It can be argued that King Charles was, in many ways the architect of his own misfortune. While he fervently and honestly believed in the divine provenance of his power, his obstinacy and pride did nothing to convince his enemies. Nor did those he surrounded himself with.
One of these his Parliamentarian opponents dubbed ‘malignant advisors’ was William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. And today marks the anniversary of his execution in 1645, just a few weeks before that of his King with whose life his own had become so intertwined.
Ordained as a priest in 1601, the ambitious Laud was a rising star in the Anglican church, which was still searching for its true identity after Henry VIII had split with the church in Rome the century before. He was influenced by the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, who emphasised free will over the Puritans’ Calvanist ideas of predestination. He also loved pomp and ceremony in his worship, which endeared him to King Charles I.
His career flourished on Charles’s accession in 1625. He officiated at Charles’ coronation and during the King’s eleven-year Personal Rule he enforced conformity of worship rigidly throughout the land, stamping down on irregularities in the conduct of services. This and his love of things like alter rails and church decoration did nothing to endear him to the Puritans, who viewed his Arminian doctrines as dangerously close to the Roman Catholicism they hated so much.
Charles admired Laud and the Archbishop became increasingly powerful in affairs of state, but not unlike his master he was inflexible, over-sensitivity to criticism, and used his power in the courts of the Star Chamber and High Commission to punish dissidents. In 1637, the religious radicals William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were tortured and imprisoned for speaking and writing against Laud’s policies, which only inflamed the masses.
But it was Laud’s insistence on enforcing conformity in Ireland and Scotland that lit one of the touch-papers of the conflict that would engulf the land. His attempt to force uniformity on the Church of Scotland met with disaster – riots broke out in Edinburgh when Laud’s new prayer book and liturgy were introduced in July 1637. The unrest quickly escalated into England’s disastrous defeats in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40.
King Charles’ opponents, unable to directly criticise the monarch, instead went after his “evil councillors” – Wentworth, now Earl of Strafford, and Archbishop Laud. The Long Parliament in November 1640 impeached them both. Laud was accused of assuming “tyrannical powers” in church and state, of subverting “the true religion with popish superstition” and of causing the disastrous wars against the Scots.
Laud remained a prisoner for three years before finally being brought to trial before the House of Lords in March 1644. The prosecution was led by William Prynne, whom Laud had persecuted in 1637. Unable to find evidence of treason, and with Laud ably defending himself, the House of Commons abandoned the trial and instead condemned him by special decree.
Like Strafford before him, Archbishop Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill on 10 January 1645. On 30 January, the King he had defended so passionately and yet helped condemn by his actions was also beheaded.