Herbert Thorndyke

Herbert Thorndike was born in 1598, probably in Suffolk, though his family held land in Lincolnshire. His father, Francis Thorndike, had married Alice Colman, daughter of Edward Colman of Waldingfield in Suffolk. Herbert had two brothers, Francis and John. (see a separate entry for John Thorndyke).

Herbert entered Trinity College, Cambridge in December 1613 and was elected to a fellowship in 1618. Thereafter his life was devoted to scholarship and theological study and he was almost continuously resident at Trinity until 1646, though after his ordination to the priesthood he held a number of ecclesiastical posts in plurality with his fellowship. In 1636, on the death of his friend George Herbert, Thorndike was made a prebendary of Lincoln by John Williams, at that time both Bishop of Lincoln and Dean of Westminster. He resigned the prebend four years later in order to accept the living of Claybrook in Leicestershire, which in turn he soon resigned in favour of that of Barley, thirteen miles from Cambridge.

Thorndike's career was severely disrupted by the English Civil War. Sympathetic to the royalist cause, he assisted Trinity College (of which he had become senior bursar in 1642) in removing its plate to safety, and for this was ejected from the rectory of Barley in July 1643. The following September his election to the mastership of Sydney Sussex College was thwarted when soldiers sent by Cromwell removed one of Thorndike's supporters, thus ensuring the election of a rival candidate. In May 1646 he was deprived of his fellowship.

For the remainder of the War, and throughout the Commonwealth period, Thorndike appears to have had no regular source of income. At the Restoration, however, he returned to his fellowship and to the living of Barley, though he resigned the latter on his appointment as a prebendary of Westminster on 5th September 1661. A severe illness beset him the following year, after which he returned to Cambridge where he remained until driven out by the plague in 1666. In 1667 he resigned his fellowship and returned to Westminster Abbey, taking up residence in a house in the Cloisters.


Thorndike died at Chiswick, in a house belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, on 11th July 1672. He was buried in the east cloister, near the steps up to the door into the Abbey, on 13th July and lies beside his brother John.

A Latin inscription on the gravestone was recorded in a history of the Abbey published in 1723 but no longer remains as it has been worn away. It said:

Herbert Thorndick Canon of this Church 1672. John Thorndick 1668.

In spite of the spelling on the stone Herbert always spelled his name Thorndike. So there is no inscribed stone now to be seen.

Herbert Thorndike's Writings

Thorndike was a scholar and theologian of considerable ability. In 1640 he was appointed Lecturer in Hebrew at Trinity College, and he was responsible for the Syriac portions of the great Polyglot Bible published in London in 1657 under the editorship of Brian Walton. In the years immediately following the Restoration Thorndike also took a major part in the revision of the Prayer Book.

In his own writings he explored the doctrinal issues which were at the heart of religious controversy in England during the 1640s and 1650s. His earliest published work, Of the Government of Churches (1641), is a defence of episcopacy against presbyterianism. It was followed by Of Religious Assemblies and the Public Services of God (1642) and A Discourse of the Right of the Church in a Christian State (1649). His views found their fullest expression, however, in An Epilogue of the Tragedy of the Church of England, published in 1659. This lengthy work advocates a return to a united Christendom on the basis of the decisions of the first six General Councils of the church.

Thorndike's theological position was by no means always typical of the Caroline divines. In the Epilogue he conceded a certain superiority to the Pope in the Western Church, and while his insistence that scripture should be interpreted with reference to the custom of the early church led him to condemn many developments in Roman doctrine, he supported the practice of prayer for the dead, argued for a return to the discipline of penance, and insisted on a mystical but objective presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. These and other views were challenged, even by some who were broadly in sympathy with his outlook. Underlying all Thorndike's writings, however, is a deep personal commitment to the doctrinal integrity of the Church of England.

Thorndike's writings were forgotten after his death but were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by the Tractarians, for whom his insistence on the authority of the practice of the early church and his staunch defence of the catholicity of the Church of England had a strong appeal.

Books by Herbert Thorndike in Westminster Abbey Library

Of the Government of Churches: A Discourse pointing at the Primitive Form (Cambridge, 1641)

Two Discourses. The one of the Primitive Government of Churches, the other of the Services of God at the Assemblies of the Church. Now inlarged with a review (Cambridge, 1650)

An Epilogue to the Tragedy of the Church of England... (London, 1659)

Just Weights and Measures; that is, the present State of Religion Weighed in the Balance... (London 1662; and 2nd edn., London, 1680)

Further Reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

T.A. Lacey's Herbert Thorndike 1598-1672 (London: S.P.C.K., 1929)

For Genealogical Research

A Thorndike Family History, edited by Scott C. Steward and John Bradley Arthaud (Boston, Mass.: Newbury Street Press, 2000)

Herbert's will is at The National Archives, Kew, Surrey


11th July 1672


13th July 1672


Writer; priest/minister


East Cloister

Herbert Thorndyke
East Cloister

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