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Bishop William Alley’s statutes for the Cathedral, 1561

By Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist

William Alley (1510-1570) was Bishop of Exeter from 1560 until his death in April 1570. He was born in Buckinghamshire, and educated at Eton College then at Oxford and Cambridge universities. He was ordained in 1534, and spent several years as rector of Oakford, Devon, among other positions. In 1549 – when regulations on the celibacy of priests were relaxed – he married Sybil, from the Honacott family of Landkey. Four years later, when Catholicism was restored under Queen Mary, his married status meant that he had to abandon his position as rector, and he spent some years teaching in the north.

After the Protestant Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, Alley was able to resume his life in the church. A year later he was divinity reader at St Paul’s, London, where he was also admitted prebend of St Pancras. His reputation as a preacher continued to grow markedly, to the point where Elizabeth I favoured him with a nomination to the bishopric of Exeter. Alley was consecrated in July 1561. The diocese of Exeter at the time was poor and unsettled – the turmoil and violence expressed in the Western Rising of 1549 (sometimes known as the Prayer Book Rebellion) a recent memory – and the appointment of a prominent Protestant preacher was not universally popular.

Despite some resistance, he travelled widely across his large diocese and was apparently an effective bishop. He was described warmly by his friend, the Exeter historian John Hooker, whose compliments include saying that he was universally well learned (especially in divinity and language), full of love and hospitality, faithful and courteous, and an enemy of evil and wickedness. He was, however, also strict in the matter of clergy discipline.

In this document, Alley sets out the high standards of worship and conduct that he expected of the Cathedral clergy… “Forasmoche as our Cathedral churche is called the mother Churche of this our diocese out of the whiche all other churches should take good example of servinge god decentlye and comelye as it besemethe, We commande that the service be soberlie and distinctlie sayde and songe, to the edifyinge of the people…”

Furthermore, the Chapter Canons were to openly pledge themselves to uphold the services and administration of the sacraments, to preach at regular intervals and conduct themselves in a proper manner, not give in to bribes or extortion, nor wander around the town “without necessary business”.

Alley died in April 1570 and was buried in the Cathedral’s quire. The ledger stone which originally marked his burial place was relocated to the north quire aisle when the quire was repaved in the 1760s.