Robert Ferrar, Bishop and Martyr

Professor Glanmor Williams

2005 is the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Ferrar in Carmarthen. This is the first part of an article taken from a booklet for Special United Services held on Thursday 31st March 1955 to ‘Commemorate the Martyrdom of Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St Davids.’ The booklet is in the possession of Mr W. Glyn Howells. The second part of the article will appear in the next "Friend".

Saturday, the thirtieth of March, 1555, the day before Palm Sunday, was a day to be remembered in the annals of Carmarthen. That day its townsfolk were to witness the rare and terrifying spectacle of a man being burnt alive for his faith on the market square. And no ordinary offender either, but no less a person than Robert Ferrar, elected bishop of the diocese of St. David’s some eight years previously. When the day of his martyrdom dawned he had already been in Carmarthen for more than a month, standing his trial, and now lay securely guarded in the sheriff’s gaol. While he was there preparing to make a good end, workmen were already putting up the stake, a rough-hewn post, on the south side of the market cross.

Robert Ferrar had been born at Ewood in the parish of Halifax some 50 years before, some time during the first decade of the 16th century; - the exact date cannot be ascertained. The descendant of a family of lesser gentry of ancient lineage, Ferrar was sent to be educated at the University of Cambridge. He later transferred to Oxford, where he joined the monastic order of Augustinian Canons. As an undergraduate he was strongly attracted by Protestant doctrines and was one of a group of Oxford students engaged in the underground sale of prohibited Lutheran literature. This group was detected by the authorities in 1528 and its members were forced to recant. After leaving Oxford Ferrar accompanied Bishop William Barlow on a diplomatic mission to Scotland. He subsequently became Prior of Nostell in Yorkshire, just in time to surrender that monastery to the King in 1538. In return he received a pension of £80 a year, a considerable sum, worth about £2,000 - £2,500 in our money.

Ferrar’s first connection with West Wales seems to have been his appointment in 1547 as one of the royal visitors for the dioceses of Wales and the English Border. In the following year when Barlow was moved from St. David’s to Bath and Wells, he strongly recommended the appointment of Ferrar as his successor. Since Ferrar was also a chaplain and protégé of the Duke of Somerset, the all-powerful Protector, Barlow’s recommendation was favourably received. Ferrar was made Bishop of St. David’s in July, 1548, the first bishop to be appointed by royal letters-patent instead of being elected by the canons. His consecration in September, 1548 was the first to be celebrated according to the rites of the new English Ordinal.

Ferrar came to a diocese that had long been sharply divided by conflict between bishop and chapter. Bishop Barlow had quarrelled violently with his canons, and the latter were immediately suspicious of the new bishop who had come there on Barlow’s recommendation. During the years 1549-1551 the quarrel between bishop and chapter waxed hotter even than in Bishop Barlow’s time. In addition, Ferrar made many enemies among powerful laymen in his diocese. The quarrel came to a head in the spring or early summer of 1551 when Ferrar’s enemies presented against him a lengthy indictment of no fewer than 56 articles. These accused him of abuse of his authority, maintenance of superstition in religion, covetousness, wilful negligence, folly, and undue favouritism towards the Welsh. These charges were doubtless not entirely unjustified. Ferrar could be headstrong and grasping at times. He was also careless and indiscreet in his behaviour, and very unwise in his choice of friends. But he was by no means completely to blame for the upheavals. Many of the attacks upon him were inspired by the malice rather than the zeal of his enemies. The abiding impression one gains of him during these years is that of a man more sinned against than sinning. The genuineness of his desire to implant reforming doctrine, to defend the rights of his see against the encroachments of greedy laymen, and to understand the Welsh among whom he was called to minister, cannot be impugned.

First published in The Friend June 2005

Trevor Lloyd