Bishop William Bedell of Kilmore (right) with Archbishop William Sancroft of Canterbury (left) in a window in the chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Christmas is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).
As the year comes to an end, and as we prepare for a new year, I am taking some time early this morning, before this day begins, for prayer, reflection and reading.
I am continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:
1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Christmas;
2, the day’s Gospel reading;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge … William Bedell was an undergraduate and later a fellow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
William Bedell (1571-1642) is an oft-neglected bishop of the Church of Ireland among the Caroline divines, yet he is remembered in Ireland for his insistence while he was the fifth Provost of Trinity College Dublin that divinity students there should learn the Irish language to enhance their ministry to all the people, and for his commitment at Trinity and as Bishop of Kilmore to undertaking the translation of the Bible into Irish.
William Bedell was born 450 years ago, at the end of December 1571, at Black Notley, a mile outside Braintree in Essex, although the exact date of his birth is not known. He was the second of three sons and six children of John Bedell, a yeoman, and his wife Elizabeth (née Aliston or Elliston). His grandfather and father were both men of strong religious convictions, and the grandfather was known as a stern disciplinarian. William’s maternal family had Puritan sympathies.
At the age of 12, William was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a new foundation that had become a centre of Puritan influence. There he became a student of Laurence Chaderton (1536-1640), the first Master of Emmanuel, and found a mentor in the Puritan theologian, William Perkins (1558-1602) of Christ’s College, a prominent and vigorous anti-Roman polemicist. Bedell was admitted a pensioner at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in Michaelmas Term, 1 November 1584, and he matriculated in Lent 1585. On 12 March 1585, he was elected a scholar, the nineteenth scholar on the list from the foundation of Emmanuel College.
Bedell graduated BA in 1589, proceeded MA in 1592, and in 1593 he was elected a fellow of his college, the fourteenth fellow on the list from the foundation, including the first three fellows nominated by the founder, Sir Walter Mildmay.
Mildmay had designed Emmanuel College as a place of education for the ordained ministry. As a fellow, Bedell became the catechist of the students in the doctrines of the Christian faith, a task similar to the early offices held by Lancelot Andrewes at Pembroke, William Perkins at Christ’s, and John Preston at Queens’.
Bedell was ordained priest by John Sterne, the Suffragan Bishop of Colchester, on 10 January 1597. He received the degree BD in 1599, and acted as Bursar of Emmanuel College in 1601. In 1602, he was appointed Vicar of Saint Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds, one of the largest parish churches in England.
Punters in summer sunshine on the Backs in Cambridge … there are no university records of Bedell receiving the degree DD in 1602 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
When Perkins, died in 1602, Bedell bought his library. By then he was known for his scholarship in theology, the Bible and the classics, and was proficient in Arabic, Chaldean, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Syriac. His reputation as a linguist led Italian friends in Venice to ask him to compile an English grammar.
His son William, along with other biographers, including Gilbert Burnet, HJ Monck, ES Shuckburgh and other biographers say Bedell received the degree DD at the University of Cambridge in 1602, and Aidan Clarke suggests that receiving this doctorate terminated his fellowship of Emmanuel College. However, this last degree is not recorded by Venn or in other university sources.
Bedell left England in 1607 when he was appointed chaplain to Sir Henry Wooton (1568-1639), then the English ambassador in Venice. He stayed in Venice for almost four years, acquiring a reputation as a scholar and a theologian. He studied Hebrew there with the rabbi of the synagogue in the ghetto, Leon da Modena, added Italian to his repertoire of languages, and acted as a theological mentor to the leaders of the anti-papal party in Venice.
At the time, Venice was in conflict with the Papacy under Paul V and was resisting the Papal claims to ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the city. The Senate of Venice asserted its right to veto clerical appointments, to control church building, and to put the clergy on trial in civic court. In response, the Pope had placed Venice under an interdict in April 1606, and ordered the Jesuits and other religious orders to leave.
Bedell arrived in Venice at the closing stages of the dispute and after the interdict had been lifted. In common with other Englishmen in Venice at the time, he had expectations of converting the Venetians to the Reformation, and became a close friend of the reformer Paolo Sarpi, a Servite friar. After an the attempt to assassinate Sarpi, Bedell wrote a few days later to his friend, Dr Samuel Ward, later Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, saying: ‘I hope this accident will awake him a little more and put some more spirit into him, which is his only want.’
Bedell wrote a series of sermons with Sarpi’s disciple, Fulgenzio Micanzo, circulated a translation of the Bible in Italian, and translated The Book of Common Prayer into Italian, published posthumously as Il libro delle preghiere publiche ed administrazione de sacramenti ... secundo l’uso della chiesa Anglicana (London, 1685). However, by the time he returned to England in 1610, the Pope and the Doge had been reconciled through the mediation of Henry IV of France, Venice had returned to the Papal fold, and Sarpi’s influence in the city had waned.
Bedell returned to England through Constantinople in 1610, accompanied by Dr Jasper Despotine, a Venetian Protestant, who became a medical practitioner in Bury St Edmunds. Bedell too moved to Bury St Edmunds, and there he married Leah Mawe (née L’Estrange, or Bowles), widow of the town’s Recorder, Robert Mawe, who died in 1609, on 29 January 1612. She was the mother of two sons and a daughter, and they had four more children: William (born 14 February 1613); Grace (born 29 May 1614); John (born 9 August 1616); and Ambrose (born 21 March 1618). Grace and John died young while William and Ambrose survived to adulthood.
In England, Bedell assisted in the publication of a translation of Sarpi’s histories of the Council of Trent, the Interdict, and the Inquisition. In 1615, he was presented by Sir Thomas Jermyn as Rector of Horningsheath in Suffolk, near Bury St Edmunds, then in the Diocese of Norwich. He successfully resisted an exorbitant demand by the Bishop of Norwich, John Jegon, a former master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, for induction fees.
Bedell remained rector of the parish for 12 years, and might have been happy to continue living in comparative obscurity but for a chance encounter in Cheapside with a Venetian friend, Giovanni Diodati, when they were both visiting London. Diodati introduced Bedell to Thomas Morton, Bishop of Lichfield, and that chance encounter and introduction led to Bedell’s name being suggested for the position of Provost of Trinity College Dublin, which became vacant in 1627 after Sir William Temple died in office on 15 January.
The candidates for provost favoured by the Vice-Chancellor of Dublin University and Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, included the Puritan Richard Sibbes of Gray’s Inn and the millenarian Joseph Mede of Cambridge. Neither was acceptable to the future Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who would become the Chancellor of the university in 1633, and neither could secure the support of the majority senior fellows and junior fellows.
Eventually, Laud and Ussher agreed on William Bedell, who had no prior connections with Ireland. Wooton brought Bedell’s name to the attention of Laud, and wrote to King Charles I in praise of Bedell’s learning, life and Christian temper: ‘I think hardly a fitter man for that charge could have been propounded unto your Majesty in your whole kingdom, for singular erudition and piety, conformity to the rites of your Church and zeal to advance the cause of God.’
At first, Bedell was not interested in moving to Ireland with his family. He was happy in his Suffolk parish, and thought it would be hazardous to take his wife and children to a strange land. On 15 March 1627, he wrote to his friend Samuel Ward of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, repeating his sense of uncertainty, expressing his contentment with his present situation and explaining how ignorant he was of the situation in Dublin.
However, he told Ward he was prepared to overlook his own convenience in order to obey the will of God. On the nomination of King Charles and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and on the advice of Ussher, the Fellows of Trinity College Dublin voted for Bedell as Provost, although Bedell later reported in England that vote had not been unanimous.
After much consideration, Bedell gave up his ‘competent living of above £100 a year, in a good air and seat, with a very convenient house, near to my friends, a little parish, not exceeding the compass of my weak voice.’ He arrived in Dublin on 13 August, 1627 and was sworn in as Provost on 20 August.
He returned briefly to England, and felt his plans for reforming the college were being undermined by Ussher and his allies. He confided to Ward that he was thinking of resigning as Provost. However, Ussher refused to accept Bedell’s resignation, and eventually, but with some hesitance and apprehension, he resigned his parish and returned to Dublin in July 1628. He lived the rest of his days in Ireland.
Once in office in as Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Bedell set to work vigorously and conscientiously. He restored discipline among the fellows and students, especially in regard to chapel observances. He produced a complete and ordered version of the statutes. He instituted the reading of a chapter of the New Testament during Commons by a native Irish speaker, introduced prayers in Irish in the chapel, composed the college’s Latin graces, prescribed that no married man should be admitted a Fellow or Scholar, and formalised Sir William Temple’s distinction between Senior and Junior Fellows by explicitly excluding Junior Fellows from the government of the college and the election of a Provost.
King Charles later observed that by Bedell’s “care and good government there hath been wrought great reformation to our singular contentment.”
Bedell is often regarded as most forward-looking as Provost when it comes to fostering Irish studies in Trinity College Dublin. However, he was motivated less by literary or historical considerations than by his desire to give ordinands in the Church of Ireland the ability to preach to the native Irish in their own language.
Half a century earlier, in April 1576, the Chief Governor of Ireland, Henry Sydney (1529-1586), had commended to Queen Elizabeth a proactive mission strategy that included seeking out university-trained preachers in England who were competent in Irish or, in their absence, Gaelic-speaking preachers from Scotland. Sydney also urged the appointment of Irish-speaking bishops so that ‘thousands would be gained for Christ.’
Things had changed little in Ireland 25 years later, however, and in 1602 Francis Bacon wrote to William Cecil in similar vein, pointing to the need for ‘Bibles, catechisms, and other books of instruction [in] the Irish language.’
Bedell employed Murtagh King (Muircheartach Ó Cionga) to teach Irish at Trinity. Ó Cíonga was a member of a bardic family from Kilcoursey in Co Offaly, known as poets and scribes, and drafted legal documents for their patrons, the Fox and Mageoghegan families.
King first appears are as Murtagh O Kinge of Kilcolly and Murtho O King of Fox’s County in legal documents the 1590s. In the 1610s, he was an agent and receiver to Lord Lambert’s lands near Athlone, Co Westmeath. From 1627 he was employed by Bedell to teach Irish to himself and students in Trinity College, and under Bedell’s influence he conformed to the Church of Ireland.
He insisted as little as possible on the differences with respect to doctrine between Catholic and Protestant, bringing him into conflict with the Puritan party in the college, especially with Dr Joshua Hoyle, Professor of Divinity.
In 1629, probably on the nomination of William Laud, then Bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury, Bedell was appointed Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. Archbishop Ussher of Armagh was warned by his agent in London that a plot was being mounted by Laud and others to have Ussher removed as Vice-Chancellor of the university of Dublin, but Laud sought to pacify him, denying that he was trying to remove him and claiming ‘I heartily love’ the freedom granted in Trinity’s charter.
Bedell was consecrated bishop on 13 September 1629 in Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, by Ussher, assisted by Robert Echlin, Bishop of Down, Theophilus Buckworth, Bishop of Dromore, and James Spottiswood, Bishop of Clogher. However, Bedell found the amalgamated dioceses in a deplorable state. Shortly after arriving in Kilmore, he wrote to Laud telling him that ‘the plantations are raw and the churches ruined.’ He told Laud that his cathedral was ‘without Bell or Steeple, Font or Chalice.’
He devoted much of his energies to repairing the cathedral and to refurbishing other churches in the diocese, often with the assistance of his Roman Catholic friends and neighbours. In the face of much opposition he devoted himself to relieving the great hardship and poverty among his people.
He was asked by the court of the Plantation Commission to ‘lay out’ the town of Virginia, Co Cavan, after complaints from the residents about the landlords’ failure to build the town and to provide a church for worship.
‘He observed with much regret that the English had all along neglected the Irish, as a nation not only conquered but undisciplinable, and that the clergy had scarce considered them as part of their charge, but had left them wholly in the hands of their own priests, without taking any other care of them, but the making them pay their tithes.’
He started to reform the abuses he found in the diocese, and as a first step towards a remedy he took action against pluralists. This thrust him into immediate conflict with the Dean of Kilmore, Nicholas Bernard, a former chaplain to Ussher, and to sharp exchanges between Bedell and Ussher.
On the day of Bedell’s consecration, Ussher asked the new bishop to grant a benefice to Bernard, which would have been the dean’s fourth preferment. Bernard too had been educated at Cambridge, and later became Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain. Bedell refused Ussher’s request on the grounds that Bernard could not minister to a parish where the people spoke Irish. However, Bernard circumvented the bishop and obtained the appointment to the parish through a decree issued by the Primate’s Prerogative Court.
Bedell complained to Ussher, telling the archbishop that Bernard could not preach without using the services of an interpreter and was interested not in the pastoral care of his parishioners but only in the stipend that allowed him ‘to fat himself with the blood of God’s people.’
He sided with the Roman Catholics of Kilmore against the excesses of Alan Cooke, the chancellor of the diocese. He suspended Cook in 1629 on the pretext that were flaws in his patent of appointment, and sat in his own diocesan court and acted as judge himself. He told Ussher: ‘So long as the officers of our court prey on them [the people], they esteem us no better than publicans and wordlings … if the honestest and best of our Protestants be thus scandalised, what may we think of papists such as are all in a manner that we live among?’
Bedell told Ussher the Primate’s courts were corrupt, and he repeated this accusation in a letter to Laud on 7 August 1630: ‘This man was more burdensome to that part of the country than the contribution to the soldiers.’
Although Ussher had previously removed Cooke from a similar post in Meath for similar reasons, he was abrupt in his reply to Bedell. He held that Cooke was sufficiently qualified for the position, and the church courts found that Cooke had legally acquired the right as chancellor. Ussher accused Bedell of pulling down houses that others had spent a long time building, and of building castles in the air.
In the end, although he continued to be active in his diocesan court, the bishop was unable to remove his chancellor. Laud went so far as to regret that other bishops had not followed Bedell’s example in putting down abuses.
As a prime means of gaining the hearts of the people, Bedell studied the Irish language and encouraged the use of Irish. His only work in Irish to be published in his lifetime was his Aibgitir i Theaguisg Cheudtosugheadh an Chriostaide or The ABC or the Institution of a Christian was printed in Dublin in 1631. It contains letters, numbers, catechetical staples such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, four New Testament passages, and a number of prayers, all in parallel English and Irish texts.
In 1633, he resigned the See of Ardagh, where he had encountered opposition from Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike for reaching out to the Irish. However, he retained the See of Kilmore so he could concentrate on developing that diocese further and oversaw the renovation of neglected church buildings.
In very petulant terms, Ussher censured Bedell for learning Irish and for preaching to the people of his diocese in the only language they knew. In this, Ussher showed how he shared the prejudices of his class, in direct opposition to the principle of the Reformation which supported the translation of the Scriptures and the Liturgy into the vernacular.
But Bedell believed that the Irish too had souls which ought not to be neglected until such time as they should learn Irish. Undaunted by Ussher’s words of censure, Bedell commissioned the translation of the whole Bible into the language.
The translation was undertaken by the Church of Ireland Rector of Templeport, the Revd Murtagh King of Templeport, Co Cavan, who had been employed by Bedell to teach Irish at Trinity College Dublin and who was ordained priest by Bedell on 23 September 1633. However, Ussher had King removed and replaced by the Revd William Bayly, claiming King was ill and unfit. Bayly had been ordained without Bedell’s consent by Cooke’s father-in-law, the Bishop of Kilfenora, and his standard of Latin ‘caused much merryment.’
Bedell excommunicated Bayly as an intruder, but the Primate’s Court overruled Bedell; Bedell refused to recognise the court’s competence, but he found he was unable to restore King to his parish.
Bedell persisted, and in February 1634 he wrote to his friend Ward in Sidney Sussex College telling him: ‘I am purposed with God’s assistance to set forth the Bible in the Irish tongue, which I have caused to be translated, and am now causing to be written out fair … I purpose, if God sends me life, to add some Homilies chosen out of the Fathers.’
Bedell revised the whole work himself, comparing it with the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin so he could correct the errors in the English. He made preparations to print the work at his own house, and also translated into Irish and printed and circulated some of his sermons and homilies, and a catechism in English and Irish.
The bishop led a simple life and travelled for miles on foot or on horse, travelling the dangerous byways to visit distant parts of his diocese. He provided assistance to those who conformed to the Church of Ireland, enabling them to study for the ministry.
Bedell complained to Laud that that Ussher on his visitations to the Diocese of Kilmore usurped ‘all episcopal rights … every three years.’ In 1638, he called a synod of all the priests in the Diocese of Kilmore to discuss lax discipline and to draft canons for his and their guidance.
Cooke and Bayly secured an order from Ussher forbidding Bedell to do anything to the prejudice of Dr Cook and ordering him to reverse the order of excommunication against Bayly. They also used the opportunity to claim that Bedell had contravened the constitution of the Church of Ireland by calling the synod and enacting canons. Bedell confided his troubles to Laud in a letter on 24 May 1639. In his reply on 28 June, Laud regretted that the bishops had not supported Bedell and agreed that the canons were not exceptional. However, he suggested that the times might not be congenial for experiments like this.
Cooke and Bayly took their case against Bedell to the King in Chancery in 1639, but their case were probably not resolved before the rebellion of 1641 broke out.
With the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the local warlords, led by the O’Reillys, took control of the area. Bedell refused to flee to England and decided to remain with his people. As the war unfolded, he continued to minister in his church and refused many offers of refuge, including those of his Roman Catholic counterpart, Bishop Eugene Sweeney. The O’Reillys ‘gave comfortable words to the bishop’ and Bedell’s house at Kilmore, Co Cavan, was left untouched, becoming a place of refuge for people seeking shelter from the rebels.
The respect he shows for Roman Catholics in his writings and discussions was reflected in the way which he and the many fugitives who crowded his house and out-offices were treated initially by the rebel leaders. He was joined by the Bishop of Elphin, Henry Tilson. They exercised their religion freely, services were held frequently, and the Bread and Wine for the Holy Communion were specially supplied for them.
His memoirs describe with emotion and feeling about the personal sufferings and outrages the English settlers endured as they were driven off their plantations, but there is nothing in his writings about the massacre so often discussed by historians. It is moving to read his account of preaching to his people from the words: ‘But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me, my glory, and the lifter up of my head. I laid me down and slept; I awaked, for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me, round about.’
In the end, though, the rebels insisted upon the dismissal of all who had taken shelter in his house, and when the bishop refused he was seized and imprisoned with some others in the nearby island castle of Lough Oughter, Cloughoughter Castle. After about two months his sufferings increased. He and his sons, with others, were removed on 18 December to Loughoughter castle, a little tower in the middle of a lake, and his own house and library were spoiled by the insurgents.
He was held there for several weeks and was released only after drawing up for the insurgents their Remonstrance and Statement of Grievances for presentation to the Lords Justices, ‘pleading on their behalf for graces from King Charles.’
Bedell was now in the house of his friend, the Revd Denis Sheridan. But he continued to suffer from the effects from being in the draughty and damp castle, and never recovered from his hardships. He died of typhus on 7 February 1642. His last words were: ‘Be of good cheer, be of good cheer; whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.’
His captors acceded to Bedell’s wish to be buried in a corner of the churchyard in Kilmore, Co Cavan, beside his son, and his wife Leah, whose death in 1638 had brought him terrible grief. His funeral took place in the presence of his O’Reilly captors, the Confederate forces provided a military guard of honour at his funeral and among his pallbearers was the rebel leader Myles the Slasher.
A large military force fired a volley over his grave, crying, according to some accounts: ‘Requiescat in pace, ultimus Anglorum.’ Father Edmund Farrely, a Roman Catholic priest who was present, was heard to exclaim: ‘O sit anima mea cum Bedello!, May my soul be with Beddell’s.’ His grave is shaded by a sycamore tree, said to have been planted by his own hands.
His Irish neighbours called him optimus Anglorum – the best of the English – and his nobility, charity and ecumenism were renowned in an age of tyranny, injustice and bitter division. In true Laudian fashion, Bedell, according to his son, was ‘disposed rather to contract the differences between Protestants and Papists than to widen them.’
John 1: 1-18 (NRSVA):
1I n the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me”.’) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (31 December 2021) invites us to pray:
We pray for the Diocese of Toliara as they seek to encourage active discipleship and equip lay people with the appropriate skills to serve the local communities.
Yesterday: Josephine Butler
Tomorrow: The Naming of Jesus
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org