Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Feckenham, John de
FECKENHAM, JOHN de (1518?–1585), the last abbot of Westminster, born in Feckenham Forest, Worcestershire, about 1518, was the son of poor peasants named Howman. The parish priest early discovered his abilities, and through the influence of some 'considerable' persons obtained his mission into Evesham monastery; after taking the vows he became known as John of Feckenham. When about eighteen he entered Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College), Oxford, a seminary belonging to the Benedictine order, having a special apartment for the Evesham monks. He took the degree of bachelor of divinity on 11 June 1539, and then returned to his monastery to teach the novitiate. Shortly afterwards the abbey of Evesham was dissolved (17 Nov. 1539), Feckenham signing his name with the other brethren to the deed of surrender, each receiving an annual penaion of 10l. in compensation. For a time Feckanham retired to the university. For ten years about this period he was rector of Solihull, Warwickshire. According to Dugdale's, `Warwickshire' (ed. 1656, p. 690)he was not instituted till 1544, although his predecessor, Thomas Blennerhasset, ceased to be rector five years before, and a manuscript account of Feckenham's benefactions to the parish, dated 1548, in his own handwriting, implies that at that date he had been rector for ten years. (This manuscript still survives in Solihull parish library.) Feckenham was for some years domestic chaplain to Dr. Bell, bishop of Worcester, receiving on Bell's resignation (1543) the same post in the household of Bonner, bishop of London, where, says Fuller, he `crossed the proverb, like master like man, the master being cruel, the chaplain kind to such as in judgment dissented from him' (Church History, bk. ix. p. 178). On Bonner's deprivation (1549), the chaplain, having incurred Archbishop Cranmer's displeasure, was sent to the Tower, and was suspended from his benefice at Solihull, although he was not deprived of it. He was still in the Tower in 1551, when he was `borrowed' by Sir Philip Hoby to represent, with Watson and Young, the Roman catholic party in some conferences hold on the sacrament, in the houses of Sir William Cecil, Sir John Cheke, and others. Feckenham was afterwards allowed to take part in a series of conferences in his native county, beginning at Pershore and ending in Worcester Cathedral (where it is said Bishop Jewel was his opponent); in all he greatly distinguished himself, especially in a disputation with Bishop Hooper. He was then remanded to the Tower, whence on Mary's accession he was released, and took his former place in Bonner's household, being shortly promoted to the post of private chaplain and confessor to the queen. In January (1554) Bonner made him prebendary of Kentish Town (a stall in St. Paul's Cathedral), and in March he received the deanery of St. Paul's, holding also first (20 June) the rectory of Finchley, and then that of Greenford Magna (23Sept.) On becoming dean he finally resigned his connection with Solihull. His reputation as a preacher was now very great, and throughout Mary's reign he was much employed to preach against the reformed religion, crowds of distinguished people flocking every Sunday to hear his 'goodly sermons' from St. Paul's Cross and in the city churches (Machyn, Diary). During the Marian persecution Feckenham was constantly employed to plead with obdurate heretics, and, being a 'pitiful-minded' man, he often sought to save the lives of those he could not convert, rescuing twenty-eight at one time from the stake. Among the leading protestants befriended by him were the Earl of Bedford, and Ambrose and Robert Dudley, afterwards earls of Warwick and Leicester. Four days before Lady Jane Grey's execution Feckenham was sent by Mary to attempt her conversion, but he found it impossible to shake her constancy, and finally, it is said, acknowledged himself fitter to be her disciple than her master, she drawing up at his request a brief sum of her faith, giving his arguments and her own in the form of a dialogue, which was afterwards published. On the scaffold he took leave of her with the words that he was sorry for her, for he was sure they two would never meet. After having in vain attempted Ridley's conversion, Feckenham took part, as one of the representatives of convocation, in the disputation held at Oxford (13 April 1554) with Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley. Two years afterwards he had the triumph of persuading Sir John Cheke [q.v.], then in prison under sentence of death, to renounce the protestant religion. In May (1556)Feckenham took his D.D, degree at Oxford. In the autumn Mary re-founded the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter, Westminster (7 Sept. 1556), and Feckenham received the uniquepost of mitred abbot of that great foundation. Cardinal Pole, the pope's legate, had some trouble in turning out the dean (Weston) and prebendaries, who refused to sign the deed of surrender, but Weston was finally compensated by the deanery of Windsor, and the canons by pensions. Even then fresh difficulties arose in forming the monastery, as only fourteen monks, unmarried, unpreferred to curse, and unaltered in their opinions, could be discovered in London. On 21 Nov. the new abbot was installed, and consecrated on 30 Nov. by the legate, before a large assembly of bishops and nobles, all the old ceremonies being revived for the last time. By the pope's authority Pole drew up new rules for the monastery; the office of abbot was only to be tenable for three years, no congé d'élire was to be held before the election, and no royal assent to confirm. Feckenham immediately set to work to restore the building to some of its former splendour. Edward the Confessor's shrine had been pulled down, the relics and jewels stolen, and the Confessor's coffin buried in some obscure place; in March (1557) the abbot began to reconstruct the shrine, Mary supplying the new jewels and images, and on 5 July the saint's body was carried in procession to its former resting-place. Constant processions and magnificent festival services were, as in former days, now held within the church. Lord Wentworth was obliged to resign the abbot's private house, granted to him by Edward VI, receiving Canonbury manor in exchange, and Feckenham kept up the old traditions of the princely hospitality of the Westminster abbots by constantly entertaining distinguished guests at his table. One of his first acts had been to revive the privileges of sanctuary, and a fortnight after his installation he had gone with his monks in procession round the abbey, preceded by the sanctuary men, with cross keys upon their garments,and three murderers among them. A bill for the abolishment of sanctuary, in which the rights of Westminster were especially threatened, was in preparation, and on 11 Feb. 1557 the abbot appeared, by the speaker's orders, before the commons, accompanied by a monk carrying the ancient charters, which had been only saved from destruction by a servant of Cardinal Pole, who had discovered a child playing with them in the street. Feckenham then delivered a long and eloquent speech (see Rawlinson MS. Miscell. p. 68, printed byStanley; Memorials of Westminster Abbey, 1st ed.) pleading for the continuance of the sanctuary, and no further attempt was then made to abolish it. On 17 Nov. 1558 Queen Mary died. Feckenham preached a fine sermon, on Eccles. iv. 2 (Cotton. MS. Vesp. D. xviii. f. 94), at her funeral in the abbey. He had nothing personally to fear from the new sovereign, having befriended her both before and after her captivity in the late reign, and incurring, on her behalf, Mary's displeasure. Elizabeth sent for him after her accession, and the story goes that the abbot delayed following the royal messenger till he had finished a plantation of young elms upon which he was engaged, in what is now Dean's Yard. Saunders, with no authority, asserts that he was offered the archbishopric of Canterbury in this interview, but more probably the queen only sent for him to confirm him in his post, and had he been willing to conform outwardly to the protestant faith, he might no doubt have retained her favour. But during her first parliament, in which he took his seat on the lowest bench of bishops, he spoke vehemently against everything tending to religious reform, objecting especially to the surrender of firstfruits and impropriations, and the annexation of bishops' lands and religious houses to the crown. Feckenham's longest and most famous speech was against the Act of Uniformity and the liturgy of Edward VI (ib. Vesp. D. xviii. f. 86). In the confession held in Westminster Abbey (April 1659) between the protestant and Roman catholic divines Feckenham certainly took part, as it is recorded that, when on the third day the assembly broke up through the refusal of theRomanists to proceed, he was the only member of his party willing to read his arguments. But as he is not mentioned in the best accredited reports among the eight chosen representatives of the Roman catholic party, he was probably present in his official capacity as abbot, his judgment being 'asked with respect and heard with reverence, his moderation being much commended' (Fuller).
On 3 July 1559 the few remaining religious houses were dissolved, and on 12 July the abbot and monks were removed from Westminster, the queen purposing to reinstate the collegiate church founded there by Henry VIII. Feckenham received the sum of 347l. 14s. 6d. from the revenues of the abbey (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep.), but showed his generosity by resigning part at least of this income to his successor, Dean Bill [q. v.], and giving him besides good directions about such landsleased out, which could not otherwise have been easily discovered (Lansd. MS. No. 982, 4to, xlviii. 43, f. 71). On 20 May 1560, Feckenham, his old friend Watson, late bishop of Lincoln, Cole, who had succeeded him in 1556 as dean of St. Paul's, and Dr. Chadsay, were all sent to the Tower `for railing against the changes that had been made.' After three years' imprisonment Feckenham was given into the custody of his old opponent,Horne, now bishop of Winchester (October 1563). The bishop and his guest had daily conferences touching religion during the winter in the presence of picked audiences, andfor a time their relations were friendly. But early in the next year the bishop gave out that he had hopes of Feckenham's conformity, and Feckenham strenuously denied the report. From this time the discussions became most acrimonious, and Horne restrained Feckenham from the comparative liberty he had hitherto enjoyed. At last, finding it impossible to convert his obstinate charge, he petitioned the council to remove him, and in the autumn Feckenham was therefore sent back to the Tower (1564). Soon after his return to the Tower Feckenham published a book purporting to contain his answers to Horne's arguments, which the bishop accused him of having written and privately circulated two years before as an answer to the queen's commissioners in case he were called upon to take the oath of supremacy, and containing originally no reference to Horne. A furious controversy ensued, Feckenham appealing to Cecil against the bishop's accusations, while Horne wrote an answer to Feckenham's book, and Harpsfeld replied by a defence of the ex-abbot, written under cover of Slapleton's name, as Harpsfeld, being a prisoner himself, was afraid of being compromised. After a year or two longer in the Tower, Feckenham and his fellow-prisoners were sent to the Marshalsea, where they had `more liberty and air,' and in 1571 Feckenham prayed with Dr. Story the night before his execution and animated him in his faith. While in the Tower Feckenham wrote a small pamphlet (printed by John Hoodly, London, 1570) begging that he and the other prisoners might not be `haled by the arms to church in such violent manner against our wills, there to hear a sermon, not of persuading us, but railing upon us.' In 1574 the leading Roman catholic prisoners were released on bail, and Feckenham went to live in a private house in Holborn, where he built a fountain or aqueduct for the poor. He was all his life noted for his benevolence, and in 1576 he built a hospice for the poor who frequented the mineral waters at Bath (Bath Herald, 9 Nov. 1879). In 1577 Feckenham was committed into free custody with Cox, bishop of Ely, who was requested by the quean to bring the abbot, 'being a man of learning and temper, to acknowledge her supremacy, and come to the church.' The bishop reports his prisoner as `a gentle person, but in popish religion too, too obdurate.' In June 1580 the bishop supplicates Burghley, on account of his age and failing health, to take away from him the responsibility of having the prisoner in his private house, and Feckenham, though still in the bishop's custody, was therefore sent to Wisbech Castle, where seven other Roman catholics were imprisoned, Watson among them. The conferences on religion still continued, and finally a summary of the results obtained was drawn up by the Bishop and Dean of Ely entitled 'A true Note of certain Articles confessed and allowed by Mr. Dr. Feckenham.' This so-called confession has been the foundation of a charge of inconsistency against the abbot. His signature cannot have been obtained without much pressure, since two years earlier Dean Perne writes to Burghley that it was found impossible to induce Feckenham lo sign this same document. In any case the recantation amounts to very little; but the bishop must have been satisfied, for we hear of no more disputations, and Feckenham was suffered to spend the last five years of his life in peace, ministering to the poor and building a cross, till he died in 1585. Putting aside the excessive panegyrics of the Roman catholic and the slanders of a few protestant writers, there is no doubt that the last abbot of Westminster was a striking figure, and worthy to be, as Fuller calls him, `a landmark in history.' In person he was stout and round-faced, of a pleasant countenance; his manners affable, his charity to the poor acknowledged by all, as also his moderation and skill in argument, and his eloquence as a preacher and speaker.
Besides the sermons and orations already mentioned few of Feckenham's works are extant, though he is known to have written `Commentaries on the Psalms,' `Caveat Emptor,' a pamphlet on the `Abbey Lands,' and a treatise on the sacrament against Hooper's views. The book which caused Horne so much annoyance is entitled 'The Declaration of such Scruples and Stays of Conscience touching the Oath of Supremacy as Mr. J. F. by writing did deliver unto the Lord Bishop of Winchester, with his Resolution made thereupon,' &c., Loud. 1565. In the Sloane Collection is a curious manuscript entitled, 'This book of sovereign medicines against the most common and known diseases, both of men and women, was by good proof and long experience collected of Sir. Dr. Feckenham, late abbot of Westminster, and that chiefly for the poor, which hath not at all times the learned physicians at hand.'[Reynerius, Apost. Benedict. Angl. Tract; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ii. 222, &c.; Kennett's additional notes to Wood; Lansd. MS. No.982, 4to, xlviii. 43, f. 71; Strype's Annals, Ecclesiastical Memorials, and Life of Sir John Cheke; Burnet's History of the Reformation; Fuller's Church History; Machyn's Diary; Dugdale's Monasticon and Stevens's additional notes; Weldon's Chronological notes on the English Congregation of ths Order of St. Benedict; life in Bibliotheca Britannica; Gillow's Bibl. Dictionary of English Catholics; Widmore's History of St. Peter's, Westminster; State Papers, Eliz. Dom. vols. xxii. xxxvi. cxiv. cxxxi, cxxxii. cxliii. &c; D'Ewes's Journal, 1559; Latin Lines on Feckenham, Harl. HS. 2185; An Answer to certain aesertions of Mr. F••• against a Godly Sermon of John Goughes, Lond. 1570; A confutation of a Popish and Slanderous Libel, &c., by Dr. Fulke, Loud. 1571; Foxe's Acts and Monuments; Memoirs of Lady Jane Grey, by N.H. Nicholas, F.S.A.; information kindly communicated by Canon Evans.]