Leonie James explains how the accounts of William Laud’s Lambeth Palace household, edited and analysed in full for the first time, reveal much about this controversial figure that we have never seen before.
It is a rare privilege to be able to bring to press a meaty source about a major figure in British history, which allows us to think differently about that person than we did before. It is especially pleasing when that figure is William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury to Charles I (1633-45). From the early stages of his career, Laud was a magnet for controversy, a uniformly divisive figure who became a driving force in bringing about religious change in the decade before the British civil wars. Generations of scholars, undergraduates, A’ level students and general readers are familiar with the archbishop as the dutiful, if rather waspish, crown servant who stood by his royal master, only to be abandoned by the king after the outbreak of war. More recently, however, we have started to appreciate that Laud often went further than offering mere support to the monarch – he regularly pushed the king in his ambitions to achieve a radical reshaping of Protestant worship in three kingdoms and was a far more Machiavellian political operator, adept at covering his tracks, than he has previously been given credit for. We can all agree, though, that for his pains, Laud was accused of being a closet Catholic (or ‘crypto-papist’), faced impeachment and prosecution for treason in the Long Parliament and was beheaded in January 1645, four years before Charles I came to a similar end outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall.
The household accounts of Lambeth Palace under Laud, published in January 2019, provide us with an entirely fresh take on this high profile and unpopular character. Laud may have been Charles I’s most senior adviser at court, but he was also the head of a bustling and lively household, a capacity in which we have never seen him before. This book certainly allows us to witness the archbishop in his ‘home environment’ and to visualise everyday life behind the gates of Lambeth and Croydon manor, the archbishop’s summer palace, while Laud was in residence. But it is more than a window into his domestic domain. It also yields some really lovely new insights into the wide network of people to whom the archbishop was connected – not just the seventy or so servants he employed, but also the hundreds of men and women who gave him gifts, who visited him at home or who crossed Laud’s path in the course of his daily routine. When put together, these nuggets give us a much more rounded assessment of a man with a rather austere and isolated reputation and allow us to appreciate more fully the nature of the role of early modern archbishop and how it was viewed by contemporaries.
Besides its richness, two things make this document particularly exceptional. First, its very existence. The ransacking of the library at Lambeth in 1643, the destruction of many of his papers and the violent end to Laud’s life two years later make the survival of this document quite remarkable. Secondly, the fact that so few scholars – including Laud’s most famous biographer, Trevor-Roper – appear to have been aware of it. For someone, like Laud, who has received so much attention, this is really quite surprising. Personally, I first got wind of this manuscript, which is now held at the National Archives, many years ago and decided then that I wanted to edit and publish it, but life and other projects got in the way. In fact, even if you had unlimited time and energy, producing an edition of a manuscript like this is a very slow process anyway, and one that requires a combination of constant decision-making, thorough research and sheer determination. Even taking into account seventeenth-century handwriting, transcribing the account book was the easy bit – it was not until I had completed the full transcription that I really began to think about what shape the edition should take. In the end – and because over 400 people are named in the document – I decided to supplement the introduction and edition with a substantial biographical appendix, explaining who the people were, their relationship to Laud and a brief summary of their career. In addition to contextual footnotes I also compiled a glossary of unusual or archaic words. I hope that this will encourage potential readers to discover for themselves something that I myself learned while producing this book – there is an awful lot more to early modern account books than just numbers!
From a personal perspective, when I had finished producing this edition, I felt as though I had actually lived and breathed inside Lambeth Palace during the 1630s. I got to know the rhythms of the household; its hustle and bustle; and the sounds, smells and colours of the building were brought to life too. I also got to know a bit more about the man himself, William Laud. And, although the experience was a very long and frustrating one, interrogating and editing this document reminded me of one reason why I love historical research so much – there are still new, interesting and important things to learn about even the most widely studied aspects of our history. Or, to put it more succinctly, even the most well-trodden ground can still prove fertile.
This guest post was written by Leonie James, a Lecturer in History at the University of Kent, Canterbury and author of ‘This Great Firebrand’: William Laud and Scotland, 1617-1645 (Boydell Press, 2017).