Friday 13 February 2015

"A drunken whoring soul": The Life of William Wotton

William Wotton (Wrentham, Suffolk, England, 13th August 1666 – Buxted, Sussex, England, 13th February 1727)

On this day a gentleman died who was, in his time, a scholar known for extraordinary ability to master languages, a man of god, the first translator of the ancient Welsh text later published as Leges Wallicae, a debtor, a reprobate and a reformed character.

By the age of thirteen, Wootton was a graduate of Cambridge and had mastered seven languages, in addition to excelling in all areas of study. A precociously intelligent child, he grew into an adult of fierce intellect with a passion for history that he indulged whilst serving as the church  in Milton Keynes. However, this prodigiously intelligent man was not quite as serious about good behaviour as he was about his studies. Despite having a wife and child, Wotton was after anything but the quiet life one might expect of a cleric and scholar.

Leges Wallicae
Leges Wallicae

As good friends with William Wake, the Bishop of Lincoln, Wotton found that he had an open line of credit at his disposal and when he got his hands on money, he spent all of it and more besides. His rectory grew into a sprawling mansion, he forgot the rigours of scholarly research by spending long hours in brothels and, when women weren’t enough to distract him, he turned to drink and on more than one occasion was found wandering drunkenly by the people of his parish. Of course, when word reached Wake of his friend’s behaviour, the Bishop was unimpressed and the all-important credit dried up.

Without the money provided by his generous benefactor, Wotton’s outgoings vastly exceeded his income and, beset by creditors, he fled Milton Keynes and lived under a pseudonym in Wales. Here the renegade cleric rediscovered the virtues of the religious life and, as a reformed character, appealed to his former friend, Wake, to renew their friendship. By now Wake was the Archbishop of Canterbury and his initial scepticism at Wotton’s reformed character soon thawed, with the two men once again becoming good friends.

Over the years that followed, Wotton proved himself more than the man he now claimed to be. Embarked on the Leges Wallicae, he worked tirelessly to settle the debts he had hoped to abandon and, happily, avoided debtor’s prison by the skin of his teeth.

With his character and reputation reformed, Wotton left Wales for a new home in Bath in 1721, before moving to live with his daughter and her husband in Sussex. It was here that he died, leaving behind an impressive body of work that, at times, was just a little overshadowed by his hellraising lifestyle.


Anonymous said...

Great article. Wotton is proof people can change. Where do you find all these interesting people to write about?

Catherine Curzon said...

I can't remember where I discovered Wotton, but he's a favourite of mine!

Carol Hedges said...

Haha..Milton Keynes! Nowadays, he'd be on Twitter, with a huge following. Great character!

Catherine Curzon said...

A favourite here!