The Devil and the Bishop

by Madeline McCully
Audio version recorded by Madeline McCully

There is a story in Foster’s Ulster Folklore about a Ballymena Bishop who cheated the Devil but the strange thing is that the same story is said to have happened to the Earl of Bristol, Bishop Hervey of the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe. The incident took place at the Mussenden Temple in Downhill.

   To understand what happened it would be wise to peek behind the title of Bishop and Earl to the man, Frederick Augustus. He was generally admired for his wit and culture and love of the arts, the buildings he commissioned prove this. The best-known surviving one is the Mussenden Temple built in 1785 and dedicated to the memory of Hervey’s cousin Frideswide Mussenden. It was built as a summer library and was inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, near Rome that he had seen on one of his numerous visits to Rome, however Frida did not live to see it for she died two years before its completion.

   The bishop was also known to be eccentric in dress and licentious in nature and was certainly not monogamous. He once proclaimed himself to be agnostic and King George III referred to him as “that wicked prelate.” It is presumed that some of Hervey’s clergy reported his behaviour to the King when they suffered what they saw as sadistic behaviour at his hands.

It was also known that these ambitious clergy had to address their portliness before Hervey would promote them. The bishop ordered them to run through bogs and marshland at night in an effort to be worthy of higher church positions. The Bishop’s reasons for choosing night-time may have been to save these men embarrassment but they did not see it that way.

   Perhaps it was this behaviour that prompted the devil to visit him in his library where the bishop relaxed on one of his irregular sojourns to his diocese.

   The bishop had, it appears, earlier tricked the Devil into believing that he would bargain with his immortal soul and when the time came for the Devil to offer something for this asset, he manifested himself to the Bishop. The Devil found him reading his Bible by the light of a candle and the bishop asked him if he could wait until the candle, which was well burnt down by this stage, would finally go out. The Devil agreed and waited. The wily Bishop exclaimed “Would you believe that?” and pointed to a passage. The curious Devil approached and, in a flash, the good Bishop slammed the Bible shut on the Devil rendering him helpless.

   That Bible was never opened and he took it with him on his many visits to Europe where he took great care to lock it away.

   In 1803 at the age of 72 he died in Albano in Italy and his body was returned for burial to Ickworth Parish Church. At his request the Bible was buried with him.

One of the lesser-known facts about Bishop Hervey, Earl of Bristol’s name is linked with the luxurious Bristol Hotels worldwide.  

Madeline McCully