Comber, Thomas (1645-1699) (DNB00)

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COMBER, THOMAS, D.D. (1645–1699), dean of Durham, was descended from an ancient family at Barkham, Sussex. His father, James Comber, was the fourth son of John Comber, who was uncle to Thomas Comber [q. v.], dean of Carlisle. His mother was Mary, daughter of Bryan Burton of Westerham, Kent, and widow of Edward Hampden. Thomas was born at Westerham on 19 March 1644-5, and was the last child baptised in the parish church before the rebels suppressed the Anglican service; a daughter of his half-sister being the first christened by the restored form in 1660. In the rebellion his father was driven to take refuge in Flanders for four years, during which time his son was left entirely under the care of his mother. His father returned to Westerham in 1649, and in the following year Comber was placed under the tuition of the Rev. Thomas Walter. He could read and write Greek before he was ten years old.

On 18 April 1659, after some changes of school, he was admitted of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, under Edmund Matthews, B.D., senior fellow and president of the college. He studied experimental philosophy, geometry, astronomy, music, painting, and the oriental tongues, besides learning an excellent method of common-place for philosophy and divinity.

His family was poor, but he procured an annual exhibition of 10l., and received 5l. a year from a relative of Dr. Richard Minshall, master of the college. This help 'enabled him to live very well,' and from this time he put his parents to no other expense but that of providing him with clothes and books. On 18 Jan. 1662-3 he was chosen scholar of the house, with a pension of 51. per annum, and three days later he was admitted to the degree of B. A. Hopes of a fellowship were not realised, and as the exhibition of 10l. was withdrawn, he was compelled to return to his father's house at Westerham. He received help from many friends, and was able to decline offers from Mr. John Holney of Edenbridge, his father's particular friend, who had discovered his merit. Early in 1663 he was invited to the house of one of his preceptors, Mr. Holland, now rector of All Hallows Staining, London; and having been ordained deacon on 18 Aug. by dispensation, he read prayers on Sundays for Mr. Holland, and studied on weekdays in the library of Sion College. Soon afterwards he became curate to the Rev. Gilbert Bennet, rector of Stonegrave, Yorkshire. He was ordained priest in York Minster by Archbishop Sterne on 20 Sept. 1664, at the irregular age of twenty. When this ordination was long afterwards objected to, the archbishop said 'I have found no reason to repent.' In May 1666 he performed the exercise for his degree of M.A.; but as the commencement was postponed in consequence of the plague breaking out, he was admitted to the degree by proxy. He was appointed chaplain to John, lord Frescheville, baron of Staveley. While he was curate of Stonegrave he was invited to reside with William Thornton of East Newton, Yorkshire, and he afterwards married one of his daughters. Here he wrote various theological pieces, and amused himself with poetical compositions. In 1669 Comber was inducted to the rectory of Stonegrave on Bennet's resignation.

In 1672 appeared the first instalment of his most famous work, the 'Companion to the Temple,' intended to reconcile protestant dissenters to the church of England. On 5 July 1677 he was installed prebendary of Holme in the church of York, and on 10 Jan. 1677-8 he was presented, by Sir Hugh Cholmeley, to the living of Thornton, ten miles from Stonegrave. He obtained a dispensation to hold both livings from the archbishop of Canterbury, who created him D.D. by patent on 28 June 1678. He obtained the prebend of Fenton in the church of York in 1681, and in the following year he was nominated one of the chaplains to the Princess Anne. In 1683 he resigned the prebend of Fenton, and on 19 Oct. in that year he was instituted precentor of York and prebendary of Driffield. Soon afterwards he went into residence at York, and was put into the commission of the peace. He was also chosen one of the proctors of the chapter of York in the convocation of the northern province.

In the troubled reign of James II he became conspicuous as a champion of the cause of protestantism. He refused to attend the chapter held on 25 Aug. 1688 for the suspension of the Rev. Mr. Lawson, in compliance with an order of the High Commission Court. When the king sent a silver crozier to York, and a congé d'élire with a recommendation of Dr. Smith, a Roman catholic, the precentor determined to accept the invitation formerly given him by the Princess of Orange to take refuge with her. When William and Mary were proclaimed at York, he preached in the cathedral to a crowded audience. He was an earnest supporter of the new order, and published two pamphlets in defence of the government, viz. 'A modest Vindication of the Protestants of England who joined with the Prince of Orange' and 'An Apology for the Oath of Allegiance.' King William restored him to the office of justice of the peace after a year's suspension, and on 19 July 1689 he took the necessary oaths. His old friend Tillotson procured for him the deanery of Durham, in succession to Dr. Dennis Grenville, who had refused the oaths. He was installed on 9 May 1691. When the French invasion was projected in 1692, he published a pamphlet called 'The Pretences of the French Invasion examined for the information of the People of England;' and in the preface to a new edition of King's 'Present State of the Protestants of Ireland' he undertook to show that James II carried on the design of destroying liberty, property, and protestantism.

He died on 25 Nov. 1699 at East Newton, and was buried in Stonegrave church. He married in 1668 Alice, eldest daughter of William Thornton, esq., of East Newton, by Alice his wife, daughter of Sir Christopher Wandesford of Kirklington. By this lady, who died on 20 Jan. 1720, aged 87, he had four sons and two daughters.

His works, in addition to those already mentioned and some occasional sermons, are:

  1. 'A Companion to the Temple and Closet; or a help to publick and private devotion, in an Essay upon the daily Offices of the Church,' 2 parts, London, 1672-6, 8vo; 2nd edition, with additions, 2 parts, London, 1676-9, 8vo; 4 parts, London, 1684 and 1688, fol.; 4th edition, 1701-2, fol. A new edition was published at the Clarendon Press (7 vols., Oxford, 1841, 8vo) without addition of any kind, and omitting the preface to Comber's later editions. This is the most complete book extant on the Book of Common Prayer, abounding in learned references to authorities. All succeeding writers on the subject are deeply indebted to it, particularly Wheatley.
  2. 'Roman Forgeries in the Councils during the first four centuries' (with appendix), 1673, 8vo, 2 parts; London, 1689, 4to. Reprinted in Gibson's 'Preservative against Popery,' xv. 89.
  3. 'Friendly and Seasonable Advice to the Roman Catholics of England,' 1674 (anon.) To the 4th edition (1685) the author prefixed his name. A new edition, with an appendix and notes by Walter Farquhar Hook, appeared in 1836 and elicited a reply from 'Julius Vindex' entitled 'A Letter to the Rev. W. F. Hook, proving the truth of the Roman Catholic Religion from Protestant authority alone,' London [1847].
  4. 'A Companion to the Altar; or an help to the worthy receiving of the Lord's Supper,' London, 1675, 8vo; 4th edition, 2 parts, London, 1685, 8vo; 6th edition, 2 parts, London, 1721, 8vo.
  5. 'The Right of Tithes' (anon.) In answer to Elwood the quaker.
  6. 'The Occasional Offices of Matrimony, Visitation of the Sick, Burial of the Dead, Churching of Women, and the Commination, explained in the method of the Companion to the Temple: being the fourth and last part,' London, 1679, 8vo.
  7. 'Religion and Loyalty,' a political pamphlet, 1681.
  8. 'An Historical Vindication of the Divine Right of Tithes,' London, 1683, 1685, 4to.
  9. 'Short Discourses upon the whole Common Prayer, designed to inform the judgment and excite the devotion of such as daily use the same,' London, 1684, 8vo; 2nd edition, 1688; 4th edition, 1712.
  10. 'A Discourse concerning Excommunication,' London [1684], 4to.
  11. 'The Church Catechism, with a brief and easy explanation thereof,' London,1686, 8vo.
  12. 'The plausible Arguments of a Romish Priest answered from Scripture by an English Protestant,' London, 1686, 8vo; 1687, 4to; 1688, 8vo; 1735, 8vo; York [1800 ?], 12mo.
  13. 'A Discourse concerning the daily frequenting the Common Prayer,' London, 1687, 8vo.
  14. ' A Discourse of Duels,' London, 1687, 4to.
  15. 'A Discourse concerning the second Council of Nice, which first introduced and established Image-worship in the Christian Church, anno Domini 787,' London, 1688, 4to (anon.) Reprinted in Gibson's 'Preservative against Popery,' vii. 373, viii. 1.
  16. 'A Scholastical History of the primitive and general use of Liturgies in the Christian Church,' London, 1690, 8vo.
  17. 'The Examiner examined; being a Vindication of the History of Liturgies,' London, 1691, 4to. In reply to the strictures of the Rev. Samuel Bold [q. v.]
  18. 'The Church History clear'd from the Roman Forgeries and Corruptions found in the Councils and Baronius. Being the third and fourth parts of the Roman Forgeries,' London, 1695, 4to.
  19. 'A Discourse on the Offices for the V of November, XXX th of January, and XXIX th of May,' London, 1696, 8vo.

It seems doubtful whether the 'Christus Triumphans, Comoedia Apocalyptica' by John Foxe the martyrologist, which appeared in 1672, was published by him. His great-grandson, the Rev. Thomas Comber, published 'Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Comber, D.D., sometime Dean of Durham, in which is introduced a candid view of the scope and execution of the several works of Dr. Comber, as well printed and MS.; also a fair account of his literary correspondence,' London, 1799, 8vo (with portrait).

[Memoirs by his grandson; Biog. Brit.; Addit. MS. 29674, f. 2186; Jones's Popery Tracts, pp. 164, 233, 286, 327, 430; Birch's Life of Tillotson, pp. 49, 393, 394; Note by Sir F. Madden in Birch MS. 4221, f. 3406; Ayscough's Cat. of MSS. pp. 731, 794; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy), iii. 157, 186, 193, 300; Darling's Cycl. Bibliographica; Notes and Queries (2nd series), ix. 307, 371; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.; Elwes and Robinson's Castles of Western Sussex, p. 190; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 601, 602, iii. 608.]

T. C.