WILLIAM BEDELL, an eminent bishop of the 17th century, was descended from an ancient family in Essex, and was born at Black Notley, in that county, in 1570. He finished his studies at Emanuel college, Cambridge, of which he was chosen fellow in 1593; in 1599 he became bachelor of divinity. He was ordained by the suffragan bishop of Colchester, and on leaving the university, he was settled at St. Edmond's Bury, in Suffolk, where he laboured in the ministry of the gospel with much success. On Sir Henry Wotton's being appointed ambassador to the Venetian republic, Bedell accompanied him in the capacity of chaplain; and arriving at Venice at a period when the disputes between the Venetians and the pope had run so high that the former were on the point of dissenting from the Romish communion, he formed a close intimacy with the celebrated father, Paul Sarpi, the principal leader in that struggle against ecclesiastical despotism.
With Bedell's assistance, Father Paul acquired such a knowledge of the English language, as to be able to translate the book of Common Prayer into his vernacular tongue. This he did, it is thought, in the intention, should the existing quarrel with the pope terminate in separation, of making it the model for a new ritual. While at Venice, Bedell acquired an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew, by the aid of the rabbi who was at the head of the Jewish synagogue in that place.
After eight years' stay at Venice, Bedell returned to England, and assumed his parochial duties. He also assisted in publishing a translation of Father Paul's History of the Council of Trent, his History of the Interdict, and also that of the Inquisition. Soon afterwards he was presented to the living of Honingsheath, in the diocese of Norwich, on which occasion he successfully resisted an exorbitant demand by the bishop for induction fees. At this latter place Bedell remained for twelve years, wholly devoted to his pastoral duties, and such was the retirement in which he lived, that Diodati, an eminent Genoese divine, who had known him at Venice, visiting England at that time, in vain inquired for him, and at last met with him merely by accident. His worth and talents, however, gradually became known, and in 1626 he was unanimously elected provost of Trinity college, Dublin. In this new office he sedulously set himself to correct existing abuses, and undertook particularly the religious instruction of the college. In 1624, he had published a controversial correspondence betwixt himself and a Mr. Wadsworth, who had been a fellow-student of his own, and had also held a living in the same diocese, but who, having gone to Spain as chaplain to the English ambassador, had renounced Protestantism and embraced the Catholic faith. A 2d edition of these letters was published in 1685.
In 1629, he was appointed bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, in the province of Ulster. When he entered upon his diocese, he found it in a great disorder; its revenues had been dissipated, its cathedral and parish churches were in a state of dilapidation; more than nine-tenths of the people were papists; and of the few clergymen who were capable of assisting him, each had several parishes to serve. In this state of matters, he fearlessly applied himself to the work of reformation. His first step was to abolish pluralities, and having set the example himself by resigning the see of Ardagh, which had been united to that of Kilmore, on account of the scantiness of the revenues of both, his clergy, with a single exception, relinquished their pluralities also. With great difficulty he accomplished the reform of his own spiritual court; he also abolished various oppressive exactions which his predecessors had practised. For the instruction and conversion of the natives, he caused a short catechism of the elements of Christianity in English and Irish, to be printed and widely circulated; he also established schools in every parish of his diocese, and having himself acquired the Irish language, he composed a complete grammar of it. The New Testament, as well as the Book of Common Prayer, had been already translated into Irish: Bishop Bedell was desirous that the people should possess the whole Bible in their native tongue, and with this view employed a person of the name of King, a converted papist, who was deemed the best Irish scholar of his day. King was then about 70 years of age, but the bishop finding him qualified for the clerical office, admitted him to orders, gave him a benefice, and employed him in the projected translation, himself revising the work. Having finished it in a few years, he was about to print it at his own expense; but, strange to say, was thwarted in his noble design by the opposition of some of his clerical brethren, among whom was Archbishop Laud; and so bitter was the hostility excited by this effort of our bishop, that on the ground of some trivial delinquency on the part of King, the translator, he was instantly deprived of his living, which was bestowed on the informer. The bishop would now have printed the Bible in his own house, but before he could put his design into execution, the rebellion broke out, and tranquillity was not restored to the country when Bedell himself was called to a better world. The manuscript copy of his translation, however, was saved amidst the general confusion, but was not printed until the reign of King William, when the Hon. Robert Boyle, into whose hands the manuscript had fallen, besides reprinting the New Testament, printed King's translation of the Old, both at his own expense.
A few years before his death, Bishop Bedell was engaged in an amicable controversy with Dr. Ward on the subject of baptism. The bishop was a Calvinist in sentiment, but took a warm interest in the design of reconciling the Lutherans and Calvinists. He died on the 7th of February 1642, in the 71st year of his age. Great numbers of the natives attended his funeral, and fired a volley over his grave, crying out at the same time, "Requiescat in pace ultimus Anglorum!" In his person, Bishop Bedell was tall and graceful, he wore a long and broad beard, which gave him a very venerable appearance. His eyesight sustained no decay from age, and his judgment and memory continued unimpaired to the last.