Open main menu


OVERTON, WILLIAM (1525?–1609), bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, born in London between 1520 and 1530, is said to have been of the same family as Robert Overton [q. v.], the major-general, and to have owed his early education to Glastonbury Abbey; it is certain that he was elected to a demyship at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1539, and that he became perpetual fellow of the college in 1551. He graduated B.A. in 1547 and M.A. in 1553; in the latter degree he was incorporated at Cambridge in 1562. He received the degree of B.D. on 16 Feb. 1565–6 and D.D. two days later. He became in 1553 rector of Balcombe, Sussex, and vicar of Eccleshall, Staffordshire. The rectory of Swinnerton, Staffordshire, was conferred on him in 1555. In 1559 he was installed prebendary of Winchester. Other benefices conferred on him in early life were Upham and Nurstling (both in 1560), Exton (1561), Cotton (1562), and Buriton (1569). In 1563 he became canon of Chichester.

Overton managed to spend much time in Oxford, and in 1564 he took a prominent part in the reception given to Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of her famous visit to Oxford, in company with the Earl of Leicester. The day after the queen's arrival, Sunday, 1 Sept., Overton preached an English sermon in the morning at Christ Church, choosing for his text Psalm cxviii. 24: ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made,’ &c. Unhappily her majesty was too tired with her journey to be present (Nichols, Progresses, i. 209). He took part, however, in the disputations held before the queen on Thursday, 5 Sept., when, in answer to the question ‘whether it was lawful for a private individual to take up arms against a bad prince,’ he maintained that ‘it was lawful for a private person to consult the good of the Republic, and that good was best consulted if the bad Prince was killed.’ Overton's sentiments do not appear to have offended the queen, for preferment still flowed in upon him. He received the treasurership of Chichester Cathedral in 1567, a canonry at Salisbury in 1570, besides becoming rector of Stoke-upon-Trent and of Hanbury. Finally, in 1579, he was promoted to the bishopric of Coventry and Lichfield. He is generally spoken of as bishop of Lichfield, but at that time Coventry was not only joined with Lichfield, but also took the first place in the title. He held the see for nearly thirty years, residing at Eccleshall Castle, the country seat of the bishops, the palace at Lichfield having been destroyed in the days of Henry VIII. He had the reputation of being ‘genial, hospitable, and kind to the poor,’ and it is added that ‘he kept his house in good repair, which married bishops were observed not to do.’ Bishop Overton is gibbeted by Martin Mar-Prelate as an ‘unlearned prelate,’ but this is hardly consistent with his known antecedents at Oxford. He was also accused of having made ‘seventy lewd and unlearned ministers for money’ in one day (Froude, Hist. of England, xii. 6). His episcopate was uneventful. A few ‘Acts of Overton’ are found in the diocesan registers; and there was a famous dispute between the bishop and two candidates for the chancellorship of the diocese, Messrs. Beacon and Zachary Babington, which was finally settled by an appeal to Whitgift, who then held the neighbouring bishopric of Worcester. It is supposed that it was in reference to this dispute that Overton preached his sermon ‘Against Discord,’ which is the only sermon of his extant in print. He held a visitation of his cathedral at Lichfield in 1600, and his charge on the occasion was published under the title of ‘Oratio doctissima et gravissima habita in Domo Capitulari Lichfield ad Præbendarios et reliquum Clerum in Visitatione Ecclesiæ suæ Cathedralis congregatum, an. 1600.’ In 1603 he not only wrote his own epitaph, but actually had it put up in Eccleshall Church. It was as follows:

Hoc sibi spe in Xto resurgendi posuit Wilhelmus Overton, Convent. et Lichfield Episcopus, 1603.

He died on 9 April 1609, and was buried beside both his wives in Eccleshall Church, where a tomb was erected to his memory with his effigies in his episcopal habits. Overton was twice married: first, to Margaret, the eldest daughter of William Barlow, bishop of Chichester. The lady's mother successfully carried out her resolve to marry all her five daughters to bishops. Overton's second wife was Mary, daughter of Edward Bradstock by Elizabeth Scrimshaw, a descendant of Sir John Talbot.

[Manuscript in possession of the writer; Elizabethan Oxford; Reprints of Rare Tracts by C. Plummer (Oxf. Hist. Soc.); Diocesan History of Lichfield (S.P.C.K.); Nichols's Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, i. 209, 231; Cal. State Papers, Dom. passim; Lodge's Illustrations, 1791, iii. 7n.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 49, 84; Wood's Hist. and Antiq. of the University of Oxford; Mar-Prelate Tracts; Foster's Alumni Oxon.]

J. H. O.