Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicolson, William
NICOLSON, WILLIAM (1655–1727), divine and antiquary, probably born at Plumbland, Cumberland, on Whit-Sunday, 1655, was the eldest son of the Rev. Joseph Nicolson (d. 1686), rector of Plumbland, who married Mary, daughter of John Brisco of Crofton in Thursby, gentleman. He was educated at Dovenby in Bridekirk (Miscellany Accounts, pp. 84, 89) and at Queen's College, Oxford, matriculating on 1 July 1670, and graduating B.A. 23 Feb. 1675–1676, and M.A. 3 July 1679. He was elected taberder on 3 Feb. 1675, and fellow on 6 Nov. 1679, vacating his fellowship in the spring of 1682. In 1678 he visited Leipzig, at the expense of Sir Joseph Williamson, then secretary of state, to learn German and the northern languages of Europe, and, after undergoing great hardships, returned home through France. While at Leipzig he translated from English into Latin an essay of Robert Hooke towards a proof of the motion of the earth from the sun's parallax, which was printed at the cost of the professor who suggested it; and after his return to England he sent some letters to David Hanisius, which are inserted in the ‘Historia Bibliothecæ Augustæ,’ at Wolffenbuttel, by Jacobus Burckhard, pt. iii. chap. iii. pp. 297–8. Subsequently he contributed descriptions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland to the first volume of Moses Pitt's ‘English Atlas’ (Oxford, 1680), accounts of the empire of Germany to the second and third volumes (1681 and 1683), and had begun, for the same undertaking, the supervision and completion of the description of Turkey (Thoresby, Corresp. i. 122). Hearne says that Nicolson had ‘ye reputation (and not undeservedly) of a drinking fellow and boon companion;’ but his industry must always have been great, for at Oxford, in addition to the labours already specified, he transcribed for Bishop Fell the large lexicon of Junius, and compiled a ‘Glossarium Brigantinum.’
Nicolson was ordained deacon in December 1679, and became chaplain to the Right Rev. Edward Rainbow, bishop of Carlisle, who soon secured his advancement in the church. In 1681 he was appointed to the vicarage of Torpenhow, Cumberland, and held it until 2 Feb. 1698–9, when he resigned, in exchange with his brother-in-law, for the vicarage of Addingham. He was collated to the first stall in Carlisle Cathedral on 17 Nov. 1681, and to the archdeaconry of Carlisle, on 3 Oct. 1682; was instituted in the same year to the rectory of Great Salkeld, which was annexed to the archdeaconry, and in February 1698–9 to the vicarage of Addingham, retaining the whole of these preferments until his elevation to the episcopal bench in 1702. From 1682 he resided at Great Salkeld, where he built outhouses at the rectory, constructed new school buildings, and erected a wall round the churchyard. Two letters by him, dated November 1685, are in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ xv. 1287–95. The first, addressed to the Rev. Obadiah Walker, master of University College, Oxford, related to a runic inscription at Beaucastle; the second, written to Sir William Dugdale, concerned a similar inscription on the font at Bridekirk. They are reprinted in the second impression of Gibson's edition of Camden's ‘Britannia,’ ii. 1007–10, 1029–31. He was elected F.R.S. on 30 Nov. 1705.
Nicolson, if we may rely on the statement of Hearne, inclined in early life to toryism and high-church principles; but he soon changed these views, ‘courting ye figure of ye Loggerhead at Lambeth’ (Hearne, Collections, ii. 62). Into parliamentary elections in the northern counties he threw all his energies; he was censured by the House of Commons for his interference, and it was rumoured that he had been committed for treason (Bagot MSS., Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. App. iv. pp. 332–6). In April 1702 he applied in vain for the deanery of Carlisle, but through the interest of Sir Christopher Musgrave of Edenhall, the prominent whig in Cumberland, he was soon after appointed to the see of Carlisle. He was consecrated at Lambeth on 14 June 1702, when his friend Edmund Gibson (afterwards bishop of London) preached the sermon.
His tenure of the see was not uneventful, for Nicolson's impetuosity involved him in perpetual warfare. He took exception in the preface to the first part of the ‘English Historical Library’ (1696) to the account of the manuscript in the chapter library at Carlisle, which Dr. Hugh Todd had furnished to Dr. Edward Bernard for insertion in the ‘Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum,’ and this led to a warm controversy (described by Canon Dixon in the ‘Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian Society,’ ii. 312–23). He refused, in 1704, to institute Atterbury to the deanery of Carlisle until he had recanted his views on the regal supremacy; and, although on the advice of Archbishop Sharp this refusal was withdrawn, he raised doubts on the validity of the terms in the queen's grant of the deanery, which were referred to the attorney-general for his judgment. Ultimately, on an intimation from the queen that she did not approve of the bishop's action, the new dean was duly instituted. This matter is set out in a pamphlet entitled ‘True State of the Controversy between the Present Bishop and Dean of Carlisle,’ 1704; 2nd edit. 1705. In 1717 he committed a serious blunder in spreading the assertion that some important qualifications had been inserted before publication in Hoadly's celebrated sermon on ‘The Nature of the Kingdom, or Church, of Christ,’ and he gave White Kennet as his authority; but the statement was promptly repudiated by that divine. This matter formed the subject of much newspaper correspondence and of a variety of pamphlets. The dispute is described at length in Newton's ‘Life of Kennet,’ pp. 165–83, and 214–88.
Nicolson was translated to the more lucrative bishopric of Derry, in Ireland, on 21 April 1718. He was enthroned at Derry on 22 June in that year, and was translated to the archbishopric of Cashel and Emly on 28 Jan. 1726–7, but did not live to take charge of his new diocese. As he sat in his chair in his study at Derry Palace he was seized with apoplexy, and died on 14 Feb. 1726–7. He was buried in the cathedral, but no monument was erected to his memory. From 1715 to 1723 he held the post of lord almoner. Nicolson married Elizabeth, youngest daughter of John Archer of Oxenholme, near Kirkby Kendal, Westmoreland, and had eight children, one of whom, the Rev. Joseph Nicolson, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, died on 9 Sept. 1728.
Archbishop Boulter expressed great regret at the bishop's death; but even in those days he provoked comment in Ireland by the preferments which he showered upon his relatives. His person was large. A portrait of him belongs to Colonel J. E. C. C. Lindesay of Tullyhogue, in Tyrone. Copies, made in 1890, are at Rose Castle, Carlisle, and Queen's College, Oxford. His will is printed in the fourth volume of the ‘Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archæological Society.’
Nicolson's great work consisted of the ‘Historical Library.’ The first part of the English division came out in 1696, the second in 1697, and the third in 1699. The Scottish portion was published in 1702, and the Irish division not until 1724. All the three parts of the ‘“English Historical Library,” corrected and augmented,’ were issued in a second edition in 1714, and the entire work, the English, Scotch, and Irish divisions, in 1736 and 1776. Some correspondence respecting the proposed edition of 1736 is contained in the ‘Reliquiæ Hearnianæ,’ ii. 839–841, and the impression of 1776 was ‘almost totally destroyed’ by fire in the Savoy in March of that year. Atterbury, who contemptuously dubbed Nicolson ‘an implicit [i.e. credulous] transcriber,’ reflected, in the ‘Rights, Powers, and Privileges of an English Convocation,’ on his remarks relating to that body. The preface to the ‘Scottish Historical Library’ (1702) contained Nicolson's answer to these criticisms, and it was also issued as ‘A Letter to the Rev. Dr. White Kennet, D.D. … against the unmannerly and slanderous Objections of Mr. Francis Atterbury,’ 1702. This letter was added to the 1736 and 1776 editions of the ‘Libraries,’ and reprinted in the collection of ‘Nicolson's Letters,’ i. 228–62. In consequence of this controversy some demur was made at Oxford to the conferring on him of the degree of D.D., usually taken on promotion to a bishopric, but it was ultimately granted on 25 June 1702. The same degree was given to him at Cambridge.
Thomas Rymer addressed three letters to the bishop on some abstruse points of history which were referred to in the ‘Scottish Historical Library,’ and Sir Robert Sibbald replied to Rymer's objections (Halkett and Laing, i. 126). Jeremy Collier published ‘An Answer to Bishop Burnet's Third Part of the History of the Reformation: with a Reply to some Remarks in Bishop Nicolson's “English Historical Library,”’ 1715, which dealt with Nicolson's comments on Collier's references to the pope and Martin Luther. The bishop was very keen in pursuit of knowledge, and although his haste in speech and in print led him into many mistakes, notably in the Irish division of his labours, the work was of immense utility. John Hill Burton, in his ‘Reign of Queen Anne,’ ii. 318–20, writes of the ‘Historical Libraries’ as ‘affording the stranger a guide to the riches of the chronicle literature of the British empire,’ and, while praising its author as the possessor of ‘an intellect of signal acuteness,’ pleads that it is no disparagement of the volumes that they are now superseded by the more detailed undertaking of Sir T. D. Hardy. Nicolson showed his zeal for the preservation of official documents by building rooms near the palace gardens at Derry for the preservation of the diocesan records.
Nicolson wrote many sermons and antiquarian papers. He contributed to Ray's ‘Collection of English Words,’ 2nd edit. 1691, pp. 139–52, a ‘Glossarium Northanhymbricum.’ It was a part only of his contributions, which did not reach Ray until the book had been sent to the press; but a few other words by him were inserted in the preface, pp. iv–vii. Many additions to the account of Northumberland, as well as observations on the rest of the counties in the province of York, were supplied by him to Gibson's edition of Camden's ‘Britannia’ (1695) and in that editor's second edition (1722) of the ‘Britannia’ Nicolson improved the descriptions of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmoreland. In the first of these editions the announcement was made that Nicolson had a volume of antiquities on the north of England ready for the press, and its contents were described at length in the subsequent list of works on English topography; but in 1722 the manuscripts were stated to be in the library of the Carlisle chapter. It was also said that he had drawn up a ‘Natural History of Cumberland.’
In 1705, and again in 1747, there came out ‘Leges Marchiarum, or Border-Laws, containing several Original Articles and Treaties,’ which had been collected by Nicolson. The first essay, appended to John Chamberlayne's ‘Oratio Dominica in diversas omnium fere gentium linguas versa’ (1715), was dated by him from Rose [castle] 22 Dec. 1713, and related to the languages of the entire world. A dissertation by him, ‘De Jure Feudali veterum Saxonum,’ was prefixed to the ‘Leges Anglo-Saxonicæ, Ecclesiasticæ et Civiles’ of David Wilkins; and the Rev. Mackenzie E. C. Walcott inserted in the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature,’ vol. ix. new ser., a ‘Glossary of Words in the Cumbrian Dialect,’ which was an abridgment of Nicolson's ‘Glossarium Brigantinum,’ 1677, now among the manuscripts in Carlisle chapter library. The second epistle, subjoined to Edward Lhuyd's ‘Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographica’ (1699, pp. 101–5, and 1760, pp. 102–6), was addressed by him to Nicolson. The preface to Hickes's ‘Thesaurus’ (1705) bears witness to his skill in grappling with the difficulties which Hickes had submitted to him. His treatise ‘on the medals and coins of Scotland’ is summarised in the ‘Memoires de Trévoux,’ 1710, pp. 1755–64. White Kennet addressed to him in 1713 ‘a Letter … concerning one of his predecessors, Bishop Merks;’ and the ‘Enquiry into the Ancient and Present State of the County Palatine of Durham’ (1729) was, as regards the first part, drawn up by John Spearman in 1697 at his solicitation.
Two volumes of letters to and from Nicolson were edited by John Nichols in 1809, and his ‘Miscellany Accounts of the Diocese of Carlisle, with the Terriers delivered at his Primary Visitation,’ were edited by Mr. R. S. Ferguson in 1877 for the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian Society. Thoresby stayed at Salkeld in September 1694, when he inspected Nicolson's curiosities and manuscripts, and Nicolson returned the visit in November 1701. Many communications which passed between them are printed in Thoresby's ‘Correspondence,’ i. 116 et seq. Twenty-one letters from him, mainly on the rebellion of 1715, are included in Sir Henry Ellis's collection of ‘Original Letters,’ 1st ser. iii. 357–396; and some of them are printed at greater length in the ‘Miscellany of the Scottish Historical Society’ (1893), pp. 523–36. Copies of 185 letters to Wake are among the Forster MSS. at the South Kensington Museum. A letter from him is in ‘Hearne's Collections’ (ed. Doble), i. 209; another is in ‘Letters from the Bodleian’ (1813), i. 115–16; and communications from Archbishop Sharp to him on the religious societies of the day are in Thomas Sharp's ‘Life of the Archbishop,’ i. 182–9. Many more letters of Nicolson are in manuscript, especially in the ‘Rydal Papers’ of S. H. Le Fleming (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. pt. vii. p. 163, &c.), and among the ‘Lonsdale Papers’ (ib. 13th Rep. App. pt. vii. pp. 248–9).
Nicolson's collections relative to the diocese of Carlisle, comprised in four folio volumes, and the Machell manuscripts, which were left to him as literary executor, and were arranged by him in six volumes of folio size, are in the cathedral library at Carlisle (ib. 2nd Rep. App. pp. 124–5). Many other papers by him on the northern counties formerly belonged to his relation, Joseph Nicolson (Nicolson and Burn, Westmoreland and Cumberland, vol. i. pp. i–iii). Some manuscript volumes of his diary are in the possession of his descendants, the Mauleverers; his commonplace book is preserved in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, and an extract from an interleaved almanac containing his memoranda was printed in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 2nd ser. xi. 165. It then belonged to Mr. F. Lindesay, who also possessed several volumes of journals by Nicolson. A small manuscript of plants which he had observed in Cumberland was the property of Archdeacon Cotton. His diaries, the most confidential passages being in German, are being prepared for publication by the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian Society.[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Le Neve's Fasti, iii. 244, 250, 252; Cotton's Fasti Eccl. Hibernicæ, vol. i. pt. i. pp. 93–4, iii. 322–3, v. 3, 255; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 534; Nicolson and Burn's Cumberland and Westmoreland, ii. 120, 127, 208, 293–7, 415, 451; Rel. Hearnianæ, ed. Bliss, ii. 648; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iii. 243, 397, x. 245, 332, xi. 262, 2nd ser. viii. 224, 413–14; Hearne's Collections, ed. Doble, ii. 62, 72, 187, iii. 434; Sharp's Life of Archbishop Sharp, 1825, i. 235–50; Thoresby's Diary, i. 196, 275–6, 346, ii. 27, 46; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 12, 82, 710; Mant's Church of Ireland, ii. 316–19; 386, 445, 456–8; Nichols's Atterbury, passim; Williams's Life of Atterbury, i. 155–161; Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiq. Soc. Trans. iv. 1–3, 9 et seq.; information from the Rev. Dr. Magrath, Queen's College, Oxford, and the Worshipful R. S. Ferguson of Carlisle.]