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Less Than the Whole Laud
Hugh Trevor-Roper, Archbishop Laud (Phoenix Press, 2001)
The mocking grace "To God much praise, and little laud to the Devil" reflected the opinion of many of William Laud's contemporaries - and also of several generations of Whig historians. To Macaulay and his ilk, Charles I's Archbishop of Canterbury was a stock villain, culpable for the royal policies that provoked the English Civil War.
Hugh Trevor-Roper's biography (first published in 1940; Phoenix Press reprints the very slightly revised 1961 edition) cannot be called a rehabilitation, but it does correct, and has largely superseded, the Whig caricature. (The Britannica entry on Laud, for instance, reads like a precis.) Instead of a Wolsey-like grand prelate, Laud is shown to have been an honest, hardworking man, notable both for extensive charities and for fostering Greek, Arabic and Persian studies. His most conspicuous faults were personal rudeness, excessive severity as a judge (even by the severe standards of the time) and political maladroitness. Though he left behind many volumes of writings, he never grasped the importance of propaganda or public opinion. His immediate reaction to opposition was clumsy suppression, an instinct that led him to advocate the forcible imposition of episcopal governance on the Scottish church. From the failure of the "Bishops' War" followed the disintegration of Charles' personal rule, the Short and Long Parliaments, civil war and Laud's own murder by Act of Parliament in 1645.
Trevor-Roper recounts Laud's career in, as one would expect, a lively and opinionated, yet thoroughly scholarly, fashion. He emphasizes high politics and ecclesiastical conflict but also directs attention to Laud's achievements as Chancellor of Oxford University, where his impact may have been more lasting than on either Church or State. There is little speculation about the Archbishop's private life, for which hardly any evidence survives. He never married, apparently kept no mistresses, lived unostentatiously and left behind almost no purely personal correspondence or anecdotes. Trevor-Roper surmises that he tended to have allies rather than friends, but the truth is unknowable.
Excellent though it is in most respects, Archbishop Laud suffers from distortion in one key area. The biographer takes it as a fundamental truth that 17th Century men were as secular in outlook as his own 20th Century circle of acquaintances. Therefore, religious principles must have been mere masks for social and political content. Men adopted Puritan or Arminian or Roman Catholic theology because they liked the political doctrines associated with those labels.
That premise is no doubt true of many figures of the day, but Trevor-Roper's own narrative exposes its dubiety in this particular case. The tenet that Laud advanced most persistently, in the teeth of massive opposition by both clergy and laity, was the importance of preserving continuity with the pre-Reformation Church. He was not sympathetic to Roman Catholicism but would not abandon traditional doctrines and rituals simply because they had been labeled "popish". In these views he followed Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker, and it is largely because of his efforts that their species of Anglo-Catholicism lasted beyond the lifetimes of their personal disciples.
None of the distinctive issues addressed by the Andrewes-Hooker school is important to Trevor-Roper. Hence, he concludes, none of them could really have been important to Laud. The "true" reason for, say, upholding the mystical character of the Eucharist was evidently to strike a blow at enclosures, emigration and the pretensions of Parliament. Rather an indirect blow, one might think.
If one imagines that Laud's ostensible hierarchy of values was his real one, his life comes into clearer focus. Activities such as the promotion of scholarship and the recovery of the church's property rights were not disconnected enthusiasms but elements of a program for reinforcing the links between contemporary and ancient Christianity and safeguarding a refurbished church from the influence of modernist opinion. Likewise, his indifference to politically attractive pan-Protestant initiatives, a stance that puzzles Trevor-Roper, reflects his desire to hold the English church at a distance from Reformation theology.
Although Trevor-Roper pronounces Laud a "failure", the Laudian tradition held a prominent, occasionally preeminent, place in the Church of England for three hundred years, and from that base it has gained an extended, if attenuated, influence. The descendants of Puritan zealots now study the Fathers of the Church, take the sacraments seriously, pay heed to the continuity of Christian experience, celebrate the ancient holy days and even admit religious images into their sanctuaries. From the perspective of 1645, that is an astonishing evolution. There is no way to know what might have been, but one cannot help suspecting that today's Protestant Christianity would be much more drab, anti-historical and unintellectual had William Laud never lived.
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