Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nicolas, Nicholas Harris

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NICOLAS, Sir NICHOLAS HARRIS (1799–1848), antiquary, born at Dartmouth on 10 March 1799, was privately baptised by the minister of St. Petrox, Dartmouth, on 1 April. His great-grandfather came to England on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and settled at Looe in Cornwall, and he himself was the fourth son of John Harris Nicolas (1758–1844), R.N. John Toup Nicolas [q. v.] was his eldest brother. His mother, Margaret, daughter and coheiress of John Blake, was granddaughter of the Rev. John Keigwin, vicar of Landrake, whose wife, Prudence Busvargus, was, by her first husband, the Rev. John Toup, mother of the Rev. Jonathan Toup [q. v.] Nicolas entered the navy as a first-class volunteer on 27 Oct. 1808, became a midshipman in the Pilot 31 March 1812, served on the coast of Calabria for some years, and on 20 Sept. 1815 was promoted to the post of lieutenant. In 1816 he was put on half-pay, and compelled to find a fresh field for his energies. Thereupon he read for the bar, and was called at the Inner Temple on 6 May 1825, but did not enter into general practice, confining himself to peerage claims before the House of Lords.

Nicolas married on 28 March 1822 Sarah, youngest daughter of John Davison of the East India House and of Loughton in Essex, who claimed descent from William Davison [q. v.], secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth. This circumstance led to his investigating the career of that minister, and entering upon a course of antiquarian study which he never abandoned. Nicolas was elected F.S.A. about 1824, and early in 1826 was placed upon the council; but after he had attended one meeting his name was, on the ensuing anniversary (23 April 1826), omitted from the house list. He then started an inquiry into the state of the society, and endeavoured to effect a reform in its constitution. But his efforts were defeated by the officials, and after the anniversary in 1828 he withdrew from it altogether. In 1830 he turned his attention to the record commission, criticising its constitution and the cost of the works which it had issued. He issued in 1830 a volume addressed to Lord Melbourne of ‘Observations on the State of Historical Literature and on the Society of Antiquaries, with Remarks on the Record Commission,’ the portion of which relating to the purchase by the British Museum of the Joursanvault Manuscripts is summarised in Edwards's ‘Founders of the British Museum,’ ii. 535–42. Sir Francis Palgrave at once replied with a letter of ‘Remarks submitted to Viscount Melbourne,’ 1831, and Nicolas promptly answered him in a ‘Refutation of Palgrave's Remarks,’ which was also appended to a reissue of his ‘Observations on the State of Historical Literature.’ The titles of five more works on this subject, three of which, though written by Nicolas, purported to be by Mr. C. P. Cooper, secretary to the record commission, are given in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis,’ i. 393. It was mainly owing to his exertions that the select committee of 1836, under the presidency of Charles Buller [q. v.], was appointed to inquire into the public records. His evidence before this committee is printed in the appendix to its ‘Report,’ pp. 342–57, 377–85, 426. His evidence before the select committee of the British Museum fills pp. 290–304 of the appendix to its ‘Report’ in 1836. He had in 1846 some correspondence with Sir A. Panizzi ‘on the supply of printed books from the library to the reading-room of the British Museum,’ which provoked from Panizzi a pamphlet with that title, and from Nicolas a counter-charge of ‘Animadversions on the Library and Catalogues of the British Museum: a Reply to Panizzi's Statement.’ He also contributed to the ‘Spectator’ of 16, 23, and 30 May 1846 three articles on the same subject.

On 12 Oct. 1831 Nicolas was created a knight of the Guelphs of Hanover, and he became chancellor and knight commander, with the rank of senior knight commander, of the order of St. Michael and St. George on 16 Aug. 1832, being promoted to the position of grand cross on 6 Oct. 1840. These honours brought with them no pecuniary reward, and the necessities of a large family, combined with laxity in managing his resources, forced Nicolas to perpetual drudgery. He lived for some years at 19 Tavistock Place, London, but his last residence in England was at 55 Torrington Square. His pecuniary necessities drove him at last into exile, but he continued at work until within a week of his death. He died of congestion of the brain at Capé Cure, a suburb of Boulogne, on 3 Aug. 1848. He was buried in Boulogne cemetery on 8 Aug., and a tablet to his memory was placed in the church of St. Martin, near Looe, in which parish he inherited a small property. He had himself erected a monument in the same church to the memory of his uncle and namesake (d. 1816), to whom he was executor. His widow, born in London on 3 Aug. 1800, died at Richmond, Surrey, on 12 Nov. 1867. Nicolas left eight children, two sons and six daughters; and two others died young. His second son, Nicholas Harris, received almost immediately a clerkship in the exchequer and audit department, and his widow was granted, on 31 Oct. 1853, a civil list pension of 100l. per annum. Four of the children are buried in Kew churchyard.

Nicolas may have been aggressive and passionate, but he was animated by the best motives, and his fierce attacks on the abuses with which he credited the record commission, the Society of Antiquaries, and the British Museum produced many desirable reforms. The debt of American students to Nicolas for the increased facilities of antiquarian research in English records is fully acknowledged in S. G. Drake's ‘Researches in British Archives,’ 1860, p. 8. Nicolas was remarkable for a ‘beaming face, hearty greeting, genial conversation, varied knowledge, and for his liberal readiness to impart it’ (Edwards, Libraries and Founders, pp. 285–288); but he sometimes practised his sharp wit on his friends. Proof of the contemporary belief in his knowledge of genealogy, and his thoroughness of research, is given by Hood, who suggests that the pedigree of Miss Kilmansegg

    Were enough, in truth, to puzzle Old Nick,
    Not to name Sir Harris Nicolas.

In little more than twenty-five years of literary work Nicolas compiled or edited many valuable works. They comprised: 1. ‘Index to the Heralds' Visitations in the British Museum’ [anon.], 1823; 2nd edit. 1825. 2. ‘Life of William Davison, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth,’ 1823. 3. ‘Notitia Historica: Miscellaneous Information for Historians, Antiquaries, and the Legal Profession,’ 1824; an improved edition, called ‘The Chronology of History,’ was included in 1833 in Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ vol. xliv., and a second edition of this revised issue appeared in 1838. 4. ‘Synopsis of the Peerage of England,’ 1825; a new edition, entitled ‘The Historic Peerage of England,’ and revised, corrected, and continued by William Courthope, was published in 1857. 5. ‘Testamenta Vetusta: illustrations from Wills of Ancient Manners, Customs, &c., from Henry II to Accession of Queen Elizabeth,’ 1826, 2 vols. 6. ‘Literary Remains of Lady Jane Grey,’ 1825. 7. ‘History of Town and School of Rugby,’ 1826; left unfinished. 8. ‘Poetical Rhapsody of Francis Davison,’ 1826, 2 vols; portions of this, consisting of ‘Psalms translated by Francis and Christopher Davison’ and of ‘Biographical Notices of Contributors to the “Poetical Rhapsody,”’ were issued for private circulation in the same year. 9. ‘Flagellum Parliamentarium: Sarcastic Notices of 200 Members of Parliament, 1661–78,’ 1827. 10. ‘Memoir of Augustine Vincent, Windsor Herald,’ 1827. 11. ‘History of the Battle of Agincourt, and of the Expedition of Henry V into France,’ 1827; 2nd edit. 1832; 3rd edit. 1833. 12. ‘Chronicle of London, 1089–1483,’ 1827, edited by Nicolas and Edward Tyrrel, the city remembrancer. 13. ‘Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VIII from November 1529 to December 1532,’ 1827. 14. ‘Private Memoirs of Sir Kenelm Digby,’ 1827; the ‘Castrations’ from these ‘Memoirs’ were printed for private circulation in the same year. 15. ‘Journal of one of the Suite of Thomas Beckington, afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells, on an Embassy to the Count of Armagnac, 1442,’ 1828; this was adversely criticised by the Rev. George Williams in ‘Official Correspondence of Bekynton,’ Rolls Ser., 1872. 16. ‘The Siege of Carlaverock, 1300’ 1828. 17. ‘Roll of Arms of Peers and Knights in Reign of Edward II,’ 1828. 18. ‘Statutes of Order of the Guelphs,’ 1828; only one hundred copies printed, and not for sale. 19. ‘Statutes of Order of the Thistle,’ 1828; limited to fifty copies, not for sale. 20. ‘Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe,’ 1829. 21. ‘Roll of Arms of Reigns of Henry III and Edward III,’ 1829; fifty copies printed. 22. ‘Report of Proceedings on Claims to the Barony of L'Isle,’ 1829. 23. ‘Letter to the Duke of Wellington on creating Peers for Life’ (anon.), 1830, for private circulation only; 2nd edit. (anon.), 1830; 3rd edit., by Sir Harris Nicolas, 1834. 24. ‘Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York, with Memoir of her,’ 1830. 25. ‘Report of Proceedings on Claims to Earldom of Devon,’ 1832. 26. ‘The Scrope and Grosvenor Controversy,’ 1832; a magnificent work of 150 copies only, privately printed at the expense of an association of noblemen and gentlemen. The first volume contained the controversy between Ricardus le Scrope and Robertus Grosvenor, milites, and the second included a history of the Scropes and of the deponents in their favour; the third volume, to contain notices of the Grosvenor deponents, was never published. 27. ‘Letters of Joseph Ritson,’ 1833, 2 vols. 28. ‘Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, 1386–1542,’ 1834–7, 7 vols. His remuneration for this work was 150l. per volume. It contained a mass of valuable matter, and after an interval of more than fifty years the labour has been resumed by Mr. J. R. Dasent. 29. ‘Treatise on Law of Adulterine Bastardy,’ discussing the claim of William Knollys [q. v.] to be Earl of Banbury, 1836; 2nd edit. 1838. 30. ‘The Complete Angler of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton,’ with drawings by Stothard and Inskipp, 1836, 2 vols.; a magnificent work. The lives were issued separately in 1837, and the whole work was reprinted in 1875. 31. ‘History of Orders of Knighthood of the British Empire and of the Guelphs of Hanover,’ 1841–2, 4 vols. 32. ‘History of Earldoms of Strathern, Monteith, and Airth, with Report of Proceedings of Claim of R. B. Allardice to Earldom of Airth,’ 1842. 33. ‘Statement on Mr. Babbage's Calculating Engines,’ 1843; reprinted in Babbage's ‘Life of a Philosopher,’ pp. 68–96. 34. ‘Despatches and Letters of Lord Nelson,’ 1844–6, 7 vols.; another issue began in 1845, but only one volume came out. 35. ‘Court of Queen Victoria, or Portraits of British Ladies,’ 1845; only three parts were published. 36. ‘History of Royal Navy,’ 1847, 2 vols.; incomplete, extending only to reign of Henry V. 37. ‘Memoirs of Sir Christopher Hatton,’ 1847.

Nicolas brought out the ‘Carcanet’ (1828 and 1839) and the ‘Cynosure’ (1837), both containing select passages from the most distinguished English writers; and, in conjunction with Henry Southern, he edited the two volumes (1827 and 1828) of the second series of the ‘Retrospective Review.’ He drew up an elaborate analysis of the writings of Junius, some part of which appeared in Wade's edition of ‘Junius’ (Bohn's Standard Library, vols. 119 and 120), and the whole manuscript was ultimately sold to Joseph Parkes [q. v.] For Pickering's Aldine edition of the poets Nicolas contributed lives of Thomson, Collins, the Earl of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Kirke White, Burns, Cowper, and Chaucer, the last being especially valuable through his investigations in contemporary documents. These memoirs have been inserted in the subsequent issues of that series. It was his intention to have superintended an edition of Thomson's poems, and Lord Lyttelton furnished him with considerable information on the subject. To the ‘Archæologia’ and the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ he contributed numerous antiquarian papers, most of them in the latter periodical being signed ‘Clionas,’ and relating to the Cornish families with which he was connected. He also wrote the long preface to its hundredth volume. The ‘Westminster Review,’ ‘Quarterly Review,’ ‘Spectator,’ ‘Athenæum,’ and ‘Naval and Military Magazine’ were among the other periodicals to which he occasionally contributed.

Nicolas gave assistance to Dallaway and Cartwright's ‘History of Sussex,’ Cotman's ‘Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk and Suffolk,’ Samuel Bentley's ‘Excerpta Historica,’ and Emma Roberts's ‘Rival Houses of York and Lancaster.’ The voluminous papers of Sir Hudson Lowe on Napoleon's captivity at St. Helena were sorted and arranged by him, and at the time of his death a mass of documents to September 1817 had been set up in type. They were reduced in matter by William Forsyth, Q.C., and published in three volumes in 1853. Nicolas edited in 1836 the poetical remains of his friend Sir T. E. Croft, and compiled in 1842 a history of ‘The Cornish Club,’ with a list of its members, which was reprinted and supplemented by Mr. Henry Paull in 1877. Letters by him are in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literary History,’ vol. viii. pp. xlvi–xlvii, and the ‘Memoir of Augustus de Morgan,’ pp. 70–3. Several of his manuscripts and letters are in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 6525, 19704–8, 28847, 24872, and 28894, and Egerton MS. 2241). Several others were dispersed in the sale of Sir C. Young's collections December 1871.

[Gent. Mag. 1822 pt. i. p. 369, 1848 pt. ii. pp. 425–9, 562; Cunningham and Wheatley's London, iii. 348, 385; Burke's Commoners, iv. 138–140, 292–7; O'Byrne's Naval Biogr. Dict.; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornubiensis, vols. i. and iii.; Boase's Collect. Cornubiensia, pp. 626–7; Britton's Autobiog. iii. 179; Tait's Edinburgh Mag. 1848, p. 640; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vii. 322–3, 4th ser. i. 36; Dyce Catalogue, i. 218; Babbage's Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, pp. 363–4; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall, iii. 269–70.]

W. P. C.