In 1608 he went to Scotland with the earl of Dunbar to arrange for a union between the churches of England and Scotland. He so pleased the king (James I) in this affair that he was made bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in 1609, was translated to the see of London a month afterwards, and in less than a year was raised to that of Canterbury. His puritan instincts frequently led him not only into harsh treatment of Roman Catholics, but also into courageous resistance to the royal will, e.g. when he opposed the scandalous divorce suit of the Lady Frances Howard against the earl of Essex, and again in 1618 when, at Croydon, he forbade the reading of the declaration permitting Sunday sports. He was naturally, therefore, a promoter of the match between the elector palatine and the Princess Elizabeth, and a firm opponent of the projected marriage of the prince of Wales with the infanta of Spain. This policy brought upon him the hatred of Laud (with whom he had previously come into collision at Oxford) and the court, though the king himself never forsook him.
In 1622, while hunting in Lord Zouch's park at Bramshill, Hampshire, a bolt from his cross-bow aimed at a deer happened to strike one of the keepers, who died within an hour, and Abbot was so greatly distressed by the event that he fell into a state of settled melancholia. His enemies maintained that the fatal issue of this accident disqualified him for his office, and argued that, though the homicide was involuntary, the sport of hunting which had led to it was one in which no clerical person could lawfully indulge. The king had to refer the matter to a commission of ten, though he said that "an angel might have miscarried after this sort." The commission was equally divided, and the king gave a casting vote in the archbishop's favour, though signing also a formal pardon or dispensation.
After this the archbishop seldom appeared at the council, chiefly on account of his infirmities. He attended the king constantly, however, in his last illness, and performed the ceremony of the coronation of Charles I. His refusal to license the assize sermon preached by Dr Robert Sibthorp at Northampton on February 22 1626-1627, in which cheerful obedience was urged to the king's demand for a general loan, and the duty proclaimed of absolute non-resistance even to the most arbitrary royal commands, led Charles to deprive him of his functions as primate, putting them in commission. The need of summoning parliament, however, soon brought about a nominal restoration of the archbishop's powers. His presence being unwelcome at court, he lived from that time in retirement, leaving Laud and his party in undisputed ascendancy. He died at Croydon on the August 5 1633, and was buried at Guildford, his native place, where he had endowed a hospital with lands to the value of L. 300 a year.
Abbot was a conscientious prelate, though narrow in view and often harsh towards both separatists and Roman Catholics. He wrote a large number of works, the most interesting being his discursive Exposition on the Prophet Jonah (1600), which was reprinted in 1845. His Geography, or a Brief Description of the Whole World (1599), passed through numerous editions.
The best account of him is in SR Gardiner's History of England.
Guildford remembers the archbishop with a statue in the High Street, a pub and also a secondary school named after him.