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Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583)

A Godly Preacher and Reformer
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The habit of virtue cannot be formed in a closet. Habits are formed by acts of reason in a persevering struggle through temptation.

Bernard Gilpin

Biography of Bernard Gilpin:

Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583), the “Apostle of the North,” was descended from a Westmorland family, and was born at Kentmere in 1517. He was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, graduating B.A. in 1540, M.A. in 1542 and B.D. in 1549. He was elected fellow of Queen’s and ordained in 1542; subsequently he was elected student of Christ Church. At Oxford he first adhered to the conservative side, and defended the doctrines of the church against Hooper; but his confidence was somewhat shaken by another public disputation which he had with Peter Martyr. In 1552 he preached before King Edward VI. a sermon on sacrilege, which was duly published, and displays the high ideal which even then he had formed of the clerical office; and about the same time he was presented to the vicarage of Norton, in the diocese of Durham, and obtained a licence, through William Cecil, as a general preacher throughout the kingdom as long as the king lived. On Mary’s accession he went abroad to pursue his theological investigations at Louvain, Antwerp and Paris; and from a letter of his own, dated Louvain, 1554, we get a glimpse of the quiet student rejoicing in an “excellent library belonging to a monastery of Minorites.” Returning to England towards the close of Queen Mary’s reign, he was invested by his mother’s uncle, Tunstall, bishop of Durham, with the archdeaconry of Durham, to which the rectory of Easington was annexed. The freedom of his attacks on the vices, and especially the clerical vices, of his times excited hostility against him, and he was formally brought before the bishop on a charge consisting of thirteen articles. Tunstall, however, not only dismissed the case, but presented the offender with the rich living of Houghton-le-Spring; and when the accusation was again brought forward, he again protected him. Enraged at this defeat, Gilpin’s enemies laid their complaint before Bonner, bishop of London, who secured a royal warrant for his apprehension. Upon this Gilpin prepared for martyrdom; and, having ordered his house-steward to provide him with a long garment, that he might “goe the more comely to the stake,” he set out for London. Fortunately, however, for him, he broke his leg on the journey, and his arrival was thus delayed till the news of Queen Mary’s death freed him from further danger. He at once returned to Houghton, and there he continued to labour till his death on the 4th of March 1583. When the Roman Catholic bishops were deprived he was offered the see of Carlisle; but he declined this honour and also the provostship of Queen’s, which was offered him in 1560. At Houghton his course of life was a ceaseless round of benevolent activity. In June 1560 he entertained Cecil and Dr Nicholas Wotton on their way to Edinburgh. His hospitable manner of living was the admiration of all. His living was a comparatively rich one, his house was better than many bishops’ palaces, and his position was that of a clerical magnate. In his household he spent “every fortnight 40 bushels of corn, 20 bushels of malt and an ox, besides a proportional quantity of other kinds of provisions.” Strangers and travellers found a ready reception; and even their horses were treated with so much care that it was humorously said that, if one were turned loose in any part of the country, it would immediately make its way to the rector of Houghton. Every Sunday from Michaelmas till Easter was a public day with Gilpin. For the reception of his parishioners he had three tables well covered—one for gentlemen, the second for husbandmen, the third for day-labourers; and this piece of hospitality he never omitted, even when losses or scarcity made its continuance difficult. He built and endowed a grammar-school at a cost of upwards of £500, educated and maintained a large number of poor children at his own charge, and provided the more promising pupils with means of studying at the universities. So many young people, indeed, flocked to his school that there was not accommodation for them in Houghton, and he had to fit up part of his house as a boarding establishment. Grieved at the ignorance and superstition which the remissness of the clergy permitted to flourish in the neighbouring parishes, he used every year to visit the most neglected parts of Northumberland, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Westmorland and Cumberland; and that his own flock might not suffer, he was at the expense of a constant assistant. Among his parishioners he was looked up to as a judge, and did great service in preventing law-suits amongst them. If an industrious man suffered a loss, he delighted to make it good; if the harvest was bad, he was liberal in the remission of tithes. The boldness which he could display at need is well illustrated by his action in regard to duelling. Finding one day a challenge-glove stuck up on the door of a church where he was to preach, he took it down with his own hand, and proceeded to the pulpit to inveigh against the unchristian custom. His theological position was not in accord with any of the religious parties of his age, and Gladstone thought that the catholicity of the Anglican Church was better exemplified in his career than in those of more prominent ecclesiastics (pref. to A. W. Hutton’s edition of S. R. Maitland’s Essays on the Reformation). He was not satisfied with the Elizabethan settlement, had great respect for the Fathers, and was with difficulty induced to subscribe. Archbishop Sandys’ views on the Eucharist horrified him; but on the other hand he maintained friendly relations with Bishop Pilkington and Thomas Lever, and the Puritans had some hope of his support.

A life of Bernard Gilpin, written by George Carleton, bishop of Chichester, who had been a pupil of Gilpin’s at Houghton, will be found in Bates’s Vitae seleciorum aliquot virorum, &c. (London, 1681). A translation of this sketch by William Freake, minister, was published at London, 1629; and in 1852 it was reprinted in Glasgow, with an introductory essay by Edward Irving. It forms one of the lives in Christopher Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Biography (vol. iii., 4th ed.), having been compared with Carleton’s Latin text. Another biography of Gilpin, which, however, adds little to Bishop Carleton’s, was written by William Gilpin, M.A., prebendary of Ailsbury (London, 1753 and 1854). See also Diet. Nat. Biog.


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