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.
Born at Reading in Berkshire, William Laud was the tenth son of a prosperous clothier. He attended the grammar school at Reading, then studied divinity at St John’s College, Oxford. His tutor was John Buckeridge, one of a group of theologians who led a reaction against Calvinism and who 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, through whom he was introduced into the court of King James I.
In 1617, Laud accompanied the King on a visit to Scotland 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.
Laud’s career flourished on the accession of King Charles I in 1625. He officiated at Charles’ coronation in place of Archbishop Williams, the Dean of Westminster, who had fallen from favour. Appointed to the Privy Council in April 1626, made Bishop of Bath and Wells, then Bishop of London in 1628, Laud 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 Laud was not a successful politician owing to his inflexibility and his over-sensitivity to opposition. However, he used his influence to secure preferments for his friends. Sir Francis Windebank was appointed Secretary of State in 1632 and William Juxon, Bishop of London, was appointed Lord High Treasurer in 1636.
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 shared by King Charles, but it was loathed by Puritans, who regarded Laud’s Arminianism as dangerously close to Roman Catholicism. During the eleven-year Personal Rule, Laud worked closely with King Charles in attempting to unify Church and State. His attempts to force uniformity of worship on every parish in England ran contrary to all shades of Puritan opinion. Laud himself was intolerant of opposition and made full use of the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission to inflict savage punishments on his critics. In 1637, the religious radicals William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were tortured and imprisoned for speaking and writing against Laud’s policy, which succeeded in making them into Puritan martyrs. The rabble-rousing “Freeborn 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. In Ireland, he collaborated with the Earl of Strafford’s ruthlessly efficient “Thorough” policy, but his attempt to force an authorised Prayer Book in Scotland met with disaster. There were riots in Edinburgh which escalated into a national movement against interference by the King and bishops in Scottish affairs. United under the National Covenant of 1638, the Scots repulsed King Charles’ attempt to enforce his authority in the Bishops’ Wars (1639-40).
The Long Parliament was summoned in November 1640 in response to the crisis brought about by the Bishops’ Wars. Amongst its earliest proceedings were moves against the King’s “evil councillors”, the 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 26th 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.
Imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1641, Laud was finally 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 Lords who remained at Westminster were unanimously prejudiced against him, Laud defended himself ably. Even his bitter enemy Prynne could not stretch the law enough to prove him guilty of treason. The Lords adjourned without coming to a vote. In November, 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 two months later. Archbishop Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill on 10 January 1645.
Laud was buried at All Hallows, Barking. After the Restoration, his body was reburied in a vault under the altar at the chapel of St John’s College, Oxford.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Archbishop William Laud, 1573-1645" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/archbishop-william-laud/, January 17, 2022