Born in 1637, Thomas Ken was educated at Winchester College for boys and at Hart Hall, Oxford, and in 1657 he was made a Fellow of New College, Oxford. After serving several pastoral cures, he came to Winchester in 1672 as a teacher. During his employment at Winchester he wrote a book of devotion for the boys and possibly the morning and evening hymns for which he is perhaps best known, “Awake, my soul, and with the sun” and “All praise to thee, my God, this night”, both of which conclude with his metrical setting of the Gloria Patri, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”. In 1679 King Charles the Second appointed him chaplain to the Princess Mary at The Hague, during which service he publicly rebuked Mary’s husband, William the Prince of Orange and stadholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, for his ill treatment of Mary. Later appointed Charles’ own chaplain, in 1683 he refused the use of his house to Nell Gyn, the king’s mistress. Charles respected the boldness of “little black Ken” and in 1684 named him to the see of Bath and Wells. It was Ken who gave the king absolution on his deathbed.
In 1688, King James the Second, who succeeded his brother Charles the Second and who was a Roman Catholic, commanded his Declaration of Indulgence, which granted liberty of worship to all Christians (including Roman Catholics) throughout the realm of England, to be read in all the churches. Ken was one of the seven bishops who refused to do so, for which they were briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London and tried in Westminster on a charge of seditious libel, all seven being acquitted by a verdict of “not guity” on the second day of the trial. (The seven bishops believed that the Declaration diminished the authority of the Church of England, and the opinion of the country was largely with them.) The case marked the limits of Anglican obedience to a Roman Catholic king, and James never recovered his authority. By the end of the year, James was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. Despite his opposition to Jame’s declaration, Ken joined the other Nonjuring bishops in refusing to take the oath of allegiance William and Mary as king and queen, believing themselves still to be bound by their oath to James as king, since – although deposed – he was still alive. He was thereafter deprived of his see and lived the rest of his life in retirement, though Queen Anne offered him his old see on the death of his successor. He respectfully declined the offer, despite the fact that by this time his previous oath had been dissolved by the death of James the Second in exile.
Ken died on March 19, 1711 in retirement at Longleat, the country home of Thomas Thynne, Viscount Weymouth, a friend since his Oxford days. He was buried at the Church of St John the Baptist, Frome.
A man of devotion and loyalty to the Church of England, he lived an ascetic life as a celibate and a scholar. He provided this epitaph in his will:
“I die in the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West: more particularly, I die in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from all Papal and Puritan innovations, and as it adheres to the doctrine of the Cross.”
prepared from various sources,
including The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
Almighty God, you gave your servant Thomas Ken grace and courage to bear witness to the truth before rulers and kings: Give us strength also that, following his example, we may constantly defend what is right, boldly reprove what is evil, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
Project Canterbury has published online a number of Thomas Ken’s works.
Traditionally, and in several Churches of the Anglican Communion, Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, is commemorated on this date. In this sanctoral calendar, because the commemoration of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, is transferred to March 20 to accommodate the commemoration of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr, on March 21, Cuthbert is commemorated on September 4, the date of the translation of his relics to Durham Cathedral.