Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Abbot, Robert (1560-1617)
ABBOT, ROBERT (1560–1617), bishop of Salisbury, elder brother of George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, was born at Guildford in Surrey, about 1560, and educated at the free school there. The talent he evinced in a school ‘oration’ on the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession (17 Nov. 1571) appears to have led to his election to a scholarship at Balliol College, Oxford, where he shortly after entered (Life by Featley, in Fuller's Abel Redivivus, ed. 1651, p. 540). He was elected fellow in 1581, proceeded M.A. in the following year, and in 1597 was admitted D.D. Having entered holy orders and been appointed lecturer both at St. Martin's Church in Oxford and at Abingdon in Berkshire, he soon began to attract attention by his abilities as a preacher, and a sermon delivered at Worcester resulted in his appointment as lecturer in that important centre, and subsequently to the rectory of All Saints in the same city. About the same time a sermon which he preached at Paul's Cross procured for him the valuable living of Bingham in Nottinghamshire, to which he was presented by John Stanhope, Esq., an ancestor of the present patron, the Earl of Chesterfield. His oratory, as contrasted with that of his brother, the archbishop, is thus characterised by Fuller: ‘George was the more plausible preacher, Robert the greater scholar; George the abler statesman, Robert the deeper divine; gravity did frown in George, and smile in Robert’ (Worthies, Surrey, p. 82).
Abbot's reputation was increased by the publication in the year 1594 of his ‘Mirror of Popish Subtleties,’ designed as a refutation of the arguments advanced by Sander and Bellarmine against the protestant theory of the sacraments. On the accession of James I he was appointed one of the royal chaplains in ordinary. In the same year he published his ‘Antichristi Demonstratio,’ also designed as a reply to Bellarmine. This treatise was regarded by James with so much approval that he directed that a portion of his own commentary on Revelations (on the passage xx. 7–10) should be appended to the second edition — an honour unaccorded, says Abbot's biographer, to any other of the ‘great clerks’ of the realm (Abel Red. p. 541). It may be added that James's high estimate appears to have been concurred in by Bishop Andrewes. But the work which chiefly served to establish Abbot's reputation with his contemporaries was his ‘Defence of the Reformed Catholike of Mr. William Perkins’ (published in three separate parts 1606–9). The ‘Reformed Catholike’ of that eminent divine was admitted by writers of the Roman party to be the ablest exposition of heretical belief, and Abbot, in his ‘Defence,’ clearly indicates his sympathy with the puritan party, deriving the true tradition of the early church through the Albigenses, Lollards, Huguenots, and Calvinists, in distinct opposition not only to Tridentine doctrine, but also to the views of the Arminian party, which were then beginning to gather strength within the English church (pt. ii. p. 55). In the concluding part Abbot drew ‘the true ancient Roman Catholike’ as he himself conceived the character. He dedicated his performance to Prince Henry, who acknowledged the dedication in an autograph letter in which he promised that Abbot should not be forgotten in the future distribution of church preferment. In 1609 he returned to his own college at Oxford as master, a piece of preferment for which he was indebted mainly to Archbishop Bancroft's influence. He continued to preside over the society at Balliol until his promotion in 1615 to the see of Salisbury. His rule (of which his biographer gives a detailed account), while notable for assiduous care for the general welfare of the students, appears, like that of Whitgift at Trinity College, Cambridge, to have been distinguished by a rigorous enforcement of discipline, and especially of religious observances (Abel Rediv. p. 543). In 1610 he was appointed a fellow of the newly founded college at Chelsea, designed by King James as a school of controversial divinity and a bulwark against popery. In the same year he also obtained the prebend of Normanton attached to the ancient church of Southwell, ‘the mother church’ of Nottinghamshire. In 1612 he was appointed by King James regius professor of divinity at Oxford, in succession to Dr. Holland. During his residence in the university his sympathy with the Calvinistic party was unmistakably evinced by his suspension (when vice-chancellor) of Dr. Howson, canon of Christchurch, who had ventured publicly to animadvert upon the notes to the Genevan Bible; and also by a direct attack from the pulpit upon Laud, at that time president of St. John's College, for his leanings towards Romanism (Heylin, Life of Laud, p. 67; Aerius Redivivus, p. 390).
In the year 1613 Abbot took a leading part in the dispute respecting the complicity of the jesuit Garnet in the Gunpowder plot—a controversy in which Bellarmine, Bishop Andrewes, ‘Eudæmon Joannes’ (the jesuit L'Heureux), and Casaubon were likewise engaged. Abbot was invited to answer Eudæmon Joannes, whose treatise the catholic party regarded as a triumphant vindication of Garnet. His reply was entitled ‘Antilogia adversus Apologiam Andreæ Eudæmon Joannis.’ ‘It is manifest,’ says Jardine, ‘that, during its composition, Dr. Abbot had free access to all the documentary evidence against Garnet which was in the possession of the government … and in consequence of the vast body of evidence that it contains … as well as the powerful reasoning of the author, it is beyond all comparison the most important work which appeared in the course of the controversy.’
In December 1615, Abbot was consecrated by his own brother to the see of Salisbury. His appointment was not made without considerable opposition. ‘Abbot,’ said King James, ‘I have had very much to do to make thee a bishop; but I know no reason for it, unless it were because thou writest against one’—alluding to the fact that Abbot's ‘Defence’ was a rejoinder to one Dr. Bishop, a jesuit (Abel Rediv. p. 545). On quitting Oxford, Abbot delivered before the university a farewell oration in Latin, of which some fragments are still preserved. He was attended, with every mark of respect, by the members of his own college and the heads of houses to the borders of his diocese. His discharge of the duties attaching to his episcopate, during the short period that he held the office, would seem to have been in every respect meritorious. He restored the cathedral which had fallen into decay, exercised a bountiful and discriminating hospitality, and devoted his best energies to the religious instruction of the people and the improvement of their social condition. He died 2 March 1617–18 after much suffering from a painful malady induced by his sedentary habits. ‘He was,’ says Wood, ‘a person of unblameable life and conversation, a profound divine, most admirably well read in the fathers, councils, and schoolmen.’ Abbot was twice married; the second time to a widow lady, Bridget Cheynell, mother of Francis Cheynell, an eminent presbyterian divine in the time of the Commonwealth. This second marriage is said to have displeased his brother, the archbishop, who regarded it as an infringement of the apostolic injunction that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. By his first wife Abbot had sons and a daughter, who was married to Sir Nathaniel Brent, warden of Merton College, Oxford. Their daughter, Margaret, was married to Dr. Edward Corbet, rector of Haseley in Oxfordshire, and the latter presented some of the bishop's manuscripts to the Bodleian.
Besides the works already mentioned, Abbot was the author of a laborious commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, a manuscript in four volumes folio and one of the collection presented by his granddaughter's husband to the Bodleian; of his other contributions to controversial theology an account will be found in Middleton, ‘Biographia Evangelica,’ ii. 381–2; ‘Biographia Britannica,’ i. 19.
[Life by Featley, in Fuller's Abel Redivivus, vol. ii.; Fuller's Church History; Wood, Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, ii. 224–7; Criminal Trials (S. D. U. K.), ii. 366–7.]