NICHOLSON was probably born at Plumbland, Cumberland on Whit Sunday, 1655. He was
the eldest son of the Revd Joseph Nicolson (d.1686), rector of Pumbland, who married
Mary daughter of John Brisco of Crofton in Thursby, gentleman. He was educated in
Dovenby in Bridekirk and at Queen¹s College Oxford In 1678 he visited Leipzig to
learn German and the northern languages of Europe and after under going great hardships,
returned home through France.
Nicholson was ordained deacon in 1679 and became chaplain to the Right Revd Edward
Rainbow, Bishop of Carlisle, who soon secured his advancement in the church. In 1681
he was appointed to the vicarage of Torpenhow and held it until 1698, but was not
resident there for more than a year, becoming Archdeacon of Carlisle in 1682 and
moving residence to Great Salkeld where he built outhouses at the rectory, constructed
new school buildings, and erected a wall around the churchyard. In 1686, he was responsible,
with the churchwardens of Torpenhow parish, for founding Bothel school.
He was appointed to the see of Carlisle, and consecrated at Lambeth on 14th June
1702. His tenure of the see was not uneventful, for Nicolson's impetuosity involved
him in perpetual warfare He refused in 17O1 to institute Atterbury to the deanery
of Carlisle until he had recanted his views on 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the advice of Archbishop Sharp this refusal was withdrawn he raised doubts on the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 judgement Ultimately on an intimation from the Queen
that she did not approve of the Bishop¹s action, the new Dean was duly instituted.
Nicolson was translated to the more lucrative bishopric of Derry in Ireland, on 21st
April 1718, and was translated to the archbishopric of Cashel and Emly on 8th June
1727, 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 apaplexy, and died on 14 February
1727. He was buried in the cathedral, but no monument was erected to his memory From
1715-1723 he held the post of Lord Almoner.
Nicolson's great work consisted of the Historical Library divided into the English,
Scottish, and Irish portions, and published in its entirety in 1736. It is as an
historian that Nicolson¹s name is remembered. G M Trevelyan numbered him with that
group of modern historians which characterised the late 17th and early 18th centuries,
a group whose researches and reporting gave a new impetus and direction to the study
of history. Of particular interest to the diocese are his writings on the old border
laws; the Roman Wall; the natural history, especially of the plants of the area;
the runic inscriptions; and his Glossarium Brigantium.
As Archdeacon of Carlisle,
he visited and inspected all the churches in the diocese, and wrote an invaluable
report on their state of upkeep. These reports are collected in his Miscellany Accounts
of the Diocese of Carlisle, with the Terriers delivered at his primary visitation.
His diaries, covering the majority of his working life, are extensive. They are largely
pragmatic, hardly ever revealing a more personal spiritual nature, although the death
of his wife, Elizabeth, is touchingly recorded. The London diaries have recently
been published and they deal with the period 1702-1716. They reveal that he took
his responsibility to the House of Lords very seriously and used his London base
for much antiquarian work and for relentless hospitality.
It is easy to forget that Bishop Nicolson lived in a pre-romantic Cumberland. One
looks in vain for an emotional, medieval spirituality with its devotion to the person
and work of Jesus Christ. It took the Wesleys and the romantic movement to discover
that again. With Nicolson we are back in the 18th century which has so often been
dubbed barren for the English church. The genius of Nicolson lay in his 'untiring
energy to discover the value of the past, and to civIlise the present. To a remote
and poor diocese, he gave a sense of dignity and intellectual vlgour. HIs concern
was for the practical welfare and morality of the clergy and people, and for the
upkeep of the heritage of the church buildings in which God was to be worshipped.
suggested day for remembering Nicolson: 14th February, date of his death.
Bishop Nicoison's Diaries, Transactions Of the Cumberland and WestmorIand Antiquarian
and Archaeoloqical Saciety, new series, i - iv, 1901 - 1904; The London Diaries of
William Nicolson, Bishop Of Carlisle, 1702-1718, ed. Clyve Jones and Geoffrey Hoimss,
(OU~, 1985). The Carlisle Record Office keeps a certain amount of original material
by Bishop Nicholson