Rev. Thomas White D.D., Bishop of Peterborough, 1628-1698

Kneller, Godfrey; Thomas White, Bishop of Peterborough (1628-1698) Magdalen College, University of Oxford;

Thomas White was the only son of Peter White of Aldington in Kent and Anne Blechynden, eldest daughter of Humphrey Blechynden also of Aldington. He was born into a family of relatively modest means but, as Bishop of Peterborough and as Chaplain to the future Queen Anne, played a pivotal role in the relationship between the Church, the State and the Monarchy. He was a devout man of strong principles which brought him into opposition with the King and with Parliament and resulted in a schism in the Church of England. Even though he spent his final years quietly, the principled decisions he had taken in his life, led to arguments after his death about his funeral and sadly his grave unmarked.

Thomas White’s early years

The marriage license, dated 3 November 1628, for Peter and Anne states that Peter White of Aldington is a yeoman, a bachelor, and aged about 39 and that Anne is unmarried, aged about 34, the daughter of Humphrey “Bleshinden” who gives consent (Canterbury Marriage Licenses 1619-1660). None of Anne’s brothers or sisters marry particularly young. Her brother Dr Thomas Blechynden D.D. is 42 when he marries, sister Mary is unmarried at the age of 42 (mentioned in her father’s will), brother Richard is 32 when he marries and, of the others, they either die young or never marry.

There is no rush to the altar for the Blechynden’s which is why it seems odd that the eldest daughter of the family, who given their many connections and local standing, would fall pregnant and perhaps even have the child before marriage. The baptism record survives in the Aldington parish records and states that Thomas, sonne of Peter Whyte, was baptised on the 19th December 1628 whilst his parent’s marriage was on 30th November 1628! Perhaps this was a love match and, rather than wait any longer, Anne and Peter forced the issue or perhaps, more prosaically, there is a date error somewhere.

Sadly Peter White died shortly after the birth of Thomas. In Edward Hasted’s History of Kent he refers to Peter White’s will of 1629 and Anne was certainly a widow by 1639 when her father wrote his will. Edward Hasted relates that through the family connection to the Clarke’s Peter White, and then subsequently Thomas, inherited the estate at Cophurst which was in the southern part of the parish of Aldington. Thomas White, in his will, refers to this as the “farme of Cophurst”.

Although the will and the death and burial record for Peter White eludes me but it appears to be generally understood that Anne and her young son Thomas went to live with their relatives, the Brockmans of Beachborough (aka Bitchborough). Henry Brockman is Anne’s 1st cousin once removed through her maternal grandmother Elizabeth Clarke whose sister Margaret marries William Brockman (d.1605). Sir William Brockman, son of Henry Brockman, gained local fame during the Civil War. A staunch Royalist, Sir William was imprisoned from 1642 to 1645, and in 1648 he came with a troop of 800 men to the aid of Maidstone, under siege from General Thomas Fairfax’s Parliamentary army.

The mother of Dr. Thomas White, a widow and grave matron, lived long in the family of William Brockman esq. of Beachborough in Kent, and was nearly related to that family, and had a jointure of estate in or near Romney Marsh holding of the court of Aldington.

Restituta Or Titles, Extracts, and Characters of Old Books in English Literature, Revived · Volume 1 by Samuel Egerton Brydges 1814

Thomas White was therefore brought up in a staunchly Royalist household in the years preceeding the Civil War and it is telling that he was admitted to St John’s College in Cambridge at the age of just 14 on 29 October 1642 (further confirmation of a date of birth in 1628) just a few short weeks before his uncle Dr Thomas Blechynden and Sir William Brockman, along with many others, would be imprisoned in Winchester House at the start of the Civil War in 1642.

The Cambridge admission record states that Thomas was admitted after three years at school in Wye, Kent, and there is a suggestion in other papers that he also attended King’s School, Canterbury, but it seems certain that he spent the early years of his education at the Grammar School at Newark-on-Trent, where he distinguished himself by his “genius, industry, and learned attainments, and was remarked for his singular personal strength, courage, and pugilistic skill”. According to one biography Thomas White often said:

“that he ever looked back to his school days, at Newark, as the pleasantest and happiest of his life.”

The Lives of the Seven Bishops Committed to the Tower in 1688, Agnes Strickland, 1868

The pugilistic skill and personal strength was something which clearly carried on into his adulthood. There is a story that on one occasion, when accompanying the Bishop of Rochester to Dartford to officiate there, a trooper of the guard insulted the two and impeded their progress. Thomas White reproved the man, who retaliated by challenging him to fight it out. A fight ensued, in which Thomas White was victorious, and the trooper was compelled to ask the Bishop’s pardon.

King Charles II was, allegedly, highly amused at the story, which he had only heard second hand, and told Thomas White “that he should impeach him of high treason, for committing a personal assault on one of his guards“. But when Thomas White explained the provocation he had received, and the unprovoked insolence of the trooper, the King 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.

When he was admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge, his tutor was “Mr Blechynden”. This is Francis Blechynden, his mother Anne’s brother, who was a tutor and a Fellow of the college. His admission record also speaks to his family’s status at the time as he is admitted “plebeii” i.e. a commoner, non- gentry class, which reflects his late fathers status as “yeoman” and also that he was admitted “sizar”. This means he had a form of scholarship and may have had to perform some duties in the college in return for assistance with college fees.

Thomas White, son of Peter White, ‘plebeii’ lately deceased, of Allington, Kent; born at Allington; school, Wye Kent (Mr Suerty-on-high Nichols) for 3 years; admitted sizar, tutor and surety Mr Blechynden, 29 Oct. 1642 aet 14.

Admissions to the College of St John the Evangelist in the University of Cambridge, Parts I II, Jan 1629/30 – July 1715

Whilst Thomas White was at college he would have witnessed the turbulence of the English Civil War first hand when, in 1644, the Earl of Manchester arrived to force the “perfect reformation” of the College. The college Master was removed and the Fellows had to swear to a new oath which some found unpalatable. Thomas would have seen his uncle, Francis Blechynden, now a Senior Fellow, summarily ejected from his position for refusing to subscribe to the so-called “Oath of Discovery”. Perhaps Thomas White recalled his uncle’s principled refusal when he also refused to take an oath of allegience many years later. Despite the ejection of his uncle Thomas White finished his studies and took the degree of B.A. in 1646.

Career in the Clergy

After he received his degree and during the Protectorate (1653-1659) under Oliver Cromwell, he held the post of lecturer at St. Andrew’s, Holborn where he became noted as one of the most eloquent preachers in London. (It is possible that the lecturer at St Andrew’s was actually another Thomas White who held the post of rector at St Mary At Hill in the City of London. However, the Memoirs of the Life of Mr. John Kettlewell – link below – published in 1718, not long after the death of Thomas White, states it was the Thomas White who became Bishop of Peterborough. I have therefore assumed this to be true for now given that when it was written it was very recent history.)

Immediately after the restoration of the Monarchy in May 1660 Thomas White petitioned King Charles II for the vicarage of Newark-on-Trent, which he obtained on 30 July 1660. Perhaps Thomas continued to preach in London as, when the Rectory of All Hallows the Great in the City of London became vacant in 1666, Thomas White again petitioned for the post and was granted it because he was “of known parts and Abilities, and much desired by the Parishoners there”:

Act Books of the Archbishop of Canterbury 1663 – 1914

Just four months after being appointed to the Rectory of All Hallows the Great the Church itself was destroyed, in September 1666, as were many others, in the Great Fire of London. The parishes of All Hallows the Great and All Hallows the Less were combined after the fire and temporary structures were erected to allow services to be held.

The Church was eventually rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren between 1677 and 1684 so Thomas White would have seen the work start but, in July 1679 he received the rectory of Bottesford described as the “Great Living” of the Earl of Rutland upon the death of “Old Boots of Trinity”, Dr Anthony Marshall who was rector of Bottesford for 17 years. I’m not sure whether “Old Boots” is a term of endearment or one of derision.

Thomas White, throughout his career, had built up some strong alliances and patrons and this became more evident shortly after his appointment to the rectory of Bottesford. On 4 June 1683 he was created Doctor of Divinity of the University of Oxford and, shortly afterwards, chaplain to the Lady (afterwards queen) Anne, daughter of James, Duke of York, on her marriage in July 1683 with Prince George of Denmark. He was also installed archdeacon of Nottingham that year on 13 August 1683. Then, on 3 September 1685, he was elected Bishop of Peterborough, was consecrated on 25 October and enthroned by proxy on 9 November. One of Thomas White’s cousins, Richard Blechynden, had also taken holy orders, and preached a sermon at Thomas White’s consecration which took place in the Archbishop’s chapel at Lambeth Palace. Thomas White subsequently appointed his cousin Richard to a prebendary position at Peterborough Cathedral in 1686.

Chaplain to Lady Anne

Thomas White was personal chaplain to the future Queen Anne, from the point of her marriage to Prince George of Denmark in 1683, until he was suspended on 1 August 1689 for not taking the new Oath of Allegiance. The Lady Anne was born into the heart of royal and political life on 6 February 1665. She was the daughter of James, Duke of York (who became King James II), and his first wife, Anne Hyde. Although Anne was brought up in the Protestant faith, according to the instructions of her uncle King Charles II, when her mother died (when Anne was only 6 years old), her father remarried in 1673 to Mary of Modena confirming his allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith.

The country had lived through many years of conflict between Church and State, Parliament and Monarchy, Protestants and Catholics, and it wanted stability. The appointment of the personal chaplain to the Lady Anne was not carelessly made given her 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.

The Lives of the Seven Bishops Committed to the Tower in 1688, Agnes Strickland, 1868

Thomas White remained Chaplain to the Lady Anne until 1 August 1689 and it has been suggested that it was his influence upon her that encouraged her moderate and conciliatory approach towards the Church and Parliament. It is the case that Queen Anne, last of the Stuarts, ruled in a new way and one which we might recognise today. She retained her commitment to the Church of England and a Protestant succession and unlike her grandfather, Charles I, she did not seek to rule according to the divine right of kings but, instead, set the path for monarchs to rule in conjunction with parliament.

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.

The Lives of the Seven Bishops Committed to the Tower in 1688, Agnes Strickland, 1868

Trial of the Seven Bishops

Dr Thomas White, Bishop of Peterborough, is best known for being one of the seven bishops who were committed to the Tower of London in June 1688 for declaring that the King’s use of the dispensing power (i.e. the power to do away with acts of parliament in certain cases), was illegitimate and an inappropriate infringement on the rights of the church. King James II had issued an order in May 1688 that all his ministers should read his second ‘Declaration of Indulgence’ which granted religious toleration, but the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, and six of his bishops including Thomas White, petitioned against it whilst, at the same time, professing their loyalty to the King.

James II’s overt Roman Catholicism and favouritism shown to Catholics was causing concern amongst the political and spiritual elite. Even those church leaders who had supported James’s right to succeed to the throne resisted the Declaration of Indulgence. This far and no further, they declared. The King was furious at the petition and summoned the bishops to explain themselves:

“Is this what I deserved, who have supported the Church of England, and will support it? I will remember you that have signed this paper. I will keep this paper; I will not part with it. I did not expect this from you, especially from some of you. I will be obeyed in publishing my Declaration.”

James II and the Trial of the Seven Bishops, William Gibson 2009

“God’s will be done” was Thomas White’s response to the King at his fury. The King feared this act of defiance would lead to wider rebellion and charged the seven bishops with seditious libel, committing them to the Tower of London on 8 June 1688. The trial was heard on the 29 June and the quickly prepared defense argued, at some length, that the bishops had the right to privately petition the King and that to read out the Declaration of Indulgence would run counter to the Act of Uniformity.

“My Lords, this is the bishops’ case with submission; they are under a distress being commanded to do a thing which they take not to be legal, and they with all humility, by way of petition acquaint the king with this distress of theirs, and pray him, that he will please to give relief.” – Serjeant Levinz (for the defence)

extract from: The Proceedings and Tryal in the Case of the Most Reverend Father in God, William, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, London: Printed for Thomas Basset and Thomas Fox, 1689

The charge of seditious libel was a serious one and had been a legal concept since 1275. The telling or publishing of “any false news or tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people or the great men of the realm” became a crime tried by the King’s Council in the Star Chamber (a court that sat at the Palace of Westminster). Then in 1606, the Case De Libellis Famosis, tried in the Star Chamber, developed the concept further and set out that libel against the monarch or the government might also be a crime because “it concerns not only the breach of the peace, but also the scandal of government.” This is important because it meant that any criticism, whether grounded in truth or not, of the monarch or of the government, could be seditious.

Trial of the Seven Bishops by John Rogers Herbert

The Solicitor General, arguing the case for the King, argued that no one had the power to petition the King unless it was through Parliament. The audience watching the trial were furious at this and there were audible hisses across the court room. Even the Lord Chief Justice baulked at this but acknowledged that it could lead to instability for the Government:

Truly, Mr Solicitor, I am of the opinion that the bishops might petition the King, but this is not the right way of bringing it…I am sure it will make the Government very precarious.

extract from: The Proceedings and Tryal in the Case of the Most Reverend Father in God, William, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, London: Printed for Thomas Basset and Thomas Fox, 1689
Simon Gribelin etching of the seven bishops, 1688, courtesy of the British Museum

After much deliberation the jury was asked to retire and consider their verdict. This went on throughout the night and it was six in the morning before they were all agreed. When the jury announced their verdict of “Not guilty” the court room erupted, the thousands who had gathered nearby shouted and cheered and the news spread quickly. This was no back room trial with a disinterested public. It was the news of the day. Church bells rang out in celebration, commemorative coins were stamped, poems were written, the engraver Simon Gribelin had prints of his etchings of the seven bishops drawn up and distributed across London. The seven bishops became popular heroes, and the King’s attempt to enforce his will and quell rebellion massively backfired. The trial and aquittal of the seven bishop fatally undermined James II’s authority. Later that year James II fled the country and a new monarch was installed following the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Despite the outcome of the trial the bishops continued to advise James II for the next few months and Thomas White, with other bishops, attended on the King to give counsel on 24 September, on 3 October, and again on 6 November, when he says “we parted under some displeasure.” On that occasion he made a personal protestation that he had not invited the William of Orange to invade, nor did he know any that had done so. Thomas White remained loyal to the King despite the gaping differences between them.

The nonjuring bishop

In December 1688 James II fled the country and the following year William of Orange and his wife Mary (daughter of James II) were invited to take the throne. Constitutionally this was challenging. James II had not died so who was the monarch? In the end it was decided that he had abdicated and a Declaration of Rights was drawn up which was agreed to by William and Mary ahead of their joint accession to the throne.

The Declaration is worth a read as it curbs the power of the monarchs and elevates that of Parliament. It includes a reference to the trial of the seven bishops and says that James II “did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion, and the Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom….. By committing and prosecuting divers worthy Prelates, for humbly petitioning to be excused from concurring to the said assumed [dispensing] Power.” The Declaration then goes on to make the dispensing power illegal, enshrines the right of the subject to petition the King and that of freedom of speech in Parliament:

That the pretended Power of dispensing with Laws, or the Execution of Laws, by Regal Authority, as it has been assumed and exercised of late, is illegal.

“That levying of Money, for or to the Use of the Crown, by Pretence of Prerogative, without Grant of Parliament, for longer Time, or in other Manner, than the same is or shall be granted, is illegal.

“That it is the Right of the Subject to petition the King; and all Commitments and Prosecutions for such Petitioning are illegal.

“That the raising and keeping a Standing Army within this Kingdom, in Time of Peace, unless it be with Consent of Parliament, is against Law.

“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence, suitable to their Condition, and as allowed by Law.

“That Election of Members of Parliament ought to be free.

“That the Freedom of Speech and Debates, or Proceedings in Parliament, ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament.

‘House of Lords Journal Volume 14: 12 February 1689’, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 14, 1685-1691 (London, 1767-1830). British History Online

But not everyone was happy with the new world order. Again Thomas White along with William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, and other senior clerics opposed this change. I am sure they did not oppose the right to petition the King, how could they, but they had given their oath of allegience to James II and oaths before God were not to be taken lightly.

Thomas White, as Bishop of Peterborough, argued in the House of Lords, following the flight of James II, that the king had not abdicated and made his throne vacant and instead sought a lesser form of words which would allow William of Orange to govern in a form of regency and not as monarch. However, on 6 February 1689, word came from the House of Commons that they insisted on a clean break, and that the King had abdicated. This time the House of Lords agreed, although Thomas White put his name to the list of those who dissented:

Vote that King James has abdicated, and that the Throne is vacant, agreed to.

And, after Debate, this Question was put,

“Whether to agree with the House of Commons in the Word [“abdicated”], instead of the Word [“deserted”]; and to the Words that follow, [“and that the Throne is thereby vacant”]?”

Resolved in the Affirmative

‘House of Lords Journal Volume 14: 6 February 1689’, in Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 14, 1685-1691 (London, 1767-1830). British History Online

William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal were required to take new oaths of allegience. Thomas White refused, was suspended from office on 1 August 1689 and deprived of his see on 1 February 1690. Thomas White was not alone in refusing to take the new oaths. Five of the bishops who were tried in 1688 refused the oath along with others and about 400 members of the clergy! This became known as the nonjuring schism in the Church of England. Nonjuring means a refusal to take the oath.

Whilst some of the nonjuring bishops returned eventually to the established church, four of them, including Thomas White, sought to create an alternative nonjuring Church of England. Archbishop William Sancroft passed his authority as primate of the English church to William Lloyd, who sent a delegation to seek approval from the exiled James II to consecrate bishops and so continue the episcopal line. James II approved this request and so in February 1694 Thomas White, William Lloyd and Francis Turner (Bishop of Ely) consecrated George Hickes and Thomas Wagstaffe as suffragan bishops for the diocese of Norwich. This was to pointedly establish the principle that it was for the Church to carry out ordinations of members of the Church and not Parliament.

Thomas White lived out his remaining years relatively quietly. His last public appearance was at the execution at Tower Hill of Sir John Fenwick on 28 January 1697, a notable supporter of James II and implicated in a plot to assasinate William III. At the scaffold Sir John presented a paper “Contemplations upon life and death…” and it has been suggested that this was written by Thomas White or co-authored. If true this might suggest a closer, if quieter, alignment between Thomas White and the Jacobite cause.

Thomas White died on the 30th of May 1698 and was buried on the 4th of June at about 9 or 10 in the evening in the churchyard of St Gregory’s by St Paul’s, a parish church in the City of London, built against the south-west tower of St Paul’s cathedral but which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and not replaced. The parish burial record refers to him as Dr Thomas White, late Bishop of Peterborough.

Sadly, even Thomas White’s burial was not without controversy. His remains were attended by the nonjuring bishops, Francis Turner of Ely, Lloyd of Norwich, and the Irish Bishop of Kilmore, who with two other deprived members of the clergy supported the coffin to the graveside. Forty of the ejected clergy, and several of the Jacobite nobility and gentry followed the hearse; but, when Francis Turner requested that he, or one of the other nonjurors present, should read the burial service, this was rejected by the Dean of St. Paul’s, who insisted upon a conforming minister. At this the bishops, the forty clergy and majority of the nobility and gentry left. I hope some of his Blechynden relatives were present and remained to witness his final resting place.

Francis Turner, Bishop of Ely, gives an account of Thomas White’s funeral in the following letter to his brother:


“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 Lives of the Seven Bishops Committed to the Tower in 1688, Agnes Strickland, 1868

Thomas White wrote a lengthy will which referred to the challenging times he lived through. It gave various bequests to the poor, to his family and to his fellow deprived clergymen. I will set out the will separately but note here Thomas White’s final request for his burial which, sadly, was not made good. Perhaps the Dean of St Paul’s, who refused to have a nonjuring Bishop officiate at his burial, would also not allow the headstone that Thomas White asked for and so his final resting place, albeit in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral, is unmarked:

Having commended my soul unto the mercy and grace of God, I do appoint my body to be buryed 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, DD: late Bishopp of Peterburgh, deprived of that Bishopprick for not taking the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy established one thousand six hundred eighty nine is buryed here in hope of a happy resurrection.

Extract from Thomas White’s last will and testament.

Addendum (31 December 2022)

I recently had an opportunity to visit the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Bottesford, Leicestershire, where Thomas White was rector for six years and amongst the many impressive toombs and monuments to the Roos and Manners families I was thrilled to find a monument to Thomas White hidden away in what is now a storage area to the side of the church’s organ. There is also a list of all the rectors of Bottesford which includes Thomas White.

Monument to Thomas White, St Mary the Virgin parish church, Bottesford.

The monument to Thomas White was erected by the rector of the parish in 1916. I haven’t seen this monument anywhere on line so wanted to share it here. It does not give any new information but I did pause on the reference to Thomas White being “buried in St George’s vault in the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral” as this seems to contradict the account given by Francis Turner, Bishop of Ely of a burial “in St. Gregory’s, i.e., in the churchyard, for there is no church“. It is important to recall that when Thomas White died St Paul’s Cathedral was still being rebuilt following the great fire of London and St Gregory by St Paul’s was also destroyed in the fire and not rebuilt and the parish was instead merged with that of St Mary Magdalen, Old Fish Street. There is a St George’s chapel in the new St Paul’s Cathedral but there is no suggestion in records that Thomas White was buried there and given both the building work which was ongoing and the very clear description given by Francis Turner of his funeral I think the monument contains an error and that he is indeed and sadly buried in an unmarked grave on the south side of the Cathedral.