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Sancroft, Williamlocked

  • R. A. P. J. Beddard

William Sancroft (1617–1693)

attrib. Bernard (I) Lens, c. 1650–55

by permission of the Master, Fellows, and Scholars of Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge

Sancroft, William (1617–1693), archbishop of Canterbury and nonjuror, was born at Fressingfield, Suffolk, on 30 January 1617, the second son of Francis Sandcroft (d. 1649) of Fressingfield and his first wife, Margaret, daughter and coheir of Thomas Butcher (or Boucher) of nearby Wilby. He belonged to a loving and closely knit family of yeoman farmers, long settled at Fressingfield and Stadbroke, to the south-east of Diss. Though their pedigree was traceable to Angevin times, and they commanded a comfortable standard of living, they were not armigerous. Besides an elder brother, Thomas, Sancroft had six sisters. He remained on cordial terms with them for the rest of his life. He continued to spell his surname indifferently, Sandcroft or Sancroft, well into middle age. He was educated at the grammar school of Bury St Edmunds, a thriving establishment which catered for the sons of local landowners, and left school a proficient classicist, as the Latin and Greek juvenilia offered to his father and uncle testify. He proceeded to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, an Elizabethan foundation then at the height of its academic fame as a puritan seminary under his uncle, Dr William Sandcroft, master from 1628 to 1637. The second son of a religious family, it is probable that he was destined for the ministry, though he entered Emmanuel for reasons of family connection rather than confessional orientation.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Sancroft was admitted to the college, with his brother, on 10 September 1633, and matriculated on 3 July 1634. His tutor was Ezekiel Wright, to whom he became devoted. He studied hard and showed an aptitude for languages and literature, classical and modern. He took a particular delight in poetry, philosophy, history, and geography, thus laying the foundation of a lifetime's pursuit of multifarious knowledge. He graduated BA in 1637 and MA in 1641. Thereafter he concentrated on divinity in preparation for his ministerial calling. 'I am perswaded', he wrote in September 1641, 'that for this end I was sent into the world; and therefore, if God lends me life and abilities, I shall be willing to spend myselfe, and be spent, upon this worke' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 66, fol. 180). Elected a fellow in 1642, he was made a tutor and assigned pupils by the master, Dr Richard Holdsworth, chaplain-in-ordinary to Charles I and vice-chancellor of Cambridge. He held a variety of college offices, including those of Greek and Hebrew praelector and bursar, and was drawn into the wider arena of university life.

Barely had Sancroft embarked on an academic career and taken holy orders than the ‘great rebellion’ broke out. He deprecated the descent into uncivil war, and criticized the 'arbitrariness' of the rebel Long Parliament. The progressive remodelling of the university under parliamentarian and sectarian auspices made collegiate life difficult for him. While remaining entirely passive in the face of armed conflict, his allegiances were never in doubt. A Church of England loyalist who reverenced the established laws, he held to the conjoint rule of king and bishop, and adhered to the Book of Common Prayer. Ineluctably he found himself isolated in a college and university shorn of its Anglican royalist governors. Having avoided taking the covenant in 1643, he lamented the fate of the leading royalist clergy, believing that they had 'sufferd ever since buffe and steele hath swaggerd abroad in the world with soe much authority'. For him, the power of the sword could not abrogate the dictates of conscience, which were, he confessed, 'God's voyce in my soule', and absolutely binding on him (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 62, fol. 641v; 61, fol. 161).

A non-combatant, Sancroft sat still and attended the verdict of providence. His survival in the fellowship was attributable to timely absences from Cambridge (excused on the grounds of ill health), natural caution, scrupulous passivity, and, more importantly, to the intercession of friends on both sides of the conflict. The ejected royalist master, Holdsworth, to whom he remained attached, prevailed on his intruded presbyterian successor, Anthony Tuckney, to protect Sancroft, which he did through his interest in Adoniram Byfield, erstwhile scribe to the Westminster assembly. Meanwhile Sancroft disdained the Directory for the Publique Worship of God, and applied himself to theological studies, drawing on the best available scholarship, biblical and patristic. He graduated BD in 1648.

Regicide, ejection, and retirement

Parliamentarian negligence preserved Sancroft's fellowship beyond Charles I's execution, though not for long. To him regicide, the ultimate 'black act' of rebellion, meant more than 'the martyrdome of the best Protestant in these kingdomes'; it betokened the killing of the Lord's anointed (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 57, fol. 525). The event, which occurred on Sancroft's thirty-second birthday, hastened the death of his distressed father. Having automatically transferred his allegiance to Charles II, Sancroft was expelled from his fellowship in July 1651 for refusing the engagement to the newly proclaimed Commonwealth.

The rest of the 1650s Sancroft spent in retirement, partly in Fressingfield and partly with friends in London and elsewhere. A confirmed valetudinarian who enjoyed adequate financial means, he made no attempt to exercise his ministry publicly, and repeatedly refused offers of private chaplaincies. His correspondence reveals him to have been at the centre of a growing circle of like-minded partisans, mostly deprived royalist clergymen and their lay patrons. His intimacy with the ejected bishop of Exeter, Ralph Brownrigg, introduced him to James Ussher, the learned archbishop of Armagh. He formed valuable friendships with some of the luminaries of episcopalian resistance: Henry Hammond, Herbert Thorndike, Timothy Thurscross, Peter Gunning, and George Wilde. Among his dearest friends were two former pupils, John and Robert Gayer, the well-to-do sons of a lord mayor of London. He often stayed with them in Lincoln's Inn Fields and at Stoke Poges, in Buckinghamshire. They shared his loyalties, welcomed his company, and indulged his love of books.

Sancroft's studies gathered apace in the years of his enforced leisure but, though forward to aid the labours of others, he shrank from publication. His aversion sprang less from prudential motives than from personal modesty. It is noteworthy that his acknowledged publications after 1660 were printed either at the command of his superiors, or were official pronouncements made by him as primate. The titles traditionally ascribed to him in the 1650s cannot stand. The authorship of the anti-Calvinist dialogue Fur praedestinatus was not his. It first appeared in 1619 in Dutch as Den gheprestineerden dief, a work now assigned to Henricus Slatius. Albeit Sancroft was an accomplished Latinist and a gifted translator, the grounds for his having published the Latin translation at London in 1651 are infirm. The attribution of the similarly anonymous diatribe, Modern Policies, Taken from Machiavel, Borgia, and other Choise Authors by an Eye-Witnesse (1652) is also doubtful, resting on little more than a likely dedication to Bishop Brownrigg. Sancroft's own copies of both treatises betray no signs of his involvement in either work. The crediting him with the Latin preface fronting John Boys's Veteris interpretis cum Beza aliisque recentioribus collatio, in quatuor evangeliis et actis (1655) depends on an unidentified and unsupported manuscript note in H. J. Todd's copy, which his nineteenth-century biographer, George D'Oyly, examined.


Late in 1657 Sancroft made an extended visit to the United Provinces, then a subsidiary centre of fugitive royalism closely connected with the court of the exiled Charles II at Cologne. In all probability his reputation had preceded him for, before quitting England, he was in correspondence with John Cosin, chaplain to the protestants in Queen Henrietta Maria's household in Paris. Cosin, a grateful recipient of Sancroft's pecuniary charity, rejoiced to know 'how firm and unmoved' he continued 'in the midst of these great and violent storms … raised against the Church of England' (BL, Harleian MS 3783, fol. 102). On arriving in the Netherlands Sancroft befriended the ejected Anglican clergy residing in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague—most notably Bishop Bramhall of Derry, Thomas Browne, George Morley, and Michael Honeywood. He preached before the king's sister, Mary, princess of Orange, and there were moves to make him her chaplain.

In the autumn of 1658 Sancroft was joined by his younger friend, Robert Gayer, who had recently arranged an annuity of £60 for him. Moved by the plight of the more poverty-stricken royalist clergy, they gave money to John Earles at Brussels and Robert Creighton at Utrecht, as well as renewed subsidies to Cosin in Paris: all these men were to become Church of England bishops. After a stay of two years Sancroft left the Netherlands in August 1659 and, accompanied by Gayer, journeyed up the Rhine to Basel and passed into Italy from Geneva. In addition to the obligatory sightseeing in Venice, Padua, and Rome, Sancroft took every opportunity to converse with foreign scholars and to collect books for his library. Among his purchases were a number of art and architecture publications, indicating a burgeoning aesthetic dimension to his personality. News of Charles II's restoration summoned him home.

Restoration preferment

Sancroft returned too late in 1660 to obtain suitable preferment for one who was esteemed 'a good scholar, a good preacher, and a pious man' (BL, Harleian MS 3784, fol. 202). Aware of his worth, Bramhall, now archbishop-nominate of Armagh, offered him the place of chaplain to the marquess of Ormond, lord steward of the king's household, and, with it, the prospect of promotion in Ireland. He opted instead to serve as domestic chaplain to Cosin, whom the king had named bishop of Durham, thereby enabling the bishop to repay the charity of his former benefactor. On 2 December he preached at Cosin's consecration, with six other bishops, in Westminster Abbey. His sermon on Titus 1: 5, printed at his patron's command, was admired as an authoritative exposition of the divine origin and apostolic character of the episcopal order which lay at the heart of the re-establishment of the Church of England in that year. He took no part in the Savoy Conference called to reconcile the presbyterians to episcopacy but, by Cosin's means, was employed in expediting the revision of the Book of Common Prayer made by convocation. Besides rectifying the calendar and rubrics, which governed the use of the liturgy, he saw the entire book through the press, a laborious task which earned him the gratitude of king and bishops.

Cosin gave Sancroft the valuable rectory of Houghton-le-Spring, outside Durham, on 7 December 1661. Detained by his superiors in London, it was not until 13 August 1662 that he was inducted. On 4 March he was collated prebendary of the ninth stall in Durham Cathedral, and installed by proxy on 11 March. On entering the ranks of the dignified clergy he obtained a grant of arms to his brother and himself on 26 January 1663. In only one respect did he resist Cosin's overflowing bounty. As a celibate resolved 'to live single', he courteously, yet firmly, declined to wed the woman whom the bishop had marked out for him. Once in residence he began to repair his ruinous parsonage house and prebendal lodgings. He found temporary shelter in the deanery with Dr John Sudbury, his fellow countryman and collegian. Despite the brevity of his time at Durham, and his regular assistance at the worship of the cathedral, he used his leisure hours to investigate the antiquities of the county palatine. His manuscript collections were to prove helpful to subsequent local historians.

Master of Emmanuel College and dean of York

Sancroft's loyal record and obvious talent for business attracted the patronage of the most powerful figure in the Restoration episcopate, Gilbert Sheldon, dean of the Chapel Royal and bishop of London. Sheldon brought Sancroft into the royal household, obtaining for him appointment as chaplain-in-ordinary to Charles II in 1661; January was the month stipulated for Sancroft's attendance at court. The first fruits of Charles's favour came shortly afterwards when he received a DD from Cambridge per literas regias, dated 15 March 1662. Intent on making the most of his protégé's abilities, Sheldon took advantage of the removal of the nonconformist William Dillingham from the mastership of Emmanuel College on 24 August 1662 to place Sancroft at the head of the foundation which had spawned so many of the rebellious clergy in 'the late iniquitous times'. His procurement of the king's letter of 27 August, recommending the election of Sancroft, was part of a concerted cavalier Anglican strategy to bring the college into line with the rest of the church and university by putting an end to its infamous 'singularity'. He silenced Sancroft's misgivings over the stringency of the founder's statutes by stressing the importance of his duty to his alma mater, and promising to obtain from the king whatever dispensations were necessary to ease his lot and secure the conformity of the society. In obedience to Charles's recommendation the fellows unanimously elected Sheldon's candidate on 30 August.

At his return to Emmanuel, Sancroft faced considerable problems. Not only was his acquaintance 'wholly worn out', but the old 'singularities' persisted—an unconsecrated chapel, the form and furnishing of which were unlike any other in the university, meagre stipends, and Mildmay's harshly restrictive statutes. These defects were aggravated by a lack of qualified gremials with which to strengthen the fellowship, a drop in admissions, dwindling tutorial incomes, and the parlous state of the corporate revenues. In typical fashion the new master accepted the challenge.

In between discharging his ecclesiastical commitments Sancroft displayed determination and assiduity in the management of college affairs. He turned for advice and assistance to tried friends: to Sheldon, Dean Sudbury of Durham, his old tutor Ezekiel Wright, and his former travelling companion, Sir Robert Gayer, who had been knighted in the coronation honours. Using a bequest from his royalist predecessor, Richard Holdsworth, he set about converting the existing unsatisfactory chapel into a library (in the hope also of retrieving Holdsworth's books from the university), and commissioned the design of a new chapel, conformable to Anglican worship, from Sheldon's Oxford client, Christopher Wren. He sought, and received, funds from well disposed Emmanuelists. Gayer responded generously, giving £1000, which with Sancroft's donation of almost £600 got his building projects off to a promising start. In the quest for fellows of the right intellectual calibre and churchmanship from outside the college Sheldon proved as good as his word, obtaining the royal dispensations requisite for their election. Under Sancroft's short invigorating mastership, and that of his two successors, John Breton and Thomas Holbech, who constantly consulted him in realizing his aims, Emmanuel was transformed from a 'trouble church' puritan seminary into a pillar of Anglican respectability and a reliable prop of the protestant establishment.

Royal favour knew no bounds where Sancroft was concerned. On 8 January 1664 Charles nominated him dean of York. Elected on 23 January, he was installed by proxy on 26 February, and held the deanery barely nine months. During the time snatched from Cambridge duties he made a rental of the dean and chapter lands and brought the accounts of the minster into tolerable order. Having a good head for business, he appreciated how essential financial recovery was to rehabilitating cathedral life after so disruptive a break. He was beginning to settle into the northern metropolis and make friends there when the king, anxious to have his nearer attendance, summoned him permanently south to London. Sancroft lost heavily by the deanery, expending more than he received. As at Durham and Houghton-le-Spring, his major item of expenditure was on dilapidations.

Dean of St Paul's, London

On 8 November 1664 Charles nominated his chaplain dean of St Paul's, with the blessing of Archbishop Sheldon and Dr Humfrey Henchman, bishop of London. Elected on 10 November, Sancroft was installed in the prebend of Oxgate on 9 December and in the deanery the next day. He resigned his rectory, and the mastership of Emmanuel, a few months later, but kept his stall in Durham Cathedral. It was a measure of Charles's confidence in Sancroft's loyalty and devotion to duty that he put him in charge of the cathedral of his capital—the city where the rebellion had begun in 1642, and in which, for all Sheldon's exertions, nonconformity and disaffection were still rife. Sancroft succeeded his friend, Dr John Barwick, who had begun the arduous process of reviving cathedral worship with its distinctive liturgical and choral ethos. It was a form of worship in which Sancroft delighted to bear his part.

The new dean was somewhat overawed by receiving two deaneries in the space of one year, but grateful that his 'long and tedious journeys' were over. Sancroft's response to the king's prodigality was predictable: 'I will', he told his brother, 'study to deserve by the best service I can do'. The revenue of St Paul's was ampler than that of York, yet he feared it would be 'much harder to gain' the affection of the Londoners, 'there being such diversity of humours, and those so nice, too, amongst them' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 47, fol. 205). Again he applied himself to the shaky finances of his church. He produced an exhaustive review of its income, identifying arrears, and writing off those which were desperate, in an effort to establish a sound basis for future accounting. His husbanding of decanal revenues did not inhibit his charity. He augmented the small vicarage of Sandon in Hertfordshire and endowed the rectory of St Paul's, Shadwell, a new parish erected out of overpopulous Stepney by his promotion of an act of parliament in 1670.

A more intractable problem—one which the king was keen to address—was posed by the fabric of the cathedral. Despite Inigo Jones's classicization of St Paul's in the 1630s it was badly out of repair, having deteriorated in the interregnum. Recurrent bouts of illness and the great plague of 1665 kept Sancroft from giving his mind to the question of repairs until the summer of 1666. On 27 July he, Henchman, and a group of architects inspected the cathedral. The experts were divided on what to do. Sir Roger Pratt and John Webb were for 'patching up' the decrepit central tower, whereas Wren and John Evelyn favoured the raising of a 'noble cupola' of the kind as yet unknown in England. Sancroft, who in Venice had seen Palladio's domed churches and in Rome Michelangelo's St Peter's, sided with Wren, who was ordered to provide a design and estimates. Further progress was halted by the great fire of September 1666, which devastated the city and reduced Old St Paul's to a shell.

The conflagration was widely interpreted as a divine judgment on a licentious age. In a specially appointed fast sermon, preached before Charles on 10 October and published as Lex ignea, Sancroft turned the catastrophe into a call for national repentance. Rather than blame foreign enemies for the disaster, he bade his august audience to look to their 'own opposition, direct and diametrical to God and his holy law' (D'Oyly, 2.372). The complacent king altruistically commanded him to publish his sermon for the benefit of lesser mortals.

After attempting to renovate the west end of the cathedral, which exposed Jones's defective work, Sancroft concluded in April 1668 that reparation was impractical. Following a meeting on 1 July of the rebuilding commission, on which Sheldon and Henchman sat, he gave Wren the go-ahead 'to frame a design, handsome and noble', answerable to the needs of the church and 'the reputation of the city and the nation' (Bolton and Hendry, 13.49; Wren, 279). The commissioners rejected Wren's suggestion that they should set a budget. Sancroft, who endorsed Charles's desire for 'magnificence', believed that funds would be forthcoming. The clerical input to the design process was decisive. While Wren's predilection favoured a centrally planned Renaissance church in the manner of the ‘great model’ of 1673, Sancroft objected that it was unsuited to protestant worship and made building by stages impossible, thus preventing the early reintroduction of services. The outcome was an architectural compromise between the Vitruvian requirements of 'Use' and 'Beauty'. By taking advantage of Charles's licence to vary the agreed ‘warrant design’ of 1675 Wren was able to combine the traditional Latin cross plan demanded by the clergy with a baroque dome over the crossing and a classical elevation.

From 1668 onwards Sancroft directed his energies to realizing the projected cathedral. Money was a prime concern. He gave £1400 himself, over and above what was spared from capitular revenues, and raised large outside contributions. His involvement in the project was such that, in dispensing with Sancroft's statutory residence at Durham in 1670, Charles stated that the commission required his 'perpetual and close attendance' in London, nothing being done 'without his presence, no materials bought, nor accounts passed without him' (TNA: PRO, SP 44/35B, fol. 10; SP 29/280, nos. 92, 93). Nor was the cathedral the sole building to occupy him. He built a new deanery at a cost of £2500, and oversaw the design and erection of the houses of the three residentiary canons. He was also instrumental in soliciting the passage of the Coal Act, which funded the rebuilding of the burnt parish churches and cathedral through a tax levied on coal imported into London.

On a wider front Sancroft worked with Sheldon, Henchman, and successive lord mayors in drafting parliamentary legislation for the rebuilding and uniting of the city churches, and settling the maintenance of their incumbents. His shouldering the heavy administrative legacy of the great fire was all the more impressive in the light of his refusal of higher preferment. Though he held the archdeaconry of Canterbury from 1668 to 1670, again on the king's presentation, he twice refused bishoprics—Chester in 1668 and Chichester in 1669. His standing among the clergy was declared by his election in 1667 as prolocutor of the lower house of the convocation of Canterbury, a platform he used to canvass proposals for liturgical and ecclesiastical reform.

Primate of all England

Sheldon's death on 9 November 1677 allowed Charles to nominate Sancroft to the archbishopric of Canterbury on 30 December over the heads of the entire episcopate. The dean and chapter of Christchurch, Canterbury, elected him on 10 January 1678 and royal assent followed on the 14th and the restitution of the temporalities of the see on 23 January. He was consecrated in Lambeth House chapel on 27 January and took his seat in the House of Lords the next day and in the privy council on 6 February. His overtaking the rumoured front runners, Compton of London and Crewe of Durham, the clients respectively of Lord Treasurer Danby and James, duke of York, the king's brother, was much commented on, and came as a surprise to him. Dryden noted the determining factor in his appointment, his lack of personal ambition:

Zadock the Priest, whom, shunning Power and Place,His lowly mind advanc'd to David's Grace.

J. Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, lines 864–5Unencumbered by aristocratic connections, Sancroft was what he had always been—the king's man. His years of service in both provinces of the church under Cosin, Sheldon, and Henchman had equipped him with the necessary experience to be primate of all England, and Charles knew he could depend on him to rule the church on his behalf. His nomination to Canterbury announced the king's resolution to make the most of the Church of England's traditional role as a bastion of monarchy.

Throughout his primacy Sancroft, as the first servant of the crown, rewarded the claims of loyalty in others, an acknowledgement that the trust reposed in him was justified. Confident of the political benefits that flowed from Sheldon's reconciliation to the court under Danby's cavalier Anglican administration, he saw it as his duty to support the king's ministers, Danby in parliament, and Lauderdale in Scotland, both of whom were upholders of the protestant establishment in church and state. Notwithstanding gossip that he owed his elevation to Canterbury to Roman Catholic influence at court, he was well aware of the threat which the conversion of the heir presumptive posed to the protestant establishment. A dogmatic anti-Catholic by education and conviction, Sancroft believed that the Church of Rome taught 'doctrines destructive of salvation' (Singer, 2.71). With Charles's approval he therefore attempted to reclaim James, duke of York, for protestantism. On 21 February 1678 he and Bishop Morley of Winchester waited on the king's brother. Sancroft's speech, in which he reminded the duke of his martyred father's injunction never to forsake the established religion, proved unavailing. It served as a prelude to James's banishment. Fortunately, once in exile, James chose to construe their effort as a mark of their abiding regard for him, which, indeed, it was. As such it offered a basis for future co-operation.

From Popish Plot to tory reaction

Animated by the same anti-popery prejudice as the rest of his countrymen, Sancroft swallowed the existence of the bogus Popish Plot of late 1678, but responded to it cautiously. In a sermon before the House of Lords on 13 November he tried to allay the heats generated, even inside Westminster, by Oates's feigned 'discoveries', and counselled the peers to attend the king's commands. He was, in fact, no better prepared than was his master for the political turbulence which followed. Charles's dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament in January 1679 robbed him of what had been Sheldon's greatest support in times of political adversity. It also plunged the realm into the fever of three general elections within as many years. The result was the repeated election of an aggressive whig-dominated House of Commons, which between 1679 and 1681 strove to exclude James from the succession and to modify the Restoration church settlement in favour of the whigs' electoral allies, the protestant dissenters. The archbishop was fundamentally opposed in principle and interest to whig innovation. He distrusted the whigs' manipulation of popular hysteria, knowing of old what harm could come of it. As a veteran Anglican royalist, who had lived through the ordeals of the 1640s and 1650s, he was quick to see the parallels between the rise of the puritan and whig factions.

With the fall of Danby in 1679 Sancroft had perforce to seek new allies. These he found in the younger generation of the Hyde family—Henry, second earl of Clarendon, and Lawrence, earl of Rochester, the Anglican former brothers-in-law of the duke of York. Together they and their clients became the pivot of an increasingly influential ‘Yorkist’ reversionary interest, pledged, with Charles's active connivance, to maintaining James's succession as part of the lawful, legitimist, Anglican scheme of things. Crippling as his defection to Rome was to them, they insisted that it did not, and could not, negate the inheritance which was his by divine right.

In the struggle against whiggery Sancroft was unsparing in James's cause. He attested Charles's disavowal of his rival Monmouth's legitimacy; he promoted propaganda on his behalf; he advanced Yorkist stalwarts within the Anglican hierarchy; he prosecuted his enemies, the dissenters especially; and he encouraged the integration of Scottish episcopalians into James's Edinburgh administration after his recall from exile, and published to protestant England the reassuring news of the duke's exemplary patronage of its sister church north of the border. In parliament he was unwavering. He voted against the Exclusion Bill on 15 November 1680, along with thirteen other bishops, and, again with them, opposed a Comprehension Bill to reunite dissenters to the established church. In return both princes were warmly appreciative of the episcopate's stand. Charles, who had long since abandoned his independent pursuit of toleration, refused to countenance any statutory relaxation of the penal laws against dissent, while James from Edinburgh instructed Clarendon to assure Sancroft and the bishops that 'I have ever stuck to them, whatsoever my own opinion is [in religion], and shall continue to do so' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Clarendon 87, fol. 331). At the dissolution of the third Exclusion Parliament in 1681 the stage was set for the tory reaction.

Charles led the way with his declaration of 8 April, a ringing affirmation of the laws on which church and state, religion, and property rested. Sancroft moved in council that it should be read from the pulpit of every church, and arranged for it to be done throughout the provinces of Canterbury and York. The nationwide propaganda coup turned opinion invincibly against the whigs. A stickler for law and order, Sancroft launched a two-pronged assault on the adversaries of his church; the dissenters and the papists. Against the latter he insisted that the king had sanctioned a wholesome severity, that they might be either reduced to submission, or driven out of the kingdom. The competence of the ecclesiastical courts was reinforced by a parallel campaign in the secular courts, as Charles put an intolerant Anglican tory magistracy in charge of local government. The combined efforts of church and state unleashed the last great religious persecution seen in England, one which considerably boosted outward conformity.

Pastoral objectives

Sancroft's high concept of the sacred ministry made him call for improved standards in admissions to holy orders. In 1678 and 1685 he drew up instructions aimed at tightening ordination procedures and keeping better central records. This he complemented with a paramount care over the bestowal of preferment. His influence and that of his Hyde allies, exercised initially through the commission for ecclesiastical promotions (1681–4) and afterwards through their standing at court, ensured that the majority of clerical appointees were dedicated pastors and staunch loyalists committed to James's succession. The choice of bishops was particularly distinguished and provided Sancroft with some of his ablest colleagues. In 1680 he tackled the diminished 'patrimony of the church'. Recalling Charles's directives from the 1660s and an act of parliament of 1676, he urged the bishops and cathedral clergy to do more to augment the small livings in their patronage. Not content with exhortation, he set them an example by augmenting the ministerial stipends of those poor livings for which he was officially responsible in Kent, Lancashire, and Suffolk. He denounced simony, strove to minimize the evils stemming from pluralism, and endeavoured to free All Souls College, Oxford, and Dulwich College, of which he was visitor, of corrupt practices. He promoted monthly communions in cathedrals, and the reprinting of the proclamations and statutes ordered to be read annually in church. He lent his authority to the regulation of hospitals and the curtailing of clandestine marriages.

Sancroft's regard for the episcopal office was such that he chose to invite, rather than command, the co-operation of his bishops. However, when he detected shortcomings in episcopal administration he did not flinch from his duty to correct them. He was one of the last archbishops of Canterbury to exercise the superior authority of his see by conducting metropolitical visitations. He visited three dioceses in his province: in 1685 Lichfield and Coventry, where he had already suspended the unsatisfactory Thomas Wood for gross negligence in 1684; in 1686 Salisbury, where the ultra-tory dean, Thomas Pierce, was locked in controversy with his senile diocesan, Seth Ward; and, also in 1686, Lincoln, where the scholarly Thomas Barlow had succumbed to age. He did not visit in person, but deputed reliable bishops to act for him, while reserving to himself the meticulous supervision of each operation. Freed from the duty of parliamentary attendance, he began in the prosperous later years of the tory reaction to think anew of the cause of ecclesiastical reform and to make plans for implementing it.

Though political and primatial duties detained him in London, the government of the diocese of Canterbury rarely left Sancroft's thoughts. From Lambeth he ran his diocese by remote control, which he did by a combination of industry and resourcefulness. Visitations and confirmation tours he delegated to trusted suffragans, who functioned alongside his diocesan officials. In a bid to improve archiepiscopal oversight, and to circumvent his obstreperous archdeacon, Samuel Parker, he inserted his own chaplain, George Thorp, recruited from Emmanuel College, into the chapter of Christchurch, and, with his help, began the revival of ruridecanal discipline. He worked systematically through the detailed reports he received weekly at Lambeth, making pastorally informed judgments and issuing clear instructions to his agents on the ground. Always accessible to his clergy, he personally vetted all preferments in the diocese. He supported local charities, overhauled hospital statutes, checked clerical nonconformity, punished dissent, and befriended magistrates visiting the capital. That he coped so well was a real achievement for a man rising sixty, who might reasonably have found primatial administration a full-time occupation in itself.

James II

Cast down by the death of Charles II and his rejection of the protestant sacrament, Sancroft's spirits were raised by James's declaration of support for the legal establishment. On 7 February 1685 he congratulated his accession, and reiterated the Church of England's 'holy boast, that she hath been always loyal to her kings' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 32, fol. 214). Its loyalty would, he hoped, provide a basis for continuing co-operation. The retention in office of Clarendon and Rochester reassured him. Nevertheless James's accession meant that the church had a Catholic supreme governor, who no longer attended its services and went openly to mass. The change was underlined by a command to shorten the coronation rite and omit the communion, which Sancroft did. His alterations betrayed a lack of understanding of pre-Reformation liturgy. As was his right, the archbishop crowned the king and queen on St George's day.

Lambeth was soon inundated by complaints from the dioceses, as dispensations to individual papists and the royal pardon of 19 March began to blight the operation of the church courts against recusancy and dissent. The political break came in the November session of James's parliament, when there was outspoken opposition to the king's request to retain Roman Catholic officers commissioned to put down the rebellions of Monmouth and Argyll. In the Lords twenty bishops, including Sancroft, joined the opposition. James promptly prorogued parliament, which never again met. The uncertain honeymoon in church and state was over. An early casualty of the break was the archbishop's influence over episcopal appointments. In July 1686 his recommendations of Robert South for Oxford and James Jeffreys for Chester were ignored in favour of Samuel Parker and Thomas Cartwright, two maverick ultra-tories. The year also saw the dismissal of Clarendon and Rochester from office.

Condemned to the wilderness of royal disfavour Sancroft had to pick a precarious middle way as best he could between compliance and truculence. Burnet's malicious assertion that 'he lay silent at Lambeth', and was 'so set on the enriching his nephew, that he showed no sort of courage', is a travesty of the truth (Bishop Burnet's History, 4.109, and Swift's explosive footnote: ‘False as hell’). His declining to order the clergy to cease afternoon catechising; his refusal to sit on the ecclesiastical commission, which he judged illegal and an encroachment upon his primatial jurisdiction, and consequent banishment from court; his sympathetic reception of the aggrieved dons of Oxford and Cambridge; and his joining the governors of Charterhouse in refusing James's mandate to admit a papist—all indicate his opposition, not to James's person, but to James's Catholicizing policies.

Unwilling to abandon his Roman Catholic subjects, James pressed on towards his ultimate goal of liberty of conscience. By an exercise of the prerogative his declaration of indulgence of 4 April 1687 established religious toleration in the parishes. It completely undermined the official Anglican monopoly. His removal of Anglican tories from local government pushed them and their clerical dependants further into opposition. So severe was the impact on the church of the loss of royal patronage, so consuming its hatred of popery, and so fearful were its bishops of a court allied to dissent, that Sancroft inaugurated conversations with dissenters with a view to forming a united protestant front against Rome. The promulgation of James's second declaration of indulgence on 4 May 1688, attended by an order to read the declaration in church, provoked a crisis of unforeseen magnitude.

Caught unawares, Sancroft summoned his suffragans to Lambeth, consulted Clarendon and other noblemen, and authorized a poll of clerical opinion in London. Though these soundings revealed disagreement on what to do, he decided not to obey the order—not from 'any want of tenderness towards Dissenters', but from the apparent illegality of the declaration, it 'being founded on such a dispensing power as may at pleasure set aside all laws ecclesiastical and civil' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 28, fol. 35). He based his non-compliance on a resolution of the House of Commons in 1672. The petition, signed by him and six other bishops, was presented to James by Sancroft's co-signatories, he being still forbidden the court. The king saw it as raising 'a standard of rebellion'. On their declining to enter into recognizances the seven bishops were committed to the Tower, which triggered widespread demonstrations of sympathy in London and the country at large. They were subsequently charged with having made and published a seditious libel. Released on bail on 15 June, they were tried in the court of king's bench on 29 June. Their acquittal the next day occasioned universal rejoicing, a sign that the nation emphatically rejected James's Catholicizing policies. Emboldened by their legal victory Sancroft designed a medal to commemorate the occasion.

The revolution of 1688–1689

Freed from imprisonment, Sancroft instructed his bishops and clergy to collaborate with the gentry, to resist 'popish emissaries', meaning the vicars apostolic sent from Rome, and to cultivate their 'brethren', the dissenters. Significantly, he also insisted on dutifulness to the king. Anxious to revive Anglican tory fortunes at court, he pressed James on 3 October to reverse his domestic policies, which he soon began to do. On 22 October he attended an extraordinary meeting of the council to clear the legitimacy of the prince of Wales from partisan doubt. As news of William of Orange's invasion circulated, the archbishop denied having invited him over, but refrained from repudiating his manifesto on behalf of protestantism. On 17 November he urged the summoning of 'a free parliament' to settle the disordered state of the kingdom. The attempted Anglican tory counter-revolution, in which he played a prominent part, and which by December had brought about the opening of formal negotiations between the king and prince, was well under way when it was disrupted by James's flight from London and William's soaring ambition, backed by an unexpected whig resurgence.

Responding to a summons from Sancroft and Rochester, twenty-seven peers assembled at Guildhall on 11 December and, under the archbishop's chairmanship, formed a provisional government to secure the capital from mob violence. They issued orders halting hostilities against William, whom they asked to assist them in obtaining a parliament. They deliberately avoided inviting him either to London, or to assume the reins of government. Notwithstanding the assembly's success in reimposing order in the capital, the meeting revealed the presence of a party violently opposed to James's kingship. Sancroft, alarmed at this development, absented himself thereafter, and, on learning that the king was in Kent, declined to take further action. He demonstrated his loyalty by waiting on James when he returned to London on 16 December. William's expulsion of the king from Whitehall caused Sancroft to withdraw permanently from public affairs. On 18 December the University of Cambridge elected him chancellor, setting aside the king's letter nominating Lord Dartmouth. He refused the election outright.

During the interregnum—the second he had experienced in his lifetime—Sancroft discussed the emergency with his friends and minutely examined the pros and cons of dynastic revolution. He refused to attend the irregular Convention Parliament, even to vote in favour of the regency project. He spurned the proclamation of William and Mary, maintaining that 'while King James lived, no other persons could be sovereigns' of England (D'Oyly, 2.137). He looked on William as a second Cromwell. He ignored the summons to crown the usurpers, and refused to consecrate Gilbert Burnet a bishop, but issued on 15 March 1689 a commission virtually empowering his suffragans to proceed. Meantime he continued to administer the church.

Deprivation, ejection, and schism

Having solemnly sworn allegiance before God to King James, on whose head he had set the crown, Sancroft did not think himself free, in conscience, to transfer his loyalty to another. Refusing to recognize James's supplanters, he was suspended on 1 August, and deprived on 1 February 1690, with five bishops and about 400 clergy in England. Their deprivation, and replacement by Williamite bishops, gave rise to the nonjuring schism, which weakened still further a church that had already lost its legal monopoly of national religion by the passage of the 1689 Toleration Act [see also Nonjuring bishops]. Unjustly assailed in the press for intriguing with France, the country to which James had withdrawn, Sancroft published A Vindication of the Archbishop and Several other Bishops (1690). On 23 April 1691 John Tillotson was named his successor. Sancroft defied Mary's order of 20 May to vacate Lambeth within ten days, and, on removing to the Temple on 23 June, left his steward behind to contest the writ of intrusion. On 3 August he left London for Fressingfield, where he lived out the remainder of his days. Visitors apart, he kept himself private, and devoted long hours to his books and papers.

Remaining true to his passive principles, Sancroft refused to be drawn into political conspiracy, albeit an ardent Jacobite. Believing the Williamite church to be schismatic, he refused to communicate in its prayers and sacraments, and officiated as his own chaplain. He took great pains to continue the remnant of 'the true Church of England' loyal to James II and the house of Stuart. On 9 February 1691 he delegated his archiepiscopal powers to William Lloyd, the deprived bishop of Norwich, and gave his wholehearted support to the consecration of new bishops, whose names were dutifully submitted to the exiled king for approval. While preparing Laud's diary for publication—a task which had been imposed on him by Sheldon in the 1660s—he fell ill of a fever, and died at Fressingfield on 23 November 1693. On his deathbed he prayed 'with great zeal and affection' for the restoration of James II, his queen, and the prince of Wales (Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 25, fol. 108; A Letter Out of Suffolk, 36). To avoid recognizing the testamentary jurisdiction of his supplanter, Tillotson, Sancroft made no will; he asked to be interred outside the walls of Fressingfield parish church, the vicarage of which he had re-endowed. He was buried by a nonjuring parson on 27 November. The inscription on his tomb, composed by himself, expressed total resignation to the divine will.

Slightly built, self-effacing in manner, and, with age, increasingly deaf, Archbishop Sancroft was not an imposing figure. Yet, upon acquaintance, his quiet goodness, sterling sense of duty, and great learning impressed his contemporaries. While presiding over a large household and dispensing hospitality to all comers, he remained the gentle obliging character he naturally was. He was especially happy in the conversation of scholars. He was regular at prayer, attending chapel four times a day. He inspired devotion in many of his bishops and clergy, and admiration in not a few of the leading laity. He was esteemed by Charles II, and respected by James II. Standing in the tradition of Reformation ecclesiology, he rejected a party label, seeing himself as a Christian whose duty it was to honour the king and fear God. That his primacy coincided with the advent of party strife, in which the divine nature of hereditary monarchy was disputed, inevitably exposed him to whig detraction. From Burnet to Macaulay, Sancroft has been portrayed as a cold, timorous, ineffectual prelate, but the reality was much otherwise. It is probable that his role as an Anglican érudit, who collected, conserved, and transcribed historical documents, and assisted and rewarded scholars to the utmost of his ability, will ensure him lasting fame. The bulk of the archbishop's manuscript collection was purchased from his nephew, William Sancroft, his former steward, by the well-known antiquary, Dr Thomas Tanner, bishop of St Asaph, and by him bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. A number of stray items were subsequently donated by the nonjuring bishop Richard Rawlinson. Sancroft's prize possession, his library of 6000 volumes, he gave to Emmanuel College, not to Lambeth.


  • G. D'Oyly, The life of William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, 2 vols. (1821) [incl. his three printed sermons]
  • R. A. Beddard, ‘William Sancroft as archbishop of Canterbury, 1677–1691’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1965
  • Familiar letters of Dr. William Sancroft … to Mr. North … to which is prefixed some account of his life and character (1757)
  • A letter out of Suffolk to a friend in London (1694)
  • The proceedings and tryal … of … William lord archbishop of Canterbury … in the court of Kings-bench at Westminster, in Trinity-term … 1688 (1716)
  • H. Cary, ed., Memorials of the great civil war in England from 1646 to 1652, 2 vols. (1842)
  • E. Cardwell, ed., Documentary annals of the reformed Church of England, and other proceedings connected with the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, 2 vols. (1839)
  • E. Cardwell, ed., A history of conferences and other proceedings connected with the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, 2nd edn (1841)
  • R. Beddard, ed., A kingdom without a king: the journal of the provisional government in the revolution of 1688 (1988)
  • R. A. Beddard, ‘The unexpected whig revolution of 1688’, in R. A. Beddard, The revolutions of 1688 (1991), 11–101
  • F. Stubbings, Emmanuel College chapel, 1677–1977 (1977)
  • The correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, ed. S. W. Singer, 2 vols. (1828)
  • The life of James the Second, king of England, ed. J. S. Clarke, 2 vols. (1816)
  • J. Gutch, ed., Collectanea curiosa, 2 vols. (1781)
  • W. Kennett, The complete history of England, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1719), vol. 3
  • N. Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker: aspects of English church history, 1660–1768 (1959)
  • The copy of a letter from Scotland, to his grace the lord archbishop of Canterbury (1682)
  • A supplement to Burnet’s History of my own time, ed. H. C. Foxcroft (1902)
  • R. A. Beddard, ‘Observations of a London clergyman on the revolution of 1688–9’, Guildhall Miscellany, 2 (1960–68), 406–17
  • R. A. Beddard, ‘The commission for ecclesiastical promotions, 1681–4: an instrument of tory reaction’, HJ, 10 (1967), 11–40
  • A. T. Bolton and H. D. Hendry, eds., The Wren Society, 20 vols. (1924–43), vols. 1, 5, 13
  • S. Wren, Parentalia (1750)
  • C. J. Cuming, ed., The Durham book, being the first draft of the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1661, Alcuin Club (1975)
  • J. H. Overton, The nonjurors: their lives, principles, and writings (1902)
  • [W. Sancroft], A vindication of the archbishop and several other bishops (1690)
  • [W. Sancroft], Articles of visitation and enquiry … in the ordinary visitation of … William … lord archbishop of Canterbury (1682)
  • D. Wilkins, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, 4 (1737), vol. 4
  • W. Dugdale, The history of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, 2nd edn (1716)
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner
  • Sancroft papers, Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner
  • Sancroft registers, LPL
  • TNA: PRO, SP 29, SP 44
  • college archives, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, esp. COL 9.10, nos. 10, 16, 21; COL 14.1., pp. 71–6; CHA 1.1; CHA 1.2
  • dean and chapter archives, U. Durham L., Palace Green section [esp. diocesan registry books, 1, 4; dean and chapter institution book 1]
  • dean and chapter archives, York Minster archives
  • St Paul's dean and chapter archives, GL, esp. W.C. 45, fols. 68–75, 77; W. C. 50; W. B. 78, fols. 35–83v
  • Canterbury Cathedral Library, Reg. 29, fols. 363v, 404


  • BL, corresp. and collections, Harley MSS 3783–3798
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • CUL, corresp. and papers
  • St John Cam., papers on forms of prayers and services
  • BL, letters to William Dillingham, Sloane MS 1710
  • LPL, letters to William Lloyd, bishop of Norwich


  • attrib. B. (I) Lens, oils, 1650–1655, Emmanuel College, Cambridge [see illus.]
  • D. Loggan, line engraving, 1680, BM, NPG
  • G. Bower, silver medal, 1688, NPG
  • E. Lutterel, drawing, chalks, 1688, NPG
  • group portrait, oils, 1688 (The seven bishops committed to the Tower in 1688), NPG
  • P. P. Lens, oils, 1754 (after D. Loggan, 1680), Emmanuel College, Cambridge; version LPL
  • F. H. van Houg, line engraving (after effigy), NPG
  • R. White, line engraving, BM, NPG
  • tomb effigy, St Peter's and St Paul's Church, Fressingfield, Suffolk
Historical Journal
University of Durham Library, archives and special collections
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Lambeth Palace London
Guildhall Library, London
G. Burnett, ed. M. J. Routh, 2nd edn, 6 vols. (1833)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)