Thomas Cartwright – the father of Puritanism

Alan Clifford Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
01 February, 2004 5 min read

Last month we left Thomas Cartwright in Geneva, where Theodore Beza had assumed the mantle of John Calvin. But friends in England regretted his absence, and Cartwright was encouraged to return in 1572.

His advice was sought concerning negotiations with Catherine de Medici over Queen Elizabeth’s possible marriage to the Duke of Anjou. Cartwright’s opinion was clear and uncompromising:

‘I am fully persuaded that it is directly forbidden in Scripture that any who profess religion according to the Word of God should marry with those who profess religion after the manner of the Church of Rome.’

This was far from academic advice, since 1572 saw a crescendo of suffering for the Huguenots in France – culminating in the St Bartholomew Massacre of 24 August. However, while Queen Elizabeth deplored such an atrocity abroad, she was involved in rigorous suppression of the Puritans at home.

The Puritan case

In the same year, two London clergymen, John Field and Thomas Wilcox, published their famous Admonition to Parliament, urging the kind of Presbyterianism Cartwright had advocated.

These good men were sent to Newgate prison. Cartwright visited the men there, and supported them by writing A second admonition to Parliament.

Emphasising the heart of the Puritan case, Cartwright asked: ‘What, I pray, have they done amiss? They have published that the ministry [of the Church] of England are out of square’.

Recalling the statement by Bishop Cox of Ely, that the English Church should have an ‘English face’, Cartwright complained that more regard was being paid to the Queen’s injunctions and the bishops’ canons than to the Bible – adding with irony, ‘the Bible must have no further scope than by these it is assigned’.

He continued: ‘Is this to profess God’s Word? Is this a reformation? We say the Word of God is above the church; then surely it is above the English Church, and above all the books now rehearsed. If it be so, why are they not overruled by it, and not it by them?’


Outraged by such audacity, the authorities issued a warrant for Cartwright’s arrest in June 1573. How extraordinary was Elizabethan ‘political correctness’! While the Queen welcomed the Huguenot refugees to England (doubtless for the economic benefits these industrious people brought), ‘Huguenot cousin’ Cartwright and his friends were proceeded against!

Thoroughly intimidated by this experience, he escaped to the continent, first to Heidelberg and then to Antwerp, where he became minister to an English congregation.

In 1576, Cartwright visited the Channel Islands to assist the Huguenot churches in their organisation. In all this toil and travel, he even found time to marry the sister of a friend, a godly woman who was to comfort and encourage him to the end.

Since the climate in Antwerp adversely affected his health, Cartwright secretly returned to England in 1585 contrary to the Queen’s wishes. Though arrested and sent to the Fleet prison by the Bishop of London, he was released on the Queen’s instructions.

Roman Bible

After 1577, Cartwright – who rarely enjoyed good health – had declined to publish anything that might be ‘offensive to her majesty or the state’. However, when the Roman Catholic Rheims version of the New Testament was published in 1582, many were alarmed at the anti-Reformation propaganda of its contents.

After approaching Theodore Beza for advice, the Queen and her ministers – following the Genevan reformer’s glowing recommendation – reluctantly commissioned Thomas Cartwright to undertake a refutation.

By 1586, he had reached Revelation 15 in a critical analysis of the Roman Bible. However, since Roman Catholic and Anglican errors were unavoidably exposed, Archbishop Whitgift then forbade Cartwright to proceed with his work.

This prevented the publication of A confutation of the Rhemists translation (1618) until after the author’s death. One is tempted to say that the Anglican establishment succeeded in curbing the Puritans – albeit temporarily – where the Spanish Armada of 1588 failed to conquer Protestant Britain.

A puritan Cranmer

Many of Cartwright’s puritan brethren were dismayed that he should yield to the Archbishop’s order so readily. Dr Sutcliffe, Dean of Exeter, accused him of cowardice.

However, other factors besides his health explain his compliant attitude. Between them, the Queen and her Archbishop were a pretty formidable duo! Had it not been for them, ‘Cartwright’s influence on the Church of England might have been decisive’, wrote Dr Leland Carson.

Unlike the Welsh separatist John Penry, martyred in 1593 leaving a wife and four little girls, Cartwright’s life ended relatively quietly. ‘He was a puritan Cranmer’, concludes Dr Carson, ‘with much of Cranmer’s learning and of Cranmer’s shrinking from hardship, and it was not given him to redeem the past by sharing Cranmer’s fate, i.e. martyrdom’.

Cartwright’s latter years were spent in Warwick. He was appointed master of a hospital founded there by the Earl of Leicester. However, hefrequently preached in the town and neighbourhood.

It is said that he was the first to introduce extemporary praying in public worship, an important development which took place at this time. Thus the Book of Common Prayer was set aside. But there were limits to Cartwright’s Puritanism. He never agreed with separatism.

Inward struggle

Whether or not Dr Carson’s verdict is fair, perhaps Cartwright’s own remarks on Peter’s fall are evidence of an inward soul-struggle:

‘What shall I say of Peter, Christ’s Apostle? Had not he a sure knowledge of Christ, endued with the Holy Ghost and grace from above? And yet after this, he had such a fall, [and] he did most cowardly and shamefully forsake and deny Christ, not without blasphemy.

‘But he went forth and wept bitterly … and by faith he returned again unto Christ, knowing his mercy to be infinite and without measure; Christ appeared unto him (to his great comfort) after he rose again from death to life…

‘And then Peter became a strong Champion, setting forth Christ to be the only Saviour of the whole world, preaching and openly confessing him before all men, without any fear.’

Certainly, Cartwright’s courage returned in measure in his last decade or so. Indeed, his sympathy with puritan activities in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire in 1590 brought him into further conflict with the authorities.

He was again committed to the Fleet prison and appeared before the Court of the Star Chamber in 1591 – which Lord Burghley likened to the Spanish Inquisition! Through his efforts and the good offices of King James VI of Scotland (our future James I), Lord Burghley was successful in obtaining Cartwright’s release.

The spirit returns to God

Shortly after his release Cartwright visited Cambridge once more, where he preached to large congregations. In 1595 he again visited the Channel Islands, accompanying Lord Zouch, the new governor of Guernsey. In 1598, he returned to Warwick, where his last years were spent in comfort and peace.

Cartwright preached his last sermon on Christmas Day 1603 from the text ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, andthe spirit shall return unto God who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Two days later, after spending two hours on his knees in the morning while in great pain, he told his wife that ‘he found wonderful and unutterable joy and comfort, God gave him a glimpse of heaven before he came to it’.

And so, this faithful, if fearful, champion of the Lord died on 27 December 1603. He lived to see an increasing acceptance of principles which he had striven so zealously to proclaim.

Sadly, by the time of the Westminster Assembly (1643-9), fragmentation and intolerance among the Puritans sowed the seeds of confusion and failure. The effects of 1662 and a divided Nonconformity are still with us.

Lordship of Christ

That said, what do we conclude from the life and labours of Thomas Cartwright?

Firstly, he was a man of solid scriptural principle. He saw more clearly than most the implications of the authority of the Bible.

Secondly, he feared separatism and sectarianism. He rejected the arguments of Robert Browne’s A treatise on Reformation without tarrying for any. While his warnings about endless fragmentation still have relevance, he was a man of his time in believing in a state church. He was also authoritarian and inclined to intolerance.

Thirdly, his idea of Presbyterian church government avoided the hierarchical idea. He sought to balance the independency of the local congregation with the need for a wider, visible unity.

Fourthly, he teaches us to take seriously the lordship of Christ in his church, expressed through the authority of the Scriptures in the energy of the Holy Spirit. This is surely his most abiding legacy.

Fifthly, he exemplified the three purities of Puritanism – purity of doctrine, purity of worship and purity of life. Whatever difficulties might attend Cartwright’s legacy, the Christian faith cannot survive if these purities are ever forgotten.

Alan Clifford is the minister at Norwich Reformed Church
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