Travers, Walter (c.1548–1635), provost of TCD and minister of religion, was the son of Walter Travers, of Brydelsmith Gate, Nottingham, England, and his wife, Ann. He matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, aged twelve, on 11 July 1560, before transferring to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1565/6) and MA (1569). He was elected a junior fellow of Trinity (8 September 1567), before becoming a senior fellow (25 March 1569). However, his puritanism put him increasingly at odds with the academic authorities, leading him to resign his fellowship in 1570 and to emigrate to Geneva, where his puritan views developed.
While he was there he wrote his Ecclesiasticae disciplinae, printed anonymously (La Rochelle, 1574), in which he outlined a system of ecclesiastical discipline for the Church of England that was heavily influenced by the Calvinist model. Returning to England (1576), he was incorporated MA in Oxford; but, finding no employment, he went to Antwerp (1578), where he was appointed chaplain of the English Merchant Adventurers in April. On 14 May he was ordained in the presbyterian manner by the laying on of hands of twelve ministers, and during his time at Antwerp he served as a presbyterian minister. In July 1580 he returned to England and became personal chaplain to one of the chief royal ministers, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and tutor to his son Robert.
With Burghley's help he was made (1581) deputy master of the Temple church in London, where his attempts to introduce presbyterian practices proved controversial and attracted the attention of the Church of England authorities, who frustrated his bid to become master of the Temple in 1584 and had him banned from preaching in 1586. Having failed to convince the queen to complete her reformation of the Church of England, Travers and his fellow presbyterians decided on a strategy of covertly establishing presbyterian structures at a congregational level in order to subvert the foundations of the episcopalian system from within. He played the dominant role in drafting a presbyterian constitution for the church, known as ‘the book of discipline’. However, these efforts sparked a vigorous government crackdown on presbyterianism during 1589–90, which effectively broke the power of the movement. Despite being arguably the most prominent presbyterian in England, Travers avoided arrest thanks to Burghley's continued patronage; but his prospects were bleak.
However, Burghley enjoyed considerably more influence over Irish affairs and particularly over the recently established TCD, of which he was chancellor. In 1594 he arranged Travers's appointment as provost of the college. This provoked outrage among the Church of England bishops, but the crown was willing to relax its standards of religious orthodoxy in Ireland, due to the lack of qualified and dedicated protestant clergy there and its difficulties in recruiting such clergy from England for service in Ireland. Setting aside his presbyterianiasm, Travers was ideally suited for this undertaking, having gained a reputation for being an exceptionally learned and gifted teacher and preacher. Believing that a university's sole purpose was to provide clergy for the church, he effectively turned TCD into a protestant seminary. Its founders had intended that it would teach law and medicine as well as divinities, but under Travers, and indeed for the first fifty years of its existence, the college focused wholly on theology and biblical studies. Although the undergraduate courses taught grammar, rhetoric, and logic, in practice the humanities were regarded purely as a means of interpreting the Bible. Under his auspices, the TCD curriculum was dominated by the books and philosophical principles of Pierre de la Ramée (Petrus Ramus) and would remain so for some time. In seeking to replace Aristotelian logic with a more simplified approach, Ramism provided Travers and his colleagues with the most convenient and accessible method for inculcating the principles of logic, rhetoric, and grammar into their students, many of whom started their undergraduate studies at a disadvantage due to the deficiencies of Irish schooling.
Indicative of the high academic standards maintained by Travers and the four Trinity fellows is the fact that they tutored James Ussher (qv), who went on to become one of the most renowned scholars in Europe and who fully acknowledged the debt he owed to his teachers. Each fellow instructed his students in Hebrew and Greek, and read three lectures a day, at the end of which there would be a disputation. On Saturdays each fellow and Travers would dictate in writing a Latin lecture in divinity, while on Sundays they would preach to the students in the college chapel. One of the fellows, William Daniel (qv), was an Irish-speaker, as were some of the scholars, and from 1594 the college supported a project to translate the New Testament into Irish.
Travers's introduction of Ramism into the Trinity curriculum hinted at his radical past, as this philosophy was strongly associated with religious puritanism and presbyterianism in England and Scotland. Moreover, two of his fellows were Scotsmen – James Hamilton (qv) and James Fullerton, who had studied under the presbyterian and Ramist ideologue Andrew Melville at Glasgow University. Travers also harboured a leading English presbyterian, Humphrey Fenn, who preached in TCD and Dublin during 1594–6. Aided by these similarly puritan academic colleagues, Travers instilled an austerely Calvinist religious sensibility in Trinity that was subsequently to characterise the institution. That said, he made no attempt to revive his ambitions of erecting a presbyterian church system. On Travers's election as provost, the archbishop of Dublin, Adam Loftus (qv), gave him a friendly warning that he was expected to conform to the Church of Ireland and to avoid the controversies that had dogged his career in the past. While in Ireland, he kept his presbyterian convictions to himself and concentrated on moral and pastoral issues in his sermons, steering well clear of matters of ecclesiastical government. As well as his academic duties, by 1595 Loftus was paying him to preach in Dublin, where again he contented himself with expounding basic protestant doctrine.
While he pursued his role of an educator and evangliest with gusto, he was less enthusiastic about the increasing amount of time he was forced to devote to attending to the college's parlous finances. As early as August 1594 he noted that the college building had not been completed due to a lack of money, and that Trinity did not have a guaranteed income of £40 a year. Normally a college could expect to receive some private funding, but Ireland's social elite remained overwhelmingly catholic and refused either to support TCD financially or send their children to it. He turned to the government, and his August 1594 petition that the college receive land worth £100 a year was successful; but he experienced great difficulties in realising this endowment. The queen had granted TCD ‘concealed’ land – property that was adjudged to belong to the crown but had been covertly acquired by private landowners. Such grants placed the onus on the recipient to uncover the ‘concealed’ lands, which was a very time-consuming, costly, and an arduous proposition, particularly for someone like Travers who had no experience of Ireland or knowledge of land law. Moreover, the widespread corruption that had previously characterised the uncovering of concealed lands had caused the queen to impose strict controls on the passing of such grants, putting further obstacles in his path.
During 1594–5, the college appears to have functioned reasonably effectively, due to financial aid from leading government officials and from Dublin's small but influential protestant community. In particular, one of the college fellows, Luke Challoner (qv), enjoyed a sizeable private income and was generous in providing financial support. However, by the close of 1595 the college was on the brink of bankruptcy, some of the academic staff and students departed, and the translation of the New Testament into Irish ground to a halt. This was a particularly unfortunate development as the study of Irish was neglected for a long time afterwards, which served to entrench the perception that the college was a bastion of an alien British protestantism.
In December 1596 the Dublin government agreed to provide Trinity with an annual subsidy of £100 until the college had been passed a significant portion of the concealed lands owed to it, but expenses continued to run ahead of revenues. In 1597 the college had debts of £372, much of this being owed to the academic staff. Although Travers had a nominal annual salary of £40, it is likely that he received very little of this and he was obliged to sink £100 of his own money into the college. In early 1597 he travelled to England to plead Trinity's case, and in May the queen belatedly authorised the passing to the college of two sizeable estates in Co. Kerry and Co. Limerick. By then he wished to resign as provost and resettle in England. Although he returned to Ireland, Burghley assured him that he could leave once a suitable replacement was found. However, nothing was done about this and he continued as provost.
The passing of the Munster properties and the college's government subsidy provided it with an income of £262, which enabled it by the start of 1598 to maintain three fellows and ten students, and pay Travers a salary of £50 a year. However, the outbreak of a rebellion in Munster in October 1598 effectively deprived the college of rent from its lands in the province for the foreseeable future. Given that the Munster rebellion was part of a wider uprising that threatened to overthrow English rule in Ireland, the government was unlikely to have the time or resources to help Trinity make good these lost revenues. This development combined with Burleigh's death in August to precipitate Travers's sudden resignation as provost and his return to England in October. Although he was dispatched from Dublin with glowing letters of commendation from leading royal officials that stressed his religious conformity, he failed to find a church post in England and fell into obscurity thereafter. He appears to have lived relatively comfortably, and on his death (January 1635) he disposed of £351 in his will.