Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheldon, Gilbert
SHELDON, GILBERT (1598–1677), archbishop of Canterbury, born at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on 19 July 1598, was youngest son of Roger Sheldon of Stanton, Staffordshire. The father, although of ancient family, was a 'menial servant' (Wood, Athenae Oxon. iv. 854) of Gilbert Talbot, seventh earl of Shrewsbury. He matriculated at Oxford on 1 July 1614, graduated B.A. from Trinity College on 27 Nov. 1617, and M.A. on 28 June, 1620. In 1619 he was incorporated at Cambridge. In 1622 he was elected fellow of All Souls', from which college he took the degree of B.D. on 11 Nov. 1628. and D.D. on 25 June 1634 (Reg. Univ. Oxford, Oxford Hist. Soc, ii, 334, iii. 368). In 1622 he was ordained, and shortly afterwards he became domestic chaplain to Thomas, lord Coventry, the lord keeper [q. v.] On 26 Feb. 1632 he was installed prebendary of Gloucester, in 1633 he became vicar of Hackney, in 1636 rector both of Oddington, Oxford, and Ickford, Buckinghamshire (of the latter the crown was patron), and in 1639 rector of Newington, Oxford. He had early been introduced by the lord keeper to the king, who appointed him his chaplain and 'designed' him to be master of the Savoy and dean of Westminster, 'but the change of the times and rebellion that followed hindered his settlement in them'(Wood).
In his earlier years he appears to have been opposed to the 'Arminian' party (Wood, Annals, 1623), and in 1635 he was prominent in resisting, though unsuccessfully, Laud's appointment of Jeremy Taylor to a fellowship at All Souls' (see Burrows, Worthies of All Souls’, pp. 142 sqq.) But he was at least as early as 1635 a strong anti-puritan (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 16-26 April 1635). He was soon well known to the leaders of church and state, and was the friend of both Falkland and Hyde. The latter (Clarendon, Life, p. 25) says of him at this time that his 'learning, gravity, and prudence had in that time . . . raised him to such a station that he then was looked upon & equal to any preferment the church could yield ... and Sir Francis Wenman would often say when the Doctor resorted to the conversation at Great Tew, as he frequently did, that Sheldon was born and bred to be archbishop of Canterbury.' In March 1626 he was elected warden of All Souls' on the death Dr. Astley. He had already made the acquaintance of Laud, and he occasionally corresponded with him (Laud, Works, vi. 444, 520) on college business, on matters concerning the university (ib. vol. v. passim), and on the conversion of Chillingworth from Roman Catholicism. In 1634 and 1640 he was pro-vice-chancellor. In 1638 he was appointed on the commission of visitation of Merton College, on the report of which several drastic reforms were inaugurated (Brodrick, Memorials of Merton College, pp. 78 sqq.; Laud, Works, v. 546 sqq.) He heartily approved Hyde's conduct in parliament. On 6 Nov. 1640 he wrote to him, 'If any good success happen in parliament, they must thank men of your temper and prudence for it' (Cal. of Clarendon State Papers, i. 209). After the war began he was from time to time in attendance on the king. He was summoned to take part in the negotiations for the treaty of Uxbridge in February 1644, and Clarendon states that he there argued so earnestly in favour of the church as to draw on him the envy and resentment of the parliamentarians, which they made him afterwards sufficiently feel. It was on 13 April 1646, when he was in attendance on Charles in Oxford, that the king wrote the vow to restore all church lands and lay impropriations held by the crown if be should be restored to his 'just kingly rights.' This was entrusted to Sheldon's keeping and preserved by him 'thirteen years underground' (Le Neve, Lives of Bishops since the Reformation, pp. 178-9). Sheldon was with the king again in 1647 at Newmarket, and later in the Isle of Wight.
Many letters during the years before the king's death show him in constant communication with the leaders of the royalist party, especially with Hyde (ib.), who made him one of the trustees of his papers. On 30 March 1648 he was ejected from the wardenship of All Souls' by the parliamentary visitors, after a stout fight against their pretensions. He had been member of a delegacy which had resisted them at their first coming in 1647. On 12 April 1648 the visitors signed an order for his commitment to custody for refusal to surrender his lodgings, and he was removed by force. In prison at Oxford there was 'great resort of persons to him' (Wood, Annals), and he was ordered to be removed to Wallingford Castle with Dr. Henry Hammond [q. v.], but the governor refused to receive them. He was set free at the end of 1648, on condition that he did not come within five miles of Oxford or the Isle of Wight, where the king then was (Walker, Sufferings of the Clergy; Burrows, Register of the Visitors of the University of Oxford, Camd. Soc.; Wood, Annals).
He retired to Sneltson in Derbyshire, and remained there or stayed with friends in Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire till the Restoration. He was constant in subscribing and in collecting for the poor clergy and for Charles II in exile. He corresponded with Jeremy Taylor, whom he largely supported, and with Hyde, to whom he severely criticised the conduct of the exiled court (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 736). On the death of Palmer, whom the visitors had made warden of All Souls' in his stead, on 4 March 1659, he was quietly reinstated. Already he had been mentioned for one of the vacant bishoprics, when it had been proposed to consecrate secretly in 1655, (July 1655, ib. iii. 60, letter of Dr. Duncombe to Hyde).
At the Restoration he met Charles at Canterbury, was made dean of the Chapel Royal, and was from the first high in favour. 'You are the only person about his Majesty that I have confidence in,' wrote the aged Brian Duppa, bishop of Salisbury, to him on 11 Aug. 1660, 'and I persuade myself that as none hath his ear more, so none is likely to prevail on his heart more, and there was never more need of it' (Tanner MSS. in Bodl. Libr. vol. xl. f. 17). On 9 Oct. 1660 he was elected bishop of London in the place of Juxon. He was confirmed on 23 Oct. and consecrated on 28 Oct. in Henry VII's chapel. He was also made master of the Savoy and sworn of the privy council. The Savoy conference was held at his lodging in the Savoy, and was opened by him with a direction that 'nothing should be done till all the puritan objections had been formulated and considered.' During the conference he appeared rarely and did not dispute, but was understood 'to have a principal hand in disposing' (see Calamy, Abridgment of R. Baxter's Life, and Burnet). He is said to have been strongly in favour of the enforcement of the uniformity laws (Samuel Parker, History of his Own Time, p. 28), and his papers contain many letters from statesmen, justices, and bishops on this point (Sheldon Papers, especially the letters from English, Scots, and Irish bishops; 'Dolben Papers,' especially letters from Clarendon, in Dolben Hist. MSS. 1626-1721, pp. 104-13, 116, 119, 120-7). A commission was issued to him to consecrate the new Scots bishops, 'so that it be not prejudicial to the privileges of the church of Scotland' (Cal, State Papers, Dom. 30 Nov. 1661); and he practically exercised the powers of the archbishopric, owing to Juxon's age and infirmities. On the primate's death he was elected his successor (congé d'élire, 6 June 1663. election 11 Aug., confirmation '31 Aug., restoration of temporalities 9 Sept.; Le Neve, Lives of Bishops since the Reformation, p. 182, corrected by Cal. State Papers, Dom.)
From this date his political activity increased. The state papers contain many references to his appointment as arbiter in difficult cases of petitions presented through him, and to investigations entrusted to his hands by the king, especially in connection with the navy. One of his first acts was to arrange with Clarendon that the clergy should no longer tax themselves in convocation (Cal. State Papers; Sheldon MSS.) He was elected chancellor of the university of Oxford in 1667 on the resignation of Clarendon on 20 Dec, but was never installed, and resigned on 31 July 1669 (Wood, Life and Times, ed. Clark, ii. 124, 166). He built at Oxford, entirely at his own expense, the theatre (known as 'The Sheldonian') for the performance of the 'Act, or Encaenia.' It was opened on 9 July 1669. The total cost was 12,339l. 4s. 4d. (details in Bodl. MS. 898 and Wood, Life and Times, ed. Clark^, and 2,000l. was spent also on 'buying lands whose revenue might support the fabrick' (ib, iii. 72). Wren, who was the architect, told Evelyn that the cost was 25,000l. (Evelyn, Journal, i.419). Sheldon had long taken particular care of the antiquities of the university. During the Commonwealth he saved the university copy of the Laudian statutes ('Authenticus Liber Statutorum') and presented it to Clarendon when he was chancellor, who restored it. He paid particular attention to Anthony à Wood (Life, ii. 167), and gave him 'great encouragement to proceed in his studies' (ib. p. 243). His relations with the university throughout appear to have been liberal and judicious both as visitor and as chancellor (see Brodrick, Memorials of Merton College; Burrows, Worthies of All Souls). In spite of his severity against dissenters and his share in the passing of the Corporation Act, he seems to have at times promoted, and frequently protected, nonconforming divines (see Overton, Life in the English Church, 1660-1714, p. 347). Though he was long one of the most prominent of the king's advisers, he did not hesitate to reprove Charles for his adultery and to refuse him the holy communion on that account (Burnet, i. 438). In 1667 his remonstrances are said to have cost him Charles's favour.
He was no less assiduous in the discharge of the spiritual duties of his office. His papers show him diligent in reproving bishops for neglect of duly, in encouraging the deserving, and in investigating all cases of hardship or scandal. During the plague he remained at Lambeth 'all the time of the greatest danger, and with his diffusive charity preserved great numbers alive that would have perished in their necessities; and by his affecting letters to all the bishops procured great sums to be returned out of all parts of his province' (Le Neve, as above, p. 183). He was equally urgent in collecting for the rebuilding of St. Paul's, giving himself over 4,000l. before and after the fire. In supervision of the work of the English church beyond the seas he showed a special activity; one of his last acts was to interest himself in provision for the spiritual needs of Maryland (Cal. State Papers, Colonial Ser., America and the West Indies, passim); and in Scotland and Ireland he was the strongest supporter of the episcopalian establishment (see the volume Bodleian MS. add. c 306), being constantly informed of the 'forward humour of our phanaticks' and the sad condition of 'the poor orthodox clergy' (see Letter from the Archbishop of Glasgow, 24 Aug. 1667 ib.) During the whole of his life he was extraordinarily generous, and it is stated that he gave to 'public pious uses, in acts of munificence and charity,' 72,000l. (Kennett, Case of Impropriations, 257). He died at Lambeth on 9 Nov. 1677, and was buried at Croydon, where he had chiefly resided during the last years of his life. A monument was erected to his memory in Croydon parish church by his nephew, Sir Joseph Sheldon (lord mayor of London in 1676). He was unmarried.
Sheldon was placed at the head of the English church at a very critical time, for the Restoration settlement affected all her future history. If he did nothing to minimise the differences between her and the protestant sects, he certainly confirmed her in the course which she had pursued since the Reformation. Characteristic of this position is the impetus which he gave to the preservation of the memory of Archbishop Laud (see Laud, Works, iii. 122; Wharton, Preface to the History of the Troubles and Trial).
Of his character contemporaries give very different judgments. He was no doubt a high tory of the school of Clarendon, and thus was never popular with the king's favorites or with the whigs. Burnet speaks of him as seeming 'not to have a deep sense of religion, if any at all,' and as speaking of it 'most commonly as of an engine of government and a. matter of policy.' But it must be remembered that he was the warm friend of Clarendon, Falkland. Sanderson, Hammond, and Juxon, the spiritual counsellor of Charles I, and the honest adviser of his son. His chaplain, Samuel Parker (1640-1688) [q. v.], describes him as a man of undoubted piety 'but though he was very assiduous at prayers, yet he did not set so great a value on them as others did, nor regard so much worship as the use of worship, placing the chief point of religion in the practice of a good life.' And he would say to the 'young noblemen' and gentlemen who by their parents' commands resorted daily to him, "Let it be your principal care to become honest men . . . no piety will be of any advantage to yourselves or anybody else unless you are honest and moral men."' Of his high practical ability there is no doubt; even Burnet speaks of him as 'very dexterous,' and of 'a great quickness of apprehension and a very true judgment.' Ecclesiastically he belonged to the school of Andrewes and Laud, 'holding fast the true orthodox profession of the catholique faith of Christ . . . being a true member of His catholique church within the communion of a living part thereof, the present church of England' (Will, in Codrington Library, All Souls' College, Oxford).
His only published work is a sermon preached before the king at Whitehall on 8 June 1660 (for his manuscript remains at Lambeth see Wood, Athenae Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 858). Several portraits of him exist, notably one in the hall of All Souls' College. Oxford, which represents him as a thin man with a high colour and small dark moustache. There are engravings by Loggan and Vertue.[Much of the authority for the life of Sheldon in detail is still in manuscript, notably the Clarendon State Papers in the Bodleian, and the Sheldon Papers and Dolben Papers preserved in the same library. Of printed sources the most important are mentioned in the text. The most complete vindication based on manuscript evidence, is that of Professor Burrows's Worthies of All Souls'.]