PIERS, William (1580-1670)

PIERS, William (1580–1670)

cons. 24 Oct. 1630 bp. of PETERBOROUGH; transl. 13 Dec. 1632 bp. of BATH AND WELLS

First sat 13 Apr. 1640; first sat after 1660, 20 Nov. 1661; last sat 27 July 1663

bap. 3 Sept. 1580, s. of William Piers, haberdasher. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. BA 1600, MA 1603, BD 1610, DD 1614. m. (1) Anne (d. c.1655), 2s.; (2) Mary.1 d. 30 Apr. 1670; will 24 Dec. 1668, pr. 7 May 1670.2

Chap. to James I bef. 1621.

Chap. to John King, bp. London; rect. Grafton Regis, Northants. 1609–11, St Christopher-le-Stocks, London 1615–20, Castor, Northants. 1632; vic. Northolt, Mdx. 1611; canon, St Paul’s 1618–30, 5th stall, Oxford 1617, 1st stall, Oxford 1618–32; dean, Peterborough 1622–30.

V.-chan. Oxf. 1621–4.

Also associated with: S. Hinksey, Oxon.; Sunbury, Mdx.; Walthamstow, Essex.

William Piers was the son of an Oxford haberdasher and nephew to John Piers, archbishop of York (d. 1594). His relationship to the archbishop was clearly crucial to his early career in the Church. He became chaplain to John King, bishop of London, who had himself once been chaplain to Archbishop Piers. By the 1630s his earlier Calvinist sympathies had been transformed into support for the policies of Archbishop William Laud, of Canterbury. His enthronement as bishop of Bath and Wells in January 1633 heralded the vigorous enforcement of Laud’s controversial altar policy: when the churchwardens of Beckington in Somerset refused to move theirs, he had them excommunicated; when they continued to defy his authority they were imprisoned for a year and forced to do public penance.3

On 24 Dec. 1640 Piers was charged by the House of Commons with ‘misdemeanours tending to the subversion of true religion’ and exercising ‘arbitrary power against law’. He then exacerbated the enmity of the Commons by signing the bishops’ declaration against the legality of proceedings in the House during their enforced absence; as a result, on 30 Dec. he and his fellow signatories were impeached and imprisoned.4 On his release he retired to his ‘considerable’ estate in Cuddesdon, Oxford.5 ‘Plundered’ to the tune of £10,000 during the civil wars and interregnum, he survived by borrowing at least £1,000, a sum which he later repaid himself out of episcopal revenue with the justification that it was ‘a public debt in respect of public persecution’.6

At the Restoration, now aged 80, Piers was restored to his see. He set about repairing the cathedral, rebuilt Wells Palace at a cost of more than £4,000, and conducted a visitation of the diocese.7 He was supposed to have persuaded the more moderate clergymen to conform to the Act of Uniformity and, in one case, convinced a Presbyterian minister to accept reordination to comply with the Act.8 He retained his antipathy towards the ‘factious’, informing Edward Hyde earl of Clarendon, that the father of one Dissenter ‘could not have done the Church a greater injury than in begetting such a son’.9

Together with the other bishops, Piers resumed his seat in the Lords on 20 Nov. 1661, but he had little interest in returning to a parliamentary career. Although the House assembled for nine sessions during his remaining life, he attended only two (1661–2 for 28 per cent of sittings and 1663 for 18 per cent), making his final visit to Westminster on 27 July 1663 when Parliament was prorogued to the following spring. He registered his proxy in favour of George Morley bishop of Winchester, on 14 Feb. 1663 and 26 Sept. 1667; in favour of Joseph Henshaw bishop of Peterborough, on 7 Feb. 1670; and, during the passage of the first Conventicle Act, Five Mile Act, and Irish Act of Uniformity, on four occasions (19 Mar. and 10 Nov. 1664, 6 Oct. 1665, 13 Nov. 1666) in favour of Gilbert Sheldon, archbishop of Canterbury.

Piers’s relationship with Sheldon was occasionally somewhat strained. In December 1665 Sheldon informed Piers that he had received a complaint about an irregular ordination; Piers’s reply suggests that this was not the first time that Sheldon had questioned his conduct. In a somewhat defensive response Piers pointed out that he had been a bishop for 36 years and was surprised that his archbishop should have given the remarks any credibility.10 Later, in 1666, Piers expressed amazement that he continued to survive old age, but decided that God had intended him ‘to see more evil days’.11 He also became involved in a jurisdictional dispute over visitation rights with his cathedral chapter (under the leadership of his successor, Robert Creighton).12

There is little information to be gleaned about either of Piers’s wives. According to Anthony Wood, the second wife, Mary, ‘too young and cunning for him’, was guilty of ‘wheedling him’ away from the diocese to his private house in Walthamstow and of taking assets rightly due to the sons of Piers’s first marriage, William and John (both of whom had been appointed by their father to offices in the diocese). Piers’s will, drawn up in 1668, is certainly suggestive of family discord. He made generous bequests, including lands in Somerset and Oxfordshire, to his sons, and left properties in Essex, Middlesex, and Somerset to his widow, but included a provision warning his sons not ‘to sue, molest or trouble’ their stepmother. Yet when his son William was suspended for non-residence by Bishop Creighton in 1671 it was said that he was living with his stepmother.13 Piers died at his home in Walthamstow in April 1670 and was buried in Walthamstow church.


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/332.
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Lansd. 986, f. 85; C. Carlton, Archbishop William Laud, 97.
  • 4 CJ, ii. 58, 362–3; Articles of Impeachment … against William Pierce … Bishop of Bath and Wells (1642).
  • 5 Ath. Ox. iv. 840.
  • 6 Bodl. Add. C302, f. 77.
  • 7 HMC Wells, ii. 434; Bodl. Add. C302, f. 77; Bodl. Tanner 140, f. 2; Articles of Visitation and Inquiry … within the Diocese of Bath and Wells (1662).
  • 8 Calamy Revised, 284.
  • 9 CCSP, v. 475.
  • 10 Bodl. Add. C308, ff. 52–53; C302, f. 41.
  • 11 Bodl. Add. C305, f. 9.
  • 12 Tanner 140, ff. 8, 31.
  • 13 Bodl. Add. C305, f. 31.