Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Last Abbot of Westminster

In 1560, John Feckenham, the last Abbot of Westminster, was sent to the Tower of London on May 20th by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury. Since the reign of Elizabeth I had begun, he had been “railing against the changes that have been made.” Feckenham had been in the Tower before because of his defense of Catholicism. Cranmer sent him there during Edward VI’s reign, although he was freed briefly to debate John Jewel and John Hooper. During the reign of Henry VIII, he had been at Evesham, a Benedictine house suppressed in 1540; he served a chaplain to bishops Bell and Bonner of Worcester and London, respectively until his imprisonment.

When Mary I succeeded her brother in 1553, he was released from the Tower. During her reign, Feckenham preached in London, served as Dean of St. Paul’s, assisted with the establishment of St. John’s and Trinity colleges in Oxford, and was the Queen’s confessor. He counseled Lady Jane Grey before her execution, hoping to convert her and he interceded for Elizabeth after the Wyatt Rebellion, preventing her execution and gaining her freedom. Feckenham engaged Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer in debate, but would not participate in their trial and execution.

He received a D.D. at Oxford in 1556 and was appointed Abbot at Westminster, one of the few monasteries re-established during Mary’s reign, restoring the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor.

When Elizabeth I came to the throne, she offered Feckenham security in his office if he took the Oath of Supremacy and conformed to the new Church of England (the Book of Common Prayer and Thirty-Nine Articles). Since he would not he was expelled from the abbey and for 14 years either held in the Tower or under house arrest as the “guest” of a Church of England bishop who would try to convert him without success. Feckenham prepared John Story (see the upcoming post on June 1) for his execution in 1571 in the Tower and was released on bail in July, 1574.

He was known to be gentle, courteous, and charitable, but proved himself, in the eyes of his bishop-jailers to be an absolutely obstinate papist (Catholic). In 1577, Feckenham was returned to the custody of the Bishop of Ely and was imprisoned in Wisbech Castle in 1580. He finally died there after 24 years of imprisonment on October 16, 1585.

Feckenham’s life certainly demonstrates his loyalty to the Catholic Church, his endurance and his efforts to minister to the people of England. As the last mitered Abbot to sit in the House of Lords, he argued against the religious settlement Parliament crafted at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign, and yet he was always known for his kindly temperament. Although he and Lady Jane Grey could not agree on religious matters, she was thankful for his support even at her execution and Elizabeth probably thought she was being as generous and tolerant as possible when offering him a sinecure at the cost of his conscience.


  1. An interesting legend - which I've never been able to verify - is that Feckenham's arrest came on May 20th, because the previous day was May 19th and out of respect for his first employer, Anne Boleyn, Archbishop Parker did not transact business on that day.

    I've always liked Feckenham and I think that, under the strained circumstances of the 16th century, the respect that both Jane and Elizabeth had for him speaks volumes about a very strong and noble character.

  2. Thanks, Gareth. And he remonstrated with Mary regarding not only Elizabeth but the Oxford Martyrs. David Knowles has an interesting analysis of him in "Saints and Scholars", a preview of which is available on line from Google Books. Knowles compares and contrasts him to the generation before (Thomas More and John Fisher) and the generation after (Edmund Campion and Hooker).