John Whitgift

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John Whitgift
Archbishop of Canterbury
John Whitgift from NPG.jpg
Installed August 1583
Term ended 29 February 1604
Predecessor Edmund Grindal
Successor Richard Bancroft
Personal details
Born c. 1530
Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England
Died 29 February 1604 (aged 73/74)
Lambeth, London, England
Buried Croydon, Surrey

John Whitgift (c. 1530 – 29 February 1604) was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583 to his death. Noted for his hospitality, he was somewhat ostentatious in his habits, sometimes visiting Canterbury and other towns attended by a retinue of 800 horses. Whitgift's theological views were often controversial.

Making of a High Churchman

He was the eldest son of Henry Whitgift, a merchant, of Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire, where he was born, probably between 1530 and 1533. The Whitgift family is thought to have originated in the relatively close Yorkshire village of Whitgift, adjoining the river Ouse.

John Whitgift's early education was entrusted to his uncle, Robert Whitgift, abbot of the neighbouring Wellow Abbey, on whose advice he was sent to St Anthony's School, London. In 1549 he matriculated at Queens' College, Cambridge, and in May 1550 he moved to Pembroke Hall, where the martyr John Bradford was his tutor. In May 1555 he became a fellow of Peterhouse.[1]

Francis Bacon

Whitgift taught Francis Bacon and his older brother Anthony Bacon at Cambridge University in the 1570s.[2] As their tutor, Whitgift bought the brothers their early classical text books, including works by Plato, Cicero and others.[3]

Links with Cambridge

Having taken holy orders in 1560, he became chaplain to Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely, who collated (that is, appointed) him to the rectory of Teversham, just to the east of Cambridge. In 1563 he was appointed Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and his lectures gave such satisfaction to the authorities that on 5 July 1566 they considerably augmented his stipend. The following year he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity, and became master first of Pembroke Hall and then of Trinity. He had a principal share in compiling the statutes of the university, which passed the great seal on 25 September 1570, and in the November following he was chosen as vice-chancellor.

While at Cambridge he formed a close relationship with Andrew Perne, sometime vice-chancellor. Perne went on to live with Whitgift in his old age. Puritan satirists would later mock Whitgift as "Perne's boy" who was willing to carry his cloak-bag – thus suggesting that the two had enjoyed a homosexual relationship.[4]

Promotions and improvements

Whitgift's theological views were controversial. An aunt with whom he once lodged wrote that "though she thought at first she had received a saint into her house, she now perceived he was a devil". Macaulay's description of Whitgift as "a narrow, mean, tyrannical priest, who gained power by servility and adulation," is rhetorical and exaggerated, but undoubtedly Whitgift's High Church beliefs led him to treat the Puritans intolerantly. In a pulpit controversy with Thomas Cartwright regarding the constitutions and customs of the Church of England, his oratorical effectiveness proved inferior, but was able to exercise arbitrary authority: together with other heads of the university, he deprived Cartwright of his professorship, and in September 1571 Whitgift exercised his prerogative as master of Trinity to deprive him of his fellowship. In June of the same year Whitgift was nominated Dean of Lincoln. In the following year he published An Answere to a Certain Libel entitled an Admonition to the Parliament, which led to further controversy between the two churchmen. On 24 March 1577, Whitgift was appointed Bishop of Worcester, and during the absence of Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland in 1577 he acted as vice-president of Wales.

Archbishop of Canterbury, 1583–1604

File:John Whitgift window detail - - 1071737.jpg
John Whitgift at Queen Elizabeth's deathbed. The archbishop's death is given as 1603 because of Old Style and New Style dates.

In August 1583 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury to replace Edmund Grindal, who had been placed under house arrest after his disagreement with Queen Elizabeth over 'prophesyings' and died in office. Whitgift placed his stamp on the church of the Reformation, and shared Elizabeth's hatred of Puritans. Although he wrote to Elizabeth remonstrating against the alienation of church property, Whitgift always retained her special confidence. In his policy against the Puritans and in his vigorous enforcement of the subscription test he thoroughly carried out the her policy of religious uniformity.

He drew up articles aimed at nonconforming ministers, and obtained increased powers for the Court of High Commission. In 1586 he became a privy councillor. His actions gave rise to the Martin Marprelate tracts, in which the bishops and clergy were strongly opposed. Through Whitgift's vigilance the printers of the tracts were discovered and punished, and to prevent the publication of such opinions he had the Act against Seditious Sectaries passed in 1593, making Puritanism an offence.[5] In the controversy between Walter Travers and Richard Hooker he prohibited the former from preaching, and he presented the latter with the rectory of Boscombe in Wiltshire, to help him complete his Ecclesiastical Polity, a work that in the end did not represent Whitgift's theological or ecclesiastical standpoints.

In 1595, in conjunction with the Bishop of London and other prelates, he drew up the Calvinistic instrument known as the Lambeth Articles. Although the articles were signed and agreed by several bishops they were recalled by order of Elizabeth, claiming that the bishops had acted without her explicit consent. Whitgift maintained that she had given her approval.

Whitgift attended Elizabeth on her deathbed, and crowned James I. He was present at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, at which he represented eight bishops.

He died at Lambeth the following February. He was buried in Croydon at the Parish Church of St John Baptist (now Croydon Minster): his monument there with his recumbent effigy was practically destroyed when the church burnt down in 1867.


Whitgift is described by his biographer, Sir George Paule, as of "middle stature, strong and well shaped, of a grave countenance and brown complexion, black hair and eyes, his beard neither long nor thick." He left several unpublished works, included in the Manuscripts Angliae. Many of his letters, articles and injunctions are calendared in the published volumes of the State Papers series of the reign of Elizabeth. His Collected Works, edited for the Parker Society by John Ayre (3 vols., Cambridge, 1851–1853), include the controversial tracts mentioned above, two sermons published during his lifetime, a selection from his letters to Cecil and others, and some portions of his previously unpublished manuscripts.

Whitgift set up a charitable foundation, now The Whitgift Foundation, in Croydon, the site of a palace, a summer retreat of Archbishops of Canterbury.[6] It supports homes for the elderly and infirm, and runs three independent schools – Whitgift School, founded in 1596,[7] Trinity School of John Whitgift and, more recently, Old Palace School for girls, which is housed in the former Croydon Palace.

Whitgift Street near Lambeth Palace (the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury) is named after him.

A comprehensive school in his home town of Grimsby, John Whitgift Academy, is named after him.[8]

The Whitgift Centre, a major shopping centre in Croydon, is named after him. It is built on land still owned by the Whitgift Foundation.


  1. "Whitgift, John (WHTT550J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Jardine, Lisa; Stewart, Alan. "Much Hoped Imps". Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon. Retrieved 10 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Markku Peltonen (26 April 1996). The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. Cambridge University Press. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-521-43534-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Patrick Collinson, Richard Bancroft and Elizabethan Anti-Puritanism, University of Cambridge, 2013
  5. "The Act Against Puritans (1593)". Retrieved 13 August 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. The Whitgift Foundation, Registered Charity no. 312612 at the Charity Commission
  7. History of Whitgift School
  8. Whitgift School, Grimsby


External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Matthew Hutton
Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge
Succeeded by
William Chaderton
Preceded by
Matthew Hutton
Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Young
Preceded by
Robert Beaumont
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
John Still
Church of England titles
Preceded by
Nicholas Bullingham
Bishop of Worcester
Succeeded by
Edmund Freke
Preceded by
Edmund Grindal
Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by
Richard Bancroft