Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woodhead, Abraham

WOODHEAD, ABRAHAM (1609–1678), Roman catholic controversialist, son of John Woodhead of Thornhill, Yorkshire, was baptised at Meltham in the parish of Almonbury in the same county, on 2 April 1609. Having acquired the rudiments of learning at Wakefield, he was entered as a student at University College, Oxford, in 1624, and soon afterwards became a scholar of that house. His tutors were successively Jonas Radcliff and Thomas Radcliff. He graduated B.A. 5 Feb. 1628–9, and M.A. 10 Nov. 1631. On 27 April 1633 he was elected a fellow of University College. He took holy orders, passed a course in divinity, and in 1641 was elected proctor. During his tenure of that office he made a determined stand on behalf of the university against the efforts of the puritan parliament to impose the ‘solemn league and covenant.’ He was summoned to appear at the bar of the House of Commons, where he made so strong and prudent a defence for his proceedings that he was dismissed without further molestation. Wood's statement that he resigned his office in consequence of the denial of the grace of Francis Cheynell [q. v.] is a groundless surmise.

At the expiration of his proctorship Woodhead procured the college license to travel abroad with two pupils, and on 22 June 1645 he had leave of absence for four terms. At this period he began to entertain doubts concerning the truth of the protestant faith, and felt some inclination to join the Roman communion. A comparison of the dates shows that he was never at Rome, as Anthony à Wood asserts. In 1648 he was ejected from his fellowship by the visitors of the university of Oxford. Some time before this Mr. (afterwards Sir Thomas) Aylesbury, governor to George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham [q. v.] and to Lord Francis, his brother, induced Woodhead to undertake their instruction in mathematics. Woodhead accompanied them on their return to London, receiving a handsome allowance with apartments at York House in the Strand. He continued to act as their tutor until the defeat at Kingston (1648), when Lord Francis was killed and the duke incurred the danger of utter ruin. Afterwards he lived till 1652 in the family of Arthur, lord Capel (afterwards Earl of Essex), who settled on him an annuity of 60l. for life. This pension he resigned on quitting his lordship's service. He then retired to the house of his friend Dr. John Wilby, a physician, who resided in the city. In 1654 or 1655 he and a few select friends purchased the house and garden at Hoxton formerly belonging to Lord Monteagle, where they lived in common, putting into one fund what had been saved from the wreck of their fortunes, and devoting themselves to prayer, meditation, and study. Woodhead was now avowedly a lay adherent of the Roman catholic church. The statement that he spent his time at Hoxton in educating youth is incorrect.

In 1660 the king's commissioners summoned him from his retirement and reinstated him in his fellowship. He accepted it again, rather as a mark of justice due to the cause for which he was deprived of it than with any design to retain it as a protestant, and in fact he never communicated with the church of England then or afterwards. Finding residence in college inconsistent with his religious principles, which were now well known, he soon withdrew to his solitude at Hoxton. But through the influence of Obadiah Walker [q. v.], the master of University College, he enjoyed the profits of his fellowship for eighteen years, and did not formally resign the appointment until 23 April 1678, a few days before his death (Smith, Hist. of University College, p. 257). Wood says ‘he was so wholly devoted to retirement and the prosecution of his several studies that no worldly concerns shared any of his affections, only satisfying himself with bare necessaries; and so far from coveting applause or preferment (though perhaps the compleatness of his learning and great worth might have given him as just and fair a claim to both as any others of his persuasion) that he used all endeavours to secure his beloved privacy and conceal his name’ (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 1158). He died at Hoxton on 4 May 1678, and was buried in St. Pancras churchyard, where an altar-monument was placed over his remains, with a Latin inscription: ‘Elegi abjectus esse in domo Dei; et mansi in solitudine, non quærens quod mihi utile est, sed quod multis’ (Cansick, Epitaphs at Saint Pancras, i. 22). If James II had continued on his throne two years longer, Woodhead's body would have been translated to the chapel in University College, where a monument would have been erected ‘equal to his great merits and worth.’ The intended inscription has been printed (Athenæ Oxon. iii. 1165 n.)

By his will, dated 8 June 1675, Woodhead left the residue of the yearly rents of his lands at Meltham ‘to ye minister of the Word of God yt shall be settled and officiatt at ye Chappell of Meltham afforesaid at the time of my decease, and so to his successors in the same place and office for ever.’ The will and four letters written by Woodhead have been printed by the Rev. Joseph Hughes, who says: ‘These documents, both purely protestant in their character, seem to disprove the statements so frequently made and generally believed as to his having joined the Romish church, and tend to establish our confidence in him as a consistent clergyman of the church of England’ (Hughes, Hist. of Meltham, 1866, p. 82). It is certain, however, that Woodhead was a member of the Roman catholic church, though he never entered the priesthood.

Daniel Whitby [q. v.] described Woodhead as ‘the most ingenious and solid writer of the whole Roman party;’ Thomas Hearne more emphatically wrote: ‘I always looked upon Mr. Abraham Woodhead to be one of the greatest men that ever this nation produced;’ and Wood says that ‘his works plainly show him to have been a person of sound and solid judgment, well read in the fathers and in the polemical writings of the most eminent and renowned defenders of the church of England.’

His works appeared either anonymously or under initials, and many of them were printed after his death at the private press of his friend Obadiah Walker. Among them are: 1. ‘Some Instructions concerning the Art of Oratory,’ London, 1659, 12mo; 2nd edit., augmented, Oxford, 1682. 2. Treatises on ancient church government, in five parts, which are respectively entitled as follows: (a) ‘A brief Account of antient Church Government, with a Reflection on several modern Writings of the Presbyterians (the Assembly of Divines, their Jus Divinum Ministerii Ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, published 1654, and Dr. Blondel's Apologia pro Sententia Hieronymi, and others), touching this Subject,’ London, 1662 and 1685, 4to. The authorship has been erroneously ascribed to Dr. Richard Holden. (b) ‘Ancient Church-Government, and the Succession of the Clergy,’ pt. ii., Oxford, 1688, 4to. (c) ‘Antient Church Government, Part III: Of Heresy and Schisme [Lond.] 1736, printed at the cost of Cuthbert Constable, who was the “Catholic Mæcenas of his day.”’ (d) ‘Antient Church-Government, Part IV: What former Councils have been lawfully General and obliging. And what have been the Doctrines of such Councils, obliging in relation to the Reformation. Reviewing the Exceptions made by the Reformed.’ This remains in manuscript. (e) ‘Church Government. Part V: A Relation of the English Reformation, and the Lawfulness thereof, examined by the Theses delivered in the four former parts,’ Oxford, 1687, 4to. This was answered the same year in ‘Animadversions’ by George Smalridge [q. v.] 3. ‘The Guide in Controversies: or a rational Account of the Doctrine of the Roman Catholics concerning the ecclesiastical Guides in Controversies of Religion; reflecting on the later Writings of Protestants, particularly of Archbishop Laud and Dr. Stillingfleet on this Subject,’ London, 1666–7, 4to; reprinted 1673. 4. ‘The Life [and Works] of … St. Teresa,’ 1669 and 1671, 4to; translated from the Spanish. 5. ‘Dr. Stillingfleet's Principles, giving an Account of the Faith of Protestants consider'd,’ Paris, 1671, 8vo. 6. ‘The Roman Doctrine of Repentance and Indulgence vindicated from Dr. Stillingfleet's Misrepresentations,’ 1672, 8vo. 7. ‘The Roman Churche's Devotions vindicated from Dr. Stillingfleet's Misrepresentations,’ 1672, 8vo. 8. ‘Exercitations concerning the Resolution of Faith against some Exceptions,’ 1674, 4to. 9. ‘An Appendix to the four Discourses concerning The Guide in Controversies: Further shewing the Necessity and Infallibility thereof, against some contrary Protestant Principles,’ 1675, 4to. Some copies are entitled ‘A Discourse of the Necessity of Church Guides for directing Christians in necessary Faith.’ 10. ‘Life of Gregory Lopez, a Spanish Hermit in the West-Indies;’ 2nd edit. 1675, 8vo. 11. ‘A Paraphrase and Annotations upon the Epistles of St. Paul,’ Oxford, 1675, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1684. This was the joint production of Woodhead, Obadiah Walker, and Richard Allestree [q. v.], the probable author of ‘The Whole Duty of Man,’ which has been erroneously attributed to Woodhead. The third edition, London, 1702, reprinted in 1703 and 1708, 8vo, was corrected and improved by Bishop Fell. The work was reprinted at Oxford, 1852, 8vo, under the editorship of William Jacobson, afterwards bishop of Chester. 12. ‘St. Augustine's Confessions,’ London, 1679, 8vo; translated from the Latin. 13. A modernised edition of Walter Hilton's ‘Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection,’ London, 1679, 8vo. 14. ‘Propositions concerning Optic Glasses, with their natural Reasons drawn from Experiment,’ Oxford, 1679, 4to. 15. ‘Of the Benefit of our Saviour Jesus Christ to Mankind,’ Oxford, 1680, 4to. 16. ‘An historical Narrative of the Life and Death of … Jesus Christ,’ Oxford, 1685, 4to. 17. ‘Two Discourses concerning the Adoration of our Blessed Saviour in the Eucharist,’ Oxford, 1687, 4to. 18. ‘Two Discourses. The first concerning the Spirit of Martin Luther and the Original Reformation. The second concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy,’ Oxford, 1687, 4to. This was answered by Francis Atterbury (afterwards bishop of Rochester), to whose work a rejoinder was published by Thomas Deane of University College. 19. ‘Pietas Romana et Parisiensis: or a faithful Relation of the several Sorts of charitable and pious Works eminent in the Cities of Rome and Paris. The one taken out of a Book written by Theodor Amydenus, the other out of that by Mr. Carre,’ Oxford, 1687, 8vo. James Harrington wrote ‘Reflections’ on this work. 20. ‘Of Faith necessary to Salvation, and of the necessary Ground of Faith salvivical,’ Oxford, 1688, 4to. 21. ‘Motives to holy Living; or, Heads for Meditation, divided into Considerations, Counsels, and Duties,’ Oxford, 1688, 4to. 22. ‘A compendious Discourse of the Eucharist,’ Oxford, 1688, 4to. 23. ‘Apocalyps paraphras'd,’ Oxford, 1689, 4to, not completed. 24. ‘A larger Discourse concerning Antichrist,’ Oxford, 1689, 4to, not completed. 25. ‘Catholic Theses,’ Oxford, 1689, 4to.

He also left numerous unpublished works in manuscript, some of which are preserved in a collection of autograph letters, original manuscripts, transcripts, and miscellaneous writings by or relating to Woodhead, collected in the latter part of the eighteenth century by Cuthbert Constable (17 volumes, folio and quarto), and now in the library of Sir Thomas Brooke, bart., F.S.A., at Armitage Bridge House, near Huddersfield.

[Manuscript Life of Francis Nicholson or Nicolson, kindly lent to the writer, with other manuscripts relating to Woodhead, by Sir Thomas Brooke, bart., F.S.A.; Life by the Rev. Simon Berington (1736); Catalogue of Manuscripts and Printed Books collected by Thomas Brooke (1891), ii. 703; Burrows's Register of the Visitors of the Univ. of Oxford, p. 556; Catholic Miscellany, 1825, iv. 1, 43; Dalton's translation of the Life of St. Teresa, 1851, p. 408; Dodd's Church Hist. iii. 266; Echard's Hist. of England, 3rd edit. p. 960; Foster's Alumni Oxon. early ser. iv. 1675; Gillow's Bibl. Dict. i. 198; Hughes's Hist. of Meltham, p. 303; Jones's Popery Tracts, pp. 187, 196, 218, 234, 333, 355, 358, 374, 385, 432, 434, 485; Kennett's Register, pp. 598, 674; Le Neve's Monumenta Anglicana; Lysons's Environs, iii. 354; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ix. 38, vi. 475, vii. 142, x. 211, 4th ser. i. 367.]

T. C.