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22. Spiritual encounters in the archive

By Alice Soulieux-Evans

An English literature student, my ‘conversion’ to history came through studying the Reformation. Yet this scholarly ‘conversion’ coincided with my coming to faith. Whilst as a historian I seek to be objective, it doesn’t mean I don’t find my research and the people I study spiritually edifying as a Christian. One of my most memorable ‘encounters’ in the archives was one such occasion, when I came across a copy of Laud’s last will and testament.

Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) was – and remains – a deeply controversial figure. His unpopular ecclesiastical policies deeply divided early seventeenth-century English Protestants; divisions which would ultimately lead to the English Civil War. A stickler for conformity, his authoritarian approach led the nineteenth-century British historian Macaulay to describe him as a ‘ridiculous old bigot’. This, along with my own doctrinal beliefs, meant that I never ‘warmed’ to Laud. Yet when I came across his last will, I encountered a very different person.

As the English Civil War broke out, opponents turned on Laud and his allies: he was impeached for high treason and imprisoned in the Tower. In his will, written during his imprisonment, Laud speaks of his fear that he ‘should […] be so unhappy as to die a prisoner’ there. But most importantly, he writes:

‘first in all humility, and devotion of a contrite heart, I heartily beg of God pardon, and remission of all my sins, for, and through, the merits, and Mediation of Jesus [Christ], my alone Savior: And though I have been a most prodigal son; yet my hope is in Christ, that for his sake God (my most merciful Creator) will not cast off the bowels of compassion of a Father.’

What I was faced with here was not the authoritarian, intolerant church administrator I had come to hate, but another sinful human being, seeking forgiveness and proclaiming his hope in Christ – beliefs and hopes I share in. Research in the archives brings many different kinds of encounter with the past. For me, this encounter with Laud is the one which will stay with me, for through it, I realised that, despite huge differences, when it came down to it, Laud and I both found meaning and hope in the same newborn king, born 2,000 years ago. Happy Christmas!

Image: Lambeth Palace Library, MS 577, Copy of William Laud’s Will, p.61. Photograph author’s own, by kind permission of Lambeth Palace Library.

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