Reverend Isaac Nicholson 1769 - 1839
Great Paxtonians

A series of articles about people who have lived in Great Paxton or have a connection with the village.

The Reverend Isaac Nicholson was born around 1769, he was admitted to Queen’s College Cambridge where he gained a B.A. in 1788 and a M.A. in 1795. In 1796 he came to Great Paxton to serve as a curate for Great Paxton, Little Paxton and Toseland. A curate is a member of the clergy who is engaged as an assistant to a vicar. The incumbent vicar at this time was the Rev. Francis Wilkinson, when he died in 1825 Nicholson became vicar, a position he held until his death in 1839.

Great Paxton church before a major renovation in 1880, note the position of the roof of the aisle cutting across the clerestory windows and lack of trees. This is how it would have been when Nicholson was curate and then vicar.

Nicholson made something of a name for himself while still a curate by writing sermons and other religious materials to be printed and sold commercially for use by other clergy. He secured his place in history for the part he played in the story of Annie Izzard, the Great Paxton witch. As curate here at the time (not yet vicar as sometimes stated) he wrote a Sermon Against Witchcraft in 1808 by which he attempted to turn the villagers away from their persecution of Annie Izzard as an accused witch.

Nicholson was a very able and ambitious man, the Izzard case gave him an opportunity to promote himself perhaps to help sell more of his materials for use by the church. The Sermon Against Witchcraft was in sharp contrast to the prevailing local tradition at the time which dated back to the late 1500’s where the Samwell family were executed as witches at Warboys. This was a case which largely revolved around the fits to which a number of local girls there suffered, there were similarities to events in Great Paxton at the time which were being linked to Annie Izzard by some of the villagers.

A Sermon Against Witchcraft, Preached in the Parish of Great Paxton
in the County of Huntingdon, July 17, 1808
An account of the attack on Ann Izzard - 10 Pages. The Semon - 17 pages.
read online or download - 60 pages

Following the events at Warboys, Sir Henry Cromwell had arranged with Queen's College, Cambridge, for a sermon to be preached annually at Huntingdon which would "Invaye againste the detestable practice synne and offence of witchcraft". As a divinity student at Queen’s, Nicholson would presumably have been familiar with the sermon and the history of it.

In addition to his sermon, Nicholson published detailed observations on the Annie Izzard case, of the reasons for it, the build up of sentiment in the village and was instrumental in defending Annie against the villagers by the use of the law in bringing her case and those who assaulted her to court.

While Nicholson may have acted in part by an element of opportunism and self promotion, it is beyond question that his actions were also carried out with the best of intentions, by concern for the unfairly targeted Annie Izzard and to counter pre-enlightenment ideas of witchcraft.

The Reverend Issac Nicholson died on the 27th of December 1839, aged 68 leaving a wife and two sons, Henry (b. 1824) and William (b. 1820). He was buried on the  7th of January 1840 in the chancel of Great Paxton church, the grave is marked with an inscribed stone.

“This exceptional man was curate of the parishes of Great Paxton, Little Paxton and Toseland in this county from the year 1796 to 1825 when he became the vicar. Though he led a retired life and was remarkable for simplicity of manners, humility of character, and charitableness of disposition, yet he was highly talented and his mind was so richly stored with literary attainments that he was well qualified to adorn society. He fulfilled the duties of his Ministry as a real Christian and has left a bright example of virtue and goodness to his sorrowing family.”