Wells Conference Reports

General Observations
It was a joy to meet old friends and make new ones in the beautiful setting of Wells Cathedral at the end of May. Every place was filled with participants from all over Britain as well as from Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium and North America. The Saturday programme was very full and for some exhausting. We were introduced to the magnificent Cathedral with a guided tour (see full report by Joan Wilson). What everyone wanted to see, however, were the treasures of the Cathedral Library. Jean Moore, the Cathedral Librarian, claimed that she was not a scholar; nonetheless it was evident that her knowledge was profound as she showed us so many remarkable books, some in the Chained Library. There were books which had first been owned by Thomas Cranmer and from Desiderius Erasmus, with their margin notes still clear and readable (see full report by Ralph Werrell).

After touring the Cathedral and Library most delegates were feeling a little tired and ready for a quiet snooze; but we were all gripped by Dr.Joseph Bettey talk on the Dissolution of the West Country Monasteries (see full report by Valerie Offord). He hardly referred to his notes as he described how a journey through the West Country passed through thousands of acres of land owned by monasteries, great and small. Having decided upon the Dissolution, the King’s civil servants closed the monasteries which failed to reflect the integrity of the Rule of St. Benedict. Dr. Bettey’s account then told of how even the best monasteries were closed. The letters and documents which he quoted gave a glimpse into some of the many injustices which occurred.

Professor David Daniell gave a very full introduction to Obedience of a Christian Man. His new edition is newly published in Penguin Classics. He showed how Tyndale, at first inspired by Luther’s writings, went on to develop his own thought in several books. The Obedience is the most important and the best to read to gain an insight into Tyndale’s own theology. (See full report by Stephen Green in the next issue of the Journal.)

At Evensong everyone in the Cathedral and all on the weekend prayed for one of the most loved members of our Society, Bill Cooper. Bill saw his work on the original spelling edition of The 1526 New Testament published by the British Library in July last year. He has now turned his attention to Wycliffe. Those who know him were most upset to hear that he was seriously ill. After the service we all enjoyed a fine meal in the Cloister restaurant.

Husband and wife team, Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt gave readings from Tyndale’s translations and The Obedience in the Cathedral. This evening open session of the weekend swelled the number of the sixty delegates up to an audience of about two hundred and fifty. So often the acoustics of the Cathedral favour music rather than the spoken voice, so it was a joy to hear these two actors give the words on a printed page such energy and life. The plain simplicity of the human voice was enriched by Richard and Barbara’s assured skill and experience.

The readings went on beyond the time expected. Thank goodness it was a skilled communicator and broadcaster who followed the actors. Dr. Lavinia Byrne is very well known in Britain through her contributions to the BBC’s Thought for the Day. Her thought provoking and readable talk, The Pure and the Free - Orthodoxy in a Post-Modern World, can be found on the internet at her website: laviniabyrne.co.uk. Her talk was meticulously constructed with all the skill of a leading communicator of our time.

On the Sunday we joined the Cathedral congregation for sung Holy Communion at which the Chancellor, Melvyn Matthews, preached. The subject of his sermon is developed in his most recent book: Both Alike to Thee; The Retrieval of the Mystical Way, SPCK 2000.

The weekend ended with a visit to Glastonbury Abbey, once the largest in Britain. We were shown around by the custodian, David Morgan OBE. His tour was fascinating and detailed. With legend and historical fact so blurred at Glastonbury, David held up his left arm when his words reflected myth and legend, and his right arm when there was sound historical evidence for the words he was speaking! It was a good technique which could be more widely used by guides to other Heritage sites across the world!

The meals, the facilities and setting of the conference were superb. The 14th Vicar’s Hall suited our purposes quite well. We undoubtedly benefited from the fact that the Cathedral is now anxious to develop its conference potential by using its historic buildings. The administration for the weekend was in the very competent hands of Derek Portman. With such a warm welcome from the Cathedral it was a weekend I enjoyed very much indeed.

David Ireson, July 2001
Conference Organizer (The Ploughboy Group)

Tour of Wells Cathedral
On 26 May sixty Tyndalians foregathered at Wells Cathedral where many treats were in store for us. David Ireson and Derek Portman had worked tirelessly and superbly to ensure that an unforgettable weekend was enjoyed by all. A highlight of the weekend was the tour of the Cathedral, for which we were divided into three groups, each led by a lively and knowledgeable guide.

The present building, begun in 1180, succeeds a series of older churches sited a few yards to the south, nearer the venerated springs that gave Wells its name and reaching back in time to the last decades of the Roman occupation.

All visitors carry away two mental pictures: the first is the great West Front with its vast array of statues, all brightly painted when they were set there in the early 1200s. No colour is visible now, and the front has been much defaced by Atlantic gales, but it is still deeply impressive. To a medieval visitor this great array, with Christ and the Angels above, and representatives of the Church militant below, would have seemed to adorn the entrance to the City of God. The second mental picture must surely be of the ‘Scissor Arches’ that support and tie together the central crossing, whose foundations were sagging in the 14th century. These Arches are a daring and beautiful conclusion to the other emergency work already carried out (we were told) at triforium level, and completed in the year when up to half the work force was dying of the Black Death.

A third image, which is extraordinary, is that of the Chapter House - less rich than Salisbury’s, but still one of the loveliest innovative buildings of medieval England. Our guide maintained that Wells Chapter House, and other octagonal or round church buildings in England, were inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which medieval pilgrims took to be the actual Temple of Solomon.

The Chapter House itself was built for administration and as a Court of Law, hence the wonderful acoustics which allow each participant to hear another, however quiet the spoken word may have been. Also in the Chapter House medieval masons’ tracing marks are still visible on the floor. Before the days of drawing boards and blueprints, medieval masons would use a large smooth surface to trace out their next big project.

We noted with interest a quotation from Coverdale’s New Testament inscribed on the Nave pulpit, whilst as good Tyndalians remembering that the original work was that of William Tyndale! The pulpit is also the tomb of the Treasurer, Hugh Sugar, and bears a carving of an angel carrying a shield showing the beret of a doctor of law together with some sugar ‘loaves’. Hugh Sugar was Treasurer of the Cathedral and was in charge while Bishop Skillington was imprisoned at Windsor during the Reformation. During this time horses were stabled inside the Cathedral, pot shots taken at the thirteenth century capitals, brasses ripped up and other desecration took place. By a miracle the front of the Cathedral survived comparatively unharmed and the charming capitals with the typically English conventional foliage, which is set off by the little men and creatures looking out from the leaves can still be seen and admired. We really enjoyed the animated carving of capitals and misericords, for which Wells is justly famous. Humour seems to have been part of the carvers’ religion.

Wells is the most complete surviving medieval Cathedral complex in the United Kingdom, with every element still being used, some in a different way; for example, the cloisters now contain an excellent restaurant. The inspiration for the building of the Cathedral was undoubtedly French via the Middle East; however, all the work was carried out by English architects and craftsmen. The work on the Cathedral is full of innovation and experiment, nearly always realised with respect for what existed already.

There has been an organ at Wells Cathedral since at least 1310 and from 1400 onwards there must have been an ‘organ in the quire’ and an ‘organ in the chapel of the blessed Mary’. The choir of Wells is justly famous. Although there are girl choristers now they do not sing with the male choir.

In every Cathedral there is a ‘cathedra’ where the Bishop sits and the area surrounding the cathedra at Wells is 14th century. The canopies over the stalls are Bath stone, worked by the Victorians and the statuary in the choir is 20th century and a gift of the Freemasons.

Amongst people who have lived and been buried at Wells is Walter Raleigh, relative of the famous adventurer, who was killed here and buried by a good priest, who was then executed for having dared so to do. Another is Thomas Bekynton, son of a local weaver, who went to college and became a priest and then rose to become private secretary to the King and Bishop (1443-65). Thomas led diplomatic missions to Europe during the 100 years war. It was his initiative that provided a piped water supply to Wells. On his tomb are two effi-gies, one in his regular ecclesiastical robes and the other in his woollen shroud.

Until Victorian times there was a monument next to the High Altar, but this was moved aside by the then Bishop. Later he and his wife were killed in the same gale that wrecked the Eddistone Lighthouse: a Palace chimney was brought down and went through the roof of their room. Fortunately, the Cathedral sustained no damage.

J.C. Cox and A. Harvey wrote in English Church Furniture in 1908 that ‘The most beautiful set of misericords in England are the 64 of Wells Cathedral’ and the wonderful clock in the north transept is a gem dating back to 1392.

Altogether, our tour of the Cathedral was most interesting and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to be able to make the tour with a guide who had a wealth of knowledge of the Cathedral, in the company of congenial fellow Tyndalians.

Joan Wilson, July 2001.

Author’s note

I am most grateful to our party’s guide, Hugh Mourat, for help and advice in writing this report.

Wells Cathedral Library
We were shown round the Library at Wells Cathedral in groups of about twenty by the Librarian, Jean Moore. She had also arranged a display of Bibles and other books of interest to us.

The Library had been purpose built with a bequest from the will of Bishop Nicholas Bubwith in 1424 and proved to be well designed as it has kept the books it contained in excellent condition through the centuries. It has been described as the largest mediaeval library building in England. Glass was put in the windows (installed earlier than those of the Bodleian in Oxford) to save the books from the ravages of the weather. The Library owed its existence to the expansion of education in the 15th century. Many Universities and Grammar Schools were also being built at that time.

In its early days the Library contained books on theology and law and manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of these valuable books were lost to Wells Cathedral due to actions of the two Cromwells. Thomas Cromwell in the 16th century caused many books to be removed, and Oliver Cromwell, a century later, ordered the remainder to be taken to St. Cuthbert’s Church to form a public library. After the Restoration in 1661 the Cathedral authorities claimed and retrieved about 1200 books from St. Cuthbert’s, and started to rebuild the library. Canons had to either give 20 or donate books. This meant that the range of books in the Library is wider than one would normally expect, as many donated their University textbooks. Mrs Moore also remarked that some of the books removed at the time of the Reformation have subsequently been returned to the Cathedral.

With the Library coming back into use after the Restoration, bookshelves and desks were built, alternate windows were blocked up and the shelves and desk units stretched across the Library from the newly created wall space. Incidentally, although it was not usual at that late date, books were chained to the shelves. However, all the chains were removed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but recently the surviving chains have now been refixed in the books which had them. At the same time much work has been done on feeding the leather bindings and improving the appearance of the collection.

The books especially displayed for us included two Vulgate Bibles - Venice (1498) and Lyons (1520), a Great Bible (1541), a Taverner’s Bible (1551) which was opened at Tyndale’s Preface, ‘W.T. Vnto the Reader’. Altogether there were seven Bibles on display, and also two Polyglot Bibles, (Plantin’s, 1569 and Walton’s, 1657*). Other books on display were, Foxe, Acts and Monuments, (1632); Burnet, History of the Reformation, 1679; Hayling, Ecclesia Restaurata, 1674. I was particularly interested in Erasmus’ Enchiridion, (1526); we do not know what edition of the Enchiridion Tyndale used to translate into English but the copy we saw was the 36th edition printed since 1519. There was a copy of Aristotle with Erasmus’ writing in it; a copy of Thomas More’s Against Luther, 1566; and his Against Tribulation, 1577; finally Cuthbert Tunstall’s, De Arte Supputandi, (1522).

We then walked through the Library itself and had time to look at some of the books on the way to the Manuscript Room, where further books and manuscripts had been put on display. In fact the library possesses very few manuscripts. Among the most important is a fragment of 23 leaves of the Benedictine Rule of the late 10th or 11th century. This may have come from Glastonbury after the Dissolution - it is fairly certain that nothing else did. Another notable exhibit was a Psalter, commissioned from Peter Moghen by Christopher Urswyke in 1514, which had belonged to Hailes Abbey. The skill and patience of some of the scribes who wrote the manuscript books we saw was unbelievable. We were also shown a book containing the transcript of the trial of Guy Fawkes and others involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Alas, an hour was far too short a time, it was like having a taster and then being deprived of the meal!

Ralph S. Werrell, May 2001

*Walton’s Polyglot Bible of 1657 in 6 volumes gives translations of the whole Bible in short sections into Hebrew, Chaldaean Greek, Latin (Vulgate and Modern), Syriac, Samaritan and Arabic, on the same page.

Dissolution of the West Country Monasteries talk
Dr Joseph Bettey managed to hold the attention of his audience when giving his illustrated lecture on The Dissolution of the West Country Monasteries at the Wells Conference right to the last sentence. To be able to do this just before the lunch recess is no mean feat and the sure sign of a good speaker!

He spoke of and listed the many wealthy and influential monasteries in the West Country which were all swept away within the space of three years and their considerable assets passed to the Crown. He made the observation that in 1500 a person could travel from North Gloucestershire to the Dorset coast virtually without leaving monastic lands. The journey would begin in Tewkesbury (Ben*) pass by Hailes (Cist), Winchcombe (Ben), Gloucester (Ben), Cirencester (Aug), Malmesbury (Ben), Stanley (Cist), Laycock (Aug), Monkton Farleigh (Clun), Keynsham (Aug), Bristol, Hinton Charterhouse (Carth), Glastonbury (Ben), Athelney (Ben), Muchelney (Ben), Sherborne (Ben), Shaftesbury (Ben), Milton (Ben), Cerne Abbas (Ben) and end at Abbotsbury (Ben) on the Dorset Coast. He pointed out that in listing these he had only mentioned the great houses!

Dr Bettey then explained the process of dissolution which was, in effect, a gradual attack on papal power by Parliament in the short period from 1529 to 1536 (not dissimilar, in the lecturer’s view, to the way in recent times the development European Union legislation has begun to pare away its members’ powers). The Act of Supremacy in 1534 was a crucial turning point as it had to be signed by all monastic houses. After this Thomas Cromwell in January 1535 sent ‘sober’ accountants to assess their wealth; this Valor Ecclesiasticus was completed in 9 months - an utterly amazing speed considering the size and complexity of the task together with the large geographical area involved.

This was swiftly followed by a more sinister operation. Commissioners were sent out to find scandal or, failing its discovery, to invent it. Richard Layton, one of the commissioners for the West Country, writing from Bristol to Cromwell on 24 August 1535 showed his cynical contempt for the mass of so called relics possessed by the monasteries…

By this bringer, my servant, I send you relics, first two flowers wrapped in white and black sarcenet that on Christmas eve, at the very hour that Christ was born, will spring, bud and bear blossoms, saith the prior of Maiden Bradley. You shall also receive a bag of relics wherein you shall see strange things, as shall appear by the scripture, as God’s coat, Our lady’s smock, part of God’s supper, part of the stone on which Jesus was born in Bethlehem (belike there is in Bethlehem plenty of stones and some quarry there making mangers of stone).

Layton also alleged that holy people were living sinfully and cites the prior of Maiden Bradley. Often monks with grievances wrote to Cromwell and the commissioners. For instance, a disgruntled monk, William Christchurch, of Cerne Abbas wrote accusing his abbot amongst other charges of keeping concubines, allowing the monks to play cards, misusing the monastery’s income - all of which was untrue!

Dr Bettey then outlined the method of dissolution. First of all in 1536 the small houses (those with an income of less than 200 per annum) were closed. The monks and nuns were moved to larger houses. If they went voluntarily they received generous pensions and if not then harsh times ensued. Not surprisingly most capitulated. The Abbot of Hinton Charter-house, Edmund Horde, wrote on 10 February 1538 in a private letter to his brother Alan Horde, a lawyer in London, saying he was perplexed about why he should have to surrender his monastery but he would try nonetheless to persuade his monks to do so [1] . This letter is an eloquent summary of the conflicting pressures which all monks and nuns faced and shows plainly the difficulty of a man torn between expediency and conscience. Edmund Horde and his sixteen monks signed the final deed of surrender on 31 March 1539.

By mid 1539 Glastonbury was the only Abbey still surviving in this part of the country. In the autumn of that year Cromwell sent three commissioners there - Richard Pollard, Thomas Moyle and Richard Layton. They searched the premises, arrested the Abbot Richard Whiting, and sent him to the Tower of London. On the 28 September 1539 these commissioners wrote a progress report on their work to Cromwell. In October it was decided to send Whiting back to Wells to be tried where he was found guilty and condemned to death ‘for the robbing of Glastonbury church’. Separate letters from Lord Russell and Richard Pollard to Cromwell on 16 November describe the Abbot’s terrible death. Pollard’s letter also shows in the most blatant form the eager ambition of the local gentry to share in any distribution of the monastic spoils [2] . Thus ended the life of Glastonbury Abbey.

Dr Bettey closed the session with a series of slides showing many of the sites mentioned in his talk. His last slide was of the Easter Day page ‘noli tangere’ from the Sherborne Missal c.1400 (see news item in this Journal). All in all the lecture was an excellent aperitif to the subject and to our meal!

Valerie Offord, August 2001


The lecturer’s book on this subject is now out of print but still available secondhand: Bettey, J.H The Suppression of the Monasteries in the West Country, Alan Sutton, 1989, ISBN 0-86299-594-9.

The correspondence about the suppression was printed in Wright Thomas ed, Letters Relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries, Camden Society, London, 1843.

  1. An extract of this letter is quoted on p.88 of the above book: ‘which is not ours to give, but dedicate to Almighty God for service to be done to his honour continually, with many good deeds of charity which daily be done in this House to our Christian neighbours. And considering that there is no cause by us why the House should be put down, but that the service of God, religious conversation of the brethren, hospitality, alms deeds, with all other duties be as well observed in this poor House as in any religious house in this realm or in France; which we have trusted that the King’s Grace would consider. But because you write of the King’s high displeasure and my Lord Privy Seal’s, who ever hath been my especial good Lord, and I trust yet will be, I will endeavour myself as much as I may, to persuade my brethren to a conformity in this matter; so that the King’s Highness nor my said good Lord shall have any cause to be displeased with us. Trusting that my poor brethren, which know not where to have their living, shall be charitably looked upon. Thus our Lord Jesu preserve you in Grace’.

  2. Appendix XIII The Last Days at Glastonbury, from the Letters of Cromwell’s Commissioners pp.184-187 of the above cited book, give a dramatic contemporary account of the end of the greatest of all the West Country monasteries and the fate of its abbot and his two monks.

A Short Appreciation
Looking back on the all too short two days of the Tyndale Society meeting at Wells in late May, I find as a so-called ex-pat (horrid terminology) or as Valerie Offord put it to me, ‘as an outsider’ (equally horrid but said in fun), that the overriding impression of the weekend is, not surprisingly, one of pleasant intellectual stimulation and relaxed Christian fellowship. In that setting and with those speakers it could hardly be otherwise: it was an experience to be cherished, a thoroughly ‘English’ occasion for which those of us took part must surely - as, indeed, we did at the time - offer our warm thanks to the organizers, David Ireson, Derek Portman, and also to Jean Moore, the Cathedral librarian, and Melvyn Matthews, the Chancellor of Wells Cathedral.

The variety of the talks and audio-visual presentation, the personal contacts and discussions with other members, the tour of the cathedral library and of the cathedral itself, the outing to Glastonbury, and above all the services in the cathedral with their heartfelt singing by both choir and congregation left, at least, this student of the Bible with renewed enthusiasm and gratitude.

A living sense of history, of putting events and opinions into their historical and geographical setting and context is vital when studying the Bible and its lessons, both linguistically and morally. Master Tyndale and our recent speakers at Wells have helped show us the way. We can now look forward to further instruction at Geneva in October 2001 and later at Leuven in Belgium next year.

Peter Raes, Denmark, June 2001

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