Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 20 October 2019

Nicolson, Williamfree

  • D. W. Hayton

William Nicolson (1655–1727)

by W. Miln, 1891 (after unknown artist, c. 1715–20)

reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of the Queen's College, Oxford

Nicolson, William (1655–1727), Church of Ireland bishop of Derry and antiquary, was born on Whitsunday, 3 June 1655—according to local tradition, in the porch of the parish church of Great Orton, Cumberland. His father, Joseph Nicolson (1622/3–1686), was a time-serving clergyman of varied intellectual interests, who had been installed in the living of Plumbland, in the same county, by the parliamentarian regime in 1647; his mother, Mary (d. 1689), was the daughter of a local puritan gentleman, John Briscoe of Crofton Hall, among whose properties was an estate at Great Orton. Joseph Nicolson transferred to the rectory of Great Orton in 1657, and accumulated several more Cumberland livings by 1660. A rapid readjustment ensured that he retained this sheaf of preferments after the Restoration, but the sum total of his income was not large, and his hopes of further advancement dim. Thus William, the eldest of three sons, enjoyed only limited material advantages in his youth. He attended a local school at Dovenby, and was able to enter Queen's, Oxford (his father's old college), in 1670 as a 'batteller'.

Clergyman and scholar, 1670–1702

Thomas Hearne, a hostile witness, recalled that at Oxford Nicolson was observed to possess 'good, strong parts but was a very drunken, idle fellow' (Remarks, 2.62). Conviviality cannot have preoccupied him, however, for he was elected taberdar of the college after graduating BA in 1676 (he took his MA three years later), and a fellow in 1679. His talents also attracted the attention of a fellow Cumbrian, Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson, who paid for him to travel to Germany in 1678, possibly in order to prepare him for the diplomatic service. Nicolson spent five months in Saxony attending Leipzig University. His flair for languages enabled him to master German, as Williamson had presumably intended, but his principal interests were of a scholarly kind. While in Leipzig, at the instigation of the Lutheran theologian Johann Schertzer, he translated into Latin an essay by Robert Hooke on the motion of the earth, which he published in 1679. On his return to Oxford he continued to receive financial assistance from Williamson, and was the first holder of a lectureship in Anglo-Saxon studies established by Williamson at Queen's. Nicolson became acquainted with the Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Francis Junius, and was appointed by Bishop Fell to edit Junius's unfinished dictionary of the 'Northern languages', a mammoth task of which he accomplished only the transcription. He also contributed to the multi-volume English Atlas projected by the London publisher Moses Pitt: Nicolson was responsible for chapters on Poland and Denmark in the first volume (1680) and produced the second and third volumes (1681–2), covering the German empire, entirely by himself.

In December 1679 Nicolson was ordained a deacon, and in 1681 received from Bishop Rainbow of Carlisle a cathedral prebend and a small living as vicar of Torpenhow. At first he hoped his college would allow him to retain his fellowship, but there were difficulties, and during a prolonged negotiation Rainbow offered him, in addition, the newly vacant archdeaconry of Carlisle. In these circumstances Nicolson left Queen's, and in October 1682 became archdeacon and rector of the attached parish of Great Salkeld, which he made his residence. In 1699 he added another vicarage to his quiver. Yet he was still by no means well-to-do, and his first attempt at finding a wife, in 1684, foundered on the unwillingness of the prospective bride and her family to contemplate an alliance with a clergyman of slender means. Two years later, however, he married on 3 June Elizabeth (1656–1712), daughter of Dr John Archer of Oxenholme, near Kendal, a 'modest' woman (Diary of Ralph Thoresby, 1.276) with whom he was very happy. They had eight children.

The day after the proclamation of James II, Nicolson preached a sermon at Carlisle Cathedral welcoming the new king and promulgating a doctrine of passive obedience to a divinely ordained ruler. Kings, he declared, were 'God's vicegerents on earth' (Nicolson, Sermon Preached in the Cathedral Church of Carlisle, 7). He also praised the deceased Charles II for enforcing uniformity of religious observance. In an act of political opportunism, the sermon was dedicated to the clerk of the privy council, Philip Musgrave, son of Sir Christopher Musgrave, the most powerful political figure in the locality. Despite the exalted view of monarchy presented in this sermon Nicolson evidently found little difficulty in accepting the revolution, and in May 1689 urged the diocesan clergy to swear allegiance to the new regime; any wavering would only serve the interests of the enemies of the established church. It seems most appropriate to characterize him at this point as a tory: certainly, his attitude to nonconformists was one of hostility, as manifested, for example, in his unwillingness to support the establishment in Carlisle of a society for the reformation of manners because of the involvement of local dissenters (although he later came round to supporting the movement in general, and published a sermon he had preached in 1706 to the London societies). Throughout his ecclesiastical career Nicolson displayed a devotion to duty and a determination to maintain the material resources and corporate privileges of the church, even if his own religious faith was practical rather than mystical.

Although far removed from the university, Nicolson did not lack intellectual stimulation or companionship. He amassed a substantial library and antiquarian collection. Ralph Thoresby, visiting in 1694, was highly impressed by his 'museum' of coins and 'natural curiosities' (Diary of Ralph Thoresby, 1.275). Thoresby was one of a number of friends of a similar inquiring disposition with whom Nicolson corresponded. Through their recommendation he was (somewhat belatedly) elected FRS in 1705. In the early 1690s he began work on a history of Northumbria: it was never completed, though the research proved useful to other writers, including Edward Lhuyd and the philologist John Ray, whose Collection of English Words (1691) drew heavily on Nicolson's Northumbrian compilations. Nicolson also contributed to the Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus produced by George Hickes in 1703. But his most important work was his English Historical Library, published in 1696–9, a comprehensive bibliography of printed and manuscript materials on English history, compiled with a patriotic as well as a scholarly purpose. The work was also infused with a vigorous wit, which made austere commentators suspicious, and there were inevitably errors, which exposed Nicolson to the criticism that he was hasty and sometimes slapdash in his scholarship. He then turned his attention northwards, and in 1702 produced a Scottish Historical Library (1702). Much later, when he was domiciled in Ireland, there followed an Irish Historical Library (1724), though this was seriously marred by his manifest ignorance of the Irish language. The three works were reprinted together in a compendium volume in 1736.

Bishop of Carlisle, 1702–1718

Until 1702 Nicolson maintained a moderate tory outlook in secular politics. A sermon he preached before the House of Lords in 1702 on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, while by no means high-flying in its political doctrine, was still distinctively tory in tone: the definition of royal authority was repeated verbatim from his sermon of 1685; he reprimanded those who denounced James II in order to prove loyalty to King William; and he developed a providential interpretation of the revolution which, he argued, was not enough to justify abandoning traditional beliefs in divine right and passive obedience. Locally, his main friendships were with such supporters of the 'church' interest as the Musgraves and Grahmes, and as late as 1702 he was active on behalf of tory candidates in parliamentary elections. When, to his surprise, he was advanced to the vacant bishopric of Carlisle in 1702 it was with the endorsement of Sir Christopher Musgrave and the tory Archbishop Sharp of York. In his new incarnation he had an entrée into national politics and characteristically attended to his duties in the House of Lords with great conscientiousness. He then began to change his political complexion. In part this may have been the manifestation of a pragmatism inherited from his father; but it was also a reaction against the increasing stridency of the high-church faction, and in particular a result of personal clashes with prominent high-churchmen, most notably Francis Atterbury. During the 'convocation controversy' of the late 1690s Nicolson had opposed Atterbury's arguments from a historical point of view. In return Atterbury had offered gratuitous offence to Nicolson, deriding his scholarship, and Nicolson, who privately referred to Atterbury as a 'foul-mouthed preacher' (Nichols, 1.220), had been moved to reply in print. Thus when Atterbury, of all people, was nominated in 1704 to the deanery of Carlisle, the consequences were predictable. The two men, both strong characters and with a history of mutual animosity, inevitably quarrelled. Nicolson, having at first refused to institute Atterbury, was then drawn into factional disputes within the cathedral chapter, which called into question the authority of both dean and bishop. In attempting to assert his rights of visitation over the chapter, Nicolson became embroiled in a protracted legal struggle which was resolved only by the passage of a parliamentary statute in 1708 in favour of episcopal authority. This dispute confirmed Nicolson's change of party allegiance, as he found himself relying for support within the ecclesiastical establishment on the low-church party, and in parliament on the whigs, especially Sir James Montagu, MP for Carlisle, the attorney-general and brother of the junto lord, Halifax.

This shift towards the whigs had been foreshadowed in 1704 when, having supported previous bills against occasional conformity to the Church of England, Nicolson opposed the 'tack' of the third Occasional Conformity Bill to the land tax. He distanced himself from the tories' 'church in danger' electoral campaign in the following year, and by 1708 was backing whig candidates in elections rather than his old friends. He found some difficulty over the union with Scotland in 1707. Certainly he favoured the measure on political grounds: he had advocated it strongly in the introduction to a historical collection of Anglo-Scottish treaties he had published in 1705, entitled Leges marchiarum, and in a sermon before the queen in 1707 he described the union itself as 'a most glorious deliverance' (Nicolson, The Blessings of the Sixth Year, 26). But he was concerned for the security of the Church of England and assisted Archbishop Tenison of Canterbury in drafting a saving act, though its provisions did not go so far as high-churchmen would have wished. On the other hand, he had no compunction in condemning the high-church Dr Sacheverell 'and his rabble' in 1710 (James, 201), even though for once he was not present in parliament for the crucial vote on Sacheverell's impeachment. In the ensuing general election of 1710 Nicolson intervened at Carlisle in support of Sir James Montagu to an unprecedented degree. Afterwards he found himself named in an election petition from the defeated tory candidate, one of whose charges was that Nicolson had publicized a private letter from Montagu, with the news that the former attorney-general had been granted a pension, in an effort to persuade undecided voters that Montagu still enjoyed royal favour. Tories in the Commons passed a resolution denouncing this interference as an infringement on the liberties and privileges of their house.

Nicolson enjoyed some share in the political triumph of the whigs in 1714 to the extent that he was made lord almoner to the new king, but for some time this proved to be the limit of his advancement. He may have been held back because, to the more advanced whigs, he still appeared too much of a 'church tory'. Certainly he had been sufficiently firm in support of the interests of the established church to have given his backing to the Occasional Conformity Act of 1711 (which, for tactical reasons, the whig junto had also endorsed) and, more significantly perhaps, the Schism Act of 1714, against nonconformist education, which had been a pet project of high tories. Subsequently, he gave further evidence of traditional churchmanship. In 1717 he protested in person to George I against proposals to repeal the Occasional Conformity Act and rallied episcopal opposition. The following year he was drawn into the controversy that followed Bishop Hoadly's notoriously Erastian sermon at the Chapel Royal. Nicolson was invoked by one anti-Hoadleian writer as a witness to the fact that the original sermon had been more extreme than the printed version; then he himself claimed in a pamphlet, A Collection of Papers Scattered Lately about the Town … with some Remarks upon them (1717), that Hoadly had modified his text on the advice of Bishop White Kennett. The episode damaged not only Nicolson's friendship with Kennett but his entire reputation. It was a low point in his career. His wife had died in 1712, and he had a large family to support from what was still only a moderate income. For once in his life this usually robust character fell prey to depression.

Bishop of Derry, 1718–1727

Thus when Nicolson was offered in March 1718 translation to the more lucrative Irish diocese of Derry, he was willing to accept, even though it cost him his almoner's place and removed him from the centre of the political stage. As far as the ministry was concerned, this move marginalized one of the most trenchant critics of its ecclesiastical policy, who even after receiving notification of his appointment was willing to vote against the administration on an issue (the Bristol Workhouse Bill) with implications for the maintenance of the Anglican monopoly of public office. Archbishop Wake of Canterbury, who had worked alongside him since 1714 in seeking to restrain the anti-clerical elements in the whig party, lamented that he had, in a manner of speaking, lost his right hand with Nicolson's departure. The new bishop of Derry visited his diocese for the first time in the summer of 1718 before returning to Carlisle to wind up his affairs. In May 1719 he arrived in Ireland to settle permanently, one of the conditions of his appointment having been that he reside.

Nicolson threw himself into his new role, putting aside any bitterness he might have felt at suffering a form of political and intellectual exile. The diocese contained a large and assertive body of protestant dissenters: Presbyterians of Scottish extraction, whose ethnic and religious cohesion made them far more formidable than English nonconformists. The Church of Ireland itself was also poorly endowed. Nicolson, as ever, proved himself an active and energetic prelate, despite age and increasing infirmity. He continued his determined opposition to dissent, and in the Irish parliament was loud in defence of the sacramental test and in denunciation of any proposed toleration for Presbyterians. At the same time he was a keen advocate of the implementation, and indeed the reinforcement, of the penal code against Catholics. But for all these iron convictions and for all his bluster, Nicolson showed himself to be, in his private correspondence, capable of sympathy for the economic deprivation of Irish people, Presbyterian and Catholic no less than Anglican. On 'national' questions he was always a prominent defender of English interests against the demands of 'patriot' politicians. In the celebrated case of Annesley <i>v.</i> Sherlock (1717–19), which raised the issue of the jurisdictional autonomy of the Irish upper house, he argued against maintaining the rights of the Dublin parliament against Westminster. He thus became a principal object of attacks from the 'Irish party' among the bishops, and in particular was accused by his political enemies of nepotism. But, unlike other English appointees to Irish sees, he could never be denounced as an absentee, and as years passed he grew fond of his adopted country and appreciated more clearly the difficulties under which the Irish economy laboured.

On the death of Archbishop Lindsay of Armagh in 1724 Nicolson was considered a possible successor, while he himself recommended his friend Henry Downes, bishop of Killala. Neither was appointed, but in January 1727 Nicolson did find himself nominated to the vacant archbishopric of Cashel. Although to accept the offer would have meant a financial loss, he agreed to go in order that Downes (who himself had a large family to provide for) might succeed him in Derry. Fate intervened, however, and on 14 February Nicolson suffered a fatal apoplectic fit 'as he sat in his chair in his study' (Remarks, 9.281). He was buried in the cathedral at Derry. His eldest son, Joseph, chancellor of the diocese of Lincoln, followed him to the grave in the same year. The other surviving son, John, whom he had previously provided with a living in Ireland, inherited his library and 'museum'. As well as his multifarious published works, Nicolson left a large collection of diaries, notebooks, and private papers. The diaries, which cover the periods 1684–5, 1690, and 1700–25, include the best surviving record of debates and proceedings in the House of Lords in the reign of Queen Anne, and from a historical point of view probably constitute his most valuable legacy.


  • F. G. James, North country bishop: a biography of William Nicolson (1956)
  • The London diaries of William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle, 1702–1718, ed. C. Jones and G. Holmes (1985)
  • P. J. Dunn, ‘The political and ecclesiastical activities of William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle, 1702–1718’, MA diss., U. Lond., 1931
  • BL, Add. MS 34265
  • J. Nichols, ed., Letters on various subjects … to and from William Nicolson, 2 vols. (1809)
  • W. Nicolson, A sermon preached in the cathedral church of Carlisle, on Sunday Feb. 15 1684/5 (1685)
  • W. Nicolson, A sermon preached before the Rt. Honble the lords spiritual and temporal in the collegiate church of Westminster … 31 Jan. 1702 (1702)
  • W. Nicolson, The blessings of the sixth year (1707) [sermon preached before the queen at St James's Chapel, 8 March 1706/7]
  • J. Nicolson and R. Burn, History and antiquities of Westmorland and Cumberland, 2 vols. (1777)
  • C. R. Hudleston and R. S. Boumphrey, Cumberland families and heraldry, Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, extra ser., 23 (1978)
  • The diary of Ralph Thoresby, ed. J. Hunter, 2 vols. (1830)
  • G. V. Bennett, The tory crisis in church and state, 1688–1730: the career of Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester (1975)
  • G. V. Bennett, White Kennett, 1660–1728, bishop of Peterborough (1957)
  • R. Mant, History of the Church of Ireland (1840)
  • P. McNally, ‘“Irish and English interests”: national conflict within the Church of Ireland episcopate in the reign of George I’, Irish Historical Studies, 29 (1994–5), 295–314
  • Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 11 vols., OHS, 2, 7, 13, 34, 42–3, 48, 50, 65, 67, 72 (1885–1921)


  • BL, corresp., Add. MS 34265
  • Bodl. Oxf., collections and notes, incl. plan for his book on Northumbria
  • Bodl. Oxf., collections relating to his English Historical Library
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp.
  • Chapter House Library, Carlisle
  • Parl. Arch., diaries [photocopies]
  • priv. coll., diary
  • PRONI, diaries, almanacs, and accounts [copies]
  • Queen's College, Oxford, travel journal
  • TCD, commonplace book, MS. 716
  • Tullie House Library, Carlisle, diaries and papers
  • U. Edin. L., adversaria for his Scottish Historical Library
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Arthur Charlett
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Rawl.
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner
  • Christ Church Oxf., letters to William Wake [copies in BL, Add. MS 6116 and V&A NAL]
  • LPL, corresp. with David Wilkins
  • TCD, corresp. with William King
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, letters to Ralph Thoresby


  • W. Miln, portrait, 1891 (after unknown artist, 1715–1720), Queen's College, Oxford [see illus.]
  • portrait (after oils, Queen's College, Oxford), repro. in James, North country bishop, frontispiece

Wealth at Death

property in Cumberland, books, and collection of ‘antiquities’ to second son, John, and £1000 to each of surviving six children: James, North country bishop, 278–9; copy of will at NL Ire., MS D/27164

J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)
Oxford Historical Society
A. G. Matthews, (1948); repr. (1988)
Christ Church, Oxford