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George Abbot (bishop)

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George Abbot
Archbishop of Canterbury
Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, 1623
ChurchChurch of England
Installed4 March 1611
Term ended4 August 1633
PredecessorRichard Bancroft
SuccessorWilliam Laud
Consecration3 December 1609
by Richard Bancroft
Personal details
Born29 October 1562
Died4 August 1633(1633-08-04) (aged 70)
Croydon, Surrey, England

George Abbot (29 October 1562 – 4 August 1633)[1][a] was an English divine who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633.[3][5][6] He also served as the fourth chancellor of the University of Dublin, from 1612 to 1633.[7]

Chambers Biographical Dictionary describes him as "[a] sincere but narrow-minded Calvinist".[8] Among his five brothers,[3] Robert became Bishop of Salisbury[8] and Maurice became Lord Mayor of London.[9] He was a translator of the King James Version of the Bible.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

Born at Guildford in Surrey, where his father Maurice Abbot (died 1606) was a cloth worker,[8] he was taught at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford.[3] According to an eighteenth-century biographical dictionary, when Abbot's mother was pregnant with him she had a dream in which she was told that if she ate a pike her child would be a son and rise to great prominence. Some time afterwards she accidentally caught a pike while fetching water from the River Wey and it "being reported to some gentlemen in the neighbourhood, they offered to stand sponsors for the child, and afterwards shewed him many marks of favour".[10] He later studied, and then taught under many eminent scholars, including Thomas Holland, at Balliol College, Oxford, was chosen Master of University College in 1597, and appointed Dean of Winchester in 1600. He was three times Vice-Chancellor of the University, and took a leading part in preparing the authorised version of the New Testament. In 1608, he went to Scotland with George Home, 1st Earl of Dunbar to arrange for a union between the churches of England and Scotland. He so pleased King James in this affair that he was made Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1609 and was translated to the see of London a month afterwards.[2]

Abbot's Hospital in Guildford

Archbishop of Canterbury[edit]

On 4 March 1611, Abbot was raised to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. As archbishop, he defended the apostolic succession of Anglican bishops and the validity of the church's priesthood in 1614. In consequence of the Nag's Head Fable, the archbishop invited certain Roman Catholics to inspect the register in the presence of six of his own episcopal colleagues, the details of which inspection were preserved. It was agreed by all parties that:

The register agrees in every particular with what we know of the history of the times, and there exists not the semblance of a reason for pronouncing it a forgery.[11]

In spite of his defence of the catholic nature of the priesthood, his Puritan instincts frequently led him not only into harsh treatment of Roman Catholics, but also into courageous resistance to the royal will, such as when he opposed the scandalous divorce suit of the Lady Frances Howard against Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and again in 1618 when, at Croydon, he forbade the reading of the Declaration of Sports listing the permitted Sunday recreations. He was naturally, therefore, a promoter of the match between the king's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and a firm opponent of the projected marriage of the new Prince of Wales (later Charles I) and the Spanish Infanta, Maria Anna. This policy brought upon the archbishop the hatred of William Laud (with whom he had previously come into collision at Oxford) and the king's court, although the King himself never forsook Abbot.[2]

In July 1621,[12] while hunting in Lord Zouch's park at Bramshill in Hampshire, a bolt from his cross-bow aimed at a deer happened to strike one of the keepers, who died within an hour, and Abbot was so greatly distressed by the event that he fell into a state of settled melancholia. His enemies maintained that the fatal issue of this accident disqualified him for his office, and argued that, though the homicide was involuntary, the sport of hunting which had led to it was one in which no clerical person could lawfully indulge. The King had to refer the matter to a commission of ten, though he said that "an angel might have miscarried after this sort". The commission was equally divided, and the King gave a casting vote in the Archbishop's favour, though signing also a formal pardon or dispensation.[2] Gustavus Paine notes that Abbot was both the "only translator of the 1611 Bible and the only Archbishop of Canterbury ever to kill a human being".[13][b]

The tomb of George Abbot in Holy Trinity Church, Guildford

After this, the Archbishop seldom appeared at the council, chiefly on account of his infirmities. In 1625 he attended the King constantly, however, in his last illness, and performed the ceremony of the coronation of King Charles I as king of England. His refusal to license the assize sermon preached by Robert Sibthorp at Northampton on 22 February 1627, in which cheerful obedience was urged to the king's demand for a general loan, and the duty proclaimed of absolute non-resistance even to the most arbitrary royal commands, led Charles to deprive him of his functions as primate, putting them in commission. The need of summoning parliament, however, soon brought about a nominal restoration of the Archbishop's powers. His presence being unwelcome at court, he lived from that time in retirement, leaving Laud and his party in undisputed ascendancy. He died at Croydon on 4 August 1633, and was buried at Guildford, his native place, where he had endowed Abbot's Hospital with lands to the value of £300 a year.[2]


Abbot's statue in High Street, Guildford

Abbot was a conscientious prelate, though narrow in view and often harsh towards both separatists and Roman Catholics. He wrote a large number of works, the most interesting being his discursive Exposition on the Prophet Jonah (1600), which was reprinted in 1845. His Geography, or a Brief Description of the Whole World (1599), passed through numerous editions.[2] The newest edition, edited by the current Master of the Abbot's Hospital, was published by Goldenford Publishers Ltd on 20 June 2011, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Abbot had a large private library of more than 8000 volumes, the majority of which he left to Lambeth Palace Library. Books bearing his armorial stamp can still be found in libraries today.[14]

Guildford remembers the Archbishop with his hospital[15] and a statue in the High Street. A secondary school and a pub in the High Street are named after him. His tomb can be found in Holy Trinity Church.[4]


  1. ^ Other sources, such as the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica give his birth and death dates as 19 October 1562 – 5 August 1633,[2] but the majority of sources state he was born 29 October 1562,[3][4] and the date 4 August 1633 is inscribed on his tomb
  2. ^ This ceased to be true, by some definitions, in 1980 with the appointment of former soldier and Military Cross recipient Robert Runcie. Abbot remains the only known Archbishop of Canterbury to kill while in office.


  1. ^ Oldys, William (1777). The life of Dr. George Abbot, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury – via Text Creation Partnership.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abbot, George" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 22–23.
  3. ^ a b c d Fincham, Kenneth. "Abbot, George". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b Lee, Sidney (1885). "Abbot, George (1562-1633)" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 5.
  5. ^ Darwall-Smith, Robin, A History of University College, Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-928429-0. George Abbot, pages 120–126
  6. ^ Abbot, George in the Christian Cyclopedia
  7. ^ "Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593–1860 George Dames Burtchaell/Thomas Ulick Sadleir p1: Dublin, Alex Thom and Co, 1935
  8. ^ a b c Magnus Magnusson, ed. (1990). Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Fifth ed.). Edinburgh: W & R Chambers Ltd. p. 2. ISBN 055016040X.
  9. ^ Lee, Sidney (1885). "Abbot, Maurice" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 21–24.
  10. ^ Society of gentlemen (1780). The Biographical Dictionary, Or, Complete Historical Library: Containing the Lives of the Most Celebrated Personages of Great Britain and Ireland, Whether Admirals, Generals, Poets, Statesmen, Philosophers, Or Divines: a Work Replete with Instruction and Entertainment. F. Newbery. p. 5.
  11. ^ John Wordsworth, D.D., Bishop of Salisbury (13 May 1890). "A Letter on the Succession of Bishops in the Church of England". Project Canterbury. Retrieved 5 October 2008.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ BBC History, July 2011, p. 12
  13. ^ Paine, Gustavus S (1977). The Men Behind the King James Version. Baker. p. 157.
  14. ^ "George Abbot 1562-1633 - Book Owners Online". www.bookowners.online. Retrieved 8 August 2022.
  15. ^ Abbot's Hospital, retrieved 9 January 2016

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Master of University College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Preceded by Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Succeeded by
Preceded by Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Succeeded by
Preceded by Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of Dublin
Succeeded by
Government offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Suffolk
(Lord High Treasurer)
First Lord of the Treasury
Succeeded by
The Earl of Manchester
(Lord High Treasurer)
Church of England titles
Preceded by Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry
Succeeded by
Preceded by Bishop of London
Succeeded by
Preceded by Archbishop of Canterbury
Succeeded by