John Whitgift bigraphy, stories - Archbishop of Canterbury

John Whitgift : biography

- 29 February 1604

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 horsemen. 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. His date of birth was probably somewhere between 1530 and 1533. His early education was entrusted to his uncle, Robert Whitgift, abbot of the neighbouring monastery of Wellow, by whose advice he was afterwards 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.

Links with Cambridge

Having taken orders in 1560, he became chaplain to Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely, who collated him to the rectory of Teversham, Cambridgeshire. In 1563 he was appointed Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at 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 also 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 November following he was chosen as vice-chancellor.


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 He left several unpublished works, which are included among the Manuscripts Angliae. Many of his letters, articles, injunctions, etc. are calendared in the published volumes of the "State Paper" series of the reign of Elizabeth. His Collected Works, edited for the Parker Society by John Ayre (3 vols., Cambridge, 1851–1853), include, besides the controversial tracts already alluded to, two sermons published during his lifetime, a selection from his letters to Cecil and others, and some portions of his unpublished manuscripts.

Croydon was the site of a palace which was used as a summer retreat by Archbishops of Canterbury in those days. Whitgift set up there a charitable foundation, which still exists as The Whitgift Foundation. It supports homes for the elderly and infirm, and runs three independent schools – Whitgift School, founded in 1596. Trinity School of John Whitgift and, more recently, Old Palace School for girls, which is housed in the palace buildings once used by him.

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 is named after him.


  • Life of Whitgift by Sir George Paule, 1612, 2nd ed. 1649. It was embodied by John Strype in his Life and Acts of Whitgift (1718).
  • A life included in Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography (1810)
  • W. F. Hook, Archbishops of Canterbury (1875)
  • Vol. i. of Whitgift's Collected Works
  • C. H. Cooper, Athenae Cantabrigienses.
  • at Trinity College, Cambridge

Francis Bacon

Dr. Whitgift is believed to have taught Francis Bacon at Cambridge University in the 1570s.

Archbishop of Canterbury (1583-1604)

In August 1583 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury to replace Edmund Grindal, who had been placed under house arrest after his disagreement with the Queen 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 Queen 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 queen's 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 in order to prevent the publication of such opinions he got a law passed in 1593 making Puritanism an offence against the statute law, the Act against Seditious Sectaries. In the controversy between Walter Travers and Richard Hooker he prohibited the former from preaching; and he presented Hooker with the rectory of Boscombe in Wiltshire, in order to afford him more leisure to complete his Ecclesiastical Polity, a work which in the end did not represent either Whitgift's theological or his ecclesiastical standpoint.

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 upon by several bishops, they were afterwards recalled by order of Elizabeth I, 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, in 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), but his monument there, with his recumbent effigy, was practically destroyed when the church was burnt down in 1867.

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