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Abbot, Robertlocked

  • Julian Lock

Robert Abbot (1559/6060–1618)

by unknown artist, 1615–18

collection Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery; Photograph: The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Abbot, Robert (1559/60–1618), bishop of Salisbury, was born at Guildford, Surrey, 'in a house now an ale-house bearing the sign of the three mariners, by the river side, near to the bridge, on the north side of the street, in St Nicholas's parish' (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 2.224). He was the third of six sons of Maurice Abbot (1519/20–1606), clothworker or shearman, and his wife, Alice, née Marsh or March (1525/6–1606); George Abbot (1562–1633) and Maurice Abbot (1565–1642) were his younger brothers. Like George and Maurice, Robert was schooled at Edward VI's foundation at Guildford. He matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, aged seventeen, in December 1577, although he apparently first went into residence the year before. A controversial opponent later sneered that he ('a meane tanner's sonne') 'was at his first coming to Oxford but a poor scholler, gladde to sweepe and dresse up chambers' and to 'play the drudge for a slender pittance' (W. Bishop, A Reproofe of M. Doct[o]r Abbots Defence, 1608, 124–5). Being dispensed from five terms' residence, he graduated BA in 1579. He became a fellow in 1581 and proceeded MA in 1583. He supplicated for a preaching licence from Oxford University in January 1587 and shortly thereafter acted as lecturer at St Martin's, Oxford, at Abingdon, Berkshire, and then in Worcester. A much cited comparison between the Abbot brothers was: 'George was the more plausible preacher, Robert the greater scholar; George the abler statesman, Robert the deeper divine; gravity did frown in George, and smile in Robert' (Fuller, Worthies, 2.360). It seems clear, however, that Robert was also well thought of among his contemporaries as a preacher. He had 'thronged auditories at Oxford, Abington, Worcester, Bingham' (Featley, 551) and himself regarded preaching as 'the very aire by which we take the breath of the spirit' (The Exaltation of the Kingdome and Priesthood of Christ, 1601, 22).

Daniel Featley gave as instance of his predicatory powers Abbot's first sermon at Worcester. Apparently already resident in the city, in January 1589 he was presented by the crown at the instance of Archbishop John Whitgift to All Saints' rectory; only at this point did he resign his Balliol fellowship. On 8 February 1589 he married Margaret Baker (d. 1596) at All Saints; they had a son, Thomas (1594–1621/2). Abbot also had a daughter, Martha (d. 1650/51)—who later married Sir Nathanael Brent—either with Margaret or, more probably, with his second wife (the first mentioned by biographers), Martha Dighton (d. 1617), daughter of the Worcester alderman Christopher Dighton. He married Martha on 30 August 1597. Abbot's career as published theologian had already begun. In Lent 1590 he was drawn into controversy by a Marian priest, Paul Spence, then 'prisoner in the castle of Worcester'; to supersede rumour, he was encouraged by Bishop Edmund Freake (c.1516–1591), 'for the citie of Worcester and others thereabout, for their satisfaction in this cause', to publish their debates, and these appeared (possibly improved) as The Mirrour of Popish Subtilties (1594). It was, however, dedicated not only to Freake's successor as bishop, Richard Fletcher, but also to Archbishop John Whitgift; not unexpectedly, it attracted a wider audience.

From a BTh (1594), in 1597 Abbot proceeded DTh at Oxford, being dispensed from attendance at lectures owing to other duties. Oxford proposed him that year to initiate the Gresham divinity lectures in London, but Anthony Wotton of Cambridge was preferred. For the doctorate Abbot maintained ostentatiously Calvinist articles derived, despite their lack of official sanction, from Archbishop Whitgift's Lambeth articles—directly from the first, and tangentially from the sixth and ninth: 'By the eternal predestination of God some are ordained to life and others to death. The salvation of the elect is most certain. The elect cannot in this life fulfil the law of God' (Reg. Oxf., 2/1. 119).

When Bishop Gervase Babington induced him to publish as The Exaltation of the Kingdome and Priesthood of Christ (1601) his Worcester Cathedral sermons of Christmas 1596, Abbot remembered Worcester as 'that citie wherein I have bestowed the greatest service in my life' (sig. A3r). However, when in 1598 John Stanhope, impressed by a Paul's Cross sermon, presented him to the rectory of Bingham, Nottinghamshire, Abbot was glad to move. He later thanked Stanhope for this gift 'onely for the worke's sake which I performed, being myselfe wholy strange and unknowne to you'. It served, he said:

to free mee of that incessant labour wherein I had beene imployed before … and to setle mee in a place, where I might freely dispose of myselfe … [and] in some part to bestow my time to the common benefit of the whole Church.

A Wedding Sermon Preached at Bentley in Darbyshire, 1608, sigs. A2v–A3r

Abbot's career was boosted in 1603 by the accession of James I. He was appointed a royal chaplain and a member of the York ecclesiastical commission, presumably as a prominent Nottinghamshire clergyman, although he is unlikely to have been active. He also published Antichristi demonstratio (repr. 1608), on a subject so dear to the king's heart that he condescended to include a dissertation of his own. It was a work firmly in the Elizabethan tradition associated with John Foxe, seeing the true church as consisting in allegedly heretical minorities rather than in an ‘apostolic succession’ corrupted by the papal Antichrist. The Demonstratio even tended to justify resistance to Roman Catholic monarchs, an idea less welcome to James.

A more monumental, and safer, work was Abbot's The Defence of the ‘Reformed Catholicke’ of M. William Perkins (1606) against the attacks of William Bishop and other Catholics. By implication, Abbot stepped into the shoes of the late great English Calvinist theologian. The first part of the work inevitably exploited the Gunpowder Plot, although Abbot confessed to having been sent Bishop's book by Archbishop Richard Bancroft 'in Januarie last a full yeere since' when he was 'under a surgean's hands for a grievous infirmitie in mine eies' (sig. A2r). In The Second Part of The Defence of the ‘Reformed Catholicke’ (1607), Abbot ascribed his whole undertaking to 'your majestie's appointment' and wished that James's 'sacred bloude' might escape shedding by 'them who account it a martyrdome to die … for murthering of Christian princes' (sigs. A2, A3v–A4r). A new branch of this controversy was his Antilogia adversus Apologiam Andreae Eudaemon-Joannis Jesuitae pro Henrico Garneto Jesuita proditore (1613), a vindication of the condemnation of Garnet in 1606. Catholics, now as then, have condemned its resort to cheap defamation; if Abbot impugned Garnet's chastity, however, he was retorting to Catholic attempts to resurrect the tired canard of Henry VIII's being Anne Boleyn's incestuous father, and Abbot's use of Gunpowder Plot papers has been acknowledged as more reliable than that of his controversial colleague Lancelot Andrewes.

In 1611, the year his brother became archbishop of Canterbury, Abbot dedicated The True Ancient Roman Catholicke, a follow-up against Bishop, to Prince Henry, the new hope for international Calvinist activism, but that was dashed by Henry's death the next year, as also was any prospect of the prince's 'helping hand upon the next voydance to lift him higher in the Church' (Featley, 545–6). However, in 1610 Abbot had gained the mastership of Balliol, a promotion he ascribed to Bancroft 'without my expectation or seeking' (The Old Waye, 1610, dedication). He was reportedly strict, never missing evening prayers and always alert for evaders, having long complained of popular preference 'in time of holy exercise to sit at cards by a warme fire then to sit with God in a colde church' (The Exaltation of the Kingdome and Priesthood of Christ, 1601, 40). Moreover, 'he every weeke viewed the buttery booke, and if he found lavish expence upon any man's name he would punish him severely for it' (Featley, 544). None the less, he fed the visiting scholar Isaac Casaubon sumptuously in 1613. His mastership showed some recovery in undergraduate numbers—there were at least sixty-five throughout, from a low point of forty-one in 1608, and as many as eighty-nine in 1616. But he and his brother George failed ultimately to secure for Balliol the legacy of Thomas Tisdale, which went to Pembroke College.

Abbot's theological status was underlined when in May 1610 he became a fellow of the new Chelsea College, unusually for one not concerned with the King James Bible. He also gained Normanton, a prebend of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, to go with Bingham. He was made preacher at Gray's Inn in early 1612, and later that year was induced, allegedly with difficulty, to accept the regius chair of divinity at Oxford. Besides his duties at the university church and Balliol, however, he still took 'greate paynes in often preaching soe voluntarely at Carfax', that is, his old post of St Martin's, for which the city council voted him a present of plate in 1615 (Salter, 246). He lost the bishopric of Lincoln to Richard Neile in 1614, however, when the promise of it for him failed to induce his brother George to fall in with the royal wish to have Frances Howard's first marriage annulled.

A simultaneous problem for both Abbot brothers was that perceived relaxation in the imminence of the Roman Catholic threat was encouraging impugners of Calvinistic doctrine within the Church of England, specifically at Oxford. Robert Abbot had taken the lead from 1612 in suspecting John Howson of Christ Church of the laxer approach to the problems of divine predestination and human free will associated with the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Howson complained of being 'censured shamefully without any article exhibited against mee' (Cranfield and Fincham, 328). Abbot reportedly argued, 'whatt will men thinke butt thatt there weare division in theire Churche', and Roman Catholics were indeed encouraged to hear of the dispute (Questier, 191). In a sermon of Lent 1615 William Laud of St John's criticized Abbot's doctrine; after Easter Laud 'was fain to sit patiently and hear myself abused almost an hour together, being pointed at as I sat' as Abbot demanded whether he were 'Romish or English? Papist or Protestant? … a mungrel or compound of both …' (Heylyn, 68). These attacks on what Abbot believed to be English Arminianism did not go well. Howson appeared before the king but was exculpated. Neile, Abbot's successful rival for Lincoln, supported Laud, reporting that Archbishop Abbot 'him selfe acknowledged his brothers error in it, and Dr Abotts him selfe asked pardon for it' (Cranfield and Fincham, 323). The failures against Howson and Laud decisively 'strengthened the confidence of the anti-Calvinists' (Holland, 261–2). Robert Abbot persevered with an anti-Arminian treatise, De gratia et perseverantia sanctorum, but died before publication. So topical and eagerly awaited was the work that 'the printer John Bill was prepared to send partially incomplete copies to the United Provinces within a week of the author's death', and Abbot's brother hastily sent complete ones to the ambassador there (ibid., 233).

There is no obvious basis for Heylyn's allegation that Abbot attacked Laud as a diversion from his own Calvinistic deficiencies, having 'incurred the high displeasure of the supralapsarians' (Heylyn, 66), although his rejection of Theodore Beza's view of predestination as preceding creation was later misrepresented by Laud's ally Francis White as an attack on Calvin himself. Nor was it so much that Abbot was a 'manifest' 'sublapsarian' (Tyacke, Anglican attitudes, 151), as that he used an expedient metaphysical bypass:

These counsels and purposes we understand to be without difference of time with Him who at one sight beholdeth all things from beginning to end … it is absurd to thinke that God would decree what to doe with man before He had decreed to create man.

Third Part of the Defence of the ‘Reformed Catholike’, 1609, 59

Nominating Abbot to succeed Henry Cotton as bishop of Salisbury, James is alleged to have said, 'Abbot, I have had very much to do to make thee a bishop; but I know no reason for it, unlesse it were because thou writest against one [that is, William Bishop]' (Featley, 544). This was just a pretext for a royal pun—the obstacle had been James's own resentments over the Howard nullity, less of an issue by 1615. John Chamberlain wrote not of opposition to the appointment but 'great meanes used' for it, presumably to James by George Abbot, mentioned as 'on foot again' (Chamberlain, 1.598, 610). Richard Field, who considered Robert Abbot 'too positive' in matters of theological 'extreme difficultie', told his son that James was to have made him [Field] bishop of Salisbury, 'but the sollicitation of some great ones prevailed with him for … Dr Abbots' (Field, 22, 15–16).

Abbot was consecrated by his brother on 3 December 1615. An anonymous sermon on the occasion noted that 'an older brother is to be consecrated by a younger, as Aaron was by Moses' and recalled John Jewel, the last theologian of international stature to hold the see: 'it seemeth the flocke … promise themselves in you to find their Jewell againe' (Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 288, fol. 111v). For the first six months Abbot performed his duties at Balliol and at his old preaching centre of Abingdon, just within his diocese. He lived at Salisbury from June 1616. Still preaching actively, he was also praised for his hospitality and charity, and he shamed the Salisbury chapter into disgorging £500 towards belated cathedral repairs.

In November 1617 Abbot's second wife died. Two months later he married Bridget (d. 1635×46), widow of John Cheynell, an Oxford physician, and daughter of John Egioke of Worcestershire. Chamberlain reported that the archbishop 'was nothing plesed with that when he heard that, nor I thincke nobody els that wisht him well' (Chamberlain, 2.140). The hostile Peter Heylyn elaborated that George Abbot wrote Robert 'such a sharp and bitter letter … that not being able to bear the burthen of so great an insolency, he presently died' (Heylyn, 68). Heylyn claimed that the archbishop opposed episcopal remarriage in principle, but as it seems Robert had already married twice, lack of a decent interval was more probably the objection.

Abbot did die within two months of the marriage. With possible artistic licence derived from his brother's famous wish to die in the pulpit, Featley wrote that Robert Abbot fell ill of kidney stone after preaching in his cathedral on John 14: 16—'I will pray the father and he shall give you another comforter that he may abide with you for ever' (Featley, 549). He lasted overnight before dying at Salisbury on 2 March 1618 and was buried in the cathedral three days later. Abbot's nuncupative will, made on the day of his death, 'in greate extremitie of sicknes', requested a funeral 'without any manner of charge'. Not only, he alleged, had his second wife had an expensive 'long sicknes' but, 'havinge enjoyed his bishopricke but a little while', he was 'scarcely able to paye unto his majestie his first fruites and tenthes'. While his third instalment of first fruits was due the month before Abbot died, his estate was forgiven it as well as the last. Abbot divided what he had equally between his wife and his children, Thomas, now a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and Martha. Thomas edited De suprema potestate regis (1619), the regius professor's defence of the royal supremacy. However, Abbot's 'Praeelectiones sacrae in Epistolam … ad Romanos' (Bodl. Oxf., MSS e Musaeo 10–13), running to 3692 pages, remained unpublished; his preface 'to the listeners', not 'readers', probably indicates a similar origin in professorial lectures.

Distinguished in James I's early controversy with the Roman Catholics, Robert Abbot's views later became less fashionable high in the church—although he was a favourite authority for William Prynne to cite against the Laudians. By his death his brother lost a valued ally, and his party a respected voice; a year later, the anti-Arminian Synod of Dort asked whether the Thirty-Nine Articles saw saving grace as applied universally or restrictively and Walter Balcanqual appealed to 'my late lord of Salisbury … who was thought to understand the meaning of our confession as well as any man' (Hales, 2.103). Yet only three out of five British delegates upheld Abbot's view, and the Church of England would not approve the synod.



  • BL, corresp. with Isaac Casaubon, Burney MS 363
  • Wilts. & Swindon HC, Salisbury episcopal register, D1/2/19


  • portrait, 1615–18, Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery [see illus.]
  • F. Delaram, line engraving, 1618, BM, NPG
  • engraving, 1620 (after portrait, Salisbury Cathedral School), repro. in A. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1955), pl. 83
  • F. Delaram, portrait (after portrait, 1615–18), repro. in A. M. Hind, Engraving in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1955), pl. 119
  • W. and M. van de Passe, line engraving, BM; repro. in H. Holland, Herōologia (1620)
  • fresco (after portrait, Salisbury Cathedral School?), Bodl. Oxf.
  • portrait, Salisbury Cathedral School; copy, Christ Church Oxf.

Wealth at Death

estate divided equally between wife, son, and daughter: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/131, fol. 48

Camden Society
Bodleian Library, Oxford
A. Wood, , 2 vols. (1691–2); 2nd edn (1721); new edn, ed. P. Bliss, 4 vols. (1813–20); repr. (1967) and (1969)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Oxford Historical Society
Historical Manuscripts Commission