Great bishop who deserves to be remembered

The bishops who have held pastoral sway over Somerset have included saints and sinners. There have been those who have given everything in devotion and

The bishops who have held pastoral sway over Somerset have included saints and sinners. There have been those who have given everything in devotion and benefactions to their flock, and others who in the crude, stormy interludes of centuries ago were mercenary, even cruel.Of the bishops of Bath and Wells of upwards of a thousand years, none deserves to be more affectionately remembered than Thomas Ken. One gets a picture of him singing in the early morning his famous hymn, "Awake my soul, and with the sun" to his own lute accompaniment. He made time for his devotions by leading a strictly disciplined life in which he indulged in the minimum of sleep. A national figure caught up in troublous times, his life, until his later years, was far from cloistered. He risked the wrath of Charles II when he refused to give lodging to the king's mistress, famous Nell Gwyn, when his Majesty visited Winchester.During the Monmouth rebellion the rebels wreaked damage in Wells Cathedral and stabled their horses in the nave, but after their rout at the Battle of Sedgemoor Ken visited the prisoners in gaol, and pleaded with King James II to halt the vengeance being taken upon them, and to be merciful. Later he was one of the seven bishops committed to the tower for refusing to conform to King James' Declaration of Indulgence.When William, Prince of Orange, came to throne, Ken refused to sign an oath to him on the grounds that he had given such an oath to King James who, whatever his policies might have been, remained to him the rightful King of England. Ken was unswerving. He never sought the favour of kings, and because of his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance to King William, he was deprived of his bishopric.Viscount Weymouth, who as Thomas Thynne had been one of his friends in youthful years at Oxford University, provided him with a home at Longleat house, and it was there Ken spent his final years.Ken's attitude to the priesthood is best summed up in one of his poems:Give me the Priest these graces shall possess - Of an ambassador the just address;A father's tenderness, a shepherd's care,A leader's courage, which the Cross can bear;A ruler's awe, a watchman's wakeful eye,A Pilot's skill the helm in storms to ply;A father's patience, and a labourer's toilA guide's dexterity to disembroil;A prophet's inspiration from above, A teacher's knowledge, and a Saviour's love.Although there is some disagreement, most authorities concede that Ken came from an old Somerset family, associated with Kenn Court, near Clevedon. The family held the manor for several centuries, and the Ken family name has appeared in the records of various parts of the district including Clevedon, Congresbury, and Hutton.Kenn Court survives, but has few vestiges of the old manor house. Writing in 1829, historian Rutter described Kenn as a small parish nearly north of Yatton and Kingston, adjoining which was an extensive flat called Kenn moor, containing a decoy pool, much frequented by wild fowl during the winter season.He goes on to say that the manor was granted by William the Conqueror to the Bishop of Coutances, but that about the year 1150 it passed to a family named Kenn, who resided for many generations at Kenn Court. Of this family was Thomas Kenn who in 1684 was made Bishop of Bath and Wells.Rutter adds: "This manor passed by intermarriage of the heiress of the Kenns to the Paulett family, who have lately sold it in parcels. Kenn Court was a fine old manor house, but nearly the whole was modernised about fifteen years since."Evidence suggests that Kenn Court was once a moated manor house, but there is no record that Thomas Ken ever lived at the court or visited it. We do know, however, that he was often at Naish House a few miles away.From time to time, we are told, the Bishop, especially at Christmas, removed himself from the gaieties of Longleat, from "noise and hurry of the world," to Naish House, "where dwelt two maiden ladies who reverenced him for his piety and who sympathised with the non during clergy."These spinsters were the daughters of a Glamorgan knight, Sir Charles Kemeys, and Bishop Ken described their home as "a kind of nunnery where I usually abide during my Lord Weymouth's absence, and as having a better right to the name of a religious house than those places usually so called."Ken was born in 1638, at Berkhamstead, in Hertfordshire, and during his childhood years the country was torn by the Civil War. His mother died when he was but four, and his father when he was fourteen. His father had been twice married and by his first wife had a daughter, Anne. She married revered Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, who became the boy's guardian.At the age of 13 Thomas became a scholar at Winchester College, and at Winchester visitors may see, crudely carved on a stone buttress in the cloisters, his mark, "Tho. Ken 1656".From Winchester Ken went to New College, Oxford. By the time Thomas took his BA degree Charles II had been welcomed to the throne.Ken became chaplain to George Morley, Bishop of Winchester. He was also made a Fellow of Winchester College and a prebendary of the cathedral. He often accompanied the Bishop on his visits to London.He became renowned for the eloquence of his preaching, and in later years when he was a bishop the courtiers of St. James' packed the Royal Chapel of the Palace to hear him.Amid all his other responsibilities he was immensely devoted to pastoral work, and one of his biographers, Hawkins, wrote: "In the evenings when he loved to enjoy the society of his friends he was so worn down with the exertions and fatigue of the day that with difficulty he kept his eyes open."Nevertheless that neither his study might be the aggressor on his hours of instruction or what he judged his duty prevent his improvement; or both interrupt his closest addresses to his God; he strictly accustomed himself to but one sleep, which often obliged him to rise at one or two of the clock in the morning, and sometimes sooner; and this grew so habitual that it continued with him until his last illness."He wrote a Manual of prayers for the boys of Winchester College and his famous morning and evening hymns "Awake my soul, and with the sun" and "Glory to Thee, my God, this night" with the Doxology, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," were also written for them with the exhortation that the boys "be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymns in their chamber devoutly".The closing years of Charles II's reign were turbulent politically and Ken became an increasingly prominent figure in affairs. He spent a year at The Hague, where he was chaplain to Charles II's niece, Princess Mary, who had married William, Prince of Orange.On his return he became one of the King's chaplains. He was also appointed chaplain to the fleet, and as such sailed with the expedition of Lord Dartmouth against Tangier.King Charles was often at Winchester where he was having a palace built, and on one of his visits Ken was asked to give accommodation to Charles' mistress, Nell Gwyn. Ken would not overlook immorality, even in a King, and to him Nell, as a prostitute, was no suitable guest in any place under his charge. He refused, and lodgings for Nell had to be found elsewhere. Eventually a small apartment was built on to a deanery wall for her. Although King Charles was well aware of this incident his high regard for Ken was unaffected. Surrounded as he must have been by those who fawned for favour, he obviously appreciated the qualities of a priest who was unswervingly guided by his convictions and took no thought for the consequences of his actions.When Bishop Morley died, and Dr Mews, Bishop of Bath and Wells, was appointed to succeed him at Winchester, King Charles, looking for a successor to Mews at Bath and Wells, asked, "Where is the little fellow who refused poor Nell a lodging?" and nominated Ken for the vacancy!In 1685 Ken was elected Bishop of Bath and Wells. In accepting the office he took the Oath of Allegiance, his interpretation of which was eventually to lead to his being deprived of his bishopric.It was customary in those days for a newly appointed bishop to arrange, at his own expense, a great banquet to which were invited the leading nobility, clergy, Privy Councillors, judges, and such-like. But no such event was put on by Bishop Ken. Instead he devoted the money that would have been spent on it to more worthy purposes, including a donation to the fund then being raised for rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral, £30 towards the cost of building a new schoolroom at Winchester College, and a like sum and also some rare books to the College Library.Ken was now 48 and reckoned at the height of his powers, but for a time he had little chance of making his influence felt in his diocese. Within a week of becoming a bishop he was called to London to play his part in the closing scenes of the life of King Charles II.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on May 21, 1971


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