Project Canterbury

The Lives of the Seven Bishops
Committed to the Tower in 1688

Enriched and Illustrated with Personal Letters, Now First Published, from the Bodleian Library.

By Agnes Strickland

London: Bell and Daldy, 1866.

Dr. Thomas White, Bishop of Peterborough

THE name of Thomas White claims honourable remembrance among the worthies of the Church of England distinguished by the emphatic title of the "Seven Bishops of the Tower." He occupies, it is true, a less prominent position on the page of public history than either of the six prelates with whom he conscientiously united in petitioning to be excused from executing the unconstitutional mandate of their short-sighted sovereign, James II.; but so immaculate was his character, that not even political malice ventured to assail him as an individual.

He was born of respectable parentage, at Allington, in Kent, in the year 1630, and being early deprived of a father's care, had to work his own way in life. His widowed mother, a grave and holy matron, found a home in the house of a wealthy kinsman, Mr. Brookman, of Richborough, in Kent, through whose influence probably she was enabled to place her fatherless boy, in the first instance, in the royal foundation of King's School, Canterbury.

That well-known theologian, the Rev. John Johnson, vicar successively of Margate, Cranbrooke, and Appledore, who, as a contemporary, could scarcely have been mistaken, when preaching the anniversary sermon for King's School in the year 1716, and recapitulating the names of the distinguished men who had benefited by that institution, observed, "It produced in the last century two mitred heads, for I am well assured that the memorable Thomas White, afterwards Bishop of Peterborough, was a scholar here, and I need not tell you that he was one of those seven prelates who made so notable a stand against arbitrary power in the year 1688; and yet afterwards, by his conduct, made it appear that his love to English liberty had not at all tainted the affection which he bore to his own natural lord and sovereign." [Quoted by the Rev. J. S. Sidebotham, M.A., in his valuable little work, "Memorials of King's School, Canterbury."]

It could, however, have only been the rudiments of his education that Bishop White received at King's School, Canterbury, since it is certain that he was early removed to the Grammar School at Newark-on-Trent, where he speedily distinguished himself by his genius, industry, and learned attainments, and was remarked for his singular personal strength, courage, and pugilistic skill. He was accustomed to say "that he ever looked back to his school days, at Newark, as the pleasantest and happiest of his life."

After completing an honourable scholastic career at Newark, he was entered as a sub-sizar at St. John's College, Cambridge. His talents, industry, and learning dignified this lowly position, and finally elevated him above it. On taking holy orders he obtained, though in the days of the Commonwealth, the lectureship of St. Andrew's, Holborn, and became noted as one of the most eloquent preachers in London.

After the Restoration he was preferred to the Rectory of Allhallows, Barking, in Thames Street, where he was admired and followed by crowding thousands as the most popular preacher of that day.

It is stated, in a contemporary MS. in the British Museum, that he was once in attendance on the Bishop of Rochester when that prelate was to officiate for the first time at Dartford, on which occasion a ruffianly trooper of King Charles II.'s guard insulted them both, and treated the bishop with brutal and unprovoked insolence; and when Dr. White reproved him for his irreverent conduct, he, presuming on his gigantic figure, challenged them both to fight it out with him; on which White, remembering his own unrivalled prowess in his schoolboy days, as a personal champion, was so far provoked as to depart from clerical dignity by inflicting condign chastisement on the ill-mannered bully, and compelled him to ask the bishop's pardon for his incivility, and lead his lordship's horse to the stall, which he had previously prevented him from approaching.

King Charles was highly amused at the story, of which he had heard only an apocryphal report, and facetiously told Dr. White "that he should impeach him of high treason, for committing a personal assault on one of his guards." But when Dr. White explained the provocation he had received, and the unprovoked insolence with which the trooper had treated both the Bishop of Rochester and himself, the king greatly commended him "for the spirit and personal courage with which he had acted in teaching the fellow better manners," and promised to remember him when an opportunity of conferring a suitable preferment occurred.

The living of Bottesford was presented to Dr. White by the Earl of Rutland, and he actually attained the happiness of becoming the vicar of Newark, that dearly-loved town to which he owed the precious boon of a liberal education--the education that had been to him more than an inheritance of silver and gold, by enabling him to fight the battle of life victoriously, and to gladden the heart of a widowed mother by his scholastic fame and the honourable place he had won as a dignitary of the church, for the Archdeaconry of Nottingham was also conferred upon him.

On the marriage of the Lady Anne, the daughter of the Duke of York, to Prince George of Denmark, he was made her domestic chaplain. As the Lady Anne occupied the important place in the royal succession of heiress-presumptive to the throne, after her father and childless elder sister, the Princess of Orange, the appointment of so firm a churchman and excellent a character as the apostolic, learned, and eloquent Dr. White, became a matter of general satisfaction. All England, indeed, looked anxiously to him as the person on whose influence the religious principles of their future sovereign in a great measure depended.

Dr. Thomas White had in his youth and early manhood seen many calamities befall the Church of England. The lesson he had learned from this adversity was, that to give the poor good sound instruction, and for her clergy to train them in practical observance of the precepts of the Church, was the way of heal and weal alike for Church and people. Considering the paucity of the education and mind of Queen Anne, she seems to have worked out these principles after her accession to the crown to the utmost extent of her ability.

Her fostering conduct to the Church is the best part of her career in life, and this was assuredly owing to her spiritual adviser, Dr. Thomas White. There was no other holy and purely disinterested person who enjoyed her confidence in opening life excepting White, whose influence could have worked on her mind for good. Neither her preceptor, Comp-ton, Bishop of London, nor her tutor, Dr. Edward Lake, were characters likely to induce abnegation of selfishness, or to render her what she truly became, the nursing mother and generous benefactress of the Church of England.

Dr. White was consecrated Bishop of Peterborough October 25th, 1685. He was, on the suspension of Compton, Bishop of London, appointed, with the Bishop of Durham, and Sprat, Bishop of Rochester, to exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the diocese of London. This was both a delicate and difficult office, and the Bishop of Rochester expressed lively satisfaction that so holy and wise a man, as Dr. White, was associated with him in its responsibilities.

White, on his return to Peterborough, considered it his duty to investigate the state of his see, and was shocked on discovering how greatly the number of pluralities had increased since the Reformation, and in the course of years extended to an amount highly detrimental to the good of the Church, and the increase of Christian congregations. After serious reflection on the evils to which this practice gave rise, he submitted to the primate, Archbishop Sancroft, the following list of cases which he regarded as serious abuses, and entreated his counsel for reforming abuses of the kind.

"What limitations," he asks, "are to be given to pluralities in the cases following?

"1. When one man has from one to three or four and five curacies to supply, and they do not altogether make up a competent livelihood? Many of which are I believe to be found in the northern parts of Lincolnshire.

"2. Where one man holds a curacy and a vicarage or rectory, and perhaps lives at neither, but yet supplies them both by turns?

"3. Where one man has two benefices with cure, and devolves them both upon curates to supply; he himself not being detained from them by any other employment, but chooseth some city or great town to reside in for his secular convenience?

"4. Where pluralities belong to a residentiary in some cathedral church, and are supplied by curates, the incumbent never residing, or hardly ever seeing his parishes for several years."

"I believe," adds White sadly, "there will be instances met with of all these cases in that great circuit, and I shall humbly beg your grace's instructions and commands about them, which I shall choose to follow rather than my own weak judgment, and in this and all other my understandings do most earnestly crave the aid of your grace's prayers and your blessing."

Bishop White continued to devote unremitting attention to the reform of ecclesiastical discipline in his diocese; and although he had always been treated with especial courtesy by King James, he joined heart and hand with Archbishop Sancroft and the other five prelates who signed the petition, praying that sovereign to excuse them from reading and promulgating the royal declaration of Liberty of Conscience. He also was one of those who presented that petition to the king; he was subsequently committed to the Tower, as one of the seven, and was tried and triumphantly acquitted with them.

Anxious to avoid all political excitement he retired to his diocese, and occupied himself wholly and solely in the zealous performance of his episcopal duties during the stormy period of the Revolution which transferred the throne of England to William and Mary.

It was naturally expected that White, as the favourite chaplain of the Princess Anne, would remain attached to the fortunes of his illustrious patroness; but nothing could induce him to forfeit the oath of allegiance he had sworn, or to countenance her unfilial conduct to her royal father, who, whatever had been his faults as a man and a sovereign, had ever been the tenderest and most indulgent of parents to her.

White was not a man to hesitate between duty and expediency. However painful the sacrifice was, he gave up the service of the Princess Anne, and all the prospects it opened, in no remote vista. He refused to take the oaths of allegiance to the new sovereigns, was suspended on the 1st of August, 1689, and finally ejected from his bishopric and deprived of all his other preferments on the 1st of February, 1690--in a word, reduced from affluence to absolute indigence.

He had made no provision for himself from the revenues of the rich benefices he had enjoyed, considering himself as merely the steward and distributor of the goods of the Church for the benefit of the poor and the extension of scholastic institutions.

The whole of the property, real and personal, which this self-denying and conscientious prelate had amassed, during the thirty years he had received the wages of the Church, did not amount to more than 2000l.; and that this was devoted to charitable objects, the following extracts from, the will he made after his ejection from the see of Peterborough afford satisfactory testimony. He was at that time in very ill health, and looking forward to his demise at a much earlier period than it occurred. This document is so truly edifying, in the spirit of Christian humility, love of God, and zeal for His service, that it cannot be otherwise than interesting to the reader:--

"In the name of God, Amen! I, Thomas White, D.D., late Bishop of Peterborough, have reflected often upon the occurrences of my former life, and often looked forward to the end of it, whither I am hasting through several infirmities of body which now afflict me, and the burden of almost sixty-two years of age; but being of sound understanding and memory, do make and constitute this my last Will and Testament, in manner and form following:--

"First, I commend my soul into the hands of God, giving most humble thanks unto Him not only for the manifold mercies which He hath vouchsafed me in order to the comfortable passage of my life--but for the infinite love He hath shown to the world in sending His only Son Christ Jesus to be the Redeemer of mankind; and particularly that I, being born in a Christian country, was early admitted into the holy Catholic Church of Christ, and have enjoyed the privileges and benefits thereof through life, and more especially that by Divine grace and favour I was instituted and brought up in that religion which is professed and established in the Church of England, which, after due inquiry and examination, I esteem the best constitution and safest way to heaven which is in the world (oh, that my deluded countrymen would think so too!), being far from the dangerous corruptions of Popery and the many imperfections which other parts of the Reformation are subject to.

"I do, moreover, beg of God, my Heavenly Father, full and perfect pardon for all my sins, being conscious to myself of manifold neglects and manifold violations of my duty! For Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake forgive me all that is past, and grant that all the defilements I have contracted through the lusts of the flesh, the vanities of the world, and the temptations of the devil, may be cleansed and done away with, and the remainder of my life may be wholly devoted to Thy service and glory, that I may be presented unto Thee without spot and blameless at the last day!"

He devises 10l. for the benefit of the poor of the parish in the which he should happen to die. To the poor of Peterborough, Bishop White gives 240l. to be laid out in land; 10l., out of the rents being for the poor of that parish, and the remainder for the minister as a reward for his pains in the distribution of the 10l. (devoted) to the poor of the parish. The 10l. was directed to be distributed in the church-porch on the 14th of December annually, to twenty poor families (reckoning the husband and wife for one person), who shall exactly and distinctly repeat the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed, and the Ten Commandments, without missing or changing one word therein.

"And," continues the bishop, "I do desire withal it may be observed that I do design this gift not only as a corporal, but as a spiritual alms to do good unto the souls as well as the bodies of the poor, having with sorrow of heart taken notice of the inconceivable ignorance which prevails among the poor people that they are (at least very many of them) Christians only in name, but know not why they are so--nor what it is to believe, or practise, or pray for, or to answer the demands of the Christian profession.

"To encourage them, therefore, to learn the foundations of the Christian religion, I have bequeathed this charity.

"My further will is, that this part of my last will and testament be transcribed by the parish above mentioned, and be locked up in the parish chest; and that on the last Sunday in November, after morning service, the rector, vicar, or incumbent do read this part of it to the poor and the inhabitants of the said parish in the church-porch."

The like sum, with the same provisoes, he bequeaths to the parish of Newark-upon-Trent, that well-beloved home of his school-days, and to which his labours in the cure of souls were devoted with spiritual joy in early manhood. Moreover, he left to the library of the church of Newark 1200 volumes for the use of the town, in consideration of his attachment to it as the place of his early education.

White recovered from the complication of complaints under which he was suffering at the period when he made this will.

He alludes to the nature of his peculiarly painful and dangerous malady in the following interesting letter to his beloved friend, the deprived Archbishop Sancroft:--

"Eaton, July 29th, 1692.


"Being acquainted with Dr. Paman's intention to wait on your grace, I am desirous he should carry with him some signification of my deep respect and duty, which I know not how to express better than by congratulating that settled and uninterrupted health which I hear you enjoy at seventy-five years old, and that greatness and constancy of mind which makes you happy in the loss of everything which all the world understands and admires.

"I had about a month ago an account that my brother of Bath and Wells [Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells] was in a good state, and have received two letters from my brother Robert of Gloucester [Frampton, Bishop of Gloucester], full of cheerfulness and generosity of temper, that show his sufferings make no other alteration on the bravery of his spirit, but only to improve it. Among other things, he rejoices that, with the loss of his bishopric, he has likewise lost his gout, and looks on it as a happy exchange. He seemed very desirous to know how he might write to your grace, to which I gave him some directions, and therefore suppose you may have heard of him by this time. Dr. Paman will tell you how severely I have been handled with a fit of the stone in the kidneys very lately, but, blessed be God, the pain is gone off, and I have been at more peace in my bladder the last week than I have enjoyed these two years and upwards.

"I wish your grace the continuance and increase of all good things, and humbly beg your blessing and prayers in behalf of,

"My lord,

"Your most obedient and dutiful servant,


White assisted two of his brethren, the deprived Bishops of Norwich and Ely, on the 23rd of February, 1695, in consecrating Thomas Wagstaff, the nonjuring Chancellor of Lichfield and ejected rector of St. Margaret Pattens, to the office of suffragan Bishop of Milford. White was at that period lodging in the house of the Rev. Mr. Giffard, in Southgate, and the ceremony was performed there, in the presence of Henry, Earl of Clarendon, the uncle of the Queen and her sister the Princess Anne.

Wagstaff derived no emolument from the office to which he was thus appointed. He had studied physic before his admission into holy orders, and after his deprivation he practised the healing art with great success for a subsistence, but continued to wear his clerical gown to the end of his life.

The meek and heavenly-minded Thomas White survived his ejection from the see of Peterborough upwards of eight years, living in great privacy a devout life of poverty and self-denial, held in great reverence by his friends, and disarming the malice of his political opponents by the blameless and apostolic tenor of his conduct.

His last public appearance was by the side of Sir John Fenwick, when that unfortunate gentleman mounted the scaffold on Tower Hill, the 28th of January, 1696-7, to suffer the death to which he had been illegally and unconstitutionally doomed by the revival of the old Tudor iniquity of condemnation by attainder.

The more reflective of the people regarded with patriotic indignation so gross a violation of the boasted privileges of British subjects, resorted to by those who professed to have become the champions of the laws and liberties of Great Britain.

Great disgust was also expressed when it was known that the new primate Tennison, with Compton, Bishop of London, Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, and others of the prelates of the Revolution, had broken through the humane custom which had hitherto prompted the lords spiritual to withdraw from the House on such occasions, and had un-clerically given their votes for the bloody doom which sent their illegally-condemned countryman to the block in the flower of his days.

The murmurs deep, not loud, that pervaded the spectators of the tragic scene were hushed to affectionate awe when they saw the attenuated form of the deprived Bishop of Peterborough, whom many of them well remembered as the eloquent rector of All-hallows, Barking, the most popular preacher of the day, and venerated as one of the holiest of men, who had renounced rank, riches, and political power for conscience' sake, appear by the side of the victim, whom he came to comfort and support in that dread hour.

Nothing could be more gallant and courageous than the demeanour of Sir John Fenwick as he stepped on the fatal scaffold. Looking calmly round, he gracefully saluted the gentlemen who came to see him die; but he spoke to no one but the deprived Bishop of Peterborough. Earnestly they two prayed together for their country and for their king, whom, however, they did not mention by name.

The last time the rich voice of Dr. White--once so familiar in that district to the listeners who had been wont to hang on every word that proceeded from his lips--was heard, was when he invoked his solemn benediction on his death-doomed friend.

Sir John Fenwick expressed his wish to make trial of the block. He kneeled down, and ascertained the best way of placing himself for the stroke of death. He rose again, and took an affectionate leave of the Bishop of Peterborough. It seems that this devout Christian had forbidden his penitent to be accessary to his own death by making any signal for the descent of the axe; for Sir John Fenwick, when he finally placed his neck on the block, said to the executioner, "Man, I am ready for aught that may be done to me, but expect no signal from me."

Sir John Fenwick then said fervently a short prayer, at the end of which the headsman skilfully despatched him with one blow. A few months after this solemnity Dr. White entered into his rest. He died in London, on the 30th of May, 1698, having lived in great retirement ever since his deprivation.

His funeral was solemnized on the 5th of June. He was buried in St. Gregory's churchyard vault, in St. Paul's. His remains were attended by the nonjuring bishops, Francis Turner of Ely, Lloyd of Norwich, and the Irish Bishop of Kilmore, who with two others of the deprived brethren supported the pall. Forty of the ejected clergy, and several of the Jacobite nobility and gentry followed the hearse; but on the request of Turner, that he or some other of the nonjurors should read the burial service, being rejected by the Dean of St. Paul's, who appointed a conforming minister to officiate, the whole of the mourners withdrew.

Turner, Bishop of Ely, gives an account of the circumstances, in the following curious letter to his brother, which is now for the first time unfolded to the general reader:--


"I acquainted you with the sad occasion of my being in town last week. There I stayed till yesterday, that I might attend the funeral on Saturday night. It was earnestly desired by many that I should perform the office at the grave (in St. Gregory's, i.e., in the churchyard, for there is no church). I yielded, if it might be permitted, which I told them would hardly be, and that my poor name would never pass muster. Yet the curate of the place agreed with all the ease and respect imaginable. But his de facto dean, Dr. Sherlock, coming to know it, forbade it expressly, nor could any intercessions prevail with him to suffer any one of the deprived, not the most obscure or least obnoxious, to officiate. This did not hinder me nor anybody else from waiting on the corpse to the grave, the Bishop of Kilmore and myself with four others holding up the pall. As soon as our bearers set down we made our exit; and all the clergy with most of the gentry followed.

"The great reason alleged by Dr. Sherlock for refusing it was the daring imprudence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells (Ken) for burying Mr. Kettlewell even in his habit. Is not this a precious manikin of a dean?"

The passage in the deprived bishop's will, in which he leaves his unostentatious directions for his funeral, is peculiarly touching:--

"Having commended my soul unto the mercy and grace of God, I do appoint my body to be buried in the churchyard of the parish wherein I shall die, without any funeral pomp, sermon, or expenses above ten pounds; and without any monument or inscription, saving this upon a little stone, if it may be allowed.--THE BODY OF THOMAS WHITE, D.D., LATE BISHOP OF PETERBOROUGH, DEPRIVED OF THAT BISHOPRIC FOR NOT TAKING THE OATHS OF ALLEGIANCE AND SUPREMACY ESTABLISHED IN 1689, IS BURIED HERE IN HOPES OF A HAPPY RESURRECTION."

Meekly and simply as the saintly Bishop of Peterborough set down the facts he desired to have engraved on the "little" stone that was to record his humble "Hic jacet" it seems they were too strong for the prosperous Bishop of London to admit into the Cathedral of St. Paul's; for his dust has namelessly mingled with that of the parishioners of St. Gregory, the adjunct to the stately metropolitan church. [Brown Willis says in his 'Cathedrals,' that Bishop White was buried in St. Gregory's Church, now part of St. Paul's Cathedral. without any monument.] But such a fact would not vex the soul of a man who left only ten pounds to bury his body, and the rest of his slender store to the poor.

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