Bedell, William (1571–1642), scholar and churchman, was born in late December 1571 at Black Notley, Essex, England, second son of John Bedell and his wife, Elizabeth Elliston, and entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1584, the year of its foundation. He graduated in 1588, took his MA in 1592, became a fellow in 1593, was ordained in 1597, commenced BD in 1599, and was appointed bursar in 1601. By statute, the attainment of a doctorate in 1602 terminated his fellowship and he was appointed as town preacher at St Mary's in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
In 1607 he accepted an invitation to serve as chaplain to Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador to Venice. The republic was in dispute with the papacy, there were false hopes that it was about to turn protestant, and Bedell's task was to encourage that process, largely by leading influential Venetians towards an appreciation of protestant theology. He became a close friend of the leading dissident, Paolo Sarpi, whose history of the council of Trent he published in a Latin translation in 1620, but the mission was unsuccessful. Official cooperation was withdrawn and Bedell returned to England by way of Constantinople in 1610. The experience had been formative. He had already moved from the precisianism of Emmanuel towards a more accommodating view of protestant differences: in Italy, he learned to respect the integrity of individual catholics and to accept that salvation was possible within the church of Rome. He also used the opportunity to exchange views with Jewish scholars. He resumed his position at Bury, transferred to the neighbouring rural living of Horningsheath in 1616, and devoted himself principally to applying his remarkable linguistic proficiency to the study of the Bible and the primary sources for the early history of the church.
On 16 August 1627, through the influence of his patron and parishioner, Sir Thomas Jermyn, and with the support of Archbishop Ussher (qv) of Armagh, he was admitted as provost of TCD, but did not take up his duties till the following July. His brief period in office was distinguished by his efforts to give substance to Trinity's neglected obligation to prepare clergy to bring protestantism to the Irish in their vernacular. He made provision for a regular Irish lecture, for Irish prayers in chapel on holy days, and for service books in Irish; he arranged for the translation of the psalms as a forerunner to a full translation of the Old Testament; and he set about learning the language. On 13 September 1629 he was consecrated bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, dioceses with settler communities but catholic majorities. He found the clergy of his dioceses few, pluralist, and complacent, the officers of his ecclesiastical courts corrupt, and the Irish inhabitants left wholly to their own devices. Drawing his guidelines from his knowledge of the primitive church, and seeing his duties as primarily pastoral, he set out to provide a vernacular liturgy, a resident clergy, and an honest administrative regime. Systematically, he promoted change, quarrelling painfully with Ussher as he sought the freedom of action he thought appropriate. In 1629 he refused Ussher's request to appoint his former chaplain, Nicholas Bernard (qv), to a plural living. In 1630 he objected to the intrusive practice of archiepiscopal visitation and, against Ussher's advice, began a protracted and unsuccessful attempt to dismiss his diocesan chancellor. In 1638 he refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the primate's court in a case involving the deprivation of Murtagh King (Muircheartach Ó Cionga (qv)), whom he had commissioned to translate the Old Testament, and gave further offence by convening a synod.
Within his diocese, he instituted a daily service in Irish, prepared a form of catechism with parallel English and Irish texts (published as The ABC or the institution of a Christian, 1631), and produced a series of concise descriptions of the main doctrines of the church in Irish. Through visitations and appointments he sought to ensure that his clergy did not limit their ministry to those who were already English-speaking and protestant. By persuasion and bullying he tried to get them to relinquish pluralist positions, appoint able curates, and achieve higher standards of performance, setting an example by resigning the see of Ardagh in 1633. He had some limited success, but the problems posed by an entrenched clergy, too unsympathetic to his approach to be cooperative and too poorly paid to live from the income of a single parish, were intractable. Among the Irish, he won respect rather than converts. The result of his efforts was not the transformation of his diocese, but the construction of a widely admired model of ‘apostolic’ episcopacy.
When rebellion broke out in October 1641, Bedell remained unmolested for two months, during which his palace became an asylum for refugees. He was briefly imprisoned in Cloughoughter castle, released in an exchange of prisoners and permitted to live in the house of one of his Irish clergy, Denis Sheridan (qv). On 7 February 1642 he died of fever. Rebel forces, defying a clerical prohibition, escorted his body to Kilmore churchyard, allowed him to be buried according to the rites of his church, and fired a volley over his grave. His wife Leah Mawe (née L'Estrange), a widow with four children, to whom he had been married for twenty-seven years, had died in 1638. He was survived by two of their own four children, William (minister of Kinawley) and Ambrose.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).