Peter Heylyn was one of the great intellectuals of his time and one of its most enthusiastic controversialists. He was equally at home writing poetry and prose, serious or satirical, on geography, history, theology and foreign travel. Born into a prosperous family in Burford and educated at Oxford, he lived at Lacies Court in Abingdon from 1653 till shortly before his death in 1662.
In the 1620s and 30s, Heylyn became close to William Laud, chancellor of the university and later Archbishop of Canterbury, strongly supporting his campaigns for strengthening the power and authority of the Church of England and against puritanism. Laud brought him to the notice of Charles I, to whom he appealed by writing a book on the history of the Order of the Garter. He became a chaplain-in-ordinary to the king. Thereafter he was used by the church authorities and by the court as a polemicist, attacking in print those who opposed their policies. He made many enemies. But even those who disagreed with him admitted that his scholarship and research went deeper than those of his opponents.
In the Civil War he joined the king in Oxford and continued in his role as a propagandist, starting the royalist newspaper Mercurius Aulicus. Afterwards, he was heavily fined by the victorious parliamentarians and lost the church living at Alresford, Hants, that had been his home. However, he was able to retain or recover most of his properties and remained a wealthy man. For six years he lived in semi-retirement, managing a family-owned estate at Minster Lovell, but in 1653 he settled in Abingdon. He bought (or leased) Lacies Court from Paule Dayrell whose father he would probably have known from his Oxford days. Abingdon was away from the now hostile atmosphere of Oxford, but still near enough for him to patronise the bookshops and use the Bodleian Library.
He expanded Lacies Court, building on to it a small oratory where he could privately read the liturgy and administer communion in the traditional way while remaining within the law. He made it a centre for local people who shared his religious and political opinions. Apart from the Dayrells, they are known to have included Robert Jennings, the schoolmaster who had lost his position in Reading, the lawyer Charles Tooker who had lost his at the Berkshire archdeaconry, and another lawyer, Christopher Blower, known to have been allied to the largely conservative Mayott clan. To the local puritans, he remained hostile. An anecdote has him exchanging insults with the parliamentary soldier Francis Allen, now a magistrate, on the social status of their respective wives. His was a gentlewoman; Allen’s a tripe-wife.
But there seems to have been some attempt to build bridges with conservatives in the protectorate government. John Lenthall, son of the Speaker of the House of Commons, was nursing Abingdon for a political base, and the Lenthalls, like Heylyn, came from Burford. When the puritans sought to have the church of St Nicolas demolished as a hotbed of conservatism, they joined in campaigning to save it. When there was talk of Oliver Cromwell accepting the crown, Heylyn dedicated books to him and to his son Richard. Heylyn was a royalist, but his loyalty was not to any particular dynasty. His preoccupation was the Church of England in its early, non-puritan, form. His last published works were a series of hard-hitting books on church history, arguing that the Reformation throughout Europe had been subverted by puritan plotting, and presenting the executed Laud as a martyr in the cause of true protestant religion.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it was widely expected that Heylyn would become a bishop. But he had no record of clandestine activity during the interregnum, his acerbic style was not what the new situation required, and by then he was almost completely blind. He remained sub-dean of Westminster and did finally move there, but died shortly after. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Heylyn married in 1628 Laetitia Highgate, who was already his sister-in-law. The marriage was at first clandestine, since he was still a fellow of Magdalen College. There were eleven children, none of whom seem to have achieved anything of note. His wife survived him.
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