Sander (Sanders), Nicholas (c.1530–1581), catholic priest and author, was born at Charlwood, Surrey, the son of William Saunders of Aston, high sheriff of Surrey, and his wife Elizabeth Mynes. An intelligent child, Nicholas was admitted as a scholar to Winchester College in 1540 before entering New College, Oxford, in 1546. There he became a fellow on 6 August 1548, and in 1551 received his BCL. He gave an oration on the occasion of Cardinal Pole's visitation to the university in 1557, and appears as extraordinary lecturer in canon law the same year. Following the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558, foreseeing the likely nature of the regime under a protestant monarch, Sander, a convinced catholic, moved to the continent at some point in 1559–60. Before leaving Oxford he resigned his fellowship rather than take the oath of royal supremacy.
He went to Rome, where he resided at the English hospice and was ordained priest in 1561 by Thomas Goldwell, bishop of St Asaph. During this time he became the friend of cardinals Morone, Hosius, and Commendone; he assisted Cardinal Hosius at the council of Trent between 1561 and 1563 and accompanied Cardinal Commendone to the imperial diet of the Holy Roman empire at Augsburg in 1566. Between late 1564 and 1572 he was based at Louvain, where he became regius professor of theology in the university and a prominent figure in the exiled English catholic community. During this time he composed most of his religious writings. These included Pro defensione excommunicationis a Pio V (1570), an endorsement of Pope Pius V's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth, and De visibili monarchia ecclesiae (1571), which was a forceful restatement of papal authority. The radicalism of these works shocked most English catholics, exiled or not, but they impressed Pope Pius V, who summoned Sander to Rome in January 1572, apparently intending to make him a cardinal; however, Pius's death soon after dashed these prospects. Instead he busied himself writing his most famous work, De origine ac progressu schismatis anglicani, which related Henry VIII's break with Rome from a partisan catholic perspective. He did not complete it, but it was finished by others and published in 1585, and went through numerous editions and adaptations.
While at Rome Sander lobbied on behalf of Sir Thomas Stukeley (qv), who was making plans to invade England and reclaim it for the catholic church. In late 1573 the pope sent him to Madrid to seek the aid of King Phillip II in this enterprise. He received a Spanish pension, but achieved little else. In May 1577 he met in Madrid James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), an Irish catholic rebel, and member of the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty in Munster, who wished to lead a papal invasion of Ireland. The two men were united by their radical crusading catholicism and their detestation of the Elizabethan regime. By the close of 1577, Sander realized that Philip would never support an invasion of England and focused instead on securing covert Spanish aid for an expedition to Ireland.
On 28 August 1578 Sander met fitz Maurice and the papal nuncio to Spain near Madrid. This meeting produced a document, which was sent to Rome, requesting financial aid to enable fitz Maurice to lead a force of 600 men to Ireland, and for a papal nuncio to accompany them. The pope sent financial assistance but declined to appoint a nuncio, at which Sander resolved to accompany the force to Ireland. As Philip did not wish to be seen to be associated with this plan, Sander went to Lisbon in December where greater secrecy could be maintained, and quickly chartered a ship and recruited about 200 soldiers. However, in February 1579, news of his preparations leaked out and became widely known, and the Portuguese authorities seized the ship and disbanded the proposed invasion army. He made his way to Ferrol in northern Spain, where fitz Maurice was also recruiting men. After further delays and mishaps, Sander and fitz Maurice decided to proceed to Ireland, despite having a force of little more than fifty Spanish and Italian soldiers. They set sail from Ferrol on 17 June, after receiving assurances from Madrid and Rome that help would be forthcoming if they enjoyed some military success in Ireland.
After the expedition landed at Dingle on 18 July, Sander wrote letters on behalf of fitz Maurice to a number of powerful catholic nobles throughout Ireland, in which he called upon them to support the rebellion in defence of the catholic faith. Initially many Irish lords remained aloof, perhaps disappointed by the smallness of the invasion force. But Sir John fitz James Fitzgerald (qv), brother of the earl of Desmond, met fitz Maurice and Sander at Dingle and agreed to join them, dramatically signalling his intention by killing two royal officials at Tralee.
Sander and fitz Maurice soon left Dingle with a small force and headed north for Connacht. However, government forces closely pursued them and in mid August fitz Maurice was killed in a skirmish with the loyalist Burkes of Clanwilliam in Limerick. Nonetheless, the rebellion gained momentum in Munster under the leadership of Sir John Fitzgerald and later Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), earl of Desmond. Sander was present at the battles of Springfield, a rebel victory in October, and Monasternenagh, a royalist victory in November. His success in stimulating revolt in Munster was due mainly to his assurances of the arrival of substantial reinforcements from Spain and the pope. However, the English had spread reports on the continent that the rising had been crushed and that Sander was dead. As a result Philip and the pope suspended whatever plans they had to send aid. Sander became aware of this only on 28 January 1580, when a Spanish ship sailed into Dingle. He was furious that nothing had been done and repeated his request to Philip for assistance.
Meanwhile, English forces ruthlessly prosecuted the rebels in Munster and by summer 1580 Desmond and Sander were fugitives. Desmond was bitter at the absence of reinforcements from Spain and became suspicious of Sander, apparently placing him under close guard. Sander was on better terms with Sir John Fitzgerald, who remained committed to the rebellion throughout. The English believed that many in Munster detested Sander for bringing a ruinous war upon their heads, but despite promises of reward for his capture nobody could be induced to betray him. The authorities were eager to capture him because of his outspoken criticisms of the Elizabethan regime, and he was specifically exempted from general pardons offered to the rebels in January 1580 and in April 1581. He had a close escape in August 1580 when, during the night, he and Sir John ran into a group of royal soldiers. They remained in their company for about an hour, but were not discovered.
In the same month Sander went to Leinster, where James Eustace (qv), Viscount Baltinglass, had started a catholic rebellion. He hurried back to Munster in the autumn after 600 papal soldiers landed at Dingle, but it was soon apparent that this force was insufficient both in size and in terms of the quality of the soldiers. He had also promised the rebel leaders and soldiers generous financial rewards for their efforts, but only a relatively small amount of money had been sent from the continent. After this disappointment the rebels’ morale collapsed and Sander lost all credibility with them. Previously his dispatches to Spain and Rome had been relentlessly optimistic, but a letter of 19 October 1580 shows signs of despair. The foreign troops remained bottled up in Smerwick fort at Dingle until November when they were besieged and eventually massacred by royal soldiers. Sander had left the fort before it was attacked and his movements thereafter are obscure. He was still alive in early January 1581, but appears to have died between March and June of that year and was apparently buried in an unmarked grave in west Cork or Kerry.