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Welsh History Review

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Vol. 9, nos. 1-4 1978-79

Bishop Williams, the altar controversy, and the Royal supremacy, 1627-41

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BISHOP WILLIAMS, THE ALTAR CONTROVERSY,
AND THE ROYAL SUPREMACY, 1627-41
THE altar controversy was one manifestation of the religious dispute
which raged within the Church of England early in the seventeenth
century. Even the strenuous efforts of Archbishop Laud and
Charles I to end the controversy in the 1630s failed, and in 1640 it
appeared as one of the grievances complained of in the Root and
Branch Petition. The long and vigorous life which this quarrel enjoyed
can in part be attributed to the prominence within the Church of the
main antagonists, Archbishop Laud and John Williams, a native of
Conway, lord keeper of the great seal, bishop of Lincoln and later
archbishop of York (1582-1650), who was related to, and whose
early career was advanced by, Sir John Wynn of Gwydir. The
bitterness that it generated was intensified by their personal rivalry.
But it was so protracted because it raised the important issue of the
royal supremacy over the Church of England in the period prior
to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The altar controversy would seem, at first glance, a minor affair,
but although Williams and one of his opponents, Bishop Davenant
of Salisbury, publicly professed the name and position of the
communion table to be 'a thing indifferent'1 to salvation and thus a
fit matter to be decided by the archbishop, they both knew that it
was an issue crucial to the 'religious strife of the early-seventeenth
century. Superficially, it was a disagreement over the name to be
given to the table upon which the holy communion was celebrated.
Some Anglicans, as well as those often indiscriminately labelled
puritans, who wished to purge the Church of its Roman trappings
and reinforce its protestant character, insisted that it be called simply
the holy table. Others such as Laud, often vilified by the epithet
'Arminian,' who desired a return to the beauty and splendour of the
medieval English church, argued that the table should be called an
altar.
Yet the altar controversy concerned more than terminology, for
to many it seemed a matter of great doctrinal importance. In fact,
the anti-Laudians feared that the very essence of the sacrament was
I should like to thank the William A. Clark Memorial Library of the University of
California at Los Angeles for a fellowship which made the completion of this work possible.
'John Williams to Vicar Tittley, 1627, British Museum, Additional MS. 29584, f. 1;
William Scott (ed.), The Works of the Most Reverend Father in God, William Laud, D.D.
(Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1853), VI, pt. 1, 61, note u.
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