31 December 2021

‘You let me sing, you lifted me up,
you gave my soul a beam to travel on’

Patrick Comerford

This is New Year’s Eve, but in my Friday evening reflections I am also reading some of the poems in Leonard Cohen’s Book of Mercy, one of the books I received as a present this week.

This book of psalms by Leonard Cohen is a personal and powerful collection. It was first published in 1984, and was republished 35 years later in 2019 by Canongate of Edinburgh. It is a slim volume of Cohen’s contemporary psalms, and it has been elegantly repackaged.

Like the psalms, the themes in the short poems in Book of Mercy include praise, despair, anger, doubt, trust and the search for the presence of God.

Constantly, Cohen speaks of God as ‘the Name’ – Hashem (השם‎) – is a title used in Judaism to refer to God without using God’s name. Rabbinic Judaism considers seven names of God so holy that, once written, they should not be erased, and restricts the use of the names of God to a liturgical context.

When Cohen says ‘Blessed be the Name,’ he is saying ‘Blessed be God.’

Speaking from the heart of the modern world, yet in tones that resonate with an older Jewish tradition, these verses give voice to the deepest and most powerful intuitions.

This Friday evening, I am reading one of these short poems (p 28):

You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on. You folded your distance back into my heart. You drew the tears back to my eyes. You hid me in the mountain of your word. You gave the injury a tongue to heal itself. You covered my head with my teacher’s care, you bound my arm with my grandfather’s strength. O beloved speaking, O comfort whispering in the terror, unspeakable explanation of the smoke and cruelty, undo the self-conspiracy, let me dare the boldness of joy.

Shabbat Shalom, Happy New Year

With the Saints through Christmas (6):
31 December 2021, William Bedell

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)

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.

William Bedell was chaplain to Sir Henry Wooton, the English ambassador in Venice, from 1607 to 1610 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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.’

Sidney Sussex College Cambridge … Bedell wrote to Samuel Ward expressing his sense of uncertainty about moving to Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

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.

The chapel of Trinity College Dublin … as Provost, Bedell restored discipline to chapel observances (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.

A plaque at Kilmore Cathedral recalls the former bishop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.’

Willaim Bedell’s grave in the churchyard of Kilmore Cathedral, Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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.’

A copy of Bedell’s Bible in the window of a bookshop in Camden Street, Dublin, this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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.

William Bedell depicted on a corbel on Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast

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

Saint Feithlimidh’s Cathedral, Kilmore, built as a memorial to Bishop William Bedell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

30 December 2021

Returning to a place of
spiritual sanctuary in the chapel
of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

‘Christ in Majesty,’ the East Window by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, was installed in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, in 1984 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford returns to his spiritual home in the English cathedral city of Lichfield

For 50 years now, I have found spiritual sanctuary and spiritual rest in Lichfield in the Chapel of the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs. Fifty years ago, by happenchance, I walked into this chapel late on a summer afternoon, and felt filled with the light and love of God.

I was only 19, it was 1971, and it was a foundational moment in my life, changing my values and priorities, challenging my social, political and personal values, offering me a new focus and new directions in life, and eventually leading me along the path to ordination.

Ever since, I have made efforts to return each year to the Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, to give thanks for the gift of the light and love of God’s in my life. The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions throughout 2020 and 2021 interrupted these regular visits. Otherwise, I have returned to this chapel two or three times a year, and it was a special privilege to be invited to preach at the Festal Eucharist in Saint John’s on Saint John’s Day, 24 June 2015.

Welcome to the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … my ‘spiritual home’ for more than half a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

It was natural, then, that the chapel in Saint John’s was one of the first places I returned to when the travel restrictions in Europe eased in Autumn 2021, allowing me to spend a few days on my own, personally-tailored retreat in Lichfield.

I was interviewed in the chapel some years ago by the local historian David Moore for a series of five short YouTube films, talking about my life, my connections with Lichfield, and the links between Lichfield and the Comberford family. Inspired by this, I recorded a short video clip for a school assembly in the chapel, and two others outside Lichfield Cathedral and inside the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

However, this latest visit to Lichfield was – first and last – about prayer, thankfulness and gratitude.

Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel date back to 1135. Saint John’s Hospital now provides sheltered housing for retired people, and it is one of the finest 15th century brick buildings in England. The chapel and the east range facing Saint John Street are part of the original mediaeval foundation, but ancient and modern come together with John Piper’s magnificent interpretation of ‘Christ in Majesty’ in stained glass, which was installed in the East Window in 1984.

It is interesting to see, as the years pass, the changes that take place in Saint John’s. Simon Manby’s sculpture of ‘Noah and the Dove’ was commissioned by the trustees in 2006 and stands in the quadrangle. Saint John’s was extended extensively in recent years, and the new almshouses were opened by the Duke of Gloucester on 25 July 2017.

John Piper’s East Window, ‘Christ in Majesty,’ was installed in 1984. It was probably inspired by Graham Sutherland’s large tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, and since its installation it has become an integral part of my own spirituality and prayer life.

John Piper (1903-1992) is best-known for his Baptistry window in Coventry Cathedral, and throughout his working life, he collaborated regularly with the artist Patrick Reyntiens (1925-2021), who died earlier this year. Working closely with Patrick Reyntiens, John Piper designed the stained-glass windows for the new Coventry Cathedral as well as the East Window in Saint John’s, Lichfield. This window is Piper’s last major undertaking, and it was executed by Patrick Reyntiens in 1984.

Piper’s inspiration for the window came from his drawings and paintings of Romanesque sculptures during his many visits to French from 1955 to 1975. The window shows ‘Christ in Majesty,’ dressed in royal purple and flanked by angels within a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle). They appear aged, perhaps because Piper was thinking of the elderly residents of Saint John’s Hospital who pray daily in the chapel.

The window provides a splash of deep, vibrant colour above the altar in the chapel. But it is also a window of great solemnity power. The cross behind Christ is in the shape of the Mercian cross, the cross that also features on the coat-of-arms of the Diocese of Lichfield.

While Piper occasionally painted and etched, discussed or supervised some of the painting and etching of some of the glass used in his windows, he did not make the windows himself. The majority of the work was done by artist craftsmen, most particularly Patrick Reyntiens.

Piper wrote in Stained Glass: Art or Anti-Art?: ‘The great windows of modern times are all the work of artists working with collaborative craftsmen.’ Sometimes he did not see the glass from delivering the cartoons until a window was near completion, before the leading process, as he trusted the interpreters. This was mostly the case with the Saint John’s window.

Patrick Reyntiens, who translated Piper’s design, moved to a new workshop in Dorset before he began making the window. Penelope Betjeman (1910-1986), writer and wife of the Poet Laureate John Betjeman, had first introduced them in 1954, and for over 35 years Piper collaborated with Reyntiens, who was 22 years younger and soon became one of the leading 20th century stained-glass artists in Britain.

Piper’s faith has been described as middle-of-the-road, traditionalist Anglican; Reyntiens was committed to his Roman Catholic faith, which he interpreted liberally but regarded as a central aspect of his life; in both cases, their faith added profundly to their projects.

The Reyntiens family was of Flemish and Russian descent. Patrick was born in at 63 Cadogan Square, London, on 11 December 1925, and was educated at Ampleforth, Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art, and Edinburgh College of Art, where the life models included Sean Connery, the future Bond actor, and where Patrick met his future wife, the painter Anne Bruce (1927–2006).

He soon focused on stained glass and received the Andrew Grant Fellowship, a two-year travelling fellowship in 1954-1955. When he returned to England, he became assistant to the master Arts-and-Crafts stained-glass maker Joseph Edward (Eddie) Nuttgens (1892–1982), a neighbour and friend of Eric Gill.

From Eric Gill’s ideas, Reyntiens inherited the concept of the need for integrity in one’s craftsmanship and a belief that to be a craftsperson was a ‘holy’ pursuit and a spiritual calling. Eventually, Patrick became Head of Fine Art at Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design in London.

The 81 feet high Baptistry Window in Coventry Cathedral was designed by John Piper and contains 195 lights of stained glass in bright primary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

After Penelope and John Betjeman introduced John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, Patrick contributed much to John’s glass designs. He had suggested the theme behind the Coventry Cathedral window: the architect Basil Spence had originally conceived the Baptistry window to be of ‘pale, almost white glass with a slight tint of pink and pale blue.’ When John was stuck for inspiration, Patrick suggested that he should imagine a bomb or burst of glory, symbolising the power of the Holy Spirit at the centre of the Baptistry window and design a huge explosion of light around it, similar to the aureole of light around the dove above Saint Peter’s throne in the basilica in Rome.

Reyntiens also contributed to the inspiration of the Corona in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He recalled a description in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the Trinity as three great eyes of different colours communicating with each other. The spectrum of colour in the corona was arranged around three intense bursts of white light, which relate to each other across the lantern yet focus different colours into the interior liturgical space as the day progresses.

Encouraged by John Piper, Patrick and Anne began a school teaching design and manufacture at Burleighfield House, Loudwater, near High Wycombe, which they ran from 1963 to 1976. They then opened a larger teaching workshop in Beconsfield in 1977.

The glass for Saint John’s Chapel, Lichfield, is more conventional in its creation in leaded glass, although its design is deliberately bold and uses many techniques in painting and etching the glass, as well as creating different intensities of light.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Lichfield window was commissioned, tensions had arisen between Piper and Reyntiens over the financing of Piper’s projects. However, they continued to work together creating impressive, vibrant and harmonious art.

The tensions between these two great artists is reflected in their correspondence during the process of commissioning and making the window for Saint John’s. The delays in confirming and financing the project meant that Reyntiens suffered financial losses. He had ordered glass, booked studio time for the window and given more focus to the commission because of its significant importance. It proved to be a difficult commission practically and financially. Nevertheless, Patrick was professionally and spiritually committed to making a success of their last major collaboration.

Inside Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The commission may have come about because John Piper had several connections with Lichfield. He was commissioned by the Dean of Lichfield, Frederic Iremonger, in 1947 to design the poster for the cathedral’s 750th Anniversary celebrations. He also designed a textile cover for the chancel reredos, and John and his wife were close friends of the photographer Janet Woods (1912-1998), daughter of Edward Sydney Woods, Bishop of Lichfield, and her husband, the wood engraver Alan Reynolds Stone. Piper also wrote in 1968 about his admiration for the 16th century Herkenrode Glass in Lichfield Cathedral, which has undergone a major restoration in recent years.

The East Window in Saint John’s was commissioned to replace a window of plain quarry glass that had been installed in 1870. It was John Piper’s last major project with Patrick Reyntiens, who created the patterns for the leadwork which, in the blue mandorla of the chapel window especially, adds extra life and radiance to Piper’s design.

In his detailed study of the window, the British painter and art historian Ian McKillop identifies many differences between Piper’s cartoon for the Lichfield window and the finished stained glass are seen in the differences between media and the choice of coloured glass. The blues of the mandorla, reds of the ox, greens of the angels and surround are far richer than in the cartoon. But the greatest difference in colour is found in the yellows of the light radiating from Christ’s face, the Cross and the lion.

The Cross becomes the radiant focus of the whole design. The face in the cartoon is quieter and vaguer than in the glass, and Piper’s original suggests a rather gentler expression; in the glass his face feels more severe. In interpreting Christ’s hands, Reyntiens was more subtle, creating their gentle gesture by simple painted and etched lines on the glass.

The variations of colours in Christ’s robes give his garments an enriched majesty. The blues around the sun and moon are also far more richly varied than in the cartoon. The painting of the angels is not as strong as the rest of the design but are close to Piper’s original.

Patrick Reyntiens’s last commissioned work was completed in 2017, when he was 92. His recent obituary in the Church Times notes that ‘his career had been sustained by his deep faith.’ He died on 25 October 2021. His wife Anne died in 2006; they are survived by two sons and two daughters.

The chapel in Saint John’s remains my place of spiritual sanctuary and spiritual rest in Lichfield.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland, Canon Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and a retired Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin

Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel date back to 1135 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The new almshouses in Saint John’s were opened on 25 July 2017 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This feature is published in the Christmas 2021 edition of Koinonia (Kansas City MO), pp 22-25

With the Saints through Christmas (5):
30 December 2021, Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler … ‘God and one woman make a majority’

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning 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.

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) was active campaigner against the way Victorian society and legislation treated prostitutes, most of whom were forced into their lifestyle activity through desperate poverty.

Josephine Butler was born on 13 April 1828 at Milfield House, Milfield, Northumberland, and was baptised on 30 May in Northumberland. She was the seventh child of John Grey (1785–1868) and Hannah Eliza Annett 1792-1860). Her father, John Grey, was an eminent agricultural expert, and the cousin of the reformist Prime Minister, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. John Grey campaigned for the abolition of slavery and played a significant role in Catholic emancipation. He lost most of his savings in 1857 with the failure of the Newcastle Bank.

In 1852, Josephine married the Revd George Butler (1819-1890), who encouraged her in her public work. From her 20s on, Josephine was active in feminist movements, and the Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.

Josephine and George Butler had four children. In 1863, while they were living in Cheltenham, where George was the vice-principal of Cheltenham College, their only daughter, Evangeline, died at the age of six.

In 1866, the family moved to Liverpool when George was appointed headmaster of Liverpool College. There Josephine decided to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. She became involved in the campaign for higher education for women, and with Anne Jemima Clough, later principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, she helped to establish the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women.

Against the advice of her friends and family, she began visiting Brownlow Hill workhouse in Liverpool, which led to her first involvement with prostitutes. She saw the women as being exploited victims of male oppression, and attacked the double standard of sexual morality.

Her campaign took on an international dimension when she travelled through Europe in 1874-1875 addressing meetings. Her campaign succeeded with the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1883. In 1885, she became involved in a successful campaign against child prostitution.

She was a devout Anglican and a woman of prayer, and once said: ‘God and one woman make a majority.’ She modelled her spirituality on that of Saint Catherine of Siena, and wrote a biography of the Dominican saint.

When George Butler retired from Liverpool College, he became a Canon of Winchester Cathedral. He died on 14 March 1890. Josephine continued her campaigns until the early 1900s. She died on 30 December 1906.

Josephine Butler is celebrated in the Calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England on 30 May, the anniversary of her baptism, and on 30 December, the anniversary of her death.

She is depicted in windows in the Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool, and Saint Olave’s Church, London.

Many of her papers are in the Women’s Library in London Metropolitan University and in the Josephine Butler Museum, Southend-On-Sea. Durham University honoured her in 2005 by giving her name Josephine Butler College. A building in the Faculty of Business and Law in Liverpool John Moores University is named Josephine Butler House. Her former home in Cheltenham was demolished in the 1970s.

Luke 2: 36-40 (NRSVA):

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 December 2021) invites us to pray:

Lord, we pray for clergy around the world. We recognise the difficulties they have faced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and the love they have shown to their parishioners throughout this challenging time.

Yesterday: Saint Thomas Becket

Tomorrow: William Bedell

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

29 December 2021

On the Pugin trail at Keavan’s Port,
the new Wetherspoon’s hotel
in former stained-glass studios

An Earley & Co circular window in the reception area of Keavan’s Port pub and hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I am spending a few days in Dublin on a short, post-Christmas break. Before a late lunch in Cava in Camden Street yesterday, I visited Wetherspoon’s Keavan’s Port pub and hotel.

I could never describe myself as anything close to a fan of either Wetherspoon’s or Tim Martin – although I admit to having lunch once in the Bole Bridge, the Wetherspoon pub in Tamworth … just once. So Keavan’s Port, a pub with an adjoining 89-bedroom hotel, was never going to be a natural ‘port of call.’

It is always good to have my prejudices challenged and disproved. For some months now, I have wanted to see the restoration of these town houses in Camden Street, including a restored former chapel and the recovery of the story of once-important stained-glass studios.

The name of the Earley studios survives in the fanlight above the front door of the hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Keavan’s Port takes its name from the history of the local area, where Camden Street Upper and Camden Street Lower form part of an ancient highway into the city of Dublin. These two streets were previously known as Saint Kevin’s Port.

The name Keavan’s Port and Saint Kevin’s Port comes from Saint Kevin’s Church of, in nearby Camden Row. It is said to have been founded by a follower of the sixth-century hermit.

Saint Kevin also features in the poem ‘Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’ (1996) by the Nobel prize-winner Seamus Heaney, in which he describes how Saint Kevin held out a ‘turned-up palm’ for a blackbird to nest.

Wetherspoons have transformed eight once-derelict houses into Keavan’s Port pub and hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In a series of old maps and records, Camden Street is named as Keavans Port (1673), Saint Kevan’s Port (1714), Keavan’s Port (1728), Saint Kevan’s Port (1756) and then Saint Kevin’s Port (1778), but the street was renamed Camden Street after Charles Pratt (1714-1794), 1st Earl of Camden and a liberal defender of human rights.

These eight once-derelict Georgian townhouses were bought for €6 million and have gained a new lease of life with their restoration over three years by Wetherspoon as Keavan’s Port pub and hotel. It is a flagship pub and hotel for the British chain, and is the company’s single largest investment in its 41-year history, costing €27.4 million.

The pub is set over two levels and features a courtyard beer garden. The 89 bedrooms include bedrooms specially designed for people with disabilities. Bespoke and reclaimed furniture, as well as reclaimed stonework and decorative windows, have been incorporated into the design. The hotel design fuses the restored Georgian architecture with contemporary design. The unique carpet designs reflect the area’s history, and a three-storey modern extension features a 12-metre-high glazed atrium.

The old marble yard of Earley & Co now forms part of Keavan’s Port beer garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Many of the original features of the once derelict buildings have been be retained and restored, including the circular stained glass window that was crafted by Earley & Co, church decorators, stained glass manufacturers and stone carvers, who were based at the site. The window on the façade of 5 Upper Camden Street is considered to be the work of John Earley, son of the founder of the company.

Earley & Co were ecclesiastical furnishings and stained glass manufacturers and retailers from 1861 to 1975 and one of the largest and most prestigious ecclesiastical decorators both in Ireland and Britain. They provided a high standard of ecclesiastical art during the Gothic revival in church building in the 19th and early 20th century.

The firm was founded by John Earley and his brother Thomas, who were born in Birmingham of Irish parents According to family tradition, their parents were James Earley, a bricklayer from Drumshambo, Co Leitrim, and his wife Elizabeth (née Farrington).

A collection of original Hardman & Co cartoons in the hotel lobby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Thomas Earley (1819-1893) was born in Birmingham and was an apprentice at Hardman & Co in Brimingham, who worked closely with the great architect of the Gothic revival, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852).

John Hardman was one of the pioneers of the stained-glass revival in the mid-19th century. Thomas Earley was responsible for setting up Hardman’s exhibit of stained glass and metalwork at the Great Exhibition in 1851. He set up a similar exhibit at the International Dublin Exhibition of 1853. By November 1853, a shop was being prepared at 48 Grafton Street in Dublin for Hardman’s ecclesiastic products.

The Grafton Street premises were abandoned between 1860 and 1863, and Hardman’s gave up their connection with the Dublin business in 1864. The business then continued from 1 Upper Camden Street as Earley & Powell when Thomas Earley and Edward Powell formed their own business at No 1 Camden Street, calling it Earley and Powell. by 1883 had acquired additional premises at 23-27 Grantham Street, and it later became Earley & Co.

Thomas Earley in 1870 … a photograph in the hotel lobby (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Thomas Earley’s younger brother, John, began his apprenticeship in stained glass and also moved from Birmingham to Dublin. When John died at 42, his son, also called John, became a renowned stained glass artist.

Thomas Earley was elected a non-professional associate of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI) in 1864, and he became a full associate under in 1869, proposed by Thomas Drew, James Higgins Owen and Parke Neville. He was also a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (1871).

He worked from 1 Upper Camden Street from 1868 to 1893, and lived at 51 Lower Clanbrassil Street, a street where many members of the Comerford family were his neighbours.

Thomas Earley died at the home of his friend, Father James Baxter, the parish priest of Clondalkin, on 28 June 1893. He left the business to his nephew John Bishop Earley, son of John Farrington Earley.

Surviving fragments of Hardman and Earley stained glass hanging in 12-metre-high glazed atrium (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Thomas Earley’s younger brother, John Farrington Earley (1831-1873), was a draughtsman and stained glass designer with Earley & Powell. He was born in Birmingham in 1831, and like his brother worked for the church decorating firm John Hardman & Sons, which was closely connected with the architect AWN Pugin.

He married Elizabeth Bishop in 1853, and they were the parents of seven or eight children, including John Bishop Earley and William Earley. He was a draughtsman and living at 39 Carver Street, Birmingham, in 1856. He was exhibiting with the Birmingham Society of Artists in 1859 and 1860. But he does not appear in the English census of 1861, and by 1862 he was working at Hardman’s branch in Dublin.

Earley was living at 3 Richmond Hill, Rathmines, when he died on 1 September 1873. He was only 41 and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

A portrait of AWN Pugin in the hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

His eldest son, John Bishop Earley (1856-1953), the stained glass designer and church decorator, was born in Birmingham in 1856. He followed his father into the family business in Dublin, and eventually inherited it when his uncle Thomas Earley died in 1893.

He ran the family business for about 10 years under his own name at 1 Upper Camden Street and 23-27 Grantham Street. Then in 1903, perhaps because of financial difficulties, he took his youngest brother, William Earley, into partnership, and the business was known after that as Earley & Co. John Bishop Earley exhibited designs for stained glass and decorations at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1887, 1903 and 1904.

He lived at 3 Lennox Street and later at 56 Richmond Street South until his death. He died on 16 March 1935, aged 79, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

His youngest brother was the stained glass designer Wlliam Earley (1872-1956). He was a student at the College of Art in the 1890s, when he won the Royal Irish Academy’s Taylor Scholarship jointly with William Orpen. Later, he was an apprentice in William Martin & Son’s stained glass, glass and mirror business on Saint Stephen’s Green. He left Martin’s to join his brother John in the family business when it ran into difficulties.

William Earley lived at 56 South Richmond Street, and when died on 23 September 1956 he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The interior of the former convent chapel, now part of the pub (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The business survived as Earley & Co for many years, and at some time, a Mr Murray, sub-manager of the Northern Bank on the South Circular Road, became a financial partner.

When William Earley died in 1956, his nephew Gerard Earley became managing director, and his niece Dympna Earley and grand-nephew Leo Earley co-directors. The firm remained in business at 4 and 5 Upper Camden Street under the name of Earley Studios Ltd. But the studios closed in 1975, having been run by the Earley family for more than a century.

From the 1890s until the 1940s, part of the terrace was also a convent of the Little Sisters of Assumption, who nursed the ‘sick poor’ in their own homes. Their former chapel is also preserved and forms part of the new pub and hotel.

Keavan’s Port pub and hotel was restored and built in a project costing €27.4 million (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

With the Saints through Christmas (4):
29 December 2021, Saint Thomas Becket

Two plaques on a street corner in London recall Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on 29 December 1170 (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is a season that continues for 40 days until the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas (2 February).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning 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.

It is theologically important to remind ourselves in the days after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Thomas Becket … a 13th century window in Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas Becket (ca 1118-1170), the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, is commemorated today [29 December] with a Lesser Festival in the Calendar of the Church of England.

Thomas Becket, also known as Thomas à Becket, was a skilled diplomat and Chancellor of England for many years before he succeeded as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1161. Thomas was forced into exile when he insisted on the privileges. Although he returned in triumph to Canterbury in 1170, the king’s words of anger at court prompted four knights to go to Canterbury where they chased Thomas into the cathedral, and there murdered him on the steps of the altar on this day in 1170.

Thomas Becket was born ca 1118-1120 in Cheapside, London. Tradition says he was born on 21 December, the feast day of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and so received his name. He may have been related to Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury.

When he was a 10-year-old, Thomas was sent as a student to Merton Priory in England and he then attended a school in London. Later, he spent about a year in Paris around the age of 20.

When his father, Gilbert Beket, suffered a financial setback, Thomas earned a living as a clerk, and then found a position in the household of Archbishop Theobald.

Archbishop Theobald entrusted him with several important missions to Rome and sent him to Bologna and Auxerre to study canon law. In 1154, although he was not yet ordained priest, Thomas was appointed Archdeacon of Canterbury, and he acquired a number of other Church appointments, including becoming a prebendary of both Lincoln Cathedral and Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Provost of Beverley.

In January 1155, on the recommendation of Archbishop Theobald, King Henry II appointed Thomas Lord Chancellor of England.

Several months after the death of Archbishop Theobald, Thomas was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury, and his election was confirmed by a royal council of bishops and noblemen on 23 May 1162.

Thomas was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and a day later he was consecrated a bishop by Bishop Henry of Blois of Winchester and the other bishops of the Province of Canterbury.

The new archbishop resigned as chancellor and changed almost immediately from being a pleasure-loving courtier into a serious-minded, simply-dressed cleric. He took to wearing a hair shirt under his robes, immersed himself in penitential cold baths and washed the feet of 30 paupers each day before he dined.

When he set about trying to recover and extend his rights as archbishop, a rift grew between him and the king, leading to a series of conflicts, including one over the jurisdiction of secular courts over the English clergy.

King Henry’s efforts to win over the other bishops against Thomas began in Westminster in October 1163, when the king sought approval of the traditional rights of the royal government in regard to the Church. At a council in Clarendon Palace, on 30 January 1164, Henry presided over an assembly of the most senior English clergy and in 16 constitutions, sought less clerical independence and a weaker connection with Rome. He drew on all his skills to secure their consent but failed to convince Archbishop Thomas.

Finally, even the archbishop signalled his willingness to agree, but he refused to formally sign the documents. The king summoned the archbishop to Northampton Castle on 8 October 1164 to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance while he was Chancellor. When Thomas was convicted of the charges, he stormed out of the trial and fled to the Continent.

King Louis VII of France offered Thomas protection, and he spent nearly two years in the Cistercian Abbey of Pontigny until Henry’s threats against the Cistercians forced Thomas to return to Sens.

Thomas fought back by threatening to excommunicate the king and to place the king, the bishops and England under an interdict. When Pope Alexander III sent Papal legates to arbitrate between the king and the archbishop, Henry offered a compromise that would allow Thomas to return to England from exile.

In June 1170, the Archbishop of York, Roger de Pont L’Évêque, along with the Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot, and the Bishop of Salisbury, Josceline de Bohon, crowned Henry’s heir as king-in-waiting at York. This action was a direct challenge to the privileges of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in November 1170 Thomas excommunicated all three. While the three bishops fled to the king in Normandy, Becket continued to excommunicate his opponents in the Church.

When the king heard the news of the archbishop’s actions, tradition says, Henry demanded to know: ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ However, his contemporary and biographer Edward Grim puts other words in Henry’s mouth: ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?’

Whatever Henry said, it was interpreted as a royal command, and four knights – Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton – set out to confront the Archbishop of Canterbury.

On 29 December 1170, they arrived at Canterbury, where they placed their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge the archbishop. They ordered Thomas to Winchester to account for his actions, but when he refused they retrieved their weapons and rushed back inside.

Meanwhile, the archbishop was preparing himself for Vespers. The four knights drew their swords, caught up with Thomas near a door to the cloister, on the stairs leading to the crypt and the cathedral quire. As the third blow hit him, he fell on his knees and elbows, saying in a low voice: ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ The next blow to his head decapitated him, and his brains and blood were splattered on the paved floor.

After killing him, one of the knights said: ‘Let us away. He will rise no more.’

The murder was reported in minute detail: no fewer than five of Thomas’s companions in Canterbury Cathedral were witnesses on that fateful day. The monks who prepared his body for burial found that Thomas had worn a hair-shirt under his archbishop’s robes.

According to local lore in Wexford, Henry II did penance for the murder by spending Lent in 1172 in Selskar Abbey.

Thomas was canonised by Pope Alexander III on Ash Wednesday, 21 February 1173. In the midst of a revolt, Henry did public penance for the murder at Becket’s tomb on 12 July 1174, donning sackcloth and walking barefoot through the streets of Canterbury while 100 nervous monks flogged him with branches. Henry concluded his atonement by spending the night in the martyr’s crypt, which quickly became a popular place of pilgrimage.

However, the assassins were never arrested and their lands were never confiscated. Pope Alexander excommunicated all four. Seeking forgiveness, the assassins travelled to Rome, where the Pope ordered them to spend 14 years as knights in the Holy Land.

Thomas’s bones were moved to a shrine behind the high altar in the Trinity Chapel in 1220. The shrine was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. The king also destroyed Becket’s bones and ordered that all mention of his name be obliterated. The paved floor where the shrine stood is now marked by a lit candle.

Saint Thomas Becket was undoubtedly a proud and stubborn man, for all his gifts, and his personal austerities as archbishop were probably an attempt at self-discipline after years of ostentatious luxury. His conflict with Henry II stemmed from their conflicting ambitions, exacerbated by the claims of the papacy. His martyrdom became the emblem of spiritual resistance to secular tyranny, and no king until Henry VIII dared repeat Henry II’s assault on ecclesiastical jurisdiction in England.

The Church Historian Eamon Duffy wrote in The Guardian earlier some years ago:

‘Today’s readers, all too conscious of ecclesiastical cover-up of clerical abuse, are unlikely to warm to Becket’s cause, but more was at stake than clerical privilege. The medieval church was the sole source of moral value, and one of the few contexts within which criticism of tyrannical rule was possible. Kings such as Henry II were rarely concerned with abstract justice, and royal control of the church posed problems not unlike those posed nowadays by state censorship of the press or suppression of the right of peaceful protest. Becket saw himself as a champion of the cause of Christ and the liberties of the church.’

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is set in a company of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, the ‘holy, blissful martyr,’ in Canterbury Cathedral.

Peter Glenville’s 1964 movie Becket starred Richard Burton as Archbishop Thomas Becket and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II.

In the interlude in TS Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Becket preaches his Christmas sermon shortly before his murder. He explains that the “peace to men of good will” that the angels announced at the first Christmas was ‘not peace as the world gives,’ but, to the disciples, ‘torture, imprisonment, disappointment … [and] death by martyrdom.’

He links the birth at Christmas with the death of martyrdom, asking: ‘Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.’

Having remembered Saint Stephen the first martyr on 26 December, Saint John, who reaches soaring heights and whose concept of love reaches the furthest breadths (27 December), and the Holy Innocents, who remind us of all children at risk (28 December), this day to continues to recall the connections between the Incarnation and witnessing to the Gospel, even at the cost of martyrdom.

Selskar Abbey, Wexford ... Henry II is said to have spent Lent 1172 here in penance after the murder of Saint Thomas Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 2: 22-35 (NRSVA):

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (29 December 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean, covering Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Yesterday: The Holy Innocents

Tomorrow: Josephine Butler

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

28 December 2021

The memories of a ‘West Briton’
who became Ireland’s ‘Jean d’Arc’

James Charles Comerford (1842-1907) of Ardavon House, Rahdrum … a contemporary of Charles Stewart Parnell, and father of Máire Comerford

Patrick Comerford

One of the presents I received this Christmas is a book I had searched for in vain in the bookshops in Limerick in recent weeks: Máire Comerford’s memoirs edited by Hilary Dully, On Dangerous Ground: A Memoir of the Irish Revolution.

This book was published a few weeks ago by Lilliput Press, and includes many of her memories, including her recollections of her branch of the Comerford family.

Máire Comerford was known as the ‘Jean d’Arc’ of Irish Republicanism and in later years she worked as a journalist with the Irish Press.

When I was in my teens, when Máire was retired and living in Saint Nessan’s in Sandyford, she was very supportive of my initial research into the history of the Comerford family. The Comerford family in Ballybur and Kilkenny and the Langton family of Kilkenny and Ballinakill were closely inter-related over many generations, and she told me how her branch of the Comerford family of Ballinakill, Co Laois, and Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, and my branch of the family from Bunclody, Co Wexford, were closely related.

Máire grew up in Co Wicklow and Co Wexford, so I have been interested in recent days to read how she recalled her family story, and her relationship with both the Comerford and the Esmonde family.

I was particularly interested in her recollection of the Comerford family history, when she recalls:

‘Our Comerford branch came to Rathdrum from Ballinakill in County Offaly [recte County Laois]. Kilkenny, like Galway, had its ‘Tribes’; but the Catholic tribes like the Walshes and the Comerfords, were evicted from the city of Kilkenny and ordered to live in Ballinakill. All this happened a very long time before our story began in Rathdrum. In a quiet way, the Comerfords belonged to a class of Irish person who seemed relatively unaffected by the Penal Laws against Catholics; people engaged in primary industries – brewers, millers, wool merchants – who thrived relative to the many Irish people who depended for their livelihood on the land and nothing else.’

Her father, James Charles Comerford (1842-1907), of Ardavon, Rathdrum, inherited the Comerford mills in Rathdrum. He grew up as a close friend of Charles Stewart Parnell, they rode horses together, they played cricket together, and James Comerford was Parnell’s election agent.

But, she recalls, ‘My mother, Eva Esmonde, was judged to have come down in the world when she married my father. On her equally Catholic but prouder side, there was a pedigree – supplied by request from the senior Esmonde family members to the editors of Debrett, and likewise to Burke …’

She describes her family as ‘Castle Catholics’ and ‘in essence West Britons.’ There is once childhood memory of being ‘ordered to the back of the class when the Irish lesson was on. I learnt what it to be a ‘West Briton’.’

When Máire’s father, James Charles Comerford, died on 3 October 1907, there was time of arbitration in the Comerford, and eventually her widowed mother, Eva Comerford, ‘brought us back to her native Wexford.’ She was the widowed mother of four children: Mary Eva (Máire), (Colonel) Thomas James Comerford (1894-1959), Dympna Helen Mulligan (1897-1977), and Alexander E (‘Sandy’) Comerford (1900-1966), later of Malahide, Co Dublin.

There are interesting accounts too of the various houses in Co Wexford where Eva Comerford lived with her young family. But perhaps more about these houses and these family stories in later postings on this blog.

• Máire Comerford, On Dangerous Ground: A Memoir of the Irish Revolution, edited by Hilary Dully (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2021), xvii + 334 pp