William Nicolson, son of a clergyman, was born in Great Orton, Cumberland on the 3rd June 1655. He was educated at Queen's College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. in 1676. After a spell abroad in 1678, Nicolson returned to his alma mater to take up the post of fellow in the following year. In the same year he became chaplain to the them Bishop of Carlise, Edward Rainbow.
|Bishop Edward Rainbow.|
Under Rainbow's patronage, Nicolson was able to advance his ecclesiastical career in his native Cumberland. In 1681 he was appointed vicar of Torpenhow while a year later he became Rector of Great Salkeld and Archdeacon of Carlisle. Sixteen years later (April 1718) he was translated to the See of Derry.
The ascension of George I in 1714 and the emergence of the Whigs as the dominant party in eighteenth century British politics led to a desire to establish an episcopal bench of similar political complexion both in England and Ireland. William Nicolson's translation to Derry can therfore be seen as an example of this policy in action. For taken as a whole, Nicolson's Whig credentials were unquestioned. He had supported without demur the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had taken an active role in advancing Whig politics at a local level in his diocese, and equally important, was favourably disposed to the new Hanoverian rule. However, the bishop, while genuinely attached to his native diocese, had hoped to have received further preferment within the English church. Yet the prospect of a financially lucrative bishopric in Ireland was enough to overcome any lingering doubts. This he candidly admitted was his reason for moving to Derry. The bishop was now a widower and provision for his family of two sons and five daughters had therefore to be made. In short, his translation to Derry solved these financial concerns. Not only was he to benefit from a significant rise in episcopate income, but he was also to control most of the clerical patronage of the diocese. Thus it was hardly surprising that Nicolson would grant a number of benefices to his immediate family. His younger son John, for example, was given the profitable rectory of Donnaghmore and other benefices were given to his nephews, Joseph Rothery and James Nicolson, and son-in-laws, Mr Mauleverer and Thomas Benson. The bishop, however was unsuccessful in his attempt to procure the deanery of Derry for Benson which went to the Irish philosopher George Berkeley.
|Bishop George Berkley (Bishop of Cloyne)|
A predictable response came from Archbishop King who ruefully attacked Nicolson's nepotistic conduct and (the real purpose of his criticism) the policy of rewarding Englishmen with Irish sees:
"The bishops sent to us from England follow the same track in many instances. The Bishop of Derry (Nicolson) since his translation to that see, has given about £2000 in benefices to English friends and relations."
There can be little doubt that on his arrival in his diocese, Nicolson was shocked by the poverty of the Irish countryside and its people. It was a sharp contrast to the relative prosperity of his former diocese:
I saw no danger of loosing the little money I had, but was under the apprehension of being starv'd, having never beheld (even in Picardy, Westphalia, or Scotland) such dismal marks of hunger as appeared in the countenances of most of the poor creatures that I have met with on the road. The wretches ly in reeky sod-hovels, and have generally no more than a rag of coarse blanket to cover a small part of their nakedness.... These sorry slaves plow the ground to the very tops of their mountains, for the service of their lords: who spend (truly rack-rent) at London. A ridge or two of potatoes is all the poor tenant has for the support of himself, a wife and (commonly) ten or twelve bare leg'd children. To complete their misery, these animals are bigotted papists: and we frequently met them trudging to some ruin'd church or chapel, either to mass, a funeral or a wedding, with a priest in the same habit with themselves.
Poverty, however, was not the only aspect that made Nicolson regard his Irish diocese as different. He was also made quickly aware of the large nonconformist population within his jurisdiction. Indeed, the bishop had now to accustom himself to the fact that Anglicans were in the minority. Writing in the month after his arrival (July 1718), Nicolson estimated that Londonderry and its hinterland were inhabited by approximately 1600 families, half of whom were Presbyterian, while the other half were equally divided between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. The bishop recognised the strength of Presbyterianism and their as yet unofficial position in the state: "that their worship is only conniv'd at, but not legally tolerated". While he backed a limited act of toleration (similar to one in England) in 1719, much to the chagrin of Archbishop King, he was nevertheless implacably hostile to any move which would threaten Anglican hegemony of public office. In 1724 he had combined to defeat a proposal to legalize marriages conducted by dissenting ministers. Similarly, but with greater emphasis, he was antipathetic to any Roman Catholics whom he thought were corrupt and inherently disloyal.
|Archbishop William Wake|
Such a view was articulated to Archbishop Wake of Canterbury in relation to one,
most barbarous Rapparee; who is under sentence of condemnation for one of the most hellish Murders that I have ever heard of. This crime, in men of his possession, is High Treason by a late law in this Kingdome. Upon Saturday next, he is to be executed. His head will be placed (as great numbers are in every one of our Northern Counties) on the Roof of the Jayl; and his Quarters Gibbetted in several parts of the county. This fellow is, as of these Villains are, a papist; And several circumstances of his bloody fate are a Demonstration that he had been brought to believe that there was no more sin in killing an Heretick, than in knocking a Wolf on the head. Notwithstanding all our late Acts of Parliament, unlicensed priests swarm amongst us.
The English government's choice of Nicolson as bishop of Derry was indicated early in his episcopate when the issue of independence of the Irish legislature became a heated and pressing issue. The question arose in 1719 over the jurisdiction of the Irish House of Lords in regard to the now famous land case, Sherlock versus Annesley. Colonial nationalist sensitivities were upset when English Lords became involved in the dispute by over-turning the decisions already reached in Ireland. As a member of the Irish House of Lords and a proponent of the supremacy of their English counterparts, Nicolson was active against the moves of Archbishop King and others who were forcing the issue of independence of the Irish legislature. Yet despite their efforts to proclaim the rights of the Irish Parliament as they saw them, the British Government was in no mood for compromise. King's colonial nationalism was answered by the British Parliament's 1720 Act declaring its full power and authority to make laws for Ireland. Nicolson's opposition to Irish interests on this particular point did nothing to endear him to his adopted country. Yet by May 1720 the bishop sensed that most of the native criticism of his conduct and those of his fellow English Bishops had begun to abate: "We are happily growing into one band of Good Fellowship, not withstanding the little Ruffle that has happen'd from your Dependency-Act (British Parliament's 1720 Act); which is somewhat hard of Digestion, and occasions many a squirting look at us poor Foreigners"
|George By the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Archtreasurer and Prince-Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg|
Outside the parliamentary arena, Nicolson proved faithful to the duties which were required of him. In particular, the bishop took to heart the express wish of George I that he should reside in Derry. With the exception of one visit to England together with the discharge of his parliamentary duties (he was a leading exponent of an act to encourage clerical residency and acted predictably against a bill to reduce episcopal revenues), he made a point of concentrating on diocesan affairs. The spiritual and material well-being of the diocese (at least in Nicolson's opinion) appears to have shown a marked improvement from the previous century. The bishop proudly reported during his annual visitation in June 1719 he had witnessed the "Appearance of fifty of the best and richest clergy, clergy that are in anyone diocese in this Kingdome". Two months later Nicolson's own concern to see that the church was fulfilling it's mission led him to conduct a parochial visitation to the more inaccessible regions of his diocese "where no Bishop has been since the year 1693 (William King's time of vitiation). Encouraging signs of progress could also be seen in the numbers of those receiving communion in St. Columb's Cathedral. At Easter 1724 there had been over three hundred communicants when, according to Nicolson "five years ago 74 was reckon'd a vast number". Similarly, the following Christmas, the bishop related, had attracted approximately four hundred communicants compared to William King's average Christmas estimate of one hundred when he was bishop. As an Englishman who had been castigated by Archbishop King for receiving an Irish bishopric when native clergymen where ignored, Nicolson's activities supplied a suitable riposte.
An intellectually industrious man, particularly at the beginning of his career, Nicolson was best known for his work on The English, Scottish, and Irish Historical Libraries, which consisted of a critical bibliography of each of their histories. According to Sir James Ware, however, "he fell into many errors in his last work (Irish), for want of sufficient acquaintance with the Irish manuscripts and language". His interest as an antiquarian led him to build manuscript rooms near his palace in Londonderry for the preservation of diocesan records. In January 1727 he was translated to the archbishopric of Cashel, but died at Derry on the 14th February of the same year and was buried in the Cathedral.