Civic Society Column: Bishop was ‘keenest warrior for Christian Virtue’

Bishop John Still. (c) The Bishop's Palace & Gardens; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Bishop John Still. (c) The Bishop's Palace & Gardens; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
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John Still was born in Grantham in about 1543. He attended Grantham Grammar School before becoming a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a BA in 1562, MA in 1565, and DD degree in 1575.

He was the reputed author of the comedy ‘Gammer Gurton’s Needle’. The plot centres on the loss of a needle belonging to Gammer Gurton. It is eventually found when her servant, Hodge, is slapped on the buttocks by the trickster figure Diccon and discovers it in the seat of his breeches.

After becoming a fellow of his college in 1561, he took holy orders and in 1570 was appointed Professor of Divinity at Lady Margaret College. In 1571, he was presented with the rectory of Hadleigh in Suffolk, commissioned to the Deanery of Bocking in 1572 and collated to the vicarage of East Marham in Yorkshire in 1573. In 1574, he became master of St John’s College and installed as canon of Westminster and Dean of Sudbury in 1576, and then master of Trinity College in 1577. He was twice vice-chancellor of the university and appointed to the bishopric of Bath and Wells in 1593.

John Still married twice, firstly to Anne Alabaster of Hadleigh in Suffolk. They had several children, the eldest surviving called Nathaniel. After Anne died in 1592, he married Jane Horner of Mells Manor in Somerset. This proved to be an unpopular match with Queen Elizabeth I and her court. Sir John Horner, Jane’s father, was allied with Judge Popham who ‘sway’d all the temporall government of the countrie’. The queen ‘contented herself only to breake a jest upon the name of the Bishop’s wife’, by saying ‘it was a dangerous name for a Bishop to match with a Horner’. A horner was a Tudor name for a cuckold or husband of an adulteress.

Bishop Still amassed a large fortune from the Mendip lead mines in the diocese, and was able to endow almshouses in Wells, bequeathing £500. He also left a considerable fortune to his family. Sir John Harrington said of Still that he was a man ‘to whom he never came but he grew more religious, and from whom he never went but he parted more instructed’.

He died on 26 February 1608. There is a fine monument to Still in the north transept of Wells Cathedral, erected by his son Nathaniel. The inscription in Latin states, ‘Sacred to the memory of John Still Bishop of Bath and Wells, Doctor of Theology, keenest warrior for Christian Virtue famed not less in integrity of life than for True Doctrine who when he had long kept vigil with the Lord went to sleep in Christ on the 26th day of February 1607 in the certain hope of rising again. He lived for 64 years, sat as Bishop for 16. Nathaniel Still first-born son mourning the best father thus placed it of piety’.