Archbishops Geoffrey Fisher and Michael Ramsey

This blog briefly considers the long and complex relationship between two 20th century Archbishops of Canterbury: Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972) and Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), which began when Fisher was Ramsey’s headmaster at Repton School, and continued until Fisher’s death.

Fisher became headmaster of Repton in 1914 at the age of 27. He developed a focus on pupil discipline, which some believed had become slack under his predecessor, fellow future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. Ramsey was a gifted student there, but he was regarded as clumsy and shy, and was somewhat in the shadow of his elder brother Frank, who was at school at Winchester College. Frank was a brilliant mathematical economist who was to die tragically young in 1930.

On leaving Repton in 1922, Ramsey won a scholarship to Magdalene College Cambridge, and Fisher was to move on to become Bishop of Chester in 1932 and then Bishop of London in 1939. Following ordination, Ramsey served as a curate in Liverpool and then as Professor of Divinity at Durham from 1939. He moved to a similar role at Cambridge in 1950, but in 1952 he was offered the position of Bishop of Durham. Ramsey faced a difficult decision, as taking up this first role as a diocesan bishop was likely to end his academic career.

Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher (centre) and his wife Rosamond
Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher (centre) and his wife Rosamond (in hat) (ref: Fisher 312, 202c)

Fisher, who had become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1945, was not convinced that this was a suitable role for his former pupil. Fisher thought Ramsey lacked suitable experience, and the two men were in different wings of the Church of England: Fisher being an evangelical, Ramsey a liberal Anglo-Catholic. Nevertheless, Ramsey did move to Durham, and both he and Fisher were to receive significant exposure in 1953 at the Queen’s coronation. Fisher crowned the new monarch, whereas Ramsey acted as one of her ‘supporters’ along with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Harold Bradfield. Many watching the ceremony on television saw Bishop Ramsey for the first time, his appearance giving the impression that he was much older than his age at the time, which was 48.

In 1955, the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett was seriously ill, and he was to die towards the end of that year. Despite Ramsey’s perceived lack of experience, he was chosen to succeed him. Whatever their differences, the pupil and his former headmaster were now the two most powerful figures in the Church of England. Ramsey thrived at York, leading an Anglican delegation to Russia in 1956, contributing significantly to the Lambeth Conference in 1958 at which Fisher presided, and touring central Africa in 1960.

Yet Ramsey’s relationship with Fisher had become increasingly strained. In particular, Fisher was known not to favour Ramsey as his successor at Canterbury. He had long seen him as too academic and Anglo-Catholic, but to that could be added his views that Ramsey was not a good administrator (one of Fisher’s strengths) and that he was cool about establishment (one of Fisher’s great enthusiasms).

Archbishop Michael Ramsey
Archbishop Michael Ramsey (ref: Ramsey 2-546)

When Fisher retired in 1961, he favoured Donald Coggan, then Bishop of Bradford and a fellow evangelical, to succeed him. He is reputed to have said to Prime Minister Harold MacMillan that as Ramsey’s former headmaster he did not consider him suitable. Macmillan is said to have replied that Fisher may have been Ramsey’s headmaster, but he had never been his, and Ramsey duly moved from York to Canterbury. The cautious conservative had been replaced by a reformer more prepared to speak his mind. Coggan replaced Ramsey at York, and was to succeed him at Canterbury in 1974. In retirement Fisher and his wife moved to Dorset, where he served as an honorary assistant priest. But he was to write frequent letters of advice to Ramsey, many of which Ramsey probably found fairly unwelcome, until his death in 1972.

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]


The chapel at Lambeth Palace is one of the oldest extant parts of the site, dating back to the early thirteenth century. In the intervening years, it has been subject to many alterations and additions, some of which have been unwittingly forced upon it: most dramatically, the direct hit by an incendiary bomb on 10 May 1940, when the Victorian stained glass and vaulted ceiling, richly decorated by William Burges, were completely destroyed.

H5195.S9L2 1883FR
Victorian decoration of the Chapel (ref: H5195.S9L2 1883FR)

Subsequently, the chapel fabric was restored under the auspices of Archbishop Fisher in the early 1950s, with the reinstatement of the vaulted roof and the installation of newly commissioned stained glass.

Archbishop Fisher with Sir James Raitt Brown, Third Church Estates Commissioner (ref: CIO/PHO/NEG/5)

However, perhaps the most striking feature to anyone who visits the chapel today is the brightly, some might say garishly, painted murals on the vaulted ceiling. These were painted by the British artist Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012) between 1987-1988, during the archiepiscopate of Robert Runcie (1980-1991), who wanted to brighten up and beautify the interior of the chapel.

Rosoman, who was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Royal Academy and a book, is perhaps best known for his depictions of the Blitz, largely informed by his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War II, and for his role as Official War Artist from 1945.

But in 1987 he undertook a very different commission when he was given an open brief by the newly convened Chapel Advisory Group to enhance the plain white ceiling that was a result of the 1950s restoration. The Advisory Group had begun meeting at Lambeth Palace in May 1987, and after selecting Rosoman, they gave him free rein to come up with ideas; the only firm stipulation they made was Archbishop Runcie’s desire for a depiction of Christ to be placed above the altar.

The ceiling, 36 metres long and 10 metres wide, consisted of five vaults. Using Lambeth Palace Library, Rosoman extensively researched his topic and after some false starts settled on five subjects: St. Augustine’s arrival in England; the life of Becket; the consecration of Matthew Parker; the Lambeth Conference and, as Runcie had requested, the head of Christ at the east end.

Work commenced in October 1987, with the chapel ceiling primed in acrylic gesso and then painted in acrylics by Rosoman and three students, using similar methods to those of the great Renaissance painters. The work was physically demanding, with Rosoman often forced to paint lying on his back or crouching down, and he lost twenty pounds during the project as a result.

Rosoman at work (ref: L-2016-21). Copyright: reproduced with permission from Keith Collie.

Despite some frustrations and delays, once underway work progressed quickly, with Rosoman completing nearly three of the panels in under a month. The colour scheme of the ceiling moved from dark to light as it progressed from west to east, with the initial panel of Pope Gregory assigning St. Augustine to take Christianity to England painted in austere monochrome, with the two figures in white against a dark background.

The life of Becket interested Rosoman, and he was particularly taken with a story from his early life, when the young Becket dived into a mill-race to rescue his hawk, miraculously escaping death. This supposed turning point in his life was unknown to the Chapel Advisory Group, but was depicted in the second panel along with another lesser-known event: the ritual of the Thames boatmen doffing their caps to the martyr’s statue that was situated in the river-facing wall of the palace as they passed it. In contrast, a final image of the martyrdom of Becket completed the panel.

The consecration of Archbishop Parker in 1559 was depicted as it reflected a turning point in the history of the Church of England. Parker, whose bones are interred in the chapel, is shown being anointed by four fellow bishops and Rosoman also slyly represented himself, depicted as a choirboy.

The final panel, showing the head of Christ with a crown of thorns, apparently made Runcie uneasy due to its size and the expression of anxiety the face conveyed, but Rosoman was insistent that it conformed to the medieval tradition and that the expression was one of suffering. Runcie’s concerns were allayed and ultimately the Chapel Advisory Group were very pleased with the results.

The project was completed in June 1988, with relatively little publicity, and on 2 November 1988 a service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel, with a sermon preached by Runcie which focused on the iconography of the ceiling.

The records of this commission and the work that Rosoman undertook are preserved as part of the papers of Archbishop Runcie (Runcie/CHAPEL/1-64). This collection also documents other works that were undertaken in the chapel at the same time as part of a substantial restoration. The papers include the correspondence and minutes of the Chapel Advisory Group, which documents the selection process for the ceiling commission, and Rosoman’s proposals; as well as the various works that were undertaken to other parts of the chapel including the Laudian screen, the floor, and the furnishings. Supplementing these papers are photographs which document the various elements of the chapel before, during, and after the restoration process. Although some of the material is currently closed, it will be made available gradually over the next few years in line with release of other Archbishops’ papers via the Library’s online catalogue. The papers will provide an invaluable resource for understanding the lasting contribution of Leonard Rosoman to the restoration of this ancient chapel.