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Laudians and Puritans

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

Two groups struggling for preferment: The Laudians and the Puritans

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One of Charles' key advisers was Archbishop Laud, a small, fat man from humble origins in Reading with the most extraordinary red face. Laud was rude and obnoxious, but also spiritual and scholarly.

Charles was a devoted admirer of Laud's, and in 1633 elevated him from Bishop of London to Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud took full charge of the King's religious policies which were to split the nation and do irrevocable damage to the popularity of the monarchy. Charles allied himself and his monarchy to the most damaging ideas in the country.

In 1533 Henry VIII's desire to marry Anne Boleyn led England to split from the Roman Catholic Church and declare itself a Protestant nation. The Church in England changed to the Church of England. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I moulded the Church of England into the political compromise we know and love today. The monarch was Supreme Head of the Church and its doctrines were fundamentally Calvinist, but they were flexible enough to please almost everyone. This messy compromise lasted for the best part of a century, but during the seventeenth century, the Church began to be pulled apart by competing sects.

On the one hand there were Puritans - Protestants inclined to a more Godly, Biblically- based Church with greater emphasis on preaching the word of God rather than man-made ceremonies. On the other, those led by Archbishop Laud - high-church, Anglo-Catholics who revered the ceremonies and rituals of the visible church. The Laudians stressed the vital role of the clergy in the spiritual life of the Church; the Puritans disliked any attempts at a more hierarchical, organized Church. It was a tug of love for the Church of England. Neither wanted to leave it; both wanted to control it.

At the heart of this struggle was a fight over the position of the communion table. The Puritans wanted it to remain in the middle of the church emphasising the democracy of worship; the Laudians wanted it moved to the east end and then railed off from the communion so emphasising the more sacerdotal, priestly function of the vicar. To the godly, this was nothing short of Popery. The Laudians also tried to introduce stained-glass windows, icons, and new clerical outfits. This schism is clearly illustrated in the design and layout of two specific churches- St Mary's, Deerhurst in Gloucestershire with its Laudian altar rails and altar, and Holy Trinity church in Berwick upon Tweed, with its pulpit-based, white-washed interior.

The parish church stood at the centre of every village. It was the heart of the community. Everyone had to attend. There they met, gossiped, worshipped, and received official news from the government. It was a mixture of pub, supermarket, library, church and social club. Any unpopular change to something so central to society could produce uproar, especially if it hinted at Popery.

Laud was a zealous enforcer of his beliefs. He toured the country visiting parishes, promoting his supporters, sacking Puritans and ordering the prosecution and mutilation of opponents. His church reform programme provoked anger and frustration across the country. It is difficult to over-estimate the pent up bitterness of the 1630s - many felt the Protestant cause and hence God was being betrayed by his reforms. During the 1630s, over 16,000 Puritans fled the country to build a new life in the new world of the Americas.

Laud and Charles's religious innovations fostered deep hostility towards the monarchy. At a time when Church and nation were interchangeable, the reforms undermined the stability of both.

In the 17th Century, politics and religion were as closely interwoven as politics and economics are today. Charles's close alliance with Laud and his deeply unpopular policies only brought the King suspicion and hostility, especially during a time when Europe was engulfed by religious war.


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