The first of the Holland family to settle in Shropshire was William Holland of Denbighshire (b. 1460), who was descended from the Lancashire Hollands. William had served Sir Richard Corbet, of Moreton Corbet, at the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). Sir Richard supported Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, meeting him at Shrewsbury with more than 800 followers.
William Holland distinguished himself so honourably at Bosworth that his landlord rewarded him with a ‘messuage’ (a dwelling house with outbuildings and land assigned to its use), a ‘yard land’ (a measure of area of land in Medieval England, from 15 to 40 acres) of 30 acres in Burwarton, and his capital messuage and demeasne (a piece of land attached to a manor and retained by the owner for their own use) in lease; all amounting to half the manor. William was highly trusted by Sir Richard Corbet and accompanied him to France when he was appointed governor of Calais until his death. William married Matilda, daughter of William of Willaston and became father of Thomas (b. 1490).
The Holland family first came to reside in the estate of Burwarton in the year 1495 and continued to do so until Elizabeth Holland (b. 1733), the last remaining child of William Holland (b. 1704), married Benjamin Baugh at Ludlow in 1772. Their daughter Harriet married Gustavus, 6th Viscount Boyne, at Ludlow in 1796. The Burwarton estate still remains in the possession of the Viscounts Boyne today.
Thomas, great-grandson of William (1460) and son of John Holland, younger brother of William Holland of Burwarton (b. 1525), was born in Ludlow around 1549. Little is known about Thomas’ childhood, but according to St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, he was taught grammar in ‘the scholars’ chancel’ in their South Aisle.
On the 23rd September 1569, Thomas gained an exhibition at Oriel College and then transferred to Exeter College. Just over a year later he graduated BA on 9th December 1570, with great applause. This was exceedingly fast for the time period as it would have normally taken 4 years to complete a degree! As a student it was said that he was so, “immersed in books,” that the tendency ‘swallowed up’ almost all others. He was made Chaplain-Fellow (Socius Sacerdotallis) of Balliol College 13th January 1573, holding the position of college reader of rhetoric from 1575–7. He gained his MA on 18th June 1575 and was supplied with a licence to preach on the 14th March 1578-9. He graduated BD on the 13th July 1582, left his fellowship in 1583 and became Doctor of Divinity on the 15th July 1584.
It was said of Thomas that he was “another Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures… a solid preacher, a most noted disputant, and a most learned divine.”
“This learned Dr Holland did not, as some, only sip of learning, or, at best drink thereof, but was ‘mersus in libris’ (drowned in learning); so that the scholar in him, drowned almost all other relations.”
The Netherlands had become increasingly Protestant in the wake of the Reformation and resisted Spanish control, which was ardently Catholic. Eventually as tensions broke, the Netherlands revolted against its Spanish oppressors, having suffered heavy taxation, torture and executions in attempts to control the Dutch people. The Dutch prince of Orange, William the Silent, emerged as one of the most powerful protestants in Europe and so the Spanish King, Philip II, his sworn enemy, offered a reward of 25,000 crowns (£750,000 today) to anyone who would kill him. This came to pass when Balthasar Gérard, a Burgundian Catholic, infiltrated William’s service as a French nobleman who would pass messages between the Prince and his French allies. On the 10th July 1584, after returning from France, Balthasar concealed two wheel-lock pistols on his person, went towards William as if to pass on a letter, but instead drew the guns and shot him at point-blank range. William’s last words were, “Mon Dieu, ayez pitié de moi et de mon pauvre people” (My God, have pity on me and on my poor people).
As a result of the assassination, in December 1585, Queen Elizabeth sent her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester with a command of 6,000 troops to the Netherlands (known at the time as the United Provinces) to assist as governor in their revolt against Spain. Thomas had been selected by Dudley to accompany him as his personal chaplain and to minister to the troops.
The reason why the Earl of Leicester chose Thomas, in particular, is unknown. Whether it was Thomas’ reputation as being exceedingly bright; or his fervour as a Protestant (Dudley being known as a patron of Calvinists in England); or perhaps it may have been the humour of Robert Dudley to choose a man by the name of ‘Holland’ to go with him to the Netherlands. Whatever the reason, Leicester’s time as governor proved to be highly unsuccessful and by December 1587 he gave up his position and was recalled by the Queen.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Thomas returned to Oxford in 1589. Since Robert Dudley was recalled to England in December 1587 and later died at Cornbury on the 4th September 1588 at 10 o’clock in the morning, it is possible that Thomas had continued to be Dudley’s personal chaplain up until his death. This is strongly supported by that fact that Thomas is recorded to have been present at Dudley’s funeral on the 10th October 1588. In light of this, it is curious to note how Queen Elizabeth continued to directly influence the course of Thomas’ life after Dudley’s death on at least 3 occasions.
Return to Oxford:
A renowned scholar as well as a loyal evangelical, on his return to Oxford in 1589 Thomas was appointed by the Queen as her Regius Professor of Divinity, succeeding Dr Humphrey and holding the post until his death in 1612. It was a duty for which he was eminently qualified, and in which he trained up many distinguished scholars. Under his sight appeared the noted scholars: Edward Chetwind, Daniel and Sampson Price, Richard Carpenter, Thomas Winniff, John Flemming, John Standard, John Whetcombe, John Prideaux, Simon Baskervill, Robert Vilvaine, as well as several eminent physicians.
On the 9th June 1590 he was made a canon of Salisbury Cathedral “on recommendation of the crown“. A year later he was installed as rector of St Nicholas, Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire (1591).
He succeeded Thomas Glasier as rectory of Exeter College on the 29th March 1592 “on the instigation of the Queen” and Sir John Petre. The Queen depended on Thomas to bring the college, where there were many Romanists, into strict conformity with the established church. He filled the office with great reputation for twenty years, being regarded as a universal scholar, and a prodigy of literature. His election was disputed by the fellowship and not confirmed until the 24th April, when his opponent “resigned his claim at Lambeth, before Archbishop Whitgift, the Bishop of Oxford, and… the chancellor of the University”
From the 19th June 1598, he was allowed to stop public disputations because his time was so occupied by the great number of those responding ‘pro forma’. On the 2nd February 1610, towards the end of his life, Thomas was made an honorary member of Gray’s Inn.
The Royal Visits:
During Thomas’ time as Regius Professor there were two royal visits to Oxford University.
The First was by Queen Elizabeth on the 22nd to the 28th September 1592, where, because he was noted as a skilled disputant, he acted as the respondent in a disputation on divinity in honour of Her Majesty. A disputation was an academic debate on questions that often had no answer. Their purpose was to practice and display a person’s grasp of logical discourse. One could either be chosen to be arguing for or against the question given. Thomas was specially mentioned amongst the doctors ordered to provide themselves with scarlet gowns and hoods for the credit of the university.
As part of the programme of entertainments, Thomas, at 9am on Monday on the 25th September, read an address “at which were present but a few of the nobility, and many scholars.” On the 27th September, he argued before Her Majesty on the question: ‘An licet in Christiana republica dissimulare in causa veritatis?’ (Do you pretend to be a Christian nation in the cause of truth?)
The Second Visit, 13 years later, he was again respondent in a disputation held before James I in 1605. On August 28, 1605, the various doctors held a debating tournament in Latin, the learned monarch attentively listened and frequently intervened.
One of the questions was this: ‘Whether, if the plague should increase, the pastors of churches are bound to visit the sick?’ Thomas maintained the negative, discharging two syllogisms, which was nothing to another disputant, much praised by the King, who had a battery of twenty.
Thomas was without doubt a famous scholar, his reputation also extended to the continent, as he was held in high esteem in the universities of Europe. Several Europeans came over to study at Oxford, attracted by Thomas’ reputation and that of and his protégé, John Prideaux. This same John, also his friend, who succeeded him as rector of Exeter College, wrote a Greek grammar for his students known as, ‘Tabulae ad Grammatica Graeca Introductoriae,’ in 1607 at Thomas’ prompting. John dedicated it to his patron.
He was very loyal to both Elizabeth I and James I, defending the practice of celebrating Elizabeth’s Ascension Day as a national holiday against the criticisms of Papists and Puritans alike.
Thomas had taught many pupils who had gone on to hold positions in the church, or as Richard Kilby put it, “a father to many sons, by a scholastical creation of them in the highest degrees of learning.” The two most distinguished who had studied under him were the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot and the Bishop of London, John King.
As to his character, he was a man of ardent piety, a thorough Calvinist in doctrine, and a decided non-conforming Puritan in matters of ceremony and church-discipline. Throughout his life Thomas remained a stalwart opponent of Catholicism. He was said to have stoutly resisted the popish innovations which Bancroft and Laud strove too successfully to introduce at Oxford. At his funeral his friend, Richard Kilbie, recalled that,
“… a common farewell when he took any longer journey was this, ‘Commendo vos dilectioni Dei, et odio Papatus et Superstitionis.’ (I commend you to the love of God, and to the hatred of popery and superstition).”
Thomas had been around 4 years old when Queen Mary I took over as monarch, reverting England back to Roman Catholicism, having been Protestant for 19 years after her father Henry VIII had split off the Church in England from the Roman Church in 1534. Mary’s reign was an exceedingly violent one, having 283 people burned at the stake (227 men and 56 women), including the Bishops Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Other Protestant leaders had to escape this persecution by fleeing to other parts of Europe. Thomas was about 9 years old when Mary’s reign came to an end, meaning that the first part of his formative years had been during a time where Roman Catholicism represented repression, persecution, torture and death. It is not difficult to see why Thomas was so passionately opposed to Catholicism and would he have seen Mary’s husband, Phillip II of Spain, one of the main enemies in the conflicts between the Protestant and Catholic states, as an enemy to be fervently fought against.
As a preacher, Thomas was earnest and solemn. His impromptu sermons were usually better that his more elaborate preparations. He preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral on November the 17th 1599, a sermon praising Queen Elizabeth and encouraging people to celebrate the holiday set up in her name.
Just shy of 10 months (297 days) after Elizabeth’s visit to Oxford, Thomas married Susan Gunter on the 22nd July 1593 in All Saint’s Church, North Moreton. Between 1954 and 1601 they had 5 children in the Gunter family home in the same village:
- Anne Holland (b. 1594), named after Susan’s mother, Anne Gunter.
- William Holland (b. 1595).
- Brian Holland (b. 1597), probably named after Thomas’ father-in-law, Brian Gunter.
- Edward Holland (b. 1599).
- Susanna Holland (b. 1601), probably named after her mother, Susan.
Translating the Bible:
As Thomas was an eminent theologian of his day, with a proficiency in biblical languages and a love for the scriptures, he was appointment by James I to prepare the Authorised Version of the Bible (KJV). He was well versed in languages, and was ‘mighty in the scriptures’, he frequently drew on the Hebrew scriptures and the Talmud in his sermons. As a gifted linguist he had a considerable hand in the translation that commenced in 1604.
Thomas became part of the ‘First Oxford Company’ with several other scholars , where they were responsible for the translation of the prophetic books of the Old Testament; which included the four greater prophets: (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel), ‘Lamentations,’ and the twelve lesser prophets (Hoshea to Malachi). This was the crowning work of his life.
It was during this period of translating that Dr John Reynolds, who had suggested the new translation, died. On his deathbed he earnestly desired absolution and received it from Thomas, affectionately kissing his fellow translator’s hand.
Not long after Thomas began the work of translating, his sister-in-law, Anne Gunter, youngest child of Brian and Anne Gunter, fell ill in the summer of 1604 with a condition known as ‘the mother’, a condition of the womb. Though she initially recovered, the symptoms of her sickness returned by late October and her condition worsened. Doctors declared that the cause must be supernatural. Amongst her symptoms were fits, falling into comas and trances, numb to pricking, as well as vomited pins.
It was suspected that she was afflicted by witchcraft and later came to name three local woman as her tormentors: Agnes Pepwell, her daughter Mary, and Elizabeth Gregory. The latter was one of the most hated women of North Moreton, being described as a scold, argumentative, with a propensity for foul language and blaspheming, who would leave the church to avoid sharing the peace of God (a handshake of goodwill and reconciliation).
Various remedies were tried, including praying and fasting, consulting ‘cunning men’, scratching Elizabeth Gregory’s face, burning a lock of the women’s hair and burning a piece of thatch from their homes; the latter curiously brought Anne relief, thereby convincing many of the villagers of North Moreton that the Pepwells and Elizabeth Gregory were indeed witches.
Anne had stayed at Thomas’ lodgings at Exeter College immediately before the trial of the suspected witches at Abingdon in March 1605, where the women were acquitted. Brian Gunter, decided to re-open the case, brought it before King James I (who had a reputation as a witch-hunter) on his visit to Oxford University in August 1605. He managed to rally support among the academics.
On hearing Brian’s plea, the King handed the matter over to Archbishop Bancroft, who put Anne in the care of his chaplain, Samuel Harsnett. By October Anne admitted that the whole business was a hoax, masterminded by her father, in order to have the women concerned executed.
7 years beforehand (1598), at a local football match, there had been an incident, where a fight had broken out between John Field and Richard Gregory. The young men had been playing whilst the elders of the village had be watching from the sidelines. As the fight broke out William Gunter, Anne’s elder brother, had tried to intervene but was then attacked by Richard and his brother John Gregory. In an effort to defend his son, Brian had removed the dagger from his belt and struck both young men with the pommel. Within two weeks, both of the Gregory boys were dead.
Although Brian had not intended to kill the young men, Walter and Elizabeth Gregory, the parents of the deceased young men, attempted to have Brian convicted for murder, of which the penalty was death! Brian was let off with a verdict of accidental homicide, but he never forgave the Gregory’s for their attempt on his life.
Anne had genuinely been unwell in the summer of 1604 but when the condition ‘returned’, well-meaning neighbours came to the Gunter family with the suggestion that the cause was witchcraft. To this end they gave Brian a book entitled: “The most strange and admirable discoverie of the three Witches of Warboys arraigned, conducted and executed at the last Assises at Huntingdon.” As the title explicitly tells us those suspected of witchcraft had been successfully tried and then executed in 1593.
Brian forced Anne into feigning similar symptoms as found in the book, beating her when she refused to simulate fits. Alice Kirfoote, another neighbour who had a rivalry between herself and Elizabeth Gregory, taught Anne how to palm and hold the pins in her mouth, warning her that if, ‘what she had sworn to keep secret’, the devil would come and ‘fetch her away both body and soul.’
On one occasion, Anne ran away and locked herself in Anthony Ruffin’s (a neighbour) house. Brian stamped upon her and dragged her out on her stomach shouting, “What you scurvy harlot, will you not come home with me?”
A servant of Anthony, Alice Buckeridge, heard Anne say to Brian, “Indeed, father, afore I will have such a life with you I will take a halter and hang myself!”
When the case was brought to Bancroft, Anne was near breaking point, trying to swallow some of the pins, ‘hoping by that means to make an end of herself,’ since, ‘her state of life was so odious and loathsome unto her.’ When she came to reside at Samuel Harsnett’s residence she had been shown much kindness by those at Oxford that readily confessed the whole unpleasant business.
After Anne’s admission of the hoax, the Court of the Star Chamber started proceedings in early 1606 against Brian and his daughter Anne for falsely accusing the women of witchcraft, where over the course of several years, evidence from over 60 witnesses was provided. This included John Whetcombe, son of a Dorset gentleman, fellow of Exeter College and Thomas’ future son-in-law. Several medical experts were also called upon in the case of Anne Gunter, including John Hall, aged 30, who was probably the same John Hall who married the eldest daughter of William Shakespeare, Susanna, in 1607.
A few years before the supposed ‘bewitching’ began, Thomas Holland preached a sermon in 1602, at St Paul’s Cross in London. Ironically, it was in support of the church’s sceptical position on possession, witchcraft and exorcism, due to a tendency for members of the public to use the excuse of these spiritual phenomena to harm each other, more often than not out of spite. Although Susan Gunter gave evidence at the Star Chamber being witness to her sister’s symptoms from early on, Thomas Holland was not questioned and seems to have adopted a more detached attitude to the whole business.
It is unknown what punishment befell Brian and Anne, though it is likely that Anne, having been forced, was pardoned. This seems to be confirmed given that James I wrote in October 1605, that Anne had fallen in love with a servant of Archbishop Bancroft, Asheley, and that it was reciprocal. The couple planned to marry with royal blessing and a dowry provided by the monarch.
Death and Funeral:
After the translation had been finished, Thomas spent most of his time in meditation and prayer. As sickness and the infirmities of age increased, so did his desire for heaven. In the hour of his departure he exclaimed, — ” Come, Oh come. Lord Jesus, thou bright and morning star! Come, Lord Jesus; I desire to be dissolved and be with thee.” No longer being able to pray as his voice failed him, he lifted “his hands unto heaven, and his eyes unto the hills from whence cometh salvation… he shortly thereafter died a most sweet and a quiet death.”
Thomas died at Exeter College, Oxford, on 17th March 1612, just 10 ½ months after Authorised Version of the Bible was completed and published. He was buried on the 26th March in the chancel of the university church of St Mary the Virgin. He was 63 years old.
All the degrees were present as Richard Kilbie, a friend and fellow translator, gave a sermon on Thomas’ great learning and virtues. At the funeral the heralds are said to have exhibited the arms of the Earls of Kent. A bare lion rampant, argent, in a field azure as, “it was approved by the Heralds at Arms at his funeral in the University and is the Coat of Arms given at this day by the family of the Hollands and by the Hollands Earls of Kent.”
Richard preached to the congregation that Thomas was, ‘blamesless from all great enormous and scandalous offences; being full of the works of the spirit, as love, peace, gentleness, meekness, temperance…full of alms, deeds and mercifulness unto the poor: so that as he was a shining bright lamp for his learning & lighting others with the knowledge of the truth; so was he a shining bright star too in his life, enlightening others in the pathway to heaven’.
His will was read at Oxford on the 20th April 1612. His son-in-law, Dr John Whetcombe (a former student of Thomas’) was responsible for selling some of Thomas’ property, with the assistance of Thomas’ father-in-law Brian Gunter, of which the profit was given to Susan, his wife, who as executrix. She sold Thomas’ stables to Dr Prideaux. In his will he left 20 shillings to the poor of Ludlow as well as small amounts to various individuals.
Thomas left behind him at his death, several things fit for the press. Numerous copies of verse written by him will be found in the Oxford Collections of that period, including several learned orations and one sermon. Unfortunately, many manuscripts fell into hands unfriendly to the Puritanism they contained and they were never published.
The Mystery of Thomas’ Date of Birth
Within various sources three different dates are given for Thomas’ year of birth: 1539, 1549, & 1550. The original records from Ludlow at this time no longer exist, however there are later records that refer to Thomas’ date of birth, where the originals may have been available when these later records were made. Using a couple of logical deductions we can conclude that the later dates of 1549 & 1550 are the more likely to be correct:
- Firstly, Thomas’ uncle, William Holland of Burwarton, was born in 1525. This would make him 14 years old if Thomas was born in 1539. Thomas’ father John, being the younger sibling, would have been younger still. Though this is not impossible, it is however very unlikely. If however 1549 or 1550 are correct, John would have been slightly younger than his 24/25-year-old brother; which seems more plausible.
- Secondly, Thomas matriculated into Oxford University in 1569 having gained an Entrance Exhibition. This would make him 30 if the 1539 date
, whereas he would be 19 or 20 years old according to the werecorrect later dates. The former age would have been unusually old for a student to enter intouniversity, whereas the latter ages would be within the typical age of matriculation of the period (between 15-20 years old).
One explanation for the discrepancies in Thomas’ date of birth may well be that the original date was 1549, which may then have been later mistranscribed to read ‘39 in respect of one date and rounded up to read ‘50 in respect of the other.
Another explanation could be that 1550 may have been the date of Thomas’ baptism, which, if it was at the beginning of the new year, it could make the year of his birth 1549 just a few days earlier. It was common practice to have a child baptised very soon after its birth, assuring their place in heaven in the event of its untimely death due to the high infant mortality rate of the time.
Some of the sources for Thomas’s date of birth include:
- 1539, as referenced in “The Translators Revived: A Biographical Memoir of the Authors of the English Version of the Holy Bible” by Alexander Wilson McClure
- 1549, as referenced by ancestry.co.uk
- 1550, as referenced in, “The Bewitching of Anne Gunter” by James Sharpe. This date is also cited
by the‘South Aisle’ marker of St Parish of St Laurence, Ludlow.
The Confusion of Thomas’ Father
The confusion arose from the coincidence that Thomas’ cousin was also called Thomas (son of William), who also was born around the same year and died the same year, around 6 months apart. One of the earliest records, the Visitation of Shropshire (1623), corroborates this:
Thomas, son of William, was heir to the Burwarton Estate and studied at Middle Temple in 1571. He was buried on the 10th September 1612 in Stottesden, Shropshire:
Holland’s printed works are:
habitacum Henricus episcopusSarisburiensis gradum doctoris susceperit(1599)
- Panēgyris D. Elizabethae Reginae: A Sermon preached at Pauls in London the 17th of November, 1599. Whereunto is adjoined an Apologeticall Discourse for observing the 17th November yearly in the form of an Holy-Day,’ Oxford (by Joseph Barnes) (1601)
He wrote commendatory lines in Case’s Summa Veterum Interpretum in Univ. Dialect. Aristotelis, 1598. He also published a sermon on Matthew 12:42 in Oxford, 1601. [Bodl. 4to. H. 38. Art.]
In 1612 Thomas Thompson, of Queen’s College, edited and published the notaries’ account of two disputations on monastic vows moderated in 1609 by Holland under the title, Claviger ecclesiae: theses duae de votis monasticis.
His portrait is in the Hope collection in the Bodleian Library, and a fine engraving in Henry Holland’s ‘Herologia’. Henry Holland claimed to be a relation to Thomas.
As a student it was said of him, that he was so “immersed in books,” that this propensity swallowed up almost every other.
This learned Dr. Holland did not, as some, only sip of learning, or, at the best drink thereof, but was mersus in libris; so that the scholar in him, drown’d almost all other relations. He was esteemed by the precise men of his time, and after, ‘another Apollos, mighty in scriptures, and so familiar with the fathers, as if he himself was a father, and in the schoolmen, as if he had been a seraphical doctor.’
One of his intimate associates and fellow translators, Dr Richard Kilby, preached his funeral sermon. In this sermon it is said of him, — “that he had a wonderful knowledge of all the learned languages, and of all arts and sciences, both human and divine. He was mighty in the Scriptures; and so familiarly aquatinted with the Fathers, as if he had been one of them; and so versed in the Schoolmen, as if he were the Seraphic Doctor. He was, therefore, most worthy of the divinity-chair, which he filled about twenty years, with distinguished approbation and applause. He was so celebrated for his preaching, reading, disputing, moderating, and all other excellent qualifications, that all who knew him commended him, and all who heard of him admired him.”
Dr. Kilbye in his funeral remarks said his “life and conversation were so holy, upright and sanctified that in him the fruits of the spirit greatly abounded as love, joy, peace, gentleness, meekness, temperance, and brotherly kindness”.
In the public University debates, he staunchly maintained that, “bishops are not a distinct order from presbyters, nor at all superior to them by the Word of God.”
When the execrable William Laud, afterwards the odious Archbishop of Canterbury, was going through his exercises as candidate for the degree of Bachelor in Divinity, in 1604, he contended “that there could be no true churches without diocesan episcopacy.” For this the young aspirant was sharply and publicly rebuked by Dr Holland, who presided on the occasion; and who severely reprehended that future Primate of all England, as “one who sought to sow discord among brethren, and between the Church of England and the Reformed Churches abroad.”
In illustration of his zeal for purity in faith and worship, and against all superstition and idolatry, the same sermon informs us, that, whenever he took a journey, he first called together the Fallows of his College, for his parting charge, which always ended thus, — “I commend you to the love of God, and to the hatred of all popery and superstition! “ (Commendo vos dilectioni Dei et odio Papatus et Superstitionis).
He said of the late Queen: “By whose honourable stipend I have been relieved these many years in this famous University, and by whose magnificence, when I served the Church of God in the Netherlands, being chaplain to the Earl of Leicester, his Honour, I was graciously rewarded.”
In the hour of his departure he exclaimed, — “Come, Oh come, Lord Jesus, thou bright and morning star! Come, Lord Jesus; I desire to be dissolved and be with thee.”