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The Son of the Clothmaker – a slice of the English Reformation

During the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553), Maurice Abbot, a clothmaker in Guildford, Surrey, England, and his wife Alice, became committed Protestants. And during their lifetime it wasn’t always easy to be so.

Edward, the boy king, tubercular and frail, had the distinction of being the first English king who was raised Protestant. Zealous for the Reformed cause, if he had lived longer, the Church of England might well have become more explicitly Protestant. But God took him at the tender age of sixteen. After Edward’s death it became difficult for Maurice and Alice to confess their faith publicly because Edward’s half sister, “Bloody” Mary Tudor, came to power. She vigorously tried to overturn the Reformation, and during her five-year reign, over 300 Protestants were burned at the stake.

But times of persecution vanished when Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne in 1558. The Abbots rejoiced in her coronation. They breathed a sigh of relief as they resided peaceably in a cottage nestled beneath some trees in close proximity to the Wey River, openly able to practice their faith.

Quite the fish story

Then, in the year 1562, Alice Abbot was heavily pregnant. Uncomfortable and unable sleep one night, Alice eventually fell into an uneasy slumber and into a strange dream. She dreamt that if she but ate a jackfish, (a fish of the pike family), the baby she carried would become a great person and rise to a situation of prominence. A peculiar dream indeed!

Maurice Abbot worked diligently at his trade but when all was said and done, clothworking was not a profitable business. The finishing of woven woolen cloth, was hard labor and paid very little. Alice related her unusual fish dream to Maurice and he shrugged.

A few weeks later, due to give birth any day, she fetched a pail of water from the nearby Wey River. Sweating with exertion, she lifted the pail out of the water, and was amazed to see a jackfish splash about in the bucket. Having had a craving for jackfish ever since her dream, she went home, cooked the fish and ate it. Maurice shrugged again. But the narrative became known about town. Folks enjoy a good story.

As it is with good stories, this one circulated outside the perimeters of the town of Guildford. After the baptism of the child, a few wealthy persons called on Maurice and Alice, offering to be patrons of the newborn baby who had been named George. Considering their low-born and rather impoverished condition, as well as the fact that they had little hope of sending their children to school, the couple thankfully accepted the provision.

Now whether or not George’s fortune would have prospered were it not for the jackfish tale is a matter of providential dispute. At any rate, George, as well as his older brother Robert, attended the free Royal Grammar School in Guildford and were taught reading, writing and Latin grammar. The school was free in name only; pupils consisted of those who could afford to pay the fees.

Because they were healthy, good-natured and of quick minds, the patrons sent the boys on to higher education. To make a long story short, George eventually graduated from Oxford. The school was a Puritan stronghold at that time, with teachers who admired Calvin and Augustine. Grounded in Reformed theology, George felt called to become a minister. Regarded as an excellent preacher, his sermons drew large, listening crowds.

Archbishop George!

The years flew by and in 1611, George the clothmaker’s son, rose to the rank of Archbishop of Canterbury. A bit of a gargantuan step – from the humble cottage on the banks of the Wey to Lambeth Palace on the banks of the Thames. His father and mother had died by this time. Dying within ten days of one another, they had been married for fifty-eight years. Perhaps it can be argued that their passing was an even more gargantuan step than that of their son George – from the humble cottage on the banks of the Wey to Everlasting Joy on the banks of the River of Life.

Prior to becoming archbishop, George had been selected by King James 1 of England, together with other scholars, to translate the Bible.

Calvinistic in theology, favoring the Puritans for their simplicity in worship, George Abbot remained within the Church of England. He never married and was a solitary man. Some considered him of a gloomy nature, unsmiling and rather somber; others counted him true to his principles and kind.

Having attained to the highest church office in England, that of archbishop, George now lived in Lambeth Palace in London. Wealthy, respected and honored, he became a personal adviser to King James I. James had been brought up as a member of the Protestant Church of Scotland and often heeded the archbishop’s advice.

But this “Reformed” advice did not make George popular with those who had Roman Catholic leanings and at times put him out of favor with the king as well.

For example, in 1618 James I published “the declaration of sports.” It was a declaration that allowed for Sabbath amusements. The archbishop regarded this declaration a clear temptation to break one of the Ten Commandment. James I had ordered this decree to be read out loud from the pulpit in all of England’s churches. George willfully disobeyed his earthly king’s order. He forbade the reading of the proclamation in his parish church. James I, rather fond of George, ignored his resistance, but it was not an easy time for the archbishop.

A year later, in 1619, George founded a hospital. Resolved within himself to devote some of his wealth to benefit others, he remembered with fondness and nostalgia the town of Guildford where he had been born and bred. He meant to create work opportunities for his home town and he desired to support the elderly people living there. The health center was named Abbot’s Hospital, or the Hospital of the Holy Trinity. Handsome inside, portraits of Abbot himself, of Wycliffe, of Foxe and of other Reformers, hung in the dining room.

Doctor’s orders

Over the years the effects of being harassed by those who disliked him, physically wore George down. Being a large and rather sedentary man, his doctor advised him to get more exercise. Consequently, he often walked about for recreation. Hunting was in vogue and even an archbishop was able to partake in that sport. As a matter of fact, the gay, hallooing troop of huntsmen rarely left the courtyard without an ecclesiastical person present among them.

One night in July of 1621 found the archbishop in his library among all his books. However, he was not reading but cleaning his fowling piece. His crossbow, as well, lay nearby on the heavy oak library table. One of his servants inquired whether or not he was planning on going hunting.

“Yes,” he answered, “Lord Zouche has invited me to Bramhill House in Hampshire to hunt in his park there. It would be discourteous of me to refuse and the exercise will almost certainly do me some good.” The next morning his servant saw him off. A groom rode at his side.

An arrow deflected

However, in the providence of God, a sad mishap occurred at Bramhill. While hunting with his crossbow at Lord Zouche’s estate, the archbishop aimed and shot a barbed arrow at a deer. One of the gamekeepers, eagerly but carelessly beating the bush so that an animal might jump out for the hunters, suddenly appeared in the path of the party. The arrow which George Abbot had just discharged, went awry. Deflecting off a tree limb, it hit the gamekeeper.

The man, whose name was Peter Hawkins and who had been warned more than once to keep out of harm’s way, was wounded. The arrow had lodged in an artery in his left arm. Within one hour the man had bled to death.

Horrified, the archbishop was thrown into deep despair. Walking up and down the apartment he had been given, he refused to speak to visitors, constantly repeating: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” There was nothing anyone could do or say to comfort him.

Although the death was deemed an accidental homicide by all who had been present, George Abbot required the king’s dispensation and pardon before he could resume his duties. Some of those who hated his Protestant policies sought his removal from office, insisting that a commission of inquiry be convened to examine what had happened in the accident. And such was the devastation, grief and guilt that George felt that he withdrew from public life during the inquiry. He refused to preach, ordain, baptize, or pray publicly in a service, depressed and sick at heart. Many of his friends began to avoid him, a number claiming that one who had killed another man should not hold the highest church office in England.

Throughout the remainder of his life, George observed a monthly fast every Tuesday, the weekday on which the accident had taken place. He also settled an annuity of twenty pounds on Mrs. Hawkings, the gamekeeper’s wife, an amount which soon brought her another husband.

Although eventually, George Abbot received a full royal pardon, the incident was not forgotten. In the ensuing years, he also increasingly disagreed with the king’s more liberal policies. Consequently, his influence at court dwindled. Although he still crowned Charles 1 in 1626, his became a minor role. More and more thwarted in leading the church, he was forced into early retirement although he remained as archbishop until his death.

A twittering mob

There is a story told of his last years. He was traveling by coach to his home, when a group of noisy women surrounded his carriage, harassing him with shouts and insults. Upon his entreating them to leave, they shouted: “Ye had best shoot an arrow at us then.”

George Abbot, the clothmaker’s son and Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1633 at age 71. He was buried at the Guildford Church. Throughout his life he acted according to his God-given conscience and was not afraid of opposing kings when Biblical principles were at stake.

A conscience is a gift from God and George Abbot had a strong one. Often suffering from depression, one of his major misdeeds seemed to haunt him right to the grave. Yet do all believers not have major misdeeds? For who has not had a hand in killing the Vinekeeper’s Son? And who can plead the excuse of accidental homicide?

George Abbot was a clothmaker’s son, but he was actually more than that. Alongside him, believers do well to remember that all who believe in Jesus Christ as their only Savior are, like George, Soulmaker’s sons.

 “…then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Gen. 2:7


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