Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Nowell, Thomas

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NOWELL, THOMAS (1730–1801), divine, born in 1730, son of Cradock Nowell of Cardiff, Glamorganshire, entered at Oriel College, Oxford, 26 April 1746, and matriculated 10 May, when his age was given as sixteen. He graduated B.A. 14 Feb. 1749–1750, and M.A. 1753. On 25 March 1747 he was nominated by the Duke of Beaufort to an exhibition at Oriel for natives of the counties of Gloucester, Monmouth, and Glamorgan, and on 14 Nov. 1752 he became an exhibitioner on the foundation of Bishop Robinson. He was elected fellow of his college on 27 April 1753, and held it until he married. He also filled the college offices of junior treasurer 1755–7, senior treasurer 1757–8, and dean 1758–60, 1763. In May 1760 Nowell was elected public orator; he was nominated by his college as junior proctor in 1761, and acted for many years as secretary to the chancellor of the university. On the death of Dr. William King he was admitted principal (10 Jan. 1764) of St. Mary Hall, and proceeded B.D. 14 Jan. 1764, D.D. 28 Jan. In 1771 he was appointed by Lord North—whose attention had been called by George III to the necessity of selecting ‘a man of sufficient abilities,’ as such offices ‘ought not to be given by favour, but according to merit’ (Corresp. of George III and North, i. 62–3)—to the regius professorship of modern history at Oxford, and he retained it, with the principalship of the hall, until his death; but he resigned the post of public orator in 1776. It is stated by James Hurdis in the ‘Vindication of Magdalen College,’ which he published about 1800, that Nowell reads ‘on certain days of every week during term, giving without interruption both public and private lectures, in person for the most part, and by substitution when his impaired health confines him at home.’

Nowell preached before the speaker and four other members of the House of Commons at St. Margaret's, Westminster, on 30 Jan. 1772, the usual sermon on King Charles. The speaker ‘highly disapproved of the sermon, and did not conceal his sentiments;’ another of the members thought that the ‘offensive expressions’ used in the pulpit would not be printed; but the accustomed vote of thanks from the house was passed without any protest to the preacher on 31 Jan. (Commons' Journals, xxxiii. 435–436). In the printed discourse George III was compared to Charles I, the existing house was likened to the opponents of Charles, and the grievances of the subjects of both monarchs were declared illusory. Thomas Townshend suggested on 21 Feb. that the sermon should be burnt by the hands of the common hangman; but Lord North reminded the house of the vote of thanks, and carried a motion for the order of the day. The matter was again brought up on 25 Feb., when the entry of thanks was expunged without a division, after an attempt to bring on the order of the day had been defeated by 152 votes to forty-one (ib. xxxiii. 500, 509). The king reported to Lord North that ‘the country gentlemen were at first hurt they were not supported in defending’ Dr. Nowell (Corresp. of George III and North, i. 91–3). Gibbon remarked that the preacher's bookseller ‘is much obliged to the Right Honourable Tommy Townshend’ (Miscell. Works, ii. 78), and Dr. Johnson, who dined with Boswell at Nowell's ‘beautiful villa at Iffley’ on 11 June 1784, added, ‘Sir, the Court will be very much to blame if Nowell is not promoted.’ The party ‘drank Church and King after dinner with true Tory cordiality’ (Boswell, ed. Hill, ii. 152, iv. 295–6).

Nowell, however, received no further preferment. He lived partly at St. Mary Hall, and partly ‘at his pretty house overlooking the lock at Iffley,’ and died at his lodgings in St. Mary Hall on 23 Sept. 1801, being described as seventy-three years old. Nowell married at St. Aldate's, Oxford, on 23 Feb. 1764, Sarah, daughter of Sir Thomas Munday, a well-known Oxford upholsterer. Their son Thomas was buried in St. Aldate's on 8 Jan. 1768 (Anthony Wood, Oxford Cit, ed. Peshall, p. 151). He established a fund for rebuilding the western side of the quadrangle at the hall; some portion was rebuilt, and an additional story was raised on the south side, ‘but it was extremely plain and of a mean appearance’ (Ingram, Oxford, vol. ii.) Under his will certain shares held by him in the Oxford Canal Navigation were left to found an exhibition at St. Mary Hall (Chalmers, Oxford, ii. 451).

Six students at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, the best known of whom was the Rev. Erasmus Middleton [q. v.], were expelled from the university on 11 March 1768 ‘for praying and preaching in prohibited times and places.’ This proceeding was censured by Sir Richard Hill [q. v.] in ‘Pietas Oxoniensis, by a Master of Arts of the University of Oxford,’ 1768, and defended by Nowell in ‘An Answer to a Pamphlet entitled Pietas Oxoniensis,’ 1768; 2nd ed. with large additions, 1769. Hill retorted with a reply entitled ‘Goliath Slain;’ another writer, disguised as ‘No Methodist,’ issued ‘Strictures on an Answer to Pietas Oxoniensis by Thomas Nowell.’ Toplady, at first as Clerus and then under his own name, vindicated ‘The Church of England from the Charge of Arminianism in a Letter to Dr. Nowell;’ and John Fellows, as ‘Philanthropos,’ published ‘Grace Triumphant: a Sacred Poem, submitted to the Serious and Candid Perusal of Dr. Nowell,’ and others. This affair provoked much excitement at the time (Boswell, ed. Hill, ii. 187), and the titles of several more pamphlets by Macgowan, Whitefield, and others, are given in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 3rd ser. ix. 427, and Halkett and Laing's ‘Dictionary of Anonymous Literature,’ pp. 679, 1027, 1037, 1405, 1912, 2008. An anonymous dissertation ‘upon that Species of Writing called Humour when applied to sacred subjects,’ 1760, is attributed to Nowell.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Gent. Mag. 1772 p. 93, 1801 pt. ii. p. 963; Letters of first Earl Malmesbury, 1870, i. 252–4; Walpole's Journals, 1771–83, i. 25–8; Wood's Univ. of Oxford, ed. Gutch, vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 907; Wood's Oxford Colleges, ed. Gutch, pp. 673–4, and App. p. 173; Hansard, xvii. 312–8; information from Mr. C. L. Shadwell, of Oriel College, Oxford.]

W. P. C.