In 1629 the parish of Fugglestone-cum-Bemerton (near Wilton in Wiltshire) became vacant; although the patron was George Herbert's kinsman, the Earl of Pembroke, on this occasion the living was actually within the gift of King Charles I. When Pembroke proposed Herbert as a candidate, the King is said to have replied "most willingly to Mr Herbert, if it be worth his acceptance".
The parish was certainly a modest undertaking for a man of Herbert's abilities and background. Of the 200 or so parishoners, the majority would have been country labourers, many of them illiterate. He was instituted in the little St. Andrew's chapel in Bemerton on 26th April 1630 by Dr. Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury. But he was still only a deacon, and therefore unable to take services of holy communion. It was not until September that that he was ordained priest in Salisbury Cathedral.
Herbert was faced immediately with a church, chapel and rectory all needing a great deal of rebuilding and restoration, which he did at his own expense. While he and his wife Jane had no children of their own, they adopted his three orphaned nieces who lived with them in the rectory. They were generous in their hospitality to both parishioners and strangers, and sought to fashion their family life according to the way of Christ. Twice a day the church bell was tolled, as he and his household walked across the lane for morning and evening prayer.
George Herbert took seriously what it meant to be a country parson; for him, life and ministry were indivisible and he was known locally as 'holy Mr. Herbert'. He loved beauty and order, reverence in worship and proper conduct in daily living. He wrote a small book entitled 'A Priest to the Temple' in which he set out how he believed a country parson should perform his ministry. In this book he observed:
"because Countrey people (as indeed all honest men) do much esteem their word, it being the Life of buying, and selling, and dealing in the world; therfore the Parson is very strict in keeping his word, though it be to his own hinderance, as knowing, that if he be not so, he will quickly be discovered, and disregarded: neither will they believe him in the pulpit, whom they cannot trust in his Conversation. "
For almost three years Herbert went about his pastoral work in the parish, visiting and teaching as well as conducting services in the two churches, St. Peter's in Fugglestone and St. Andrew's in Bemerton. He saw his ministry as caring for bodies as well as souls; he and his wife gave practical help to those who were poor, and grew medicinal herbs for those who were ill.
The Rectory at Bemerton provided Herbert with an ideal environment for contemplation and inspired him to develop further his poetic skills. He revised many of the poems he had written in earlier years and wrote new ones as well. He also wrote hymns, often setting them to music himself - his main recreation was music, and he was an accomplished player of both lute and viol.
It was his custom to make the short journey into Salisbury twice each week to attend evensong at the Cathedral, often meeting up with the Cathedral musicians afterwards to play and sing with them. Herbert himself described the experience of praying and music-making in such a wonderful setting as "his Heaven on Earth".
But George Herbert's time in this idyllic environment was all too short. He had rarely enjoyed good health, and in his few years at Bemerton the fatal stages of consumption gradually took their toll. He died in the Rectory on 1st March 1633*. Several members of the Cathedral choir, whose music had meant so much to him, came to sing at his funeral in St Andrew's church. It is here that his body lies, buried under the chancel floor.
* This is the year according to the modern calendar - at that time the New Year started on 25th March, so his memorial tablet records the year as 1632.
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