Nicholson was born on November 12, 1655, in Downholme, Yorkshire. Little is known of his parentage or early years. His military career began in January 1678, when Charles Paulet, later the sixth marquess of Winchester and first duke of Bolton—in whose household Nicholson had served—purchased him a commission in the Holland Regiment. After serving in Flanders until the regiment was recalled and disbanded at the end of the year, Nicholson was commissioned a lieutenant in the earl of Plymouth’s regiment, a unit created to reinforce Tangier from attack by the Moors. Service in North Africa brought Nicholson to the attention of the colonial secretary, William Blathwayt, and in July 1686 he was sent to Boston as captain of a company of infantry in the forces that supported Governor Sir Edmund Andros in the Dominion of New England, which stretched from present-day New Jersey to Maine. In 1688 Nicholson was appointed lieutenant governor of New England, with authority over New York, but in the wake of the rebellions that broke out across New England as a result of the Glorious Revolution (1688), he was soon forced to flee to England.
Governorship of Virginia
In 1690, Virginia governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, went on an extended visit to England and decided to remain there for reasons of poor health. The Crown allowed Effingham to retain the title of Virginia governor, but dispatched Francis Nicholson to rule in his stead, in the position of lieutenant governor. Serving between June 3, 1690, and September 20, 1692, Nicholson initially won the Virginians’ approval, cultivating amicable relations with the General Assembly and governor’s Council. He also earned a reputation as a strong supporter of the Church of England and the fledgling College of William and Mary; in particular, he became close to James Blair, commissary of the Bishop of London and one of the most influential men in the colony. At the same time, Nicholson drew upon his experience as a commander of troops in order to effectively reorganize the colony’s militia.
In 1693 the Crown reassigned Nicholson to the governorship of Maryland, and appointed his former associate Edmund Andros governor of Virginia. Although Andros and Nicholson were both military men who shared a commitment to the Crown’s policy of strengthening imperial control over the frequently recalcitrant American colonists, the two men disliked each other. Andros was irked by the fact that Nicholson, in his role as a trustee of the College of William and Mary, made regular visits to Virginia to attend board meetings at the college. By March 1698, however, Andros resigned his post due to health problems, and Nicholson finally became royal governor of Virginia.
Nicholson took up his post at an auspicious time in Virginia’s social and economic development. By the close of the seventeenth century, the colony was gaining stability after nearly a hundred years of turmoil: white settlements were spreading ever farther into the interior, and the threat long posed by hostilities against the Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco was diminishing. Mortality rates among the settlers, both children and adults, were declining, leading to the rise of a native-born leadership class. Meanwhile many Huguenot, or French Protestant, settlers had arrived, swelling the ranks of the colony’s white residents and bringing with them a variety of artisanal skills and transatlantic commercial contacts.
The Bodleian Plate
Controversies and Conflicts
Nicholson’s popularity did not last long. Like his predecessor, Andros, he was keen to reform Virginia’s government so as to advance the interests of the empire at the expense of the authority of the colonial elite. It was not long before he began to alienate the Tidewater region’s gentry, with whom he came into sustained conflict over issues such as engrossment of lands, processes of appointment to office, and particularly the common practice that allowed an individual to hold multiple colonial offices. By attempting to reform this last practice, Nicholson earned the permanent enmity of the highly influential Byrd family. Still, he continued to command the loyalty of the House of Burgesses, the lower house of the assembly, even while playing the adversary with Byrd and his fellow councillors. Similarly, Nicholson maintained popularity among the colony’s ministers even though his most fervent enemy was their leader, James Blair—Nicholson’s former ally.
As the Church of England’s principal representative in Virginia, and with powerful friends in London, Blair occupied a position of great power in both sacred and secular spheres. As such, he was the natural leader of any opposition to the governor. His frequent clashes with Andros were a major element in the latter’s unpopularity in the colony, and in Andros’s eventual decision to resign his post. Both Blair and Nicholson, meanwhile, were well known for their intransigence and their determination to prevail over their opponents. Although in the course of his lieutenant governorship, Nicholson had obtained for Blair the presidency of the College of William and Mary, and Blair had played a leading role in securing Nicholson’s appointment as Andros’s successor, once Blair became a member of the governor’s Council, the two men were often in conflict. At first they competed for the authority to induct ministers, but eventually they quarreled over many other issues.
In addition to stirring up political controversies, Nicholson incurred communal dislike through his personal behavior. As a career soldier “very much given to passion” (as he put it), the governor often lost his temper so that councilors later accused him of hurling abusive language at them, using words “such as Rogues, Villians, Raskalls, Cowards, Dogs, &c.” Meanwhile, his persistent and unsubtle courtship of the beautiful eighteen-year-old Lucy Burwell turned Nicholson into a laughingstock: In a speech to the House of Burgesses on September 22, 1701, Nicholson professed his admiration “for the Natives” of Virginia, “in particular but principally for One of them,” but his marriage proposal to Burwell, daughter of the wealthy and influential Major Lewis Burwell of Gloucester County, was refused. The governor only made matters worse when he continued to publicly pursue Burwell even after she had become engaged to the equally privileged Edmund Berkeley II of Middlesex County.
Hearing rumors of Nicholson’s political and personal missteps, authorities in London requested that a Virginian named Robert Quary investigate the various complaints against the governor. Although Quary’s report was highly supportive of Nicholson and dismissive of his opponents, it did give the impression of being so biased toward the governor that it resulted in Nicholson becoming even less popular within the ranks of the colony’s most influential residents, among them Robert Beverley II. In May 1703 six members of the governor’s Council requested that the Crown remove the governor from office, asserting that he was a man of poor personal character, and thus was not an appropriate choice to serve as the monarch’s representative in the colony. Following lengthy debates in London, the imperial authorities dismissed Nicholson from his governorship in April 1705, replacing him with Colonel Edward Nott.
Though it was likely a blow to his pride, his dismissal from office was not the end of Nicholson’s imperial career. By 1712, having led a successful military expedition in Acadia, he had been appointed governor of Nova Scotia and, from 1721 to 1725, he served as governor of South Carolina. Clearly, the Crown realized that while he was perhaps not suited to governing Virginia, his military and administrative talents merited further leadership posts in other colonies. Returning to England in 1725, Nicholson was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. He died in London in 1728.