Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Billingsley, Nicholas

BILLINGSLEY, NICHOLAS (1633–1709), poet and divine, was a native of Faversham, Kent. He was probably son of Nicholas Billingsley, one of the masters of Faversham School and rector of Belshanger from 23 Nov. 1644 till 4 July 1661. The parish register of Faversham has, under baptisms, the entry, '1633, 1 November, Nicholas,, son of Nicholas and Letitia Billingsley.' It has been stated that in 1658, when he proceeded B.D. [?B.A.], he was in his sixteenth year; but this is a mistake caused by a misinterpretation of certain allusions in his poems. In his epistle before his 'Infancy of the World' to Francis Rous of Eton, he writes: 'It is now [1656] six years compleat since I was through your favour removed from my late reverend father's side and placed in that famous and flourishing school of Eaton; from whence, after some continuance there, having not the happiness (nor was I alone) to be transplanted elsewhere in a college of the same foundation, whatever want of learning or somewhat else, of much (what if I say more?) looked upon by many now-a-days, or both, were impediments, I shall not now stand to determine;' and then he adds that his poetry was 'as good as the third lustrum of his age was then able to produce.' This epistle is dated from Canterbury, 29 Dec. 1656. But the mentioning of 'third lustrum' implies not that in 1656 he was about fifteen, but that he was so when the poetry first published in 1656 was composed or produced. Similarly one John Swan, among the prefixed commendatory poems, addresses him 'in his fifteenth year.'

In his 'Brachy-Martyrology' the young author styles himself of 'Merton College, Oxford.' But his academic attendances must have been interrupted by sickness, for he tells us that he composed 'Brachy-Martyrology' at his father's house when 'dispensed from college by illness.' The second part of 'Brachy-Martyrology' is dated from Wickham-Brook, 5 June 1657.

He was deprived of the living of Weobley in Herefordshire on the passing of the Act of Uniformity in 1662. He was then married to a daughter of Richard Hawes of Lantmartine (Herefordshire), who was ejected, and took up his residence with his son-in-law at Abergavenny. There Billingsley kept school until, 'by the good offices of Sir Edward Harley, he was settled at Blakeney in the parish of Awre in Gloucestershire.' The maintenance of this small living (50l. per annum) depended upon an impropriation, which, 'by the generosity of a gentleman, had been annexed to a chapel of ease' in the village. He was simultaneously offered the vicarage, but the principle and conscience which had made him give up Weobley constrained him to decline it. While Dr. Nicholson (d. 1670–1) was bishop (of Gloucester) and a Mr. Jordan, a moderate and pious man, was vicar of the parish, he was left in peace. But the vicar died in 1668, and two successive high-church vicars did all in their power to molest and ruin him. After the death of Bishop Pritchet in 1680–1, the succeeding bishop (Frampton) and the chancellor (Parsons) were his bitter opponents. The chancellor after hearing Billingsley preach a visitation-sermon, in which he reproved the vices of the clergy, so far forgot himself as in the open street to pluck the preacher by the hair, with these words: 'Sirrah, you are a rogue, and I'll bind you to your good behaviour.' After this disreputable incident Billingsley had many suspensions and pains and penalties for 'want of that conformity to which his place did not oblige him.' He complied so far as 'to read more or less of the Common Prayer, and to wear the surplice, after the bishop had given it under his hand that it was not required to be worn upon the account of any supposed holiness in the garment, but only for decency and comeliness.' Afterwards Frampton's chancellor satisfied his own long-nursed wrath by again suspending Billingsley. On this, in the anonymous 'Life of Frampton,' published for the first time so recently as 1876 (edited by T. Simpson Evans, M.A., pp. 174–7), the truculent writer denounces Billingsley (though he knew so little of him as to misname him Benjamin ) as 'always of an anti-monarchical and rebellious temper, and if against the king no wonder against the bishop' (p. 174). When, however, Dr. Fowler succeeded as bishop, he blamed the chancellor and took steps to induce Billingsley to return, and kept the place open for a whole year. But, worn out by his many persecutions and sufferings, Billingsley respectfully declined to reconsider his decision finally to leave Awre. Thenceforward he exercised his ministry among the nonconformists in different places in Gloucestershire. He at length became very feeble, and died at Bristol in December 1709.

Anthony à Wood ignored his ministerial offices, whilst both Calamy and Palmer knew nothing of his poems. Richard Baxter had in his possession a manuscript of his entitled 'Theological Reflections on God's admirable Master-piece,' and he wrote on the fly-leaf as follows: 'The poetry of this book I leave to the judgment and relish of the reader; the philosophical and theological matter, us far as I had leisure to peruse it, is such as is agreeable to the authors that are most commonly esteemed.' Billingsley, in his 'Treasury of Divine Raptures,' dubs himself 'a private chaplain to the muse.' His books are: 1. 'Brachy-Martyrologia; or a Breviary of all the greatest Persecutions which have befallen the Saints and People of God from the Creation to our Present Times: Paraphras'd by Nicholas Billingsley of Mert. Coll. Oxon., 1657. 2. 'Κοσμοβρεφία, or the Infancy of the World; with an Appendix of God's Resting, Eden's Garden, Man's Happiness before. Misery after, his Fall. Whereunto is added, the Praise of Nothing; Divine Ejaculations; the Four Ages of the World; the Birth of Christ; also a Century of Historical Applications; with a Taste of Poetical Fictions. Written some years since by N. B., then of Eaton School, and now published at the request of his Friends,' 1658. 3. 'Thesauro-Phulakion, a Treasury of Divine Raptures, consisting of Serious Observations, Pious Ejaculations, Select Epigrams, alphabetically rank'd and fill'd by a Private Chaplain to the illustrious and renowned Lady Urania, the Divine and Heavenly Muse,' 1667. Various sub-title-pages are introduced and many dedications. He left two sons: Richard, who died minister of Whitchurch, Hampshire, father of the Rev. Samuel Billingsley (Palmer's Nonconf. Mem. i. 402), and Nicholas, minister of Ashwick, Somersetshire (ib. ii. 298).

[Wood's Fasti (Bliss), ii. 213; Calamy and Palmer, ii. 297-8. 477; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus.; Life of Robert Frampton, Bishop of Gloucester, deprived as a non-jurist (an interesting but partisan book, 1876); local researches by Mr. Charles Smith, Faversham, Kent.]

A. B. G.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.27
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
36 ii 18 Billingsley, Nicholas : for Belshanger read Betteshanger
37 i 4-5 for Lantmartine read Leintwardine
ii 11 f.e. for non-jurist read non-juror