Magazine article History Today

Bishop Thomas Watson (1637-1717)

Magazine article History Today

Bishop Thomas Watson (1637-1717)

Article excerpt

Those who personally benefited from the regime of James II were the subjects of deep suspicion after the 1688 Revolution. Thomas Watson, who had been made a bishop--and therefore also a member of the House of Lords--under the Catholic monarch in 1687, was treated with special odium. His controversial expulsion after a bitterly fought series of legal actions raised fundamental questions about the right to control membership of the House.

Son of a seaman, Watson owed his education at Hull grammar school and St John's, Cambridge, to the corporation of Hull. His early advancements also came through Yorkshire contacts. In 1672 Henry Slingsby of Kippax appointed him to the valuable rectory of Burrough Green in Cambridgeshire, and at about the same time he became chaplain to the Duke of Monmouth, High Steward of Hull. By 1679 Watson was a reliable court supporter, intervening in elections in Cambridgeshire and Hull, and providing the court with regular reports on the activities of those intending 'factious designs in parliament time'. As an otherwise undistinguished clergyman, this and his support for James II's Declarations of Indulgence seems to have been his only qualification for promotion to a bishopric in 1687. It also led to (unfounded) suspicions of popery and provoked a mixture of hatred and contempt from Whig and Tory alike.

During the Revolution of 1688 he was attacked by an Orangeist mob in Cambridge; elsewhere a group of William III's English supporters used his picture for target practice.

Although Watson took the oaths to the new regime in March 1689, he was reluctant to do so. His opposition to government policies in Parliament was matched by his opposition in Convocation to proposals for liturgical reform. Nor did he find much favour in St David's, where he embarked on a determined and unpopular campaign against clerical absenteeism. Although Watson won some support from the Whig Lord Lieutenant Lord Macclesfield, local opposition, led by Robert Lucy, was fierce. After Macclesfield's death in 1694 Lucy's complaints triggered a 'metropolitical' visitation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson. The visitation failed to identify any wrongdoing but Watson was temporarily suspended for a technical contempt of the archbishop's authority. Still dissatisfied, in August 1695 Lucy began a prosecution before Tillotson's successor, Thomas Tenison. The charges included simony, failure to administer the oaths of allegiance and extortion.

Perhaps Tenison saw Lucy's prosecution as a way of bringing his errant bishop to heel. …

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