- Felicity Heal
West, Nicholas (d. 1533), bishop of Ely and diplomat, was born at Putney in Surrey. His father, John West, was a baker in that town. Nicholas was educated at Eton between about 1478 and 1483, and was admitted to King's College, Cambridge, as a scholar in the latter year. He incepted as BA in 1487 and MA in 1490, having become a fellow of his college as early as 1486. While he was a scholar he was involved in some disturbance which ended in part of the provost's lodgings being set on fire, but this does not seem to have affected his career adversely. John Fisher was a contemporary on the arts course, and became a lifelong friend. West took his higher degrees in the civil law: his LLD was taken before 1500, possibly from Oxford. Sanuto's Venetian diaries allege that he studied at Bologna as well.
The first benefice that West acquired was the rectory of Yelford in Oxfordshire, which he held from 1489 to 1498. It was another decade before decisive evidence of his future career success began to emerge. In 1499 Richard Fox, then bishop of Durham, presented him to the rectory of Egglescliffe, Durham, which he retained until his elevation to Ely. Fox then became his active patron, making him his vicar-general when he moved to the diocese of Winchester in 1501, and launching him on the beginning of his career in royal service. Other benefices rapidly followed: West was vicar of Kingston upon Thames from 1502 to about 1505; rector of Witney, Oxfordshire, from 1502; treasurer of Chichester Cathedral from early 1507; vicar of Merton, Oxfordshire, from 1508; and finally dean of St George's, Windsor, from 1509 to 1515. Like many of his successful ecclesiastical contemporaries he had become a pluralist on the grand scale, mainly in return for services rendered to the regime of Henry VII.
Fox sent West on his first foreign embassy in November 1502, when he became junior colleague to Sir Thomas Brandon on a mission to Emperor Maximilian. Two years later he became a royal councillor: on 26 November 1504 he was one of those sitting in the Star Chamber when a dispute between the merchants of the staple and the merchant adventurers was resolved. In 1505 West was the sole ambassador negotiating a treaty with Georg, duke of Saxony, at Calais, which aimed to prevent him from protecting the Yorkist claimant Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk; this was ratified at Dresden in December of that year. The following year West was one of the commissioners who negotiated the important commercial treaty with the Low Countries known as the malus intercursus. Within a few months he was abroad again, ratifying a treaty at Valladolid for a marriage between Henry VII and Marguerite of Savoy, sister of Philip the Fair of Castile. Although this project failed it must have marked West as a suitable marriage broker: in 1508 he was one of those deputed to assist with marriage negotiations between the Archduke Charles of Austria and Henry VII's younger daughter Mary, the treaty being signed by Henry on 8 December 1508. His final service to his royal master was a visit to France to receive Louis XII's oath to observe the treaty he had agreed in March 1509.
The accession of Henry VIII brought a short respite from the routines of diplomacy, but by November 1511 West was nominated ambassador to James IV of Scotland and travelled to York before his journey was stopped for political reasons. In February 1513 he was appointed with Lord Dacre to settle differences with the Scots: a commission to resolve border problems was established and met in June 1513, but nothing was resolved and the Scots invasion of England followed. West was then pressed into action in France again, appointed in August 1514 with Sir Thomas Docwra to take Louis XII's oath to the 1513 treaty, and to celebrate by proxy the marriage of Henry's sister Mary to Louis XII. He had scarcely returned from this journey to Paris when Louis XII died, and West was again sent, with the duke of Suffolk and Sir Richard Wingfield, to condole François I and organize a defensive alliance. He received François's oath to observe the treaty and his promise to pay the 1 million gold crowns due for the return of Tournai. It was this burst of diplomatic activity that seems to have won Nicholas West the prize of the bishopric of Ely. The temporalities were granted to him from 18 May 1515, and he was consecrated by Warham at Lambeth on 7 October.
Bishop of Ely
The grant of Ely enabled West to live in the grand manner. The see was worth approximately £2000 per annum, the fourth wealthiest of the English bishoprics. Robert Steward, last prior of Ely, asserted that he had a hundred servants, and a level of largess that allowed for the feeding of 200 poor with warm meat and drink at his gate. There can, on the other hand, have been only limited evidence that Nicholas West would emerge as a committed pastor to his Ely flock. He had admittedly given some attention to his office as dean of Windsor, residing there at the beginning of Henry VIII's reign, and overseeing the work of completing the vaulting of the chapel. In 1513 he negotiated with the crown for lands granted to the chapel in fulfilment of Lady Margaret Beaufort's will. But, like his old patron Bishop Fox, he must have assumed that he was too necessary to the governmental system to be allowed to reside steadily in his see or make it the prime focus of his attention. Events in the next decade partially confirmed this view. West was on his travels again in May 1516, when he went to Scotland with Lord Dacre and Thomas Magnus, archdeacon of the East Riding, to settle a treaty. Between October 1517 and October 1518 he was deeply involved in ambassadorial work in France, and with Wolsey's spectacular negotiations for a treaty of universal peace, and two years later he was one of the essential attendants at the Field of Cloth of Gold. He was also at Wolsey's side during the Calais negotiations of the summer of 1521 with Charles V and François I. After a brief respite in the early 1520s he was made a principal negotiator of the truce between England and France which ended the second French war, and the final 'Treaty at the More', signed on 30 August 1525, seems to have owed something to his skill.
Despite these heavy commitments West showed from the beginning of his episcopate that he had absorbed lessons in more than diplomacy from Fox. He inherited a see that had been neglected by his aristocratic predecessor, James Stanley, who was noted mainly for his hunting skills and the mistress he kept at the episcopal palace of Somersham. West was resident in his diocese for significant parts of each year from 1516 and 1528, when the bishop's register (which provides most of the relevant information) ceases. Only in 1527 is there a prolonged absence that cannot be explained by diplomatic activity. The bishop conducted his primary visitation in person in 1516, complaining to Wolsey on 4 April about the disorder at Ely Priory that 'if it had not been looked upon betimes I suppose it would not have been able to have continued a monastery four years' (TNA: PRO, SP 1/13/396). He usually undertook his own ordinations, either in the diocese or at the London residence, Ely Place; moreover he adjudicated disputes about benefices in person, and his register suggests a certain interest in the learning of his clergy. Two candidates for admission to benefices were required to engage in further study, in one case to gain a better knowledge of scripture. Although no records of his sermons survive, there is the testimony of Fisher that he was a preaching as well as a resident prelate.
Problems at Cambridge
West also showed a close interest in the University of Cambridge and its humanist learning. He became visitor of St John's College in the foundation statutes of 1516, and patronized John Siberch, the printer to the university, and Richard Croke, the second holder of the official lectureship in Greek. The latter dedicated his Orationes duae (1520) to the bishop, as a favourer of 'good letters'. As the Lutheran threat became more visible, however, West had to turn his attention from such cultural civilities to the maintenance of orthodoxy. When John Fisher offered him the dedication of Defensio regiae assertionis (1525), with its defence of Henry VIII's tract against Luther, he observed that West had already seen and discussed drafts of the work two years earlier and had urged him to publish. By the time Fisher finally went public his friend was already assailing heterodoxy among his clergy. In October 1525 George Giles, instituted to the Cambridgeshire parish of Little Eversden, had to take an oath additional to the usual promises of canonical obedience and residence, by which he renounced all heretical Lutheran teaching and swore that he would neither preach nor maintain it. West's successor, Thomas Goodrich, believed that the new oath was then administered to all those instituted in the diocese, though the evidence of the episcopal registers is that it was offered selectively, probably when there was fear about the candidate's credentials. It was, for example, administered to West's own nephew, Nicholas Hawkins, who was rumoured later to have been made to recant heretical beliefs by his uncle. In 1528 West issued statutes at his diocesan synod which, among other things, forbade the use of Tyndale's translations of the scriptures and tightened control over unlicensed preaching. The latter issue was particularly sensitive for the bishop, who in 1525 had inadvertently licensed that dangerous figure Thomas Bilney to preach in the diocese. Two years later West was present at Bilney's submission before Wolsey, and his registrar duly recorded that the licence was cancelled because of heresy.
West's most noted encounter with Cambridge heterodoxy came when he confronted Hugh Latimer. Though Latimer was licensed to preach by the university, West could claim jurisdictional interest because his preaching was heard by townsmen as well. According to Cranmer's secretary Ralph Morice, he therefore appeared at a Great St Mary's sermon to judge the danger himself. After the sermon, in which Latimer had supposedly changed his theme to address the worldliness of prelates, West tried to persuade him to preach against Luther, only to be checked with the response that he knew nothing about the German's ideas since his works were banned. This elicited the retort 'well, well, Mr. Latimer I perceive that you somewhat smell of the pan, you will repent this gear one day' (BL, Harleian MS 422, fol. 85). Latimer was prohibited from preaching in the diocese, and in the university by the vice-chancellor. Wolsey then created confusion by overturning both these decisions on appeal and giving Latimer a legatine licence, asserting that he could preach on the worldliness of prelates to the bishop of Ely's beard, 'let him say what he will'. West's only resort was to preach against heresy at Barnwell Abbey on the outskirts of Cambridge.
The running sore of Cambridge heterodoxy and university independence deeply disturbed the bishop. In the aftermath of the Latimer incident his official principal, Robert Cliffe, fell foul of the vice-chancellor for attempting to discipline a cleric from Barnard Hostel for conjuring and fornication. The incident may have started as a jurisdictional mistake, but it escalated until West had excommunicated the entire senate for their opposition to his authority and Wolsey and Fisher had become deeply involved. In June 1529 Wolsey even took the extreme step of seeking a papal bull to free both universities from all forms of episcopal control, allegedly so that he could better ensure orthodoxy. Nothing came of this, and in 1531, in the reforming sessions of convocation provoked by the divorce crisis, the tables were turned when it was proposed that the bishops of Ely and Lincoln should be given full powers of visitation in their respective universities in order to root out heresy. Such a challenge to the privileges of Oxford and Cambridge was more than even convocation could stomach, and when its legislation was promulgated in 1532 there was no mention of the issue.
Last years and death
Nicholas West was a chaplain to Katherine of Aragon, and the beginnings of the divorce crisis once again caught him up directly into national events. In July 1529 he offered testimony to the legatine court appointed by the papacy to consider the validity of Katherine's marriage to Henry, supporting, with some equivocation, the queen's denial that she had had sexual relations with Prince Arthur, and appealing to Rome as the only proper place for the case to be tried. West remained one of Katherine's key supporters in the next two years, and in the process incurred royal wrath. He was one of the group of eight bishops charged with praemunire in 1530, supposedly for their acquiescence in Wolsey's abuse of legatine power, but more significantly for their opposition to royal policy. In September 1530 Fisher, West, and Clerk of Bath and Wells took the bold step of appealing to Rome against the decisions of the 1529 parliament, especially the legislation limiting the number of benefices a cleric might hold. This led to arrest and a brief period of imprisonment for all three, perhaps the issue that broke West's resistance.
During the next eighteen months very little is known of West's movements, though he managed to attend sessions of convocation while complaining of the burden of growing ill health. He was, by curious accident, one of the rump of only three bishops who finally gave assent to the submission of the clergy in May 1532, though his continuing sympathy for Katherine is indicated by the fact that she retired from London to his house at Hatfield in August 1532. He must have felt, however, that he needed to accommodate to the new regime, for his last letters, dated from his manor of Downham in February and March 1533, address Cromwell in tones of loyal devotion previously reserved for his correspondence with Wolsey. He stressed personal connection through shared geographical origins and 'god-brothership' to trade in favours, though it is doubtful whether the new political star would have appreciated the 'token of St. Audrey, whereof you shall be sure for your life' (LP Henry VIII, vol. 6, no.218). West died at Downham on 28 April 1533, and was buried in the magnificent chantry chapel that he had constructed in Ely Cathedral. He died rich: the extraordinary inventory of his goods shows over 5000 ounces of silver and silver gilt, more than, for example, either the monasteries of Ely or Ramsey surrendered at the dissolution. The inventory also reveals a cultivated mind: his library consisted of approximately 250 volumes.
- F. Heal, ‘The bishops of Ely and their diocese, c.1515–1600’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1972
- LP Henry VIII, vols. 1–6
- R. Rex, The theology of John Fisher (1991)
- ‘Roberti Stewarde, prioris ultimi Eliensis, continuatio historiae Eliensis’, Anglia sacra, ed. [H. Wharton], 1 (1691), 675–7
- CUL, Ely diocesan records, West register G/1/7
- Emden, Cam., 629
- register of William Warham, LPL
- Letters of Richard Fox, 1486–1527, ed. P. S. Allen and H. M. Allen (1929)
- CSP Venice, 1202–1509
- J. Fisher, Defensio regiae assertionis contra Babylonicam captivitatem (1525)
- R. Croke, Orationes duae (Paris, 1520)
- TNA: PRO, State papers domestic, Henry VIII, SP 1/13/396
- BL, Harleian MS 422
- ‘Collections’, The life of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. R. Fiddes, 2 pts in 1 vol. (1724), pt 2, pp. 1–260
Wealth at Death
£1665 and 5060 oz. plate (silver and silver gilt): LP Henry VIII, 6.625