THE most memorable Archbishops of Canterbury have tended to be those who met violent deaths — Becket, Cranmer, Laud. By contrast, Archbishop William Sancroft, who was born 400 years ago on 30 January 1617, died in his own bed at the age of 76. Yet his career was in many ways as dramatic as any Archbishop’s.
He was the painstaking scholar who edited the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and saw it through the press. The King wrote that “his service is so expedient and necessary, that if he should desert it, the proceedings therein . . . would be greatly retarded and hindered.”
He was the practical and clear-headed Dean who worked with Sir Christopher Wren on the rebuilding of St Paul’s after the Great Fire, and single-handedly transformed the Dean and Chapter’s chaotic accounts, so that, in the opinion of the late Patrick Collinson, “the St Paul’s we know was as much a monument to Sancroft as to Wren.”
He was the devoted monarchist who believed that rebellion was never lawful, and yet opposed the direct command of James II and was sent to the Tower.
He was the national hero who declined to wield the levers of power when events placed them in his hands.
He was the conscientious churchman who refused to recognise the right of William III to sit on the throne while James II was still alive.
He was the Lear-like figure who was turned out of Lambeth Palace and hounded and persecuted in retirement, and suspected of plotting with the Jacobites.
He was the schismatical archbishop who presided over a body out of communion with the rest of the Church of England.
Finally, he was laid to rest, declaring to the last that “what I have done I have done in the integrity of my heart.”
THE first half of Sancroft’s life was much less eventful. Before 1660, he was an aspiring academic whose career was frustrated by the outbreak of the English Civil War. He was born and grew up in rural Suffolk, in the ancestral home of the Sancroft (or Sandcroft) family at Ufford Hall, near Fressingfield. This ancient farmhouse still stands today, rooted amid the fields that William loved all his life, and to which he returned whenever danger threatened. After attending King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, he was sent in 1633, with his elder brother Thomas, to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where their uncle William was the Master.
Having the largest student body of any Cambridge college at that time, Emmanuel was known as, first and foremost, a Puritan seminary for training the clergy. It adhered to the plain style of worship which William was used to. But another college, Peterhouse, soon had a new Master, John Cosin, who introduced splendid ornaments and more elaborate ceremonial into its fine new chapel, so that it became “the gaze of the university”. William was among those attracted.
He achieved his MA in 1641, and was soon elected to a vacant fellowship at Emmanuel. The outbreak of civil war in 1642 made life difficult for those in the university who were identified with the high-church, or Laudian, programme of reform within the Church. Sancroft’s refusal to take an oath of loyalty to the new régime, or to use the Directory that replaced the Book of Common Prayer, put him in danger of eviction; yet his late uncle’s name, the reputation of Emmanuel, and his indispensability as the college’s bursar kept him in post.
When Charles I was executed on Sancroft’s birthday in 1649, Sancroft wrote in despair to his father: “The black act is done . . . which an age cannot expiate. . . The church here will never rise again, though the kingdom should. The universities we give up for lost. . . In the mean time, there are caves and dens of the earth, and upper rooms and secret chambers, for a church in persecution to flee to, and there shall be our refuge.”
In fact, Sancroft managed to sit tight until July 1651, when he was finally “forced to sigh out a long and sad farewell to Cambridge”. For the next few years, he lived in seclusion at Ufford Hall, or visited friends; but in 1657 he set off on his only trip abroad, journeying through the Netherlands and then down to Italy, where he enrolled at the University of Padua shortly before hearing of the return to England of Charles II.
NOW in his forties, Sancroft took an apparently surprising step in becoming chaplain to the new Bishop of Durham, who was none other than Cosin. There was no immediate prospect of resuming his career in Cambridge while the future ecclesiastical settlement remained unclear. In fact, Cosin — who was one of the leading liturgical experts in England — wanted Sancroft as far more than a domestic chaplain: the plan was for him to remain in London as Cosin’s agent in the forthcoming process of revising the Book of Common Prayer. Cosin himself was urgently needed in the north to sort out his diocese.
Others, including the Bishop of London, Gilbert Sheldon, soon came to appreciate Sancroft’s capacity for order and precision in the drafting of texts. He kept account in his neat handwriting of the various alterations that were discussed. Then, on 8 March 1662, Convocation appointed Sancroft to oversee the printing of the new Prayer Book. Evidence of his passion for accuracy and detail is to be found in his own copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, where he noted in the margin seven small slips that had escaped the printer’s eye.
Meanwhile, Cosin had installed Sancroft as a Prebendary of Durham and Rector of Houghton-le-Spring, a rich living. Both the houses provided, however, were dilapidated, and cost Sancroft a great deal to restore. In 1662, at the King’s instigation and in recognition of his services, Sancroft received a Cambridge DD, and was then elected by the Fellows to be the Master of his old college, Emmanuel, a position vacated by William Dillingham, who could not subscribe to the new Act of Uniformity. Among many initiatives, Sancroft engaged Wren to design a new college chapel.
Meanwhile, he not only retained his posts in Durham diocese, but, in 1664,r further added the deanery of York, where once again the house was dilapidated and allegedly cost him more to restore than his income, although he was only in office there for ten months.
THEN it was all change again. Sheldon, now Archbishop of Canterbury, recommended Sancroft to the King to be Dean of St Paul’s. Inevitably, the deanery was uninhabitable, but this time there was a far greater building project to tackle. Work to restore the cathedral, damaged since 1561, had been dragging on for decades. In 1628, William Laud, then Bishop of London, found that he “could not rest under the shade of those vast ruins”.
In April 1663, Charles II set up a commission to restore the cathedral “to the ancient beauty and glory of it”. Progress was delayed by differences over what to do first. Then the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1665 stopped everything until March 1666, when — perhaps through Sancroft — Wren was brought in to advise the commissioners. His suggestions went far beyond repairs.
The Great Fire in September 1666 gave Wren the opportunity to propose a radical new structure. Sancroft urged him to remember practical factors, such as where services could take place while this comprehensive scheme was in progress (it took until 1710 to complete), and the need for an enclosed space where the daily office could be said in winter.
ON THE death of Archbishop Sheldon in November 1677, the King chose Sancroft before all the existing bench of bishops to be his successor. It was a time of great political tension over the prospect that Charles’s brother and heir, James — a zealous recruit to Roman Catholicism — would inherit the throne, and thus also become Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Attempts were made to exclude him in Parliament.
Passions boiled over with the disclosure in August 1678 of a “popish plot” (or, as it emerged, non-plot) to assassinate Charles. When it was eventually revealed that the initiator of the rumours was a disgraced Anglican priest, Titus Oates, Sancroft’s response was to require all bishops to interview personally any candidate whom they wished to sponsor for Holy Orders, and to send details of all those whom they ordained to be kept in a register at Lambeth.
WHEN James became King, Sancroft tried hard to avoid confrontation with him. He drafted a coronation service without setting it within the context of holy communion; James attended a Roman Catholic mass in his own chapel beforehand.
Sancroft also declined to serve on the new ecclesiastical commission, which he considered illegal, although he simply pleaded infirmity. He was excluded from the Privy Council. But when he received an order to have the Declaration of Indulgence read out in all churches, he refused to obey what he thought was an illegal claim to a royal dispensing power.
With six other bishops, he signed a petition for the order to be revoked; they were all sent to the Tower, but found not guilty of the charge of libel. Sancroft was now a national hero.
WHEN Prince William landed and James fled, Sancroft was made president of a regency council, but resigned when James was captured and brought back to London. In the constitutional crisis that followed James’s second flight, Sancroft had the power to influence events, but he remained at Lambeth and took no part in debates in Parliament. In any case, William would never have accepted becoming regent, which was the Archbishop’s preferred option.
Sancroft refused to crown William and Mary, or to take the oath of loyalty. When Mary asked for his blessing, he told her to ask first for her father’s blessing: “Without that, mine would be useless.”
Strenuous attempts were made to win him over, but eventually he was removed from office. He remained at Lambeth, earning the gratitude of countless scholars by organising the manuscripts and cataloguing the books in Lambeth Palace Library, until he was finally ejected on 23 June 1691.
He went home to Suffolk, but Ufford Hall was crowded with his relatives, including three children under ten; so there was no peace for an aged archbishop. He set about one final building project: a home in the grounds of Ufford Hall, which he occupied for just over a year in failing health, before he died on 24 November 1693.
ABOUT 400 fellow clergy also became Non-Jurors (clergy who refused to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary), including six bishops who, together with Sancroft, had opposed James’s arbitrary exercise of power. Sancroft handed over the powers of archbishop of this continuing rump of the uncompromised Church of England to William Lloyd, formerly Bishop of Norwich. Successors were consecrated by authority (congé d’élire) from the exiled James II. The schism eventually fizzled out about a century later.
SANCROFT’s career reveals a record of achievement that not many churchmen have equalled in any age. Everywhere he went, he made substantial and lasting improvements, often within a short space of time, delivering great institutions from accumulated muddle and inefficiency. Yet he was neither a boring bureaucrat nor a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. He had plenty of ideas for reforming the Church which were often frustrated by events.
His presence may not have been commanding: he was slight in stature, always prone to worrying about his health, and had a disposition that could, at times, be nervous and peevish. A confirmed bachelor, determined to avoid the attachments of married life, he could easily be dismissed on slight acquaintance as a dry scholar whose sustenance came more or less entirely from intellectual pursuits.
Such a conclusion would be wholly wrong. A contemporary engraving by Daniel Loggan, done in 1680 and now in the National Portrait Gallery, fixes one’s attention immediately by the steady gaze of his large, deep-set eyes. From them shines the sensitivity of a gentle nature allied to a firm, unbending will. He was devoted to poetry and music. He was skilled in several languages. His books reveal an extraordinary breadth of interest, and his notebooks are crammed with observations on all manner of things, such as whether dogs suffer from seasickness, or why fossils of shells are found far from the sea. His correspondence is full of lively expressions and witty comments. For those who could understand his references, he had a delicious sense of humour. Warm emotion vibrates through everything he wrote.
Above all, he had a great capacity for lasting and fruitful friendships, whether with fellow students or pupils in Cambridge, colleagues in office, or his chaplains as archbishop, who gave him unswerving devotion through all his troubles.
In retirement he wrote: “There is nothing I regret the loss of but Lambeth Chapel, and the company of a few friends . . . whom I trust I shall meet still every day in their walk to heaven: for that is almost all that is left to us, to pray and love one another.”
The Ven. John Tiller is a former Archdeacon of Hereford.