Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bancroft, Richard

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BANCROFT, RICHARD, D.D. (1544–1610), archbishop of Canterbury, son of John Bancroft, gentleman, and Mary, his wife, was born at Farnworth, Lancashire, in September 1544. His mother, whose maiden name was Curwen, was niece of Hugh Curwen, bishop of Oxford [q. v.], and young Bancroft, after being well grounded in 'grammar' (i.e. the Latin language) at the excellent school in his native town, was sent at his great-uncle's expense, and at a somewhat more advanced age than ordinary, to Christ's College, Cambridge. Here he was elected a scholar, and proceeded B.A. in 1566-7. He was further aided at this time by the archbishop in the prosecution of his studies, by the grant of the prebend of Malhidert in St. Patrick's Church in Dublin, with the royal license to be absent for six months. He was required, however, to leave Christ's College, which lay under the suspicion of ‘Novelism’ (i.e. puritan principles), and to join the society of Jesus College (Heylin, Aerius Redivivus, p. 347). Here, according to the historian of the college (Shermanni Hist. Coll. Jesu Cant. (original manuscript), p. 64), although eminently successful as a college tutor, and himself assisting many of his pupils to fellowships, he was not elected a fellow; and the fact that he was among the opponents of the Elizabethan statutes given to the university in 1572 (Lamb, Letters and Documents, p. 359) would lead us to conclude that he had at this time a certain sympathy with the puritan party. As, however, he was shortly afterwards appointed one of the chaplains of Richard Cox, bishop of Ely, a staunch supporter of the above statutes, it may be inferred that this sympathy was not of long duration.

On 24 March 1575–6 he was collated by the bishop to the rectory of Teversham, near Cambridge, and before the end of the year was appointed one of the twelve preachers whom, on their acceptance of the Thirty-nine Articles, the university was empowered to license. This appointment led to important after-results; for in 1583, on the holding of the assizes at Bury in Suffolk, the sheriff, being unable to hear of a duly qualified preacher in the county, sent to Cambridge to obtain the services of one for the occasion, and Bancroft was selected. While inspecting the churches of that ancient town, he discovered attached to the queen's arms suspended over one of the altars a libellous piece of writing, in which Elizabeth was compared to Jezebel. The discovery would appear to have stimulated the judges to severity; for they sentenced to death two Brownists who were brought before them, while Bancroft gained credit for his vigilance in the detection of sedition.

In 1584 we find him acting on behalf of Adam Loftus, archbishop of Dublin (to whom, as a contemporary at Cambridge, he was probably well known), as a supporter of a remonstrance drawn up and forwarded to Burghley against the scheme of Sir John Perrot, whereby it was proposed to appropriate the site and endowment of St. Patrick's Church, Dublin, for the purpose of founding a new college. The scheme, as subsequently modified, resulted in the foundation of Trinity College, but without involving the sacrifice of the ecclesiastical foundation.

He was admitted D.D. of Cambridge in April 1585. A treatise which he compiled about this time, entitled ‘Discourse upon the Bill and Book exhibited in Parliament by the Puritans for a further Reformation of the Church Principles,’ &c. (an unprinted manuscript in the State Paper Office), shows that he had now definitely taken up the rôle for which he was afterwards distinguished, as a vigorous and uncompromising opponent of puritanism. Dignities and emoluments followed very quickly. On 10 Feb. 1585–6 he was made treasurer of St. Paul's; Sir Christopher Hatton presented him to the rectory of Cottingham in Northamptonshire; he was one of the commission appointed to visit the diocese of Ely, which had become vacant through the death of his former patron, Cox; and shortly after he was included in the much-dreaded Ecclesiastical Commission. On 19 July 1587 he was installed a canon of Westminster. An able but intolerant sermon which he preached at Paul's Cross on 9 Feb. 1588–9 gave rise to much indignant feeling. He not only attacked the puritans with considerable acerbity, designating them as ‘the Martinists’ (with reference to the Marprelate tracts), but he also asserted, with a plainness hitherto unheard in the English church, the claims of episcopacy to be regarded as of divine origin. Episcopacy and heresy, he maintained, were essentially opposed the one to the other. In insisting on this view he contrived to cast a slur upon the principles of presbyterianism, which was warmly resented in Scotland, where steps were even taken with the design of forwarding a remonstrance on the subject to Elizabeth. It does not appear, however, that any petition was actually presented. In the following February Bancroft was presented to the prebend of Bromesbury in the church of St. Paul.

It was mainly through his vigilance that the printers of the Marprelate tracts were detected, and when they were brought before the Star Chamber he instructed the queen's counsel. He is also said to have originated the idea of replying to the tracts in a like satirical vein, as was done by Thomas Nash and others (see Pappe with a Hatchet, An Almond for a Parrot, &c.) with considerable success. In 1592 he was appointed chaplain to the primate, Whitgift, and in this capacity took a prominent part against Barrow, Cartwright, and others of the puritan leaders. In 1593 he published his two most notable productions—‘A Survay of the pretended Holy Discipline’ (a criticism of the ‘Disciplina,’ the doctrinal text-book of the puritans) and ‘Daungerous Positions and Proceedings, published and practised within the Iland of Brytaine under pretence of Reformation’ (reprinted in 1640), &c.

Bancroft now stood high in the royal favour, and Aylmer, bishop of London, having become eminently unpopular with the puritan party in his diocese. Elizabeth was desirous that he should be transferred to the see of Worcester, and that Bancroft should succeed to his episcopate. ‘Bishop Elmer,’ says Baker, ‘offered thrice in two years to have resigned his bishoprick with him upon certain conditions, which he [Bancroft] refused. Bishop Elmer signify'd the day before his death how sorry he was that he had not written to her majestie, and commended his last suit unto her highness, viz. to have made him his successor’ (Baker MSS. xxxvi. 335). Richard Fletcher, who was appointed Aylmer's successor, held the office only about eighteen months, and on 21 April 1597 Bancroft was elected, and his enthronement took place on 5 June. Shortly after he expended no less than a thousand pounds on the repair of his London house.

He was now, if we may credit Fuller (Worthies, Lancash. p. 112), virtually primate; for Whitgift's increasing infirmities rendered him unable to discharge the active duties of his office, and his former chaplain had gained his entire confidence. Bancroft also appears as often now taking part in political affairs. We find him, along with Dr. Christopher Perkins and Dr. Richard Swale, forming one of a diplomatic mission to Embden in the year 1600 for the purpose of there conferring with ambassadors from Denmark respecting certain matters in dispute between the two nations; but the arrangements having miscarried, the mission proved fruitless (Camden, Reign of Elizabeth, ii. 625, 648). When the Earl of Essex attempted to induce the citizens of London to rise in his favour, Bancroft collected a body of pikemen, who repulsed the earl's followers at Ludgate. He was present at the death-bed of Elizabeth, and joined in proclaiming King James; and when the new monarch set out on his progress from Scotland to London, he was met near Royston by the bishop, attended by an imposing retinue. On 22 July following, James and his consort honoured the bishop with a visit at his palace at Fulham.

His conduct from this time was marked by a severity and arbitrariness which his apologists have vainly endeavoured to defend. At the Hampton Court conference (January 1604) his hostility to the puritan party was evinced in a manner which drew down upon him the royal rebuke; and when Reynolds, on the second day's conference, brought forward a well-sustained proposal for a new translation of the Bible, Bancroft petulantly observed that ‘if every man's humour should be followed, there would be no end of translating’ (Barlow, Sum of the Conference, &c., Phœnix, i. 157). Of his whole conduct throughout the proceedings Mr. S. R. Gardiner writes: ‘It is scarcely possible to find elsewhere stronger proofs of Bancroft's deficiencies in temper and character’ (Gardiner, History of England, i. 155).

Archbishop Whitgift having died shortly after the conference, Bancroft was appointed to preside in the convocation of the clergy of the province of Canterbury, which assembled on 20 March 1604. By his directions a book of canons was compiled which embodied some of the most coercive provisions of the various articles, injunctions, and synodical acts put forth in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth. This collection was presented to convocation, and, after having passed both houses, received the royal approval. It was, however, strenuously opposed and denounced in the session of parliament in the following May, and a bill was passed by the Commons declaring that no canon or constitution ecclesiastical made in the last ten years, or hereafter to be made, should be of force to impeach or hurt any person in his life, liberty, lands, or goods, unless first confirmed by the legislature. This has always been regarded as a serious blow to the authority of convocation, as the highest legal authorities have since agreed that these canons are not binding on the laity (Lathbury's Convocation, p. 231). Bancroft, as the reputed originator of the above collection, was exposed to all the odium attaching to the measure, and the result was to place him in a position of bitter antagonism to the civil courts for the rest of his life. It was one of his favourite ideas that, by fomenting the controversies that were then being waged between the secular catholic clergy and the Jesuits, he should succeed in winning many of the former over to the English church; and with this view he seems to have given a kind of sanction to the study of the literature which illustrated the points of difference between the two parties in the Roman communion. He had already been glanced at on this account in the Hampton Court conference (Barlow, Sum of the Conference, pp. 158–9), and an act was now brought into the House of Commons, and an information laid against him by William Jones, the printer, declaring ‘certain practices of the Bishop of London, the publishing traitorous and popish books,’ to be treason (State Papers, Dom. James, viii. 21–3). These proceedings led to no result, and on 17 Nov. following (1604) Bancroft was elected archbishop of Canterbury. In this exalted position he was still unable to forget former differences, and having been appointed commissioner in the following May in conjunction with the lord admiral and others, to hold an ecclesiastical court in the diocese of Winchester, he availed himself of the information which he was thus enabled to collect to lay before the privy council, in the following Michaelmas, the famous Articles of Abuses (‘Articuli Cleri’), in which he protested, in the name of the collective clergy of the realm, against the ‘prohibitions’ which the civil judges were in the practice of issuing against the proceedings of the ecclesiastical courts. This interference was repudiated by the majority of the clergy, who maintained that those courts were amenable for their proceedings to the crown alone. Bancroft, although supported by King James, found himself confronted by Coke and the rest of the common-law judges, and the whole dispute (see Gardiner, History of England, ii. 35–42) affords a striking illustration of the struggle which the interpreters of the law, in accord with the national feeling, now found it necessary to carry on against the combined influence of the crown and the church. It is difficult indeed to doubt the justice of Hallam's observation when he asserts (Const. Hist. c. vi.) that Bancroft, while magnifying the royal authority over the ecclesiastical courts, was really aiming at rendering those courts independent of the law.

The scheme of a new translation of the Bible, which he had opposed when it had emanated from a puritan quarter, found in him a ready supporter when enforced by the royal sanction; and it is due to Bancroft to recognise the fact that much of the success which ultimately attended that great undertaking was due to his zealous co-operation.

In the excess of indignation directed against the Roman catholics in consequence of the discovery of the Gunpowder plot, Bancroft seems to have striven to mitigate the violence of popular feeling; but that he himself inclined to catholicism is an allegation which rests on no adequate evidence. In January 1605–6 he brought forward a motion in the House of Lords for the appointment of a committee to inquire into the laws in force for the preservation of religion, the protection of the king, and the maintenance of the commonwealth; and his efforts resulted in the enactment of two additional measures directed against popish recusants.

With reference to the puritan party his conduct was far less defensible. Soon after his confirmation as archbishop he devised the ‘ex animo’ form of subscription, as a further test of unreserved compliance on the part of the clergy with the doctrines of the prayer-book. Many who had before been ready to yield a general conformity to Whitgift's three articles could not be brought to subscribe to a declaration that they did so with full approval and unreserved assent. Bancroft extended to them no indulgence, and some two or three hundred were consequently dispossessed of their benefices and driven from the church. Of the feelings which he thus evoked against himself we have a notable example in the language addressed to him by the eminent Scotch divine, Andrew Melville, when cited before the privy council in November 1606. On that occasion Melville, to quote the description given by his own nephew, ‘burdeinit him with all thais corruptiounes and vanities, and superstitiounes, with profanatioune of the Sabbath day, silenceing, imprissouning, and beiring doun of the true and faithfull preicheres of the Word of God, of setting and holding upe of antichristiane hierarchie and popische ceremonies; and taking him by the quhyt sleives of his rochet, and schalking them, in his manner, frielie and roundlie, callit them “Romishe ragis, and a pairt of the Beastes mark!”’ (Diary of James Melville (Wodrow Soc.), p. 679).

In 1608 Bancroft was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford, and was incorporated D.D. of the university. In the parliament of 1610 he brought forward an elaborate scheme (which he failed to carry) for bettering the condition of the clergy, whereby, among other provisions, all prædial tithes were to be made payable in kind, while those collected in cities and large towns were to be estimated according to the rents of houses.

Another project, attributed to him by Wilson, was that of founding a college of controversial divinity at Chelsea, wherein ‘the ablest scholars and most pregnant wits in matters of controversies were to be associated under a provost,’ for the express purpose of ‘answering all popish books … or the errors of those that struck at hierarchy’ (Complete History of England, ii. 685). According, however, to another writer (see Biog. Brit.), the author of the scheme was Sutcliffe, dean of Exeter, who was afterwards first provost of the college. But that Bancroft warmly sympathised with the design is shown by the fact that when, at his death, he bequeathed his valuable library to his successors in the see of Canterbury, it was on the condition that they should successively give security for the due preservation of the collection in its entirety, and, failing such security, the books were to go to Chelsea College, then in process of erection. The college proved a failure; and when, at the puritan revolution, the episcopal office was abolished, Bancroft's library was, by order of parliament, transferred to the university of Cambridge, which he had himself designated in the event of Chelsea College not being completed within a certain time after his decease. At the Restoration Archbishop Sheldon asserted his claim, and the collection went back to Lambeth.

Bancroft died (after protracted suffering) of the stone 2 Nov. 1610, and was interred in Lambeth Church. There are portraits of him at the palace, at Durham Castle, at Cambridge University Library, at Trinity Hall, and Jesus College.

An examination of his various writings can hardly fail to convince the reader that his literary abilities and his attainments were considerable, when estimated by the standard of his age. Although his disposition was arbitrary and his temper irritable, he could at times, like his predecessor Whitgift, show much conciliatory prudence and tact in winning over opponents. Hallam compares him with Becket, and in one respect there was undoubtedly a strong resemblance, viz. in the leniency with which both were disposed to regard the general misdemeanours and offences of the orthodox clergy. In dealing with such cases in the Court of High Commission, Bancroft was as merciful as he was inflexible in the suppression of schism. Hacket, in his ‘Life of Archbishop Williams’ (p. 97)—a writer not likely unduly to eulogise the prelate whom Laud took for his model—says: ‘He would chide stoutly, but censure mildly. He considered that he sat there rather as a father than a judge. “Et pro peccato magno paullulum supplicii satis esse patri.” He knew that a pastoral staff was made to reduce a wandering sheep, not to knock it down.’ Camden speaks of him as a prelate of ‘singular courage and prudence in all matters relating to the discipline and establishment of the church’ (Britannia, ed. Gibson, i. 242). But Camden, it is to be noted, was one of Bancroft's personal friends, and the archbishop is entitled to the credit of having induced the historian to bequeath some of his manuscript collections to Lambeth library (Camdeni Vita, by T. Smith, prefixed to ‘Camdeni Epistolæ,’ 1691, p. lv). Clarendon, in an oft-quoted comparison of his virtues as a disciplinarian with the latitudinarian tendencies of his successor George Abbot [q. v.], says that he ‘disposed the clergy to a more solid course of study than they had been accustomed to; and if he had lived, would quickly have extinguished all that fire in England which had been kindled at Geneva; or if he had been succeeded by Bishop Andrews, Bishop Overall, or any man who understood and loved the church’ (History of the Rebellion, i. 125).

[Harleian Soc. v. 279; Biographia Britannica, ed. Kippis; Calendar of State Papers (Dom.), Reign of James I, 1603–10, ed. Green; Baumgartner Papers, vol. x. No. 26; Hacket's Life of Archbishop Williams; Heylin's Aerius Redivivus; Cardwell's Documentary Annals, vol. ii.; Joyce's Sacred Synods; Fuller's Church History; Cooper's Athenæ Cantabrigienses, iii. 28 (unpublished); Martin Marprelate Controversy and Marprelate Tracts, by Arber; the Life in Hook's Archbishops of Canterbury should be avoided, as full of serious inaccuracies and misrepresentations.]

J. B. M.