Dr. Peter Heylyn (1600-62), the famous historian and theologian, was of Welsh descent, born and educated at Burford in Oxfordshire. He distinguished himself at Oxford University, by his ability, also by marrying while still a fellow of Magdalen College. Of his eleven children, four were living in 1683. In affairs of Church, he was an ardent supporter of Archbishop Laud and was, afterwards, his biographer. He published book after book in answer to the beliefs of the Low Church and Puritan divines, who sometimes speak of him as 'lying Peter'. To him, the dust of controversy was as the breath of life. Twenty years after his death, his rival biographers, George Vernon, Rector of Bourton-on-the-Water, and John Barnard, D.D., Rector of Waddington near Lincoln, Heylyn's son-in-law, engaged in an amusing dispute, not so much as to the facts or standpoint of religion and politics, as to the personal equation in borrowing each other's material. Heylyn was Chaplain to both King Charles I and Charles II, and prebendary and sub-dean of Westminster Abbey. He was engaged, in 1644, by Charles I to write the annals of the Civil War in Mercurius Aulicus. He was captured more than once by the Parliamentarians and was present during part of the Siege of Oxford. He narrowly escaped with his life from the resentment of his opponents. During the Commonwealth, he continued to publish his books attacking the Church views of the conquerors. Cromwell's tolerance allowed these books to be published, but Heylyn "was harassed before Oliver's Major-General for the Decimation of his Estate".
In 1653, Heylyn settled at Lacies Court in Abingdon and lived there until the Restoration, taking an important part in some local matters. He spent much money there in repairing and building, particularly in building a little oratory or chapel, with silk ornaments about the altar, the other part of the room plain, but kept very decent. Here he read, daily, the liturgy of the Anglican Church and frequently celebrated in defiance of the Government.
"This house, in Abingdon, he purchased for the pleasantness of the situation, standing next the fields, and not distant five miles from Oxford, where he might be furnished with books at his pleasure, either from the Book-sellers’ shops, or the Bodlean Library…..Many devout and well-affected persons, after the manner of primitive Christians, when they lived under heathen persecutions, resorting to his little chapel, that there they might wrestle with the Almighty for his blessing upon themselves, and upon a divided, infatuated people."
One of many stories may be of interest:
"While he was arguing his cause before the Major General and his captains, one Captain Allen formerly a tinker, and his wife a poor tripe-wife, took upon him to reprove the doctor for maintaining his wife so highly, like a Lady; to whom the doctor roundly replied; that he had married a gentlewoman and maintained her according to her quality; and so might he his tripe-wife. Adding withal that this rule, he always observed, for his wife to go above his estate; his children according to his estate, and himself below his estate; so that at the year's end he could make all even."
He deserves the serious gratitude of Abingdon for saving St. Nicholas’ Church from destruction. Vernon says that St. Nicholas' was disused for a time, but that "a few years later Mr. Huish, Minister at Abingdon, had a numerous auditory of loyal persons at public prayers at Nicholas’". These services were interrupted for a time by 'factious persons', but resumed by the encouragement of Heylyn, who wrote to Mr. Huish a letter, advocating daily public prayer. Barnard gives more details:
"And likewise his good neighbours at Abingdon, whom he always made welcome, if they were honest men, that had been of the Royal party, and was ready to assist them upon all occasions; particularly in upholding the Church of St. Nicholas, which otherwise had been pulled down, on the pretence of uniting it to St. Helen’s; but in truth, to disable the sober party of the town, who were loyal people, from enjoying their wonted service and worship of God in their own parish church, of which they had a reverend and orthodox man, one Mr. Huish, their minister; and, in his absence the doctor took care to get them supplied with able men from Oxford. Great endeavours were made on both sides; the one party to preserve the church, and the other to pull it down, because it was thronged with malignants, who seduced others from their godly way.'
Heylyn made several journeys to London and employed "diverse solicitors before committees and before Oliver's Council". Upon a premature report that the church was to come down "the Presbyterian party caused the bells to be rung, and made bonfires in the town, to express their joy, triumphing in the ruin of a poor church." Finally, St. Nicholas’ was neither demolished nor "united to St. Helen’s".
As early as 1638, Heylyn's sight was seriously impaired and, during the whole of his residence in Abingdon, he was practically blind and had to rely upon an amanuensis and upon his marvellous memory. He could only dimly see the leader whom he followed in his walks. But blindness and defeat seem to have served to improve the quality of his writing. He continued, to the last, to treat accurately the minute details of history. Vernon speaks of him as "a living library, a locomotive study". He opposed the Roman Church as stoutly as the Puritans, even refusing bluntly to receive, at his new house at Abingdon, a former neighbour, who had turned Papist. But he gave his alms freely to the honest poor of the adverse party as well as to his own side; and sent meat from his table to prisoners in Abingdon Gaol, and attended those condemned to death, "particularly one Captain Francis and his company condemned with him, at Abingdon Assizes, the Captain being a well-known Royalist."
He was visited at Abingdon by Fuller, a former antagonist, also by several "old bishops before the War" and "new bishops…..and he wanted not good company amongst his own neighbours in Abingdon, particularly Doctor Tucker, a civilian, Mr. Jennings, an ingenious person, and ejected fellow of St. John's College in Oxford, and Mr. Blower, a witty lawyer, who were his constant visitors . . ." (Barnard)
Restored to his place at Westminster at the Restoration, he presented upon his knees, at the Coronation of King Charles II, the Royal sceptre and saw "with his old bad eyes the King settled upon his father's throne".
It is said that he was warned of his death by his old King, "Peter, I will have you buried under your seat at Church, for you are rarely seen, but there or at your study." So he set his papers in order, provided a house by the Abbey for his wife, and died on Ascension Day, 8th May 1662. His tomb and epitaph are near his sub-dean's seat.
Edited from J. Townsend's 'A History of Abingdon' (1910)
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