Bishop's bid to halt king's vengeance on rebels

When saintly Thomas Ken was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1685, Wells Cathedral and the moated palace were much as we know them today

When saintly Thomas Ken was made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1685, Wells Cathedral and the moated palace were much as we know them today. But Ken's appointment did not allow him to retreat from national controversies to a quiet life centred on the cathedral city cradled so beautifully and peacefully among Somerset's hills. Appointed to the bishopric at the age of 48, some of Ken's earliest duties were performed in the coronation of King James.The very year of his election was to see his Diocese torn by the Battle of Sedgemoor, and its tragic, cruel consequences for many of his people. In King James' stormy reign the Bishop himself was also to become a prisoner in the Tower of London.Soon came the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion in the West. The Rev W Hunt, a former vicar of Congresbury, in his history of the diocese, says: "Baffled in his designs on Bristol and Bath, and finding it hopeless to attempt to advance to London, the Duke hearing that the people of the moors south of Mendip were gathering at Bridgwater to uphold his cause, marched back to Wells."Embittered by disappointment the rebels indulged their hatred of the church by spoiling the Cathedral. "They tore lead off the roof and melted it into bullets, hurled down the corner statues of the west front, and seem to have amused themselves by shooting at those which were out of their reach, for the mutilated image of the Lord which crowns the long ranges of sculpture still bears the marks of bullets."Inside the church they did much mischief, and would have desecrated the altar itself if Lord Grey, one of the leaders, had not defended it with his drawn sword."Holt, the cathedral chancellor, recorded: "The cathedral church has suffered very grievously from the rebel fanatics, who have this very morning laid hands upon the furniture thereof, have almost utterly destroyed the organ, and turned the sacred building into a stable for horses."Despite what the rebels had done, after their rout in the Battle of Sedgemoor they had no better friend than Bishop Ken. The bishop was sent to attend the Duke of Monmouth in his last hours, and was at his side on the scaffold when he paid the penalty on the block.On his last night in the Tower before execution the Duke was attended by Ken and Francis Turner, Bishop of Ely. At first, distant and unrepentant, he finally expressed his regret at being the cause of so many deaths and so much suffering, and voiced repentance for his sins "known and in known, confessed or not confessed".As soon as he could, Ken hurried back to Somerset where the gaols were packed with captured rebels, and where Judge Jeffreys was to hold his Bloody Assize.A writer has commented: "The gaols were filled with hundreds of poor people waiting their trial, wretched, destitute, and only expecting death or some cruel punishment. Although these men were the enemies of the government, the enemies of his order, and the spoilers of his church, Ken only remembered their needs and their sorrows."He went daily amongst them, praying with them, and entreating the gaolers to use them well, and spent so much on relieving their bodily wants that he had to reduce his household expenses."Ken, who had no fear of kings, but all his life followed the dictates of his conscience, had no qualms in writing to the King pleading that a halt be called to the vengeance that was wreaked on the rebels, and stressed that the very air of his diocese was tainted with death.The King, although thinking no worse of the bishop for his action, ignored his plea.When at last Ken was able to settle down for a time to the pastoral care of his diocese he discovered much that distressed him. Many of the clergy were lax and did not even live in their parishes. In his visits to the Sedgemoor rebels in gaol and the poorer classes generally, he found that few people prayed or knew how to.He made great efforts to bring home to the clergy of the diocese their responsibility to their people, and had parochial schools built in which children were to be taught to read and write, and to learn the Catechism.Ken also published his The Practice of Divine Love, being an Exposition of the Church Catechism, the dedication being: "To the inhabitants within the diocese of Bath and Wells, Thomas their unworthy Bishop, wisheth the knowledge and love of God."Then he wrote his Direction for Prayers in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, simple little prayers intended for unlettered adults and for the very young. As Ken put it, the people must be treated "as children in understanding though not in age," and he urged parents to teach the short prayers to their children.From the Articles of Visitation and Enquiry which Ken had sent to incumbents and churchwardens it appears that certain churches in the diocese had no proper altar, Authorised Version of the Bible, Prayer Book or chalice and paten for use at Communion. Further, some churches were dilapidated, and there were even cases where parts of the fabric had been demolished and materials sold or stolen. Churchyards and parsonages were in a state of neglect, registers unkept, infants baptised without sponsors, banns of marriage unpublished, and marriage ceremonies held in private houses.Ken was also concerned about the immense poverty of many of his people. He was before his time in putting forward plans for workhouses, not of the type built later, but places to be linked with cooperative undertakings where men could get work suited to their abilities. Unhappily he could not get the necessary local financial backing for the scheme.Ken did what he could by way of charity, and we are told that "When he was at home on Sundays he would have twelve poor men or women to dine with him in his hall, always endeavouring while he fed their bodies to comfort their spirits by some cheerful discourse, generally mixt with some useful instruction. And when they had dined the remainder was divided among them to carry home to their families."Meanwhile, as Ken worked among his flock in Somerset, national events were moving in directions that ultimately brought about King James' abdication. There was growing opposition to the King's ecclesiastical policies.Ken had responsibilities outside his diocese, and often preached before the Court at Whitehall, and in the churches of London. He was a most moving preacher and people flocked to hear him.It was in 1687 that King James, in pursuance of his aim to turn England Roman Catholic, issued his Declaration of Indulgence, which eventually led to Ken and six other bishops being committed to the Tower on issues arising from their declining to compel their clergy to read the Declaration in their churches.The imprisoned bishops became national heroes. Within a week of their committal they stood before the Court of King's Bench to answer a charge of misdemeanour against the king's authority.When the jury returned a verdict of 'not guilty' London went almost mad with joy, and when the bishops left Westminster Hall they journeyed through streets packed with thousands of cheering people.Ken was at Wells during the momentous days that brought the invasion of the Dutch fleet bearing William, Prince of Orange, and the abdication of King James. When James had come to the throne Ken had sworn allegiance to him and to his lawful heirs. Although he had no reason to espouse the cause of the king, Ken's view was that an oath once given must not be broken. Consequently he felt unable to take an oath of allegiance to William and Mary.He was deprived of his bishopric, which he had held for seven years. He made his departure from Wells without ostentation, but from his throne in the cathedral protested against the way in which he had been removed from office. To the end of his days he regarded himself as the rightful bishop of Bath and Wells.Ken had given so generously of his means that he had little with which to support himself now that he was deprived of his bishopric. His friend of Oxford days, Thomas Thynne, who had become Lord Weymouth, offered him a home at Longleat. He was given a suite of rooms on the second floor and here he housed his library of over 1,000 books which he brought with him from Wells. At Longleat, Ken, only 58 when deprived of his bishopric, lived a life of contemplation, and continued to write hymns and 'Divine poems'. He died in 1711 at the age of 73.At his death he had already himself put on this shroud, which he had carried around with him wherever he had travelled over many years. It was his wish that he should be buried "in the Churchyard of the nearest parish within my Diocese, under the east window of the Chancel, just at sun-rising, without any manner of pomp or ceremony, besides that of the Order of Burial, in the Liturgy of the Church of England".And so it was that at sunrise on March 9th, 1711, six poor men carried him to his grave beneath the east window of Frome parish church. Over 100 years ago a memorial shrine of rather curious grill-like character, was placed over the grave, and the Marchioness of Bath had a memorial window put in the church.In later years Ken's grave became neglected, but on the 250th anniversary of his death in 1961 the grave was restored, and to mark the anniversary a statue of him, the work of the Faith Crafts of Westminster, was placed on a corbel in the church's St Andrew's Chapel which was renamed the Chapel of Saint Andrew and Blessed Thomas Ken.The then Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev E B Henderson, who blessed the statue of Ken, and requested that the 250th anniversary of Ken's death should be observed at all services throughout the diocese. The Bishop himself attended the service at Frome. The first lesson was read by the head prefect of Winchester College, where Ken went to school. Inevitably one of Ken's famous hymns was sung, and the choice was his Glory to Thee my God this Night.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 29, 1971

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