An Introduction to Lancelot Andrewes and his Legacy

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, “the very dead of winter.”

Some of you will recognise a misquotation of a famous poem here, T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” – in fact, it isn’t a misquote, but rather a source. It comes from Lancelot Andrewes’ 1622 Christmas Sermon, which looks forward to epiphany. In a letter to his friend Conrad Aitkin, Eliot claims to have written his own poem one Sunday morning after listening to another sermon, with the assistance of “half a bottle of Booth’s gin.” But Eliot’s mind was clearly swimming with phrases from Andrewes’ sermons and this is not the only borrowing we find in his collected poems.

The passage I’ve just read showcases several of Andrewes’ rhetorical tricks. The first sentence has an almost conversational ease about it; the second is much more mannered, piling up descriptive clauses before finally resolving them with in solstitio brumali, idiomatically glossed as “the very dead of winter.” By his lapse into the Latin language, Andrewes suggests scriptural authority for the expression, though it is in fact his own. Most of his sermons work from scriptural excerpts taken from the Vulgate and he analyses the quotations as Latin. The evangelists tell us little of when the nativity transpired and what they do say implies a date in spring or summer, when Shepherds might “tend their flocks by night.” The Latin tag helps Andrewes to give his compelling literary description the flavour of scriptural historicity. In solstitio brumali also seems suitably calendrical for a man who would be important in advocating a return to the cycles of sactorale and temporale in the Church of England and a rich national liturgy to fill the gap created when the Sarum missal was abolished.

We see here Andrewes’ the polyglot; a translator of the King James Bible whose linguistic and theological expertise was held in such renown that his name appears first among the translators. Andrewes had that hard-won confidence which enabled him not just to use different languages, but to enjoy them, playing with etymologies, punning and evoking their untranslatable nuances. In the same sermon he writes that the Magi looked upon the star and “vidimus begat venimus”: we see the star and so we come to Bethlehem, as if by a slip of the tongue. Such linguistic wit calls to mind one of Eliot’s most quoted observations on Andrewes’ sermons, that he “takes a word and derives the world from it”: an homage as much as a complement. Eliot’s punning turn of phrase echoes Andrewes, who elsewhere speaks of the second person of the Trinity incarnate and mute in a manger: “Verbum infans the Word without a word; the aeternall Word not able to speake a word; A wonder sure.” But Andrewes was much more than just an accomplished prose stylist, like his spiritual successor Cardinal Newman, linguistic flare was always in the service of greater theological ideals.

Andrewes was born in 1555, during England’s brief reversion to Catholicism. He studied at Merchant Taylor’s School, then Pembroke Cambridge, where he was noticed as a promising scholar and elected a fellow, both there and subsequently at Jesus College, Oxford. It is worth adding that the latter association was something of an honorarium and he is not known to have been resident at Oxford. Andrewes would later be appointed master of his alma mater in 1589, despite his relative youth. He was a man of exceptional academic gifts and these are well attested. John Buckeridge, Andrewes’ friend and the successor to one of his Bishoprics, said he had mastered no fewer than fifteen modern languages and four ancient ones. He also tells us that even in his school days Andrewes would work late into the night then rise at 4 am on a regular basis to get ahead of his peers. Another aspect of his intellectual prowess was his unparalleled memory, which enabled him to write lengthy sermons which it was his custom to deliver verbatim and without any notes. Another 17th century Biographer, Henry Isaacson claimed that Andrewes took little interest in ordinary recreations, preferring walks in nature with close friends where he would incessantly discuss intellectual matters.

At the time Andrewes arrived, Cambridge was a hotbed of Puritanism and despite his later reputation, Andrewes seems to have had no trouble integrating with this culture. His family had been merchants with a Calvinist frame of mind and Andrewes’ early theology, especially his Pattern of Catechistical Doctrine, include such touchstones of Puritan thinking as strict Sabbatarianism and criticism of iconography as idolatry. Nevertheless, his theology would evolve to be critical of hard-line Calvinism, whilst also defending the new English Church against Rome. The latter is seen in the scholarly pamphlet war he begrudgingly pursued with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine at the prompting of James I.

Andrewes’ mature theology and ecclesiology was shaped by his reading of the Church Fathers and a concern that the sermon-focused piety of England in his own day payed too little attention to the ancient traditions of the Church. Indeed, he feared that it risked reducing religion to a purely intellectual commitment rather than something we affectively and physically participate in. He stressed the necessity of the material sacraments, the significance of hierarchy and tradition, the benefits of formal prayer and ritual splendour. In his study of the Fathers, Andrewes encountered a very different view of the Eucharist to the Zwinglian memorialism that was growing in popularity at Cambridge in his youth. The ceremonialism he fostered reflected the desire to make the church a worthy setting for the real presence of Christ in the host. He advocated kneeling before the host, writing in one sermon that God “will not have us worship him like elephants, as if we had no joints in our knees” – a bracing and confident formulation. It is hard to label Andrewes’ theology since his ideas were relatively unusual when they first emerged. I am told current scholarship assigns the label “avant-garde conformism” to those who criticized Calvinism before the Laudian ascendancy. It’s a pithy oxymoron that conveniently groups Andrewes with others like Richard Hooker and John Buckeridge without eliding his positions with those of the Caroline church.

He was appointed royal chaplain to Elizabeth I in 1590, the start of a sustained period of political manoeuvring. This has sometimes opened him up to charges of being too flexible with his principles in the name of political advantage, but the cases in question are complicated and much disputed. From here he quickly ascends to higher offices, first bishop of Chichester, then Ely, and finally Winchester. He delivers some of his most famous sermons to the Court of James I, and it is these sermons, presented before an erudite but worldly audience, that allow Andrewes’ to develop a distinctive theology which many have seen as foundational to the “Anglo-Catholic” tradition that would one day resurface in the Oxford Movement. Part of Andrewes genius was to take the sermon, valorised by contemporary Reformed theologians as the centre point of the service, and to use it as a platform to advocate for a style of worship they would not have approved of. Often focusing on scriptural passages that deal with the mystery of the incarnation as a way to advocate for the physicality of the sacraments. His status as a celebrated preacher and his Cambridge credentials may have provided a degree of protective misdirection in 1590 as he began to gradually roll out his alternative ecclesiology.

It is really the Jacobean sermons that have had the greatest long-term influence as they form the backbone of XCVI Sermons, the first English sermon collection to be printed in Folio. This was not just a testimony to Andrewes’ fame but also to his political importance for the Caroline church under Archbishop William Laud, who coedited the volume. In recent years, scholars like Peter McCullough have shown that Laud and Buckeridge’s sermon selections have misrepresented Andrewes by reducing him to a single moment late in his career. This worked in tandem with restrictions placed on printing Andrewes’ earlier works to cast him as a prophet in the wilderness preparing the way for Laudianism. Andrewes would die in 1626, during the first year of Charles I’s reign and just in time to avoid a period of particularly intense internecine religious conflict. The division between Calvinists and Arminians mirrored cultural and political distinctions which would manifest in the coming Civil War.

So here is the man, his life, and a small taste of his writing. It remains to consider some of Andrewes’ major achievements and their effects on his church. His role in translating the Authorised Version has already been noted, but Andrewes was immensely prolific, and his influence touched on many areas of the church. He was one of the most popular preachers of his day beyond the royal court, giving public sermons at St Paul’s Cross and several London churches which drew huge crowds. As well as the high style he is most famous for, he was able to write more lucid, pared-down expository sermons for these settings. Some of these now only survive in manuscript form having been set down in shorthand by his listeners. Andrewes was an important influence on subsequent liturgy. His notes on The Book of Common Prayer are said to have influenced the 1662 revision and were transcribed by Archbishop William Sancroft and Bishop John Cosin. He was the author of a widely read devotional work, Preces priuatae, which has been likened to the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola for an English audience. It has come to be his most popular and most reprinted work, influencing the Tractarians and host of modern readers. Several of the prayers have even been set to music by John Rutter. Finally, Andrewes was skilled in practical matters of administration and gave his theology a concrete reality by slowly reforming the ceremonial practise of his dioceses.

Although founded as a divorce to justify divorce in a tale of Tudor dynastic angst, Andrewes and others like Richard Hooker make a serious case for the future of the Church of England as a new kind of Church. They sold it as a via media, a refuge for those uncomfortable with the extremes of Rome and Geneva, of a strong magisterium and strong predestination. He also highlights its value as a nationalist institution, viewing kingship as a scriptural alternative to the universal imperium of Roman Catholicism. I shall finish where I began, returning to Andrewes’ most vociferous 20th century defender, T.S. Eliot, who cast Andrewes as the visionary father of Anglicanism:

The intellectual achievement and the prose style of Hooker and Andrewes came to complete the structure of the English Church as the philosophy of the thirteenth century crowns the Catholic Church. To make this statement is not to compare the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity with the Summa. The seventeenth century was not an age in which the Churches occupied themselves with metaphysics, and none of the writings of the fathers of the English Church belongs to the category of speculative philosophy. But the achievement of Hooker and Andrewes was to make the English Church more worthy of intellectual assent. No religion can survive the judgment of history unless the best minds of its time have collaborated in its construction; if the Church of Elizabeth is worthy of the age of Shakespeare and Jonson, that is because of the work of Hooker and Andrewes.


Conor McKee

Conor McKee is a PhD student at Pembroke College, Cambridge, having completed earlier studies at Oxford and Cambridge. His research focuses on the medieval poem Piers Plowman and its links to medieval thinking about creation, natural philosophy and the sacraments.

'An Introduction to Lancelot Andrewes and his Legacy' has 1 comment

  1. April 7, 2021 @ 8:55 am Michael McKee

    An erudite introduction. Andrewes has been used again and again to “support” new approaches to Anglicanism – the Laudian approach in the time of Charles 1, the Tractarians in the early 19th century and the High Anglicanism of the early 20th century – but as this introduction points out – he was ultimately a supporter of a conformist approach to the “original” Anglicanism of the Book of Common Prayer – strengthening it through his own intellectual rigour buttressed by common sense and a playful love of words.


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