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William Nicolson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bishop Nicolson, portrait attributed to Michael Dahl.
Bishop Nicolson, portrait attributed to Michael Dahl.

William Nicolson (1655–1727) was an English churchman, linguist and antiquarian. As a bishop he played a significant part in the House of Lords during the reign of Queen Anne, and left a diary that is an important source for the politics of his times. He was a versatile scholar, involved in numerous collaborations and contributing uncredited in the work of others.

Early life

He was born in Plumbland, Cumberland, the son of Joseph Nicolson, who was rector there, and his wife Mary Briscoe, and was educated at the school in nearby Dovenby. He went up to Queen's College, Oxford and graduated BA in 1676, MA in 1679. He became a Fellow of the college, holding the post 1679 to 1682.[1]

Journey to Germany

Nicolson visited the University of Leipzig to learn German, supported by Joseph Williamson.[1] He travelled out in July 1678 via Holland, in the entourage of Robert Bruce, 1st Earl of Ailesbury. As companion he had David Hanisius; also of the party was Nicholas Oudart.[2] He went with Hanisius to Schloss Wolfenbüttel, where Hanisius was librarian in charge of the major collection left by Augustus the Younger, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, who had died in 1666. Staying also on the way at Blankenburg with Rudolph Augustus, Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, Nicolson reached Leipzig in at the end of September.[3]

Of the scholars he met in Leipzig, Nicolson was impressed by Johann Benedict Carpzov II, and Jakob Thomasius. He also admired Johann Adam Schertzer.[3] He studied there until February 1679, when he turned for home.[4] In his English Historical Library, he recommended a number of German authors: Melchior Goldast and Heinrich Lindenbrog on laws, Justus Georg Schottelius on early German as language.[5]

Priest and antiquarian

Nicolson was ordained as a deacon in 1679 and made Vicar of Torpenhow in 1681; he also became prebendary of Carlisle Cathedral in 1681, and Archdeacon and rector of Great Salkeld in 1682.[1]

In 1685 Nicolson visited the Bewcastle Cross.[6] He also saw the runic inscription at Bridekirk, and he described both in a letter to Obadiah Walker.[7] Some years later he provided a copy of the Ruthwell Cross fragments to George Hickes, based on an examination in 1797, and of some value now for the runic incription: Hickes published it in 1703, as a plate in his Thesaurus vol. iii. [8][9] In 1691 Nicolson wrote in a letter to Ralph Thoresby of his strong interest in the recovery of the history of the Kingdom of Northumbria, of which the crosses were relics. He did not in fact write such a history.[10] The interest stayed with him, however. He made collections, and acquired papers of the Cumbrian antiquarian Thomas Machell.[11]

Nicolson did carry out extended field-work trips in the summer months, through the 1690s, as a naturalist as well as an antiquarian. His beat spread out over northern England.[12]

Convocation controversy

Francis Atterbury, high church and High Tory, courted controversy in 1696 with an anonymous pamphlet suggesting Convocation should meet in parallel with Parliament.[13] Nicolson was one of a group of churchmen opposing Atterbury's views, including Edmund Gibson, White Kennett and William Wake.[14] Atterbury made offensive remarks about Nicolson in print.[1]

Bishop and chapter at Carlisle

In 1702 Nicolson, a Tory moderate, was appointed bishop of Carlisle.[1] He had cultivated the support of local Tories: Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Baronet, Thomas Tufton, 6th Earl of Thanet who was heir to the Cumbrian Clifford estates, Colonel James Grahme the brother of Richard Graham, 1st Viscount Preston.[15] He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in November 1705.[16]

Atterbury was appointed Dean of Carlisle in 1704, through the influence of Robert Harley.[13] On a single visit to Carlisle Atterbury, who had picked a fight with Nicolson over a chapter matter, lost all support except with Hugh Todd. Nicolson tried to have the appointment suppressed, but Atterbury remained in post, based in London until 1710.[17] The proxy quarrel with Todd escalated: and when Nicolson excommunicated Todd, Todd began a court case of 1707–8, based on the foundation of Carlisle Cathedral based on an Augustinian abbey, by a statute of Henry VIII. Todd won his case, but Nicolson and allies had Parliament pass in March 1708 the Cathedral Act, clarifying the bishop's right of visitation for the cathedrals in the scope of the statute. The following day Sir James Montague, a Member of Parliament for Carlisle, held a dinner for the two clerics at which they were reconciled.[18]

Later life

In 1713 White Kennett addressed to Nicolson a pamphlet on Thomas Merke, bishop of Carlisle in the time of Richard II. It dealt with The Hereditary Right of the Crown of England Asserted, an anonymous Jacobite pamphlet by George Harbin.[19][20] Nicolson had been moving in the Whig direction in politics for some years, paying off debt to the Musgrave family, associating with London Whigs and in 1709 dining with the Earl of Carlisle at Naworth Castle, and supporting the Whig side in the 1710 British general election.[21]

During the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, Nicolson was in Carlisle from 23 September. Jacobite forces under Mackintosh of Borlum and Thomas Forster marched south from the Scottish border on 1 November, through Longtown and Brampton. On 2 November Henry Lowther, 3rd Viscount Lonsdale with Nicolson were with the posse comitatus mustering at Penrith that confronted them; but the militia fled and Nicolson was driven back in his coach to Rose Castle.[22]

Nicolson served as Lord High Almoner to George I of Great Britain from 1716 to 1718. He was translated to Derry in 1718. In 1727 he was nominated archbishop of Cashel and Emly, following the death on 1 January of Archbishop Palliser, but died in Derry before he could assume charge. He was buried in Derry Cathedral.[23]

Nicolson showed zeal in collecting and guarding manuscripts and other official documents. For this purpose he had special rooms built at Derry.[23]


In 1694 Nicolson expressed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby a strong interest in the model of the Uppsala antiquarian group (Academy of Antiquities) founded in 1667 by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie.[24][25] He complained also that "our histories hitherto have been most lazily written". The year before he had blamed too individualist an approach.[26] His own major works were of critical bibliography: the Historical Library, beginning with the English Historical Library in volumes of 1696, 1697 and 1699 for the first edition. It was followed by the Scottish Historical Library, 1702; and the Irish Historical Library, 1724. There were complete later editions, in 1732 and 1776.[23] Nicolson, even if he kept in touch with Edward Lhuyd and had an interest in the links between Cumbria and North Wales,[12] did not divide Wales off from England in the Library.

There was also the Leges Marchiarum or Border Laws (1705, new ed., 1747).[23]

Early work

John Fell appointed Nicolson editor of the manuscript "Northern Dictionary" of Francis Junius, who was an Oxford resident from 1676 to autumn 1677.[1][27] He made a transcription, with additions, of Junius's collection of old German materials.[28]

While he was in Germany, Johann Adam Schertzer asked Nicolson to translate an essay by Robert Hooke. It was published in 1679 as Conamen ad motum Telluris probandum.[1][29]

Nicolson after his return held a lectureship at Queen's in Anglo-Saxon set up by Williamson, and gained a reputation in the area.[30] He himself referred to his interest in "septentrional learning".[31]


In 1701, Nicolson married Elizabeth Archer, daughter of John Archer of Oxenholme, Westmoreland. They had eight children.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Hayton, D. W. "Nicolson, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20186.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. p. 8.
  3. ^ a b F. G. James, An Oxford Student in Germany, 1678, Monatshefte Vol. 45, No. 3 (Mar., 1953), pp. 125–130, at pp. 125–6. JSTOR 30165936
  4. ^ Bulman, William J. (2015). Anglican Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-107-07368-5.
  5. ^ F. G. James, An Oxford Student in Germany, 1678, Monatshefte Vol. 45, No. 3 (Mar., 1953), pp. 125–130, at pp. 130. JSTOR 30165936
  6. ^ Page, Raymond Ian (1998). Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-85115-599-9.
  7. ^ Martyn (Londres), John; Allestry (Londres), James; Oldenburg, Henry (1686). Philosophical Transactions, Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labors of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World. 1287: T. N.
  8. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. p. 76.
  9. ^ Page, Raymond Ian (1998). Runes and Runic Inscriptions: Collected Essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Runes. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-85115-599-9.
  10. ^ Colls, Robert (2019). Northumbria: History and Identity 547-2000. History Press. p. 220. ISBN 978-0-7509-9105-6.
  11. ^ Sweet, Rosemary (2004). Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. A&C Black. p. 208. ISBN 978-1-85285-309-9.
  12. ^ a b F. V. Emery, English Regional Studies from Aubrey to Defoe, The Geographical Journal Vol. 124, No. 3 (Sep., 1958), pp. 315–325, at p. 321. Published by: The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) JSTOR 1790782
  13. ^ a b Hayton, D. W. "Atterbury, Francis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/871.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. ^ Nicolson, William (1985). The London Diaries of William Nicolson, Bishop of Carlisle 1702-1718. OUP Oxford. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-19-822404-4.
  15. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. p. 90.
  16. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". The Royal Society. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  17. ^ Lord, Evelyn (2017). The Stuart Secret Army: The Hidden History of the English Jacobites. Routledge. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-317-86854-5.
  18. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. pp. 168–9.
  19. ^ Kennett, White (1713). A letter to the Lord Bishop of Carlisle [i.e. William Nicolson], concerning one of his predecessors Bishop Merks; on occasion of a new volume for the Pretender, intituled, The hereditary right of the Crown of England asserted [by George Harbin]. The third edition. [Signed: W. K., i.e. White Kennet.]. Sam. Buckley.
  20. ^ Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney, eds. (1890). "Harbin, George" . Dictionary of National Biography. 24. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  21. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. pp. 200–2.
  22. ^ James, Francis Godwin (1956). North Country Bishop: A Biography of William Nicolson. Yale University Press. pp. 218–9.
  23. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nicolson, William" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 664.
  24. ^ David C. Douglas, English Scholars (1939), p. 131.
  25. ^ Bandle, Oscar; Braunmüller, Kurt; Jahr, Ernst Hakon; Karker, Allan; Naumann, Hans-Peter; Telemann, Ulf; Elmevik, Lennart; Widmark, Gun (2008). The Nordic Languages. Walter de Gruyter. p. 358. ISBN 978-3-11-019705-1.
  26. ^ Sweet, Rosemary (2004). Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. A&C Black. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-85285-309-9.
  27. ^ Romburgh, Sophie van (2003). "For My Worthy Freind Mr Franciscus Junius": An Edition of the Correspondence of Francis Junius F.F. (1591-1677). BRILL. p. 11. ISBN 978-90-474-1248-9.
  28. ^ Considine, John (2008). Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage. Cambridge University Press. p. 324. ISBN 978-1-139-47105-3.
  29. ^ "Conamen ad motum Telluris probandum ex observationibus astronomi celeberrimi Roberti Hooke Regiæ Societatis, apud Londinenses, Socii Quod è sermone Anglicano in Latinum transtulit Guilhelmus Nicolson, Collegi Reginalis, apud Oxonienses, Art. Bacc".
  30. ^ Gameson, Richard; Hellinga, Lotte; Barnard, John; McKenzie, Donald Francis; Trapp, Joseph Burney; Morgan, Nigel J.; Thomson, Rodney M.; Willison, Ian R.; McKitterick, David; Bell, Maureen; Suarez, Michael F.; Turner, Michael L. (1998). The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain: 1557-1695. Cambridge University Press. p. 200. ISBN 978-0-521-66182-9.
  31. ^ Levine, Joseph M. (2018). The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Cornell University Press. p. 374. ISBN 978-1-5017-2764-1.
Church of England titles
Preceded by
Thomas Smith
Bishop of Carlisle
Succeeded by
Samuel Bradford
Church of Ireland titles
Preceded by
St George Ashe
Bishop of Derry
Succeeded by
Henry Downes
This page was last edited on 10 December 2019, at 20:53
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