William Laud

The English prelate William Laud (1573-1645) was archbishop of Canterbury and architect of Charles I's personal government. He was executed by the Long Parliament.

William Laud was the son of a Reading clothier. He was educated in the town grammar school and received a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. He became a fellow and then was president of the college from 1611 to 1621. As an undergraduate, he had become aligned with the anti-Puritans, or Arminians, who opposed the doctrines of predestination and Presbyterianism. Instead, they believed in the continued manifestation of divine will in the historical development of the Church and therefore in the divine basis of episcopacy. Laud subscribed in theory to Arminian tolerance of doctrinal differences, but in action he was a believer in rigid enforcement of outward uniformity in worship, and he found strength in institutional authority.

Laud's beliefs about theology and church government were not popular at Oxford, and he was spurred to achieve higher authority in the Church. In 1616 he was appointed dean of Gloucester Cathedral. Five years later he was made bishop of St. David's in Wales. But he was denied further advance in the Church, ultimately by King James I, who believed that Laud's precise reforms endangered the hard-won authority then exercised by the bishops.

Favor from court flowed in Laud's direction with the accession of Charles I, who sympathized with Laud's goals. He became bishop of Bath and Wells and dean of the Chapel Royal in 1626, privy councilor in 1627, and bishop of London and chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1628. He at once set about dignifying the church buildings and conduct of worship in the diocese of London, enforced uniformity of academic dress at Oxford, and, as a member of the Star Chamber, began his persecution of Puritans. On Archbishop Abbot's death in 1633, Laud was appointed to the see of Canterbury, and from then until 1637 he carried out a rigorous program of decorousness, uniformity, and adherence to the Book of Common Prayer in the conduct of church services. The program was epitomized in the reconstruction of the facade of St. Paul's Cathedral according to the classical design of Inigo Jones. In the Star Chamber and High Commission many Puritans lost their church livings or were forbidden to preach, and laymen like William Prynne and John Lilburne were mutilated and whipped. Laud so emphasized religious discipline as the business of the Star Chamber that a court which had been popular for its expeditious settlement of civil suits now became the dreaded instrument of religious repression and arbitrary government.

Laud also sought to restore church lands held by laymen since the Reformation. This further led to anxiety among the laity, even among those who might have supported a hierarchical episcopacy. Finally, Laud strove to reintroduce churchmen into the seats of political power. His martinet's mind was constantly frustrated by the corruption and dilatoriness of many privy councilors. In 1636 Bishop Juxon was made lord treasurer to the delight of Laud but to the increased consternation of lay politicians.

Laud was in correspondence with Thomas Wentworth (later the 1st Earl of Strafford), the King's deputy lieutenant of Ireland. They shared the ideal of a strong and efficient royal government, an ideal policy they referred to as "Thorough." Wentworth was already realizing the program in the secular government of Ireland, which had been notoriously weak and inefficient. In 1637 Laud proposed to implement the program in religious terms within Scotland, the bastion of Presbyterian Church government and aristocratic power. But Laud failed, and a unified Scots aristocracy and Church brought down the whole edifice constructed by Laud, Straf-ford, and Charles.

A month after the Long Parliament met in order to cope with the Scottish crisis, a gigantic petition was presented calling for an end of episopacy, root and branch. A week later Laud was impeached of treason. In 1641 the High Commission and Star Chamber were abolished. But Laud was not immediately proceeded against. He could be a bargaining counter with the King; furthermore, Parliament did not as yet wish to define a church system. With the Scots alliance of 1643, however, the trial of the enemy of Presbyterianism became a necessity. The long trial began on March 12, 1644. Laud successfully proved that he had not committed treason under known law. Therefore, as with Strafford, his total conduct of government was held to have subverted the constitution, and he was condemned by bill of attainder. He was executed on Jan, 10, 1645.

The now powerless old man became a martyr to his religion. His blood and that of his royal master watered the restored Episcopal Church, and the disciples of Laud dominated the church settlement of 1660-1662.


Further Reading on William Laud

Laud's diary, The Autobiography of Dr. William Laud, was published in 1839. H. R. Trevor-Roper, Archbishop Laud, 1573-1645 (1940; 2d ed. 1962), is the best study, although it is mainly a political biography and unsympathetic. See also A. S. Duncan-Jones, Archbishop Laud (1927). For background consult J. E. Christopher Hill, Economic Problems of the Church from Archbishop Whitgift to the Long Parliament (1956).

Additional Biography Sources

Carlton, Charles, Archbishop William Laud, London; New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. (Hugh Redwald), Archbishop Laud, 1573-1645, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1988.