Partners at the Palace: the story of the wives of the Archbishops of Canterbury

The first Archbishop of Canterbury who lived at Lambeth with his wife was Matthew Parker. Historically, members of the clergy had not been permitted to marry, until the Clergy Marriage Act of 1548. There is evidence that Archbishop Cranmer was married, but his wife did not live with him at Lambeth as far as we know. It was not until the dust began to settle after the Restoration following the English Civil War that marriage of clergy at the level of the Archbishop began to be more socially acceptable. Archbishop Sheldon was the subject of rumours that he had “wenches” according to Samuel Pepys’ cousin Roger.[1] Sheldon never married, and Pepys expressed some surprise at the suggestion of the Archbishop being as promiscuous as his cousin claimed.

Engraving of Matthew Parker
Engraving of Matthew Parker by Remigius Hogenberg, 1573, pasted into the LPL copy of De antiquitate Britannicae ecclesiae… (1572)[2]

From the 1750s onwards, the majority of Archbishops were married prior to their appointment to the role. One of the few exceptions was Cosmo Gordon Lang, who never married, and it has been speculated that he was homosexual. However, evidence for this is scant, and it is more likely that he believed in clergy celibacy. The notion of clergy celibacy was the cause of much debate from the break with Rome onwards. One of the most vocal advocates in favour of clergy marriage was Matthew Parker, who accepted deprivation of his offices in order to remain married to his wife Margaret during the reign of Queen Mary. When Elizabeth I took the throne, some restrictions on clergy marriage remained in place and clergymen were not permitted to live with their wives in cathedral or college premises, although parish clergy were often married and lived with their wives and families. Parker built a house on the Lambeth Palace Estate for Margaret so that they were close but not breaking the rules. Margaret was keenly involved in the hospitality associated with the role of the Archbishop and receiving guests. Margaret seems to have been popular among her husband’s circle, seen as a supportive partner. Indeed, she is described as being “a person accomplished in all good endowments of body and mind, and towards him of great tenderness.”[3] She was however, less popular with the Queen who is alleged to have departed an event at Lambeth Palace with the words “And you, madam I may not call you; mistress I am ashamed to call you: so I know not what to call you, but yet I do thank you.”[4]

All of the Archbishops’ wives had individual personalities, interests and projects, some of which overlapped with the work of the Archbishop. The majority of Archbishops had previously been Bishops elsewhere, so moving with their family into Lambeth Palace must have been both an adventure and an upheaval. Mary Benson, wife of Archbishop Edward White Benson, had moved their growing family from Lincoln to Truro before arriving at Lambeth with their younger children, the London fog a complete world away from the rolling fields and open space of Cornwall. Mary took an interest in some of the collections in the Palace, including the remains of Archbishop Laud’s pet tortoise, which was discovered in the back of a cupboard. She wrote to the Natural History Museum, and there is correspondence about the tortoise between her and William Flower who was the curator at the time, along with some labels from where the shell had been displayed. A sense of mystery remains as to how old the tortoise was when it came into Laud’s care, and how old it was when it died.[5] In later years, Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, moved in with the Benson family at Lambeth. When Archbishop Benson died in 1896, Mary Benson and Lucy Tait set up home together in Sussex.[6]

Mary Benson and Friends
Mary Benson and Friends at Tremans (later spelled Treemans) in Horsted Keynes[7]

Frances, wife of Archbishop William Temple, incumbent during the height of the Second World War, remained at Lambeth during the conflict and wrote detailed accounts of the war at a local level, including bomb damage sustained at Lambeth Palace and fighting fires in the Canterbury Precincts[8] as well as her plans to restore and refurbish the Palace when she and the Archbishop moved in to use it as the official residence. Her accounts detail spending time together in bomb shelters and observing the damage the following morning, both at Lambeth and in Canterbury. Following the death of her husband in 1944, she wrote a biography of his life and work.

Frances Temple's account of an air raid

Rosamund Fisher was Central President of the Mothers Union, a role which complemented that of her husband. Subsequent spouses have maintained the connection with the Mothers Union and continued the charitable work of the organisation. As well as charitable work, Lady Fisher undertook a central role in the repair and restoration of Lambeth Palace after the Second World War. Her account also details a brief visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip before they were married, on the occasion of Prince Philip’s induction into the Church of England. He quipped about getting married there and then, given that the Archbishop was present.[9]

Rosamund Fisher's account of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip

In more recent years, Rosalind “Lindy” Runcie was a keen gardener and was instrumental in bringing the garden up to date after a period of neglect. It is thanks to her that Lambeth Palace garden looks the way it does today, her careful planning and the continued upkeep by the gardening team has allowed the garden to mature into a beautiful tranquil space .

Archbishop Runcie and Lady Runcie in the garden
Archbishop Runcie and Lady Runcie in the garden on their 25th wedding anniversary[10]

Lady Runcie’s plans included clearing and replanting the rose garden and creating a kitchen garden to grow fruit and vegetables for use in the Palace kitchens. Her work was continued by Mrs Carey, who oversaw the Garden Committee. Lambeth Palace continues to hold garden open days during the summer months when members of the public are welcome to visit and look around. More information about this can be found on the Palace website. Current and recent wives of Archbishops, as well as maintaining their own individual identities, have undertaken roles which support that of the Archbishop and the Church. This includes charity work both in the UK and overseas, academic theological research and organising sessions for the spouses of Bishops at the Lambeth Conference.

Archbishop Justin and Caroline Welby
Archbishop Justin and Caroline Welby at the 2022 Lambeth Conference[11]

[1] [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[2] MS 959, f. 337r

[3] Frere, Catherine Frances (ed.), A proper newe booke of cokerye (1913). Within the Wellcome online collection [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[4] Bent, S.A., Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men: with historical and explanatory notes (1882)

[5] MS 3407, ff. 27-36

[6] [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[7]Image taken from:,_Archbishop_Davidson_(Archbishop_of_Canterbury),_Mrs._Davidson,_Mrs._Benson,_A.C._Benson,_Mrs._Cooper,_1911.jpg [Accessed 01/02/2023]

[8] Fisher 5, ff. 250-74

[9] MS 1726, ff. 64-78

[10] Runcie/PHOTO/335

[11] Image taken from: [Accessed 01/02/2023]