Assess the view that Charles I rather than Archbishop Laud directed ecclesiastical affairs during the 1630s

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633, has traditionally been seen as ‘one of the twin pillars of Stuart despotism’1, playing a key role in the formation and enforcement of ecclesiastical policy during the 1630’s.

However recent work on this area, mainly by Davies and Sharpe, has challenged this assumption, suggesting instead that it was Charles I who was the architect of change and innovation, and that Laud merely acted as a figurehead for his religious ideals.Whilst it is certainly conceivable that Charles I as King and Supreme Governor of the Church was actively involved in the clerical matters of England, to so diminish Laud’s role seems incongruent, thus it is far more plausible, as Fincham has suggested, that the two had a close working relationship, forming what can be seen as a partnership in religious endeavours.There is a lack of sources available to historians on the direction of religious policy during the 1630’s as Charles conducted much of his affairs in person, leaving barely any written verification, and Laud publicly provided little reasoning for the changes that were implemented , leaving it to others, such as Heylyn to provide intellectual justification.Whilst some have accredited that this to Laud’s belief that the laity were too involved in ecclesiastical matters and thus did not need to openly explain himself, Sharpe interprets this silence as evidence of Laud’s nominal position, stating that ‘Laud did not debate doctrine because it was not of great interest to him’2.Davies too argues that Laud’s contribution to policy was minimal, recognising Charles as the author of religious change, responsible entirely for the re-issuing of the Book of Sports for example, and thus prefers to use the term ‘Carolinism’ rather than ‘Laudianism’ to describe these reforms of the reign, arguing that to use the latter ‘has always given the impression that their source was inherently ecclesiastical and that they emanated invariably from Laud’3.However, there is argument which reasonably contradicts this hypothesis; whilst Charles’ name was inscribed on the book of sports, his responsibility for it can not be irrefutably proved, furthermore, some of the religious ideas adopted in Charles’ reign can be seen to stem from Laud due to the claims he made to them many years prior; one such example is ‘iure divino’, the radical view that bishops form the very essence of the Church which Laud committed himself to in 1608.Furthermore, it has also been reasoned that whilst there is little direct evidence of Laud’s personal involvement in religious policy , there is even less to support Charles, and advancing his role simply by downsizing Laud’s is simply to ‘substitute one for the other [which] solves nothing’4, demonstrating that to side definitively with either Laud or Charles as the eminent policy-maker can not be conclusively substantiated, which gives rise to the idea that perhaps both worked together, or were involved in different aspects of the creation and implementation of reform across the kingdom, and thus when considering this issue it must be concluded as more of a collaboration between the two than a case of either-or. AquireOne of the most controversial aspects of Laud and Charles’ religious policy was the charge to alter the placement of the Communion table from the centre of the church to ‘the upper end of the chancel north and south and a rail before it or round it to keep it from annoyance’5.

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It has been fervently debated between historians who was the author of this policy; Davies argues that Charles was its chief enthusiast due to his belief that the communion table, the seat of God’s presence in church , should be shown as much respect as his own throne, and thus its elevation was ‘a visual and mnemonic means of impressing a greater respect for his pretensions to divine right’6.Although this argument is plausible, his claim that Laud only gave his half-hearted support for it is not; as Foster points out, if this were truly the case then why did Laud get himself into so much trouble on the issue when dean of Gloucester in 1617? 7 Fincham too argues, there are ‘major methodological and evidential problems about accepting [Davies’] interpretation’8, some of which are evident through analysing the November 1633 case of St. Gregory’s, which is significant due to its status as a ‘test case’, as Laud and Charles brought the relatively minor issue of the complaints of the parishioners before the Privy council in order to use their ruling as a national example.Sharpe argues that during the hearing Charles proved far more intransigent than Laud, and that it was he who recommended the altar be set at the East end of the church whilst Laud enquired only whether it was placed ‘in such a convenient sort as that the minister be best heard’9, thus suggesting that Laud’s enthusiasm for the policy was far less than Charles’.

However closer examination of this interpretation reveals it to be flawed, as it appears to be Laud, not Charles, who attempts to drive the policy forwards, which indicates his dominance on the issue. It is he who highlights the importance of consistency within the church and the significance of St. Gregory’s close proximity to St.Pauls; ‘when strangers come from beyond the sea and saw the table stand altar wise in St. Paul’s but out at the door and saw the table stand otherwise in St. Gregory’s, what a disunion would they say was in the Church of England’10, and he who argues the legality of the reform due to its basis in tradition, citing a ruling made under Queen Elizabeth that the communion table should be set in the chancel. Although Charles ruled against the parishioners of St.

Gregory’s, his verdict can be seen to in fact limit the extent of effective altar reform, as he leaves the decision of how the communion table should be placed to the discretion of each parish ordinary ‘whose place and function it doth belong to give direction’11.As a result the impression that is left is of Laud’s mere half-victory on the issue; since not every cleric shared Laud and Charles’ Arminian beliefs, there was an inconsistency in the implementation of this policy across England, and as a consequence suggests a higher level of noncommittal from Charles rather than Laud due to the flexibility he allowed with his ruling. It has been proposed that the evidence of Charles’ own hand on religious reports, proclamations, declarations and signet letters indicates the extensive control that he maintained over the religious reorganisation of his kingdom.

Indeed Sharpe has declared his support for Davenant’s biographer’s view that Charles I took the role of ‘universal bishop’12 within England, so great does he believe his involvement in religious matters to be.Whilst it seems clear that Charles did take his job as Supreme Governor of the Church seriously, demonstrated most distinctly via the comments that he made in the margins of his bishops’ accounts of their diocese, a counter argument naturally exists as to whether Charles signatures can definitively be said to prove his comprehension of affairs. It likely that his bishops would have phrased their reports so as to portray themselves in as positive a light as possible, meaning that Charles’ conception of progress may not have been entire, due to the possible inaccuracy of the information which he based his recommendations on. Foster’s view of Charles concurs with this, as he claims that ‘most of the comments which the King made on Neile’s reports suggest a king dutifully reading dispatches… but woefully out of touch and responding to tactfully phrased suggestions from his ministers’13.

There is also an implication from Charles’ notations of the extent that he relied on Laud to carry out his bidding, for example, when replying to Laud’s request that laymen be denied any further control over the hiring and dismissing of lecturers, Charles commands him ‘to show me the way to overthrou this and to hinder the Performance in tyme to all suche Intentions’14, which demonstrates the reliance and trust that is placed in Laud by Charles independently to find solutions to such issues and to formulate policy that meets his expectations. The existence of a partnership between Laud and Charles could thus be inferred from this, as Laud’s powerful position in the formulation of policy is evident, yet it is nevertheless clear that he looked for Royal authority to support procedures, which indicates a reliance on the other from both sides. This notion of a collaboration between Laud and Charles has been examined by several historians, with varying results. Sharpe states that their relationship was ‘like that of Charles with his other ministers’15, believing that if a connection existed between the two men, it echoed that of Charles’ with his other ministers, and was not unique.This view is also supported by Davies, who cites the issue of preferment as providing ‘further evidence that Laud’s influence has been exaggerated and that of the king underestimated’ using evidence of the distribution of crown patronage to portray Laud as ‘merely one of a number of councillors who might submit names to the king, not always with much success’16.

However, when considering the full extent of Laud’s involvement in the selection of royal chaplains it seems evident that he did have extensive influence, for example after Sir Robert Heath was dismissed from his position as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1634, there were rumours that Laud was responsible for his fall due to his dislike of Heath’s outspoken anti-Arminian views and a concern that he may try to obstruct reform efforts, which suggests that contemporaries were aware of his great authority in the giving and withdrawing of patronage.Indeed Fincham has argued that Laud can be confidently attributed to the selection of many chaplains and bishops, for example Robert Skinner, Matthew Wren and Peter Heylyn, to name but a few, and that this influence outweighed that of his contemporaries, going so far as to name him ‘the most significant patron in church preferment in the 1630’s’17, a position which can be attributed to the trust Charles placed in Laud’s opinions. Indeed the strength of the loyalty and friendship between the two is evident as one of the reasons that no parliament was called between 1629-40, despite the kings need for increased capital, which in itself shows the remarkable bond that existed between Charles and Laud. Amanda Capern, who has analysed the ecclesiastical control Laud had over Ireland from the viewpoint of James Ussher, bishop of Armagh, concurs with this viewpoint of Laud’s unique role within the formulation of ecclesiastical policy, using evidence of his clear influence over the appointment of bishoprics in Ireland as the grounds for her argument.Although Davies is sceptical of this view, attributing it to an overestimation of Laud’s ability and finding instead that Laud had no real drive for restructure and that Charles was directly responsible for the placing of his own chaplains into these positions, yet certain documents shade this view, for example, parts of Laud’s private correspondence to Wentworth comprise the two poking fun at Ussher’s attempts to install his own candidates in bishoprics18, which clearly hints at Laud’s power in this matter, and in a different letter Laud writes ‘I here take the liberty to desire you not to guide yourself so much by that compass, but go as resolutely on, be the suit denied, as if it were granted’19, which explicitly depicts his importance in ecclesiastical affairs through his instructions for Wentworth to continue with the ‘thorough’ in Ireland, even though Charles’ agreement has not and may not be secured.

Although it could be argued that the latter statement does not directly concern the appointment to a chaplaincy, it nevertheless shows Laud’s centrality to reform, and thus combats claims of his apathy and supports Capern’s view that Laud was very much in control, so much so that Usher was able to secure rather more power through working with Laud than he was able to attain on his own. 20 Although Laud’s involvement in the selection of chaplains and bishoprics is thus evident, Charles’ own involvement in these choices can not be ignored, as whilst it is argued that Laud believed that he could manipulate decisions made by Charles without too much difficulty if he so wished,21 there is nevertheless evidence that whilst Charles was influenced by Laud’s recommendations, he did not always follow them.A perfect representation of this can be seen in his refusal to allow Laud to hold the bishoprics of London and Winchester in conjunction in 1630, an example which suggests that although Laud possessed a prominent role in the distribution of patronage, this role was based on Charles’ goodwill and confidence which Charles was perfectly willing to withdraw should he disagree with Laud’s view. As Charles clearly had the final say on Laud’s decisions, the existence of a partnership must therefore be recognised, as it is clear that Laud, whilst exercising considerable influence, was still acting under jurisdiction. This view is strongly supported by Fincham, who sees Laud as ‘effectively Charles I’s ecclesiastical patronage-broker’22, placed in this position of responsibility simply due to Charles’ trust in him.

This working relationship could be seen as having similarities with that which Buckingham enjoyed during his time as favourite.Overall it is clear that to side definitively with either Laud or Charles as the director of religious affairs during the 1630s can not be irrefutably verified, as a lack of conclusive evidence has led to several interpretations of this issue which can not be completely discredited, meaning that, as Foster states, the question of who was behind the policy is ‘something of a red herring’23. Whilst Davies, with the support of Sharpe, maintains that Charles instigated a policy of ‘Carolinism’ and that Laud simply followed his orders, Tyacke and Capern (on the issue of Ireland) steadfastly defend Laud’s position of power; no conclusion has yet been reached. Therefore, on the weight of this, it is possibly more prudent to reason that both Laud and Charles had significant roles in the creation and implementation of reform, and were formed into a partnership within which both had individual interests and priorities, as Fincham has suggested.This working relationship could feasibly be based on Laud and Charles’ similar religious beliefs and a mutual necessity of one another; as of 1628 Laud was a marked man, having been ousted in parliament as an ‘evil advisor’ and thus required the Royal support to implement his reforms, whilst Charles was looking for another that he could trust to act in his interests as Buckingham had done before his assassination.

However this interpretation is simply another hypothesis as there is no clinching evidence on which this is based, thus it must be professed that there is no real way of answering the question of whether Charles rather than Laud directed ecclesiastical affairs, although it seems much more likely that a strong working relationship based on trust and similar ideals existed between the two men than one based on dominance from either Laud of Charles.

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