A monk, a bishop and a heretic – Robert Ferrar

foxe289Robert Ferrar, a lad from Halifax, was an Augustinian Canon who showed sufficient talent to leave Yorkshire and go to Oxford University where he became a student at Merton University.  The Augustinians had a policy of each of their houses sending at least one monk to receive an education.

It was probably while he was at Oxford that he came under the influence of reformers  and the works of Tindale.  Certainly when Cardinal Wolsey investigated heresy in Oxford Ferrar was one of the men arrested and punished.  Wolsey forced the students who had been discovered with banned books to witness their destruction.  He was, however, allowed to complete his education.

Ferrar returned to Nostell Priory in 1533.  Three years later, Thomas Layton, one of Cromwell’s visitors arrived at the monastery to conduct its visitation.  The prior was very sick.  In fact, he died not long afterwards.  Ferrar was appointed prior probably because of his reforming sympathies.  When the monastery surrendered in 1539 he received a pension, eventually married and had three children.

Ferrar’s quiet family life intersected with his role in the Reformation Church of Edward VI.  He was appointed chaplain to Edward Seymour (the Lord Protector) and  then Archbishop Cranmer as well as Bishop of St David’s.  In this latter role he helped to reform the Welsh church.  It was this that brought him into conflict with his parishioners and resulted in him being imprisoned in London upon the fall of Seymour where he remained until Mary Tudor came to the throne.

Ferrar was in difficulties not only because he was a protestant but also because he was married.  Mary refused to recognise the legality of Ferrar’s marriage and he was deposed of his see.  He was tried for heresy by Archbishop Gardiner and found guilty.  He refused to recant.  He was sent from London to Carmarthen in February 1555 where he was placed on trial.  Eventually he was burned at the stake.  Foxe recounts the fortitude with which he met his end.  Double click on the image to go to Foxe’s account of Ferrar’s trial, imprisonment and death.

St Bartholomew the Great and the Jester.

DSC_0165The jester is called Rahere and he provided entertainment at the court of King Henry I.  He even features in his very own poem by Rudyard Kipling –

Rahere, King Henry’s Jester, feared by all the Norman Lords

For his eye that pierced their bosoms, for his tongue that shamed their swords;

Feed and flattered by the Churchmen – well they knew how deep he stood

In dark Henry’s crooked counsels…

Apparently he was deeply moved by the death of Prince William on the White Ship and set off in search of spiritual enlightenment.  Certainly he managed to contract malaria during a pilgrimage to Rome and during his illness experienced a vision featuring St Bartholomew who rescued him from a winged monster.  On his return to England Rahere built an Augustinian priory dedicated to St Bartholomew and in 1133 the monks were permitted to hold a fair on their land.  The St Bartholomew’s Fair continued until the Victorian period.  It is said that the jester turned canon used to juggle again during the fair.  Rahere died in 1144 and his tomb can still be seen inside the church, which today is the oldest church in London.


The Tudor gatehouse looks incongruous, not least because the doorway is the thirteenth century entrance to the church which was pulled down upon the dissolution of the monasteries.  It is surrounded by architecture from other periods and is only a stone’s through from Smithfield Market but as you go through the doorway, into the graveyard and head down the path towards the current entrance of the church it feels as though you’ve stepped out of time.