He was born in Plumbland, Cumberland, the son of Joseph Nicolson, Rector of Plumbland and educated at the school in nearby Dovenby. He went up to Queen's College, Oxford and obtained a BA in 1676, an MA in 1679 and became a Fellow, (1679–1682).
After visiting Leipzig to learn German he was ordained as a deacon in 1679 and made Vicar of Torpenhow in 1681.He was also made prebendary of Carlisle Cathedral in 1681, and Archdeacon in 1682. Twenty years later he was appointed bishop of Carlisle, and he served as Lord High Almoner to George I of Great Britain from 1716-1718. He was translated to Derry in 1718. In 1727 he was nominated archbishop of Cashel and Emly, following the death on 1 January of Archbishop Palliser, but died in Derry before he could assume charge. He was buried in Derry Cathedral.
He had married Elizabeth, daughter of John Archer of Oxenholme, near Kirby Kendal, Westmoreland.
Nicolson is remembered by the impulsiveness of his temperament, which led him into a good deal of strife as a bishop; he quarreled with Hugh Todd, who ended up excommunicated. He showed real zeal in collecting and guarding manuscripts and other official documents. For this purpose he had special rooms built at Derry.
His chief works were the Historical Library (English, 1696-97-99; Scottish, 1702; Irish, 1724; complete later editions, 1732 and 1776), and Leges Marchiarum or Border Laws (1705, new ed., 1747).
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nicolson, William". Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 664.
|Church of England titles|
| Bishop of Carlisle
|Church of Ireland titles|
St George Ashe
| Bishop of Derry