Background and early career
White was descended from a noted family of The Pale. His father, James White of Waterford, who was the steward of the earl of Ormond, had been poisoned while in London with the earl in 1546. Nicholas owed his early advancement to Ormond's influence: in recognition of James's loyalty, the earl left £10 for the boy's education at the Inns of Court. White entered Lincoln's Inn in 1552, and he was called to the Bar in 1558; during the course of his studies he was a tutor to the children of Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley. He then returned to Ireland and was elected a member of the Irish Parliament for Kilkenny County in 1559. He was justice of the peace for Co. Kilkenny in 1563 and in the following year was named recorder of Waterford. In 1567 he bought Leixlip Castle as his base near Dublin.
He had stayed in correspondence with Cecil, and became an important confidant of his and thus an influential commentator on Irish affairs. In 1568 he was given the right to travel to England and had a notable interview with Mary, Queen of Scots, at Tutbury in February 1569. White may have published an English translation of the Argonautica in the 1560s, but no copy has survived.
On 4 November 1568 Elizabeth appointed him seneschal of Wexford and constable of Leighlin and Ferns, replacing the disgraced adventurer Thomas Stukley. He retained the office until 1572, concluding his tenure with the pursuit of the rebels, led by Fiach McHugh O'Byrne, who had murdered his son-in-law Robert Browne.
Master of the Rolls in Ireland
On the recommendation of the lord deputy, William Fitzwilliam, White was appointed Master of the Rolls in Ireland on 14 July 1572. Despite these marks of royal favour, White was viewed by fellow privy councillors in Ireland as suspiciously partisan and often took independent positions in opposition to the dominant English-born faction on the council. Sir Henry Sidney distrusted him as a client of the Earl of Ormonde, and he was suspended from office for alleged misfeasance from August to September 1578. He also quarrelled bitterly with the Attorney General for Ireland, Thomas Snagge, who accuse him of gross inefficiency. Snagge went so far as to lay information against him with the Council, though little seems to have come of this.
During the Second Desmond Rebellion White worked closely with the English political leadership as a veteran official with long experience in Munster. Nonetheless, he was now under suspicion as one who consistently favoured the interests of the Old English, and was blamed for failing to apprehend the rebels in Wicklow during the rebellion. However, he continued to demonstrate his valuable insights to Burghley in regular correspondence throughout the period, including letters sent in December 1581 on the miseries of war, the need for temperate government, and his fear that the wild Irish were glad to see the weakness of English blood in Ireland. His usefulness as an Irish speaker and a nominal Protestant made him an essential privy councillor for two decades.
On the arrival in 1584 of the ambitious new lord deputy, Sir John Perrot, White was knighted. He worked with Perrot to establish an effective administration of the common law. Later that year 48 of the 181 prisoners in the Leinster circuit were put to death. On 29 November 1586 White wrote to Burghley describing the continual bickering in council between the chief governor and the lord chancellor, Loftus. By the end of Perrot's regime White was viewed as a minion of the lord deputy who was primarily responsible for a policy of favouritism toward Irish-born servitors. On the return in 1588 of the former lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam, White became a focus of resentment from the English at the council board.
Arrest and death
White was implicated in the allegations of treason made against Perrot by a former priest, Dennis O'Roghan, in 1589; despite illness, he was arrested in June 1590, and sent to England two months later. Placed in the Tower of London in March 1591, White appealed to the Privy Council for a servant to attend him, owing to his age and infirmity; but he died there at some time in 1592. On 12 February 1593 the Privy Council authorised White's son to bring his body back to Ireland for burial.
White's first wife, of whom little is known, belonged to the Sherlock family of Waterford. He and his second wife, a niece of Arthur Brereton of Killyon, County Meath had two sons. Thomas, the elder, was educated at Cambridge University and died by his own hand in November 1586 after taking a strong purgative. The younger son, Andrew, succeeded to White's estates after completing his education at Cambridge. White also had two daughters, one of whom married Robert Browne of Mulcranan, County Wexford, who was murdered by Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne in 1572: the other, Mary, was the second wife of Nicholas St Lawrence, 9th Baron Howth, by whom she had six children. Sir Nicholas Walsh, the Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas, is said to have grown up in White's household.
- 'White, Sir Nicholas', Jon G. Crawford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
- "Leixlip Chronology 1550 – 1585 AD". Co. Kildare Online Electronic History Journal. Kildare County Library & Arts Services. Retrieved 22 April 2009.
- Casey, James The Irish Law Officers Round Hall Sweet and Maxwell Dublin 1996
- White wrote to Burghley: "Now my dear good lord, I am to signify to your honour god's good pleasure in visiting me with the loss of my son, Thomas White, who ended this life the 26th of this month by taking of a strong purgative unknown to me." Ref: State Papers Ireland 63/126/90, dated 29 November 1586.