This distinguished ecclesiastic was a native of Guildford, in Surrey. He was the son of pious parents, who had been sufferers for the truth in the times of popish cruelty. He was born October 29th, 1562. At the age of fourteen, he was entered as a student of Baliol College, Oxford; and in 1583, he was chosen to a fellowship. In 1585, he took orders, and became a popular preacher in the University. He was created Doctor of Divinity, in 1597; and a few months after, was elected Master of University College. At this time began his conflicts with William Laud, which lasted with great severity as long as Abbot lived. Dr. Abbot was a Calvinist and a moderate Churchman; while Dr. Laud was an Arminian, and might have been a cardinal at Rome, if he had not preferred to be a pope at Canterbury.
In 1598, Dr. Abbot published a Latin work, which was reprinted in Germany. The next year he was installed Dean of Winchester. In 1600, he was elected Vice-Chancellor of the University; and was re-elected to the same honorable post in 1603 and 1605. It was about this time, that he was put into the royal commission for translating the Bible.
Dr. Abbot went to Scotland, in 1608, as chaplain to the Earl of Dunbar; and while there, by his prudent and temperate measures, succeeded in establishing a moderate or qualified episcopacy in that kingdom. This was a matter which King James had so much at heart, that he ever had held Dr. Abbot in great favor, and rapidly hurried him into the highest ecclesiastical dignities and preferments. He was made Bishop of Litchfield and Coventry on the 3d of December, 1609; and then, in less than two months, was translated to the see of London. In less than fifteen months more, he was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and Primate of all England. Thus he was twice translated himself, before he saw the Bible translated once. Though an excellent preacher, he had never exercised himself in the pastoral office, rising at one stride from being a University-lecturer to the chief dignities of the Church.
When he reached the primacy, he was forty-nine years of age; and was held in the highest esteem both by the prince and the people. In all great transactions, whether in church or state, he bore a principal part. And yet, at times, he showed, in matters which touch the conscience, a degree of independence of the royal will, such as must have been very distasteful to the domineering temper of James, and very unusual in that age of passive obedience, and servile cringing to the dictates of royalty. Thus it was, when the King, under the pretence that the strict observance of the Sabbath, as practiced by Protestants, was likely to prejudice the Romanists, and hinder their conversion, issued his infamous “Book of Sports.” This was a Declaration intended to encourage, at the close of public worship, various recreations, such as “promiscuous dancing, archery, leaping, vaulting, May-games, Whitsunales, or morrice-dances, setting up of May-poles, or other sports therewith used.” This abomination edict was required to be ready by all ministers in their parish- churches. Its promulgation greatly troubled the more conscientious of the clergy, who expected to be brought into difficulty by their refusal to publish the shameful document. Archbishop Abbot warmly opposed its enforcement, and forbade it to be read in the church of Croyden, where he was at the time of its publication. The opposition was too much, even for the ruthless king; and he, at last, gave up his impious attempt to heathenize the Lord’s Day.
It was in 1619, that the Archbishop founded his celebrated hospital at Guildford, the place of his nativity, and nobly endowed it from his private property. In that same year, a sad mischance befell him. His health being much impaired, he had recourse to hunting, by medical advice, as a means of restoring it. This sort of exercise has never been in very good repute among ecclesiastics. Jerome recognizes some worthy fishermen who followed the sacred calling; but says, that “we no where read in Scripture of a holy hunter.” While his Grace of Canterbury was pursuing the case in Barmshill Park, a seat of the Earl of Ashby de la Zouch, an arrow from his cross-bow, aimed at a deer, glanced from a tree, and killed a game-keeper, an imprudent man, who had been cautioned to keep out of the way. This casual homicide was the cause of great affliction to the prelate. During the rest of his life, he observed a monthly fast, on a Tuesday, the day of the mishap. He also settled a liberal annuity upon the poor game-keeper’s widow, which annuity was attended with the additional consolation, that it soon procured her a better husband than the man she had lost. For the Primate, however, who was ever a celibate, there was no such remedy of grief, and all the rest of his life was overcast with gloom. This business subjected him to many hard shots from them that liked him not. Once returning to Croydon, after a long absence, a great many women, from curiosity, gathered about his coach. The Archbishop, who hated to be stared at, and was never fond of females, exclaimed somewhat churlishly, “What make these women here!” Upon this an old crone cried out,--”You had best to shoot an arrow at us!” It is said that this tongue-shot, which often goes deeper than gunshot, went to his very heart.
His enemies made a strong handle of this accidental homicide. It was insisted, that the canon-laws allows no “man of blood” to be a builder of a spiritual temple; and that the Primate who had retreated after the accident to his hospital at Guildford, was disenabled from his clerical functions. The King appointed a commission to try the question, Whether the Archbishop was disqualified for his official duties by this involuntary homicide? After long debate, in which the divines on the continent took part, it was the general decision, that the fact did disqualify. Nevertheless, King James, in his usurped character as supreme head of the English Church, an office which rightly belongs only to the King of kings, issued, in 1621, a full pardon and dispensation to the humbled Primate. Still, several newly-appointed bishops, who had been awaiting consecration, and among them Dr. William Laud, then bishop elect of St. David’s, refused to receive it from his hands, and obtained the mysterious virtues of “episcopal grace” from other administration. Others, however, as Dr. Davenant, bishop elect of Salisbury, and Dr. Hall, bishop elect of Norwich, were solemnly consecrated by their dejected metropolitan.
All this did not discourage Archbishop Abbot from making vigorous opposition, in the following year, to the proposed match between Charles, Prince of Wales, and the Infanta, or Princess Royal, of Spain. Though this foolish, unpopular, and unsuccessful scheme was a favorite piece of policy with the King, who was quite unused to be thwarted by his couriers, Dr. Abbot continued to enjoy his confidence till the King’s death in 1625.
When Charles the First succeeded to the throne, he was crowned and annointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, the latter soon found himself in deep eclipse. His inveterate foe, the resolute Dr. Laud, then Bishop of Bath and Wells, came between, and intercepted the sunshine of royal favor. The matter of the fortuitous homicide seems to have been revived against him, as ground for his sequestration. Charles required him to live in retirement, which he did at Ford; and in 1627, appointed a commision of five prelates, to suspend him from the exercise of his archiepiscopal functions. These prelates were Dr. Mountaigne, Bishop of London; Dr. Neile, Bishop of Durham; Dr. Howson, Bishop of Oxford; and Dr. Laud, Bishop of Bath and Wells. When the instrument for the Archbishop’s suspension was drawn up for their signature, the four senior bishops declined to set their hands thereto, and appeared to manifest much reluctance and regret. “Then give me the pen!” said Bishop Laud; and “though last in place, first subscribed his name.” The others, after some demur, were induced to follow his example. From that time, it is said, the Archbishop was never known to laugh; and became quite dead to the world.
Next year, however, the fickle king saw fit to alter his course; and, about Christmas time, restored Dr. Abbot to his liberty and jurisdiction. He was sent for to Court; received, as he stepped out of his barge, by the Archbishop of York and the Earl of Dorset, and by them conducted into the royal presence. The king gave him his hand to kiss, and charged him not to fail of attendance at the Council-table twice a week. He sat in the House of Peers, and continued in his spiritual functions without further interruption till his death some five years after, when he was succeeded in his see by his implacable and ill-starred rival, William Laud.
Dr. Abbot’s brief sequestration had made him popular in the country, and his restoration was probably owing to a desire to conciliate his influence in the parliament, with which the king was already in trouble. The Archbishop rather countenanced the liberal party, and stiffly resisted the slavish tenet of Dr. Mainwaring, which raised such an excitement. This divine had publicly maintained, as was supposed with the royal approbation, “that the King’s royal will and command, in imposing laws, taxes, and other aids, upon his people, without common consent in parliament, did so far bind the consciences of the subjects of this kingdom, that they could not refuse the same without peril of eternal damnation.” Here was the “divine right of kings” with a vengeance!
Dr. George Abbot continued in office during those troublous times which preceded the civil wars, till he died, at his palace of Croydon, on Sunday, August 4th, 1633, at the age of seventy-one, quite worn out with cares and infirmities.
He was a very grave man, and of a very “fatherly presence,” and unimpeachable in his morals. He was a firm Calvinist, and a thorough Church-of-England man. He was somewhat indulgent to the more moderate Puritans; but the more zealous of them accused him sharply of being a persecutor, while the high-toned churchmen vehemently charged him with disloyalty to their cause. It is also said, that as he had never exercised the pastoral care, but was “made a shepherd of shepherds, before he had been a shepherd of sheep,” he was wanting in sympathy with the troubles and infirmities of ministers. He was severe in his proceedings against clerical delinquents; but he protested that he did this to shield them from the greater severity of the lay judges, who would visit them with heavier punishments, to the greater shame of themselves and their profession. He was, in truth, stern and melancholy. As compared with his brother, Robert Abbot, the Bishop of Salisbury, it was said, that “gravity did frown in George, and smile in Robert.” The other brother of these bishops was Lord Mayor of London.
The Archbishop was regarded as an excellent preacher and a great divine. Anthony Wood speaks of him as a “learned man, having his learning all of the old stamp,”--that is to say, vast and ponderous. He published lectures on the book of Jonah, and numerous treatises, mostly relating to the political and religious occurrences of the times. But to have borne an active part in the preparation of the most useful and important of all the translations of the Bible, is an honor far beyond the chief ecclesiastical dignities and the highest literary fame.