Personal and Family Life

William Bedwell was born in 1563 in the Essex village of Great Hallingbury. His parents were John and Anne Bedwell. They were members of a relatively prosperous family who had been land owners in the Hallingbury area for generations. William was one of at least four children including sisters Margaret (Cole), Mercy (Goyne), and brother, Thomas. William's uncle, Thomas Bedwell preceded him at Trinity College, Cambridge and was a major influence in young William's life. His uncle's study of mathematics became William's initial focus when he first became a student at Cambridge, and mathematics contributed to his interest in Arabic. Eventually, William found a mentor in Lancelot Andrewes of Pembroke College who encouraged his study of Arabic and the Semitic languages. In time, William became one of the foremost Arabists/Orientalists in Europe and gained the title "Father of Arabic studies in England".

Notwithstanding William's scholarly prowess, he was a humble man who was content with his primary role as family man and priest of Tottenham's parish church of All Hallows. At Tottenham he and his wife Marsie (Chipperfield) raised four daughters.

Though now very much a part of London, in 1600 Tottenham High Court, located six miles north of the city, was a world apart. One observer described it thusly:

The aire is whole some and temperate, as good as any other of the neighborhood whatsoever. Here no boggs, mores, nor fennes to infect or distemper it. The river with the pleasant and fertile meddoes, which are sometimes indeed overflowed, do lye upon the east side of the towne and therefore these cannot be offensive.

It was at Tottenham that William lived out his life in church service, and in mentoring the aspiring scholars who found their way to his door. He died at his home on 5 May 1632, and was buried five days later in his church of All Hallows.

In religious matters he was devout and conformist in his views.


Nothing is specifically known of William Bedwell's education until he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1578 when he was not quite fifteen years old. He graduated B.A. in 1585 and proceeded M.A. in 1588. He was fortunate at Cambridge to come under the influence of some of the great mathematical and language scholars of his time.


William Bedwell's university record does not show his election to a fellowship of his college but he stayed at Cambridge for nearly twenty-three years and was most certainly employed as a teacher and scholar. Bedwell was a pioneer in Arabic studies, and became known as the foremost Arabist in England. With this skill, he was called upon to act as a translator of official documents and as an interpreter. When a Moroccan party arrived in England to visit Queen Elizabeth I, it was William Bedwell who met them first.

William Bedwell's church service commenced with his appointment as rector of St. Ethelburge, Bishopsgate, London, in 1601. In addition to his pastoral duties, he continued to work on projects such as a translation of the Old Testament Book of Obadiah, and an edition of the New Testament in Arabic. As part of this effort he dedicated his translation of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians to Bishop Richard Bancroft, and the Epistle of Philemon to Francis Burley, both who would be fellow workers on the translation.

In 1607 he was given the vicarage of Tottenham High Court by Lancelot Andrewes his mentor, friend, and fellow Translator. He remained in this position for the rest of his life.

He continued his scholarly work and entertained those with interests in Arabic studies. Among those he mentored, influenced, and collaborated with, were: Isaac Casaubon, a Huguenot scholar from Paris, Erpenius who became a prominent Arabist in Europe, and Edward Pocoche, the future professor of Arabic at Oxford. To all these men Bedwell was gracious, encouraging, and helpful, as Lancelot Andrewes had been to him. Epernius, who would surpass Bedwell in his contributions to Arabic studies, paid Bedwell this complement: "You have taught me more than I deserve, and for that I thank you with my whole heart."

Bedwell's role as catalyst and mentor, in the end, was his great contribution to his field of study. His goal to publish an Arabic lexicon was never realized. At his passing he left to his alma mater his manuscript, types, punches, and matrices which he had brought back from the Continent.

He continued his love and study of practical mathematics throughout his life. He wrote about and popularized the "carpenter's rule", a slide rule devised by Thomas Bedwell for measuring timber, glass and stone. This was part of his effort to make theoretical writings in arithmetic, geometry, and measuring, accessible in a practical way to those tradesmen who lacked formal university education.

Words by his friend, Isaac Casaubon sum up the character of William Bedwell, this multifaceted, enormously talented man. Casaubon concluded that Bedwell was "neither a slave of envy, nor of his own fancy and was not given to detracting from other people's studies".

William Bedwell and the Translation

William Bedwell was surely chosen upon Lancelot Andrewes' recommendation to be a Translator and a member of the First Westminster Company of which Andrewes was director. As an orientalist, Bedwell brought to the work of translating the first twelve books of the Old Testament a contextual understanding of the setting for the story. The nomadic and tribal life style of many of the biblical characters was in many ways similar to those peoples and cultures studied by Bedwell. This perspective, in addition to his great understanding of Arabic and Semitic languages, made Bedwell a significant contributor to the translation.

Bio Bits

Thomas Bedwell, the Translator's uncle, became an engineer and practical mathematician. His career was primarily devoted to civil engineering as it applied to military fortification. Thomas traveled to the Netherlands with Robert Sedley, the Earl of Leicester on his military expeditions and was ultimately named as Keeper of Ordinance at the Tower of London. He was a practical mathematician, working throughout his life on ways to determine longitude at sea, ballistic trajectories, and ways to measure timber. As was mentioned, his nephew William popularized his slide rule device by putting his uncle's knowledge into publication. The closeness of uncle and nephew was evidenced when Thomas named William a residual heir to his estate.