We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  William Twisse (1577/8–1646), by Thomas Trotter, pubd 1783 (after unknown artist, c.1644) William Twisse (1577/8–1646), by Thomas Trotter, pubd 1783 (after unknown artist, c.1644)
Twisse, William (1577/8–1646), theologian, was born at Speenlands in Speen, near Newbury, Berkshire, son of William Twisse, a successful clothier and grandson of an immigrant from Germany. Among his uncles were Thomas Bilson (1547–1616), warden of Winchester College and later bishop of Worcester (1596) and Winchester (1597), and the wit John Hoskins. As a youth Twisse showed remarkable intelligence; he probably also had a rebellious streak, and so his father sent him in 1590, aged twelve, to Winchester College. Twisse later admitted that he was a ‘very wicked boy’ at Winchester, but was converted to godly living when the ‘phantom of a rakehelly boy’, whom he recognized as a schoolfellow, came to him in a dream and said ‘I am damned’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.169). In 1596 Twisse was admitted to New College, Oxford, as a probationer fellow, being admitted to the full fellowship on 11 March 1599. A student of George Abbot, later archbishop of Canterbury, he graduated BA on 14 October 1600, and proceeded MA on 12 June 1604, BD on 8 July 1612, and DD on 5 July 1614. Twisse gained the reputation of being an erudite scholar, especially in controversial theology. He assisted Sir Henry Savile in the publication of Thomas Bradwardine's De causa Dei contra Pelagium and preached catechetical lectures at New College on Thursdays. He also drew crowds to hear his sermons at St Aldate's in Oxford. However, Wood remarks that he was remembered by some Oxford colleagues as being ‘hot headed and restless’ (ibid., 3.170). Even Samuel Clarke, the puritan biographer, accounted Twisse a touch naïve and bookish.

Twisse's reputation at Oxford was confirmed in an incident of 1613 involving the baptism of a Jew. Joseph Barnet had been employed as a Hebrew tutor at Oxford and had informed Arthur Lake, the warden of New College, that he wished to convert to Christianity. A Sunday was arranged for the baptism and Twisse was asked to preach a sermon celebrating the event. However, Barnet changed his mind and tried to flee Oxford the day before his baptism. He was captured, but refused to be baptized. Twisse altered his sermon to an antisemitic theme which ‘shewed God's judgment upon that perverse Nation and People [i.e. the Jews]’ (Clarke, 14). In an age before religious tolerance, Twisse's sermon was applauded by the dons of Oxford.

Twisse's new-found standing caught the attention of James I in the summer of 1613, and he instructed that Twisse should become the chaplain to his daughter Elizabeth, princess palatine. Twisse obeyed the king and went to Heidelberg, profitably consulting with the German theologians of the city's university. However, the service turned out to be short and he returned to England after two months in Heidelberg. On 18 September the fellows of New College presented Twisse to the rectory of Newton Longvill, Buckinghamshire; he was licensed preacher in 1617. By 1615 he had married his first wife, possibly Frances, daughter of Barnabas Colnett of Combley, Isle of Wight; their eldest son, Robert, was born in late 1615 or early 1616. In October 1620 the magistrates of Newbury offered Twisse the town living, which he accepted. Although he did not neglect his flock, he spent much time studying the various controversies of the day. He seems to have been comfortable with his role as a town preacher and retiring scholar, and steadfastly refused the offer of a number of prominent positions including the provostship of Winchester, one of the prebends of Winchester Cathedral, and the divinity chair at the University of Franeker. Another reason for this lack of ambition seems to have been a desire to remain relatively free of episcopal influence. He was, however, tempted by the offer of Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick, of the living at Benefield, Northamptonshire. It promised the society of the famous godly ministers of Northamptonshire as well as a less onerous living. However, in order to leave Newbury, a crown living, Twisse needed the permission of the king. He consulted William Laud, a friend from Oxford days, who promised to support his supplication, but on the advice of Bishop John Davenant of Salisbury the king ruled against Twisse taking the position in Northamptonshire. Charles was, however, indulgent to Twisse in other matters and protected him from prosecution for not obeying the Book of Sports. Twisse or his churchwardens also defied official attempts in the 1630s to erect a railed altar at Newbury. On 11 November 1635 he seems to have married at West Meon, Hampshire, Amye, daughter of , rector there, although it is conceivable that this marriage took place a decade earlier. His new father-in-law, also a product of Winchester College and New College, had been a prebendary of Winchester since 1613 and frequently clashed with Bishop Richard Neile over ceremonies.

The reason for the toleration of Twisse's puritanism was his pre-eminence as a controversialist theologian. Even the Anglican polemicist Anthony Wood described him as ‘the mightiest man’ in the controversies of his age (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 171). Although Twisse had helped edit Bradwardine's works, his first major foray into controversy came in 1631 when he wrote a long critique of the first volume of Thomas Jackson's commentary on the creed, entitled a Treatise of the Divine Essence and Attributes (1628). Jackson, who was president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a friend of Bishop Neile had written his commentary of the creed from a neoplatonic perspective. This work stressed the ability of humans to recognize divine truths in nature and of the human will to capture a sense of divine essence. To Twisse, schooled in the supralapsarian Calvinism of William Perkins and the rigorous logic of Aristotle and the medieval schoolmen, Jackson's work was fundamentally heretical. In A Discourse of D. Jackson's Vanity, Twisse stated that Jackson's thought was ‘more fowle than Arminius himselfe’ (p. 3). Twisse marshalled all the wordplay and syllogistic reasoning available to assail Jackson's work. It has been suggested that Twisse used ‘a perverse literalness … designed to ridicule Jackson's metaphorical turn of phrase’ (Hutton, 649). However, Twisse emerged from the debate a champion of Calvinist orthodoxy and a scourge of the new Pelagianism.

Twisse's attack on Jackson gave him the confidence to enter the theological controversies of the European stage. In 1632 he published Vindiciae gratiae potestatis ac providentiae Dei, a defence of William Perkins's predestinarianism against the critique of Jacobus Arminius. This won him great praise, and in 1639 he wrote De scientia media, a work attacking the Jesuits Gabriel Penothus and Francisco Suarez. This work put Twisse at the centre of the heated debate between the Jesuits and the Molinists concerning the freedom of the human will. Twisse's works characteristically stressed the divine decree of predestination and the omnipotence of divine grace and denigrated the power of the human will. This work evoked the reply of Michael Annat, the chancellor of Louvain, as well as others. The effect of Twisse's foray into European controversy was to distinguish him as one of the most prominent theologians in England; this was especially the case among the puritans.

Twisse later put his pen to demolishing the views of John Goodwin, the Arminian ‘sect master’ of Coleman Street, and entered debates with the Independents Thomas Goodwin and John Cotton on their variations of the doctrine of justification. Twisse was also a friend of Joseph Mead, and in the early 1640s edited and wrote prefaces to two of Mead's works of eschatology.

In the spring of 1641 Twisse was one of the delegates to the House of Lords committee chaired by Bishop John Williams. This committee sought a critical review of the innovations of Archbishop Laud and the Durham House group, but failed to reach any profitable settlement. From the outbreak of the first civil war, Twisse allied with parliament. He remained in Newbury until the royalists captured it. Prince Rupert, its conqueror, son of Twisse's one-time employer, Elizabeth of Bohemia, failed in his courteous attempts to convince him of the virtue of supporting the king. Twisse fled Newbury for London, where he was put to parliament's service and became one of the three puritan lecturers of the parish of St Andrew Holborn.

In June 1643 Twisse was chosen as a delegate to the Westminster assembly and was subsequently elected as its prolocutor. Although Anthony Wood later charged him with falling in with the presbyterian radicals, it is clear that he was among the English divines who sought a reform of the episcopacy rather than a root and branch revolution of the church. Twisse was, however, old and sickly by the time of the assembly, and his faculties were escaping him. Robert Baillie, the Scots commissioner and presbyterian stalwart, wrote that while Twisse was ‘beloved of all, and highlie esteemed’, he was ‘merely bookish’ and ‘among the unfittest of all the company for any action’. Baillie thought the appointment of Twisse a ‘canny convoyance of these who guides matters for their own interest to plant such a man of purpose in the chaire’ (Baillie, 2.108). Baillie also noted that Twisse did not favour extemporary prayer and had difficulty departing from the prayer book. Baillie's assessment is characteristically harsh and perhaps a little unfair; at the beginning of the debate, Twisse defended his views on the justification of faith and appealed against the stripping of the Church of England of its lands. He also upheld the Book of Common Prayer. However, in January 1645 his poor health led him to concede that he was unfit to continue in the chair of the assembly; Cornelius Burges stepped into his place as acting prolocutor.

On 30 March 1645 Twisse fainted while preaching in the pulpit of St Andrew's, Holborn. He took to his bed at his house in Holborn and died on 20 July 1646. He was buried on 24 July at Westminster Abbey in a state funeral attended by the members of both houses of parliament. Twisse's funeral sermon was preached by his lifelong friend and colleague Dr John Harris, the warden of Winchester College. The sermon was on the topic of Joshua 1: 2, ‘Moses my servant is dead’. However, after the Restoration a royal proclamation ordered on 9 September 1661 that for supporting parliament Twisse's corpse, as well as the bodies of Thomas May, William Strong, and Stephen Marshall, should be disinterred and buried in a large pit in the churchyard of St Margaret's Church in Westminster.

In his will, dated 9 September 1645 and 30 June 1646, Twisse, apparently by this time again a widower, mentioned seven children: two married daughters, Elizabeth Shoen and Marie Hodges; and William, Francis or Frances, Robert, Joseph, and Constance. The inheritance of the three youngest children was placed in the hands of Twisse's aunt, Marie Moore of London. William was a fellow of New College, Oxford, between 1635 and 1650; Robert (bap. 1627, d. 1675) preached a sermon in Christ Church, Westminster, in 1665 on the martyrdom of Charles I, but was later ejected from his rectory at Buscot, Berkshire. Twisse appears to have left a fairly substantial estate; his will disposes the manor of Ashampstead in Berkshire, as well as other property. However, it appears that Twisse, deprived of the living of Newbury, suffered an acute cash flow crisis in his later years. On his deathbed parliament voted him a concession of £100 (which probably was never paid), and the assembly sent him a further £10. Twisse's children were promised a grant of £1000 by parliament at his death, but, as with so many of parliament's debts, the money was never paid.

E. C. Vernon


S. Clark [S. Clarke], The lives of sundry eminent persons in this later age (1683) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.169–72 · S. Hutton, ‘Thomas Jackson, Oxford Platonist, and William Twisse, Aristotelian’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 39 (1978), 635–52 · R. S. Paul, The assembly of the Lord: politics and religion in the Westminster assembly and the ‘Grand debate’ (1985) · Hist. U. Oxf. 4: 17th-cent. Oxf. · The letters and journals of Robert Baillie, ed. D. Laing, 3 vols. (1841–2) · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · Calamy rev., 499 · N. Tyacke, ‘Anglican attitudes’, Journal of British Studies, 35 (1996), 160 · DNB · IGI


T. Trotter, line engraving, pubd 1783 (after unknown artist, c.1644), NPG [see illus.] · oils, Newbury parish church

Wealth at death  

Real estate at Ashampstead, Berkshire; other realty and personalty