Loftus is born in 1533, the second son of a monastic bailiff, Edward Loftus, in the heart of the English Yorkshire Dales. He embraces the Protestant faith early in his development. He is an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he reportedly attracts the notice of the young Queen Elizabeth, as much by his physique as through the power of his intellect. Although this encounter may never have happened, Loftus certainly meets with the Queen more than once, and she becomes his patron for the rest of her reign. At Cambridge Loftus takes holy orders as a Catholic priest and is appointed rector of Outwell St. Clement in Norfolk. He comes to the attention of the Catholic Queen Mary, who names him vicar of Gedney, Lincolnshire. On Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 he declares himself Anglican.
Loftus makes the acquaintance of the Queen’s favourite Thomas Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex and serves as his chaplain in Ireland in 1560. In 1561 he becomes chaplain to Alexander Craike, Bishop of Kildare and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Later that year he is appointed rector of Painstown in Meath, and evidently earns a reputation as a learned and discreet advisor to the English authorities in Dublin. In 1563, he is consecrated Archbishop of Armagh at the unprecedented age of 28 by Hugh Curwen, Archbishop of Dublin.
Following a clash with Shane O’Neill, the real power in Ulster during these years, he comes to Dublin in 1564. To supplement the meager income of his troubled archbishopric he is temporarily appointed to the Deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral by the queen in the following year. He is also appointed president of the new commission for ecclesiastical causes. This leads to a serious quarrel with the highly respected Bishop of Meath, Hugh Brady.
In 1567 Loftus, having lobbied successfully for the removal of Hugh Curwen, who becomes Bishop of Oxford, and having defeated the rival claims of the Bishop of Meath, is appointed Archbishop of Dublin, where the queen expects him to carry out reforms in the Church. On several occasions he temporarily carries out the functions of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and in August 1581 he is appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland after an involved dispute with Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls in Ireland. He is constantly occupied in attempts to improve his financial position by obtaining additional preferment, and is subject to repeated accusations of corruption in public office.
In 1582 Loftus acquires land and builds a castle at Rathfarnham, which he inhabits from 1585. In 1569–1570 the divisions in Irish politics take on a religious tinge with the First Desmond Rebellion in Munster and Pope Pius V‘s 1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelsis. The bull questions Elizabeth’s authority and thereafter Roman Catholics are suspected of disloyalty by the official class unless they are discreet.
Loftus takes a leading part in the execution of Dermot O’Hurley, Archbishop of Cashel. When O’Hurley refuses to give information, Francis Walsingham suggests he should be tortured. Although the Irish judges repeatedly decide that there is no case against O’Hurley, on June 19, 1584 Loftus and Sir Henry Wallop write to Walsingham “We gave warrant to the knight-marshal to do execution upon him, which accordingly was performed, and thereby the realm rid of a most pestilent member.”
Between 1584 and 1591 Loftus has a series of clashes with Sir John Perrot on the location of an Irish University. Perrot wants to use St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin as the site of the new University, which Loftus seeks to preserve as the principal place of Protestant worship in Dublin, as well as a valuable source of income for himself. The Archbishop wins the argument with the help of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I, and Trinity College, Dublin is founded at its current location, named after his old college at Cambridge, leaving the Cathedral unaffected. Loftus is named as its first Provost in 1593.
The issue of religious and political rivalry continue during the two Desmond Rebellions (1569–83) and the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603), both of which overlap with the Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), during which some rebellious Irish nobles are helped by the Papacy and by Elizabeth’s arch-enemy Philip II of Spain. Due to the unsettled state of the country Protestantism makes little progress, unlike in Celtic Scotland and Wales at that time. It comes to be associated with military conquest and is therefore hated by many. The political-religious overlap is personified by Loftus, who serves as Archbishop and as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. An unlikely alliance forms between Gaelic Irish families and the Norman “Old English“, who had been enemies for centuries but who now mostly remain Roman Catholic.
Adam Loftus dies in Dublin on April 5, 1605 and is interred in the building he had helped to preserve for future generations, while many of his portraits hang today within the walls of the University which he helped found. Having buried his wife Jane (Purdon) and two sons (of their 20 children) in the family vault at St. Patrick’s, Loftus dies at his Episcopal Palace in Kevin Street “worn out with age” and joins his family in the same vault. His zeal and efficiency are commended by James I upon the king’s accession.