Changing traditions in Archiepiscopal signatures

The papers of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s administrative officers are normally released after around 30 years, and to achieve this, there is a continuous programme of cataloguing by the archives team at Lambeth Palace Library. While cataloguing, it has been noticeable that an Archbishop does not always sign his name in the same way. We might expect a signature to read: + Justin Cantuar

From Debretts:

“When signing their name on official documents, archbishops preface their signature, written in capital letters, with a cross.

The Archbishop of Canterbury usually signs his first name and ‘Cantuar’ (from the Latin for Canterbury), eg + Justin Cantuar:”

Lambeth Conference autograph book 1908
Image 1 & 2 ref: LC 103
In the autograph book for the Lambeth Conference of 1908, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York sign without a cross. Only three bishops sign with a cross before their names, all from the Anglican Communion.Enter a caption

image2lc103.jpgWe know which Archbishop’s signature it is from the use of the personal name. Episcopal and Archiepiscopal signatures are rich in symbolism, and you can tell a great deal about their relationship to a recipient simply from how they signed a letter.

Archbishop George Carey often signed his name with a preceding cross, but sometimes without one, and a more personal note might simply be signed ‘George.’ Rowan Williams signed with a cross before his name in forewards to books published for Lambeth Palace Library. It seems that how an Archbishop chooses to sign their name relates to what capacity they are writing in, and like all of us, the familiarity they have with the recipient.

An Archbishop’s signature is built on the conventions of that of bishops, and we have long received enquiries about episcopal signatures. Sadly, little has been written on the subject, and perhaps the conventions that do exist are a matter of uncodified tradition. An enquiry to Lambeth Palace Library in the 1970s asked about the use by some modern bishops of a Latinised first name, and the use of the cross before the signature. In the response it was noted that there has always been considerable variation, for example in the seventeenth century, in the same document, bishops used both Latinised and English forms of first names, with many using an abbreviated form that would work equally well for both.

It was noted that the use of the cross before the first name was a recent development and an innovation from the international Anglican Communion. They pointed to the 1908 Lambeth Conference autograph book where just three bishops used a cross before their name, from Quebec, Olympia and Salina. Records in the archive towards the end of the nineteenth century indeed show bishops signing their name without a cross. For example, in a note of 1891 by Randall Thomas Davidson on how he signs as Bishop of Rochester, he writes ‘Randall T. Roffen,’ with Roffen a Latinised form of Rochester. His signature contains no cross before it, and neither does that of his predecessor on the same page, Anthony Wilson Thorold [ref: MS 2028 p.79]. In 1899 William George Peel, Bishop of Mombasa, (later accused of heresy in the Kikuyu controversy of 1913), wrote asking how he should style himself.  His diocese was founded as the diocese of Eastern Equatorial Africa (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) in 1884, and here he pointed out that, as there were now multiple bishops in the region, there would be less confusion if he signed his name W. G. Mombasa. At no point does he suggest using a cross before his name [ref: F. Temple 32, f. 251].

The 1970s enquiry tells us that in 1934 Archbishop Lang himself forwarded a letter on the subject of episcopal signatures from Canon Ollard to Bishop Frere, the exchange published in the Alcuin Club’s collection of Frere’s correspondence on Liturgical Revision and Construction, edited by Dr Jasper. Frere points out that bishops added their names to documents before people regularly had surnames, and the origins of the form of episcopal signatures lay before there really were signatures, and when the entire document was in Latin. Even after surnames became more regular, bishops continued to use their first name or an abbreviation with the Latin adjectival form of the see, and sometimes just the initial of their first name; ‘his having a surname tended to reduce the importance of his Christian name; so he signed with an initial instead of a Christian name in full, followed by the adjective of his see instead of a surname.’ He does say that a cross might be used for clarity. He does not indicate a date for this, but it is a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church (the enquirer initially assumed this was the origin) and I have not found examples of Church of England bishops doing so between the reformation and the twentieth century. My search has in no sense been exhaustive, and there may be examples of just such signatures, but it certainly does not seem to have been common.

The use of a single cross preceding the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury seems an even more recent development. I have not yet found an example predating Michael Ramsey, who became Archbishop in 1961. His predecessor was Geoffrey Fisher, who presided at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1947 the secretary of the General Churches Group of the National Council of Social Service wrote with a dilemma. In publishing a pamphlet, they had been advised to place a cross before the name of the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Griffin. However, the Archbishop of Canterbury had simply signed ‘Geoffrey Cantuar.’ The secretary of the General Churches Groups gives us his understanding of the situation; “I believe it would be incorrect to print a cross before the signature of the Archbishop of Canterbury: I understand that it contravenes some ecclesiastical regulation (which is not always observed).” He can also see the difficulty in putting a cross before one and not the other. Sadly, the response does not elaborate as much as we would like, but does say the following: “As to whether there should be a cross before the signature of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To that the Archbishop’s answer is ‘no’. His Grace, therefore, considers that there should be no crosses, either before his signature or that of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.” (ref: Fisher 36 ff.233-4).

Image3Fisher330 f.79
Image 3 ref: Fisher 330 f.79
The signature of Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1945 to 1961, without a cross. Fisher asked for a cross not to be put next to his name on a letter co-signed with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Griffin, although Anglican Bishops in England were doing so by now.
Image4Fisher36 ff.236
Image 4 ref: Fisher 36 ff.236
The Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Griffin did use a cross in this letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, on 25 January 1947.

His successor, Michael Ramsey, was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 1961 to 1974, and he did use the cross regularly in his signature. One record shows the remarkable transformation since the turn of the twentieth century. In 1974, amidst national crisis and the three-day week, Ramsey and other leaders of the church wrote a letter to The Times calling for a peaceful solution and reconciliation, and all had their name preceded by a cross. The records even include a telegram confirming this is the signature of the Archbishop of Canterbury [ref: Ramsey 283, ff. 118-124].


Image 5 ref: Ramsey 283, ff. 118-124
Letter in The Times in 1974, all the Anglican Church leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, felt it was appropriate to use a cross before their name.

What the records suggest is the emergence of the use of the cross in episcopal signatures in the Anglican Communion from the turn of the twentieth century, and this innovation was gradually adopted in the Church of England and spread, so that by the second half of the twentieth century it became part of the signature of successive Archbishops of Canterbury. There may have been other influences as well as emerging practice in the Anglican Communion, including Roman Catholic practice. It has parallels to the wearing of mitres, first worn by Anglican bishops in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century adopted for the first time since the reformation by an Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Lang. It would be difficult to confirm the exact point at which the cross was first used in Archiepiscopal signatures without a far more thorough examination of the records, which might also trace how the practice spread, but such a search is beyond the scope of this blog post.


Further reading:

Bishop Frere goes into far more depth in his short letter on early episcopal signatures than I have covered here, and is well worth reading:

Walter Howard Frere : his correspondence on liturgical revision and construction edited by Ronald C.D. Jasper, available at Lambeth Palace Library, reference number G170.(A5) [R]

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