William Laud loved the splendor and ceremony of Catholic heritage that remained after Henry VIII separated from Rome and established the Church of England. Henry’s motive for breaking from the Pope was to divorce Catherine of Argon and marry Anne Boleyn. In doing so, he dissolved the monasteries, confiscated their holdings, and increased his wealth by over half a billion dollars.1
Having achieved his goal of marrying Anne and becoming the wealthiest monarch in Europe, Henry had no interest in altering Catholic rituals and traditions like music, stained glass, religious images, surplices, and anointed priests, that remained as precursors to what is now known as the high church.
Following Henry’s death, the teachings of John Calvin gained popularity, and a movement surfaced intent on purifying the church of Roman Catholic tradition. Traditionalists in the Church of England abhorred this movement and disparagingly referred to its followers as Puritans.
The Puritan movement aspired to destroy the very elements of the church that William Laud sought to preserve. Matters of doctrine concerned Laud less than did his desire to restore the Church of England to its former glory.
For the Crown, the most alarming aspect of Puritanism was its insistence on being free from intervention by the church’s hierarchy of bishops and its head, the king.2
To defeat Puritanism, Laud embraced Arminianism, and to ensure success, he ingratiated himself with the Duke of Buckingham, who made Laud his chaplain.3
When Charles ascended the throne in 1625, Laud became his sycophant and publicly advocated the Divine Right of Kings. In 1628, Charles appointed Laud Bishop of London, and in 1630, made him Chancellor of Oxford University.
In 1633, Laud was made Archbishop of Canterbury and restored church buildings to reflect pre-Reformation aesthetic grandeur by reinstating the beauty of holiness. Traditional clerical vestments, images, and stained glass windows re-emerged in churches and cathedrals throughout England.
To enforce these changes and punish non-conformists, Laud inspected churches and used the Star Chamber as a tool of tyranny.4
Many Puritans were tried and convicted of being Seditious and Libel, had their cheek branded SL, and their nose or an ear cut off. During Laud’s term as Archbishop, SL became known as the Sign of Laud.
Laud was fully penetrated by the conviction that he and his friends must either crush the Calvinists (Puritans) or be crushed by them.5
In 1640, a Calvinist-leaning Parliament accused Laud of treason and imprisoned him in the Tower of London.
Although Laud was granted a royal pardon, in January 1645, Parliament beheaded him anyway.
Some in the modern church, like Rev. Lucius Waterman, consider William Laud a martyr and hero.
That we have our Prayer Book, our Altar, even our Episcopacy itself, we may, humanly speaking, thank Laud …… That our Articles have not a Genevan sense tied to them and are not an intolerable burden to the Church is due to Laud. ….. . Laud saved the English Church …… The English Church, in her Catholic aspect, is a memorial to Laud.” 6
Others, like Patrick Collinson, Professor Emeritus, Cambridge University, consider Laud:
The greatest calamity ever visited upon the English Church.7
In his private life, Laud was a bachelor who kept a personal diary in which he recorded his lifelong homoerotic insecurities and desires.
In 1625, he recorded a dream where the Duke of Buckingham visited his bed.
That night it seemed to me that the duke of Buckingham came into bed with me, where he behaved himself with great kindness towards me, after that rest, wherewith wearied persons are won’t to solace themselves.8
1 £500 million in today’s pounds sterling
2 The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1563 following the Act of Uniformity defined the doctrine of the Church of England in response to controversies that during the English Reformation. Articles 19 through 39 are known as ‘The Anglican Articles’ that established the Episcopal Polity of the church.
3 Arminianism is a movement that took its name from Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian who challenged the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and instead focuses on the belief that salvation can be achieved through free will.
4 The Star Chamber was a Court of Law that sat a the Palace of Westminster during the 16th and 17th centuries. During the Stuart Reign, it became synonymous with misuse and abuse of power. Charles I used it as a substitute to Parliament. The Star Chamber was popularized by Henry VIII for its ability to enforce the law when other courts were unable to do so because of corruption and provided remedies when other courts were unable to do so. Later, the Star Chamber was used by Charle I to enforce unpopular political and ecclesiastical policies and became a symbol of oppression to the parliamentary and Puritan opponents of Charles and Archbishop William Laud. In 1641, the Star Chamber was abolished by the Long Parliament.
5 S. R. Gardiner’s Introduction to his ”Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution,” p. xxv.; in 2nd Edition, p. XXvi
6 Waterman, L. Wm. Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr. Notes Queries s4-VI, 93–94 (1914).
7 Collinson, Patrick (1984). The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559–1625. Oxford University Press. p. 90.
8 Laud, W. The works of the Most Reverend Father in God, William Laud, sometime Lord Archbishop of Canterbury. vol. III (John Henry Parker, 1853) p170