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date: 21 January 2022

Hampton Court conferencefree

(act. 1604)

Hampton Court conferencefree

(act. 1604)
  • Kenneth Fincham

Hampton Court conference (act. 1604), was a three-day meeting of privy councillors, bishops, other senior clergy, moderate puritans, and civil lawyers in January 1604, called by James I to discuss complaints about the Church of England. The discussion ranged over the church's doctrine, liturgy, discipline, and pastoral provision. Although few significant reforms were adopted, and puritan hopes for major changes were dashed, the conference demonstrated James I's creative use of his royal supremacy and represented his first serious engagement with the complexities of governing the English church.


In the first year of his reign James I wrapped himself in the flag of reform. He was receptive to petitions for redress of secular and ecclesiastical grievances, reflecting his self-confidence as an experienced ruler and his awareness of the need to win the affections of his new subjects, albeit at the price of raising expectations that he could not necessarily fulfil. Among these calls for religious change was the millenary petition, so called because it claimed to have more than a thousand supporters, which was presented to James on his way from Scotland to London in April 1603. The petition proposed four possible ways forward, and the one the king chose was to hold a 'conference among the learned' (Tanner, 59), probably because it had long been his preferred option in Scotland to settle religious disputes through face-to-face meetings. James's apparent openness to religious reform alarmed some senior bishops: Thomas Bilson, bishop of Winchester, tried to hinder the conference, according to puritan critics, while John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury, hurriedly ordered the reform of church courts. In July 1603, perhaps influenced by Patrick Galloway—a Scottish presbyterian who had accompanied him to London—James declared that he would tackle the poverty of some clergy by restoring impropriations of benefices in his gift, and he wrote to Oxford and Cambridge universities urging them to follow suit. The scheme was dropped after intervention by Whitgift, who pointed out the damage this would do to college finances and learning. Waves of puritan petitioning, including surveys of the preaching strength of the parish ministry, also reined in royal enthusiasm. In a proclamation of 24 October 1603 the king deferred the meeting of the conference from 1 November to 12 January 1604, owing to the plague, and condemned those who 'seditiously seeke reformation in church matters'. He also spelt out what he claimed had ever been his purpose: to avoid upheaval and 'reforming onely the abuses which we shall apparently finde prooved', a line he would maintain at the conference itself (Larkin and Hughes, 1.61, 63).

The conference: sources and participants

There are eleven contemporary accounts of the three-day conference, of divergent length, coverage, and viewpoint. Letters from Dudley Carleton and an unnamed puritan sympathizer only relate the first day's events; an account by an unknown conformist covers the second day, while a letter from James I recounts the final two days; five others—letters from three participants, Tobie Matthew, James Montagu, and Patrick Galloway, a journal entry from a fourth, Roger Wilbraham (1553–1616), and a pro-puritan account—address the whole conference but in summary form. In contrast to these nine sources, the remaining two are much more substantial: the 'Anonymous account', which bats for the puritans, and the semi-official Summe and Substance of the Conference by an eyewitness, William Barlow. Although Barlow's account is relentlessly deferential to the king and spiky towards the puritans, it is the indispensable foundation text, three times the length of the 'Anonymous account' and broadly reliable, to judge from Laurence Chaderton's annotated copy, in which he accepts large parts of Barlow's narrative.

The conference was held in the privy chamber at the royal palace of Hampton Court over three non-consecutive days: Saturday 14, Monday 16, and Wednesday 18 January 1604. The agenda and the personnel differed on each day. At least forty-two individuals were involved: James I and Prince Henry (who was then ten years old) were supported by nine privy councillors—Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire; the lord treasurer, Thomas Sackville, first Baron Buckhurst; the secretary of state, Robert Cecil; the lord chancellor, Thomas Ellesmere, first Baron Ellesmere; Charles Howard, first earl of Nottingham; Henry Howard, earl of Northampton; the lord chamberlain, Thomas Howard, first earl of Suffolk; Sir John Popham, the lord chief justice; and Edward Somerset, fourth earl of Worcester. They were joined by Roger Wilbraham, a master of requests. Also present were Archbishop Whitgift and eight bishops—Richard Bancroft (London), Gervase Babington (Worcester), Thomas Bilson (Winchester), Thomas Dove (Peterborough), Tobie Matthew (Durham), Henry Robinson (Carlisle), Anthony Rudd (St David's), and Anthony Watson (Chichester); the 'Anonymous account' adds John Thornborough (Bristol), probably in error. Also invited were nine deans—George Abbot (Winchester), Lancelot Andrewes (Westminster), William Barlow (Chester), Richard Edes (Worcester), John Gordon (Salisbury), James Montagu (the Chapel Royal), John Overall (St Paul's), Thomas Ravis (Christ Church, Oxford), and Giles Tomson (Windsor)—and one archdeacon, John King (Nottingham). Four clergy represented the puritan cause: Laurence Chaderton, master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, John Knewstub, rector of Cockfield, Suffolk, John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Thomas Sparke, who was beneficed at Bletchley, Buckinghamshire. A much larger body of about thirty puritan ministers, led by Stephen Egerton and Henry Jacob, were in the vicinity of Hampton Court but not at the conference itself. Two other clergy attended: Richard Field, a royal chaplain, whom two accounts of the conference treat as a fifth member of the puritan lobby, and Patrick Galloway. Finally, five leading civil lawyers were invited: Sir John Bennet, Sir Daniel Dun (Donne), Sir Thomas Crompton, John Drury (d. 1614), and Sir Richard Swale. Whitgift was probably responsible for the choice of the civilians and the four puritan spokesmen, and the king for the two Scots, Gordon and Galloway. However, the selection of other churchmen may primarily reflect the influence of conciliar patrons; the only summons that survives, for Richard Field, was signed by five councillors. Whether by design or accident, there was also a broad range of churchmanship, both among the bishops and the puritans. Bancroft's and Bilson's hardline attitude contrasted with more conciliatory bishops such as Babington, Rudd, and Robinson, although it was wistful thinking among puritans in November 1603 that the trio had ‘turned’ puritan. All four puritan representatives were tactically moderate, although Chaderton had not renounced his presbyterian convictions, while Sparke admitted that he was reluctant to cross swords with the bishops.

The conference: debates

On 12 January, James I had a brief meeting with the bishops, and deferred the opening of the conference to 14 January. In attendance on the first full day were privy councillors, all nine bishops, and six deans (Abbot, Andrewes, Barlow, Montagu, Overall, and Gordon). The king spoke for an hour, reassuring the bishops that he 'called not this assembly for innovation' (Barlow, 4) but to address corruptions, and looked to them for advice and instruction before he met the puritan delegation. He then raised doubts about the status of confirmation and absolution, and it was accepted that the prayer book rubric for both might need clarification. More contentious was lay baptism, which led to a three-hour debate, being condemned by the king, with support from Babington and Gordon, against Whitgift, Bancroft, and Bilson. Eventually, all agreed that the practice be forbidden. James then raised concerns about the abuse of excommunication, backed by Cecil, Ellesmere, and Popham, and about pluralities of livings and the parlous state of the Irish church, which needed schools and an effective ministry. As the day ended, a puritan account states that the king rejected pleas from the bishops not to hear 'the ministers against them' (Anonymous account in Usher, 2.43).

The participants on the second day, 16 January, were Prince Henry, the privy councillors, just two bishops picked by Whitgift (Bancroft and Bilson), all the deans and doctors, the four puritan representatives, and Galloway. Rainolds was the principal puritan spokesman, assisted by Knewstub, and presented the case for reforming the church's doctrine, ministry, liturgy, and government. Some of his major requests were rejected: the cross in baptism, the surplice, and confirmation were to be retained, and episcopal government was to stay unmodified. Other proposals were diluted: the king agreed to consider amending some prayer book rubrics, adding to the articles of religion, and reviewing objectionable passages in the Apocrypha. More positively, James accepted the desirability of a learned minister in each parish, although he warned that this was the work of time, and readily agreed to a new translation of the Bible; while Rainolds's request for stricter observance of the sabbath 'found a generall and unanimous assent' (Barlow, 45). The king himself took the opportunity to spell out the importance of the royal supremacy to monarchical government, twice that day stating 'No bishop, no king', and was unimpressed with the puritan performance, writing to Northampton how 'they fled … from argument to argument, without ever answering me directly' (Cardwell, 161). Certainly, some puritan grievances were not raised, such as the observance of holy days, church music, and the use of the square cap, as the king himself pointed out.

On Wednesday 18 January the king assembled councillors, bishops, deans, and five civil lawyers to review the matters raised on the first day and discuss their implementation. James also questioned the large number of diocesan high commissions, while an unnamed councillor criticized the use of the ex officio oath, which was defended by Whitgift, Ellesmere, and Buckhurst. At Bancroft's prompting, James also agreed to uphold clerical subscription to the supremacy, articles of religion, and prayer book. Then the puritan delegation was summoned to hear these decisions and was urged to unite against the common enemy of Roman Catholicism. James granted Chaderton's request that the ceremonies might not be immediately enforced in his native Cheshire, but rebuked Knewstub when he asked for the same concession for Suffolk.

All in all, this was a singularly unusual conference, dominated by the king who acted, at different times, as prosecutor, witness, judge, and jury, and used the discussions to demonstrate his theological learning and caustic wit. He endeavoured to be impartial, checking Bancroft's anger at having to defend 'bishops against schismatics' (Usher, 2.344) and, according to Matthew, 'favourablie' dismissing the puritans at the end of the second day. Nevertheless, perhaps to reassure the bishops of his support for the status quo, James was notably indulgent towards Bancroft's repeated 'too rough boldness' (Lee, 57). The majority of the participants appear to have said little or nothing, intimidated, maybe, by the presence of privy councillors and the novelty of having to dispute with their sovereign. One account notes that Chaderton was 'as mute as any fyshe', although he did intervene decisively on the final day; Dove was shamed into silence after being ridiculed for recalling that baptism was once performed with sand in the early church; Andrewes had to be asked for his views. The king aside, the debate was usually led by Whitgift, Bancroft, Bilson, and, on the second day, by Rainolds.

Aftermath and significance

Many of the reforms promised at the conference were carried through: prayer book rubrics were altered, the numbers of local high commissions were reduced, and promises to tighten sabbath observance, impose clerical subscription, have senior ministers assist bishops at ordination, and ensure that clergy not laity pronounce sentences of excommunication were all incorporated in the canons of 1604, which governed church discipline and administration. The most tangible result was the new ‘authorized’ version of the Bible, published in 1611, a cross-party project that saw many participants in the conference, including Chaderton and Rainolds, work together under Bancroft's supervision [see Authorized Version of the Bible, translators of]. However, changes to the articles of religion were quietly dropped and although bills were introduced to tackle more intractable problems of clerical pluralism and excommunication, they failed to secure parliamentary approval.

The conference stirred rather than stilled puritan agitation for reform in 1604. This was to the king's evident discomfort, and helps explain his choice in the autumn that Richard Bancroft succeed John Whitgift as archbishop of Canterbury, and his determination to impose subscription in 1604–5 to canon 36, which resulted in the deprivation of nearly ninety beneficed ministers. In the longer term, though, puritan ministers who gestured towards conformity were largely left undisturbed by the ecclesiastical authorities.

The conference and its immediate aftermath were thus a crushing defeat for puritan hopes for a 'godly reformation' (millenary petition in Fuller, 60). But the event and its wider outcomes continue to be debated by modern historians. Patrick Collinson saw it as the end of the Elizabethan puritan movement, as some puritans offered partial conformity, but more radical spirits became separatists. Mark Curtis claimed that James had significant sympathy for the puritans and cast the bishops as the villains, frustrating reform once the conference was over. Meanwhile Frederick Shriver has argued, more persuasively, that James 'quietly favoured' the bishops but was anxious to hear out godly grievances. Kenneth Fincham and Peter Lake have proposed that James used the conference to detach moderate puritans from their more radical brethren, which has been challenged by Alan Cromartie, who has maintained that James did not make any concessions to the puritans and distanced himself from godly aspirations. What is less contentious is that, at Hampton Court, James I came to grips with some of the tensions and problems of the reformed Church of England, signalled his intention to be an active supreme governor, and demanded conformity in an evangelical church that could encompass a wide range of protestant opinion. Whether or not it was a missed opportunity to heal longstanding divisions remains an open question.


  • W. Barlow, The summe and substance of the conference … at Hampton Court, 2nd edn (1604)
  • E. Cardwell, A history of conferences and other proceedings connected with the revision of the Book of Common Prayer (1840), 161–6, 212–17
  • Memorials of affairs of state in the reigns of Q. Elizabeth and K. James I, collected (chiefly) from the original papers of … Sir Ralph Winwood, ed. E. Sawyer, 3 vols. (1725), 2.13–15
  • R. G. Usher, The reconstruction of the English church, 2 vols. (1910), 2.335–8, 341–54
  • Letters of King James VI & I, ed. G. P. V. Akrigg (1984), 220–22
  • Dudley Carleton to John Chamberlain, 1603–1624: Jacobean letters, ed. M. Lee (1972), 57
  • ‘The journal of Sir Roger Wilbraham’, ed. H. S. Scott, Camden miscellany, X, CS, 3rd ser., 4 (1902), 66–7
  • M. H. Curtis, ‘The Hampton Court conference and its aftermath’, History, 46 (1961), 1–16
  • S. B. Babbage, Puritanism and Richard Bancroft (1962)
  • P. Collinson, The Elizabethan puritan movement (1967)
  • B. W. Quintrell, ‘The royal hunt and the puritans’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 31 (1980), 41–58
  • F. Shriver, ‘Hampton Court re-visited: James I and the puritans’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 33 (1982), 48–71
  • P. Collinson, ‘The Jacobean religious settlement: the Hampton Court conference’, Before the English civil war, ed. H. Tomlinson (1983), 27–51
  • K. Fincham and P. Lake, ‘The ecclesiastical policy of James I’, Journal of British Studies, 24 (1985), 169–207
  • N. Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: the rise of English Arminianism, c.1590–1640 (1987)
  • K. Fincham, Prelate as pastor: the episcopate of James I (1990)
  • A. Hunt, ‘Laurence Chaderton and the Hampton Court conference’, Belief and practice in Reformation England, ed. S. Wabuda and C. Litzenberger (1998), 207–28
  • A. Cromartie, ‘King James and the Hampton Court conference’, James VI and I: ideas, authority and government, ed. R. Houlbrooke (2006), 61–80
  • W. Craig, ‘Hampton Court again: the millenary petition and the calling of a conference’, Anglican and Episcopal History, 77 (2008), 46–70
  • J. Rodda, Public religious disputations in England, 1558–1626 (2014)
  • J. F. Larkin and P. L. Hughes, eds., Stuart royal proclamations, 2 vols. (1973–80), 1.60–63
  • N. Field, Some short memorials concerning the life of … Dr Richard Field, ed. J. Le Neve (1717)
  • Report on the manuscripts of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, HMC, 53 (1900)
  • G. Bray, ed., The Anglican canons, 1529–1947 (1998)
  • J. R. Tanner, ed., Constitutional documents of the reign of James I (1930)
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