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Watson, Thomas (1637–1717), bishop of St David's, was born on 1 March 1637 at North Ferriby, near Hull, the son of John Watson, a seaman. He was educated at Hull grammar school and entered St John's College, Cambridge, on 25 May 1655, graduating BA in 1659 and proceeding MA in 1662. He was ordained a deacon and priest in the diocese of Ely on 22 December 1667 and proceeded BD and became a fellow of St John's in 1669. He was presented to the rectory of Burrough Green, Cambridgeshire, in 1672 and made a DD in 1675. In 1678–9 he supported the tory candidates at the county election in Cambridgeshire.

Watson continued to hold Burrough Green in commendam with the bishopric of St David's, to which he was consecrated on 26 June 1687, apparently upon the recommendation of Henry Jermyn, Lord Dover, a Roman Catholic with Cambridgeshire connections. Watson was a committed supporter of James II and in November 1687 he was expected to support repeal of the Test Acts should James II call a new parliament. Unlike the seven bishops he was an advocate of the Anglican clergy reading the second declaration of indulgence from their pulpits, and made efforts to ensure that they complied in his diocese. In December 1688 such was his unpopularity that ‘the rabble in Cambridge’ attacked St John's and imprisoned Watson ‘with a halter around his neck’ (Le Fleming MSS, 230), but he was rescued by the college fellows. This may account for his absence from London during the revolution. He attended the Convention and opposed the motion declaring that James II had abdicated, and supported the proposal for a regency in January and February 1689. After initially refusing to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy to William and Mary he took them on 31 March 1690. However, he was still omitted from the Act of Grace, which pardoned all but a handful for their actions committed in the previous reigns, in May. Watson's survival as bishop is to be explained by the king's desire not to drive even more of the episcopal bench into nonjuring. Thereafter Watson opposed the government of the day, most notably in supporting the place bill in January 1693, refusing the oath of Association in February 1696 (which in threatening action against his enemies in the wake of the assassination plot declared William king de jure as well as de facto) and opposing the bill of attainder against the Jacobite Sir John Fenwick in November 1696.

Watson seems to have been in conflict with some of his clergy from the very onset of his episcopate. He blamed the tenure of Bishop Robert Lucy for much bad practice among the clergy, and in his visitation of 1691 set about remedying their faults. He may have targeted whig clergy, and certainly was at odds with his chancellor, Robert Lucy, the son of Bishop Lucy. However, his clergy fought back, accusing Watson of simony and extortion, and one Jeremiah Griffith brought a case to the assizes at Brecon in 1693 which found the bishop guilty of taking excessive fees. In 1694 Watson announced that his chancellor, residentiary canons, and beneficed clergy should be resident, a further salvo in his battle with his whig clergy. Lucy responded with a petition to Archbishop Tillotson to inquire into the charges against the bishop. Thus, on 24 July 1694 commissioners were appointed to visit the diocese and on 21 August Watson was suspended.

The death of Archbishop Tillotson saw Watson petition his successor, Thomas Tenison, for the suspension to be lifted, which it duly was in February 1695. However, Watson continued to pursue Lucy, who responded by issuing a series of charges against Watson. These included simony, the taking of excessive fees at ordinations, institutions, and visitations, and of conferring orders without administering the oaths, yet certifying that he had done so. Watson was called before Archbishop Tenison on 24 October but after the charges were read he claimed parliamentary privilege. Lucy petitioned the House of Lords on 7 March 1696, praying that the case be allowed to go forward, and Watson waived his privilege on 20 March after the petition was dropped. Various hearings were held during 1696–9, and on 3 August 1699 judgment was given by Tenison, assisted by five bishops, and Watson was found guilty and sentenced to deprivation, although Thomas Sprat, bishop of Rochester, dissented from the sentence and did not attend the final hearing. Watson appealed against the sentence to the court of delegates, arguing that the archbishop did not have that power, and then resumed his privilege, taking his seat again in the Lords on 18 November 1699. However, after hearing counsel the Lords decided on 6 December that Watson should not be allowed to resume his privilege. He last sat in the Lords on 22 December 1699. An attempt to use the court of king's bench to force the court of delegates to admit more evidence also failed, and on 22 February 1700 the delegates confirmed the sentence of deprivation. On 3 March 1700 Watson failed in an attempt to get the king's bench to reverse its earlier decision. Problems then arose on how to eject Watson from the temporalities of his see, and on 8 March the Lords petitioned the crown not to fill the vacancy ‘for some convenient time’.

Watson refused to accept the sentence as confirmed by the delegates and refused to pay the costs of the suit, now over £600. For the second offence he was excommunicated, and in June 1702 he was imprisoned in Newgate for not paying his fees, remaining in custody until October. On 9 October he petitioned the queen for ‘a commission of review’ (Carpenter, 226) nominated by the crown. In reply the crown merely claimed the bishop's lands as he was suspended, but Watson continued to maintain that he was still bishop. The crown proceeded against Watson in the court of exchequer on 15 June 1703, and having lost his case Watson appealed to the exchequer chamber, which ruled against him on 24 November 1704. Finally Watson brought a writ of error before the Lords, but lost by forty-nine votes to twenty. George Bull was consecrated as Watson's successor on 5 March 1705.

Henceforth Watson retired to Great Wilbraham in Cambridgeshire, where he died ‘very rich’ (Remarks, 6.65) on 3 June 1717. As an excommunicant he was buried privately the following evening at Great Wilbraham. Although at least one document appears to refer to his wife, Joanna, that was also the name of the wife of his brother, William, who proved his will.

Stuart Handley


Venn, Alum. Cant. · Report on the manuscripts of the late Reginald Rawdon Hastings, 4 vols., HMC, 78 (1928–47) · The manuscripts of the House of Lords, new ser., 12 vols. (1900–77), vol. 2, pp. 206, 221; vol. 3, pp. 235–7; vol. 4, pp. 115–17; vol. 6, pp. 228–9 · E. Carpenter, Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury (1948), 205–37 · State trials, 14.447–71 · Bishop Burnet's History, 4.415–17, 460–61; 5.188–9 · N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 3–5 (1857) · The London diaries of William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle, 1702–1718, ed. C. Jones and G. Holmes (1985), 247, 253, 258–60, 263–6, 275 · Letters illustrative of the reign of William III from 1696 to 1708 addressed to the duke of Shrewsbury by James Vernon, ed. G. P. R. James, 3 vols. (1841), vol. 2, pp. 334, 338, 376–7 · The correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and of his brother Lawrence Hyde, earl of Rochester, ed. S. W. Singer, 2 (1828), 171, 255–60, 312–13 · H. Horwitz, Parliament, policy and politics in the reign of William III (1977), 108, 110, 337 · The manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, HMC, 25 (1890), 210, 230 · Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 6, OHS, 43 (1902), 65


BL, corresp., etc. |  Hunt. L., letters to seventh earl of Huntingdon, HA 13083–13151


oils (of Watson?), St John Cam.

Wealth at death  

approx. £20,000: State Trials, 14.471