ALEXANDER NOWELL, the son of John Nowell, Esq., of Whalley, in the county of Lancaster, was born in that parish sometime in the year 1507 or 1508: educated at Middleton in the same county, and at the early age of thirteen, was admitted of Brasen-Nose College, Oxford. Of that society, he afterwards became fellow; and very late in life (1595) was for a few months President of the College. In 1543 he was appointed Master of Westminster School;1 and in November, 1551, was made prebendary of Westminster on the death and in the room of Dr Redmayn, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

On the accession of Queen Mary, Nowell was returned (probably through the influence of the Earl of Devon) as one of the burgesses to represent the borough of Loo in the parliament which met in October 1553. A committee of the House of Commons, however, declared him to be ineligible to be a member of that house, because of his “being a prebendary of Westminster, and thereby having a voice in the Convocation House.” But unless Nowell were the Proctor elected to represent the Chapter of Westminster in Convocation, he would not have “a voice in the Convocation House” merely because he happened to be a prebendary of Westminster. Considering, therefore, that Dr Tregonwell, a zealous papist, who was also a prebendary of Westminster, was allowed to retain his seat in parliament, the ejection of Nowell from that assembly may be ascribed to his known attachment to the Reformation.2

Of this attachment Nowell gave decisive evidence in the following year: for when the persecuting spirit of Queen Mary had begun to show itself, we find him at Strasburgh among those eminent persons who were exiles for their religion. It appears that from Strasburgh Nowell removed to Frankfort, and when the “troubles” arose there, that he at first adhered to the party who advocated the “new discipline,” against Horn and the strictly episcopalian party. He was, however, afterwards found among those who enforced the importance of unity in essentials, and who expressed their willingness to submit to authority as regarded matters ceremonial. Yet when the question of rites and ceremonies came to be discussed in the Convocation of 1562, Nowell, with others, proposed some relaxation in the rubrics of King Edward Sixth’s Service-book, as regarded the wearing of the surplice, the cross in baptism, and other like matters, respecting which some ministers had scruples.3 Afterwards, also, we find him acting as a pacificator in the proceedings which were taken against Sampson, Dean of Christ’s Church, and Humphry, President of Magdalen College, Oxford, for refusing the habits.4

When on the death of Queen Mary, the exiles returned to England, Nowell was among those who were employed to carry out Queen Elizabeth’s plans for the reformation of religion. One of the most efficacious of those plans was the appointing of visitors for different parts of the country, whose duty it should be to see that such injunctions and ordinances as were issued by authority respecting religion and ecclesiastical affairs were complied with. To Nowell and others were assigned, in 1559, the visitation of the diocese of Lincoln, Peterborough, Oxford, and Lichfield.5 Early in the following year Bishop Grindal collated Nowell to the archdeaconry of Middlesex, to the rectory of Saltwood (which however he very soon resigned), and to a stall in the church of Canterbury. In the same year he was appointed to a stall in St Peter’s, Westminster, which from being a monastery had been erected into a collegiate church; and at the close of the year, Nowell was preferred to the deanery of St Paul’s,6 which he held till his death.

During the earlier periods of the Reformation licences to preach were but very sparingly granted. The persons selected for that privilege were always men of eminent abilities and of settled principles. It was to be expected therefore that Nowell would be very often employed in so important a service. Accordingly we find him among those appointed to preach at St Paul’s Cross; in the Cathedral; before the Queen during Lent; and on other occasions. A specimen of his preaching is given in the Appendix to this Volume.

In the Convocation which revised the “Articles of Religion” agreed upon in the reign of King Edward VI., Nowell was chosen prolocutor, and took an active part in the proceedings of that assembly. He was soon after employed to compose a Homily7 to be added to the Form of Prayer which was put forth in consequence of the plague which was raging.

Early in the year 1565 we find Nowell engaged in a controversy with Thomas Dorman, who had been fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford, during the reign of Edward VI, but went over to popery when Queen Mary came to the throne. This Dorman had put forth an attack on certain portions of Bp Jewell’s Apology, under the title of “A Proof of certain Articles in Religion denied by Mr Jewell.” He undertook in his book to prove that the supremacy of the bishop of Rome; transubstantiation; the sacrifice of the mass and communion under one kind; were severally held and professed by the Church of Christ within the first six centuries. It was, however, to establish his proposition respecting the universal supremacy of the bishop of Rome that Dorman chiefly laboured; and to the refutation of that fable, therefore, “A Reproofe written by Alexander Nowell of a Book entituled ‘A Proofe of Certain Articles in Religion denied by M. Juell,’” &c., is directed. Nowell gives as a reason for proceeding no further in answering Dorman, “because the Bp of Sarum in the Answer he was preparing to Harding’s would sufficiently confute the rest of Dorman’s book, for that the latter had written little or nothing that was not taken from Harding.”8 Before the end of the year Dorman put forth “A Disproofe of M. Nowell’s Reproofe,” which was followed in 1567 by Nowell’s “Confutation as well of M. Dorman’s last Boke, entituled ‘A Disproufe,’ &c. as well as of D. Sander his Causes of Transubstantiation”; Nowell, having during 1566, been employed in writing and publishing the continuation of his Reproof, in which his object chiefly was to vindicate the supreme authority of Christian princes in causes ecclesiastical as well as civil within their own dominions, “by M. Dorman maliciously oppugned.” Nowell’s controversy with Saunders arose out of an attack which the latter had made on an assertion in the “Reproof of Dorman’s Proof,” to the effect that “all the papists put together would never be able to shew cause why the words ‘I am the true Vine’ did not prove a transubstantiation as well as ‘This is my body.’”9

The work, however, which has identified the name of Nowell with the Church of England, is the Catechism reprinted in the present Volume. Among the important business to be brought under the consideration of the Convocation which met in 1562, it was advised that “there should be authorised one perfect Catechism for the bringing up of the youth in godliness, in the schools of the whole realm; which book,” it is added, “is well nigh finished by the industry of the Dean of St Paul’s”: and that “the said Catechism being once approved by the learned in the Convocation-house, may be authorised to be taught also by the Universities, and to the youth wheresoever they be taught their grammar in any private men’s houses.”10 Accordingly, 5 Feb., a committee of the upper house, consisting of Jewell and three other bishops, was appointed to examine a book called “The Catechism.” On the 3rd March, the prolocutor of the lower house of Convocation returned to the upper the Catechismus Puerorum, as having been unanimously approved. Moreover, in a letter dated June 22, 1563, Nowell writes to Sir W. Cecil, to the effect that ‘whereas the copy of the Catechism which he had caused to be written out for his Honor, to whom the book was dedicated, came to the hands of the bishops and clergy assembled in the late Convocation (that of 1562), and by reason that certain places were by their judgments altered, was interlined and blotted, he (Nowell) had caused it to be copied out again, and had sent it to his honor, not now in his own name, as afore, but in the name of the clergy of the Convocation, as their book, seeing it is by them approved and allowed.’11

It will be observed, however, that there is a want of definiteness in the terms by which the book submitted to Convocation is described. It is called “The Catechism,” when referred to a committee of the upper house; whilst the book approved unanimously by the lower house is “Catechismus Puerorum.” It is remarkable, too, that when Nowell put forth, in 1570, the Catechism which is here reprinted, he did not claim for it any synodal authority. He dedicated it indeed to the Archbishops and Bishops of England, and submitted it to their judgments; but it was merely in the hope that the book, when known to be sanctioned by their high authority, would become more extensively useful. For these, and other reasons which might be mentioned, it has not unreasonably been doubted whether the Catechism approved and allowed by Convocation were the Catechism contained in the present volume. The following letter, however, from Nowell to Sir W. Cecil, dated on the day on which this Catechism was first put forth in print, sets that question at rest:

After my humble commendations unto your honour. Thes are to cerifie the same that the Latine Chatechisme, which aboute seaven yeres agoo I dyd write and dedicate unto your honour in the fyrst writen copie, is now at the laste putt in printe, by my lords of Canterburie and Yorkes appoynetment, and with your honours consent, as my lord of Canterburie informed me. The occasion of the dedicating of it now unto the byshopps, as men most mete to judge and allow, or disallow of such matiers, was inforced that about syxe yeres agoo, it was offred unto them, beinge assembled in Convocation, and by them allowed, and by the whole cleargie of the Lower Convocation-Howse subscribed unto, as is to be sene in the coopie remaininge with me.

Notwithstandinge I sent a copie of it, beinge fare writen ageine, unto your honour, with whom it remayned above one yeare, and then was delyvered me ageine by your honour, and withall certen notes of some lerned man uppon it. Wheruppon it hath ever synse remayned with me, untyll my lord of Canterburie his grace called for it, after that I had altered manie places in it, accordinge to the notes which your honour delyvered unto me, as your honour shall well perceyve, had yow leysure to compare the saide notes (which I have sent ageine to your honour, even the verie copie it selfe which your honour delyvered me) with the printed booke, which I have alsoo sent unto your honour. And after the coopie had remayned a while with my lord of Canterburie, he demaunded of me whie I dyd not put it in printe. I tolde his grace that without your honours consent, to whom I had in the fyrste writen copie dedicated it, I wuld not printe it: and within a fewe days after he sending for me ageine, tolde me that your honour had consented that it shuld be printed, and that it was to your honour no matier were it dedicated unto the byshopps; and soo hym selfe allowinge it to the printe, by the subscription of his name and my lorde of Yorke doing the like, it came to the printe at the laste, syx yeres and more after it was fyrst wryten. Whereof in case your honour shall have good liking, I shall be verie gladde. And thus I commend your honour unto Allmightie Godde, who have yow and all yours in his blessed kepinge. 16 Junii, 1570.

Your honors to commande,
ALEXANDER NOWELL.

To the right honorable and my singlare
good friend Sir Wyllyam Cecill,
knight, principall secretarie to the
Queene’s matie.12)

Of this Catechism there were two editions,13 or impressions, printed in 1570; and reprints of it appeared in 1571, 1574, 1576: and perhaps in other intermediate years. An abridgment of the Catechism was also made by Nowell, probably as early as 1570; and shortly after he put forth a still more condensed Catechism. We may judge of the high estimation in which these works were held, when we learn from the various injunctions, &c. put forth at that time by public authorities, that no Catechisms were allowed to be used by clergymen and schoolmasters except one or other of Nowell’s.14

With regard to the Catechisms and catechetical documents that appeared at and about the time of the Reformation, it is well known that they mainly consisted of an exposition of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Although, therefore, the arrangement of the matter was not always the same, there was, as might be expected, a great similarity as regarded doctrinal statements, and oftentimes a verbal agreement between one catechism and another. In drawing up his Catechism, therefore, Nowell informs the bishops that he had not scrupled to avail himself of the labours of others who had preceded him in this department of theology, both as regarded arrangement and matter. Yet a cursory comparison of Nowell’s Catechism with any other of those referred to will shew the great superiority of his work. The Catechisms of Poinet and Calvin are, perhaps, those with which Nowell’s is most frequently and verbally coincident, yet his will be found to excel both, not less in the full and lucid exposition of doctrine than in Latinity.

Four years after the publication of his Catechism, Nowell was one of the Divines appointed to confer with Campion, in consequence of a challenge which that Jesuit had given in his “Ten Reasons in favour of the Roman Church.” A Report of that Conference was afterwards (1583) published.

From that time until his death, which took place on 13 Feb. 1602, the Dean was frequently occupied in preaching on great public occasions, and at the funerals of the nobility; and of some of his sermons notes taken by contemporaries are still in existence.

Besides the Catechisms, the only works of importance left by Nowell are those which have been already mentioned. Among his acts of public beneficence may be recorded the founding of a Free Grammar School at Middleton, in Lancashire, and of several scholarships in Brasen-Nose College, Oxford. Of these and other interesting particulars connected with this great man, a full account is given in his Life, written in the early part of the present century, by the Rev. Ralph Churton.

Thomas Norton, the translator of Nowell’s Catechism, is generally considered to have been of the profession of the law, and in later life to have been solicitor to the city of London. If he be the same person who wrote the letter to Calvin, which appears among the “Original Letters” published by the Parker Society, he had been tutor to the children of the Protector Somerset. He is said to have been a contributor to the Earl of Dorset’s “Mirror of Magistrates”; and to have assisted that nobleman in the composition of the tragedy of Gorboduc. Warton, however, is of opinion that the identity of style to be observed throughout the whole of that play renders it improbable that Norton had any hand in it. Norton, also, is said to have versified twenty-seven of the Psalms in the version of Sternhold and Hopkins. In a copy of that version, printed in 1581, the rendering of Psalms li. and liii. certainly bears the initials T. N.; but to twenty-six others the letter N. only is attached. Strype speaks of a minister named Thomas Norton, who gave his advice about the Conference with Campion; who took notes of that Conference; and furthermore advised with Whitgift respecting the “Admonition to Parliament”: but it is much more probable that the party thus mentioned by Strype was the translator of Nowell’s Catechism.

Norton is said to have died about 1584.

It remains to be stated that Norton translated from the second edition of the Latin which appeared in 1570: for his translation which bears that date omits a passage,15 the Latin of which is found in the edition which appeared June 16, 1570, but is not found in the other Latin edition of that year. In the reprints of the translation which appeared in 1571, and subsequently, the passage in question occurs.

Aug. 1854.


  1. Carlisle Grammar Schools, II. 114.[]
  2. Carte, Hist. of Engl. III. 295.[]
  3. Troubles at Frankfort, pp. 65, 115-135, 189, 190. Lond. 1846. Strype, Ann. I. i. 1591. Oxf.[]
  4. Strype, Life of Parker, I. 343. Oxf.[]
  5. Strype, Ann. I. i. 247.[]
  6. Strype, Ann. I. i. 306.[]
  7. See Grindal’s Remains, pp. 95, et seq. Park. Soc. Edit.[]
  8. Nowell’s Confutation, pp. 26, 27.[]
  9. Reproof, &c. p. 103. 2nd Edit.[]
  10. Strype, Ann. 1562, I. i. 473.[]
  11. Strype, Ann. I. i. 526.[]
  12. State Paper Office (Domestic Cor.[]
  13. A Copy of each Edition is in the Bodleian.[]
  14. Cardwell, Synodalia, I. 128. Grindal’s Remains, pp. 142, 152.[]
  15. See p. 170, line 2 from the bottom.[]
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