Alexander Nowell

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Alexander Nowell

Alexander Nowell (c.1517 13 February 1602), aka Alexander Noel, was an Anglican priest and theologian. [1] He served as Dean of St Paul's during much of Elizabeth I's reign, and is now remembered for his catechisms, written in Latin. [2]


Early life

He was the eldest son of John Nowell of Read Hall, Read, Lancashire, by his second wife Elizabeth Kay of Rochdale, and was the brother of Laurence Nowell. [2] His sister Beatrice was the mother of John Hammond; [3] Robert Nowell, attorney of the court of wards, was his other brother. [4]

Nowell was educated at Middleton, near Rochdale, Lancashire and at Brasenose College, Oxford [5] where he is said to have shared rooms with John Foxe the martyrologist. He was elected fellow of Brasenose in 1526, spending some 13 years in Oxford. [2]

In London

In 1543 Nowell was appointed master of Westminster School, and, in December 1551, prebendary of Westminster Abbey. During this period he became involved in a controversy with Thomas Dorman, over the views of the late John Redman, which ran on in different forms for many years. [2]

Nowell was elected in September 1553 as Member of Parliament for West Looe in Cornwall in Queen Mary's first parliament. In October of that year, however, a committee of the house reported that he could not sit in the House of Commons because as prebendary of Westminster he had a seat in Convocation. He was then also deprived of his prebend, in 1554. [2]

Marian exile

Nowell was one of the Marian exiles, Protestants who left England during the Reign of Mary I and Philip II. He left England in 1555, aided by the merchant Francis Bowyer. He went first to Strassburg and then to Frankfurt, where he became involved in the doctrinal and liturgical dispute between the exiles. While trying to moderate the discussions, Nowell came to side with John Knox. [2]

Dean of St Paul's

Nowell returned to England when Elizabeth I came to the throne, becoming chaplain to Edmund Grindal in December 1560. He was given the archdeaconry of Middlesex at the start of 1561, a canonry at Canterbury, and in November 1561 became Dean of St Paul's. [2] In 1562 the Bishop of London collated him with the Parish of Great or Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, where the Bishops had a palace. [6]

In the Convocation of 1563 Nowell played a prominent part. On its opening day, 12 January, he preached in Westminster Abbey the sermon for the opening of the concurrent Parliament. In it, he gave offence to the Queen, when he called on her to marry. [2] [7] It was said that she never spoke a friendly word to him again. [8] On the following day, Matthew Parker nominated him as prolocutor of the Lower House of Convocation. Elected to the post, he was used to keeping the two Houses, the Upper consisting of bishops, in touch with each other. [2]

Friction with the Queen is well attested. On one occasion she rebuked Nowell in the vestry for having given her a prayer book with pictures of saints and angels that smacked of the Church of Rome. On another, in March 1565, she interrupted his sermon, directed against a work A Treatyse of the Crosse (1564) of John Martiall, telling him to stick to his text and cease slighting the crucifix. [2] [9] [10] In 1594 he was appointed Canon of the eleventh stall at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, a position he held until 1602. [11]

Death and legacy

Nowell held the deanery of St Paul's for 42 years, until his death on 13 February 1602; and was buried within his cathedral. [12] With his brother Robert, a lawyer, he re-established the free school at Middleton; and made other benefactions for educational purposes at Brasenose College. [2]

Sometime after his death, he was credited by Thomas Fuller (and his later revisers), with the accidental invention of bottled beer. [13] [14] "Without offence it may be remembered, that leaving a bottle of ale, when fishing, in the grass, he found it some days after, no bottle, but a gun, such the sound at the opening thereof : and this is believed (casualty is mother of more inventions than industry) the original of bottled ale in England." [15]

He was also a keen angler, and Izaak Walton says, "this good man was observed to spend a tenth part of his time in angling; and also (for I have conversed with those which have conversed with him) to bestow a tenth part of his revenue, and usually all his fish, amongst the poor that inhabited near to those rivers in which it was caught; saying often, 'that charity gave life to religion'". [16]


Nowell is now remembered for his work on catechisms. His Latin Catechismus puerorum, in manuscript, gained the support of the Lower House in the Convocation of 1563. It was printed in 1570, as Catechismus, sive, Prima institutio disciplinaque pietatis Christianae, with Matthew Parker's approval. It was officially required to be used in schools, in 1571, and Thomas Norton translated it into English, as A Catechism, or, First instruction of Christian religion (1570). Abridged versions appeared: the "middle" catechism (1572) and the "shorter" catechism (1573). [2] A Welsh translation, Catecism eglwys loegr by Thomas Jones of Denbigh, appeared in 1809. [17]


Nowell was twice married, but left no children; his first wife was Jane Mery, widow of Thomas Bowyer, the uncle of Francis Bowyer, and his second Elizabeth Hast, twice widow. He was also the uncle of the theologian William Whitaker, who translated the "middle" catechism into Greek. [2]


  1. Churton, Ralph (1809). The Life of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul's. Oxford: The University Press. pp.  38.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Lehmberg, Stanford. "Nowell, Alexander". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20378.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. White, P. O. G. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12159.{{cite encyclopedia}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. Knighton, C. S. "Whitaker, William". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29228.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714, Nabbes-Nykke
  6. Churton, Ralph, (1809) Life of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul's, chiefly compiled from registers, letters, and other authentic evidences p.77
  7. Alison Weir Elizabeth the Queen Pimlico edition 1999 p.137
  8. Weir p.137
  9. Wooding, L. E. C. "Martiall, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18171.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. Greenwood, Walter (1951) Lancashire. London: Robert Hale; pp. 171-72
  11. Fasti Wyndesorienses, May 1950. S.L. Ollard. Published by the Dean and Canons of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
  12. "Memorials of St Paul's Cathedral" Sinclair, W. p99: London; Chapman & Hall, Ltd; 1909
  13. G.S. (1684), Anglorum speculum, or The worthies of England, in church and state
  14. Churton, Ralph, (1809) Life of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul's, chiefly compiled frem registers, letters, and other authentic evidences p.80-1
  15. Fuller, Thomas, (1840) The history of the worthies of England : New ed., containing brief notices of the most celebrated worthies of England who have flourished since the time of Fuller. With explanatory notes and copious indexes by P. Austin Nuttall p.204-5
  16. Walton, Izaak, (1897) The Compleat Angler
  17. Walters, Huw. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15093.{{cite encyclopedia}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

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Preceded by Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford
Succeeded by