John Whitgift

Last updated

John Whitgift
Archbishop of Canterbury
Bp John Whitgift.jpg
Church Church of England
Diocese Canterbury
InstalledAugust 1583
Term ended29 February 1604
Predecessor Edmund Grindal
Successor Richard Bancroft
Consecration21 April 1577
by  Edmund Grindal
Personal details
Bornc. 1530
Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England
Died29 February 1604 (aged 73/74)
Lambeth, London, England
Buried Croydon, Surrey

John Whitgift (c. 1530 – 29 February 1604) was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583 to his death. Noted for his hospitality, he was somewhat ostentatious in his habits, sometimes visiting Canterbury and other towns attended by a retinue of 800 horses. Whitgift's theological views were often controversial.


Early life and education

He was the eldest son of Henry Whitgift, a merchant, of Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire, where he was born, probably between 1530 and 1533. The Whitgift family is thought to have originated in the relatively close Yorkshire village of Whitgift, adjoining the River Ouse.

Whitgift's early education was entrusted to his uncle, Robert Whitgift, abbot of the neighbouring Wellow Abbey, on whose advice he was sent to St Anthony's School, London. In 1549 he matriculated at Queens' College, Cambridge, and in May 1550 he moved to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where the martyr John Bradford was his tutor. In May 1555 he was elected a fellow of Peterhouse. [1]

Having taken holy orders in 1560, he became chaplain to Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely, who collated (that is, appointed) him to the rectory of Teversham, just to the east of Cambridge. In 1563 he was appointed Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and his lectures gave such satisfaction to the authorities that on 5 July 1566 they considerably augmented his stipend. The following year he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity, and became master first of Pembroke Hall (1567) and then of Trinity in 1570. He had a principal share in compiling the statutes of the university, which passed the great seal on 25 September 1570, and in the November following he was chosen as vice-chancellor.

While at Cambridge he formed a close relationship with Andrew Perne, sometime vice-chancellor. Perne went on to live with Whitgift in his old age. Puritan satirists would later mock Whitgift as "Perne's boy" who was willing to carry his cloak-bag – thus suggesting that the two had enjoyed a homosexual relationship. [2]

Francis Bacon

Whitgift taught Francis Bacon and his older brother Anthony Bacon at Cambridge University in the 1570s. [3] As their tutor, Whitgift bought the brothers their early classical text books, including works by Plato, Cicero and others. [4] Whitgift's authoritarian beliefs and conservative religious teachings had a profound impact on Bacon, as did his teaching on natural philosophy and metaphysics. [5] Bacon would later disavow Whitgift, writing to Elizabeth I to warn her against Whitgift's attempts to root out the 'careful and diligent preachers in each parish'. [6]

Promotions and improvements

Whitgift's theological views were controversial. An aunt with whom he once lodged wrote that "though she thought at first she had received a saint into her house, she now perceived he was a devil". Thomas Macaulay's description of Whitgift as "a narrow, mean, tyrannical priest, who gained power by servility and adulation..." is, according to the author of his 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry, "tinged with rhetorical exaggeration; but undoubtedly Whitgift's extreme High Church notions led him to treat the Puritans with exceptional intolerance". In a pulpit controversy with Thomas Cartwright regarding the constitutions and customs of the Church of England, his oratorical effectiveness proved inferior, but was able to exercise arbitrary authority: together with other heads of the university, he deprived Cartwright of his professorship, and in September 1571 Whitgift exercised his prerogative as master of Trinity to deprive him of his fellowship. In June of the same year Whitgift was nominated Dean of Lincoln. In the following year he published An Answere to a Certain Libel entitled an Admonition to the Parliament, which led to further controversy between the two churchmen. From 1572 to 1577 he was Rector of St Margaret's church in Laceby in Lincolnshire. On 24 March 1577, Whitgift was appointed Bishop of Worcester, and during the absence of Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland in 1577 he acted as vice-president of Wales.

Archbishop of Canterbury, 1583–1604

Whitgift at Queen Elizabeth's deathbed, stained glass at Grimsby Minster. The archbishop's death is given as 1603 because of Old Style and New Style dates. John Whitgift window detail - - 1071737.jpg
Whitgift at Queen Elizabeth's deathbed, stained glass at Grimsby Minster. The archbishop's death is given as 1603 because of Old Style and New Style dates.

In August 1583 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury to replace Edmund Grindal, who had been placed under house arrest after his disagreement with Queen Elizabeth over "prophesyings" and died in office. Whitgift placed his stamp on the church of the Reformation, and shared Elizabeth's hatred of Puritans. Although he wrote to Elizabeth remonstrating against the alienation of church property, Whitgift always retained her special confidence. In his policy against the Puritans and in his vigorous enforcement of the subscription test he thoroughly carried out her policy of religious uniformity.

He drew up articles aimed at nonconforming ministers, and obtained increased powers for the Court of High Commission. In 1586, he became a privy councillor. His actions gave rise to the Martin Marprelate tracts, in which the bishops and clergy were strongly opposed. By his vigilance the printers of the tracts were discovered and punished, though the main writer Job Throkmorton evaded him. Whitgift had nine leading presbyterians including Thomas Cartwright arrested in 1589–90, and though their trial in the Star Chamber for sedition did not result in convictions they did agree to abandon their movement in return for freedom. [7]

Whitgift took a strong line against the Brownist movement and their Underground Church in London led by Henry Barrow and John Greenwood. Their services were repeatedly raided and members held in prison. Whitgift repeatedly interrogated them through the High Commission, and at the Privy Council. When Burghley asked Barrow his opinion of the Archbishop, he responded: "He is a monster, a miserable compound, I know not what to make him. He is neither ecclesiastical nor civil, even that second beast spoken of in revelation." [8] Whitgift was the prime mover behind the Act against Seditious Sectaries which was passed in 1593, making Separatist Puritanism a felony, and he had Barrow and Greenwood executed the following morning. [9] [10]

In the controversy between Walter Travers and Richard Hooker, he prohibited the former from preaching, and he presented the latter with the rectory of Boscombe in Wiltshire, to help him complete his Ecclesiastical Polity, a work that in the end did not represent Whitgift's theological or ecclesiastical standpoints. In 1587, he had Welsh preacher John Penry brought before the High Commission, and imprisoned; Whitgift signed Penry's death warrant six years later.

In 1595, in conjunction with the Bishop of London and other prelates, he drew up the Calvinist instrument known as the Lambeth Articles. Although the articles were signed and agreed by several bishops they were recalled by order of Elizabeth, claiming that the bishops had acted without her explicit consent. Whitgift maintained that she had given her approval.

Whitgift attended Elizabeth on her deathbed, and crowned James I. He was present at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, at which he represented eight bishops.

Whitgift monument in Croydon Minster Croydon Minster, John Whitgift monument.jpg
Whitgift monument in Croydon Minster

He died at Lambeth at the end of the following month. He was buried in Croydon at the Parish Church of St John Baptist (now Croydon Minster): his monument there with his recumbent effigy was practically destroyed when the church burnt down in 1867.


Whitgift is described by his biographer, Sir George Paule, as of "middle stature, strong and well shaped, of a grave countenance and brown complexion, black hair and eyes, his beard neither long nor thick." He left several unpublished works, included in the Manuscripts Angliae. Many of his letters, articles and injunctions are calendared in the published volumes of the State Papers series of the reign of Elizabeth. His Collected Works, edited for the Parker Society by John Ayre (3 vols., Cambridge, 1851–1853), include the controversial tracts mentioned above, two sermons published during his lifetime, a selection from his letters to Cecil and others, and some portions of his previously unpublished manuscripts.

In his later years he concerned himself with various administrative reforms, including fostering learning among the clergy, abolishing non-resident clergy, and reforming the ecclesiastical courts. [11]

Whitgift set up charitable foundations (almshouses), now The Whitgift Foundation, in Croydon, the site of a palace, a summer retreat of Archbishops of Canterbury. [12] It supports homes for the elderly and infirm, and runs three independent schools – Whitgift School, founded in 1596, [13] Trinity School of John Whitgift and, more recently, Old Palace School for girls, which is housed in the former Croydon Palace.

Whitgift Street near Lambeth Palace (the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury) is named after him.

A comprehensive school in his home town of Grimsby, John Whitgift Academy, is named after him. [14]

The Whitgift Centre, a major shopping centre in Croydon, is named after him. It is built on land still owned by the Whitgift Foundation.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archbishop of Canterbury</span> Senior bishop of the Church of England

The archbishop of Canterbury is the senior bishop and a principal leader of the Church of England, the ceremonial head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury. The current archbishop is Justin Welby, who was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013. Welby is the 105th in a line which goes back more than 1400 years to Augustine of Canterbury, the "Apostle to the English", sent from Rome in the year 597. Welby succeeded Rowan Williams.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George Abbot (bishop)</span> Archbishop of Canterbury

George Abbot was an English divine who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633. He also served as the fourth Chancellor of the University of Dublin, from 1612 to 1633.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Richard Bancroft</span> British Archbishop of Canterbury

Richard Bancroft was an English churchman, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1604 to 1610 and "chief overseer" of the King James Bible.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gilbert Sheldon</span> English religious leader (1598–1677)

Gilbert Sheldon was an English religious leader who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663 until his death.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edmund Grindal</span> Archbishop of Canterbury

Edmund Grindal was Bishop of London, Archbishop of York, and Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Elizabeth I. Though born far from the centres of political and religious power, he had risen rapidly in the church during the reign of Edward VI, culminating in his nomination as Bishop of London. However, the death of the King prevented his taking up the post, and along with other Marian exiles, he was a supporter of Calvinist Puritanism. Grindal sought refuge in continental Europe during the reign of Mary I. Upon Elizabeth's accession, Grindal returned and resumed his rise in the church, culminating in his appointment to the highest office.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Matthew Parker</span> Archbishop of Canterbury (1504–1575)

Matthew Parker was an English bishop. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England from 1559 until his death in 1575. He was also an influential theologian and arguably the co-founder of a distinctive tradition of Anglican theological thought.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas Tenison</span> Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Tenison was an English church leader, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1694 until his death. During his primacy, he crowned two British monarchs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry Barrowe</span> English Separatist Puritan

Henry Barrow was an English Separatist Puritan, or Brownist, executed for his views. He led the London Underground Church from 1587 to 1593, spending most of that time in prison, and wrote numerous works of Brownist apologetics, most notably A Brief Discoverie of the False Church.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Strype</span> English clergyman, historian and biographer

John Strype was an English clergyman, historian and biographer from London. He became a merchant when settling in Petticoat Lane. In his twenties, he became perpetual curate of Theydon Bois, Essex and later became curate of Leyton; this allowed him direct correspondence with several highly notable ecclesiastical figures of his time. He wrote extensively in his later years.

Thomas Thirlby, was the first and only bishop of Westminster (1540–50), and afterwards successively bishop of Norwich (1550–54) and bishop of Ely (1554–59). While he acquiesced in the Henrician schism, with its rejection in principle of the Roman papacy, he remained otherwise loyal to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church during the English Reformation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Andrew Perne</span>

Andrew Perne, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Dean of Ely, was the son of John Perne of East Bilney, Norfolk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Overall (bishop)</span>

John Overall (1559–1619) was the 38th bishop of the see of Norwich from 1618 until his death one year later. He had previously served as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral from 1601, as Master of Catharine Hall from 1598, and as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University from 1596. He also served on the Court of High Commission and as a Translator of the King James Version of the Bible.

Peter Baro (1534–1599) was a French Huguenot minister, ordained by John Calvin, but later in England a critic of some Calvinist theological positions. His views in relation to the Lambeth Articles cost him his position as Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. He was a forerunner of views, to be called Arminian or Laudian, more common a generation later in England.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Godfrey Goldsborough</span>

Godfrey Goldsborough was a Church of England clergyman and bishop of Gloucester from 1598-1604. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. He also served as a Prebendary of Worcester.

Richard Cosin was an English jurist. He became prominent as an ecclesiastical lawyer in the service of Archbishop John Whitgift, active against the Puritans in the Church of England.

Anthony Rudd was a Welsh bishop.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Puritans under King James I</span>

The reign of King James I of England (1603-25) saw the continued rise of the Puritan movement in England, that began during reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), and the continued clash with the authorities of the Church of England. This eventually led to the further alienation of Anglicans and Puritans from one another in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles I (1625-49), that eventually brought about the English Civil War (1642-51), the brief rule of the Puritan Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell (1653-58), the English Commonwealth (1649-60), and as a result the political, religious, and civil liberty that is celebrated today in all English speaking countries.

Giles Wigginton was an English clergyman who became a fringe religious activist towards the end of the sixteenth century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thomas Yale</span>

Thomas Yale (1525/6–1577) was the Chancellor, Vicar general and Official Principal of the Head of the Church of England : Matthew Parker, 1st Archbishop of Canterbury, and later on, of Edmund Grindal, 2nd Archbishop of Canterbury, during the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. He was also Dean of the Arches and Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth Tudor at the Court of High Commission.

The London underground church was an illegal puritan group in the time of Elizabeth I and James I. It began as a radical fringe of the Church of England, but split from the Church and later became part of the Brownist or puritan Separatist movement. William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Plantation, cited the underground church as the first that ‘professed and practised the cause’ of the Pilgrim Fathers.


  1. "Whitgift, John (WHTT550J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  2. Patrick Collinson, Richard Bancroft and Elizabethan Anti-Puritanism, University of Cambridge, 2013
  3. Jardine, Lisa; Stewart, Alan. "Much Hoped Imps". Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon . Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  4. Markku Peltonen (26 April 1996). The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge University Press. p. 206. ISBN   978-0-521-43534-5.
  5. Julian Martin (1992). Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. p.24. ISBN 9780521382496
  6. Julian Martin (1992). Francis Bacon, the State, and the Reform of Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. p.32. ISBN 9780521382496
  7. Tomkins, S (2020). The Journey to the Mayflower. London: Hodder & Stoughton. p. 200. ISBN   9781473649101.
  8. Tomkins. The Journey to the Mayflower. p. 167.
  9. "The Act Against Puritans (1593)". Retrieved 13 August 2012.
  10. Tomkins. The Journey to the Mayflower. p. 218.
  11. F. L. Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
  12. "The Whitgift Foundation, registered charity no. 312612". Charity Commission for England and Wales.
  13. History of Whitgift School
  14. Whitgift School, Grimsby


Academic offices
Preceded by Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Matthew Hutton
Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Preceded by Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by