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

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PIERCE or PEIRSE, THOMAS (1622–1691), controversialist, son of John Pierce or Peirse, a woollen-draper and mayor of Devizes, Wiltshire, was born in 1622. He was appointed chorister of Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1633, and was trained in 'grammar-learning' in the free-school adjoining the college by the Rev. William White, for whom in 1662 he obtained preferment (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. iii. 1167). On 7 Dec. 1638 he matriculated from the college, his father being then described as 'plebeius,' and in 1639 he became a demy. He graduated B.A. on 4 Dec. 1641, and M.A. on 21 June 1644, when he was 'esteemed a good poet and well skill'd in the theory and practice of music' (ib.) This musical reputation was maintained in after years; Evelyn mentions, on making his acquaintance in 1656, that he was 'an excellent musician' (Diary, 1827 edit. ii. 117). In 1643 he was elected a fellow of his college, and was expelled on 15 May 1648 by the parliamentary visitors, a proceeding which gave zest to his satire upon them, entitled 'A Third and Fourth Part of Pegasus, taught by Bankes his Ghost to dance in the Dorick Moode, 1 July 1648;' it was signed Basilius Philomusus. Like most of the royalist divines, he must have endured much poverty for some years; but he was fortunate enough to enter the household of Dorothy, countess of Sunderland, as tutor to her only son, Robert Spencer, afterwards secretary of state to James II. He spent some years in travelling with the youth through France and Italy, and in 1656 he was presented by the countess to the rectory of Brington, Northamptonshire, which he held until 1676. There he was much admired, says Wood, for his 'smooth and edifying way of preaching,' but everywhere else his words were 'very swords.' In 1659 he was appointed prælector of theology at his college.

Until the end of 1644 Pierce was imbued with calvinism, but he then changed his views, and attacked his abandoned opinions with the zeal of a neo-convert. For some time he was content to confine his thoughts to manuscript, but in 1655 he expounded his creed, that the sin in him was due to his own and not to God's will, and that the good done by him was received from the special grace and favour of God, in 'A correct Copy of some Notes concerning God's Decrees, especially of Reprobation.' The first edition (1655) was signed 'T. P.,' the second (1657) and the third (1671) bear his name. Pierce further defined his position in 'The Sinner impleaded in his own Court, wherein are represented the great Discouragements from Sinning which the Sinner receiveth from Sin itselfe,' 1656 (2nd and 3rd edit, with additions, 1670). Controversy raged about these works until 1660, and in further tracts Pierce replied to spirited attacks by William Barlee, rector of Brockhall, Northamptonshire, Edward Bagshawe, Henry Hickman, and especially Richard Baxter, with whom he was long at enmity. In 1658 he reprinted his contributions to the controversy, as far as it had then gone, in 'The Christian's Rescue from the Grand Error of the Heathen.'

At the Restoration, Pierce was reinstated in his fellowship, proceeding also D.D. on 7 Aug. 1660, and being appointed in the same year chaplain-in-ordinary to Charles II. He became the seventh canon of Canterbury on 9 July 1660, and prebendary of Langford Major at Lincoln on 25 Sept. 1662, holding both preferments until his death. After a strong opposition from some of the fellows, which was silenced at last by a peremptory letter from court, he was elected president of Magdalen College, Oxford, on 9 Nov. 1661. The result was a long-continued warfare. Wood rightly deemed him more qualified for preaching than for the administration of a college, and considered him 'high, proud, and sometimes little better than mad.' His own statement was that he was the 'prince' of his college. He deprived Thomas Jeanes of his fellowship, ostensibly for a pamphlet justifying the proceedings of the parliament against Charles I, but really for criticising the latinity of his 'Concio Synodica ad Clerum' (Wood, Fasti, ii. 220). Another of his victims was Henry Yerbury, a senior fellow and doctor of physic, whom he first put out of commons and then expelled. His conduct very soon brought about a visitation of the college by the bishop of Winchester, whom he treated with discourtesy. Pierce endeavoured to justify his action in 'A true Account of the Proceedings, and of the Grounds of the Proceedings' against Yerbury, who promptly vindicated his own conduct in a manuscript defence. Two vindications of Pierce appeared in the guise of lampoons, viz., 'Dr. Pierce his Preaching confuted by his Practice' (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 341), and 'Dr. Pierce his Preaching exemplified in his Practice.' Pierce assisted John Dobson in the first and wrote the second himself, although Dobson, to screen him, owned the authorship, and was expelled the university for a time. Eventually, after ten years of constant contentions with the fellows, he was induced to read his resignation at evening prayers in the chapel on 4 March 1671-2. He himself wrote to the Rev. Henry More that he had vacated his place 'through the damps' of Oxford, and through his love of private life, but he had been promised other preferment; and Humphry Prideaux says that he sold the headship of the college (Letters, Camd. Soc. p. 137).

On 16 June 1662 he had been appointed to the lectureship at Carfax. During 1661 and 1662 many famous sermons were preached by him in London, including one delivered on 1 Feb. 1662-3 before the king at Whitehall against the Roman catholic church. This pronouncement produced a furious controversy. Within a year it ran through at least eight editions, and it was translated and printed in several foreign languages. Two replies by J. S., usually attributed to John Sergeant, were published in 1663, and it was also answered by S. C., i.e. Serenus Cressy. The Rev. Daniel Whitby, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, Meric Casaubon in 1665, and John Dobson defended Pierce, who himself retorted in 'A Specimen of Mr. Cressy's Misadventures,' which was prefixed to Dr. John Sherman's 'Infallibility of the Holy Scriptures.' Pepys heard Pierce preach on 8 April 1663, and described him as having 'as much of natural eloquence as most men that ever I heard in my life, mixed with so much learning.' Many years later Evelyn complained of a sermon by him at Whitehall 'against our late schismatics,' that it was 'a rational discourse, but a little oversharp, and not at all proper for the auditory there.'

On 4 May 1675 Pierce was admitted and installed as dean of Salisbury. But his past troubles had not taught him the art of living in peace with his neighbours. He quarrelled with his chapter, and its members appealed to the archbishop. He invited a quarrel with his bishop, Seth Ward, by ranging himself with the choir against episcopal monition (Jones, Salisbury Diocese, pp. 246-8). A more serious trouble arose between his diocesan and himself about 1683, when his only surviving son, Robert Pierce, was denied a prebendal stall in the cathedral. The dean much resented this refusal, and in revenge entangled the bishop in controversy, through 'black and dismal malice.' He asserted that the dignities connected with the cathedral church of Salisbury were in the gift of the crown, and communicated this view to the ecclesiastical commissioners. By their command he wrote a 'Narrative' in the king's interest, and the bishop answered it with a similar 'Narrative.' These circulated in manuscript, and the dean followed up his action by printing anonymously and for private circulation in 1683 'A Vindication of the King's Sovereign Right.' This was also printed as an appendix to the 'History and Antiquities of Cathedral of Salisbury and Abbey of Bath,' 1723. Through this controversy the hapless Bishop Ward was forced to visit London several times 'in unseasonable time and weather,' and the exertion hastened his death (Wood, Athenæ, iv. 250-1; Disraeli, Quarrels of Authors, 1814 edit., iii. 307-9; see also Report of the Cathedral Commission, 1854, pp. 412-14; and Tanner MSS. Bodleian Library).

The dean had purchased an estate in the parish of North Tidworth, a few miles north of Amesbury in Wiltshire. He died there on 28 March 1691, and was buried in the churchyard of Tidworth. At his funeral there was given to every mourner a copy of his book entitled 'Death considered as a Door to a Life of Glory [anon.] Printed for the Author's private use,' n.d. [1690 ?] There was erected over his grave 'a fabric or roof, supported by four pillars of freestone, representing a little banquetting house,' with a plain stone, and simple inscription under it. A more elaborate inscription, made by himself a little before his death, was engraved on a brass plate fastened to the roof of the church, and is now on the north wall inside the building. A fragment of the external monument still remains, but the canopy has disappeared, the stones having been used for some repair of the church (Stratford, Wiltshire Worthies, pp. 126-7). Pierce's wife Susanna died in June 1696, and was also buried in the churchyard of North Tidworth. An infant son, Paul, died in February 1657, and was buried in the chancel of Brington church, where an epitaph commemorated his memory. The son, Robert, became rector of North Tidworth in 1680, and through the favour of Anne, then princess of Denmark, was appointed prebendary of Chardstock in Salisbury Cathedral in 1689. He retained both these preferments until his death in 1707.

Pierce was an executor to Bishop Warner of Rochester, who left him a legacy of 200l., and the Latin verses on the bishop's tomb at Rochester were probably by him. He himself gave books and money to the library of Magdalen College, and 70l. for rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral. He encouraged by his patronage William Walker the grammarian, Dr. Thomas Smith, and John Rogers the musician. The learning and controversial abilities of Pierce are undoubted, and he was a stout champion of the doctrines of his church; but his fierce temper provoked the rancour of his opponents, and his works did more harm than good. A portrait of him by Mrs. Beale, circa 1672, was at Melbury, Dorset, the seat of the Earl of Ilchester.

Among Pierce's other works were:

  1. 'The Signal Diagnostic, whereby to judge of our Affections and present and future Estate,' 1670.
  2. 'A Decade of Caveats to the People of England,' 1679; against popery and dissent, and mostly preached in Salisbury Cathedral.
  3. The first of 'Two Letters containing a further Justification of the Church of England against Dissenters,' 1682.
  4. 'Pacificatorium Orthodoxæ Theologiæ Corpusculum,' 1683 and 1685, a treatise for young men entering into holy orders.
  5. 'The Law and Equity of the Gospel, or the Goodness of our Lord as a Legislator,' 1686.
  6. 'Articles to be enquired of within the peculiar Jurisdiction of Thomas Pierce, Dean of Sarum, in his Triennial Visitation, 168' (sic).
  7. 'A Prophylactick from Disloyalty in these Perilous Times, in a letter to Herbert, bishop of Hereford,' 1688; in support of the declaration of James II, and signed 'Theophilus Basileus.'
  8. 'An effectual Prescription against the Anguish of all Diseases,' 1691; apparently posthumous.

As a popular preacher Pierce was the author of many printed sermons. With the exception of three–(a) 'The Badge and Cognisance of God's Disciples, preached at St. Paul's before the Gentlemen of Wilts,' 1657; (b) 'The Grand Characteristic,' 1658; (c) 'A seasonable Caveat against Credulity, before the King at Whitehall,' 1679–the whole of them were included in 'A Collection' issued in 1671.

Pierce corrected, amended, and completed for the press the 'Annales Mundi,' 1655, and compiled the 'Variantes Lectiones ex Annotatis Hug. Grotii, cum ejusdem de iis judicio,' which forms the fifteenth article in the last volume of Walton's 'Polyglot Bible.' He contributed verses to the Oxford collections, 'Horti Carolini rosa altera,' 1640; 'On Queen Henrietta Maria's Return from Holland,' 1643; and on the death of that queen, 1669. He was also the author of the anonymous poem 'Caroli τοῦ μακαρίτου Παλιγγενεσία, 1649,' which was included in the same year in 'Monumentum Regale, a Tombe for Charles I,' pp. 20-30. This poem was also appended to Pierce's Latin translation (1674 and 1675) of 'Reasons of Charles I against the pretended Jurisdiction of the High Court of Justice, 22 Jan. 1648,' along with Latin epitaphs on Charles I, Henry Hammond, Jeffry Palmer, and several friends; and some hymns, which are said to have been set to music by Nicholas Lanier [q. v.] and others. Wood asserts that the music of the 'Divine Anthems' of William Child was set to the poetry of Pierce. Arthur Phillips [q. v.] is also said to have composed music for his poems.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 407, iv. 299-307, 598; Wood's Fasti, ii. 266, 297, 307; Jones's Fasti Eccles. Salisb. pp. 323, 371; Le Neve's Fasti, i. 55, ii. 167, 618, 663, iii. 563; Bloxam's Magd. Coll. Register, passim; Halkett and Laing's Pseudon. Lit. iii. 2033, iv. 2696; Fell's Life of Hammond, 1684, pp. xxxv-vi; Hammond's Works (Libr. Anglo-Cath. Theology), vol. i. pp. cxix, cxxi-iii; Wood's Life and Times (Oxford Hist. Soc.), i. 420, 460, 473, 487-9; Todd's Walton, i. 276-82; Oxford Visitation, ed. Burrows (Camden Soc.), pp. 28-9, 89, 114, 137; Cartwright's Saccharissa, pp. 125, 172; Walton's Life of Sanderson, 1678, pp. 1-3; Letters of Henry More, 1694, pp. 37-46, 54; Evelyn's Diary, 1827, iv. 116-18, 121-4.]

W. P. C.