Project Canterbury Some Archbishops of Dublin
by T. S. Lindsay.
Dublin: Church of Ireland Printing Co., 1928.
OF all the distinguished men who have occupied the Provost's chair in Trinity College, Dublin, there are few who less deserve to be forgotten than Bedell. He was a very good man; he was almost a very great man. Though he came to Ireland only at the mature age of fifty-six, yet he filled two high positions, and adorned them both; he proved himself to be the very model of what an Irish patriot ought to be; he strove with all his might for Ireland's true welfare, and he so bore himself through those miserable times--almost the most miserable in the long chain of miserable times of which Irish history consists--with such dignity, such force, such gentleness, such wisdom, such single-minded disinterestedness, that, English as he was, his death, even in the awful throes and horrors of the Rebellion of 1641, evoked an almost unparalleled expression of sorrow and respect, alike from friend and foe.
William Bedell was born in the year 1570 in the County of Essex. His father was of one of those ancient yeomen families that have always been such a strength to England. He was a pious man and a strong Protestant, an ardent supporter of the Reformation, and the religious character impressed on the child remained unchanged to the end of his life. He and his elder brother John went to the school in the neighbouring town, kept by an able teacher, but extraordinarily austere and severe, so much so that John soon absolutely refused to attend. But William's love of learning overcame this discouragement, though his biographer relates that in spite of his diligence and quickness, he one day received such a blow from his choleric master that he fell down the stairs, and was so bruised in his head that the blood gushed from his ear, and in after life that ear became wholly deaf.
At the age of eleven he was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. There he became a sound scholar, not only in Latin and Greek, but in Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, and showed a remarkable aptitude for languages. His Latinity, both with tongue and pen, was fluent and elegant, and we read that whenever he set himself to acquire a new language he drew up a grammar of it for himself. At the age of twenty-three he was chosen Fellow of his College, shortly after was ordained, and began his ministerial life as Vicar of Edmundsbury, or as it is now called, Bury St. Edmunds, in Suffolk, to which living he was presented by the College. Bishop Burnet, who wrote his life, tells us that he developed an excellent power of lucid exposition in the pulpit, so that, while his colleague made the plainest places of Scripture seem difficult, he " made the difficultest plain." Here and in another Suffolk parish to which he was appointed in 1615 he laboured quietly for over twenty years except for the time he spent in Venice. His three biographers vie with each other in praising him as a parish clergyman. His diligence, his kindness to his parishioners, his high character and godly life were what all could understand, and his reputation for learning, which they could not, added respect to their affection.
But in the even tenor of this quiet pastoral life there was one remarkable episode. In the year 1605 Sir Henry Wotton was sent by King James to be our Ambassador at Venice, and Bedell was appointed to accompany him as chaplain. They found the Republic in a strange condition. A quarrel had arisen with the Pope, Paul V., on some question of Church discipline, and so bitter had it become that on the one hand the Pope had placed Venice under an Interdict, while on the other the Venetian Church seriously contemplated following Germany and England in renouncing the Papal authority and reorganising herself on an independent basis. The chief Venetian leader was the famous Paolo Sarpi, the historian of the Council of Trent, whom Burnet describes as "the Divine of the State, a man equally eminent for vast learning and a most consummated prudence, one of the greatest Divines and wisest men of his age." Bedell and he speedily became fast friends. Burnet says that though Paolo was naturally distrustful, and "tyed up by the strictness of that Government to a great reservedness with all people, he yet took Bedell into his very soul and communicated to him the inwardest thoughts of his heart." From him Bedell quickly picked up the Italian language, could write and speak it freely, and before long became so proficient that he actually translated into it our Book of Common Prayer; and so well did the Venetian Divines like it that they resolved, on gaining their independence, to make it their pattern.
In the course of this controversy an amusing incident occurred. A Jesuit who came to Venice printed a book on Divinity with the extravagant and indeed blasphemous dedication, Paulo V., Vice-Deo, Christianae Reipublicae Monarchae invictissimo et Pontificiae Omnipotentiae conservator acerrimo." Bedell's quick mind perceived that the numerical values of the letters composing the words "Paulo V., Vice-Deo" amounted to 666, and mentioned it to his friend. Like wildfire, in the excited state of public feeling, it spread abroad. It was carried to the Duke; it was discussed in the Senate; "it was," says Burnet, "entertained almost as if it had come from Heaven, and it was publicly preached over all their Territories, that here was a certain evidence that the Pope was Antichrist." The Pope himself was alarmed, and by way of counterblast he caused it to be spread abroad that Antichrist was even then in the East, that he had been born in Babylon, of the Tribe of Dan, that he was gathering a vast army to destroy Christendom, and that all Christian princes should prepare their forces to resist him. "This conceit," says Burnet, "choaked the other."
Never, perhaps, was any country so near to renouncing her allegiance to the Roman See without actually doing so as Venice was during Bedell's residence there. The breach between the Pope and the Republic was brought very near a crisis, the popular feeling and the opinions of the leading clergy were strongly in favour of a Reformation. King James I. was extremely anxious for it, and he had a "Premonition" prepared setting forth the evils of Papal rule and the benefits that the Church of England enjoyed through her independence, which he desired his Ambassador to present to the Senate. This, it was confidently believed, would have a great effect, and possibly it might have just supplied the force required to make the Senate take the decisive step. But Sir Henry Wotton, with his courtier-like desire' to flatter his master, could not be dissuaded by Bedell from delaying until St. James's Day to deliver King James's message. Before that day arrived the Pope had yielded to the demands of the Senate, the quarrel was made up, and the prospects of Reformation in Venice were lost for ever.
In sharp contrast to Bedell's sturdy Protestantism and his zeal for the Reformation was the career of his College chum at Cambridge, or "chamber fellow" as the phrase then went, James Wadsworth. He, too, became a clergyman; he, too, was a man of parts and promise; he, too, began his ministerial life in Suffolk, and just about the time that Bedell went to Venice, he was sent to Spain to teach the Infanta English with a view to her marriage with Charles I. But here the likeness ended. Instead of encouraging reform in Spain, Wadsworth was perverted to Romanism, and a long correspondence between him and his old friend is extant, in which the whole controversy was thrashed out.
After eight years' absence in Italy, Bedell returned to his quiet pastoral work in Suffolk. There he laboured until 1626, establishing a character for piety, integrity and learning. And so high was his reputation that in that year, although he had never been in Ireland, although he had no friends in the country, and although he had lived so retired a life and so little in the public eye, yet upon the commendation of Primate Abbot of Canterbury and Primate Ussher of Armagh, who knew him by repute, the Fellows of Trinity College sent a petition to the King to appoint him Provost on the death of Sir William Temple. The King acceded to the petition, and with much misgiving and reluctance Bedell accepted the post.
During the three years of his Provostship he carried out many and important reforms, for he found that many abuses had grown up. He was very strict in enforcing obedience to the statutes, and soon displayed great practical capacity in ruling men. He insisted on the Fellows vacating their Fellowships after seven years' standing as Masters of Arts and taking pastoral work, and endeavoured to make them learn Irish for their greater usefulness. He caused the students to wear their gowns not only in the College precincts but in the city. He found that the Services in the Chapel were irregular and carelessly performed, and the Holy Communion had not been celebrated for years. This he rectified, and ordered that all students with the Fellows should attend and follow the Provost to church on Tuesdays. Before dinner and supper in hall every day the scholars, in turn, had to read a chapter in the Latin Bible before saying grace, and the Provost would often, from his place at the high table, offer improving comments to the diners. Once a week he catechized the students, and divided the Church Catechism into fifty-two parts, to last as a body of divinity for a year. This does not look like very extended holidays. On one occasion we read of a little trouble with one of the Professors named Joshua Hoile. Bedell, in his catechizing, expressed the opinion that the Church of Rome, though in error, was a true branch of the Catholic Church. To this Professor Hoile, being a very fervent Protestant, demurred, and being a very hot and impulsive man, he took as his text for his next sermon "Come out of her my people," and, as the chronicler says, "took occasion too plainly to glance at the Provost with somewhat more sharpness than could be well-digested." Immediately after the sermon, the Provost had a private conference with the Professor; they debated the matter in Latin, one sizar being present, and the only remark that the Professor was ever heard to make on the interview was that the Provost was as fine a Ciceronian as he had ever discoursed with.
We shall not, I think, consider that Bedell was extravagantly paid for the services he rendered to the College when we learn that his entire stipend was £100 a year, to which was added £20 for preaching once a fortnight in Christ Church Cathedral.
Now we come to the last stage in Bedell's life. In 1629 he was consecrated Bishop for the United Dioceses of Kilmore and Ardagh, and Bishop of Kilmore he remained for twelve years, until his death.
I may quote the words in which the King signified his pleasure for his promotion to the See of Kilmore, as reflecting honour on Bedell:
"And as we were pleased by our former gracious letters to establish the said William Bedele, by our Royal Authority, in the Provostship of the said Colledge of the Blessed Trinity near Dublin, where we are informed that by his care and good government, there hath been wrought good Reformation, to our singular contentment; so we propose to continue our care of that Society, being the principal nursery of Religion and Learning in that Realm; and to recommend unto the Colledge some such person from whom we may expect the like worthy effects for their good, as we and they have found from Mr. Bedele."
If he found abuses to be reformed in the University, he found a hundred times more in the Church. The picture he gives of the state of things in his Diocese, which we have no reason to suppose was worse than the rest of Ireland, is truly horrifying. "He found it," says Burnet, "under so many disorders, that there was scarce a sound part remaining. The revenue was wasted by excessive dilapidations, and all sacred things had been exposed to sale in so sordid a manner, that it was grown to a Proverb." The Cathedral of Ardagh was in ruins, so was the Bishop's house, and he describes the parish churches as "all in a manner ruined and unroofed and unrepaired." The stipend was barely enough to support any Bishop who would not supply himself by base means. There were but seven or eight beneficed clergy in each Diocese, who divided the parishes between them, "giving," says the Bishop, "equal attention to all, that is, none to any." Their moral standard was low. Bishop Burnet relates that an Irishman said to Bedell in open Court, "That the King's priests were as bad as the Pope's." And he adds, "These are so grossly ignorant, and so plainly scandalous, both for drunkenness and all sorts of lewdness, that this was indeed a heavy reproach."
Here was an Augean stable for Bedell to cleanse. The first abuse that he set himself to reform was that of Pluralities. He gathered his clergy and addressed them on the solemn character of their charge, and the sin of drawing pay for duties which they did not fulfil. And in order to set them a good example, he himself resigned the See of Ardagh, though it had long been joined to Kilmore, though he had been at a heavy charge in recovering its patrimony, and though he was quite able to rule both Sees. This discourse, and still more, this example, made such an impression on the clergy that they all agreed to relinquish their Pluralities, with one exception. This surely was an extraordinary achievement and a remarkable proof of the persuasive force of Bedell's character.
The next abuse which he set himself to combat was the non-residence of the clergy in their parishes. Here great difficulties confronted him. King James, in the Plantation of Ulster after the rebellion of Tyrone, had ordered glebelands to be assigned to all the clergy, and appointed a Commission for that purpose. But the Commissioners had done their work very badly--no doubt the task was a difficult one--giving the lands in small parcels here and there, and often quite outside the parish to which they were to belong. But it seems that they had treated the Bishop in the same way, giving him a number of little scattered plots. Bedell therefore was able to do something to remedy matters by exchanging some of his land, which was, in some cases, better suited for the building of a parsonage, for the inconvenient plot assigned. He got a Commission from the Lord Lieutenant to confirm this, but with the law's usual delay, it was not fully concluded before the Rebellion broke out.
But it is impossible to reform abuses without exciting the animosity of those who profit by them. Had Bedell let sleeping dogs lie, as his brother bishops did; had he lived the easy, laissez-faire, luxurious life that was so characteristic of Englishmen sent over to Irish Sees from London, he might have passed the rest of his days tranquilly and agreeably enough. But he was not built that way, and his whole episcopate was a continued storm from one quarter or another, ending in the hurricane of 1641. He drew down on him the wrath of Strafford, the Lord Lieutenant, for joining in a petition from the County Cavan for the better discipline of the soldiers quartered there. He aroused the resentment of the army of officials by stopping the extortionate fees that they had exacted from the clergy upon every possible occasion. He made an enemy of his own Dean by compelling him to vacate all his livings except one. He was a very strong Protestant, what we should now call a Low Churchman, and the Roman Catholics recognised in him an able and determined opponent. Yet amid all these foes and in all these varied controversies we read that he never once lost the natural sweetness and gentleness of his temper, never was surprised into a hasty, bitter retort; and many times he proved the Wise Man's saying to be true, "A soft answer turneth away wrath."
In another way his practice was no less in sharp contrast with that of his brother bishops. He was exceedingly strict in the choice of his clergy and in their examination before ordination. This he was accustomed to conduct in the presence of any of the diocesan clergy who chose to attend, and we read how on one occasion when he was examining Mr. Thomas Price, who had been one of the Senior Fellows of Trinity College when Bedell was Provost, he questioned him for two hours, and then invited any of the clergy present to examine him further, if they thought that the Bishop had omitted any material point.
On only one more branch of Bedell's labour I shall touch, his zeal for the Irish language. I have already mentioned his exceptional linguistic faculty, and it may be interesting to refer briefly to one proof of this of a very remarkable kind. During the last forty years the world has heard a great deal about a new language called Esperanto, a wonderfully beautiful, flexible and expressive tongue, constructed on scientific principles, not with the view of superseding any existing language, but as ancillary to all. This language, as we all know, has made marvellous progress since its inception, and if it goes on as it has begun, will certainly increase not only the facilities for travel and for commerce, but the good feeling between nations. Several unsuccessful attempts were made in modern times before this successful one, but it is not generally known that in the seventeenth century the subject created much interest and engaged the attention of philosophers. The first who conceived the idea is usually supposed to have been the famous Leibnitz, and several others published theories of how it should be carried out. But the real originator of the idea was Bedell. One of his clergy, Johnston by name, "was a man, says the biographer, "of quick parts. But they lay more to the Mechanical than to the Spiritual Architecture." Indeed Strafford gave him the oversight over the building of some great edifices that he erected at Naas and Carnew. Bedell, seeing his great ingenuity (I now quote from the memoir by his son-in-law), "persuaded him to compose an universal character,, to serve in all languages and nations; the conveniency of it being so great, and the thing being itself so feasible, seeing we have universal mathematical character . . . which he undertook. My lord gave him a platform, which he observed; all the difficulty was about the syncatagoremata. He styled his book 'Wit-spell.' I have heard that some parts of it was printed, but the Rebellion prevented the finishing of it."
Bedell's linguistic bent led him, however, in a still more useful direction and to a somewhat more successful issue. Whatever we may think of the modern galvanizing of the Irish tongue into an appearance of life, there is no doubt that in an age when it really was alive, and the only living language over far the greater part of Ireland, it was unpardonable folly on the part of the ancient Church of the country to use only the language imported from the sister isle and understood by a small minority of the Irish. Bedell found that none of his clergy, being Englishmen, knew Irish, while very few of their flocks knew anything else--a state of things absolutely fatal to the exercise of any influence, religious or otherwise. With all his might he tried to remedy this. And as a beginning he began to learn Irish himself at the age of 59, and although it was impossible that a busy man at that time of life could acquire fluency in speaking it, yet he attained such proficiency as to compose a grammar of it, the first, says Burnet, that ever was made. He had Service held in Irish every Sunday in his Cathedral, and was always present at it himself, and he got his clergy to set up schools in their parishes for the Irish-speaking children. It is often supposed that he had the New Testament and Prayer Book translated into Irish. This was not so, for that had been done already, but he had it done for the Old Testament. To this end, and by the advice of Primate Ussher, he ordained an old man named King, the best Irish scholar then alive, and gave him a small benefice, in order to do this work. Every day after dinner, King would bring him what he had done, and Bedell would compare it with the Hebrew, with the LXX., and also with Diodati's Italian translation, which he valued highly. He laid great stress on the free circulation of the Bible among the Roman Catholic Irish in their own tongue, and used to tell of a sermon which he heard an Italian priest deliver in Venice, on the text, "What is Truth?" The preacher told how after long searching he had found it out, and holding out a New Testament, he said, "Here it is in my hand." And then, with a dramatic gesture, he put it into his pocket, saying, "But it is forbidden," by which his audience was greatly moved. Bedell himself defrayed the cost of this work, and, sad to relate, he thereby excited the anger, not only of the Roman Catholic priests, but of many of the Church clergy. Untrue tales about him were brought to Ussher, who seems to have believed them, and he was involved, through the malice of his enemies, in a costly and vexatious law suit, which he finally lost.
We now come to the last scene in Bedell's life, the Rebellion of 1641, with its massacres and butcheries, in which he died at the age of 71. On the horrors of that fearful time I cannot now dwell, they are matters of history and known to all. Old men and maidens, young men and children were slaughtered, often in cold blood, with every circumstance of cruelty that a fiendish ingenuity could invent. Burnet gives the number of victims as 200,000. A Jesuit named O'Mahony, who wrote from Portugal in 1645 to exhort his fellow-Romanists or persevere in the extermination of Irish Protestants, boasted that already 150,000 had been killed. Both of these estimates are probably gross exaggerations. But beyond doubt many thousands of lives were taken, and the fury of the insurgents was greatest in the North. The immediate result of the Rebellion was the total overthrow of the Church in Ulster. The bishops fled, some to Dublin, some to England. In the whole country two alone stood to their posts, and were taken prisoners, Webb of Limerick and Bedell of Kilmore. Extraordinary respect was shown to Bedell in that reign of terror. Though imprisoned in his own house, he was never molested. He harboured many of the Protestant refugees, who filled his house, his outbuildings, even the church and churchyard, and who slept on straw and fed on boiled wheat. He was the only Englishman in the County of Cavan that was allowed to live in his own house, and the Irish people, with whom he was very popular, said that he was the last Englishman they would put out of the country. Finally, on his refusal to give up his guests, the rebels entered his house by force and took him and his two sons to a small semi-ruinous castle in the middle of Lough Oughter. It was a week before Christmas, the weather was bitterly cold, the prisoners had no comforts of bed or even sufficient clothes. The place was extremely damp, the water of the lake coming to within a foot of the walls. After three weeks of such hardships the old man, though released from prison and in a friend's house, sickened of an ague. Feeling his end near, he called his family together, and addressed them in beautiful and touching words, full of calm faith and joyful hope. His last words were: "Be of good cheer, be of good cheer; whether we live or die, we are the Lord's." He died on the 7th of February, 1642, and at his funeral the rebels discharged a volley as a mark of honour, and cried out "Requiescat in pace ultimus Anglorum." And a Roman priest was heard to exclaim, "Sit mea anima cum Bedello."
So passed away one of the truest patriots and one of the holiest saints that ever blessed our country. Trinity College may remember with pride that he was once her Provost, and each of us may well echo the pious wish of the Prophet of old and the priest at Bedell's grave, and say, "Let me die the death of the righteous, so calm, so courageous, so full of faith, and let my last end be like his!"