THOMAS, William (1613-89)

THOMAS, William (1613–89)

cons. 27 Jan. 1678 bp. of ST DAVIDS; transl. 27 Aug. 1683 bp. of WORCESTER

First sat 29 Jan. 1678; last sat 2 July 1685

b. 2 Feb. 1613, s. of John Thomas, linen draper and Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Blount of Bristol. educ. Carmarthen g.s.; St John’s Oxf. matric. 1629, BCL, 1635; Jesus Oxf. BA 1632, MA 1635; ord. deacon Christ Church, Oxf. 1637, priest 1638; DD 1660. m. Blanche (c.1612-77), da. of Peter Samyne, Dutch merchant in London, 4s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. d. 25 Jun. 1689; will 11 Feb. 1686-18 June 1689, pr. 2 Nov. 1689.1

Chap. to James Stuart, duke of York, 1660.

Vic. Penbryn, Card. (dates unknown); chap. to Algernon Percy, 4th earl of Northumberland;2 rect. Laugharne, Carm. c.1640-70, Llanbedr Felffre (Lampeter Velfrey), Pemb. 1661, Hampton Lovet, Worcs. 1670-7; precentor, St Davids 1660; dean, Worcester 1665-83.

Grandson and namesake of a prominent citizen of Carmarthen who represented Carmarthen Boroughs in the 1614 Parliament, William Thomas rose to prominence in the Restoration Church largely through the patronage of the duke of York. During the Interregnum he had kept a school at Laugharne to support his growing family.3 In the summer of 1660 Thomas petitioned the crown for an appointment as precentor of St Davids. He clearly already had influential contacts for his application was supported by Gilbert Sheldon, of London, and George Morley, then of Worcester.4 Support from Edward Hyde, the future earl of Clarendon, who commended his ‘exemplary life’, enabled him to receive a doctorate in divinity and a chaplaincy to the duke of York.5 By 1665, under the patronage of the duke, the future bishop had been promoted to the deanery of Worcester where he enjoyed cordial relations with the local nobility and gentry including Henry Somerset, later 3rd marquess of Worcester and duke of Beaufort, Thomas Windsor, later earl of Plymouth, and the fiercely Protestant Sir John Pakington who, in 1670, presented Thomas to the Worcestershire rectory of Hampton Lovet.6

Thomas was passed over for promotion to the see of Bangor in 1665 by Sheldon, much to the disappointment of Clarendon who thought Thomas ‘a very worthy and good man’ whose elevation would have been ‘a very good compliment to the duke of York’.7 Newsletters tipped him for the vacant see of Chester in 1668, but he had to wait another nine years for elevation to the episcopate.8 In the rambling diocese of St Davids, where conventicles flourished and Catholicism was perceived as a growing threat, the new bishop directed his energies to the spiritual welfare of Wales, his efforts enhanced by his ability to preach and minister in the Welsh language. As both bishop of St Davids and dean of Worcester it became his settled practice to reside in his diocese during spring and summer and to retire to Worcester, where he was an active dean, for the winter.9 During the first two years of his episcopate Thomas visited all his deaneries and carried out mass confirmations.10 In the summer of 1678 he told William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury that the state of his diocese where ‘too many of the churches impropriated, not only destitute of vicarages but of tolerable salaries for curacies ...’ created an ‘anguish of my soul’.11 He was therefore concerned to ensure that his flock had access to sound protestant teaching and was prepared to compromise with nonconformists who were involved in projects to translate the Bible and other devotional literature into Welsh. One of the leading figures in this movement was the ejected minister Stephen Hughes, who had been previously been pursued avidly by William Lucy, bishop of St Davids. He reflected his gratitude to Thomas in a fulsome book dedication.12

During his parliamentary career Thomas attended six of nine possible sessions but of those only two (the brief sessions in spring 1679 and March 1681) for more than half of all sittings. When unable to attend the House in November 1678, he registered his proxy in favour of John Fell, of Oxford (vacated on 2 Dec.) and, in 1685, it was given by Sancroft, to William Lloyd, of Norwich (vacated at the end of the session). Thomas took his seat at a time of rising concerns about Catholicism that would soon be exploited by Titus Oates and his revelations of a popish plot. Given his own wholehearted protestantism and his dependence on the patronage of York, this presented him with a considerable political dilemma. In the summer of 1678 he organized the publication of his Apology. The ostensible focus of the work was to establish the error of nonconformist separation from the Church of England, and Thomas was anxious to make it clear that he had not altered the text from that which he had composed in the 1650s. Nevertheless, the timing of publication suggests another purpose and a close reading, suggested a clear anti-Catholic subtext. One of the reasons advanced for condemning nonconformist separation from the Church related to the encouragement it gave to Catholics who belonged to a church ‘disfigured by the scars and gashes of schism’. The whole tenor of the work was to reiterate orthodox Anglican political theology and to establish that the Anglican Church was the true church.13

On 15 Nov. 1678, during the final session of the Cavalier Parliament, Thomas voted in favour of the Test. Allegations that the lawyer, Edward Whitaker, had attacked the entire episcopal bench as ‘papists’ prompted him to make an impassioned speech to the House on 14 Dec. 1678. Thomas defended the integrity of the bench against Whitaker’s ‘great service of the Church of Rome’, asserting the bishops’ commitment to protestantism and their willingness to die for their faith. He emphasized the seriousness of such aspersions, pointing out that in ancient Rome,

detraction was capital. Reputation is a civil life, which to all ingenuous spirits, to those of our function especially of our station in the Church is, at least ought to be more tender and precious than a natural. … We cannot possibly discover how far an infamy dispersed multiplies, how swiftly it flies, how indelibly it sticks. I say indelibly having frequently observed in the world that a multitude of men who have been prompt and keen to entertain the unjustest aspersion, have afterwards been regardless of the justest vindication.

The House, he continued, should make an example of the man not out of ‘any fierce vindictive design’ but ‘that others may be deterred from the like calumny’.14

Thomas took his seat for the first Exclusion Parliament on 24 Mar. 1679 and was thereafter present for all but one of the remaining days in the session, 84 per cent of the whole. On 10 May 1679 he voted against the appointment of a joint committee of both Houses to consider a method of proceeding against the impeached lords. He arrived for the second Exclusion Parliament on 22 Oct. 1680 and was then present on all but four days until 20 Nov., opposing the exclusion bill on 15 November. He was then absent until 21 Mar. 1681, thereafter attending every day until the end of the session on 28 March.

In 1683 Thomas was translated to Worcester as its bishop, where he intended to use his power as visitor to the chapter to tackle irregularities in the cathedral liturgy. Whilst he feared such a step had the potential to upset the corporation, he insisted that he preferred to obey the instructions of his metropolitan than to court popularity in the city.15 Despite his fears he seems to have enjoyed close relations with both the corporation of Worcester and figures of regional political significance. In 1684, at the height of the ‘Tory reaction’, Beaufort undertook his celebrated ‘progress’ and was ‘very nobly entertained and lodged’ at the bishop’s palace. After Thomas had taken a special cathedral service on 17 July 1684, Beaufort was attended with music and pageantry to the town hall where he was made a freeman together with his second son, Charles.16

With the accession of James II to the throne, Thomas was forced to choose between his loyalty and his conscience. He was present on the first day of the new king’s Parliament on 19 May 1685 and attended intermittently until the adjournment on 2 July, approximately half the possible sitting days to that date. On 6 Nov., conscious that Parliament was about to reassemble, he wrote to Sancroft to excuse himself from attendance, his physician having ‘vehemently dissuaded’ him.17 His concern for the wellbeing of the Church under a Catholic monarch was soon apparent. In October 1686 he wrote to Sancroft wishing ‘that God may vouchsafe his special influence and protection in your grace’s pious steerage of the Church in all storms and difficulties’.18 In May 1687, just a month after the Declaration of Indulgence, he refused to institute two priests who had been nominated by Catholic peers to livings in his diocese – a decision that it was widely believed rendered him liable to prosecution by the ecclesiastical commission.19 Predictably, in 1687, Thomas was grouped with those lords thought to oppose both the repeal of the Test Acts and the king’s religious policies. Yet he was anxious to demonstrate his loyalty to his monarch and former patron. When James visited Worcester on 23 Aug. 1687, Thomas greeted the king at the gate of the bishop’s palace with a formal greeting in Latin, after which they processed indoors on a white carpet strewn with flowers.20 After the second Declaration was issued in April 1688, George Hickes, dean of Worcester, reported that Thomas and all the clergy ‘are very sensible of their duty, and resolved on the practice of it’. Accordingly Thomas approved of Sancroft’s ‘pious conduct’ in the matter of the petition of the Seven Bishops. He refused to distribute the Declaration even though ‘it is a piercing wounding affliction to me to incur his majesty’s displeasure’. It was, however, his duty to protect his clergy ‘from sins and perils’, and he was determined ‘by god’s gracious assistance to suffer the greatest temporal evil of distress rather than to act or promote the least spiritual evil of guilt’.21 He added his name to the petition on 3 June.22

Thomas was already frail. When the Convention assembled on 22 Jan. 1689, he was too sick to attend. He remained in his diocese, absorbed with pastoral business. Two days before his death, he is said to have declared that ‘I think I could burn at a stake before I took this new oath’ to William and Mary.23 That same strictness of conscience which directed his actions over the Declaration would not allow him to break his oath to James II. On 1 June 1689, in a letter to his clergy about their failure to catechize the young adequately, he reminded them that they should never allow their ‘spiritual interests in any transaction to truckle to temporal’. Notes taken by George Savile, marquess of Halifax, of his conversations with William III indicate that Thomas had instructed his clergy to remain faithful to James II.24

William Thomas died on 25 June 1689. He requested a ‘frugal’ burial, the usual mourning expenses for rings and scarves being exchanged for clothing for the poor of Worcester. He left modest legacies to his family and believing it ‘a more prudential act’ to encourage industry and integrity than to relieve poverty, he left the residue of his estate towards apprenticeships for poor boys from Worcester and south Wales who could repeat the Anglican catechism. At his death an inventory at Hartlebury Castle valued his property at a little over £600.25 The funeral was not quite as austere as Thomas had intended; he was buried in the cloisters of Worcester Cathedral, his funeral procession led by 76 elderly men clothed in black, one for each year of his life.26


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/397.
  • 2 T. Nash, Worcs. ii. app. pp. clviii.
  • 3 Bodl. Tanner 146, f. 121.
  • 4 CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 173.
  • 5 Nash, ii. app. clviii-clix ; HMC 8th Rep. i. 279a.
  • 6 CSP Dom. 1665-6, p. 40; Nash, ii. app. clviii-clix.
  • 7 Bodl. Add. C303, ff. 104, 106.
  • 8 CSP Dom. 1667-8, pp. 560, 568.
  • 9 Tanner 36, f. 225.
  • 10 CSP Dom. 1678, p. 399.
  • 11 Tanner 146, f. 121.
  • 12 Hist. Church in Wales, ed. D. Walker, 83-84.
  • 13 Tanner 146, f. 121; W. Thomas, Apology for the Church of England in Point of Separation from it.
  • 14 Tanner 39, f. 145.
  • 15 Tanner 34, f. 251.
  • 16 T. Dineley, Account of the Progress of His Grace Henry the First Duke of Beaufort through Wales, 1684, pp. 1-2.
  • 17 Tanner 31, f. 232.
  • 18 Tanner, 140, f. 136.
  • 19 Verney ms mic. M636/42, H. Paman to Sir R. Verney, 10 May 1687, Sir R. Verney to H. Paman, 22 May 1687; NAS GD 406/1/344; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 405.
  • 20 Nash, ii. app. clx.
  • 21 Bodl. Ballard 12, f. 34; Tanner 28, f. 49.
  • 22 Clarendon Corresp. ii. 480.
  • 23 T.T. Carter, The Life and Times of John Kettlewell with Details of the History of the Nonjurors, 126.
  • 24 The Bishop of Worcester his Letter to the Clergy of his Diocess (1689) 19; Halifax Letters, ii. 222-4.
  • 25 PROB 4/3438.
  • 26 Nash, ii. app. clxii.