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The Curious Incident of the Homicidal Archbishop: The Dispensation Granted to Archbishop George Abbot, 1621

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2015

Will Adam*
Vicar, St Paul, Winchmore Hill


When George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, accidentally shot and killed a gamekeeper in 1621, questions were immediately asked about whether the accident had rendered him excommunicate and whether he could, consequently, remain in his post. Within the complex ecclesiastical politics of the day, James I remained sympathetic to Abbot and a solution was sought to free him from any adverse consequences. In the end a royal pardon and a novel form of dispensation, utilising a rare process set up by the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533, were brought into play and the archbishop continued in office.

Copyright © Ecclesiastical Law Society 2015 

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1 Spelled ‘Bramzil’ or ‘Bramshell’ in certain contemporary sources.

2 P Heylyn, Cyprianus Anglicus (London, 1671), p 80. For a recent description of Abbot's foundation in Guildford, see J Goodall, ‘A home-town hospital’, Country Life, 20 May 2015, pp 148–153.

3 P Welsby, George Abbot: the unwanted archbishop (London, 1962), p 96.

4 Probably Williams' ally, the ecclesiastical lawyer Sir John Lambe. See J Fielding, ‘Lambe, Sir John (c. 1566–1646)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

5 Letter reproduced in Heylyn, Cyprianus, pp 80–81.

6 Anthony Milton, ‘Heylyn, Peter (1599–1662)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

7 He was described in Heylyn, Cyprianus, p 80, as ‘a perfect Diocese with himself’, being at the same time a bishop, dean, prebend, residentiary canon and parson.

8 A contemporary report of one debate on the issue indicates that Andrewes, ‘siding with the four lawyers so forcibly against the other five Bishops, turned the scale in his Grace's favour’. Letter from John Chamberlain to Lord Carleton, 10 November 1621, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: James I, 1619–23 (CSPD 1619–23), vol 123 (London, 1858), no 100.

9 Heylyn, Cyprianus, p 88. Williams' biographer Ambrose Philips disputes Heylyn's judgment that Williams' scruple ‘proceeded not from his Caution, but merely from Interest’: A Philips, The Life of John Williams (London, 1700), p 234.

10 Williams was consecrated on 11 November 1621 by bishops other than Abbot by the authority of a commission issued by the king under the Broad Seal. Laud, along with Valentine Carey (Exeter) and John Davenant (Salisbury), were likewise consecrated on 18 November.

11 Letter from Chamberlain to Carleton, 10 November 1621: ‘the new Bishops are so unwilling to receive consecration from his hand, that he has commissioned three other Bishops to consecrate for him’.

12 Welsby, George Abbot, p 92, contains a brief survey of descriptions of the events, in which the keeper is variously described as having been behind the deer (Letter of Lord Zouche, in CSPD 1619–23, vol 122, no 37) or having been drunk and riding on horseback. A later source described the arrow as having glanced off a tree: J Hacket, Scrinia Reserata (London, 1693), p 65.

13 Welsby, George Abbot, p 93.

14 On the advice of counsel he asked that the coroner and jury be recalled, but two days later indicated that his counsel had changed their minds (Letters to Lord Zouche, 5 and 7 August 1621, in CSPD 1619–23, vol 122,  nos 61 and 63).

15 Offences against the Person Act 1861, s7.

16 S Milsom, Historical Foundations of the Common Law (second edition, London, 1981), p 422.

17 W Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1769, facsimile edition ed T Green (Chicago, IL, 1979), p 177.

18 Ibid, p vii.

19 Ibid, p 182.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid, p 183.

22 Ibid, pp 186–7.

23 Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 19.

24 Blackstone, Commentaries, p 187.

25 Ibid, p 188.

26 M Hale, Historia Placitorum Coronae, 1736, facsimile edition ed P Glazebrook (London, 1971), vol 1, p 424.

27 Ibid, p 472.

28 Ibid, p 475.

29 See J Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England, vol 3 (London, 1883), p 57.

30 A Boyer, ‘Coke, Sir Edward (1552–1634)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

31 Ibid.

32 Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law, p 57, is critical of Coke's view, but admits its popularity: ‘This astonishing doctrine has so far prevailed as to have been recognised as part of the law of England by many subsequent writers’.

33 J Baker, Introduction to English Legal History (fourth edition, London, 2002), p 512.

34 F Pollock and F Maitland, The History of English Law, vol 2 (second edition, Cambridge, 1968), p 497.

35 Baker, Introduction to English Legal History, p 529.

36 See the letter of John Williams above (p 307).

37 Grant of Pardon, 20 November 1621, in CSPD 1619–23, vol 123.

38 For example in both Blackstone, Commentaries, and Hale, Historia.

39 CSPD 1619–23, vol 122, no 47.

40 CSPD 1619–23, vol 123, no 117.

41 K Fincham, ‘Abbot, George (1562–1633)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

42 H Spelman, An Answer to the Foregoing Apologie for Arch-Bishop Abbot, in Reliquae Spelmannianae, (Oxford, 1698), pp 111–119.

43 Fincham, ‘Abbot, George’.

44 Spelman, An Answer, p 109.

45 Act for Preventing the Unlawful Destruction of Game 1389. Repealed by the Statute Law Repeal and Civil Procedure Act 1881.

46 Spelman, An Answer, pp 112–113 and 118.

47 A note in the latest English edition (N Tanner (ed), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London, 1990), vol 2) states that the sentence forbidding hunting or fowling is omitted in certain major authorities.

48 W Phillimore, Phillimore's Ecclesiastical Law (second edition, London, 1895), p 854.

49 The Canons of the Lateran Councils are not provincial law but law applying to the whole of the Western Church at the time of their promulgation. It is arguable, therefore, that this statute cannot abrogate them. However, it is unlikely that Henry VIII and his parliament of the time would have permitted the application of any law that contravened the laws of the realm.

50 (1868) LR 3 HL 17 at 53.

51 Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533, s9.

52 Ibid, s1. On the subject of dispensations, see also W Adam, Legal Flexibility and the Mission of the Church (Farnham, 2011).

53 See Adam, Legal Flexibility, pp 64–65.

54 Churchill, E, ‘Dispensations under the Tudors and Stuarts’, (1919) 34 English Historical Review 409415 at 413CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Detailed in Spelman, An Answer, pp 122–123.

56 The Latin text is taken from Spelman, Reliquae Spelmannianae, pp 124–126. Translation by W Adam and the late Mrs B Munday.