William Whittingham

William Whittingham

William Whittingham (c. 1524-1579) was an English Biblical scholar and religious reformer. Educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, he became a zealous Protestant; as such he found it prudent to flee to France when Mary I ascended the throne of England.

By 1554, Whittingham made his way to Frankfurt, Germany, where he joined a group of Protestant exiles from Mary's reign. There, he met up with John Knox and became a supporter of Calvinism. He also married the sister of John Calvin. He took over Knox's role as minister to the English congregation of exiles in Geneva. In Geneva, he started the work for which he is best remembered, a Bible translation that came to be known as the Geneva Bible.

In 1560, Whittingham returned to England, and was made dean of Durham in 1563, an office he held at his death.


Early life

Born at Chester about 1524, he was son of William Whittingham, by his wife, a daughter of Haughton of Hoghton Tower, Lancashire. In 1540, at the age of sixteen, he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, as a commoner, graduating B.A. and being elected fellow of All Souls' College in 1545. In 1547 he became senior student of Christ Church, Oxford. commencing M.A. on 5 Feb. 1547–8, and on 17 May 1550 he was granted leave to travel for three years. He went to France, where he spent his time chiefly at the University of Orleans, but he also visited Lyon and studied at Paris, where his services as interpreter were used by the English ambassador, Sir John Mason or Sir William Pickering.

Towards the end of 1552 Whittingham visited universities in Germany and Geneva, and returned to England in May 1553. Whittingham had adopted extreme Protestant views, and the accession of Queen Mary ruined his prospects for the time. Late in August, however, he made intercession, which was ultimately successful, for the release of Peter Martyr; but after a few weeks he himself left England with difficulty by way of Dover to France.

At Frankfort

In the spring of 1554 Frankfort was the ecclesiastical centre for the English Marian exiles on the continent, and Whittingham was one of the first who reached the city on 27 June 1554; he sent out invitations to exiles in other cities to join them. Difficulties soon arose, however, between those who wished to use Edward VI's second prayer-book without much modification, and those led by Whittingham and John Knox, who insisted on revising the prayer-book in a Calvinist direction. Whittingham was one of those appointed to draw up a service-book, and he procured a letter from John Calvin, dated 18 January 1555, which won over some; but the compromise adopted was disturbed by the arrival of Richard Cox, who was an uncompromising champion of the prayer-book. In the ensuing struggle between Knox and Cox Whittingham was Knox's chief supporter, but he failed to prevent Knox's expulsion from Frankfort on 26 March; he thereupon said to have given in his adhesion to the form of church government established at Frankfort under Cox's influence. He was dissatisfied with the outcome, and about 22 September in the same year he followed Knox to Geneva.

Whittingham was probably the author of a detailed account of the struggle.[1] It is the only full narrative, but is polemical.

At Geneva

On 16 December 1555, and again in December 1556, Whittingham was elected an elder of the church at Geneva; on 16 December 1558 he was appointed deacon, and in 1559 he succeeded Knox as minister. He had received no ordination but his reluctance was overcome by Calvin's insistence. On Queen Mary's death most of the exiles at Geneva returned to England, but Whittingham remained to complete the translation of the Geneva Bible. He had already produced a version of the New Testament, which was issued at Geneva in 12mo by Conrad Badius on 10 June 1557, but this differs from the version included in the Geneva or ‘Breeches’ bible, for which Whittingham is generally held to be mainly responsible. He also took part in the revision of the Old Testament. The critical and explanatory notes were of a Calvinist character. It was printed at Geneva by Rowland Hall in 1560; after 1611 its vogue was not exhausted, ten editions appearing between that date and 1640.

Besides the translation of the Bible, Whittingham while at Geneva turned into metrical versions some of the Psalms. Seven of these were included among the fifty-one psalms published at Geneva in 1556 as part of the service-book which Whittingham and his colleagues had been appointed to draw up at Frankfort; the others were revised versions of Thomas Sternhold's psalms. A metrical rendering of the Ten Commandments by Whittingham is appended. Another edition in 1558, now lost, is believed to have contained nine fresh psalms by Whittingham; these were reprinted in the edition of 1561, to which Whittingham also contributed a version of the ‘Song of Simeon’ and two of the Lord's Prayer. Besides these Whittingham translated four psalms in the Scottish psalter, which do not appear in any English edition. Whittingham also wrote a preface to Nicholas Ridley's ‘Brief Declaration of the Lord's Supper’ (Geneva? 1555), revised for press Knox's work on predestination, which was published at Geneva in 1560, and contributed a dedicatory epistle to Christopher Goodman's ‘How Superior Powers ought to be obeyed’ (Geneva, 1558), in which views similar to Knox's were adopted with regard to the ‘regiment of women.’

Return to England

Whittingham took formal leave of the council at Geneva on 30 May 1560. In January 1561 he was appointed to attend on Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, during his embassy to the French court. In the following year he became chaplain to Ambrose Dudley, 3rd Earl of Warwick, and one of the ministers at Le Havre, which was then occupied by the English under Warwick. He won general praise; but William Cecil complained of his neglect of conformity to the English prayer-book. He was collated on 19 July 1563 to the deanery of Durham, a promotion which he owed to the support of Warwick and Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. On his way to Durham he preached before the queen at Windsor on 2 September 1563.

Whittingham took his religious duties seriously, holding two services a day, devoting time to his grammar school and song school, and church music. Before the outbreak of the Rising of the North in 1569 he unsuccessfully urged James Pilkington, the bishop of Durham, to put the city in a state of defence, but he was more successful at Newcastle, which resisted the rebels. In 1572, when Lord Burghley became lord treasurer, Whittingham was suggested, probably by Leicester, as his successor in the office of secretary. In 1577 Leicester also promised Whittingham his aid in securing the see of York or Durham, both of which were vacant; but Whittingham did not press for preferment.

As Dean of Durham

In 1564 Whittingham wrote a long letter to Leicester protesting against the ‘old popish apparel,’ and proceedings had in 1566 been taken against him for refusing to wear the surplice and cope; Whittingham eventually gave way, alleging Calvin's advice not to leave the ministry for external matters of order. In 1577, however, he incurred the enmity of Edwin Sandys, the new archbishop of York, by resisting his claim to visit Durham Cathedral. According to William Hutchinson a commission, had been issued in 1576 or 1577 to examine matters of complaint against him, but had proved ineffectual because the Earl of Huntingdon and Matthew Hutton sided with the dean against the third commissioner, Sandys. A fresh commission was issued on 14 May 1578, including the three former commissioners and about a dozen others. The articles against Whittingham are printed from the domestic state papers in the ‘Camden Miscellany’; the charge that ‘he is defamed of adulterie’ is entered as ‘partly proved’ and that of drunkenness as ‘proved;’ but the real allegation against Whittingham was the invalidity of his ordination. He had admittedly not been ordained according to the rites of the church of England, but parliament had already passed an act (13 Eliz. c. 12) practically acknowledging the validity of the ordination of ministers whether according to Roman Catholic or the rites of the reformed churches on the continent. Sandys maintained that Whittingham had not been validly ordained even according to the Genevan rite, but only elected preacher without the imposition of hands. Huntingdon, however, wrote that ‘it could not but be ill-taken of all the godly learned both at home and in all the reformed churches abroad, that we should allow of the popish massing priests in our ministry, and disallow of the ministers made in a reformed church’. He suggested the stay of the proceedings.

Whittingham's death came on 10 June 1579. He was buried in Durham Cathedral, where his tomb was destroyed by the Scots in 1640. His will, dated 18 April 1579, is printed in ‘Durham Wills and Inventories’ (Surtees Soc. ii. 14–19).


Whittingham's wife Catherine, daughter of Louis Jaqueman, was probably born not before 1535 and married to Whittingham on 15 November 1556. Her eldest son, Zachary, was baptised on 17 August 1557, and her eldest daughter, Susanna, on 11 December 1558; both died young. Whittingham was survived by two sons, Sir Timothy and Daniel, and four daughters.



  1. ^ ‘A Brieff Discours off the Troubles begonne at Franckford in Germany, anno Domini 1554. Abowte the Booke off Common Prayer and Ceremonies, and continued by the Englishe men theyre to thende off Q. Maries Raigne,’ 1575. It bears no place or printer's name, but was printed probably at Geneva, and in the same type as Thomas Cartwright's tracts; one copy of the original edition is dated mdlxxiv. It was reprinted at London in 1642, in vol. ii. of ‘The Phenix,’ 1708; again in 1846 (ed. M'Crie), and in vol. iv. of ‘Knox's Works’ (Bannatyne Club).

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain"Whittingham, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 

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