Samuel Harsnett

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Samuel Harsnett : biography

1561 – 25 May 1631

Death and Commemoration

Towards the end of his life he fell ill, signing his will on 13 February 1631, to which he signed a codicil on 18 May, and taking the waters at Bath in April of that year. He died at Moreton-in-Marsh while returning from Bath on 25 May 1631 and his body took ten days to return to Chigwell. He was buried at St Mary’s Church, Chigwell alongside his wife and daughter, both named Thomasine who had both died in 1601. A brass of Harsnett can be found in St Mary’s Church, Chigwell, although it has been moved from its original position over his grave. The image on the brass is believed to be a true representation of him and he most likely sat for it shorty before his death. It has been suggested that it is of Flemish origin but, because of the similarities it bears to the brass of Sir John Filmer in East Sutton, Kent, it is now believed to be by Edward Marshall. His epitaph on the brass reads:

Hic iacet Samuell Hasrsnett quondam vicarius huius ecclesiae primo indignus episcopus Cicestrensis deindignior Norwicencis demum indignissim’ archiepiscop’ Eboraceñ qui ibijt XXV die maij anno dñi: 1631 Here lies Samuel Harsnett once vicar of this church, first unworthy bishop of Chichester, then more unworthy bishop of Norwich, finally most unworthy archbishop of York; he died on the 25th day in May in the year of our Lord 1631.

There are two changes from the inscription he requested in his will – his name is spelt as "Samuell", not "Samuel" and "deindignior" should have been "dein indignior".

In his home town of Colchester he is commemorated by a statue on the town hall and a stained glass window in St. Botolph’s Church. His library of theological works was bequeathed to the borough of Colchester for the use of local clergy; it can now be found in the library of the University of Essex.

Religious views

Harsnett is noted for his sceptical attitude towards demons and witchcraft. As the chaplain to Bishop Bancroft, Harsnett was commissioned to write a treatise condemning the 1590s exorcisms of John Darrell, having sat on the 1598 commissions which investigated his activities. Darrell, curate at St. Mary’s Church, Nottingham was a puritan minister who performed a series of public exorcisms in the English Midlands. Eventually, the exorcisms caused such a disturbance that they attracted the attention of Anglican authorities in London. Harsnett’s A Survey of Certain Dialogical Discourses was a polemical piece intended to discredit Darrell’s puritan agenda. It was drafted as a piece of political propaganda, but it also genuinely questioned the belief in demons. In this way, Harsnett sought natural explanations for supposedly supernatural phenomena.

In 1603, he wrote another book, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, published by order of the Privy Council, which condemned exorcisms performed by Roman Catholic priests in the 1580s. Shakespeare used this book as a source, pulling words and phrases when writing the play King Lear, mainly spoken by Edgar while he feigns madness and John Milton is said to have been influenced by it when writing L’Allegro.

As a member of England’s religious authority, Harsnett’s sceptical attitudes, divided equally between puritanism and popery, set important precedents for English policy. For example, by coming close "to denying the reality of witchcraft" he may have contributed to the relative lack of witch hunts in England, compared to other countries.