Bedell, William (DNB00)

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BEDELL, WILLIAM (1571–1642), bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, second son of John Bedell and Elizabeth Aliston or Elliston, his wife, was born at Black Notley, a village in the county of Essex, on or about Christmas day, 1571 (see Life, ed. T. W. Jones, p. 91). His paternal ancestors were yeomen of long standing in the county, and originally of the same stock, it has been alleged, as the Bedells of Writtle. His grandfather and father were both men of strong religious convictions, the former being also noted for his sternness as a disciplinarian. The story is told, that when his son John (the father of the bishop), on being first sent to school, ran away to his home, he placed him behind him on horseback, with his face to the horse's tail, and thus conveyed him back to his master. Mr. Denman of Braintree, under whom both William and his elder brother John were educated, was known as ‘very able and excellent in his faculty,’ but was also in the habit of treating his pupils with the harshness that disgraces the education of those days; and a blow which he inflicted on William was the occasion of a deafness which became permanent. William's maternal relatives were puritans, or at least puritanically inclined; and when little more than twelve years of age he was sent to the newly founded puritan college of Emmanuel at Cambridge, where his name appears as pensioner, admitted 1 Nov. 1584. On 12 March following he was elected a scholar, being the nineteenth on the list from the foundation. In 1588 he graduated B.A. and in 1592 M.A. His entry at an age three or four years below the average in those days probably rendered it difficult for him at first to keep pace with his fellow-students in a society noted for its studious habits, but in due course his natural ability began to manifest itself, and in 1593 he was elected a fellow of his college, being fourteenth on the list from the foundation, including the first three fellows nominated by the founder, Sir Walter Mildmay. On 10 Jan. 1597 he was ordained priest, and in 1599 proceeded B.D. The college had been expressly designed by Sir Walter as a place of education for the ministry, and Bedell began to look forward to engaging in parochial work. His first college duties as a fellow had been well calculated to qualify him for such a sphere of labour, he having been selected to be the catechist of the students in the fundamental doctrines of the christian faith. It was in the performance of this office that not a few eminent divines—such as Lancelot Andrewes at Pembroke, William Perkins at Christ's, and John Preston at Queens'—achieved their first reputation. Bedell was himself a pupil of Perkins, the eminent theologian and tutor of Christ's College, and on the latter's death in 1602 was the purchaser of his library. Besides his attainments in divinity, Bedell was already known as a good classical scholar, and also as acquainted with Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew. His aptitude as a linguist, and possibly his skill in discerning the structure of a language, led his Italian friends in Venice to request him to compile an English grammar for their use.

In 1602 Bedell, having received his license to preach, was appointed to succeed Mr. George Estey at the church of St. Mary's, at Bury St. Edmund's in Suffolk. He at once attracted large audiences, and the neighbouring country families were often to be seen among his congregation. In 1607 he was invited to fill the place of chaplain to Sir Henry Wotton, the British ambassador to the Venetian republic. That famous state had recently been attracting to itself the notice of all Europe by its courageous opposition to the encroachments of the papal see and by a generally liberal policy. In his resentment at its conduct, pope Paul V had placed the whole community under an interdict (April 1606). The signory, in retaliation, expelled the Jesuits and certain other religious bodies who had ventured to give effect to the papal decree. The cause of the republic was ably maintained by the eminent scholar and philosopher, Friar Sarpi, better known as Father Paul, who carried on a notable controversy with the defenders of the Ultramontane policy, Baronius and Bellarmine. Bedell did not arrive in Venice until some time after the interdict had been revoked (21 April 1607), but he found the popular mind still deeply agitated by the whole question of papal allegiance, and in conjunction with Sir Henry Wotton he cherished the belief that circumstances augured hopefully for bringing about a Reformation in Italy. Their views were shared by some eminent protestants elsewhere, among whom were Du Plessis, Mornay, and Diodati, of Geneva, the author of the protestant translation of the Bible into Italian. Father Paul, although by no means generally accessible to visitors, took both Sir Henry Wotton and Bedell into his fullest confidence, and the intimacy thus formed exercised a marked influence on the latter, who always afterwards was wont to refer to his intercourse with the great scholar as an invaluable mental experience, and as serving materially to enrich his knowledge both of controversial divinity and of polite learning. It was shortly after this acquaintance had been formed that the attempt to assassinate Father Paul was made. Bedell, writing a few days after the event to his friend, Dr. Samuel Ward, subsequently master of Sidney College, Cambridge, says: ‘I hope this accident will awake him a little more and put some more spirit into him, which is his only want’ (Life, p. 104). After a stay in Italy extending over some three years and a half, during which time he had added considerably to his knowledge of Hebrew by his intercourse with some learned Jews, Bedell returned to England and to Bury. He was accompanied by Dr. Despotine, a Venetian convert to protestantism, who settled as a medical practitioner in Bury, and to the promotion of whose interests, as a stranger in a foreign land, Bedell devoted himself with characteristic generosity and unselfishness. At Bury he continued to reside for upwards of four years, and his ministrations were highly valued. But his voice was weak and the church large, and he consequently found a difficulty in making himself audible to the congregation. This circumstance determined him to accept (1616) the presentation to the rectory of Horningsheath (a neighbouring parish) offered him by the patron, Sir Thomas Jermyn, one of his congregation. On proceeding to take possession he, however, found himself confronted by a difficulty which seemed likely at one time to prove insuperable. This arose out of the exorbitant, though customary, fees exacted by the officers of the bishop of the diocese, Dr. John Jegon, the payment of which Bedell regarded as involving a question of principle, as equivalent to an act of simony. Eventually the bishop (who as a former master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was probably well informed with respect to Bedell's merits) effectually removed the latter's scruples by directing that the instruments of institution and induction should be sent to him, and that the amount of the fees to be paid should be left to his discretion. Of Bedell's mode of life at Horningsheath and his exemplary conduct in his various relations to his family, his parishioners, and the neighbouring clergy, an interesting account will be found in the ‘Life’ by his son—a sketch which also gives an insight into the duties and habits of a country clergyman in those days. About a year after his return from Venice to Bury, Bedell had married (29 Jan. 1611) Mrs. Leah Mawe, the widow of a former recorder of that town, by whom, at the time of her second marriage, she had five children living.

On the summoning of parliament in 1623 Bedell was selected, much against his will, as one of the two representatives of the clergy of the diocese of Norwich in convocation. In 1627 he was appointed, on the joint recommendation of Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, and Ussher, archbishop of Armagh, to the provostship of Trinity College, Dublin. Their testimony in his favour was warmly seconded by Sir Henry Wotton, who, however, in his letter to King Charles, declares that Bedell is best recommended ‘by the general fame of his learning, his life, and christian temper, and those religious labours himself hath dedicated to your majestie’—this reference being to ‘The Copies of Certaine Letters which have passed between Spaine and England in mattre of Religion,’ which Bedell had dedicated to Charles, then prince of Wales, in 1624. He was admitted provost, with the general consent of the fellows, on 16 Aug. 1627. During his short tenure of his new office Bedell approved himself an able administrator. He revised the statutes of Trinity College, and, while introducing not a few alterations, scrupulously abstained from anything that tended to his own pecuniary advantage or to that of the fellows. Like the founder of his own college at Cambridge, Sir Walter Mildmay, he opposed on principle the continued residence of fellows when the long curriculum of their theological studies had been completed; and he accordingly put in force a like proviso to that contained in the statute ‘De Mora Sociorum’ in the code of Emmanuel (see Mullinger, Hist. of Univ. of Cambridge, ii. 315), requiring that ‘every fellow should study divinity, and after seven years' stay should go out into some employ in the church’ (Life, ed. Jones, p. 27). He required also that those who were Irishmen by birth should cultivate their native language, in order that they might become better qualified to labour among the people. His interchange of opinions with Father Paul and other divines in Italy had rendered him inclined to insist as little as possible on the differences with respect to doctrine between catholic and protestant. These sentiments at one time seemed likely to involve him in some trouble with the extreme protestant party in the college, especially with Dr. Joshua Hoyle, the divinity professor; but his tact and conciliatory temper disarmed their opposition.

After about two years' tenure of his provostship Bedell appears as entering upon the final stage of his career by his acceptance of the united bishoprics of Kilmore (co. Cavan) and Ardagh (co. Longford), to which he was consecrated on 13 Sept. 1629. He found both his dioceses in a very unsatisfactory condition, the revenues plundered, the ‘plantations’ raw, and the churches in a ruinous state; whilst the catholic clergy held aloof from his neighbourly advances and showed no disposition to co-operate for the general good. On the other hand, as we find from a letter written by him to Laud (1 April 1630), he viewed with grave disapprobation the extortion practised by the ecclesiastical courts on the poor catholics, ‘which,’ he says, ‘in very truth, my lord, I cannot excuse and do seek to reform.’ In February 1633 he resigned the see of Ardagh, owing to his expressed objection against pluralities and his opinion that it would be better administered by a separate bishop. Domestic bereavement at this time fell heavily upon him. In 1635 his second son, John, died; and two years after, his step-daughter, Leah, in little more than a month after her marriage to the Rev. Alexander Clogie, and then his wife (26 March 1638), who was buried in the cathedral churchyard at Kilmore.

A lawsuit in which he became involved, owing to his conscientious objections to the re-appointment of his chancellor, Dr. Alane Cook, brought fresh trouble, and was regarded as of considerable importance from the fact that it was likely to furnish a precedent with respect to the rights of the civil lawyers generally in connection with the ecclesiastical courts. Cook, whose appointment rested solely on the choice of Bedell's predecessor, had approved himself a mercenary and unscrupulous official, and the bishop resolved that, if possible, another should be appointed to the post. The case was protracted over several years, and though he lost his suit, with costs against him, he preserved his conscience. No feature in the maladministration of the ecclesiastical courts appears to have arrested his attention more forcibly than the frequent employment of writs of excommunication against the poor catholics, and the cruel oppression carried on under the pretexts thus afforded. ‘The corruptions of the jurisdiction ecclesiastical,’ he writes to Dr. Despotine, ‘are such, as not only not law, but not so much as equity is kept.’ Against pluralities and non-residence he strove with unceasing effort; while in appointing new incumbents he invariably preferred those who already possessed some knowledge of the Irish language. On Wentworth's first arrival as lord deputy, he ordered an increase of the army in Ireland. Against the heavy contributions levied for this, memorials to the king were got up in various parts of the country, among others in Ulster. The bishop, having been prevailed on to sign one of these petitions, drew upon himself the displeasure of Wentworth. Towards the end of Strafford's government, the bishop again incurred the disapproval of the authorities by a manifestation of sympathy with Adair, bishop of Killaloe, who was brought before the high commission court for expressions in favour of the covenanting party in Scotland, and in consequence deprived of his see. Undaunted by these and other signs of unpopularity, Bedell continued to employ his best efforts for the good of the people. The churches were repaired and made available for public worship, and the translation of the Scriptures into Irish completed by the addition of the Old Testament, which was carried on under his supervision.

On the outbreak of the rebellion of 1641, Bedell's mansion was respected by the insurgents, so that he was able to give shelter and food to the homeless English who fled to him in their distress. On one occasion he interposed to protect them from violence. At the same time he steadily refused to desert his diocese, personally accepting the offer of a convoy to Dublin. This generosity of conduct afforded the Irish a pretext for seizing first his cattle and then his household goods and library, and finally conveying him and his sons prisoners to Loughoughter Castle. Here the governor, Owen O'Reilly, who had formerly been one of his tenantry, did his best to alleviate the the hardships of his position. His friends in the meantime managed to procure his release, when, his own house being now occupied by the popish bishop, he accepted the hospitality of the Rev. Dennis Sheridan, whom he had himself presented to the living of Killasser. Dennis Sheridan's house at Drumlor, however, was crowded with destitute English, and this, combined with insufficient and unwholesome diet, led to the outbreak of fever, by which Bedell was in turn attacked and carried off on 7 Feb. 1642. It was during his last days here that, through the assistance of Sheridan, he succeeded in rescuing from his library at Kilmore a manuscript Hebrew Bible which he had brought with him from Venice, and which is now preserved in the library of Emmanuel College, and also the manuscript of the Irish translation of the Old Testament. This Sheridan was the head of the clan, but had been brought up as a protestant, and, being able to speak Irish, had been ordained by Bedell to the ministry. Richard Brinsley Sheridan was of the same clan, and his grandfather William, at one time the friend of Swift, was indebted for his university education to the eldest son of the Rev. Dennis Sheridan, and godson of Bishop Bedell, who many years subsequently became bishop of Kilmore.

[Marshall's Genealogist's Guide, p. 37. It was the Rev. Alexander Clogie who supplied Bishop Burnet with the materials for his Life of Bedell, published in 1685. Clogie, a native of Scotland, had been admitted to holy orders by Bishop Bedell, and received from him the vicarage of Cavan. A manuscript Life of Bedell by Clogie, of which there are copies in the Bodleian and in the Harleian MSS., was edited by W. Walter Wilkins in 1862. Archbishop Sancroft, who had obtained possession of another manuscript, The True Relation of the Life and Death of Bishop Bedell (now in Tanner MSS. in the Bodleian, vol. cclxxviii., bound up with the preceding), appears to have contemplated publishing it, together with Bedell's Collected Works, but probably considered himself forestalled by Burnet's labours. This last-named Life, however, which is by the elder son, William Bedell (see Life, ed. Jones, pp. viii–ix), is the most trustworthy source of information, and has been admirably edited for the Camden Society (1872) by Thomas Wharton Jones, F.R.S., a representative of the bishop's maternal family of Elliston. It has also been published, without notes (1871), by Professor John E. B. Mayor.]

J. B. M.