William Cole (antiquary)

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William Cole

William Cole (3 August 1714 – 16 December 1782), was a Cambridgeshire clergyman and antiquary.

Cole was born in Little Abington, Cambridgeshire, the son of a well-to-do farmer. He was educated at Eton, where he developed a lifelong friendship with Horace Walpole, and Cambridge University, first at Clare College and then at King's College.[1] Having inherited a substantial estate on his father's death, Cole was not obliged to earn a living and stayed for 18 years at King's College, collecting historical information on the county of Cambridgeshire. He visited nearly all the churches in the county, making sketches of them and taking notes of monumental inscriptions and coats of arms (as well as local gossip); he made extensive transcriptions of the registers of the Bishops of Ely, court rolls, registers of wills, and other manuscripts relating to the county. He made a six-month voyage to Lisbon, Portugal, on his doctor's advice to recover his spirits following a disappointment, and also travelled to France, Flanders and Scotland.[1]

In 1753 Cole became rector of Bletchley and turned his attention to the history of Buckinghamshire, but 13 years later he returned to Cambridgeshire and became curate of Waterbeach. In 1770 he left the church and moved to Milton, where he was to stay for the rest of his life. He rented a small farm from King's College and continued his work on the history of Cambridgeshire.[1] Cole never married, but lived with his manservant Tom Wood, a maidservant, and a number of animals including 2 horses and a pony, a dog called Busy, a cat, and a parrot. He enjoyed entertaining and lived well. During his later years he suffered from gout.[1]

Cole died in 1782, aged 68. He left money for a new tower to be built at St Clement's Church, Cambridge, where he was buried. He had published little, and left his manuscript volumes – over 100 of them – to the British Museum, where they have proved invaluable to people writing about the history of Cambridgeshire. Cole had kept a diary between 1765 and 1770, and in 1931 two volumes – one relating to a trip to France, and one to his time at Bletchley – were published.[1] A nineteenth-century biographer described Cole as "one of the most learned men of the eighteenth century in his particular line, and the most industrious antiquary that Cambridgeshire has ever had, or is likely to have", while the verdict of a contemporary, Professor Michael Lort, was "..with all his oddities, he was a worthy and valuable man".[1] Thompson Cooper wrote an entry for William Cole in the 1887 Dictionary of National Biography.

Early life and education[edit]

Cole was descended from a family of respectable yeomen, who lived for several generations in that part of Cambridgeshire which borders on Essex. The antiquary's father, William Cole of Baberham, Cambridgeshire, married four times, his third wife, the mother of the antiquary, being Elizabeth, daughter of Theophilus Tuer, merchant, of Cambridge, and widow of Charles Apthorp. The son was born at Little Abington, a village near Baberham, on 3 August 1714, and received his early education in private schools at Cambridge, Linton, and Saffron Walden. From Saffron Walden he was removed to Eton, where he remained for five years on the foundation. His principal friend and companion there was Horace Walpole, who used even at that early period to make jocular remarks on his inclination to Roman Catholicism. While yet a boy he was in the habit of copying monumental inscriptions, and drawing coats of arms in trick from the windows of churches. On leaving Eton he was admitted a pensioner of Clare College, Cambridge, 24 January 1733,[2] and in April 1734 he obtained one of the Freeman scholarships in that college; but in 1735, on the death of his father, from whom he inherited a handsome estate, he entered himself as a fellow-commoner of Clare Hall, and the next year migrated to King's College, where he had a younger brother, then a fellow.[DNB 1] In April 1736 he travelled for a short time in French Flanders with his half-brother, Dr. Stephen Apthorp, and in October of the same year he took the degree of B.A. In 1737, in consequence of bad health, he went to Lisbon for six months, returning to college in May 1738.

Clergyman and Dairist[edit]

In 1739, Cole was put into the commission of the peace for Cambridgeshire, in which capacity he acted for many years. In 1740 his friend Henry Bromley, 1st Baron Montfort, lord-lieutenant of the county, appointed him one of his deputy-lieutenants, and in the same year he commenced M.A. In 1743, his health being again impaired, he took another trip through Flanders, described in his manuscript collections. During his travels on the continent he formed lasting friendships with Alban Butler and other catholic ecclesiastics. On Christmas Day 1744 he was ordained deacon, and for some time officiated as curate to Dr. Abraham Oakes, rector of Withersfield, Suffolk. In 1745, after being admitted to priest's orders, he was appointed chaplain to Thomas Hay, 7th Earl of Kinnoull, in which office he was continued by the succeeding earl, George.[DNB 2] He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1747. In 1749 he was residing at Haddenham in the Isle of Ely, and on 25 Aug in that year he was admitted to the freedom of the city of Glasgow.[DNB 3] In the same year he was collated to the rectory of Hornsey, Middlesex, by Bishop Thomas Sherlock. "Sherlock," says Cole, "gave me the rectory of Hornsey, yet his manner was such that I soon resigned it again to him. I had not been educated in episcopal trammels, and liked a more liberal behaviour; yet he was a great man, and I believe an honest man." The fact, however, was that Cole was inducted on 25 Nov.; but as he found that the parsonage-house required rebuilding, and understood that the bishop insisted upon his residing, he sent in his resignation within a month. This the bishop refused to accept, because Cole had rendered himself liable for dilapidations and other expenses by being instituted to the benefice. Cole continued, therefore, to hold the rectory till 9 January 1751, when he resigned it in favour of Mr. Territ. During this time he never resided, but employed a curate, the Rev. Matthew Mapletoft. In 1753 he quit the university on being presented by his early friend and patron, Browne Willis, to the rectory of Bletchley, Buckinghamshire.

In 1765 he made a lengthened tour in France with Horace Walpole. Cole's intention was to find out some quiet and cheap spot in Normandy or elsewhere to which he might eventually retire. It has been conjectured, with great appearance of probability, that this scheme of settling permanently in France originated in a wish to openly join the Roman church, for in his manuscripts he takes little or no pains to conceal his partiality for the catholic religion and his contempt for the English and German reformers. But he was dissuaded from carrying out his design of self-banishment chiefly by the earnest representations of Walpole, who pointed out to him that under the droit d'aubaine the king of France would become the possessor of all Cole's cherished manuscripts, which even at this period consisted of no fewer than forty folio volumes. "They are," he wrote to Walpole (17 March 1765), "my only delight—they are my wife and children—they have been, in short, my whole employ and amusement for these twenty or thirty years; and though I really and sincerely think the greatest part of them stuff and trash, and deserve no other treatment than the fire, yet the collections which I have made towards an History of Cambridgeshire, the chief points in view of them, with an oblique or transient view of an Athenæ Cantabrigienses, will be of singular use to any one who will have more patience and perseverance than I am master of to put the materials together. These therefore I should be much concerned should fall into the hands of the French king's officers." Moreover, in the course of his travels he was shocked at the prevailing spirit of irreligion[DNB 4][DNB 5] He therefore determined not to make France his home. There is a journal of his tour in vol. xxxiv. of his collections.

He left Bletchley in November 1767, and on Lady day in the following year he very honourably resigned the rectory in favour of Browne Willis's grandson, the Rev. Thomas Willis, merely because he knew it was his patron's intention so to bestow the living if he had lived to effect an exchange. Cole now went into a hired house at Waterbeach, five miles from Cambridge. This house, little better than a cottage, was very uncomfortable.[DNB 6] To make matters worse, he discovered that he had got into a parish which abounded with fanatics of almost all denominations. Writing about this period to his friend Father Charles Bonaventure Bedingfeld, a Minorite friar, he says: "My finances are miserably reduced by quitting the living of Bletchley, and by half my own estate being under water by the breaking of the Bedford river bank at Over after the great snow in February was twelvemonth;" and he proceeds to remark: "Yet I am not disposed to engage myself in any ecclesiastical matters again, except greater should be offered than I am in expectation of. I have already refused two livings, one in Glamorganshire, the other in Oxfordshire; for I have no inclination to the duty and do not love to be confined." He still had a hankering after a semi-monastic life, for he wrote to Bedingfeld on 20 April 1768: "Could I have my books and conveniences about me, I should nowhere like better than to finish my days among my countrymen in a conventual manner," though not, he takes care to explain, as a monk or friar, because he had no religious vocation.[DNB 7] A second overflow of the Hundred Foot river at Over still further diminished the value of his estate, and on 18 February 1769 he wrote to the Rev. John Allen: "I hardly ever now really enjoy myself for three days together, as the continued wet weather alarms me constantly; so that I am come to a resolution to sell my estate and purchase elsewhere, or buy an annuity."[DNB 8] At Michaelmas 1769 he had his first attack of gout, which complaint afterwards caused him severe and frequent suffering. About May 1770 he removed from Waterbeach to a small house at Milton,near Cambridge. Here he spent the remainder of his days, and was familiarly distinguished as "Cole of Milton," though he was sometimes spoken of jocularly as "Cardinal Cole." In May 1771, by Lord Montfort's favour, he was put into the commission of the peace for the borough of Cambridge. In the following year Bishop Keene, without any solicitation, sent him an offer of the vicarage of Madingley, but he civilly declined it. He was, however, on 10 June 1774 instituted by Dr. John Green, bishop of Lincoln, on the presentation of Eton College, to the vicarage of Burnham, Buckinghamshire, vacant by the cession of his uterine brother, Stephen Apthorp, D.D. He still continued to reside at Milton, where he died on 16 December 1782, his constitution having been shattered by repeated attacks of gout. He lies buried in St. Clement's Church, Cambridge, under the steeple, which bears on its front his motto, Deum Cole. On the right hand of the entrance to the church is a monument, with an inscription stating that the steeple was erected with money left by him for the purpose,

A half-sheet print of Cole, from a drawing by Thomas Kerrich, was engraved by Facius. A portrait of him was also published in Malcolm's collection of Letters to Mr. Granger, 1805, and is reproduced in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes.


He numbered among his friends and correspondents some of the most learned men of his time, including Horace Walpole, who called him his "oracle in any antique difficulties," Thomas Gray, Dr. Michael Lort, George Steevens, Dr. Richard Farmer, Dr. William Bennet, John Nichols, Richard Gough, and Alban Butler. Although he published no separate work of his own, he rendered substantial assistance to many authors by supplying them either with entire dissertations or with minute communications or corrections. He wrote the account of the School of Pythagoras at Cambridge in Francis Grose's Antiquities; and he was a major contributor to James Bentham's History of Ely, 1771, writing the lives of the bishops and deans, and the description of the Ely tablet.[DNB 9][DNB 10][DNB 11] He also contributed largely to Masters's History of Corpus Christi College. Having a large collection of engraved portraits, he was able to assist James Granger in preparing his Biographical History of England. To Andrew Ducarel he sent a complete list of the chancellors of Ely, and afterwards several hints respecting his Tour in Normandy. To Gough's Anecdotes of British Topography he contributed in 1772 some remarks; as he afterwards did respecting the Sepulchral Monuments; and when the Memoirs of the Gentlemen's Society at Spalding were printed in 1780, he supplied anecdotes of the early members. He was a frequent writer in the Gentleman's Magazine, and he gave John Nichols biographical hints and corrections for A Select Collection of Miscellaneous Poems, Anecdotes of Hogarth and History of Hinckley. He transcribed Browne Willis's History of the Hundreds of Newport and Cotslow in Buckinghamshire, and organised them in ten folio volumes from the originals in four volumes, which Willis had delivered to him a few weeks before his death. Cole's transcript is in the British Museum, and Willis's original copy is preserved, with his collections for the whole county, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford[DNB 12] His notes on Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses are printed in Bliss's edition of that work. Finally he collected all the materials for Horace Walpole's Life of Thomas Baker, the Cambridge antiquary. Cole's chief literary monument, however, is the notable collection of manuscripts, extending to nearly a hundred folio volumes, in his own handwriting, which are deposited in the British Museum. He began to form this vast collection while at college, beginning with fifteen volumes, which he kept in a lock-up case in the university library, where he examined every book likely to yield information suitable to his purpose, besides transcribing many manuscript lists and records. The principal interval from this labour was during his residence at Bletchley (1752–67), but even there, with the aid of his own books and those he could borrow from his neighbours, he proceeded with his great undertaking, and on his frequent journeys he added to his topographical collections, illustrating them with neat copies of armorial bearings and rough but faithful drawings of churches and other buildings. At Waterbeach and Milton, where he was within an easy distance of Cambridge, he resumed his labour of love with renewed ardour, and in addition to dry historical matters, he carefully transcribed all his literary correspondence, and minutely chronicled all the anecdotes he heard respecting his contemporaries at the university. Some idea of his industry as a transcriber may be gathered from this passage in a letter to Walpole (12 September 1777): "You will be astonished at the rapidity of my pen when you observe that this folio of four hundred pages [Baker's History of St. John's], with above a hundred coats of arms and other silly ornaments, was completed in six weeks; for I was called off for above a week to another manuscript, which I expected would be demanded of me every day; besides some days of visiting and being visited." Again he remarks in a letter to Allen: "I am wearing my eyes, fingers, and self out in writing for posterity, of whose gratitude I can have no adequate idea, while I neglect my friends, who I know would be glad to hear from me." As he freely jotted down his inmost thoughts as to the merits or demerits of his acquaintances, he took care that no one, with the exception of two or three intimate friends, should see his manuscripts, either during his lifetime or within twenty years after his death. On the occasion of his sending the History of King's College to Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill, he wrote (2 March 1777) with reference to his manuscripts: "No person except Dr. Lyne and Mr. John Allen of Trinity College ever looked into them. Indeed, you are the only person that I should think a moment about determining to let them go out of my hands: and, in good truth, they are generally of such a nature as makes them not fit to be seen, for through life I have never artfully disguised my opinions, and as my books were my trusty friends, who have engaged never to speak till twenty years after my departure, I always, without guile, entrusted them with my most secret thoughts, both of men and things; so that there is what the world will call an ample collection of scandalous rubbish heaped together." As an example of his strong prejudices, and his occasionally violent style of expressing them, the subjoined characteristic passage, which he added to his History of King's College only a few months before his death, may be cited: "Here I left off this work in 1752, and never began it again, quitting college that year for the rectory of Blecheley in Buckinghamshire, at the presentation of Browne Willis, esq., and so lost fifteen years of the best part of my life for disquisitions of this sort, and never having a relish to recommence this work when I retired into my native county again in 1767, when I made of an old dilapidated cottage at Milton near Cambridge, a decent gentleman's house, laying out upon the premises at least ₤600, the annual rent being only £17 per annum, hired of the college, and no lease till my time; yet after six years' occupancy Cooke, the snotty-nosed head of it, soon after his election, had the rascality, with Paddon, a dirty wretch, and bursar suitable to him, to alter my lease, and put new terms in it. But from such a scoundrel, and I am warranted to call him no other, and would call him so to his face the first time I see him, with the addition of a liar and mischief-maker through life, no other than dirty treatment can be expected. I write this 9 June 1782."[DNB 13]

As late as 1778 Cole was perplexed as to the disposal of his manuscripts. "To give them to King's College," he wrote, "would be to throw them into a horsepond," the members of that society being "generally so conceited of their Latin and Greek that all other studies are barbarous." At one time he thought of Eton College and of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but eventually he resolved to bequeath his collections to the British Museum on condition that they should not be opened until twenty years after his death. Accordingly, they did not become accessible to the public until 1803. Vol. xvii. never reached the Museum; it is conjectured to have contained a History of Queens' College. The multifarious contents of Cole's collections are described in great detail in the Index to the Additional MSS., with those of the Egerton Collection, acquired in the years 1783–1835, London, 1849, folio. There are also three thick volumes of Cole's own indexes in the reading-room of the Museum.[DNB 14] The most important sections of the manuscripts are:

  • Parochial Antiquities of Cambridgeshire, illustrated with drawings of Churches, Monuments, Arms, &c.
  • Collections for an Athenæ Cantabrigienses, alphabetically arranged, Addit. MSS. 5862-85, 5954, 5955. These collections, though they have proved very serviceable to biographers, consist for the most part only of references to printed works, and do not contain connected narratives of the lives of Cambridge authors. Some extracts, relating for the most part to persons with whom Cole was personally acquainted, are printed in Samuel Egerton Brydges's Restituta.
  • History of King's College, Cambridge, 4 vols., Addit. MSS. 5814-17.
  • Collections relating to the University of Cambridge.
  • Extraneous Parochial Antiquities, or an account of various Churches in different Counties in England, with drawings, Addit. MSS. 5806, 5811, 5836.
  • Topographical, Genealogical, and Miscellaneous Collections.
  • Parochial Antiquities for the County of Bucks, with drawings, Addit. MSS. 5821, 5839, 5840.
  • Parochial Antiquities for the County of Huntingdon, with drawings, Addit. MSS. 5837, 5838, 5847.
  • Transcript of Baker's History of St. John's College, Cambridge, with additions, Addit, MS. 5850.
  • Literary correspondence, chiefly in Addit. MS. 5824.


  1. ^ a b c d e f W.M. Palmer and J.D. Pickles 2007 William Cole of Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ "Cole, William (CL732W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCooper, Thompson (1887). "Cole, William (1714-1782)" . In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography. 11. London: Smith, Elder & Co. The entry cites:

References from the DNB[edit]

The Article in the DNB was written by, who cited the following references:

  1. ^ Addit. MS. 5808, f. 58
  2. ^ ib. 5808, f. 73b
  3. ^ ib. 6402, f. 132
  4. ^ Ellis, Original Letters, 2nd series, iv. 483
  5. ^ Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, iv. 329
  6. ^ Addit. MS. 5824, f. 36b
  7. ^ ib. 5824, f. 41b
  8. ^ ib. f. 51 b
  9. ^ Athenæ Cantab. B. pt. i. f. 113
  10. ^ Davis, Olio of Biographical Anecdotes
  11. ^ the Gentleman's Magazine lxxxiv. pt. ii. pp. 307, 413
  12. ^ Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, i. 667 n.
  13. ^ Addit. MS. 5817, f. 194
  14. ^ Addit. MSS. 5799, 5800, 5801
  • Cole's MSS. passim
  • Literary anecdotes of the eighteenth century, John Nichols i. 657–701
  • Nichols's Illustr. of Lit.
  • Cambridge Antiquarian Communications, i. 49, 65
  • Gent. Mag. lii. 599, lxxvi. 693
  • Warburton's Memoirs of Horace Walpole, ii. 359
  • Horace Walpole's Letters (Peter Cunningham)
  • Athenae Cantabrigienses, Charles Henry Cooper, vol. i. preface
  • Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iv. 406
  • Dyer's Hist, of Cambridge, i. 13, 14, ii. 198
  • Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary x. 22
  • Granger's Letters, p. 320;
  • Baker's St. John's (Mayor), ii. 1142
  • Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 428, 3rd ser. i. 487, viii. 379
  • D'Israeli's Calamities of Authors (1812), i. 236, 271, 272
  • Charity Reports, xxxi. 55
  • Ellis's Original Letters, 3rd ser. iv. 388
  • Camden's Britannia, Cambs. (Gough), ii. 143*
  • Lipscomb's Buckinghamshire, ii. 39, iii. 214, iv. 24
  • Bromley's Cat. of Engraved Portraits.

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