Altars and Altercation

In the years before the English Civil War, ecclesiastical architecture became a subject of powerful conflict between the rival wings of the Church. Edward Swift, winner of the 2006 Royal Historical Society/History Today Undergraduate Award, looks at the patronage of John Cosin, a leading supporter of Archbishop Laud in County Durham.


The charges in Smart’s sermon were considered so serious that he was immediately called before a church commission headed by Cosin himself. Smart refused to be cowed by his superiors in rank, however, claiming to be bound by duty to the true soul of the Church of England. Smart continued his indictment unrepentant, appealing for a court of the king to hear the real facts of the case.

To some extent, this disagreement bore all the hallmarks of a personal vendetta – Cosin was young and ambitious, and had the support and kudos of the new court of Charles I. But the Cosin v. Smart affair hinted at something far deeper: the intensity of disaffection bubbling beneath the surface of the early seventeenth-century Church – a disaffection that stemmed from the difficulty of accommodating Puritans and the followers of William Laud, future Archbishop of Canterbury (from 1633), under one roof.

It was when Cosin appealed in the ensuing weeks for protection from Laud, his friend and mentor, that these events took on a national political significance. While Laud was quick to intervene on Cosin’s behalf, Smart became the recipient of a groundswell of popular sympathy, gaining strong support from within Parliament itself. The compact between Parliament and Puritanism against the King, the archbishop-to-be and his brand of Anglicanism became embodied in the conflict between these two men. Indeed, their lives seemed to personify the fortunes of their respective parties. A year after Parliament was dissolved in 1629 Smart found himself in prison as a direct consequence of his attacks on Cosin. Here he was to remain for the duration of Charles’s eleven-year Personal Rule.

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