Anon. (2004). John Whitgift DD, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1530−1604 Bull Croydon Nat Hist Sci Soc, 121:4−6.

John Whitgift DD, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1530−1604

Of all the archbishops associated with Croydon only one lives on there in name today: John Whitgift. Many liked to visit their 'summer retreat' in Croydon − now known as the Old Palace and home to the girls' school of that name − but none left an imprint on the town in the way that Whitgift did through his hospital and school. It is fitting that Croydon people should honour him in this the 400th year of his death.

Whitgift's life spans the entire period we now call the 'English Reformation': he was born as Henry VIII began the break from Rome and died a year after the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, herself passed on. As a loyal and faithful servant of his Queen he had no small part in its unfolding.

We know little of Whitgift's early life and cannot even be certain of his year of birth − 1530 or 1532 depending on the source used. His parents, Henry Whitgift and Anne Dynewell, were merchants based in the Humber port of Grimsby, though John received his schooling at St Anthony's School in the City of London. In 1550 John went up to Cambridge, then well known as a centre of radical religion. Although by the time of Mary's reign he was known to be a holder of 'reformed' views, Whitgift chose not to go into exile on the continent.

Whitgift was ordained in 1560 and three years later appointed Lady Margaret Reader in Divinity. His doctoral thesis, exploring whether the Pope was the 'Antichrist', was completed in 1567, and thereafter he was made Regius Professor of Divinity, Master of Pembroke College and then Master of Trinity College. It was while delivering a sermon as Master of Trinity that Whitgift first came to the attention of the Queen.

Whitgift spent much of his life contending with Puritans and others who thought the English church had not been fully reformed and should adopt a model of church governance closer to that advocated by European reformers like Calvin and Beza. It was in part to reverse the practice of his predecessor, Edmund Grindal, of allowing Puritan ideas and practices to flourish and spread that Whitgift was elevated by Elizabeth to the See of Canterbury from that of Worcester in October 1583. For his efforts Whitgift was subjected to the most unpleasant personal attacks by the author(s) of the anti-episcopal Marprelate Tracts, anonymous documents which argued that the form of government which obtained in the Church of England was not that prescribed by the New Testament.

Whitgift was a great favourite of the Queen, who referred to him variously as a 'white gift' and her 'little black husband'. She visited him some dozen times while he was in Croydon, a place for which he had a great fondness − indeed it was said of him that he sustained 'a great affection to lie at his mansion house at Croydon, for the sweetness of the place, especially in summer time, whereby also he might sometimes retire himself from the multiplicity of business'. Something of the archbishop's love of Croydon can be seen in what are perhaps his greatest legacies: his Hospital of the Holy Trinity − still today providing a home for people of slender means − and his School, also flourishing as two separate entities, Whitgift and Trinity. But if these are the most important 'tangible' reminders of John Whitgift, his contribution to the settlement of the English church through keeping a check on Puritanism, and his initiation of the process which led eventually to a new version of the Bible in the reign of King James, should also not be ignored.

At Elizabeth's request Whitgift attended her at her death on 24 March 1603, and he himself died the following year, on Leap Day, having caught a severe chill during a bitterly cold barge trip. His last words were said to be 'Pro ecclesia dei, pro ecclesia dei', and his body lies buried in the Parish Church next to his house in Croydon. His tomb was one of two restored by the Victorians following the fire to which the church was subjected in 1867.

(As a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Archbishop Whitgift's death various events involving the Parish Church, Whitgift School, Trinity School and Old Palace School were held at the Parish Church at the end of February and the beginning of March. For details of a further event in May at Old Palace School see our 'Latest' page.)

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Last updated March 19th 2004
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