Robert Harris 1581-1658

Puritan Preacher, Parliamentarian and President of Trinity College, Oxford

Diana Evans

Robert Harris, a puritan divine, was born in Broad Campden in 1581, son of John Harris, a yeoman whose family had originally come from Shropshire, and Elizabeth Hyron.   In the Cranfield Papers of 1607-9 shown under landholders in Broad Campden:  “John Harris holdeth a messg. and tenement with garden and orchard and payeth yerelie for chief rent: 1 race of ginger”.   This rent would have been payable to the Lord of the Manor, at that time Anthony Smythe.   John was listed as one of six freeholders in Broad Campden.

Robert was educated at Campden Free (Grammar) School.  Anthony Wood described his early life in ‘Athenae Oxoniensis’ of 1691/2, compiled from the Oxford University registers over many years.  Wood says:

He was born in a dark time and place, at Broad Campden, Gloucestershire.   His father was looked on by the chiefest in that country as a very wise and understanding man.   His mother was (confessedly) a very devout and charitable woman.   So soon as he was capable his parents (having designed him for the law, or ministry, according as his parts should prove) set him to the Free School of Chipping Campden, where he soon found a double inconvenience.   First the school masters were often changed by the defalcation of their salaries by some default.   Secondly some of them proved very fierce and cruel which he would often say was the bane of many schoolboies, and though for his own part he never felt (to his rememberance) the smart of any rod in any school, yet the daily executions done upon others brought such a trembling and sadness upon him that he could not be quite rid of so long as he lived.

This was ‘in the period before Sir Baptist Hicks arrived and got the malpractices of the feoffees put to rights’.  Wood goes on to explain that Harris finished his schooling at Worcester and then Magdalen Hall, Oxford, (1597-1600) when his relative Robert Lyster (aka Lyson) was principal.   In order to obtain tuition in philosophy he taught Greek and Hebrew.   Whilst he was at Oxford he was brought under the strong puritan influence of his tutor Mr Goffe.  In 1604 when Oxford University was dissolved on account of the plague he returned home to Campden and it was in that year that the following incident, reported by Wood, occurred.

After he was a while Bachelor of Arts, he had a mind to try what his fitness was for the pulpit (because else he must to the law) and having prepared himself he offers his pains at Chipping Campden, but such were those times that in the greater town hee did not know where to procure a bible for the reading of his text.   At length he was directed to the vicar there;  the bible could hardly be found, being not seen some months before;  at last it was found, and the preacher furnished, who chose for his text the words of St. Paul Romans X 1.   The sermon was heard with much applause, only the preacher would often say that hee lost by the bargain.   First his heart grew bigg upon it, next his carnal friends called upon him to give over university studies and to come amongst them as being now learned enough.   His father also (having many children yet to provide for) was willing to ease his charge and thereupon applied himself to some person of quality in the state and of eminence in the Church in order to obtain some preferment.   But his son declined public employment and became a humble sutor to his father that what he was pleased to bestow upon him as a patrimony he would allow it to him in Oxford, for perfecting his studies.   This with much ado, was obtained and to Oxford he returned a joyful man.

This was the first sermon he had preached and was during the incumbency of John Jennings (vicar 1576-1616).   Had Jennings been a puritan a bible would have been present.   The text Harris chose is given in the King James Bible of 1611 as:  ‘Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved’.

In 1606 he married Joan Whateley, the sister of his friend and vicar of Banbury, William Whateley.   They had a large family of at least a dozen children.   His wife is said to have suffered from religious mania.

Robert returned to Oxford and studied theology for 10 years, then in 1614 became vicar of Hanwell, near Banbury, where the parsonage became a favourite resort for Oxford students.   When he was ‘presented’ to the living of Hanwell he was ‘examined’ by Bishop Barlow of Rochester.   According to Robert Cook  ‘Both were classical scholars, so the examination was conducted in Greek until “at last they were both scoted and to seek of words, whereupon they both fell a-laughing and so gave up” ’ (HED Blakiston, MA, Oxford College Histories, Trinity College 1898).

He made himself famous for his zeal as one of the Commissioners in Oxfordshire for ejecting scandalous ministers during the Commonwealth. and held the office of one of the Visitors for the University of Oxford who legally controlled the university.  He preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Saviour’s Southwark as well as other London churches and in his own neighbourhood.

In 1642 he was chosen as one of the divines to be consulted by Parliament and preached before the House of Commons on 25th May.   He was made one of the Westminster Assembly.   In that year also he received the living of St. Botolph’s Bishopsgate, after being ejected from his Hanwell parish by the Royalist troopers quartered there after the battle of Edgehill.

President of Trinity College, Oxford

He became President of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1648 at the age of 67.   This was towards the end of the Civil Wars and according to Cook, ‘The previous President had been expelled for his opposite political and religious views.   Oxford dons were as sharply divided as the rest of the country’.   The living of Garsington, Oxfordshire, went with the headship and he preached there on Sundays, lecturing once a week at All Souls’ College.

He died in 1658 and was buried in the chapel of Trinity College, where a monument was put up to him, but this disappeared when the chapel was rebuilt.   Blakiston’s History of Trinity College quotes a writer of the time describing Dr. Harris as ‘a very eminent preacher, his hair rather white than grey, his speech grave, natural and pathetical.   I never heard any sermons which became the persons who pronounced them so well as did him.’ His friend William Durham, a kinsman and minister of Tredington, said  ‘Dr. Harris was a man of admirable prudence, profound judgement, eminent gifts and graces, furnished with all the singular qualifications which might render him a complete man, a wise governor, a profitable preacher and a good Christian.’


Cook, Robert, Chipping Campden School, 1990 (incorrectly named as Richard)
Nelson, J.P., Broad Campden, 1971
Powell, Geoffrey, The Book of Campden, 1982
Rushen, Percy, History of Campden, 1911
Warmington, Allan, ed. Campden: A New History, 2005
Warmington, Allan. CADHAS Newsletter, 25th February, 1992
Whitfield, Christopher, A History of Chipping Campden, 1958
‘A Puritans Mind’
The Cranfield Papers

This page was added on 19/04/2015.

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