Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fell, John (1625-1686)

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FELL, JOHN, D.D. (1625–1686), dean of Christ Church and bishop of Oxford, son of Dr. Samuel Fell [q. v.], dean of Christ Church, and Margaret, daughter of Thomas Wyld, esq., of Worcester, was born at Sunningwell, near Abingdon (according to Wood), or, as is more probable, at Longworth in Berkshire (as stated on his monument), on 23 June 1625. His education was begun at the free school of Thame, Oxfordshire, but at the very early age of eleven he was made a student of Christ Church, on the nomination of his father, dean of that society from 1638 to 1647. In 1643 he took his degree of M.A. At that time he was already in arms for the king in the Oxford garrison, and was soon promoted to the rank of ensign. ‘Of the hundred students of Christ Church,’ says Walker, ‘no less than twenty were officers in the service, and the rest, almost to a man, bore arms.’ Under these circumstances the anger of the parliamentary visitors was certain to light on him, especially as his father, Dr. Samuel Fell, had been throughout the leader of the opposition to the parliament. John Fell was ejected from his studentship (1648). Upon his ejectment, having been ordained in 1647, he associated himself with Dolben, Allestree, and that little knot of clergy who, through all the time of the Commonwealth, contrived to keep up the service of the church of England in Oxford. He lived in a house opposite Merton College, and there the rites of the church, reduced, as Evelyn says, ‘to a chamber and a conventicle,’ were constantly celebrated by him. This bold persistency naturally led to Fell's immediate promotion on the Restoration. On 27 July 1660 he was made canon of Christ Church, in place of Ralph Button [q. v.], ejected. In four months' time he succeeded Dr. Morley as dean (30 Nov. 1660). He was also appointed chaplain to the king, and created D.D. by the university. Some of the ejected students had already been restored by Dr. Morley. Fell hastened to complete the work, and quickly dismissed all who had obtained entrance into the society by irregular means. There appears to have been still somewhat of a puritanical leaven in the college, as it is said by Wood that the organ and surplice were much disliked. The dean, however, was resolute to exact full conformity. In September 1663 Fell entertained Charles II, the queen, and many courtiers at Christ Church, and preached in the royal presence.

At the time of Fell's accession the northern side of Wolsey's great quadrangle lay in a ruinous state. Dr. Samuel Fell had begun to build, but the work had been interrupted by the rebellion, and the timber and materials had been carried away. John Fell immediately undertook the work, and constructed there houses for two canons. He then turned his attention to the chaplains' quadrangle, which had been partially destroyed by a great fire. This he rebuilt, and constructed the arched passage leading into the meadow. In 1674 he completed the lodgings of the canon of the third stall between Tom and Peckwater quadrangles. His last great building work was to rear the stately tower over the principal gateway, to which he transferred the great bell, known as Great Tom of Christ Church, after having had it recast several times. This bell had been previously in the tower of the cathedral church. It was now made to serve a collegiate purpose, being tolled every night at nine o'clock to warn the students to return to their rooms. It was first used for this purpose on 29 May 1684. Fell was most sedulous in attending to the discipline and educational work of his college. His habit was to visit the rooms of the young noblemen and gentlemen commoners, and himself to examine them in their studies. Every year he procured the publication of some classical author, presenting each member of the college with a copy. He attended divine service regularly four times a day. ‘He was the most zealous man of his time for the church of England,’ says Wood; ‘and none that I yet know of did go beyond him in the performance of the rules belonging thereto.’ As to Fell's sermons a curious remark is made by Evelyn, who heard him preach before the king ‘a very formal discourse, and in blank verse, according to his manner.’ Fell was vice-chancellor of Oxford in 1666, the next two years, and part of 1669, and he set himself to bring back the university to the state in which it had been in the days of Laud. He rigidly enforced the use of the proper academical dress. He reformed the schools, and attended personally at examinations for degrees, and when the examiners were lax or incapable would personally conduct the examination. All masters of arts (or inceptors) were still bound to lecture publicly; but the audiences at these lectures were so small that they were commonly called ‘wall lectures,’ as being addressed to bare walls. Fell caused the students to attend, and was himself constantly present at the disputations for the higher degrees. The fact of the disputations being held in St. Mary's Church was distasteful to Fell's reverential ideas, and it was chiefly through his influence that Archbishop Sheldon erected the fine building which bears his name to be the place for holding the ‘acts.’

Fell did much for the University Press. He improved the style of printing in Oxford. A letter which he wrote on the subject to Sancroft appears in Gutch's ‘Collectanea Curiosa,’ i. 269. He was most liberal in dispensing his money for public purposes, sometimes leaving himself almost without funds for his private expenses. He gave free instruction to Philip Henry and other poor scholars (Life of Henry, 4th ed. pp. 22–3), was the patron of John Mill the biblical scholar, and employed John Batteley [q. v.] in collating manuscripts. William Nichols was his amanuensis for seven years (Hearne, Collect. ed. Doble, ii. 299). Langbaine lent him books (ib. p. 109). Dr. Thomas Smith dined with him at the deanery once a week, and showed great respect for his learning (ib. p. 76). Humphrey Prideaux was a special friend, and helped him with a projected edition of ‘Florus’ (cf. Life of Prideaux, and Prideaux's Letters to John Ellis). Henry Dodwell the elder undertook his ‘Dissertations upon St. Cyprian’ at Fell's suggestion, and Fell had the Bodleian MSS. of St. Augustine's works collated for the use of the Benedictines of Paris, who were preparing a new edition. He also projected the printing of a Malay gospel. Among other costly schemes he employed two scholars to translate Wood's ‘History of Oxford’ into Latin (1674). Wood complained of Fell's ‘taking to himself liberty of putting in and out several things according to his own judgment,’ and of the errors made by the translators, an opinion borne out by Henry Wharton. The ‘Rerum Anglicarum Scriptores Veteres’ (1684–91) was begun by William Fulman [q. v.] under Fell's patronage. Further services to literature are commemorated by Dr. Thomas Smith in prefaces to his ‘Vitæ’ and his edition of Camden's ‘Epistolæ,’ 1691.

In 1675–6 Fell's manifold labours were increased by his promotion to the see of Oxford, in succession to Dr. Henry Compton, translated to London. He was allowed to hold his deanery in commendam with his bishopric, and also the mastership of St. Oswald's Hospital at Gloucester. He is said to have been opposed to the Exclusion Bill, although his attitude seemed dubious to his friends (Hearne, ii. 300). On 6 Nov. 1684 the Earl of Sunderland wrote to Fell urging him to expel from Christ Church John Locke, then a student there. Locke and Fell had been very good friends in early days. In 1675 Locke had left for Holland, on account, it was said, of failing health, but he was at the time suspected of being author of a pamphlet obnoxious to the government. Fell now replied (8 Nov.) that Locke's conduct had been unexceptionable, but that he would issue a summons ordering him to return to Christ Church by 1 Jan. 1685, and if he disobeyed he would be dismissed for contumacy. But on 11 Nov. James II directed Fell to expel Locke at once; and with this order the bishop immediately complied (Fox, James II, Appendix; King, Locke, i. 274–91; Fox Bourne, Locke, i. 483–6). In 1685 he summoned the undergraduates of Oxford to take up arms against Monmouth.

Burnet speaks highly of Fell's work as a bishop, and describes him as ‘a most exemplary man, but a little too much heated in the matter of our disputes with the dissenters.’ Wood speaks of him much more unkindly as a bishop than he did as dean. Perhaps the former notice was written after he had been offended by the alterations of his ‘History.’ ‘He left behind him,’ he says, ‘the character of a valde vult person, who, by his grasping at and undertaking too many affairs relating to the public (few of which he thoroughly effected), brought him untimely to his end.’ His principal work as bishop was the rebuilding of the episcopal house at Cuddesdon. Fell died 10 July 1686, worn out by the multiplicity of his labours, and was buried in the cathedral of Christ Church, where a monument with a long inscription records the chief events of his life. Evelyn, recording his death, speaks of it as an ‘extraordinary loss to the poor church at this time.’ Fell was known to be one of the staunchest opponents of popery.

Though living so busy a life, Fell was able to publish some valuable works. The chief of these were ‘The Interest of England Stated,’ &c., published in 1659; ‘The Life of Dr. Henry Hammond,’ published in 1661 and reprinted in 1662; ‘Grammatica Rationis sive Institutiones Logicæ’ (Oxford, 1673 and 1685); ‘The Vanity of Scoffing, in a Letter to a Gentleman,’ 1674; ‘Life of Dr. Allestree,’ prefixed to an edition of his sermons (1684). He also prepared for the press works of Alcinous on Plato (1667), of Athenagoras (1682), of Clemens Alexandrinus (1683), of Nemesius of Emesa (1671), and of Theophilus of Antioch (1682). His edition of Aratus and Eratosthenes (Oxford, 1672) is still very valuable; but his great critical edition of the works of Cyprian (Oxford, 1682) is his most remarkable publication. Bishop Pearson, for whose attainments Fell expressed the highest regard, aided him with suggestions, and he employed William Nichols, John Massey, afterwards dean of Christ Church, John Mill, and Dr. Burton in collating manuscripts. Taswell (Autobiog. Camd. Soc. p. 23) also helped him. Jean Le Clerc gives the book unstinted praise in his ‘Bibliothèque Universelle,’ xii. 208. Fell issued an English translation of ‘Cyprian on the Unity of the Church’ (1681). He is said to have also edited ‘A Paraphrase and Annotations upon the Epistles of St. Paul’ (1675, 1684, 1705, and 1852), which is often quoted as ‘Fell's paraphrase.’ But Obadiah Walker seems to have first written the book with the assistance of Abraham Woodhead and Richard Allestree, and if Fell assisted at all, he only ‘corrected and improved’ it for the press. Bishop Jacobson, its latest editor, disputed Fell's share in it altogether. Prideaux (Life, pp. 17–19) thought that Fell was the author of ‘Reasons of the Decay of Christian Piety,’ attributed to the unknown author of ‘The Whole Duty of Man,’ and published with his other tracts in 1704. In 1706 the manuscript of this work came into the Bodleian Library, and Dr. Aldrich was of opinion that it was copied by Fell ‘with a disguised hand.’ Hearne detected Fell's handwriting in some alterations on the title-page (Collect. i. 281, 387). Fell was obviously in the secret of the authorship of the ‘Whole Duty.’ Hearne believed that that and other works claiming to be by the same hand came from a committee of which Fell was a member. But Fell declined on all occasions to admit his complicity (ib. ii. 299–300). He edited the ‘Ladies' Calling’ in 1677, another work attributed to the same anonymous writer. Some letters from him to Lord Scudamore are in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 11046. His property was left to a nephew, Henry Jones of Sunningwell, who, dying in 1707, bequeathed many of Fell's books and papers to the Bodleian Library. Jones is said to have projected a life of his uncle (Hearne, ii. 73, 89, 117).

The epigram beginning ‘I do not like you, Dr. Fell,’ is commonly stated to have been paraphrased from Martial's ‘Non amo te, Sabidi,’ &c., by Tom Brown (1663–1704) [q. v.], an undergraduate of Christ Church while Fell was dean. Thomas Forde, however, in his ‘Virtus Rediviva,’ &c., 1661, p. 106, quotes Martial's lines, and translates them, ‘I love thee not, Nel! But why, I can't tell,’ &c. Brown doubtless parodied Forde's verses rather than Martial's. Two portraits of Fell are in Christ Church Hall: one together with Dolben and Allestree, the other in episcopal robes by Vandyck. There is a statue in the great quadrangle.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, iv. 193; Wood's Life, passim; Walker's Sufferings of the Clergy, 1885; Memoirs and Diary of John Evelyn; Burnet's History of his own Time, 1838; Welch's Alumni Westmonast. pp. 23–4; notes of great value by Professor J. E. B. Mayor in Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vi. 2; authorities cited above.]

G. G. P.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.121
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
294 i 22f.e. Fell, John (1625-1686): for Hearne read Dr. Thomas Smith
ii 6 for 1675 read 1675-6