Peter Mews: a warrior priest in interesting times

Few of Windsor’s many canons are likely to have heard the sound of cannon fired in anger. One who certainly did was the “Christian soldier” Peter Mews, who held the canonry of the 7th stall from 1662 to 1673, and later became bishop of Bath and Wells, and finally bishop of Winchester.

Peter Mews was born in the tiny Dorset village of Purse Caundle (some four miles east of Sherborne) in 1619, to Elisha Mews and his wife Elizabeth. With the help of his uncle, Dr Thomas Winniffe (who was dean of St Paul’s), he was able to attend Merchant Taylors’ School in London, and from there proceeded to St John’s College, Oxford, where he was elected a fellow in 1641. An academic career seemed to beckon, but by this time England was in a state of mounting crisis with the king and parliament moving towards open conflict. After the civil war began in August 1642, he joined the king’s army, rising to the rank of captain. Several times he was wounded, and at the battle of Naseby in June 1645, he was taken prisoner. After the war, he was ejected from his fellowship at St John’s College.

During the years of the Commonwealth (1653-60), Mews was in exile in the United Provinces. Initially, he planned to return to academic life and had his eye on the professorship of philosophy at Breda. This came to nothing however and so he spent most of the seven years involved in royalist plotting on behalf of the court in exile. This entailed acting as a messenger or liaison officer, and several times his life was in danger. Altogether it was not an easy time for him, and he suffered from the backbiting and intrigue which dogged the exiled royal court. It is not clear when he was ordained, but as he was known as Captain Mews during the years of exile, it seems unlikely he was then a clergyman.

Once Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, his fortunes looked up. He was installed archdeacon of Huntingdon in 1660 and over the next decade acquired a string of church appointments, culminating in the deanery of Rochester in 1670. Preferment in the academic world came his way too. In 1667 he succeeded to the presidency of St John’s College, (having married the previous president’s daughter a few years before) and from 1669 to 1673 was chancellor of Oxford University. As a churchman, he was fierce in his persecution of dissenters, whom he described in almost quasi-military terms, as if he was continuing to fight the civil war by other means.

When he was consecrated bishop of Winchester in 1684, he was sixty-five years old and his days of military activity must have seemed long past. Events were to dictate otherwise. In 1685, James II (whom he strongly supported) succeeded his brother, and within months faced a serious challenge from James, duke of Monmouth. Seeing a chance to relive his military youth, Bishop Mews hurried down to the west country to join the royal camp at Sedgemoor and took part in the battle on 6 July, in which Monmouth’s men were routed. His exact role in the battle is not clear, but he lent some horses which were used to pull cannon and he was wounded, which suggests close engagement with the rebels. The king gave him a medal in recognition of his contribution to the victory. Despite his views on dissent, he urged clemency for the rebels, but to no avail. Following the Bloody Assizes presided over by Judge George Jeffreys, many were executed by drawing and quartering.

Three years later, James II’s rule was crumbling. Bishop Mews did what he could to save his royal master, but at times seemed to do more harm than good. After James’s overthrow, he conformed to the revolution, but in parliament he voted against the transfer of the crown to William and Mary.
He remained bishop of Winchester, but his effectiveness in his diocese was much reduced. His death, at the ripe age of 87, occurred at his palace, Farnham Castle, on 9 November 1706, following a dose of incorrect medicine. It was a sad end to a sometimes colourful life, shaped by the turbulence of interesting times.

Simon Harrison, Archives volunteer

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.