The only child of William Crashaw, Richard Crashaw was born in London in either 1612 or 1613. His mother died when he was an infant; William Crashaw’s second wife, Elizabeth, died when Richard was seven.
William Crashaw, Anglican divine, seems an unlikely parent for one of England’s most famous converts to Roman Catholicism. Staunchly Low Church (some say Puritan) in his theology and in his lifestyle, the elder Crashaw devoted his life to preaching and writing, partly against the Laudian or High Church excesses in the Church of England but principally against what he perceived as the far greater dangers of the Church of Rome itself. In his efforts to know the full strength of the enemy, William Crashaw amassed an impressive collection of “Romish” writings; the critic can only speculate what effect these works, as well as his father’s convictions, may have had on the spiritual development of Richard Crashaw.
After two years at London’s famed Charterhouse School with its austere regime and classical curriculum, Crashaw was admitted, in 1631, to Pembroke College at Cambridge University. He would receive his A.B. in 1634 and his A.M. in 1638. He came to Pembroke with something of a reputation as a poet, a reputation that grew steadily as he produced Latin and Greek epigrams as well as English models, translations of the Psalms, and various occasional verses. These works form the basis of his 1634 publication, Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber, the only work Crashaw himself would see through the printing process.
In 1635, Crashaw was appointed to a fellowship at Peterhouse College and sometime shortly thereafter was ordained to the Anglican priesthood. At Peterhouse, he was in direct contact with a circle of Laudian churchmen whose devotion, emphasis on liturgical ceremony and propriety, and reverence marked another step in Crashaw’s eventual spiritual journey to Rome. Between 1635 and 1643, Crashaw also learned Spanish and Italian, moving with ease into the reading of the Spanish mystics, among them Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, as well as the rich tradition of Italian devotional literature. This material would strongly influence his later poetry, to the extent that his work is sometimes described as Continental rather than English.
Another significant event of the Peterhouse years was Crashaw’s acquaintance with the community at Little Gidding, the religious retreat founded by George Herbert’s friend Nicholas Ferrar. At Little Gidding, daily communal prayers and other religious observances were prescribed and orderly; the ancient church building was restored by the community to a Laudian elegance; the sanctuary fittings were rich and reverent. Although Ferrar and his followers steadfastly maintained their allegiance to Canterbury, the community was sometimes criticized as Papist.
These same criticisms were being levied at Peterhouse, where John Cosin, master of Peterhouse and a friend of Crashaw, was restoring and adorning the college chapel with equal devotion. Reports of the candles, incense, and crucifixes at Peterhouse continued to arouse Puritan suspicions; in the early 1640’s, Cosin, along with Crashaw, was censured for “popish doctrine.” In 1643, Parliament, goaded by the growing Puritan forces, forbade all altar ornaments as well as all pictures of saints. In these early years of the Civil Wars, Cosin, Crashaw, and four others were formally expelled from their fellowships and forced to depart.
The last six years of Crashaw’s life, the key years of his conversion and the flowering of his poetry, are difficult to trace with any certainty. In 1644, he wrote from Leyden, speaking of his poverty and his loneliness. He may have revisited England, probably only for a short period. At some point, he made the acquaintance of Queen Henrietta Maria, who, as a devout Catholic, took up his cause in a letter to Pope Innocent. Somewhere in his physical and spiritual travels, Crashaw decided—or discerned a call—to commit himself to Roman Catholicism; this central experience cannot be dated. He continued to write, completing the poems his editor would entitle Steps to the Temple (a humble compliment to George Herbert’s The Temple, 1633), revising many of his earlier poems, and working on the pieces that would form his last volume, Carmen Deo Nostro.
Crashaw spent time in Rome and in Paris, absorbing the rich art of these cities as well as their expressions of Catholicism. In Paris, he was befriended by the poet Abraham Cowley who, appalled at his friend’s physical condition, obtained care and financial assistance for him. Back in Rome, Crashaw was appointed to the service of a cardinal and subsequently was sent to Loreto, the house where, according to Catholic tradition, the Virgin Mary received word of the Annunciation. Crashaw had barely reached this Marian shrine when he fell ill; he died August 21, 1649.
Richard Crashaw (KRASH-aw), who is among the best of England’s Roman Catholic poets, began his life as the son of an anti-Catholic Anglican clergyman with Puritan leanings. He was born in London in 1612 or 1613, while his father was preacher to the Temple, and he was enrolled in the Charterhouse School there about 1629, three years after the death of his father. It has been suggested that Robert Brooke, the headmaster of Charterhouse, gave young Crashaw his first training in writing poetry. In 1631, Crashaw entered Pembroke College at Cambridge University, where he contributed poems and drawings to several occasional volumes.
Crashaw remained in Cambridge until after the outbreak of the civil war, taking his degree in 1634. Epigrammatum Sacrorum Liber was published that same year. In 1635, Crashaw became a fellow of Peterhouse College, the stronghold of the High Church party of Archbishop Laud, one of the most influential ministers of Charles I. While there he met poet Abraham Cowley, who became a lifelong friend.
Crashaw’s poetry reveals a joy in beauty and sensuous, concrete imagery that helps explain his preference for the ceremonies of High Church Anglicanism and finally the Roman Catholic Church. During the late 1630’s, he formed close friendships with members of Nicholas Ferrar’s Anglo-Catholic community at Little Gidding. By 1939, Crashaw had been ordained in the Anglican Church; that year he assumed the curacy of nearby Little St. Mary’s.
Crashaw’s first volume of English poetry, Steps to the Temple, appeared in 1646. Its title reflects his admiration for the religious lyrics of George Herbert, published in The Temple. The same volume also contained The Delights of the Muses, featuring classical and occasional poetry. Crashaw, ever revising his poetry, reissued the collection in 1648.
As a Laudian Anglican and a strong royalist, Crashaw was forced to flee Cambridge in 1643, before Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary Commissioners came to Peterhouse to destroy the church ornaments they considered idolatrous and to root out royalist sympathizers. Crashaw may have gone first to Little Gidding, but he was soon on the Continent, in Leiden. He went on to Paris in 1644 to the exiled English queen, Henrietta Maria, who had taken refuge at the court of her nephew, Louis XIV, and to whom Crashaw may have been introduced by Cowley. At court, Crashaw met his patron, the countess of Denbigh, recipient of Crashaw’s famous letter of spiritual advice. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1644 or 1645.
Crashaw went to Rome in 1645 or shortly thereafter, but in spite of a letter from Henrietta Maria to the pope in his behalf, his reception there was cool. He was finally given a post in the household of Cardinal Palotto in 1646 or 1647. English travelers reported that Crashaw was soon disillusioned with the corruption of the cardinal’s retinue and had made enemies of many of his servants. In 1649, Crashaw was transferred, possibly for his own safety, to Loreto. He died there months later, ostensibly of fever but with rumors of poisoning.
Carmen Deo Nostro, containing revisions of poems in Steps to the Temple and a number of new works, was published posthumously in 1652. Crashaw’s works have often been reprinted since his death, and he remains a well-established minor poet, one of the few English writers with the “baroque sensibility,” the love for rich colors, sensuous imagery, and intense emotion that inspired the sculptors, painters, and poets of seventeenth century France and Italy.