NICHOLSON, William (1591-1672)

NICHOLSON (NICOLSON), William (1591–1672)

cons. 13 Jan. 1661 bp. of GLOUCESTER

First sat 20 Nov. 1661; last sat 29 Mar. 1670

b. 1 Nov. 1591, s. of Christopher Nicholson, clothier. educ. Magdalen Oxf. g.s.; Magdalen Oxf. matric. 1610, MA 1615, DD 1660. m. 24 Feb. 1619, Elizabeth (d.1663), da. of Edward Heighton, of Croydon, Surr., wid. of Robert Brigstocke of Llechdwnni, Carm. s.p. d. 5 Feb. 1672; will 18 Nov. 1671-29 Jan. 1672, pr. 30 Apr. 1672.1

Chap. Magdalen Oxf. 1616-18; tutor to Algernon Percy, styled Ld. Percy (later 4th earl of Northumberland); master of free sch., Croydon 1616-29, Newton Hall sch., Carm. 1645-1657;2 vic. New Shoreham, Suss. 1614-15;3 rect. Llandeilo Fawr (Llandilovaur), Carm. 1626-65, Bishop’s Cleeve, Glos. 1660-72, Llansantffraid-in-Mechan, Mont. 1663; adn. Brecon 1644-72; canon St Davids 1660-8.

The son of a wealthy Suffolk clothier, William Nicholson secured early preferment as chaplain of his former college at Oxford, where his arms later decorated one of the stained glass windows in the hall, and a living at New Shoreham in Sussex. He may have served as chaplain to Henry Percy, 3rd earl of Northumberland, during Northumberland’s imprisonment in the Tower following the Gunpowder Plot, as well as being employed as a tutor in the earl’s household.4 Nicholson’s marriage to Elizabeth Brigstocke appears to have brought with it an interest in sizeable estates in Wales.

Despite being elected to the Assembly of Divines in 1643 through the influence of his former pupil, Algernon Percy, now 4th earl of Northumberland, Nicholson remained loyal to the Church of England during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Although he was deprived of his livings under the Commonwealth, Nicholson was able to run a school throughout the 1650s with Jeremy Taylor (later bishop of Down and Connor) and William Wyatt.5 During this time Nicholson also composed a number of works in defence of the Church of England, notably the Apology for the Discipline of the Ancient Church (1659).

At the Restoration Nicholson was quickly rewarded for his loyalty with the return of his former benefices, a canon’s stall at St Davids where his former patron William Laud had once been bishop and, shortly after, with the vacant bishopric of Gloucester. Nicholson’s name had not appeared on any of the lists of proposed new bishops which circulated between 1659 and 1660 and Gloucester, one of the poorest dioceses in the country, was originally offered to John Hacket, later bishop of Coventry and Lichfield.6 Wood suggested that Nicholson secured the see by bribing Edward Hyde, later earl of Clarendon) with £1,000 but this seems unlikely.7 Nicholson himself believed Gilbert Sheldon, bishop of London, (later archbishop of Canterbury) to have been responsible for his promotion. In 1661 when Nicholson published An Exposition of the Catechism of the Church of England he dedicated it to Sheldon, declaring that, ‘In all gratitude I do acknowledge, that next to his majesty, for whose goodness to me I can never return sufficient thanks, your endeavours from an obscure man have advanced me to a place of honour and dignity in the Church’.8

Gloucester’s comparative poverty as a see led to a successful request to keep his two Welsh parishes in commendam, as well as his archdeaconate of Brecon. He was also granted the parish of Bishop’s Cleeve in Gloucestershire through Clarendon’s influence.9 The archdeaconry brought him into conflict with William Lucy, of St Davids over his visitation rights. A meeting between the two bishops to settle the dispute rapidly descended into a farcical exchange of unpleasantries and resulted in Lucy storming out.10 The court of arches eventually settled the dispute in Lucy’s favour.

His complaints about the poverty of his diocese got short shrift from Sheldon. In 1666 when Nicholson complained that he could not afford to subscribe £100 to the loan to the king, Sheldon’s response was singularly unsympathetic. Whilst he could ‘easily conclude … that £100 were enough for the poor bishopric of Gloucester … the sum is too little for an example to the clergy’ and urged that the amount be doubled. In the event Nicholson estimated that the diocese would provide £160 with the dean and chapter lending a further £150.11

As well as being one of the poorest dioceses, Gloucester was also perceived to be one of the most troublesome because of its history of support for Parliament in the Civil Wars and its substantial dissenting population. In 1662 Gloucester was one of three cities to have its walls razed to the ground as a precaution against any uprising.12 Nicholson’s visitation of the same year offered a spiritual answer to the problem of disaffection by emphasizing the importance of the catechism.13 Nicholson’s writings make it quite clear that he was a determined opponent of nonconformity. While he was sympathetic to the Quaker John Roberts, and used his influence to keep him out of gaol, Nicholson showed no such leniency with another Quaker, Walter Bishop, who was imprisoned for two years ‘for his obstinacy in not obeying the law.’ Bishop was eventually persuaded of the error of his ways, formally absolved and admitted to the Church by Nicholson himself who had regularly dined with Bishop during his imprisonment in an effort to secure his conversion.14 Nicholson’s visitation of 1664 attempted both to enforce uniformity and to stamp out abuses.15

Nicholson bemoaned the failure of the local justices to act against Dissent.16 At the same time he found his own prosecutions in the church courts being undermined by the court of arches, which reversed his attempts to secure at least one local Anabaptist. The court’s approach prompted Sheldon to write to the dean of arches expressing his dismay at their actions. By 1666 Nicholson admitted himself to be ‘perplexed at the many impudent conventicles in every part of [the], county, and the numbers that openly appear at them.’17 It was perhaps in response to his desire to quell Dissent that Nicholson appears to have supported some degree of comprehension.18

Nicholson was not nominated as one of the commissioners at the Savoy Conference but in the Convocation of 21 Nov. 1661 he was one of the bishops named to the committee to consider revision of the prayer book.19 He had taken his seat in Parliament at the re-admission of the bishops the previous day. He then attended on more than three-quarters of all sitting days. He held the proxy of Gilbert Ironside, of Bristol, from 22 Mar. 1662, but this was vacated in late April when he covered his own absence with a proxy to George Morley, of Worcester. His activities left little mark on the records of the House. He was named to only a few committees. Two of these were clearly of personal or local interest. On 7 Jan. 1662 he was named to that for the bill enabling John Scudamore, Viscount Scudamore [I], to endow a number of churches. Scudamore had been a student at Magdalen when Nicholson was chaplain there. On 31 Jan. Nicholson was named to the committee for the bill to limit the power of the corporation of Gloucester by restoring the hundred of Dudston and Kings Barton to the county. It passed its third reading in the House on 8 Feb. and received the royal assent at the end of the session on 19 May.20

Nicholson was absent from the opening of the second (1663) session but had registered his proxy with George Morley, now translated to Winchester, on 9 Jan. 1663. It was vacated on Nicholson’s arrival on 3 March. Present on just under 30 per cent of all sitting days in the session, he was named to only one committee. He was present in the House for the vote on Clarendon’s impeachment initiated by George Digby, 2nd earl of Bristol, on 13 July, when he supported Clarendon.

Nicholson resumed his seat for the 1664 session on 21 Mar. after which he was present on almost 78 per cent of all sitting days, but he was named to no committees besides the sessional committee for privileges. He returned to the House for the following (1664-5) session on 24 Nov., during which his rate of attendance increased to almost 87 per cent of all sitting days; he was named to nine committees. He attended on eight of the 19 days of the October 1665 session and was named to two committees.

On 22 Sept. 1666 he wrote to Sheldon pleading that he be ‘excused from coming to London’ for the next (1666-7) session, explaining that he was ‘utterly exhausted by this year’s extraordinary expense and loan and besides somewhat infirm lately.’ He then pointedly suggested that:

I know that those truant bishops, that are further off, are fatter, and some nearer better able in body and purse, and if they will eat the provender it is reason they do the work, and not lay the load upon a poor old jade, that can scarce stand on his legs.21

Nicholson promised to ensure that his proxy would be sent up, which was registered accordingly with Seth Ward, of Exeter, on 27 September. Despite this, he was noted as missing without excuse at a call of the House three days later. Nicholson resumed his place on 25 July 1667, attending two days of the brief five day meeting during which no business was transacted, and he was then once more in attendance at the opening of the new session on 10 October. Prior to the first sitting he received Bishop Ironside’s proxy, and on 1 Oct. he also received that of Robert Skinner, bishop of Worcester. He was present on just under 59 per cent of all sitting days prior to the December 1667 adjournment, including those days on which the possible committal of Clarendon was discussed, but failed to resume his seat following the recess. On 24 Jan. 1668 he registered his proxy with Bishop Morley, thereby vacating the two proxies he still held. He was then absent from the House for the ensuing two years.

Nicholson’s failure to attend the session of October 1669 was attributed to poor health.22 He covered his absence by a proxy to Morley, registered on 4 October. He returned to the House for the opening of the ensuing session on 14 Feb. 1670, after which he was present for just over half of all sitting days prior to the adjournment (though this constituted just 13 per cent of all sitting days in the whole). He sat for the last time on 29 March. The previous day Nicholson had entered his dissent at the resolution to pass the bill enabling John Manners, styled Lord Roos (later duke of Rutland) to remarry. On 15 Oct. he registered his proxy once again with Bishop Morley.

Political turmoil within Gloucester predominated in the closing years of Nicholson’s life. In September 1670 discontent within the city reached such a pass that it was reported that a ‘seditious faction’ had arisen to prevent the election of Dr Henry Fowler as mayor in favour of alderman William Bubb. Nicholson worked along with other members of the royalist grouping in the city to ensure Fowler’s election. The following year discontent arose again when Fowler presided over a botched purge of the corporation. As a result a commission was appointed by the Privy Council to resolve the disputes in the composition of a new city charter.23 A list of suitable aldermen was drawn up and as part of the new charter the cathedral, bishop’s palace and cathedral close were all constituted a liberty within the city.24

Nicholson died on 5 Feb. 1672. Within days of his death rumours were circulating that he had profiteered from renewing diocesan leases, which compelled his cousin, John Nicholson, chancellor of the diocese of Gloucester, to write to Sheldon to deny the allegations.25 Whatever the truth of these charges Nicholson, like many Gloucestershire landowners, had been involved in the illegal cultivation of tobacco.26 Despite his claims of poverty he was able to leave a substantial personal estate. He bequeathed the lordship of the manor of Llyaen in Carmarthenshire to his step-great-grandson, William Brigstocke (probably the father of the future Commons member, Owen Brigstocke), a mortgage of £300 to John Nicholson, and £100 to a step-granddaughter, Bridget Langley. Nicholson was buried at Gloucester, and a memorial was later erected by Owen Brigstocke of Llechdwnny. The epitaph was composed by Nicholson’s protégé George Bull, later bishop of St Davids, for whom Nicholson had been a ‘truly primitive bishop’ well loved for his ‘affability, modesty and candour.’27


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/338.
  • 2 History of Carms, ii. 104.
  • 3 VCH Suss. vi. pt. 1, pp. 167-71.
  • 4 Household Papers of Henry Percy 9th earl of Northumberland ed. G.R. Batho (Camden Soc. ser. 3, xx), 159.
  • 5 R. Heber, Life of the Right Rev. Jeremy Taylor, 26.
  • 6 T. Plume, Account of the Life and Death of … John Hacket, 75.
  • 7 Ath. Ox. 950.
  • 8 W. Nicholson, Exposition of the Catechism of the Church of England, ix.
  • 9 Bodl. Tanner 34, f. 134; CCSP, v. 70.
  • 10 Bodl. Tanner 47, f. 51; Tanner 146, f. 139.
  • 11 Bodl. Add. C308, f. 62; C302, f. 71.
  • 12 HP Commons 1660-90, i. 241.
  • 13 Green, Re-establishment of Church of England,. 138.
  • 14 D. Roberts, Some Mems. of the Life of John Roberts, (1746, repr. 1973), 27-32, 37-38, 46-47; CSP Dom. 1667-8, p. 301; Southern Hist. xvii. 26.
  • 15 VCH Glos. ii. 39.
  • 16 Add. 33589, f. 75.
  • 17 Bodl. Add. C302, f. 71; C308, f. 70; Spurr, Restoration Church, 55-56.
  • 18 A.R. Warmington, Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration in Gloucestershire, 185.
  • 19 Cardwell, 370.
  • 20 VCH Glos. iv. 37; State of the Case for the City of Gloucester (1662).
  • 21 Bodl. Add. C302, f. 71.
  • 22 Harl. 7377, f. 7.
  • 23 P. Halliday, Dismembering the Body Politic, 178, 180; CSP Dom. 1670, p. 419.
  • 24 Bodl. Add. C303, ff. 58-60.
  • 25 Ibid. C302, f. 85.
  • 26 Warmington, 191.
  • 27 R. Nelson, Life of Dr George Bull, 206.