Runcie died overnight at his home in Hertfordshire after a long battle with cancer, said a spokeswoman for Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the archbishops. As archbishop of Canterbury, Runcie was also regarded as the titular head, or spiritual leader, of the Anglican Communion.
Runcie sometimes appeared to be the leading critic of Margaret Thatcher's government during his tenure from 1980 to 1991. He antagonized Thatcher, who had appointed him, through his prayers for all the dead of the Falkland Islands war and his criticism of the government's tactics in breaking a strike by coal miners.
During his time as archbishop, the 25 million-member Church of England was beset by controversies over the ordination of women and the introduction of modernized liturgies.
Runcie pushed the church to take a more liberal line on remarrying divorced people, an effort that bore fruit after his retirement. He was among the conservatives, however, on the ordination of women, the great issue that tore at the Church of England in the late 20th century.
Though not personally opposed, he argued that ordaining women would split the church--as it did--and that it would impede ecumenical overtures to Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
``If anybody thinks that it is easy and it doesn't cost very much to your personal soul to pursue the middle way, if anybody thinks that it's simple trying to please everybody like a chameleon, let them come and try and ponder the Scripture and say their prayers and try to hold the church together,'' Runcie told The Guardian newspaper at the end of his time as archbishop.
Runcie's successor, George Carey, remembered him as ``a wonderful raconteur, a delightful man''--and also as ``a very complex man.''
``Robert never sought the limelight,'' said Carey. But it often sought him.
Runcie presided at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981, and later tried unsuccessfully to heal the growing rift between them.
He was criticized for some remarks about Diana that were included in Humphrey Carpenter's 1996 biography of the archbishop. Carpenter quoted him as referring to the union as ``an arranged marriage.''
``What I quickly saw she needed was some encouragement and some, `Are you all right, girl?' When you began on abstract ideas, you could see her eyes clouding over, her eyelids became heavy,'' Runcie was quoted as saying.
Runcie did not deny the account, but the book included a note from him saying, ``I have done my best to die before this book was published.''
Robert Kennedy Runcie was born Oct. 2, 1921, in Liverpool. He described his father, who had no love for the Church of England, as having ``a profound distrust of both parsons and policemen.''
He was ordained as a priest in 1950, and in 1954 became vice principal of Westcott House at Cambridge University, where he taught church history. He was appointed bishop of St. Albans in 1970.
Though decorated for bravery, Runcie was criticized as a feeble pacifist because of his comments at the end of the Falkland Islands war in 1982.
``War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism,'' Runcie said in his sermon.
Runcie was the target of criticism in 1987 in the preface of Crockford's Clerical Directory, which by tradition was published anonymously. It accused Runcie of being indecisive, and taking the line of least resistance. The author was revealed to be Gareth Bennett, an Oxford academic who denied he wrote the preface and then killed himself within a week of its publication.
Runcie's final years as archbishop were clouded by the kidnapping in Lebanon of his aide Terry Waite in 1987. After Waite was freed in 1991, both men admitted to tensions between them.
Runcie described Waite as a ``grandstander,'' while Waite complained of lack of support from the archbishop.
Waite on Wednesday called him, ``a good man in every respect.''
Runcie's wife Rosalind, whom he married in 1957, was famously unconventional and impatient with protocol.
While he was bishop of St. Albans, she decided not to take the children to his official engagements, Runcie said.
``She said, 'I care about my children and it's not good for them to see their father poncing about in fancy vestments and being worshipped by the locals,''' he once was quoted as saying.
The couple had a son, James, and a daughter, Rebecca. A funeral service will be held in the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban on Saturday, with a memorial service at Westminster Abbey on a date to be announced.