Today is the 375th anniversary of the death of Archbishop William Laud. A victim of the divisions which led to the English Civil War, he was beheaded by order of Parliament accused of treason, despite being given a royal pardon by Charles I. There is no doubt that he was a controversial figure with an authoritarian approach to opponents. On the other hand, he stood for his beliefs and did not sway with the political wind for the sake of expediency.
As well as being remembered generally today by the Church of England, Laud is remembered in Wokingham because of his connections with it. Although Laud was born in Reading, his father was a native of Wokingham, and his mother, in her later years, lived in the town. Laud was a benefactor of Wokingham, leaving money in his will to be granted to poor young people.
One of the lasting changes on Church of England tradition attributed to Laud is the custom of placing altars inside a sanctuary area with a rail around them. In the earlier phase of the Reformation’s impact on the Church in England altars in parish churches started to be placed centrally in the chancel. They were regarded as tables around which all participant communicants would gather for the service of Holy Communion, so more literally re-enacting the Last Supper than had been evident in the old-style Mass. Laud was instrumental in reversing this trend and returning altars to a position against the east wall of churches together with a protecting rail. It is said that he and others who agreed with him were perturbed by the increasing use of altars as a handy dumping surface for hats and coats, not to mention their use by dogs for dog-like habits!