Bishop William Alley

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William Alley, Jr.

Birthplace: Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England
Death: Died in London, , England
Place of Burial: Exeter, Devon, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Mayor William Alley and wife of William Alley
Husband of Sybil Alley and Sybil Hill
Father of Roger Alley, Archdeacon of Cornwall; Jerome Alley; Peter Alley and Austin Alley
Brother of Robert Alley

Occupation: Bishop of Exeter
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Bishop William Alley

He is buried under the choir loft, near the alter of Exeter Cathedral.

Educated at Eton, then in 1528 he entered Kings' College, Cambridge, taking his AB degree in 1533, then on 11-11-1560 he took the degree of Doctor of Divinity at Oxford.

During the contest between Catholics and Reformers, he was a Reformer. He concealed himself in North England and earned a living as a psychic and instructor during the accession of Queen Mary. When she came to the throne, he returned and read the Divinity Lecture in St. Paul's. He was the translator of the Pentateuch.

On 1-1-1558, he was admitted to the penitentiary of St. Paul's and in 1559-60 to the prebend of St. Pancras in that church.

He was promoted to the See of Exeter (Bishop). The royal assent to his election being given on 6-8-1560. He was consecrated on 7-14-1560.

He held this office until his death and was greatly respected by Queen Elizabeth who sent him a silver cup for New Year's yearly.

He revised the Book of Deuteronomy for the Bishop's Bible of 1568.

His will was proved in London, 4-20-1570.

The following is from Judith Curthoys of Oxford University.

Alley, William (1510/11–1570), bishop of Exeter, entered Eton College as a scholar from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, about 1524, and proceeded to King’s College, Cambridge, where he was admitted a scholar on 12 August 1528, aged seventeen, and a fellow in 1530. He graduated BA early in 1533 and vacated his fellowship in 1534 on being ordained deacon, and probably also priest—presumably to take up an ecclesiastical post. At this time or later he acquired a mastery of Greek and Hebrew and a knowledge of theology which led him towards protestantism, but little is recorded about his life for the next twenty-five years. By 1544 he had proceeded MA, but from which university is unknown. The Exeter historian John Hooker, who knew him well during the 1560s, states that he took advantage of the permission for priests to marry, granted in 1549, and consequently had to abandon his vocation when clergy marriages were again forbidden in 1553. Alley’s wife, Sybil, is said to have been of the Honacott family of Landkey, north Devon, which suggests that he may be identical with the William Alle who was instituted to the rectory of Oakford, also in north Devon, in 1544, and vacated it in 1554. Hooker goes on to say that, during the restoration of Catholicism under Queen Mary (1553–8):

He travelled from place to place in the North country, where he was not known, and sometimes by practising of phisick, and sometimes by teaching of scholars, he picked out a poor living for himself and his wife, and so continued, being not known to have been a priest. (Hooker, Catalog, sig. I.iiv)

Alley came to prominence in his late forties, following Mary’s death. He was admitted to a canonry of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on 1 January 1559, with the prebend of Pancratius, and subsequently acted as reader in divinity at the cathedral at the invitation of the new bishop of London, Edmund Grindal. In February 1560 he gave a series of lectures there on the first epistle of Peter, which were later incorporated into his published work and in which he advocated conformity to the ceremonies practised in whatever church a worshipper happened to attend. In the following month he was nominated by the crown to be bishop of Exeter in place of James Turberville, who had been deprived in the previous summer. This nomination may have been influenced by his Devon connections, but Alley’s reputation as a preacher is indicated by the report of the London diarist Henry Machyn that he preached at court on 2 April against blasphemy, dice, women, and drunkenness, as well as delivering three funeral sermons in the capital between June and August. He was elected bishop by the chapter of Exeter Cathedral on 21 May, received the royal assent on 8 June, was consecrated on 14 July, and was given the temporalities of the see on 26 August. On 11 November 1561 he was admitted to the degree of DD at Oxford.

Religious conservatism in the diocese of Exeter had led to the western rebellion of 1549, and Alley faced potential opposition as a protestant bishop—having been preceded in this respect only by Miles Coverdale, who had briefly presided in 1551–3. Perhaps for this reason he was accompanied to Exeter in the summer of 1560 by the earl of Bedford, the chief protestant magnate in Devon. Hooker alleges that Alley was sometimes ‘so despitefully dealt with’ that two sympathetic local gentry, Sir Gawen and Sir Peter Carew, ‘guarded him and brought him to the pulpit sundry times, and there countenanced and supported him against his adversaries’ (Hooker, Sir Peter Carew, 111–12). He was also hampered by the decline in the bishop’s income caused by surrenders of property during the Reformation, and complained in 1565 that his revenue was no more than £300 net. Notwithstanding these difficulties, he was an active bishop. He served as a justice of the peace in Devon in 1562, 1564, and 1569, and in Cornwall in 1564, although his attempt to exercise his powers in Exeter itself was firmly resisted by the city council. In 1560 he returned a list of all his clergy to Archbishop Matthew Parker, who had requested details of their scholarly attainments, marital status, and preaching abilities; his report survives in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in MS 97. The records of his ordinations of clergy, preserved in his episcopal register, show that he resided in Devon for most of his episcopate, normally in the bishop’s palace at Exeter except for periods in 1562 and 1564, when he was based at Honiton. In the summer of 1565 he travelled to Cornwall, visiting Budock, Truro, and Egloshayle, and in the following year to north Devon. In the summer of 1569 he was again in Cornwall, at Budock, Lostwithiel, and Mount Edgecumbe, as well as at Chawleigh and Plympton in Devon, and he visited Launceston as late as March 1570, when he was, in Hooker’s words, ‘somwhat grosse and his bodie full of humors’ (Hooker, Catalog, sig.

Alley was active in the Canterbury convocation which met in London in 1563, contributing one of the discussion papers outlining proposals to enhance discipline and clarify doctrine. Deploring controversy over ‘adiophorus’ matters—issues he regarded as of secondary importance—he called for such measures as an ambiguous credal statement on Christ’s descent into hell, a ruling on compulsory vestments, more effective episcopal authority over penitents, excommunicates, criminals, simoniacs, and witches, and provision for godly preachers where they were lacking. In this official setting his programme fared no better than the others: the government implemented none of them. He also encouraged the clergy of his diocese to hold ‘prophesyings’—organized religious discussions—and is said by his successor, William Bradbridge, to have taken trouble ‘to travail in the work himself’ (Collinson, 237).

Alley’s scholarship exceeded that of most of his predecessors at Exeter. Hooker regarded him as ‘well learned universalize, but his chief study and profession was in divinity and in the tongs’ (Hooker, Catalog, sig. K.i), and asserts that he preached regularly on holy days, as well as giving divinity lectures on weekdays. His chief publication, Ptōchomuseion, subtitled ‘The poore mans librarie’, was issued in London by John Day in two volumes in 1565 and reissued in 1571. It is a wide-ranging encyclopaedia of theology with linguistic and historical notes, based on his lectures of 1560 with copious additions, and dedicated to the earl of Bedford. Alley compiled a Hebrew grammar which he wished but failed to publish, and a short ‘Judgment concerning the doctrine and discipline of the church’. He also revised the translation of the book of Deuteronomy for the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. Hooker, who gives a warm and affectionate account of his character, described him as:

   loth to offend, readie to forgive, void of malice, full of love, bountifull in hospitalitie, liberall to the poore, and a succourer of the needie, faithful to his freend, and courteous to all men; a hater of covetousness, and an enimie to all evill and wicked men, and lived an honest, a godlie, and vertuous life. (ibid.)

He conceded, however, that the bishop might appear on first acquaintance to be both rough and austere, and could be credulous and hasty.Alley’s will, a brief document, was made on 1 April 1570. He bequeathed his divinity books to his son Roger, his books of philosophy and physic to his son-in-law Christopher Bodlegh, and his books of humanity (Latin or Greek) to his younger sons, who were apparently still receiving their education. He had himself promoted Roger to be archdeacon of Cornwall and Christopher to a canonry of Exeter Cathedral; another son or relative, Matthew Alley, was briefly vicar of Talland, Cornwall. The bishop left the residue of his goods to his wife, Sybil, whom he made his executor, subject to the supervision of the two Carews. She later married Richard Dillon of Chumhill in Bratton Fleming, north Devon. Hooker, a well-informed witness, twice states that Alley died on 1 April 1570. The date usually given, 15 April, comes from a later account of the Latin inscription (now illegible) on his monument in Exeter Cathedral, and cannot be true since Alley’s will was proved on 12 April. The monument, a ledger stone, originally lay in the middle of the cathedral choir, 10 yards west of the high altar, but is now said to lie in the north choir aisle.

Nicholas Orme Sources

J. Hooker [J. Vowell], A catalog of the bishops of Excester (1584), sigs. I.iiv.– · Emden, Oxf. · episcopal register, Devon RO, Chanter XVIII–XIX · Venn, Alum. Cant. · Report on the Pepys manuscripts, HMC, 70 (1911), 50 · J. Hooker, annals of Exeter, Devon RO, Exeter city archives, book 51, fol. 353r · J. Hooker, The life and times of Sir Peter Carew, kt., ed. J. Maclean (1857), 111–12 · J. Strype, Annals of the Reformation and establishment of religion … during Queen Elizabeth’s happy reign, new edn, 4 vols. (1824), vol. 1/1, pp. 518–22 · W. P. Haugaard, Elizabeth I and the English Reformation (1968) · P. Collinson, Archbishop Grindal, 1519–1583: the struggle for a reformed church (1979) · V. Hope, ‘Exeter Cathedral monumentarium’, Exeter Cathedral Library, MS 1956 · Correspondence of Matthew Parker, ed. J. Bruce and T. T. Perowne, Parker Society, 42 (1853) · The diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-taylor of London, from AD 1550 to AD 1563, ed. J. G. Nichols, CS, 42 (1848), 230–41 · T. Westcote, A view of Devonshire in MDXXX, ed. G. Oliver and P. Jones (1845), 549 · D. J. Crankshaw, ‘Preparations for the Canterbury provincial convocation of 1562–63: a question of attribution’, Belief and practice in Reformation England: a tribute to Patrick Collinson from his students, ed. S. Wabuda and C. Litzenberger (1998), 60–93 Archives

Devon RO, episcopal register, Chanter XVIII–XIX

© Oxford University Press 2004–11 All rights reserved: see legal notice Oxford University Press

Nicholas Orme, ‘Alley, William (1510/11–1570)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 18 May 2011]

William Alley (1510/11–1570): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/397

The following is from

Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your enquiry regarding Bishop William Alley which has been forwarded to the Cathedral Library and Archive.

I can confirm that William Alley (or Allein) was bishop of Exeter, and was elected on 21 May 1560. The following is some information provided by Cathedral Archivist Angela Doughty to another researcher some time ago which might be of interest: “William Alley or Allein was buried 25 feet west of the High Altar of the Cathedral. The ledger stone, covering his resting place, was moved when the quire and sanctuary were re-floored in 1762-3. It is now in the north quire aisle, and measures 10’ 11” by 4’ 2”. The inscription on it is now almost completely obliterated by several centuries of boots and shoes, but was recorded in the mid 19th century. A translation of it reads ‘the Reverend Father William Alley, Bishop of Exeter, a very ardent champion of the Gospel truth, famous for uprightness of character, renowned for for his wonderful skill in the art of teaching, lies at rest in the Lord Jesus under this stone. He died on April 15th 1570.’ There is no more information about Alley here, because the archives are solely those of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral. The Bishop’s official papers form part of the diocesan archives held at Devon Record Office (see, but I very much doubt that any personal papers have survived.”

I am not aware of a surviving painting or other likeness of Bishop Alley.

If you have not already read his entry, you will find some useful biographical information in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Another useful source is George Oliver’s ‘Lives of the Bishops of Exeter’ (1861) which gives Bishop Alley’s arms ‘According to Izacke - azure, a pale engrailed ermine between two Lions rampant, argent, langued and armed, gules; according to Westcote - azure, a pale between two Lions rampant, ermine, crowned, or.’ An online version of this text is available at

I hope this information helps, and all the best with your research.

Regard, Ellie

Miss Ellie Jones Cathedral Archivist

From: [] Sent: 29 May 2011 15:06 To: Subject: William Alley 1510-1570

Dear Reverend Jonathan Meyrick

I am investigating my ancestors which include a William Alley 1510-1570. I have a good history of him from Judith Curthoys of Oxford University but I noticed in your history time line there is a gap between 1550 and 1642. I am reading that he was the Bishop of Exeter Cathedral starting in May of 1560. Is there any record that he was actually the Bishop of Exeter Cathedral during this period. Also is there any paintings or any other of William Alley. Did he have a coat of arms. Any verification that he was a Bishop would be greatly appreated.

Stephen J. Smith

The following is from or

WILLIAM ALLEY, S.T.P., a native of Wycombe, Bucks, and educated at Eton, but finished his course of studies at Cambridge and Oxford, whilst Prebendary of St. Paul’s, London, was fixed on by Queen Elizabeth to succeed the deprived Turberville. On 27th April, 1560, she issued her congé d’élire to our Dean and Chapter. It was delivered to the President, Chancellor Levison, on 5th May, in the absence of the newly elected Dean, Dr. Gregory Dodds: the election took place on 20th that month; but his consecration 14th July that year (Parker’s ‘Register,’ fol. 80). The revenues of the see and of his chapter had of late been lamentably reduced: fortunately the Rectory of Honiton was given to the Bishop towards the better maintenance of his rank; and in its parochial church, and even in the rectory-house, he held several ordinations “in Rectoria - in domo Domini Episcopi apud Honyton,” as we learn from his Registers. Owing to the impoverished state of the finances of his Dean and Chapter, with the unanimous consent of its members, and under the Royal authority, he diminished the number of the Canons of the Cathedral from twenty-four to nine. His statute for this purpose is dated 22nd February, 1560-1. Attempts were made at subsequent periods to set aside this ordinance, which conferred the power and emoluments on the favoured nine, to the exclusion of the other fifteen; but it proved useless to combat with a practice, legalised by time and due authority. Hoker, who knew the bishop well, commends his affability of manners, regularity of life, and singular learning; adding that “his library was replenished with all the best sort of writers, which most gladly he would impart, and make open to every good scholar and student, whose company and conference he did most desire and embrace;” but in his MS. ‘History,’ p. 359, in describing tho Mayor, Robert Midwynter, he says, that “in office he showed himself, as he was, an upright justice, and governed the city in very good order. In nothing was he more stowte, than he was against Bishop Alley, when he brought a commyssion to be a Justice of the Peace within the citie, contrary to the lybertes of the same.” After governing the diocese for about nine years and a half, he died, according to his epitaph, on 15th April, 1570, aged 60, and was buried in the choir of his cathedral. He is known to the literary world by his ‘Poor Man’s Librarie,’ printed in folio by John Day, London, 1565, or ‘Lectures upon the First Epistle of Saint Peter, red publiquely in the Cathedrall Church of Saint Paule, within the Citye of London, in 1560. Here are adioyned at the ende of euery special treatise, certain fruitful annotacions called miscellanea, because they do entreate of diverse and sundry matters.’


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Bishop William Alley's Timeline

Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England
Age 25
Devonshire, England
Age 30
Devon, England
Age 54
April 15, 1570
Age 60
London, , England
April 1570
Age 60
Exeter, Devon, England
November 16, 1990
Age 60
April 4, 1991
Age 60