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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.
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 July 5 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 September 25 1570, and in November following he was chosen as vice-chancellor.
Macaulay's description of Whitgift as "a narrow, mean, tyrannical priest, who gained power by servility and adulation," is tinged with rhetorical exaggeration; but undoubtedly Whitgift's extreme High Church notions led him to treat the Puritans intolerantly. In a pulpit controversy with Thomas Cartwright, regarding the constitutions and customs of the Church of England, his oratorical effectiveness proved inferior, but was able to exercise arbitrary authority. Together with other heads of the university, he deprived Cartwright of his professorship, and in September 1571 Whitgift exercised his prerogative as master of Trinity to deprive him of his fellowship also. In June of the same year Whitgift was nominated Dean of Lincoln. In the following year he published An Answere to a Certain Libel entitled an Admonition to the Parliament, which led to further controversy between the two churchmen. On March 24 1577, Whitgift was appointed Bishop of Worcester, and during the absence of Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland (1577) he acted as vice-president of Wales. In August 1583 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and placed his stamp on the church of the Reformation. 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 action gave rise to the Martin Marprelate tracts, in which the bishops and clergy were bitterly attacked. 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. 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 , which were not accepted by the church. Whitgift attended Elizabeth on her deathbed, and crowned James I. He was present at the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, and died at Lambeth the following February. He was buried in the church at Croydon, but his monument there with his recumbent effigy was practically destroyed in the fire by which the church was burnt down in 1867.
Whitgift is described by his biographer, Sir G. 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 was noted for his hospitality, and was somewhat ostentatious in his habits, sometimes visiting Canterbury and other towns attended by a retinue of 800 horsemen. 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.
A Life of Whitgift by Sir G. Paule appeared in 1612, 2nd ed. 1649. It was embodied by John Strype in his Life and Acts of Whitgift (1718). There is also a life inc. Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Biography (1810), WF Hook's Archbishops of Canterbury (1875), and vol. i. of Whitgift's Collected Works. See also CH Cooper's Athenae Cantabrigienses.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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