[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel. Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect. However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]
Born 7 October 1573 (Reading, England) – Executed 10 January 1645 (Tower Hill, London, England).
[The featured image is of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Laud, painted ca. 1635-1637]
Ecclesiastical Titles (chronologically): Dean of Gloucester (1616-1621); Bishop of St. David’s (1621-1626); Bishop of Bath and Wells (1626-1628); Bishop of London (1628-1633); Archbishop of Canterbury (1633-1645).
Political Offices: First Lord of the Treasury (1635-1636).
Academic Offices (chronologically): President of St. John’s College, Oxford (1611-1621); Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1630-1641); Chancellor of the University of Dublin (1633-1645)
Archbishop William Laud’s life and influence from a metaphorical 30,000 feet could be summarized as follows. He upheld episcopacy in the Church of England at a time when Puritan opposition to the episcopacy was strong enough to cost Laud his life, which is what happened. Laud can thus be regarded as a noble defender of, even a martyr for, this aspect of Catholic ecclesiology in the Anglican tradition.
When one looks at how Laud defended his ecclesiological understanding, however, the character portrait is not edifying. In fairness to Laud, the Puritans were not inclined to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). But though firmness on Laud’s part would have been justified, his exercise of power has earned him such characterizations as a cruel, insensitive martinet. “Those who are kind reward themselves,” says the writer of Proverbs, “but the cruel do themselves harm” (Proverbs 11:17).
Many of Laud’s ecclesiastical views eventually prevailed. But Laud was executed for pressing these views (and perhaps for doing so in his own relentless manner), and England endured a civil war, regicide, and the Puritan Commonwealth on the way to convincing the Puritans that their kind of religious zealotry could not find fertile soil in England. (Some of them tried out the soil of New England, which was somewhat successful, at least for a few generations.)
It is a shame to detail Laud’s importance in terms of the controversies he fostered. But doing so is a way of making vivid how parlous was the High Church position (the “Orthodox” position, to use Laud’s term, in contrast to the “Puritan” position) in the Church of England in the first half of the seventeenth century. In addition to upholding the episcopacy, Laud “made enemies” chiefly in three other ways.
First, he vigorously “punished those who attacked the Church, both those who vandalized and those who confined themselves to verbal abuse.” The historical accuracy of Puritan preachers and pamphleteers actually having their ears cut off because of charges of sedition has been challenged. But they were sentenced to suffer this punishment as well as the punishments of public whippings and being branded. Such was Laud’s reputation, that a contemporary drawing shows him dining on Puritans’ ears.
The second area of controversy in which Laud either bravely or foolishly engaged (depending on one’s perspective) was to uphold “various customs in public worship (such as the wearing of the surplice) that were harmless in themselves, but which aroused the suspicion and fury of those who feared a return to power of Roman Catholicism.”
Finally, Laud “sought the financial independence of the clergy, so that [clergy were] not dependent on what support the local squire was pleased to give.” Of course, a means of securing this financial independence was to reclaim land formerly owned by the Catholic Church (confiscated mostly during the Dissolution of the religious houses) and to give it to the Church of England. Powerful landowners were not favorably disposed to this idea, to put it gently.
This superficial sketch of Laud’s life and influence might give the impression the High Church position was primarily about the king and his favorites wielding power. But this was the period of the Caroline Divines, which produced impressive theological and artistic activity in support of Anglicanism’s Catholic roots.
Br. John-Bede Pauley, OSB