1670, 10 and 11 Nov., 1670, pp. 522–3; see also Lex Ignea, or the School of Righteousness, a sermon preached before the king, 10 Oct. 1666, by W. Sancroft, London, 1666; Register of Dean of St. Paul's; Wren, Parentalia; Dugdale, History of St. Paul's). He also rebuilt the deanery, which had been burnt down (Familiar Letters of W. Sancroft, 1757, p. 21), at a cost of 2,500l., and he added to the diaconal revenues. It is said to have been largely by his exertions that the Coal Act was passed, which rendered the restoration of the cathedral possible within so short a time. In September 1668 he refused the bishopric of Chester, desiring to carry out the rebuilding of St. Paul's (Hist. MSS. Comm., Report on Manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, esq. p. 59). On 7 Oct. 1668 he was admitted archdeacon of Canterbury. He resigned in 1670, and he was in that year prolocutor of the lower house of the convocation of Canterbury. It was about this time that Sheldon entrusted to Sancroft the publication and translation of Laud's ‘Diary’ and history of his trial; but Sancroft's appointment to the primacy caused him to lay this task aside. In 1693 he resumed it, and was actually engaged on it when he was seized with his last illness. By his directions the work was undertaken by his chaplain, Henry Wharton, who completed it in 1694 (Wharton, Introduction to the History of the Troubles and Tryal, &c., London, 1695).
Sheldon died on 9 Nov. 1677, and a month later Sancroft was chosen to succeed him. Gossip said that he was ‘set up by the Duke of York against London [Henry Compton, bishop of London], and York put on by the papists’ (Wood, Life and Times, ed. Clark, ii. 397). Burnet says that the court thought that he might be entirely won to their ends. But no one charged him with personal ambition. Dryden notices him in ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ as
Zadock the priest, whom, shunning power and place,
His lowly mind advanced to David's grace.
He was consecrated on 27 Jan. 1678 in Westminster Abbey; Le Neve (Bishops, &c. i. 200) says in Lambeth Palace chapel. One of his first acts was an endeavour to win back the Duke of York to the English church; the king suggesting that Bishop Morley of Winchester should assist him. On 21 Feb. 1679 they waited on the duke in St. James's, and the archbishop addressed him in a long speech (printed in D'Oyly's ‘Life of Sancroft,’ i. 165 sqq.). His efforts were quite ineffectual.
In the ecclesiastical duties of his office Sancroft was assiduous and energetic. In August 1678 he issued letters to his suffragans requiring more strict testimonies to candidates for ordination. He had the courage to suspend Thomas Wood, bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, a protégé of the Duchess of Cleveland, for neglect of duty (document printed from the ‘Archbishop's Register’ in D'Oyly, i. 194–6). When Charles was on his deathbed Sancroft visited him and spoke with great ‘freedom, which he said was necessary, since he was going to be judged by One Who was no respecter of persons’ (Burnet, ii. 457).
The day after James II's accession to the throne (7 Feb. 1685), Sancroft, with other prelates, visited him to thank him for his declaration of respect for the privileges of the established church. A few days later the king repeated his promise, with a significant warning. ‘My lords,’ he said to Sancroft and Compton, ‘I will keep my word and will undertake nothing against the religion established by law, assuming that you do your duty towards me; if you fail therein, you must not expect that I shall protect you. I shall readily find the means of attaining my ends without your help’ (cf. Ranke, Hist. Engl. iv. 219). Sancroft on 23 April 1685 crowned the new king according to the ancient English service; but the communion was not administered (Tanner MS. 31, f. 91: Sancroft's own memoranda for the coronation). The first step of the new king was to prohibit ‘preaching upon controversial points’ (Evelyn, Diary, 2 Oct. 1685; Life of James II, ii. 9). James next established a high commission court, to which he appointed as clerical members the archbishop, Lord Crewe, bishop of Durham, and Sprat, bishop of Rochester. Sancroft declined to serve, on the grounds of his great age and infirmities (Tanner MS. 30, f. 59). Burnet severely condemns his conduct, saying that ‘he lay silent at Lambeth … seemed zealous against popery in private discourse, but he was of such a timorous temper, and so set on enriching his nephew, that he showed no sort of courage’ (History of his own Time, iii. 82). But as a matter of fact the archbishop showed courage in declaring that he would not take part in a spiritual commission of which a layman (Jeffreys) was the head; he minutely investigated the legality of the new court, and decided against it (see a mass of autograph papers, Tanner MS. 460). It appears that there was some thought of summoning him before the commission (D'Oyly, i. 233), and that he was henceforth forbidden to appear