Bedell, William

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Bedell, William

William Bedell (1571–1642) was provost of Trinity College, Dublin and bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. Born in Black Notley, Essex, in 1570, he was educated at the Puritan seminary of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he obtained an M.A. in 1592, became a fellow in 1593, and was awarded a B.D. in 1599. After university Bedell returned to East Anglia, where he would have remained as a country parson had he not twice been plucked from obscurity to serve abroad. First, in 1607 he was chosen to go to Venice as chaplain to the British ambassador Sir Henry Wootton. Bedell remained there until 1610, translating the Book of Common Prayer into Italian in an effort to encourage the Venetians to renounce Catholicism. Then, in 1627 he reluctantly agreed to go to Ireland as provost of Trinity College, where he instituted a much-needed reform program, seeking in particular to ensure that students destined for a clerical career had the opportunity to learn Irish. In 1629 he was chosen bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, straddling the border of the Ulster plantation (though he resigned Ardagh in 1633 because of a principled objection to pluralism). Unlike most other English Protestant bishops in Ireland, Bedell was favorably disposed to the Irish language and culture: He sought to provide a resident, Irish-speaking, preaching ministry in his parishes, and he set into motion the translation of the Old Testament into Irish in order to supplement the existing printed Irish versions of the New Testament and Prayer Book. His determined efforts at reform led him to clash with vested interests within the church, but he did win the respect, if not the religious allegiance, of the local Irish population. When in 1641 the Catholic Irish rose against the English settlers, Bedell was not immediately harmed. Eventually imprisoned, he died of natural causes and was accorded a guard of honor at his funeral by the local Irish chieftain.

Though from a Puritan background, Bedell was culturally sensitive and theologically open and enquiring, with a special interest in the vexed issue of the relationship of grace to baptism. Unique among Irish Protestant clerics, he was the subject of three seventeenth-century biographies, one by his son, another by his sonin-law, and the last by the English bishop and historian Gilbert Burnett, all of which painted him as a noble and conciliatory model of a Christian bishop.

SEE ALSO Rebellion of 1641; Trinity College; Ussher, James; Wentworth, Thomas, First Earl of Strafford


Clarke, Aidan. "Bishop William Bedell (1571–1642) and the Irish Reformation." In Worsted in the Game: Losers in Irish History, edited by C. F. Brady. 1989.

Ford, Alan. "The Reformation in Kilmore to 1641." In Cavan: An Irish County History, edited by Raymond Gillespie. 1995.

Shuckburgh, E. S. Two Biographies of William Bedell. 1902.

Alan Ford