Alexander Nowell (c. 1517 – 13 February 1602) was an English Protestant theologian and clergyman. He served as dean of St Paul's during much of Elizabeth I's reign, and is now remembered for his catechisms.
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. His sister Beatrice was the mother of John Hammond; Robert Nowell, attorney of the court of wards, was his other brother.
Nowell was educated at Middleton, near Rochdale, Lancashire and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he is said to have shared rooms John Foxe the martyrologist. He was elected fellow of Brasenose in 1526, spending some 13 years in Oxford.
In 1543 Nowell was appointed master of Westminster School, and, in December 1551, prebendary of Westminster Abbey. At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. It was said that she never spoke a friendly word to him again. On the following day, Matthew Parker nominated him as prolocutor of the Lower House of Convocation. Elected to the post, he was used to keep the two Houses, the Upper consisting of bishops, in touch with each other.
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. In 1594 he was appointed Canon of the eleventh stall at St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, a position he held until 1602.
Death and legacy
Nowell held the deanery of St Paul's for 42 years, until his death on 13 February 1602. With his brother Robert, a lawyer, he re-established the free school at Middleton; and made other benefactions for educational purposes at Brasenose College.
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 "shorter" catechism (1573). A Welsh translation, Catecism eglwys loegr by Thomas Jones of Denbigh, appeared in 1809.
Nowell was twice married, but left no children; his first wife was Jane Mery, widow of Thomas Bowyer, the uncle of Francis Bowyer, his second Elizabeth Hast, twice widow. He was also the uncle of the theologian William Whitaker, who translated the "middle" catechism into Greek.