From Civil War to rebellion, Croydon’s bishops to the fore

Upon his death in 1604, John Whitgift became the second Archbishop of Canterbury to be buried at Croydon Parish Church. Here, DAVID MORGAN relates how a further four of the most powerful churchmen in England would be laid to rest there, too

One of the more unusual tombs to be found anywhere, Gilbert Sheldon was the third of six Archbishops to be buried at Croydon Minster. Only Lambeth Palace and Canterbury Cathedral have more

The third Archbishop to be buried in what is today known as Croydon Minster was Gilbert Sheldon. He was Archbishop from 1663 to his death in 1677, having lived – and survived – through the Civil War and the execution of King Charles in 1649.

Sheldon’s reconstructed tomb is always a focus for visitors to the Minster. It was designed and made by Jaspar Latham, a mason who had worked with Christopher Wren. The sculptured torso of the Archbishop is not lying prone in prayer, but is sitting up and engaging the passerby.

“Don’t waste your time,” he is saying, “use your God-given gifts before mortality takes hold.” Underneath the Archbishop’s figure is a panel of carvings containing, skulls, bones, dust and timers. You can’t stop the march of time and even as Archbishop, I am not immortal and neither are you.

Sheldon was another academic. He was a fellow of All Souls’ College and was Chancellor of Oxford University from 1667 to 1669. His name lives on in Oxford through the world-famous Sheldonian building, for which he provided the finance.

Gilbert Sheldon: not always at ease with the morals of the Restoration

Sheldon is the only one of Croydon’s six Archbishops to have been imprisoned.

During the English Civil War he ended up in Oxford jail in 1648 for a brief time, after having resisted the Parliamentarian army’s occupation of the key city, which had served for a time as the Royalists’ capital.

Before the war, Sheldon had held a number of positions as chaplain to members of the aristocracy, including chaplain to King Charles, who had plans for preferment for his favourite churchman until the parliamentary crises overtook him.

So during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Sheldon was somewhat out of favour and so on release from prison he went to live in seclusion in a small village called Snelston in Derbyshire, enjoying fishing as a pastime.

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he was recalled to public life, becoming Bishop of London. He enjoyed the confidence of Charles II, and it was Sheldon who recommended candidates for vacant bishoprics. When the king married Catherine of Braganza, it was Sheldon who performed the ceremony in Portsmouth.

Sheldon even gets a mention in Pepys’ diaries with a nod to his genial nature. All went well for Sheldon until he raised with Charles the matter of his “loose living”. Their relationship rapidly deteriorated, rather spoiling his legacy of restoring the church after Cromwell’s dismantling.

William Wake is the fourth Archbishop buried in Croydon.

William Wake: the first Archbishop of the Georgian age

He was Archbishop from 1716, appointed during the reign of George I, the first of the Hanoverian monarchs, so again during a period of turmoil and war in these islands. Wake succeeded another archbishop whose name will be familiar to many Croydon reisdents today, Archbishop Thomas Tenison.

Wake remained the England’s leading churchman until his death in January 1737.

Wake became a clergyman very much against the wishes of his father, who has set aside a sizeable sum of money to set William up in a clothing business when he completed his university course at Oxford. The Wake family came from Blandford Forum in Dorset, at the heart of the woollen cloth industry of the time, and William attended the grammar school there before going up to Oxford.

When an old university friend, Lord Preston became an envoy in Paris, he needed a chaplain. He asked Wake and so off in 1682, when aged 25, he went to the French capital to open a new chapter in his life.

While there he collated and translated manuscripts of the Greek New Testaments for John Fell, the Bishop of Oxford. When Charles II died in 1685, Preston was recalled from France and Wake returned with him.

Various church appointments followed until he became Bishop of Lincoln in 1705. While there, he had dealings with the Wesley family. Samuel was a clergyman in the Lincoln Diocese and Charles and John, who grew up to become the driving force behind the Methodist movement, were two of his sons.

King George arrived from Germany in 1714 to take up his position as the new monarch. He was crowned by Archbishop Tenison that October, but Tenison died not long after. When Wake succeeded him to become the Archbishop, he was the first in the Georgian era.

Tenison had been a mentor of Wake and had recommended him for the post of Bishop of Lincoln. This had upset Queen Anne, who regarded the appointment of bishops as her prerogative and distrusted Tenison’s judgement. Wake not only proved her wrong but also stepped into his mentor’s shoes with some aplomb.

At Croydon Minster, William Wake has a stone memorial to commemorate him, together with his wife Ethelred, in the St Nicholas Chapel.

The fifth Archbishop buried in Croydon Minster is John Potter, who succeeded William Wake. Potter had a rather undistinguished career and had been Bishop of Oxford for 20 years before rather surprisingly becoming Archbishop.

Lord Hervey, a courtier of the day, said of the new Archbishop, “Potter is a man of undoubted great learning… He has been, though, reckoned a Tory in the church, undoubtedly attached to it without any lure or reward of preferment but this poor Bishopric of Oxford, where he has stuck for 20 years. The Queen loves him, his character will support you in sending him to Lambeth, and his capacity is not as good or his temper is so bad as to make you apprehend any great danger in his being there.” Surely one of the most damning quotes on a new appointment ever.

Archbishop Potter: popular with the monarchy

It was interesting to read in the quote that he was liked by the Queen, Caroline, wife of George II.

She was taken ill very soon after Potter came into post, he had to attend her death bed where her last attributed word was “Pray”. Potter then presided over the funeral. Successfully serving the Royal Family was something that he did well.

John Wesley held Potter in great affection, and many at the time thought Potter was too weak in dealing with the growth of Methodism.

Summoned to see the Archbishop, John Welsey always remembered these words spoken to him; “If you desire to be extensively useful, do not spend your time and strength in contending for or against such things as are of a disputable nature but in testifying against notorious vice and in promoting real essential holiness.”

Potter died in 1747, a very wealthy man, leaving up to £90,000 – roughly the equivalent of nearly £4.5million today. Yet there is no permanent memorial to Potter in Croydon Minster because no members of his family could be traced to support the design and construction of one – even though he was survived by two sons and two daughters. The eldest son went into the church, only to leave it when he “went away with a servant girl”.

The sixth Archbishop to be buried in Croydon is Thomas Herring, who succeeded Potter in 1747 and held the position until 1757.

Herring held two of the three major offices of the church, being Archbishop of York from 1743 to 1747.

It was while he was at York that he came to national prominence, giving a rousing speech-cum-sermon at York Castle in 1745, rallying people to face the Jacobite Rebellion forces, who were rapidly moving south.

The Jacobites wanted to instal Bonnie Prince Charlie as the king of the now United Kingdom of Great Britain, and they had the backing of Catholic France and Spain.

His home at York was used for housing and feeding officers and his whole attitude of rallying everyone against the Jacobite cause was such a success that he was considered a hero to the cause.

Archbishop Herring: rallied forces during the Jacobite Rebellion

Herring’s speech, one eye-witness said, “captured the patriotic imagination as nothing previously had. It was to remain long in the collective mind of patriotic Protestantism”.

When one of Herring’s friends at court read King George II the text of the speech, the king insisted that it be reprinted in The Gazette.

The Jacobite advance got as far south aas Derby, but after they opted to turn back and return to Scotland for lack of support from the English, they were pursued all the way into the Highlands until the following April, 1746, and defeated by forces led by the Duke of Cumberland, one of George II’s sons, at Culloden. It was the last battle fought on British soil.

Significantly for Croydon, once appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1747, he came to love the Palace here.

He saw to it that the Dole was distributed at the gates. To 30 people, that is three times a week to 10 people each, they received 2lb in weight of beef, a pitcher of broth, half a quarter loaf and tuppence in coin. This must have been well received.

From 1753 onwards, Herring spent much time at Croydon, largely because of illness. In the May of that year he contracted pleuritic fever. In his letters, he writes that on June 11 he was unwell, “went to Croydon and there was bled 7 ounces”.

By June 19, he was well enough to ride out on horseback on Banstead Down with no inconvenience, though he was never to see the best of health again. One reason that he wrote to a friend about not being in robust health was because of the times he had to sleep in damp sheets in his school dormitory.

After he died, Herring’s assets were found to be only about £10,000. He had given most of his money away during his lifetime. A brass plaque with his name can be found in the St Nicholas chapel.

Six archbishops, six stories, all different.

When we are able to open the Minster again, come in and have a look at the memorials. We might even be able to organise another special guided tour for Inside Croydon readers.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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