Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Piers, William (1580-1670)

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PIERS, PIERSE, or PIERCE, WILLIAM (1580–1670), successively bishop of Peterborough and of Bath and Wells, the son of William Piers or Pierse, was born at Oxford, and baptised in the parish church of All Saints 3 Sept. 1580. His father, called by Wood 'a haberdasher of hats,' was nephew or near of kin to John Piers [q. v.], archbishop of York. He matriculated at Christ Church 17 Aug. 1599, and became student the same year. He graduated B.A. in 1600, M.A. in 1603, B.D. 1610, D.D. 1614. He became chaplain to Dr. John King (1559?-1621) [q. v.], bishop of London, and was thus placed on the road to promotion. In 1609 he was presented by James I to the rectory of Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, which he resigned in 1611 on his collation by Bishop King to Northolt, which he held till 1632. In 1615 he added to his other preferments the rectory of St. Christopher-le-Stocks in the city of London, which he held till 1620. In January 1616 he was presented to the fifth stall in Christ Church Cathedral, which he exchanged for the eighth stall 16 Dec. 1618, holding it in commendam till 1632. In 1618 he received from his patron, Bishop King, the prebendal stall of Wildland in St. Paul's Cathedral, holding with it the office of divinity reader. As canon of Christ Church he resided chiefly at Oxford, and, though not the head of a house, served the office of vice-chancellor in 1621-4. As vice-chancellor he used his authority to crush the calvinistic party in the university, and to promote the high-church doctrines which were then gaining the ascendant under Laud's influence. He secured a D.D. degree for Robert Sibthorpe [q. v.], the uncompromising maintainer of the royal prerogative (Kennett, Register, p. 669). By these means, according to Wood (Athenae, iv. 839), he attracted 'the goodwill of Laud, and so preferment.' He was appointed to the deanery of Peterborough 9 June 1622. As dean he is said to have shown a 'good secular understanding and spirit in looking after the estates and profits of the church, but, too evidently, his first, and last regards were to his own interest' (Kennett's Collections, Lansd. MS. 984, f. 126 verso). According to the same authority, his successor, Cosin, in 1642 had to call him to account for sums received by him for the repairs of the cathedral, and not expended by him for their proper purpose (ib.) He was elevated in 1630 to the bishopric of Peterborough, being consecrated on 24 Oct. He obtained letters of dispensation to hold the rectory of Northolt and the canonry of Christ Church together with his bishopric in commendam. Northolt he speedily resigned, solacing himself with the chapter living of Caistor, 27 Feb. 1631-2 (Heylyn, Cypr. Angl. p. 215).

In October 1632 he was translated from Peterborough to Bath and Wells. The appointment was virtually due to Laud, who perceived that Piers would prove a ready instrument in carrying out his scheme of doctrine and discipline. Nor did Piers disappoint his patron's hopes. As soon as he entered on his see he set himself to enforce the ceremonies most obnoxious to the puritans, and to harass those who refused obedience, thus gaining from the then dominant party the character of being 'very vigilant and active for the good both of the ecclesiastical and civil state' (Calamy, Continuation, p. 293). At his first visitation, in 1633, Piers issued orders for the more reverent position of the communion table. It was obeyed in 140 churches of the diocese, but resisted by the large majority. The churchwardens of Beckington refused to carry out the change, and were excommunicated for their contumacy. Backed up by the leading laity, they appealed to the court of arches, but in vain. A petition sent by the parishioners to Laud was contemptuously disregarded. The churchwarden then appealed to the king, but could get no answer. They were then imprisoned in the county gaol, where they remained for a year, being released in 1637 only on condition of submission and public acknowledgment of their offence. The prosecution was nominally Piers's, but Laud, when in the Tower in 1642, fearlessly accepted the whole responsibility (Prynne, Canterburies Doom, p. 97). In the matter of Sunday diversions Piers also set himself in direct opposition to the feelings of the more sober-minded in his diocese. The riotous profanation of the holy day resulting from these Sunday wakes had called forth the interference of the judges of assize, who forbad them as 'unlawful meetings,' and ordered that the prohibition should be read by the ministers in the parish church. These orders were reissued in 1632 by Judge Richardson. Laud, indignant at this interference with episcopal jurisdiction, wrote to Piers to obtain the opinion of some of the clergy of his diocese as to how the wakes were conducted. The bishop, aware of the kind of answer that would be acceptable, applied to those only who might be trusted to return a favourable report. His reply to Laud strongly upheld the old custom of wakes and church-ales, basing the outcry against them on Sabbatarianism. Sure of support at headquarters, he proceeded to enforce the reading of the 'Book of Sports' in church, visiting the clergy who refused with censure and suspension (ib. pp. 134-51). He was an equally determined enemy to the 'lectures' by which the lack of a preaching ministry had been partially supplied, with the result that nonconformity was strengthened. He ordered that catechising should take their place, and carried out his measures so effectually that, according to Prynne, he was able in a short time to boast that, 'thank God, he had not one lecture left in his diocese' (ib. p. 377; Heylyn, Cypr. Anal. p. 294). On Laud's fall Piers, 'the great Creature of Canterburies' (ib. p. 97) necessarily fell with him. In December 1640 a petition was presented to the House of Commons charging him with 'innovations and acts tending to the subversion and corruption of religion.'

Within a few days of the committal of Laud to the Tower (18 Dec.) Piers, together with Bishop Wren, was impeached before the House of Lords, and bound by heavy bail to appear at the bar and answer the charges preferred against them. The 'Articles of Impeachment' (printed in 1642), in fifteen heads, close with a violent denunciation of him as a 'desperately prophane, impious, turbulent Pilate, unparalleled for prodigiously prophane speeches and actions in any age, and only fit to be cast out and trampled under foot.' Much stress was laid on his having urged his clergy to contribute to the Scottish wars, as being 'Bellum Episcopale,' 'a war in truth for us bishops' (Prynne, Cant. Doom, p. 27). A committee was appointed to investigate such charges, which, when its scope was widened to embrace the clergy generally, still went by the name of the 'Bishop of Bath's Committee,' he being regarded as the chief offender. He was one of the twelve bishops who signed the protest against the legality of all the proceedings of parliament in their enforced absence, for which they were accused of high treason and committed to the Tower in December 1641. At the beginning of their imprisonment he preached to his brother prelates two sermons on 2 Cor. xii. 8-9, which were afterwards published. Having been liberated on bail by the lords, he and his brethren were again imprisoned by the commons. How Piers, as an arch offender, managed to escape the fate of Wren, who was kept in the Tower till the Restoration, is not explained. He was deprived of his bishopric, but recovered his liberty, and lived on an estate of his own in the parish of Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire, where he married a second wife (Wood, Athenae, iv. 839). Prynne's malicious story is thus confuted, that being reduced to great straits, and begging for 'some mean preferment to keep him and his from starving,' he was reproached with his harsh treatment of the nonconformist clergy of his diocese, for which he was paid back in his own coin (ib.) In 1660 he was restored to his bishopric. He was now upwards of eighty, and no vigorous action was to be expected of him. His 'good secular understanding' found a congenial field in amassing a fortune by means of fines, renewals of leases, and other sources of profit arising from episcopal estates, the greater part of which, according to Wood, was 'wheedled away from him by his second wife—who was too young and cunning for him'—to the impoverishment of his children by his first wife. At the close of his life he yielded to her persuasions to leave Wells and settle at Walthamstow in Essex. Here he died in April 1670, in his ninetieth year, and was buried in the parish church. He left two sons by his first wife—William, who became a D.D., and was appointed by his father to the archdeaconry of Bath, and John, a layman, who inherited the family estate at Cuddesdon.

[Wood's Athenae, iv. 839, Fasti, i. 285, 339, 344, 358, 470, ii. 259, 362; Walker's Sufferings, p. 70; Laud's Troubles, pp. 185-6; Lansd. MS. 984, f. 190. Kennett's Collections; Cussans's Bishops of Bath and Wells, pp. 63-9; Prynne's Canterburies Doom, pp. 27, 90 (bis), 97-100, 134-41, 153, 353, 377; Heylyn's Cyprianus Angl. pp. 215, 272 sq., 294; Articles of Impeachment, 1642; Gardiner's Hist. of Engl. 1603-42, vii. 314, 320 sq., viii. 116.]

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