Boke Review: Cyprianus Anglicus

Before there were books there were Bokes, large folio things with small print runs and funny spelling. Boke Reviews look at books/bokes published more than 250 years ago, most of which are lost to modern knowledge, and try to rediscover the wisdom hidden in the attitudes and understandings of another era.

Cyprianus Anglicus, or The History of the Life and Death of the most Reverend and Renowned Prelate William, by Divine Providence Lord Archbishop of Canterbury: Peter Heylyn, printed for A. Seile, 1668.

William Laud (1573-1645) has for the last 300 years been regarded as a discredited emblem of early Stuart absolutism, largely responsible by his religious intolerance for the collapse of Charles I’s regime. As usual, the winners get to write the history, and the anti-Stuart and low-church Whigs won the 1688 Revolution and have dominated historical writing thereafter. To understand both Laud and what he was trying to achieve, you need a biographer who was in tune with Laud’s worldview, not an intellectual antagonist anxious to take cheap shots. Peter Heylyn (1600-62) who was chaplain to Charles I is the only such biographer, and his Cyprianus Anglicus shows Laud as a highly able and sympathetic figure, free from the corruption of the Caroline court and struggling to bring coherence to an Anglican church that was still ill-defined.

Laud is memorable for several “lasts” rather than “firsts”. Executed after a show trial by the Parliamentarians in 1645, he was the last Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred, and is thereby in distinguished company with Thomas Cranmer, burned by Mary I in 1556, Simon Sudbury, beheaded during the 1381 Peasants Revolt and Thomas à Becket, killed on the orders of Henry II (before the Norman conquest there were other Arch-episcopal victims such as Alfheah, murdered by Viking raiders in 1012.) He was also the last Archbishop to take a major role in secular government, acting as First Lord of the Treasury and effectively Charles I’s chief minister for a year in 1635-6 before being succeeded by his friend and protégé William Juxon.

Heylyn begins with an ecclesiastical history of Britain since the Reformation, showing that the Church of England was formed as an attempt to revert to the practices of the early Church in the first centuries after Christ. Theologically it represented a compromise between Catholicism and those followers of John Calvin who wanted to abolish episcopacy and move to a more personal religion. Disputes included the wearing of vestments and the appearance and position of the communion table, the replacement for the Roman Catholic altar.

Laud was later accused of being a crypto-Catholic, a position refuted in his magisterial 1639 “Relation of the Conference between William Laud and Mr. Fisher the Jesuit” (recounting a conference that had taken place 17 years before.) Nevertheless he was a strong believer in episcopacy, in the Church’s position as a bulwark of the established constitutional order and in the benefits of a beautiful liturgy on the belief of the worshippers. His elaborate 1626 coronation service for Charles I was an artistic masterpiece and has formed the model for all subsequent such ceremonies.

For Laud and Heylyn, theological differences were intimately bound up in political differences and to some extent subordinate to them. Like Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (200-259) to whom Heylyn compares him, Laud was no theological doctrinaire but a practical reformer, seeking to strengthen the church against the many forces which assailed it.

Thus Calvinist puritanism represented a threat, not simply to the structure and liturgy of the Church of England, but to the established government itself, with Presbyterians attempting to remove the monarchy as well as the episcopacy. Heylyn, writing in the late 1650s after civil war and republican government, was able to take this linkage as obvious, but it also represented an important strand in the thinking of Laud before the war broke out.

Heylyn’s biography dwells only lightly on the theological controversies in which Laud was involved. Instead he focuses on Laud’s growing power within Church and state, as Dean of Gloucester, Bishop of St. David’s, chief religious advisor to the Duke of Buckingham, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he attained only at the age of 60, after a ten-year wait for the passing of the puritan-friendly Archbishop George Abbot.

As Archbishop, Laud attempted to standardize the liturgy and restore the church discipline that had been lost under the feeble Abbot. He pursued the same policy, which he christened “Thorough” in his lay political activities, which took place mainly during the 1629-40 period when Charles I had suspended the right of parliament. Nevertheless, as Heylyn points out he was doubtful of the long-term efficacy of such policies, and especially of the 1637 attempt to impose the Anglican liturgy and episcopacy on the Church of Scotland, which led to the drafting of the Covenant and the 1639 and 1640 Bishops’ Wars.

Laud’s attempts to stamp out Puritan subversion involved some methods which seem barbaric to modern eyes, notably the cutting off of the pamphleteer William Prynne’s ears, which was carried out twice, for two separate offences, the authorities coming back for another slice, as it were. Nevertheless Prynne himself was admirably able to put these punishments in perspective, surviving till 1669 and becoming a Presbyterian supporter of Charles II in the Cavalier Parliament, since after seeing the effects of republican sectarian government in the 1650s he became convinced that the old ways, if modified, were best.

The Convocation of 1640, called to coincide with the Short Parliament (at that time one could not be called without the other) appeared to offer Laud an opportunity to bed down his Church reforms, which he took with gusto. However the abrupt termination of the Short Parliament left Convocation without authority and its decrees were subsequently used against Laud in his trial. Laud was arrested along with Charles I’s principal lay advisor the earl of Strafford by the Long Parliament in early 1641 and episcopacy was abolished in 1642, after which Laud was committed to the Tower to await eventual trial and execution.

Laud was a short, peppery man, from a humble background (the son of a Reading clothier) who made many enemies, which came back to haunt him when he was put on trial for his life in 1644 and executed in 1645 while more emollient colleagues such as Juxon survived unscathed. Nevertheless Heylyn himself and Clarendon, who as the rising lawyer Edward Hyde also knew Laud quite well, both testified to his charm in private and to the intellectual fascination of his conversation.

Laud’s belief system, of a well-endowed, ritualistic Church as a bulwark of a conservative, monarchist state, was to remain an important strand within Church thinking after the Restoration, though not the dominant one. Its last true exponent at the top of the Church was probably William Howley (1766-1848), appointed Bishop of London by Liverpool in 1813 and Archbishop of Canterbury by Wellington in 1828. In literature, Trollope’s Bishop Grantly and his son the Archdeacon, opposed by the evangelical Bishop Proudie, were remnants of Laudian thinking.

Heylyn ends by saying that “the great example of Laud’s Vertue shall continue alway, not only in the Minds of Men, but in the Annals of succeeding Ages with Renown and Fame.” Even though Laud’s Church and monarchy were restored, more or less, that hasn’t happened. But the obloquy which Puritan-minded Victorians and moderns regarded Laud, with historian Patrick Collinson condemning him in 1980 as “the greatest calamity ever visited upon the English Church” is a travesty of the truth. Reading the intelligent and well-written Heylyn is a much-needed corrective to such nonsense.