A resolute, tireless and confirmed fighter against apartheid, Tutu shocked the South African government of the day by his ordination as the first black Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town in 1986.
He was a courageous political campaigner, some would say firebrand, against the blatant injustices meted out to the non-white population of South Africa.
But his homely manner, his obvious personal kindness and his wit endeared him more than ever to the proponents worldwide of the anti-apartheid cause.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: “Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a prophet and priest, a man of words and action – one who embodied the hope and joy that were the foundations of his life.
“Even in our profound sorrow we give thanks for a life so well lived. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.”
In a statement released online, he added: “The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (always known as Arch) is news that we receive with profound sadness, but also with profound gratitude as we reflect upon his life.
“My prayers and condolences are with his family and all who loved him, with the Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, and all of the people of South Africa.
“Arch’s love transformed the lives of politicians and priests, township dwellers and world leaders. The world is different because of this man.”
The Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell described Tutu as a “giant” and one of the few who could unite the people of South Africa post-apartheid.
He said: “One of the great and abiding images of the second half of the 20th century was Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela dancing in the courtroom at the end of the closing session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. Nelson Mandela asked his friend Desmond Tutu to chair the commission.
“It was a bold and creative way of helping a nation divided brutally between black and white learn to live in glorious technicolour by facing up to the horrors of its past and by putting the Christian imperative for forgiveness alongside the need for truth as the only way of achieving reconciliation.
“And Desmond Tutu was asked to chair it because this incredibly joyful little disciple of Jesus Christ was one of the few people in South Africa, other than Nelson Mandela himself, who could unite the nation and carry the trust of everyone.
“In this respect, he was a giant.”
Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner, showed no fear of the brutal South African regime that seemed almost permanently embarrassed by a man whose supreme standing in the church made it virtually impossible for them to bully or harass him.
He once wrote a letter to then prime minister John Vorster, warning the situation in South Africa was “a powder barrel that can explode at any time”.
The letter was never answered.
It is said that he did as much as anyone, including even Nelson Mandela, to bring apartheid in South Africa to its knees, leading to the formation of a democratically elected government under Mandela himself.
Tutu was generally credited with coining the term Rainbow Nation as a metaphor to describe the post-apartheid South Africa after 1994 under African National Congress rule.
In 1996, the year he stepped down as Archbishop of Cape Town, Tutu was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
But this in no way weakened his sense of public spiritedness or diminished his commitment to the Christian cause, of which he was such a beacon.
He became the honorary archbishop emeritus of the coastal city he had served.
Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal, on October 7, 1931, and moved to Johannesburg at the age of 12.
He wanted to be a physician, but that was beyond his family’s means and he became a teacher instead.
Tutu was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1960, becoming chaplain at the University of Fort Hare, a hotbed of dissent and one of the few quality universities for black African students.
He left that post in 1962 and travelled to King’s College London, where he received degrees in theology.
Tutu returned to South Africa in 1967 and, until 1972, used his lectures to highlight the plight of the African population.
He returned to the UK in 1972 as vice-director of the Theological Education Fund of the World Council of Churches, but went back to South Africa to become the first African to be appointed Anglican Dean of Johannesburg.
His sterling work in the cause of the anti-apartheid movement led to his receiving numerous doctorates and academic awards from all over the world.
However, although he was firm in denouncing South Africa’s white-rule government, he was also harsh in his criticism of the violent tactics of some anti-apartheid groups, such as the African National Congress.
He denounced terrorism and Communism and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1984 for his “role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa”.
After apartheid fell, Tutu headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for which he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 1999.
That was the year during which he gave the annual Wilberforce Lecture in Hull, commemorating the life and achievements of the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who originated in the city. He was presented with the freedom of Hull.
He returned to the UK yet again in 2004 as visiting professor in Post-Conflict Societies at King’s College London.
Tutu, unlike many African churchmen, opposed Christian discrimination against homosexuals.
He also criticised human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, describing then president Robert Mugabe as “a caricature of an African dictator”.
Archbishop Tutu married Leah Nomali in 1955 and the couple had four children.