Thomas Cartwright, was probably born at Royston, Hertfordshire, in 1533. He attended Clare College at the age of twelve and after leaving Cambridge University as clerk to a counsellor-at-law. Cartwright was a religious reformer and under Queen Mary kept a low profile.
After Queen Elizabeth he became active in the reform movement and was described as a Puritan. He moved to Ireland where he was domestic chaplain to Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Armagh. According to his biographer, Patrick Collinson: "In spite of the war in the north against Shane O'Neill (in the course of which Loftus's cathedral was burnt to the ground), Ireland was a more friendly environment for a puritan than England." (1)
Thomas Cartwright - Puritan Preacher
In 1570 Thomas Cartwright gave a series of lectures on the Acts of the Apostles. It was accepted that he now became one of the most important preachers of the period and attracted a large following, especially among the younger scholars. However, his views were condemned by those in authority and Archbishop Edmund Grindal denounced him as a hothead who should never again be allowed to lecture in the university.
As Roger Lockyer has pointed out: "Cartwright, who was only in his mid-thirties, represented a new generation of Elizabethan puritans, who took the achievements of their predecessors for granted and wished to push forward from the positions that they had established. Cartwright declared that the structure of the Church of England was contrary to that prescribed by Scripture, and that the correct model was that which Calvin had established at Geneva. Every congregation should elect its own ministers in the first instance, and control of the Church should be in the hands of a local presbytery, consisting of the minister and the elders of the congregation. The authority of archbishops and bishops had no foundation in the Bible, and was therefore unacceptable. Cartwright's definition lifted the puritan movement out of its obsession with details and threw down a challenge which the established Church could not possibly ignore." (2)
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Thomas Cartwright was expelled from Cambridge University on the orders of John Whitgift, the Master of Trinity College and Regius Professor of Divinity. Cartwright went to live in Geneva, where he wrote a series of pamphlets attacking Whitgift. As a result of these activities in 1573 the high commission had issued a warrant for his arrest. Cartwright now moved to the University of Heidelberg. (3)
In 1574 a confidence trickster named Humphrey Needham, who had earlier provided the bishops with genuine intelligence about clandestine presses, obtained forged letters purportedly written by Thomas Cartwright and other radical ministers. Their contents, setting out plans for every kind of subversion, religious and political, including the murder of Sir William Cecil. These letters completely deceived Archbishop Matthew Parker and after paying Needham money several ministers were arrested. However, when it was discovered that the letters were forgeries, the ministers were released. Parker's reputation for honesty suffered from this affair and he was described as being guilty of being involved in "a lewd and malicious practice". (4)
Thomas Cartwright returned to England in 1585. He was highly critical of the established church and his case was taken up in Parliament. The main spokesmen for Cartwright in the House of Commons were Peter Wentworth and George Carleton. In parliament most of his activity was directed towards a further reformation of the church along Presbyterian lines. Carleton believed that hardline protestants such as himself were the queen's only reliable subjects, her very "bowels", and that these "servants of God" should be concentrated in the counties nearest London as a militia to protect the regime from Catholic subversion. (5)
In 1587 Wentworth and his Puritan colleagues were imprisoned. Queen Elizabeth asked Sir Christopher Hatton to lead the attack on the ideas of Thomas Cartwright. Hatton argued that a presbyterian system would mean the establishment of a theocracy in which landowners's rights of patronage would be endangered. Some members of Parliament suggested a committee should be set up to consider proposals for improving the educational standard of the clergy. Elizabeth overruled this decision, insisting that the government of the Church was a matter for her and not for Parliament. (6)
In the spring of 1589 the members of the High Commission, the authorities on religious matters, delivered an injunction that no London parish should allow Puritans to take part in religious services. Thomas Cartwright was arrested and sent to Fleet Prison. As Peter Ackroyd has pointed out: "The Puritans in parliament had proved unable to advance their cause and to secure further reformation. The Puritan presses were one by one closed down." (7)
In July 1590, Cartwright and his fellow defendants were stripped of their ecclesiastical offices. Cartwright's case was transferred to the court of Star Chamber, where he made his first appearance on 13th May 1591. No sentence was ever passed and on 21st May 1592 Cartwright was eventually released to house arrest in Hackney, although bound for years to come to return to custody on twenty days' warning. (8)
Thomas Cartwright died on 27th December 1603.
(1) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985)
The more stiff-necked puritans defended their attitude on the grounds that if vestments and ceremonies were `matters indifferent' their acceptance should be left to the individual conscience. Behind this difference of opinion was a more fundamental divergence of views about the nature of' the Church: should it be self-governing, or should it be subject to the secular ruler? This issue was brought into the open by the lectures delivered at Cambridge in 1570 by Thomas Cartwright, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity.
Cartwright, who was only in his mid-thirties, represented a new generation of Elizabethan puritans, who took the achievements of their predecessors for granted and wished to push forward from the positions that they had established. Cartwright declared that the structure of the Church of England was contrary to that prescribed by Scripture, and that the correct model was that which Calvin had established at Geneva. Every congregation should elect its own ministers in the first instance, and control of the Church should be in the hands of a local presbytery, consisting of the minister and the elders of the congregation. The authority of archbishops and bishops had no foundation in the Bible, and was therefore unacceptable. Cartwright's definition lifted the puritan movement out of its obsession with details and threw down a challenge which the established Church could not possibly ignore. The counter-attack was led by John Whitgift, Master of Trinity College and Regius Professor of Divinity in the university. With the support of William Cecil, Cambridge's chancellor, Whitgift amended the constitution of the university in such a way that the heads of colleges, who were less given to radical views, became the effective rulers. They deprived Cartwright of his chair in December 1570, and the puritan spokesman left, appropriately enough, for Geneva.
Cartwright's expulsion did not mean an end to puritan pressure, for he had only put into clear terms what many people had long been thinking. As far as the London puritans were concerned, they looked for inspiration to the Calvinist churches set up in the capital by foreign congregations.
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(1) Patrick Collinson, Thomas Cartwright : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(2) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 153
(3) Patrick Collinson, Thomas Cartwright : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(4) Patrick Collinson, Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1982) page 155
(5) Patrick Collinson, George Carleton : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(6) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 163
(7) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 439
(8) Patrick Collinson, Thomas Cartwright : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)