supported Laud`s plans because he saw that they preached obedience to the King and was a powerful support  for his own ideas of order in the secular sphere. This closeness came to the same end for both of them at the end of the headsman`s axe. They were both impeached for treason (serving the kings as they thought best but not in the interests or in accord with the will of Parliament).

    Laud`s treatment of the Puritans – Alexander Leighton, ( a minister) William Prynne (a lawyer), John Bastwick ( a physician),  and Henry Burton (a clergyman),  for opposing his improvements to the Church and daring to publish pamphlets and books on the subject, were at the very least cruel and inhuman even in an age accustomed to it. All were subject of punishment by order of the Star Chamber, variously to have ears cut off, nose slit, stood in the pillory and publicly whipped; and heavily fined for good measure followed by perpetual imprisonment. All this because Laud could not stand criticism.

    Prynne had published ‘Histrio-mastix,‘ an attack upon stage-plays in one passage of which he was accused of having libelled the Queen.  In 1633 the Star-Chamber sentenced him to pay a fine of £5,000. He was also expelled from the University of Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, to be degraded and disabled for ever from exercising his profession. There followed the order to be placed in the pillory, ears cut off, nose slit and perpetual imprisonment. Prynne however, had his ears sewed on again. He was then brought  before the court, in June 1637, for a pamphlet which he had published since his incarceration. He was sentenced to have his ears shorn off,  again, to stand in the pillory as before and to be branded on both cheeks with the letters SL (for Schismatical Libeller). He was then sent  to Caernarvon Castle, and thence to Mount Orgueil Castle in the Isle of Jersey. He was released, with other victims of the Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission, by an order of the House of Commons in November 1640.  In June 1637 similar sentences were passed upon Dr. John Bastwick, a physician (who had also been fined and otherwise punished for a former book in 1633), for a publication in which he had reflected upon the bishops. And also upon the Rev. Henry Burton, Rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Friday Street, London, for two sermons which he had preached and a pamphlet which, after he had been thrown into prison on account of the sermons, he had published in their vindication. Bastwick was held prisoner in one of the Scilly Isles and Burton in the Island of Guernsey. They, too, were released in November 1640.

    The wars with Scotland (the Bishops Wars) caused Charles to call parliament which , at the same time, took action against Laud. On 18th December, Denzil Hollis, by order of the House of Commons, impeached him for high treason at the bar of the House of Lords, and charged other high crimes and misdemeanours. On 26th February 1641, the articles of impeachment, twenty-six in number, were brought up by Sir Harry Vane the younger. Laud was specially charged with

    • advising his Majesty that he might levy money on his subjects without consent of parliament;

    • with attempting to establish absolute power not only in the King, but in himself and other bishops, above and against the laws;

    • with perverting the course of justice by bribes and promises to the judges;

    • with the imposition of divers new ecclesiastical canons, containing matters contrary both to the laws and the Royal prerogative;

    • with assuming a papal and tyrannical power in matters both ecclesiastical and temporal;

    • with endeavouring to subvert the true religion and to introduce popish superstition;

    • and with being the principal adviser and author of the late war against the Scots.

    On 23rd October, at the instigation of his old enemy Bishop Williams he was deprived of his powers. About a year after, all the rents and profits of his Archbishopric, in common with those of all other archbishoprics, bishoprics, deaneries and cathedral offices, were seized for the benefit of the Commonwealth. On 9th May 1643, all his goods and books in Lambeth Palace were seized. Soon after, his room and person were searched by Prynne, under the authority of a warrant from the House of Commons and his Diary and all other papers taken from him. On 12th March 1644, he was brought to trial before the House of Lords.  At the end of the trial, which lasted twenty days, they adjourned without coming to a vote. Matters remained in limbo until the Commons, abandoning the impeachment, resorted to an act of attainder ( which enabled conviction on suspicion, rather than proof) on 13th November. This was approved on 4th January. With commendable speed Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill on 10 January 1645.