King James Bible Translators
Personal and Family History
Nicholas Felton was born to a prominent family in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. On 3 August 1563 he was baptized in St. Nicholas' Church there, which likely accounts for his given name. His parents were John and Margaret (Manning) Felton. Although Margaret Felton gave birth to twelve children, only Nicholas and two of his brothers and one sister survived to maturity. The loss of so many siblings must have affected those children who remained. Through Nicholas' older brother, John, descended the Felton's who helped settle Salem, Massachusetts in the New World. His father John, was a seafaring man, and became bailiff/mayor of Great Yarmouth and master of the harbor there. As harbor master, he prepared its defenses against potential attack from the Spanish Armada in 1588. He eventually represented Great Yarmouth, in the House of Commons sitting with such men as Francis Bacon, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Nicholas had his early education in Great Yarmouth before moving to Cambridge to pursue his university studies. Even as a young man, his aptitude for the classical Greek language and scholarship was recognized. At age twenty-three he was appointed a Greek lecturer at his college.
In 1588 while still at Cambridge, Nicholas married Elizabeth, the widow of Dr. Robert Norgate. Elizabeth was the daughter of John Baker whose half-brother was Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury from 1575 to 1599. Robert Norgate had been master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and vice-chancellor of the university. Elizabeth brought three children, all sons, to her marriage with Nicholas. Nicholas provided liberally for his stepsons, treating them as his own. One of these boys, Edward Norgate, became one of the best known artists and illuminators of his time. To Nicholas Felton and Elizabeth were born three, possibly four additional children, all sons. Of these only two survived their father.
Four years after his marriage, Nicholas received his first church appointment, the rectory of St. Helen's, London. This was followed by the rectories of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London and St. Antholin, Budge Row, London. These appointments brought him to London where he spent much of the latter part of his life. Even though he became a bishop, it was to St. Antholin's Church and its people to whom his heart was most drawn. In 1606 after eighteen years of marriage, his wife Elizabeth died and was buried at St. Antholin's where their infant son was also buried. Eventually Nicholas too was buried there.
His wife's death came just as he was immersed in his work on the King James Bible translation and must have been a terrible blow (see Bio Bits).
The last decade of Nicholas Felton's life was rich in preferments and honors. He was appointed master of his alma mater, Pembroke College and then successively to be bishop of Bristol and Ely. At Ely he succeeded his dear friend and fellow Translator, Lancelot Andrewes. This last position brought with it beautiful homes in Downton, near Ely, and Holborn in London.
Nicholas Felton died at Chingford, Essex in 1626 and was buried under the communion table in St. Antholin's.
In summarizing his character the near contemporary church historian and biographer, Thomas Fuller said, speaking of Felton and his dear friend Lancelot Andrewes:
I humbly crave the reader's pardon for omitting due time of the death of Reverend Dr. Nicholas Felton, Bishop of Ely as buried before (though dying some days after) Bishop Andrews, and indeed great was the conformity betwixt them, both being sons of sea-faring men (who by God's blessing on their industry attained comfortable estates) both scholars, Fellows and Masters of Pembroke Hall, both great scholars, painful Preachers in London for many years with no less profit to others than credit to themselves, both successively Bishops of Ely. This Bishop Felton had a sound Head and a sanctified Heart, beloved of God and all good men, very hospitable to all and charitable to the poor.
Nicholas Felton's early education was at the Greek Grammar School of his hometown, Great Yarmouth. He entered Queen's College, Cambridge in 1577 and shortly migrated to Pembroke Hall, graduating B.A. in 1580 and proceeded M.A. in 1584. He became B.D. in 1596, and D.D. in 1602.
Nicholas Felton's academic career began with his election as a fellow of his college, Pembroke, in 1582. In 1586 he was appointed Greek lecturer. He remained in Cambridge as a teacher and scholar until at least 1592. With his ordination as deacon and priest at Peterborough in 1589, the way was open for him to commence his church service. This began by 1592 when he was appointed rector of St. Helen's, London. He soon received additional London rectories, St. Anthony's (1592), St. Mary-le-Bow (1596-1617) and St. Antholin's (1598-1626). Much later he was given the rectory of Great Easton, Essex (1616-1622) and the vicarage of Blagdon, Somerset.
In March 1617 Nicholas Felton re-entered the university community at Cambridge with his election as master of his alma mater, Pembroke College. His assuming the mastership was met with great joy by those in the college. Several years earlier, in 1612, Lancelot Andrewes, himself a former master of Pembroke, had written King James' secretary of state, Sir Thomas Lake, urging Felton's election to the vacant mastership. In doing so he wrote the following:
I know you wish well to Dr. Fenton and his majesty hath formerly been pleased to signify his good liking of him and to wish him some preferment and even this place itself.
The year before, Nicholas Felton was made a prebendary at St. Paul's Cathedral.
Nicholas Felton was to receive the high office of bishop of Bristol the same year as his mastership and he held them concurrently until in 1619 he succeeded Lancelot Andrewes to the position of bishop of Ely. He remained in this office until his death in 1626.
Nicholas Felton and the Translation
Nicholas Felton was first mentioned as a member of the Second Westminster Company and a Translator of the Epistles of the New Testament by John Lewis, a seventeenth century Anglican clergyman and early historian of the English Bible.
James Bentham, in 1817 wrote a history of the Ely Cathedral in which he stated regarding Nicholas Felton: "He was chaplain unto Queen Elizabeth and King James. He was one of the translators of the Bible in 1608."
Several other histories make the same claim for him. He has not been mentioned as a Translator in modern treatments of the King James Bible (hereinafter KJB) history, perhaps because his name does not appear on several early lists of Translators. A number of other scholars such as William Thorne, Arthur Lake, and George Ryves likewise were not listed but were certainly involved in the translation. Nicholas should be likewise included.
There is additional evidence of his being a member of the Second Westminster Company which was engaged in translating the Epistles. He was living and serving in London at the time of the translation and his attendance at the meetings of the Translators would have been convenient. His very close friend, Roger Fenton, was a member of the company. His friend Francis Morris in a 1605 letter writes that Nicholas had almost "consumed himself" in his studies at that time. Those studies referred to were likely the KJB translation, since no other scholarly project is known to have been underway that would have taken so much of Nicholas' time and attention. Given his employment as a parish priest, another consuming scholarly project would have been unlikely. Also, Lancelot Andrewes had a hand in the selection of the Westminster Companies, and as noted, he was very close to Nicholas Felton. The king himself was well acquainted with him, Nicholas having served as the king's chaplain. As a recognized Greek scholar, Nicholas Felton would have been a natural choice for that portion of the translation that required an expertise in consulting early Greek texts. Finally, Bishop Bancroft's letter announcing the selection of Translators speaks of fifty-four men being appointed, while early lists include only forty-seven names.
Nicholas Felton's contribution to the translation has been acknowledged in several ways. At the Episcopal St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, New York City, a stained glass window honors three of the Translators, Lancelot Andrewes, Miles Smith and Nicholas Felton. Currently, the web sites for St. Mary-le-Bow and Ely Cathedral mention Felton's service as a Translator.
In the midst of his translation of the Epistles, Nicholas Felton faced the death of his wife, Elizabeth. These stirring words from Paul's Epistle to the Romans may have brought great comfort to the sorrowing Translator:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)