William Laud (October 7, 1573 – January 10, 1645) was Archbishop of Canterbury and a fervent supporter of King Charles I of England, whom he encouraged to believe in divine right. His support for Charles, absolute monarchy, and his persecuting of opposing views led to his beheading in the midst of the English Civil War. The beheading of Charles occurred four years later.
Laud was born in Reading, Berkshire, of comparatively low origins, his father having been a cloth merchant (a fact of which he was to remain sensitive throughout his career). He was educated at Reading School and, through a White Scholarship, St. John's College, Oxford.
On April 5, 1601, he entered the Church, and his Catholic tendencies and antipathy to Puritanism, combined with his intellectual and organizational brilliance, soon made him a name. At that time, the Calvinist party was strong in the Church, and Laud's affirmation of Apostolic succession was unpopular in many quarters. In 1605, somewhat against his will, he obliged his patron, Charles Blount, 1st Earl of Devon, by performing his marriage service to a divorcée.
He continued to rise through the ranks of the clergy, becoming President of St John's College in 1611; Prebendary of Lincoln in 1614, and Archdeacon of Huntingdon in 1615. He was consecrated Bishop of St David's in 1622, translated Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1626, and Bishop of London in 1628. Thanks to patrons who included George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and the king himself, he reached the highest position the Church of England had to offer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1633. At the same time, he was prominent in government, taking the king's line and that of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford in all important matters. It is believed that he wrote the controversial Declaration of Sports issued by King Charles in 1633.
In 1630, Laud was elected as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and became much more closely involved in the running of the university than many of his predecessors had been. His most significant contribution was the creation of a new set of statutes for the university, a task completed in 1636. Laud served as the fifth Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin between 1633 and 1645.
The famous phrase "give great praise to God, and little Laud to the devil" is a warning to Charles attributed to the official court jester or "fool" Archie Armstrong.
Laud was a sincere Anglican and loyal Englishman, who must have been frustrated at the charges of Popery levelled against him by the Puritan element in the Church. Whereas Strafford saw the political dangers of Puritanism, Laud saw the threat to the episcopacy. But the Puritans themselves felt threatened: the Counter-Reformation was succeeding abroad, and the Thirty Years' War was not progressing to the advantage of the Protestants. It was inevitable that in this climate, Laud's aggressive high church policy was seen as a sinister development.
Laud's policy was influenced by another aspect of his character: his desire to impose total uniformity on the Church. This, too, was driven by a sincere belief that this was the duty of his office, but to those of even slightly differing views it came as persecution. Perhaps this had the unintended consequence of garnering support for the most implacable opponents of the Anglican compromise. In 1637, William Prynne and two others were sentenced to mutilation (removal of ears and branding on both cheeks) for the crime of seditious libel.
His intolerance towards the Presbyterians extended to Scotland, where it led to the Covenanter movement and the Bishops' Wars. The Long Parliament of 1640 accused him of treason, resulting in his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he remained throughout the early stages of the English Civil War. In the spring of 1644, he was brought to trial, but it ended without being able to reach a verdict. The parliament took up the issue, and eventually passed a bill of attainder under which he was beheaded on January 10, 1645 on Tower Hill, notwithstanding being granted a royal pardon.