Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, John (d.1556)

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BELL, JOHN, LL.D. (d. 1556), bishop of Worcester, was a native of Worcestershire, and was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at Cambridge, where he took the degree of LL.B. in 1504. He probably attended Sylvester Gygles, bishop of Worcester, to Rome, when sent by Henry VIII to the Lateran Council, for Sylvester in his letters thence mentions him as in communication with the pope, and as the best man to fill the vacancy of master of the English Hospital. He speaks of him as 'Master Bell, now dean of the arches' (State Papers Henry VIII, ii. 849, 928). In 1618 he was made by Sylvester vicar-general and chancellor of the diocese of Worcester, offices which he continued to hold under two of his successors (Thomas, Survey of Worcester Cathedral p. 206). Bell was rector of Sub-Edge, Gloucestershire, warden of the collegiate church of Stratford-upon-Avon, master of the hospital of St. Walstan's, archdeacon of Gloucester, and prebendary of Lichfield, St. Paul's, Lincoln, and Southwell cathedrals. At length his abilities being made known to Henry VIII, he was made one of his chaplains, sent by him to foreign princes on state affairs, and at his return was one of his counsellors' (ib.) While abroad he was made LL.D. of some foreign university, in which degree he was incorporated at Oxford in 1631 (Wood, Fasti, pt. i. col. 88). In 1626 Bell as 'official of Worcester' appears frequently as a member of the court appointed by Wolsey for the trial of heretics (State Papers Henry VIII, iv. 885-6). During the next three years he seems to have been in almost constant attendance upon the king, employed by him in divers ways in furthering his divorce from Katharine. He appeared as the king's proxy in 1527. In 1628 he was consulted by the king and by Wolsey on the pope's dispensation, and on the commission to Wolsey and Campeggio to decide the validity of his union with Katharine. In 1629, when the cause came before the legates in Blackfriars Hall, Bell appeared on several occasions as one of the king's counsel, and also in the same capacity at Dunstable before Archbishop Cranmer and the Bishop of Lincoln 'on the morrow after Ascension day, 1632, when Cranmer gave final sentence that the pope could not license such marriages' as that of Henry and Katharine. During this period Bell showed great courage in preventing the appointment of Elinor Carey, sister of Mary Boleyn's husband, as abbess of Wilton, by reporting her (as Wolsey's commissary for the diocese of Salisbury) to have been guilty of 'gross incontinency,' at a time, too, when the king was contemplating his appointment to the archdeaconry of Oxford. Two years before the sentence of divorce was pronounced by Cranmer, Henry sent Bell, together with the Bishop of Lincoln and Foxe, to Oxford, to obtain an opinion condemning marriage with a deceased brother's wife. Oxford hung back in spite of threats and promises. Eventually the commissioners only succeeded by the exclusion of the junior members of convocation from any voice in the matter. The excitement was so great that it was thought necessary to hold a secret conclave by night to affix the university seal. Bell was in 1529 one of a commission, including Sir John More, to assist the archbishop in preparing a royal proclamation against Tyndal's translation of the Scriptures and a number of heretical books, and to present it in St. Edward's chapel to be signed there by Henry in person (Collier, Eccl. Hist. iv. 145). In 1532 he took part in the proceedings of the convocation which decided that the king's marriage was contrary to divine law, and consequently that the pope's dispensation was ultra vires, and which drew up 'the articles about religion,' of which the original may be seen, with John Bell's name attached, in the Cotton Library. In 1537 he was one of 'the composers' of the 'Bishop's Book,' and one of the learned divines who, in the course of its preparation, were called upon to define the true meaning of various church ordinances. In this year, too, he was present at the baptism of Edward VI at Hampton Court. On 11 Aug. Bell was promoted to the see of Worcester. As bishop he was a member of the committee of the convocation of 1540 who pronounced the marriage of Henry and Anne of Cleves illegal, and was also one of six bishops appointed by the king 'to examine what ceremonies should be retained in the church, and what was the true use of them.' In the following year he promised his support to Cranmer, when he brought forward in the House of Lords 'an act for the advancement of true religion and the abolishment of the contrary,' but when he saw the angry excitement of the popish opposition 'he fell away from him' (Strype, Cranmer, p. 141). In the convocation of 1542, when the bishops undertook the work of a revised translation of the New Testament, the first and second epistles to the Thessalonians were assigned to Bell. On 17 Nov. 1543 Bell resigned his bishopric. Burnet, after speculating as to his motive, decides to 'leave it in the dark.' Nichols (Lit, Anecdotes, iii. 109) says he was 'deprived,' but the form of his resignation may be seen in Rymer's 'Fœdera' (xv. 10), by which it would appear to have been quite voluntary. Bell retired to Clerkenwell, then a fashionable suburb. Of his life there we only learn from his will that he was 'priest of Clerkenwell parish.' He died on 2 Aug. 1550, and was buried with episcopal honours on the south side of the east end of the chancel of St. James's Church, where Bishop Burnet was also afterwards buried. The monumental brass from his tomb, engraved by Malcolm in his 'Londinium Redivivum,' was in 1806 in the possession of Mr. J. G. Nichols (Nichols, Herald and Genealogist, iii. 444). He gave by his will 2/. to the poor of Clerkenwell, 5/. to Stratford-upon-Avon, and some legacies to Jesus chantry in St. Paul's Cathedral, desiring that 'his soul might be prayed for.' He was also a benefactor to Balliol College, Oxford, and to Cambridge, but especially to the former, where he provided for the main- tenance of two scholars born in the diocese of Worcester. Coote says of Bishop Bell (English Civilians) : 'He died with the character of an eloquent preacher and advocate, a learned divine, and a man of integrity and beneficence.'

[Godwin, De Praesuilibus Angliæ, Camb. 1743; Cavendish's Life of Wolsey, Singer's ed.; Chambers's Biog. Illustrations of "Worcestershire; Thomas's Henry VIII, 1774; Burnet's Hist. of the Reformation; Strype's Eccl. Memorials and Life of Cranmer; Thomas's Survey of Worcester Cathedral; Calendar of State Papers, Henry VIII, vols, ii., iii., iv., v., vi., and vii.]

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