Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/The Bidlakes, of Bidlake

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THE Bidlake family can be traced back to the thirteenth century. Their original seat was Combe or Combebow, in the parish of Bridestowe, where they had a mansion on a knoll of limestone rising out of a narrow valley. The site is of interest. The old Roman road, probably a pre-Roman road from Exeter to Launceston and the West, ran through this contracted glen, on the southeast side of which rises steeply a lofty chain of hills cut sharply through by the Lew River. This ridge goes by the name of Galaford, or the Forked Way, because the ancient roads did fork—that already mentioned ran along one side, and that leading to Lydford ran on the other, the fork being on Sourton Down. At the point or promontory above the cleft cut by the Lew, and immediately above the knoll of Combe, is an extensive series of earthworks, prehistoric and Saxon. The prehistoric camp is oval, with outworks to the south, where the tongue of hill is cut through from one side to the other by an artificial moat with bank.

If I am not mistaken, here was the scene of the final contest of the Britons against the Saxons in 823, fought at Gavulford, when the former were routed. This was, in fact, the best position along the road into Cornwall at which they could make a stand. That
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the Saxons considered it a point of importance is shown by their erecting here a burh or burg in addition to the powerfully entrenched prehistoric fortress. The knoll in the valley below was also probably fortified, but all traces have been swept away by quarrymen who have dug the hill over for lime, only sparing one point that was heaped up with the ruins of the mansion of the Combes.

William de Combe early in the fifteenth century had a son John, who moved to Bidlake, built himself a house there, and called himself John de Bidlake. His grandson, John de Bidlake, married a cousin Alice, daughter of Richard de Combe of Bradstone, and this John had a son, another John, who married a Joan of Bridestowe, his cousin in the fourth degree. Combe came thus to be united to the possessions of the Bidlakes, for one or other of these ladies was an heiress.

There was in Bridestowe another family ancient and well estated, the Ebsworthys, of Ebsworthy, and the Bidlakes and Ebsworthys were too near neighbours to be good friends. In fact, there was an hereditary feud between them. One of the Ebsworthys had married a daughter of Gilbert Germyn, the rector. This was quite enough for the Bidlakes to look with an evil eye on the parson. William Bidlake and Agnes his wife drew up charges against the parson in 1613.

But before coming to the complaints of 1613, we must see what sort of man this Gilbert Germyn was. The convulsions and changes in religion that had succeeded each other in waves since the year 1531 had unsettled men's minds; with the exception of fanatics on one side or the other—the staunch adherents to the Papacy, and the thorough-going Puritans—dead apathy had settled down on the majority with regard to religion: they knew not what to believe and how worship was to be conducted, and they did not much care. Having been taught to abhor the distinctive errors of the Church of Rome, they had not been instructed in the distinctive errors of the Church of England that they were required to embrace. The clergy to fill the vacant benefices were ignorant and brutish. They had no religious convictions and no culture. So long as they had pliant consciences, Elizabeth was content. In many dioceses in England, a third of the parishes were left without a pastor, resident or non-resident. In 1561 there were in the Archdeaconry of Norfolk a hundred and eighty parishes, in the Archdeaconry of Suffolk a hundred and thirty parishes in this condition. Cobblers and tailors occupied the pulpits, where there were no incumbents. "The Bishops," said Cecil, "had no credit either for learning, good living or hospitality. The Bishops … were generally covetous, and were rather despised than reverenced or be-loved." The Archbishop of York was convicted of adultery with the wife of an innkeeper at Doncaster. Other prelates bestowed ordination "on men of lewd life and corrupt behaviour." And a good many of them sold the livings in their gift to the highest bidder.

Gilbert Germyn was the son of an apothecary in Exeter. At the time, Bridestowe cum Sourton, one of the best livings in the gift of the Bishop, was held by Chancellor Marston. The apothecary, it is stated, bribed the Chancellor to resign, with a present of £100, and then negotiated with the Bishop—at what price is not known—to present his son to the united benefices.

When so many livings were without incumbents, all sorts of unscrupulous men, of a low class, rushed into Orders, without university education, indeed without any education at all, so as to secure a living in which they could draw the tithe and farm the glebe, without a thought as to their religious responsibilities.

Such a man Gilbert Germyn seems to have been. In 1582 articles of misdemeanours were drawn up against him by Henry Bidlake and some of the parishioners, but as far as can be learnt without effect. The Bishop had presented him, for reasons best known to himself, and was indisposed to take cognizance of his conduct.

It is worth while looking at some of the charges brought against a man whom the Bishop, John Woolton, delighted to honour.

He was complained of for his grasping character. Although the glebe comprised a manor of eight or nine tenements, yet he did not rest till he got into his own hands "by dyvers meannes three of the best and most fruitfull tenements in the two parishes."

That, in addition to being rector of Bridestowe and Sourton, he was vicar of another parish in Cornwall.

That he was litigious, citing his tenants and the tithe payers even for a halfpenny.

That he refused at Easter to give the Holy Communion to a bedridden woman, eighty years old, named Jane Adams, till she paid him a penny for his trouble.

"He is a great skold and faller owte with his neybors, for lyght occasyons, as with Mr. William Wrays, and other the best of the parishes; and stycketh not to saye yn the churche Thou lyest; and to skold yn the Churchyerde."

"For his pryde, Skoldyng, Avarice and Crueltye his manner is hated and abhorred of all the 2 parishes, and so driveth them awaye from the Church.

"He marryed hys wyffe, a notorryowse lyght woman, and of lyke parents descended being notoryusly suspectyd with the sayd German of [causing] her first husband's death; after whose deathe one Edmonds, her servant claymed her in promise, to be his wyffe, and that openly, and yn the presence of dyvers requyred the Parson German to procleme the bannes bytwene them. But German refused to doo yt but presently shyfted secretly to marry her hymself, having a lycence, and yn a marryng before sun rysyng so dyd, having a lyttle before cyted the said Edmonds to … prove his contract with her, came too late, and thuse were they marryed withowt clearyng of the woman, to the offence of both parishioners and others, knowyng before her lyght behavyor."

It seems that this widow whom Germyn married had some money. Her former husband had left a will making several bequests, but Parson Germyn having got the money of the deceased into his hands refused to pay the bequests, as also the debts of the man and of his widow, now his wife; also refused to pay annuitants.

It was further complained that Mrs. Germyn baked bread and sold it in the rectory.

It may be worthy of remark that there is no trace in the Episcopal Registers of Mr. Germyn having obtained a licence to marry this widow. It was probably a bit of bluff on his part to say that he had one. Who performed the ceremony we are not told. Unfortunately the Bridestowe registers do not go back sufficiently far to help us.

From 1582 to 1613 we hear no more of Parson Germyn. At this latter date fresh complaints were made against him. Another bishop now occupied the see, William Cotton, a man of some character and worth, and not one interested in protecting the disreputable priest.

It was now charged against Mr. Germyn that "he preached that John Baptist and Mary Magdalen wear married in a citie called Cana in Galilee," also that "the said Parson readeth the usuall divine prayers soe fast that few can understand what he sayeth or the clarke can spare to answere him accordinge to what is sett fourth in the booke of Common prayer," also that "he setteth out the Church yard for 8 shillings and sixpence, and suffereth the horses and sheepe to use the Church porche as a common folde, the smell being verie loathesome to the Parishioners."

Then came in an accusation of Peter Ebsworthy, "for usurpinge of place in the Churche, being a man of no discent, or parentage, and claiminge a Seate unfittinge for a man of his ranke or position."

This was not a reasonable charge. The Ebsworthys, it is true, in 1620 could prove only three descents, but one had married an heiress of Shilston, another an heiress of Durant, and they were allied by marriage with the Calmadys, the Harrises, and the Ingletts. The Ebsworthys, of Ebsworthy, had probably lived on their paternal acres as long as had the Bidlakes, of Bidlake, but as yet they had laid no claim to bear coat-armour. The Bidlakes bore two white doves, but naturalists say that doves and pigeons are the most quarrelsome of birds.

The spiteful remark about Peter Ebsworthy being of no descent and parentage was intended to wound the feelings of the rector, who had married one of his daughters to Peter Ebsworthy. The ancients said that doves were without gall.

"Next for his wief abusing of my wief in goinge to the Communion, by blowes and afterwards with disgracefull words." Also, "Paule Ebsworthy for layinge of violent handes upon my wief in the Church yard: and his wiefs scouldinge, Katheren Ebsworthy using these wordes before the Parson unto her sister, Peter's wief, that her sister might be ashamed to suffer such to goe before her as my wief was."

It seems that Agnes Bidlake, the wife of William, sought assistance of her uncle, Sir Edward Giles, to bring these complaints before the Bishop. He replied to this by writing to William Bidlake:—

"I would intreat you and my niece your wife at the time of hearinge of these differences before his Lordshipp to be very temperate in your utterances. You know it is an old sayinge, A good matter may be marred in the handlinge; and I know if passion doe not overcome you all, it will be to my Lord's good likeinge."

Mr. Bidlake went up about the matter and interviewed the Bishop, who agreed to hear the case at Okehampton on the following Thursday.

The Bishop wrote to Parson Germyn: "Being credibly informed that Mr. Bidlake and his wief were lathe by your sonne Peter Ebsworthy and his wief verie disgracefully wronged at a Communion … as alsoe for your scandalous and indiscreete doctrine which you usually teach I may not att any hande suffer," he summoned him to appear before him at his approaching visitation at Okehampton.

On 13 May, 1613, the Bishop of Exeter summoned plaintiffs and defendants and witnesses before him for the following Friday at Okehampton.

The Rev. Gilbert Germyn indignantly denied that he had ever preached scandalous and indiscreet doctrine; but what was the result of the suit before the Bishop does not transpire.

Old John Bidlake, the father of William, mightily disapproved of this contention. He wrote to his son: "Commend me heartily to your wief whom I pray God to give patience and charitie unto in all these troubles, and that yourselfe forgett not that which I said I lately dreamed of 2 snakes whereof the one seemed to me to ate up the other before me. And that which I formerly dreamed of the Man that firsthe riding from me said, Commend me to my friends that are like to be lost if they repent not er time be past. Good sonne, seeke peace and ensue it in what you may, for to live peaceably with all men maketh a man and woman long to seme younge. And if you knewe the hindrances and losses besides heartburnings, weariness of bodye and unquietness innumerable that suits of Lawe doe bring, as well as I, you would rather goe with your wief even unto all such as have donne you offence and openly imbrace them as brethren and sisters and fully forgive them and desier them to accept of your lives ever hereafter; as honest quyet neighbours should doe, rather than vex your neighbours by suits of laws therein, whereof are as variable as the turnings of a weathercock."

This was dated 10 April, 1613.

William died before his father.

Old John was a fine and loyal man; the date of his death is not known. The estates devolved on Henry Bidlake, the son of William, born in 1606 or 1607. After Henry Bidlake came of age, he married Philippa, daughter of William Kelly, of Kelly; whereupon his mother, the quarrelsome Agnes, retired to the south of Devon, there indulged in some costly lawsuits, and died in 1651.

Henry, while yet young, joined the army of King Charles, and in 1643 was made a captain of horse under Colonel Sir Thomas Hele, Baronet. In 1645 he was one of the defenders of Pendennis Castle; a copy of the articles for its surrender is preserved among the Bidlake Papers. These articles were signed on 18 August, and the besieged went forth. From that time misfortune after misfortune befell Henry Bidlake. On 18 January, 1646, the Standing Committee of Devon "ordered upon Perusall of the inventory of the goods of Mr. Henry Bidlake amounting to Thirtie pounds that upon payment of fower and Twentie pounds unto the Treasurer or his Deputie by Mr. William Kelley, the sequestration of the said goods shall be removed and taken off, and the other six pounds is to be allowed to Mrs. Bidlake for her sixth part."

Several stories are told of Henry hiding from Cromwell's soldiers, who were sent to surround Bidlake in order to take him prisoner. He was warned, and dressed himself in rags in order to pass them. Some soldiers met him and asked him if he had seen Squire Bidlake. "Aye, sure," he replied, "her was a-standin' on 'is awn doorstep a foo minutes agoo." So they went on to search Bidlake House while he escaped to the house of a tenant of his named Veale in Burleigh Wood. The troopers went there also, and Mrs. Veale made him slip into the clock-case; they hunted high and low, but could not find him. One of the soldiers looking up at the dial and seeing the hand at the hour said, "What, doant he strike?" "Aye, aye, mister," replied Mrs. Veale, "there be a hand here as can strike, I tell 'ee."

Mr. Bidlake suffered from a chronic cough, and just at that moment it began, but he had the art to dip his head, let the weight down behind his back, and the clock struck the hour and drowned the cough in the case.

According to another version of the story, his cough was heard, the clock-case was opened, and he taken. But I doubt this. An old man, William Pengelly, who had been with my grandfather, and father, and myself, told me that Henry Bidlake was concealed by the Veales in Burleigh Wood—that is, the wood over the promontory where are the camps—and they supplied him with blankets and food for some weeks till it was safe for him to reappear. Their farm is now completely ruined, but I can recall when it was occupied. According to Pengelly's story, later on, Henry Bidlake granted that farm to the Veale family to be held in perpetuity on a tenure of half a crown per annum, so long as there remained a male Veale in the family. Pengelly informed me that the last Veale had died when the Rev. John Stafford Wollocombe held the estate, 1829-66, and that the tenure had remained the same till then. The Rev. J. H. Bidlake Wollocombe, present owner of the Bidlake estate, tells me that he can find no evidence of the grant to the Veales among the deeds, and that he never heard of the story save from me.

If Henry Bidlake had been secured on this occasion, it would certainly have been recorded. We have a narrative of the visit of a troop of horse sent to Bridestowe by the Earl of Stamford in 1647. In the Mercurius Rusticus of that year is an account of this expedition, but not a word about the capture of Henry Bidlake. There is, however, one of a barbarous act committed in the cottage of a husbandman in Bridestowe, whose name, however, is not given, but possibly enough it may have been Veale. This man having openly adhered to the King's party, the Earl of Stamford sent a troop of horse to apprehend him in his cottage or farm. "When they came thither, they found not the good man at home, but a sonne of his, about ten or twelve years old, they ask him where his Father was, the childe replyed that he was not at home, they threaten him, and use all arts to make him discover where his Father had hid himselfe, the childe being ignorant where his father was, still persisted in the same answer, that he knew not where he was; hereupon they threaten to hang him, neither doth that prevail; at last they take the poore innocent childe and hang him up, either because he would not betray his Father, had he been able to satisfie their doubt, or for not having the spirit of Prophecy, not being able to reveale what by an ordinary way of knowledge he did not know; having let him hang a while, they cut him downe, not intending to hang him unto death, but being cut downe they could perceive nothing discovering life in him, hereupon in a barbarous way of experiment, they pricke him with their swords in the back and thighs, using the means leading to death to find out life; at last after some long stay, some small symptoms of life did appear; yet so weake, that they left him nearer the confines of death than life; and whether the child did ever recover, is more than my informer can assure me."

In 1651 a fine of £300 was put upon Henry Bidlake, and his estates were sequestrated to the Commonwealth until it should be paid. He had to borrow money from his friends in order to pay his fine. Money was lent him by Nicholas Rowe, of Lamerton, by Daniel Hawkins, of Sydenham, by David Hore, of Coryton, by Prudence Lile, of Lifton, by Richard Edgecombe, of Milton Abbot, by John Baron, of Lawhitton, and by John Cloberry, of Bradstone. His mother-in-law, Philippa Kelly, of Kelly, seems to have repaid these friends, or paid the interest due to them. As security, Henry Bidlake alienated and sold to her his goods and chattels, only reserving his wearing apparel. He got back his property in 1654, but his account with the Parliament seems never to have been settled, and he was liable to repeated vexations. As late as December, 1658, he received a summons along with his wife, from Richard, Lord Protector, to appear before the Chancery Court at Exeter. But next year he died, too early to see—what would have gladdened his heart—the Restoration, and to have learned by painful experience the ready forgetfulness by kings of services rendered in the past.

Bidlake House is a very interesting example of a simple mansion such as suited the small squires of Devon in the seventeenth century. It is Elizabethan, and has a quaint old garden at the back. Like so many old houses, the aspect was not considered, and the sun pours into the kitchen, but hardly a gleam can reach the hall and parlour.

But our ancestors had their reasons for burying their mansions at the foot of hills, and turning their backs against the sun. The great enemy was the south-west wind which they could not exclude. It drove through the walls. Therefore by preference they planted their houses under the lee of a bank of hill that intervened between them and the south, and turned their backs like horses against the driving rain.