Samuel Harsnett
Archbishop of York
ProvinceProvince of York
DioceseDiocese of York
Term ended1631
PredecessorGeorge Montaigne
SuccessorRichard Neile
Other post(s)Bishop of Chichester (1609–1619)
Bishop of Norwich (1619–1628)
Personal details
Samuel Halsnoth

June 1561
Colchester, Essex
Died25 May 1631
Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire
BuriedSt Mary's Church, Chigwell
ParentsWilliam & Agnes Halsnoth
SpouseThomasine Harsnett
ChildrenThomasine Harsnett
Alma materPembroke College, Cambridge

Samuel Harsnett (or Harsnet) (June 1561 – May 1631), born Samuel Halsnoth, was an English writer on religion and Archbishop of York from 1629.

Early life

Born in St Botolph's parish, Colchester, Essex,[2] the son of William Halsnoth, a baker, and his wife Agnes,[3] Harsnett was probably educated at Colchester's free school, now Colchester Royal Grammar School.[1] After leaving school, he was inducted into King's College, Cambridge on 8 September 1576[1] and removed into Pembroke College, Cambridge[4] where he gained a BA in 1580/1[5] and was elected a Fellow on 27 November 1583.[1] In 1583 he was ordained into the Church of England,[1] where he was soon disciplined by Archbishop Whitgift for preaching against predestination at St Paul's Cross on 27 October 1584.[1] As Hughson notes, "he was one of those divines who opposed the decrees of the synod of Dort and he wrote a very learned treatise against absolute predestination".[2] In 1584 he proceeded Master of Arts by seniority.[1]

Academic career

In March 1587 Harsnett became headmaster of Colchester Royal Grammar School.[4] In recognition of his achievements, the school has had, since 1908, a school house bearing his name.[6] Preferring his studies at Cambridge University to the position, he resigned his office in November 1588, disliking the "painful trade of teaching",[1] and returned to Pembroke Hall where he studied divinity,[4] gaining his BD c.1590.[1]

He re-entered himself into Pembroke Hall,[2] where he was first a fellow and was elected master on 1 November 1605, remaining in that position until 1616, when he resigned because accusations totalling fifty-seven articles were made against him,[4] by the Fellows of Pembroke to King James I.[1] He was also Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University for the years 1606, the same year he gained his Doctor of Divinity degree,[1] and 1609.[1]

Ministerial career

Chigwell School, which Harsnett founded, circa 1904
Chigwell School, which Harsnett founded, circa 1904

In 1592 he served the office of Junior Proctor[1] and five years later became chaplain to Dr Bancroft,[4] then Bishop of London and shortly to become Archbishop of Canterbury by whose favour he quickly rose through the ranks. On the authority of Bancroft, he obtained the rectory of St Margaret, New Fish Street, London which he resigned in 1604 and the vicarage of Chigwell in Essex on 14 June 1597[1] which he resigned in 1605.[4] Whilst at Chigwell, his wife, Thomazine, died in 1601, having given birth in 1600 to a short-lived daughter.[3] Even after 1605 he continued to reside at Chigwell, where he had purchased a house and estate. In 1619 he purchased land in the parish on which he founded both a Latin school (which survives as Chigwell School) and an English school in 1629.[3]

In 1598 he was promoted, becoming the prebendary of Mapesbury on 5 August[1] and on 17 January 1602 the archdeacon of Essex[1] – both posts chosen for him by Bishop Bancroft. On 16 April 1604 Sir Thomas Lucas of Colchester, father of Charles Lucas, installed him in the rectory of Shenfield, Essex.[4]

Having been Bishop of Chichester since 13 November 1609,[1] on 8 August 1619, he became Bishop of Norwich, resigning the living of Stisted he had held since 1609.[1] He spent most of his time when absent from his city at Ludham, where he built a chapel and consecrated it for divine worship.[7] In May 1624 he was charged before Parliament with high-handedness by the citizens of Norwich and in that same year he also persecuted the Puritans in Great Yarmouth, leading to a complaint by them to King Charles I in 1627.[1]

On 26 November 1628, he was elected Archbishop of York, and on 10 November 1629 he was sworn a Privy Councillor.[1]

Death and commemoration

Memorial brass to Samuel Harsnett
Memorial brass to Samuel Harsnett

Towards the end of his life he fell ill, signing his will on 13 February 1631, to which he signed a codicil on 18 May, and taking the waters at Bath in April of that year.[1] He died at Moreton-in-Marsh while returning from Bath on 25 May 1631 and his body took ten days to return to Chigwell.[1] He was buried at St Mary's Church, Chigwell alongside his wife and daughter, both named Thomasine who had both died in 1601. A brass of Harsnett can be found in St Mary's Church, Chigwell, although it has been moved from its original position over his grave.[3] The image on the brass is believed to be a true representation of him and he most likely sat for it shortly before his death. It has been suggested that it is of Flemish origin but, because of the similarities it bears to the brass of Sir John Filmer in East Sutton, Kent, it is now believed to be by Edward Marshall. His epitaph on the brass reads:[1]

Hic iacet Samuell Harsnett quondam vicarius huius ecclesiæ primo indignus episcopus Cicestrensis deindignior Norwicencis demum indignissim' archiepiscop' Eboraceñ qui obiit XXV die maii anno dñi: 1631
Here lies Samuel Harsnett once vicar of this church, first unworthy bishop of Chichester, then more unworthy bishop of Norwich, finally most unworthy archbishop of York; he died on the 25th day in May in the year of our Lord 1631.

There are two changes from the inscription he requested in his will – his name is spelt as "Samuell", not "Samuel" and "deindignior" should have been "dein indignior".[1]

In his home town of Colchester he is commemorated by a statue on the town hall[8] and a stained glass window in St. Botolph's Church. His library of theological works was bequeathed to the borough of Colchester for the use of local clergy;[4] it can now be found in the library of the University of Essex.[9]

Religious views

Harsnett is noted for his sceptical attitude towards demons and witchcraft. As the chaplain to Bishop Bancroft, Harsnett was commissioned to write a treatise condemning the 1590s exorcisms of John Darrell, having sat on the 1598 commissions which investigated his activities.[1] Darrell, curate at St. Mary's Church, Nottingham was a puritan minister who performed a series of public exorcisms in the English Midlands. Eventually, the exorcisms caused such a disturbance that they attracted the attention of Anglican authorities in London. Harsnett's A Discovery of the Fraudulent Practises of John Darrel (1599)[10] was a polemical piece intended to discredit Darrell's puritan agenda. It was drafted as a piece of political propaganda, but it also genuinely questioned the belief in demons. In this way, Harsnett sought natural explanations for supposedly supernatural phenomena.

In 1603, he wrote another book, A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, published by order of the Privy Council,[1] which condemned exorcisms performed by Roman Catholic priests in the 1580s. Shakespeare used this book as a source, pulling words and phrases when writing the play King Lear, mainly spoken by Edgar while he feigns madness, and John Milton is said to have been influenced by it when writing L'Allegro.

As a member of England's religious authority, Harsnett's sceptical attitudes, divided equally between puritanism and popery,[4] set important precedents for English policy. For example, by coming close "to denying the reality of witchcraft" he may have contributed to the relative lack of witch hunts in England, compared to other countries.[11]

Harsnett was a strident anti-Calvinist.[12] The extent of his Arminian theology has been discussed by historians.[13]


Harsnett is known to have written eight works, which are as follows:

Notes and references


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Stott, Godfrey (1960). A History of Chigwell School. W. S. Cowell Limited. pp. 170–7.
  2. ^ a b c Hughson, David; Stratford, William; Stratford, J. (1809). London, Being an Accurate History and Description. W. Stratford. pp. 293–4.
  3. ^ a b c d "Brass of the Month: Chigwell, Essex". The Monumental Brass Society. 31 October 2006. Retrieved 30 December 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chalmers, Alexander (1814). The General Biographical Dictionary. J. Nichols. pp. 188–9.
  5. ^ "Harsnet, Samuel (HRST579S)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^ Martin, Geoffrey Haward (1947). The History of Colchester Royal Grammar School, 1539–1947. Borough of Colchester.
  7. ^ Britton, John; Wedlake Brayley, Edward; Nightingale, Joseph; Norris Brewer, James; Evans, John; Hodgson, John; Harris, John; Laird, Francis Charles; Shoberl, Frederic; Bigland, John; Rees, Thomas; Hood, Thomas (1810). The Beauties of England and Wales, Or, Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County. Thomas Maiden. p. 31.
  8. ^ "Virtual Tour of Colchester". 22 January 2005. Retrieved 14 January 2008.
  9. ^ "Wyvern : News : November 2003". University of Essex. 5 January 2002. Archived from the original on 31 March 2012. Retrieved 17 December 2010.
  10. ^ Lake, Peter; Questier, Michael (2000). Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, c1560-1660 (1st ed.). Woodbridge: Boydell Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0851157979.
  11. ^ Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke; Levack, Brian P.; Porter, Roy; Ankarloo, Bengt (1999). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Continuum International. pp. 34, 55. ISBN 978-0-485-89005-1.
  12. ^ Harris 2014, p. 209.
  13. ^ Pearce 2004, p. 1. [...] for some of these [Modern] historians, Harsnett can be described as nothing less than the quintessential Arminian. Nicholas Tyacke positioned Harsnett in the vanguard of English Arminianism, or anti-Calvinism as he interchangeably terms Arminianism. For Conrad Russell, Harsnett ranked alongside William Laud, Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Neile, as among "the cream of the English Arminians". Julian Davies went even further, asserting that Laud, in drawing up the Royal Instructions of 1629, toned down the Arminian tenor of Harsnett's 'Conditions for the better Settling of Church Government', which effectively provided the first draft of the Instructions, and concluded, therefore, that Harsnett was "far more anti-Calvinist" than even Laud himself.


Academic offices Preceded byLancelot Andrewes Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge 1605–1616 Succeeded byNicholas Felton Church of England titles Preceded byLancelot Andrewes Bishop of Chichester 1609–1619 Succeeded byGeorge Carleton Preceded byJohn Overall Bishop of Norwich 1619–1628 Succeeded byFrancis White Preceded byGeorge Montaigne Archbishop of York 1629–1631 Succeeded byRichard Neile