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  Gilbert Sheldon (1598–1677), by Sir Peter Lely, c.1665–9 Gilbert Sheldon (1598–1677), by Sir Peter Lely, c.1665–9
Sheldon, Gilbert (1598–1677), archbishop of Canterbury, was born, according to the autograph notes in his bible, on the morning of 19 June 1598 and baptized on 22 June at Stanton, Staffordshire. He was the youngest son of Roger Sheldon (d. 1635), member of an ancient and well-to-do family and bailiff to Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, for whom he had ‘speciall imployments and trusts’. The earl stood as godfather to Gilbert Sheldon, who was named after him; the other godfather was Robert Sanderson, father of the future bishop of the same name.

The University of Oxford

Sheldon matriculated at Oxford on 1 July 1614, graduated BA from Trinity College on 27 November 1617, was incorporated at Cambridge in 1619, and proceeded MA on 28 June 1620. In November 1621 he was elected a probationer of All Souls and admitted as a fellow on 14 January 1623. On 23 May 1624 he was made deacon by the bishop of Oxford at Dorchester and was presumably ordained priest then or shortly afterwards. In the mid-1620s Sheldon became domestic chaplain to the lord keeper, Coventry, and served him as an examining chaplain. Charles I intended Sheldon to be master of the Savoy and dean of Westminster ‘that he might better attend on his royal person’ (Beddard, ‘Memoir’, 45). On 11 November 1628 Sheldon gained the degree of BD. This may well have been the occasion when he rattled the academic and theological dovecotes by denying that the pope was Antichrist: he was the first, according to the memory of Thomas Barlow, to voice this shocking denial of a fundamental axiom of the Calvinist establishment.

Sheldon's university career flourished. He was a sympathizer with and possibly a protégé of Archbishop William Laud, chancellor of the university. On 25 June 1634 he completed the academic exercises for the degree of DD by arguing against the propositions that the pope had the power to depose Christian princes and that clerics are exempted by God's law from obedience to secular rulers and by asserting that it was permissible to oblige Roman Catholics in England to swear allegiance. In March 1635 Sheldon was elected warden of All Souls. He served the university in various roles: in 1634 and 1640 he was pro-vice-chancellor; in 1638 he took part in the visitation of Merton College. Sheldon, perhaps characteristically, was stern in his denunciation of the warden, Nathanael Brent:
if I were conscious of such carelessness of the main affairs of this college, or of such practising upon the company, for the wasting of the common stock and my own advantage, I should not have the face to endure a visitation, but should lay the key under the door and be gone. (Trevor-Roper, 356)
As was usual in the seventeenth century Sheldon's rise within the university also brought with it preferment within the church: on 26 February 1632 he was installed as prebendary of Gloucester; in 1633 he became vicar of Hackney; in 1636 rector of Oddington, Oxfordshire, and Ickford, Buckinghamshire, and a royal chaplain; and in 1639 he became rector of Newington, Oxfordshire.

Accounts of Sheldon's early career have been coloured by Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon's nostalgic memoir of the high-minded gatherings at Lord Falkland's country house at Great Tew in Oxfordshire. Sheldon, along with other luminaries of the University of Oxford and the wider world of politics and learning, attended and impressed his host, Hyde, and several others with his learning, gravity, and prudence. Clarendon's hindsight undoubtedly invested these social occasions with more significance than they originally possessed, indeed Tew stood as a symbol of what had been lost by civil wars and puritan revolution, but connections and friendships were established by Sheldon in these years which were to be sustained for decades. The close friendship which he established with Richard Newdigate of Arbury lasted for half a century: from Oxford, Sheldon kept the Newdigate family in touch with literary fashions, political news, and the most recent sermons; he visited them, lobbied on their behalf, and prayed by their bedsides.

The civil war

When the regime of Charles I began to unravel in 1640 Sheldon was four-square behind his monarch and encouraged his friend Hyde's efforts to rally support for so-called constitutional royalism. Like several other heads of colleges Sheldon took the protestation oath of 1642 only with qualifications, which emphasized his obedience to royal authority. During the civil war Sheldon waited on Charles I at Oxford and elsewhere. About 1646 he was appointed clerk of the closet. He seems to have been trusted as a political as well as a spiritual adviser for he certainly participated in various peace negotiations. In February 1644 Sheldon took part in the talks for the treaty of Uxbridge but his strenuous arguments in defence of the Church of England may have alienated the other parties to the negotiations.

Sheldon's role did not diminish after the defeat of the royalists. In June 1647 Charles asked Sir Thomas Fairfax for his chaplains Sheldon and Henry Hammond and, despite the protests of MPs, the request was granted. Sheldon appears to have been with Charles at Hatfield and Newmarket in the summer of 1647. That summer he took extensive soundings from leading Anglican clergy such as Bishop Robert Skinner, Bishop Thomas Morton, and Archbishop James Ussher about the possibility of a religious toleration as the basis of a potential treaty between the king and his adversaries. In 1648 Charles once again sought the presence of Sheldon and Hammond, but although parliament acceded the two chaplains did not reach the Isle of Wight because they were under detention at Oxford.

During the war years Sheldon had remained active in university life at Oxford. There are glimpses of him pursuing the duties of a royal chaplain; lodging his friend Hyde in All Souls; seeking the signatures of academics to the royalist loyalty oath imposed in April 1645; and urging the university's rights in the negotiations for the surrender of Oxford in 1646. He took a leading part in the university's resistance to the parliamentary visitation of 1647, but to no avail. He was officially ejected from the wardenship of All Souls by the visitors on 30 March 1648 and when he refused to surrender his lodgings they ordered his forcible removal and detention. So many well-wishers visited him in prison that the authorities tried unsuccessfully to move him and Hammond to Wallingford Castle. It is unclear how long Sheldon remained incarcerated. A. G. Matthews claimed that entries in the parish register at Ickford indicated that Sheldon was there between 7 May 1648 and 27 December 1650—although he had been ejected from the benefice by November 1646. Other sources claim that Sheldon was released from prison or, more likely, house arrest in Oxford at the end of 1648 on condition that he did not go within 5 miles of Oxford or of the king's gaol in the Isle of Wight. A draft letter of 15 January 1649 survives, in which he describes himself as having been ‘a stranger to the world for these nine months’ but ‘I now conceive myself as good as at liberty & intend about a week hence to make my first journye to our friends in the forrest’ (Pocock, 15.182). Whether the ‘forrest’ was a real location or a metaphor for the refuge of a royalist in the darkest days of the Stuart cause is not clear. Sheldon was ‘unresolved’ about whether to join the royalist exiles on the continent. In the event he retired to the midlands, basing himself variously in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Staffordshire. He spent long periods at Sir Robert Shirley's house at Staunton Harold, with his Okeover relatives at East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, at his brother's house in Stanton, and visited the Pakingtons, Coventrys, and Yelvertons. Although he is recorded at Petersham Lodge in autumn 1658 Sheldon rarely ventured south despite the fact that many Anglican clergy lived unmolested in London throughout the 1650s.

The interregnum

Sheldon's role in royalist and Anglican circles during the 1650s can be reconstructed in outline from his remarkable incoming correspondence, most of which seems to have been addressed to him care of his nephew Joseph Sheldon at the house of Mr Price, a woollen draper, at the Gold Key in St Paul's Churchyard. Although some of Sheldon's own letters survived and were later printed by Barwick, it is the letters to him from Hammond, Bishop Matthew Wren, Bishop Brian Duppa, Dr Robert Payne, and Dr John Barwick that reveal him as a trusted intermediary in the royalist cause and a man of wide and discriminating intellectual interests.

In 1649 Hyde had assured Sheldon that ‘you are one of those few by whose advice and example I shall most absolutely guide myself, and upon whose friendship I have an entire and absolute dependence’ (Bosher, 55). Nor was this mere formal compliment, for Hyde clearly used Sheldon as a channel for communicating with the remnants of the Church of England's leadership. In October 1651 Hammond wrote to Bishop Wren, the most senior of the bishops, who was imprisoned in the Tower, that Sheldon had urged him to exhort the surviving bishops ‘to think of doing somewhat to preserve a church amongst us, lest it perish with their order’ (Pocock, 9.294). The continuation of the ministry by further consecrations to the episcopate and by episcopal ordination of ministers was an urgent problem for the Church of England. The other was the dilemma over whether to use the proscribed Book of Common Prayer or to find some way of compromising over the liturgy. Sheldon's own view of the resulting schism and confusion was dramatically expressed in a letter of January 1653:
Amongst those that either are, or would be thought loyal subjects to the King and obedient sons of this Church, there is great diversity of opinion and practice about Prayer and the public worship of God; some believing themselves excused by the times, if they wholly omit it, some contriving the substance of it into a prayer of their own making: supposing they have done their duty, if they pray nothing against the old form; other retain part, some more, some less, according to their several judgment; and some again holding themselves obliged to use all, according to their former engagements; and not so much as to communicate with any that use it not (supposing them schismatical). (Barwick, 537)
The solutions which Sheldon seems to have proposed in schemes which John Barwick laid before Wren are revealing. Sheldon wanted the bishops to make a ruling which their scattered and harassed clergy could then follow. He seems to have contemplated a relaxation of the rule of absolute conformity to the prayer book with resignation if not equanimity. He argued that the bishops had authority to do this since they were reduced to the ‘primitive’ state of the early church ‘under a civil authority, though not pagan, yet clearly antichristian, and such as endeavour to destroy the Church of God’. If they demurred the exiled king could be approached for a commission by which no more than three of the bishops could dispense with or temper ‘the old laws’ (ibid., 541).

In May 1654 a meeting of the leading Anglican bishops and clergy was called at Richmond, home of Bishop Duppa, to address these issues and in particular to stiffen the backbones of some of the Anglican clergy who seemed to be weakening—both Jeremy Taylor and Robert Sanderson were thought to be in danger of complying with the authorities to some degree. Judging by their letters Hammond, Duppa, and others regarded Sheldon as vital to this effort, yet he did not attend, the meeting fizzled out, and there were no more concerted attempts by the Anglican clergy to perpetuate their episcopate. Sheldon still remained prominent in Anglican circles in the later 1650s, when the churchmen were harassed in several ways: ‘and yet we go on’ as Taylor wrote to Sheldon in December 1657, ‘and shall till we can go on no longer’ (Bosher, 43). In May 1659 when Hyde once again mooted the idea that new bishops be consecrated in England, Sheldon's name was prominent on the list of his preferred candidates.

Sheldon's correspondence of the 1650s attests to the bookish interests of Sheldon and his circle during their enforced leisure. The virtuoso Robert Payne, ejected canon of Christ Church and an early admirer of Thomas Hobbes, wrote to Sheldon with news and snippets from the works of Hobbes, Gassendi, and Athanasius Kircher. Sheldon asked George Morley to send him Catholic books of devotion from Antwerp. Hammond expected Sheldon's advice on his own writings: he asked for his views on Grotius's annotations of the scriptures, the Ignatian epistles and other patristic matters, but he also wanted to know whether Sheldon thought the time right to reply to the presbyterian critics of episcopacy. Sheldon was thought to have better political antennae and greater influence than most of his brethren, and he was encouraged to think so himself, as Hyde wrote to him in October 1659, ‘when you meet, as meet you will, I think you will be satisfied with [the King], and nobody is like to do so much good upon him as you are, for sure he reverences nobody more’ (Bosher, 136).

Restoration of monarchy and church, 1660–1663

The restoration of the monarchy was the work of presbyterian politicians and clergy. At first Anglicans like Sheldon could only watch and wait. Throughout the winter of 1659–60 the leaders of the Church of England began to gather in London: on 27 April 1660 Sheldon arrived in the capital and met Morley, the envoy of the exiled court; on 4 May a meeting of the clerical leaders, including Duppa, Wren, John Warner, Morley, and Barwick, took place and Sheldon was almost certainly also present. Charles Stuart landed at Dover on 25 May to be greeted by the presbyterians. At Canterbury the following evening he had a private meeting with Sheldon. Now that Charles and Hyde were back in England they responded to the realities on the ground and to circumstances rather than following a premeditated plan. Several interests and parties had to be placated and Sheldon and his brethren were only one group among many. Hyde, ennobled as earl of Clarendon, ensured that responsibilities and honours were spread widely. In mid-June Sheldon, John Earle, and Morley were entrusted with deciding on some of the many petitions for presentations to crown benefices. Sheldon became dean of the Chapel Royal and when he was called upon to preach before the king at Whitehall on 28 June 1660, a day set aside for thanksgiving for the return of the monarchy, he trod carefully so as not to alienate presbyterian and puritan feeling. In his sermon, published as Davids Deliverance and Thanksgiving (1660), he acknowledged ‘the Registers of his Providence’, and lamented the debauchery, the impiety, the ingratitude which reigned still among the impudent English—a safely uncontentious blanket charge (p. 13). In August 1660 Bishop Brian Duppa wrote to Sheldon: ‘you are the only person about his majesty that I have confidence in and I persuade myself that as none hath his ear more, so none is likely to prevail on his heart more, and there was never more need of it’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 40, fol. 17). Others like William Nicholson wrote in equally flattering style of Sheldon's proximity to power. But there is a question mark over Sheldon's real influence on the king or political decision making. He certainly reaped the rewards of his loyal service: on 21 September 1660 he was nominated to the bishopric of London in succession to William Juxon. On 9 October he was elected; this was confirmed on 23 October and on 28 October he was consecrated alongside Morley, Humphrey Henchman, George Griffith, and Sanderson in Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey by Bishops Duppa, Accepted Frewen, Wren, Warner, and Henry King. John Sudbury's sermon was an unabashed paean to episcopacy. The service was followed by a feast at Haberdashers' Hall. There were, however, several individuals among the first round of appointments to the episcopate who would never have been nominated by Sheldon. Indeed he actually disapproved of some of the candidates, such as John Gauden.

Sheldon's influence at court is difficult to gauge. He quickly acquired the reputation of an éminence grise. He had been appointed master of the Savoy, where the 1661 Savoy Conference of 1661 between presbyterians and episcopalians was held, and although he rarely attended sessions it was widely believed that he knew more of the king's mind than any other. Whatever his personal sway Sheldon appreciated the need for political organization. In April 1661 he was a moving force behind the election of clerical representatives to convocation in an attempt to outflank the presbyterian party. When two presbyterians, Richard Baxter and Edmund Calamy, were elected by the London clergy Bishop Sheldon found a loophole which allowed him to ‘excuse’ them from service. After the failure of the Savoy conference, convocation devoted itself to revising the Book of Common Prayer so that it could be attached to an act of uniformity which was under consideration in parliament.

The Cavalier Parliament, which met in 1661, was of paramount importance to the future of the Church of England, and Sheldon proved to be a consummate parliamentary politician. He had to be, for two reasons. The first was that Charles and Clarendon contemplated a far more conciliatory and permissive religious settlement than suited Sheldon's view of the Church of England. Parliament, therefore, would have to be used as a lever on royal policy. The second reason was that contrary to widespread assumptions this assembly was not overwhelmingly Anglican, nor full of reactionary gentry determined to stamp out puritanism and drive every subject into the national church. It needed leadership and management if it was to protect the Church of England. Although sparsely documented Sheldon's role is apparent after November 1661 when the bishops had returned to the House of Lords and Sheldon kept up a steady pressure on his brethren to attend in person, to vote in the interests of the king and the church, and to send him their proxies. Sheldon's relations with the small group of MPs who were his allies in the Commons were less formal. Men such as Sir Job Charleton, Sir John Bramston, Sir Heneage Finch, Sir Thomas Fanshaw, Sir John Berkenhead, Sir Thomas Meres, Sir Henry Yelverton, and John Vaughan were committed to the Church of England and naturally deferred to its primate. These MPs were the workhorses behind the religious and ecclesiastical legislation of the period. They gave the lead which their back-bench colleagues would follow. And they took their cue from Sheldon.

In politics Sheldon was adroit, pragmatic, and flexible, but he had his limits. For example, in February 1662 Sheldon and other bishops allowed themselves to be persuaded by Clarendon to wreck a Commons measure which would turf presbyterian incumbents out of their livings. Why would Sheldon assist Clarendon to keep presbyterians within the church? He probably preferred another strategy to oust them. The failed measure was transferred to the Uniformity Bill which his allies in the Commons had produced. On 19 May 1662 Charles II gave his assent to the Act of Uniformity which brought together the revised prayer book, the clauses requiring presbyterian incumbents to accept episcopal ordination or leave their livings, and the other stipulations of total liturgical conformity and obedience to episcopal authority. But Sheldon's work was not at an end. There were real threats to the act. Nervous of its consequences Clarendon proposed its postponement or moderation. Sheldon took a stand and told the privy council that to suspend a law ‘would not only render the parliament cheap, and have influence upon all other laws, but in truth let in a visible confusion upon Church and State’ (Seaward, Cavalier Parliament, 180). He wrote angrily to Clarendon complaining of this ‘great unkindness’ in exposing him to the hatred of parliament or of ‘that malicious party in whose jaws I must live’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Clarendon 77, fol. 319), and he took care that his views were known: Sir John Berkenhead's Mercurius Publicus published an account with the same phraseology as Sheldon's letter; and Yelverton wrote to friends of how ‘the prudence and wisdom of my Lord of London’ had foiled the presbyterians (Bodl. Oxf., MS Eng. lett. C 210, fol. 78).

Archbishop of Canterbury

Sheldon's elevation to the archbishopric of Canterbury on the death of Juxon was a foregone conclusion. He had already been effectively deputizing for the frail and elderly archbishop, performing his role at Charles II's coronation, and receiving a commission in November 1661 to consecrate the new Scottish bishops. On 6 June 1663 the congé d'élire was issued for Sheldon's election as archbishop, the dean and chapter duly elected him on 11 August, and he was installed on 31 August.

Sheldon's government of the Church of England was concerned with uniformity, reform, and above all defence. He would contemplate no relaxation of uniformity to aid dissenters: as he told Ormond in 1663,
Tis only a resolute execution of the law that might cure this disease—all other remedies have and will increase it—and 'tis necessary that they who will not be governed as men by reason and persuasion, should be governed as beasts by power of force; all other courses will be ineffectual, ever hath been so, ever will be. (Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 45, fol. 151)
He recognized that nonconformity drew strength from the partial conformity of some supposedly Anglican ministers, men like Mr Hart of Peterborough diocese who would not read the prayer book, wear the surplice, or respect the holy days, and who is ‘rich & stubborne, & therefore the fitter to be made an Example’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Add. 308, fol. 76). If uniformity was to succeed it would require reform and greater discipline within the church. Reform was a priority. As he told William Sancroft in 1662 when arranging to bring him south from Durham,
the moulding of new statutes for Cathedralls and some Colledges (when we have leasure for it) is like to be part of your burden when you come among us; my declining age stands in need of such assistants, and when I shall be able to put those that are best able to serve the church in the readyest way to do it I shall sing a Nunc Dimittis. (BL, Harley MS 3784, fol. 77)
Plans were indeed drafted. Clerical incomes, pluralism, and standards, all needed attention: Sheldon's Orders Concerning Ordinations (1665) wanted to exclude those who were ‘to the Scandall of the Church and the dissatisfaction of good men’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Add. C 308, fol. 30). The church courts were another bugbear. The archbishop warned Sir Giles Sweit, dean of the arches, in March 1668, ‘great clamours … are made against the ecclesiastical courts for delays of justice and other abuses’. He instructed Sweit to draw up reforms, ‘nor can you be ignorant what a shock the church is at this time likely to undergo upon that account, if you mend not your ways’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Add. C 308, fol. 114). Good in itself, reform was also a defence of the church.

Sheldon defended the church against its main enemies by any means. He asserted its legal rights: conferring in 1671 with Dean Thomas Turner of Canterbury on the privileges enjoyed by that cathedral so as to strengthen the hand of the dean of Gloucester in a jurisdictional struggle with the mayor and corporation. He tacked the nonconformist problem with hard facts and blatant propaganda. In 1663 he instigated a survey of the distribution of dissenters in his diocese; in 1665 he sent out a questionnaire to all the bishops asking ‘where and how and in what profession of life’ the ejected ministers lived, and how they behaved ‘in relation to the peace and quiet as well of the Church as of the State’. Simultaneously Lambeth Palace seems to have been behind a series of virulent and nakedly political tracts on the dangers of religious pluralism by clerical authors such as Thomas Tomkins, Samuel Parker, and George Stradling, many of them Sheldon's chaplains, which played on lay anxiety. The purpose of both the fact gathering and the pamphleteering was to smooth the way for the anti-dissenter legislation such as the Conventicle and Five Mile Acts which Sheldon's allies were promoting in the Commons.

Sheldon bound the fortunes of the church to parliament. In 1664 he surrendered the clergy's right to tax themselves in convocation in return for their right to vote in parliamentary elections. Convocation ceased to conduct business and atrophied. But the 1660s saw a steady stream of statutes designed to buttress the church and suppress its protestant rivals. Legislation needs, however, to be enforced. This was the weakest point in Sheldon's position. Neither the government not the local JPs were to be relied upon. In August 1669, for instance, Sheldon complained of the neglect of those who should assist the church by enforcing religious uniformity ‘so that unless the Parliament when they meet will give us better remedies, we must (I think) yield up the cudgels’ (BL, Harley MS 7377, fol. 4v). Yet such were the vacillations of royal policy that by May 1670 Sheldon found himself writing to every bishop with news of the new Conventicle Act. He urged them to ensure that it was widely publicized, especially in peculiar jurisdictions, to admonish their clergy to persuade nonconformists and to maintain exemplary lives and strict conformity to the prayer book. The Commons, Sheldon believed, were at the mercy of courtiers' machinations, ‘for all the disorders have arisen from the King's family and servants’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 45, fol. 212).

The personnel and mores of Charles II's court were antipathetic to Sheldon. Even worse the reputation of the archbishop and the church suffered by association with the court. Already unpopular in many quarters for their pretensions and their persecution of protestant dissenters the bishops were subject to scurrilous rumours. Pepys heard that Sheldon ‘doth keep a wench’ and Andrew Marvell's Last Instructions to a Painter alleged that he had several mistresses. At Easter 1668 a mob vented its grievances about the sexual licence of the court and religious persecution by attacking London's brothels: the supposed sexual peccadilloes of the archbishop figured prominently in the accompanying satires and rhetoric. In fact Sheldon was probably already out of royal favour as a consequence of Clarendon's fall from power in 1667. The earl of Lauderdale told Gilbert Burnet that when the king summoned Sheldon to tell him of Clarendon's dismissal the archbishop made no reply and, when pressed by the king, said ‘Sir, I wish you would put away this woman that you keep’ (Burnet's History, 1.453). The inference that Sheldon blamed Lady Castlemaine for Clarendon's fall is not borne out by Sheldon's private correspondence. Sheldon believed that the lord chancellor had long courted his own ruin ‘since he that despiseth counsell must perish’. When the storm broke over Clarendon, Sheldon told the duke of Ormond plainly that ‘God knows for these divers yeares I have had litle reason to be fond of him … I am sure we owe the confusion we are in to his ill management of our affayres, and of himself’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 45, fols. 222, 232). In the coffee houses Sheldon was praised as ‘a mighty stout man, and a man of a brave high spirit and cares not for this disfavour he is under at Court’ (Pepys, Diary, 8.593). But it is likely that he felt the loss of influence keenly. He told one suitor for preferment in July 1670 that his ‘advice is seldom asked of late in any promotions’ (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 44, fol. 215).

The 1672 declaration of indulgence was the nadir of Sheldon's archiepiscopate and church. Even after Charles's climb-down in 1673 confusion reigned about royal policy and the legal position of conventicles; but Sheldon resolutely told his diocesans that ‘His Majestie's sence is no otherwise knowne than by his publique laws, and by them, therefore, wee are only to be guided in our dutyes’ (BL, Harley MS 7377, fol. 55v). The elderly archbishop was increasingly sidelined. In 1674–5 the earl of Danby attempted to revive the ‘Cavalier and Church’ party and the bishops held meetings at Lambeth, but Sheldon did not figure in them and Bishop Morley seems to have provided the leadership. Meanwhile younger men, many of them promoted by Sheldon, such as Sancroft, John Dolben (who was married to Sheldon's niece), and Henry Compton, were coming to the fore. It was Compton, for example, who organized the most comprehensive national survey yet of religious affiliation in 1676. In December 1676 Sheldon was ageing and ailing, complaining of cataracts in both eyes.


At the Restoration Sheldon's connections were renewed with Oxford. He was reinstated as warden of All Souls on the death of the interloper, but was never installed in office. Sheldon was involved from an early stage in the plans to build a university theatre—Christopher Wren displayed a model to the Royal Society in 1663—to complete Laud's scheme of relocating all the university's secular ceremonies away from the sacred space of St Mary's, the university church. Sheldon's initial gift of £1000 in 1664 was acknowledged by the university as worthy of ‘that victim of piety, your noble predecessor’ Laud (Hist. U. Oxf. 4: 17th-cent. Oxf., 161), but it did not stimulate other benefactions and by September 1665 Sheldon undertook to fund the whole project. By the time the theatre had been built and equipped Sheldon had spent £12,239 and invested another £2000 to provide a maintenance fund. When Clarendon resigned as chancellor of the university, Dean John Fell of Christ Church secured the election of Sheldon as his successor. But Sheldon was unwilling to take up the position in the light of his other duties and perhaps of his lack of royal favour. He reigned in name only until he could resign in July 1669 in favour of the staunch Anglican James Butler, duke of Ormond.

The Sheldonian was the most public of Sheldon's many charitable benefactions. Sheldon's secretary, Miles Smyth, believed that he had spent £38,000 on good and charitable causes in the 1660s alone. This included the purchase of a City residence for the bishop of London, repairs to the palaces at Croydon, Fulham, and Lambeth (where he built ‘the fayre librarie’), contributions to the rebuilding of St Paul's, sums to Trinity College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge, payments to the redemption of captives out of Algiers, payments to the king, and abatements of fines to tenants and purchasers of archiepiscopal lands.

Theology, piety, and churchmanship

In his will Sheldon described himself as ‘holding fast the true orthodox profession of the catholique faith of Christ … being a true member of His catholique church within the communion of a living part thereof, the present church of England’ (DNB). An awareness of the catholicity of the church was an important aspect of Sheldon's outlook. It informed his views of the Roman Catholic church. As a young man Sheldon had been one of the first to break with the orthodoxy that the pope was the Antichrist. According to Burnet, Sheldon told the duke of York that it was not the doctrine of the Church of England that Roman Catholics were idolators. Another anecdote has it that when Anne Hyde, duchess of York, converted to Rome, Sheldon told her that he regretted the Church of England's abandonment of confession and prayer for the dead. Such attitudes may stem from his association with Laud in the 1630s and after the Restoration he was a defender of the Laudian heritage and mythology: he arranged for the publication of Laud's prayers as A Summarie of Devotions (Oxford, 1667); and after rescuing Laud's papers from the clutches of William Prynne he asked William Sancroft to prepare Laud's diary and the history of his trial for the press. However, Sheldon's only publication, the sermon of 28 June 1660, was utterly conventional in its denunciation of the nation's crying sins and its uncompromising assertion that ‘gratitude [for divine mercies] is not the business of a day or a year, but of our whole life’ (p. 49). Manuscript notes of sermons probably preached in the 1620s are also unexceptional in their appeal to reason and faith, and their assertion of the fundamentally miraculous events such as the resurrection at the heart of Christian faith. In terms of the great early seventeenth-century theological wars, Sheldon was no doubt an Arminian. But speculative theology was no longer the explosive issue it had once been. When Sheldon recommended Arminians like William Creed and Richard Allestree to the regius chair of divinity at Oxford he was doing as much to promote royalists and ‘sufferers’ as he was to balance the theological influence of Calvinist figures like Thomas Barlow, the Lady Margaret professor.

A liturgical and devotional conservative, a catholic with less hatred of popery than most, and an Arminian, Sheldon can still appear a tepid kind of Christian. His enemies and some of his friends were less than complimentary about his piety. Gilbert Burnet described Sheldon as seeming ‘not to have a deep sense of religion, if any at all’ and talking of religion ‘most commonly as of an engine of government and a matter of policy’. Even his one-time chaplain, Samuel Parker, remarked that ‘though he was very assiduous at prayers, yet he did not set so great a value on them as others did, nor regard so much worship as the use of worship, placing the chief point of religion in the practice of a good life’ (DNB).

What seemed to ignite Sheldon's zeal was the safety of the church. He is said to have told the Cambridge Platonist Henry More that he was well disposed towards the new philosophy provided ‘that the faith, the peace, and the institutions of the Church were not thereby menaced’ (Hist. U. Oxf. 4: 17th-cent. Oxf., 423). Sheldon's was an authoritarian mentality and he put a premium on the discipline of the church. He preferred team players and could be harsh in his judgements on those like Barlow or Bishop John Wilkins who failed to abide by what he took to be the rules of the game. Even those whom posterity has sanctified were not beyond Sheldon's reproach. On news of Jeremy Taylor's death Sheldon was brutally frank:
I am glad he left no more trouble behind him, he was of a dangerous temper apt to break out into extravagancies, and I have had, till of late years, much to do with him to keep him in order, and to find diversions for him—now those fears are at an end. (Bodl. Oxf., MS Carte 45, fol. 222)
Sheldon died at Lambeth Palace on 9 November 1677 and was privately buried on the south side of Croydon church near the tomb of Archbishop Whitgift ‘according to his own special direction’ on 16 November. His nephew and executor Sir Joseph Sheldon erected a monument to his memory in Croydon church. The white marble effigy of the archbishop with mitre and crozier was the work of Jasper Latham and bore a Latin inscription by Bishop John Dolben. Sheldon left £1500 in charitable legacies to All Souls, Canterbury Cathedral, the hospital of Herbaldown, Kent, and to indigent persons. The rest of his personal estate went to the five children of his older brother Ralph.

Sheldon played an important role in maintaining the identity and morale of the Church of England during the 1640s and 1650s. He took a central part in the manoeuvres which led to the restoration of the church with almost all of its rights and powers in 1662, and bears much of the responsibility for the penal laws of the 1660s. However, none of his efforts towards religious uniformity, ecclesiastical reform, or the defence of the church were marked with conspicuous success. The Church of England's pretensions to be the exclusive national church were never sustainable after the 1640s. Much of the undoubted support that the restored church enjoyed among the population was thanks to a younger generation of preachers and devotional writers or to the theologians among Sheldon's contemporaries. Nevertheless it was Sheldon's presence at the helm of the Church of England that ensured that it survived in its essentially sixteenth-century form into the later seventeenth century and beyond.

John Spurr


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BL, Add. MS 4162; Harley MSS 3784, 3785, 6942, 7377 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers, MSS Add. C 303, 305, 308 · Bodl. Oxf., letter-book and calendar · Bodl. Oxf., MS Eng. Bible 1648 d 3; Clarendon C 70 · LPL, corresp. · LPL, corresp. relating to Plague and Great Fire, also All Souls College Oxford


studio of P. Lely, oils, c.1655, NPG; versions, Bodl. Oxf., LPL · P. Lely, oils, c.1665–1669, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford [see illus.] · S. Cooper, watercolour miniature, 1667, Workers Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland · D. Loggan, line engraving, BM · Vertue, engraving · oils, All Souls Oxf. · portrait, Bothwell Castle, South Lanarkshire