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God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.
This verse from St Paul's letter to the Hebrews was only one of several scriptural texts that sustained the composition and publication of a growing number of funeral sermons and episcopal biographies in Stuart Britain and Ireland. The events of the 1640s and 1650s and the Restoration fused a long-standing tradition of writing about the English Reformation and its consequences with a debate about the legacies of the Civil Wars. During these decades the kingdom of Ireland experienced acute violence and vast transfers in landholding along ethnic and confessional lines. Its church as by law established endured attack and proscription, and then emerged as the defensive cornerstone of a hoped-for Protestant ascendancy.
Between 1656 and 1686 six printed and manuscript works commemorated the lives, deaths and publications of three Irish bishops, William Bedell, John Bramhall and James Ussher. Taken as a group they represent an evolving set of responses to tumultuous events worked out in the lives of individual church leaders. The series began with Nicholas Bernard's 1656 The life and death of the most reverend and learned father of our church, Dr James Ussher. This was a hugely extended version of a funeral sermon preached by Bernard at Westminster Abbey on 17 April 1656. William Bedell had died in early 1642, but his son and namesake's memoir, ‘Life and death of William Bedell’, was not composed until at least 1659.
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE CHURCH OF IRELAND, 1541–1632
In November 1638, Wentworth was directed by Laud to answer those Scots in Ireland looking for the same concessions as their countrymen that ‘whatsoever he [the king] has indulged to Scotland, is because they have had there sometime a church government, such as it was, confused enough without bishops; but for Ireland, it has ever been reformed by and to the Church of England’.
This response was, broadly speaking, correct. A reading of Meredith Hanmer's recently published translation of Giraldus Cambrensis's account of the last canon of the council of Cashel, ‘that all the divine service in the Church of Ireland shall be kept used and observed in the like manner and order as it is in the Church of England’, would have lent a gratifyingly ancient tone to Laud's argument. The Henrician statutes did declare ‘the King's Majesty to be only supreme head on earth of the church of England and Ireland’ and they did endorse the validity of Irish canons, constitutions and other instruments of church government until ‘such time as the King's highness shall order and determine according to his laws of England’. While the Act for Kingly Title of 1541 caused the term ‘Church of Ireland’ to be used on its own, the titles and contents of statutes tended to mirror those of their Westminster equivalents. They did this so completely that some statutes ended up with inappropriate references to York and Canterbury.
An ecclesiology which held that bishops were a separate order had consequences across all three of the Stuart dominions throughout the 1630s. Their political, social and economic standing would have to match. This meant that in Ireland, once all the machinery of recovery had been put in place, they were the designated managers whether they wished it or not. At a practical political level, too, the established church in Ireland could not be reconstructed by the efforts of Laud, Bramhall and Wentworth alone. They would not remain in power forever and they could not guarantee the actions or attitudes of their successors, so it was vital to exercise great care in the appointment of new bishops and control of existing ones. In any event, emphasis on the dignity of the office precluded the possibility of a few salutary dismissals. Changes made to the Irish episcopate in the 1630s were no ‘Arminian apocalypse’ nor a roll call of churchmen sympathetic to Wentworth or Bramhall. Certainly, the revival of Cloyne as a separate diocese was a striking example of a reconstruction driven by the concept of the historical rights of the church. Yet at the same time, a three-year vacancy in Ardfert proved that smaller Irish dioceses continued poor and unattractive. Bishops were now expected to be enthusiastic in the recovery of rights but also to take increased control of their clergy and their dioceses and, above all, their jurisdiction.
The Irish parliament of 1640–1 has attracted considerable attention both for the abrupt and dramatic downfall of Strafford's administration and as a prelude to the violence of 1641. More recently, it has regained its place in a wider three kingdoms narrative. In this large literature it is easy to lose sight of the Church of Ireland and of Bramhall himself because they are so enmeshed with other events. Bramhall's own impeachment was, in many ways, ancillary to the demise of the lord lieutenant. There was no Irish trumpet blast equivalent to Root and Branch. The Irish High Commission fell victim not to rioters but rather to the Irish House of Commons. In Strafford's trial the Church of Ireland made only a few appearances and in Laud's trial it figured only to further corroborate charges of ritualism and lust for clerical wealth. If episcopacy were abolished in England, it would be abolished in Ireland as well. Irish bishops were merely a secondary branch to be lopped off.
The gradual breakdown of authority in Ireland during 1640 and 1641 raised some large constitutional questions and ushered in two decades of violence. Yet even before 23 October 1641 the reconstruction work of the 1630s had already been comprehensively dismantled. Book of canons apart, almost every aspect of Bramhall's work was obliterated or undermined to the point of collapse over five sessions from 16 March 1640 to 17 November 1641.
THE TEMPORAL ESTATE OF THE CHURCH OF IRELAND UNDER JAMES I AND CHARLES I
There is little agreement about what actually happened at James Ⅵ & I's Hampton Court conference of January 1604. One thing is certain: the king used Ireland as a rallying cry. It was scary, it was irreligious, it made him but ‘half a king’ and it needed preachers. By March of 1610, in the wake of the previous year's rebellion, James was telling the English parliament that a plantation was the only way to solve the great problem. As it turned out, the Ulster plantation was the first great opportunity to radically revive the fortunes of the Church of Ireland. In these escheated counties the prospect of sweeping away the pre-reformation jumble and starting afresh presented itself. Endowing the church handsomely was to prepare it for serving the expected influx of Protestant settlers who themselves would act as leaven in the dough of the ‘benighted’ natives.
James had reached these conclusions largely because of a series of reports compiled by George Montgomery, then bishop of Derry, Clogher and Raphoe. This Scot, who, tellingly, retained his deanship of Norwich for most of his episcopate, saw Ulster as the chance to start afresh. He envisaged a church firmly founded on a generous allotment of lands to a vigorous British episcopate whose prosperity would be assured by excision of all unassimilable Gaelic customs and structures.
Thomas Wentworth landed in Ireland in 1633 - almost 100 years after Henry VIII had begun his break with Rome. The majority of the people were still Catholic. William Laud had just been elevated to Canterbury. A Yorkshire cleric, John Bramhall, followed the new viceroy and became, in less than one year, Bishop of Derry. This 2007 study, which is centred on Bramhall, examines how these three men embarked on a policy for the established Church which represented not only a break with a century of reforming tradition but which also sought to make the tiny Irish Church a model for the other Stuart kingdoms. Dr McCafferty shows how accompanying canonical changes were explicitly implemented for notice and eventual adoption in England and Scotland. However within eight years the experiment was blown apart and reconstruction denounced as subversive. Wentworth, Laud and Bramhall faced consequent disgrace, trial, death or exile.
Nicholas Bernard's Penitent death of a woeful sinner (Dublin, 1642) transforms the penitence of the most embarrassing contemporary figure in the Church of Ireland into a critique of its government from 1633 onwards. Atherton finally comes to true contrition when he repudiates not only his carnal sins but also his ecclesiastical sins. What are those sins? Prosecuting ‘too bitterly in the High Commission court’, attending too much to ‘law business’, too much ‘over-reaching of men’ (criticisms of Atherton's part in the temporalities campaign) and his neglect of public preaching. At the root of it was ‘his too much zeal, and forwardness, both in introducing and pressing some church innovations, and in dividing himself from the House of Convocation, Anno 1634 in opposition to the Articles of Ireland’. Atherton had been motivated in order to ‘please some mens persons’. Bernard understood the imposition of the English articles as the work of a few powerful people. He went still further and equated corruption and sexual immorality with the 1634 settlement, High Commission and the means by which church property had been restored. Wentworth and Bramhall were not only misguided, they were also immoral.
The Penitent death was, above all, a work of sensational edification but it also tapped into a current of resentment flowing through the Church of Ireland during the 1630s.
For my care of this church, the reducing of it into order, the upholding of the external worship of God in it, and the settling of it to the rules of its first reformation
William Laud, Speech at committal of Prynne, Burton and Bastwick
I make not the least doubt in the world but that the Church of England before the reformation and the Church of England after the reformation are as much the same church as a garden before it is weeded and after it is weeded is the same garden.
John Bramhall, A just vindication of the Church of England
The English reformation failed to make Ireland Protestant. The reconstruction of the Church of Ireland failed because it was a variant of a reconstruction of the Church of England. Once again in the 1630s, Ireland's failure to be or to become England was at the heart of the matter.
The programme of reconstruction carried out from 1633 to 1640 came close to being a refoundation of the established church in Ireland. It was ambitious and it was vigorous and the lord deputy, the lord archbishop of Canterbury and the lord bishop of Derry worked on it with energy and determination. Everything they did concerned itself with the visible church. There were the new canons, acts of state, statutes, and even another formulary.