Portrait of Philip Bisse

Artist unknown, commissioned by Dorothy Wadham

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 Portrait of Philip Bisse


Philip Bisse was born in Stokeland in Somerset in around 1540. He received an Oxford education, was a fellow of successively Brasenose and Magdalen colleges, and pursued an ecclesiastical career, ending his days as Archdeacon of Taunton, which office he held, with one intermission, from 1584 until his death in 1613. In Batcombe, near Wells, where he had been the rector since 1564 and where he died, there is a memorial brass to him, including the hexameter 'Terra cadaver habet, varios Academia libros' ('The earth holds his body; the academe his diverse books'). His monument also stated that Bisse had been an enemy to 'heathenish Revell' - which proud legend a later Laudian bishop of the diocese ordered to be defaced. Bisse's intellectual connections back in Oxford further confirm his religious orientation, for he was friends with John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi College and unofficial leader of the puritan faction in the university - Rainolds gave Bisse at least one book, a copy of Hincmar's Epistolæ (Mainz, 1602, marked 'ex dono Joannis Raynolds') - and also with Thomas James, Bodley's first librarian and a rabid anti-Catholic.

Bisse was somehow persuaded to present his entire library to the as-yet-unbuilt Wadham College, an act of philanthropy celebrated by Thomas James himself in his A Treatise of the Corruption of Scripture (London, 1611). James, near the end of a long and righteous catalogue of authors whose texts had been published but then subsequently censored by the Catholic authorities, paused to discuss Bisse and his remarkable library. The section is worth quoting in full, because it illuminates Bisse's scholarly bibliophily:

... they [i.e. the books under discussion] are in that well furnished Library of Master Doctor Bisse at Welles, saue two or three volumes which are in New Colledge in Oxford. These Volumes, the Doctor, I know, hath often moued the Colledge vpon very good tearms to part with; but the locall statutes of that house, doe make his sute in a manner impossible. But, I am glad notwithstanding, that although he could neuer get these books to Welles, yet his rare Tostatus, & al the rest of his books at Welles which come to many 1000. are likely (if God please) to come to Oxford; and to meet, if not in one Colledge, yet in one Vniuersitie. For, as I am informed, he hath very bountifully and wisely passed them all by his deed of gift, vnto the Warden and Fellowes of Waddam Colledge in Oxford; of the honourable foundation of Master Waddam Esquire late deceased; and Mistris Waddam yet liuing: and long may she liue, to enioy the benefit of her gift, and the assistance of so many mens prayers, as shall be bound in a religious dutie, both to pray, and (as they haue good cause) to praise God for her.