William Stevenson was born in Hunwick in County Durham and was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He gained his BA in 1550, was a Fellow of Christ’s College from 1551-1554, and gained his MA in 1553. He was ordained deacon in London in 1552 and was a preacher at Berwick after leaving university. After gaining his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Cambridge in 1560, he became an official to the Dean and Chapter of Northumberland and a prebendary of Durham Cathedral in the same year. He served as vicar of Gainford, County Durham, from 1562 to 1575 as well as rector of Hartburn, Northumberland, from 1569 to 1575. He is buried in Durham Cathedral.
Whilst at Cambridge he is believed to have written the play Gammer Gurton’s Needle, a five-act comedy in rhyming verse. This is generally regarded as the second English comedy, Nicholas Udall’s Roister Doister being the first. The plot centres on the loss of a needle which, after a long search, is eventually found in a servant’s breeches. Some attribute this work to John Still (1543-1607/8), who became the bishop of Bath and Wells, but there is strong evidence that it was performed at Cambridge in the mid 1550s before he arrived there and is described by one who attended it as Mr Stevenson’s play. The poems Jolly Good Ale and Old and Back and Side Go Bare are taken from this play.