Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnet, Gilbert
BURNET, GILBERT (1643–1715), bishop of Salisbury, was born in Edinburgh on 18 Sept. 1643. His father, Robert Burnet, who was of a good Aberdeen family, being a son of the house of Crathes (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. 197), was an advocate of high character, who, while in 1637 he freely condemned the conduct of the Scotch bishops, refused to take the covenant, and was in consequence compelled to leave Scotland on three separate occasions. When permitted to return, he lived in retirement on his own estate until the Restoration, when he was made one of the lords of session. Burnet's mother was the sister of Archibald Johnston, lord Warristoun, who framed the covenant, and who afterwards became the leader of the protesters, or extreme section of the covenanting party; she was naturally herself one of the strictest of presbyterians.
Until he was ten years of age, Gilbert, whose talents were remarkably precocious, was educated by his father, from whom he doubtless derived the principles of wide tolerance which distinguished him. By that time he was sufficiently master of Latin to enter the Marischal College of Aberdeen. At fourteen, having thoroughly learned Greek, and having passed through the college course of Aristotelian logic and philosophy, he became master of arts, and immediately applied himself to the study of civil and feudal law. His father, however, was bent upon his becoming a clergyman, and at the age of fifteen he began a course of divinity reading, not in the perfunctory manner common in those days, but as thoroughly and as comprehensively as it could be carried out. Besides working through the chief commentators, he read the most famous controversialists, especially Bellarmine and Chamier. It is an early instance of the broad and secular tastes which he retained through life, that he threw aside the productions of the scholastic divines, and that in his leisure time he made himself master of European history. He is stated at this time to have studied for fourteen hours a day.
In 1661 he passed the trials which qualified him to become a probationer. Thus he entered the church while it was still under presbyterian government, though episcopacy was restored in the following year. In 1661, also, his father died. Burnet was at once offered a living by his cousin-german, Sir Alexander Burnet. This living, however, though situated among his own kindred, he declined, on the ground that at his early age—although by the Scotch law this is no hindrance—he was not qualified for so important a post. This refusal appears to show that his circumstances were easy. His brother Robert, who had followed his father's profession, having also died, Gilbert was urged by his relations to apply himself once more to the law; but this advice was overruled by his father's friend and correspondent Nairn, at that time the most eminent of Scotch divines, by whose suggestion he still further extended his study of divinity. It appears to have been now that he became imbued with the principles of Hooker's ‘Ecclesiastical Polity.’ By Nairn's advice Burnet began the practice of extemporary preaching, unusual with the Scotch clergy. His other advisers—and his admiration for such men shows the bent of his mind towards tolerance and broad learning—were Leighton, just appointed bishop, and Charteris. Of Leighton he says he reckons his early knowledge of him, and his long and intimate conversation of twenty-three years with him, among the greatest blessings of his life. Of Nairn and Charteris—with the latter of whom his connection did not begin until after his return from abroad in 1664—he speaks in a similar way: ‘It was a great happiness for me, after I had broke into the world by such a ramble as I had made, that I fell into such hands. They both set me right and kept me right.’
In 1663, following the practice common with Scotch clergymen who could afford it, Burnet visited for a while the English universities, where he became acquainted with Cudworth, Pearson, Fell, Pococke, Wallis the mathematician, and other distinguished divines and men of science. From Oxford he went to London with an introduction to Boyle. The friendship, however, which he valued most, and to which he often refers as his chief good fortune in life, was that of Sir Robert Moray, the most learned of living Scotchmen.
Burnet meanwhile had been a careful observer of public affairs in his own country. He had formed his views of the probable results of the oppressive policy carried on by the archbishops, Sharp and Alexander Burnet, and by Rothes, the high commissioner. On the granting of a special commission to execute more stringently the ecclesiastical laws, he displayed the confidence which characterised him through life by freely expostulating with Lauderdale, the secretary, to whom, probably through Moray, Lauderdale's chief intimate, he had become known. He applied also to Sharp himself, though of course with no result. He was at this time but twenty-one years of age.
Burnet returned to Scotland after an absence of about six months. He was immediately offered the living of Saltoun in East Lothian, upon its approaching vacancy, by his father's friend, Sir Robert Fletcher of Saltoun, whose death not long after Burnet's final acceptance of the living was the occasion of his earliest published work, ‘the rude essay of an unpolished hand,’ viz. a discourse on his patron (Bannatyne Club Miscell. iii. 393). Apparently his services were sought elsewhere as well. In an unpublished letter, dated 17 March 1664, Robert Moray, writing to Kincardine from London, says: ‘Mr. Burnet delivered me on Tuesday last your letter of 26 Feb. I find him as much satisfied with you as you are with him. If there be no engagement upon him already, he will, I think, admit of none till he return, at least if it can be prevented; but it seems he conceives some to lie upon him already; and I am afraid my L. Lauderdale hath already been moved to procure a presentation for him from the king to Saltoun by the archbishop; but I mean to send in a word for delay if I find it true.’
Burnet, who was anxious to travel, wished the living to be given to Nairn; but Fletcher determined to keep it open for him until his return. Accordingly he went to Holland during this year, residing for some time in Amsterdam, where he mastered Hebrew, and became acquainted with the leading men of all religious persuasions. His stay in Holland still further strengthened his liberal views. From Holland he passed into France, where, through the friendship of the English ambassador, Lord Hollis, he enjoyed the best opportunities of observation, and where he had frequent intercourse with Daillé and Morus, the leading protestant ministers of Charenton. His visit to France established him, he says, in his love of law and liberty, and in his hatred of absolute power.
On his return to England at the end of the year Burnet stayed some months at the court, where he took care to make himself acquainted with all the men who were engaged with Scottish affairs. His intimacy with Moray and Lauderdale, who were for lenity in the treatment of the covenanters, and his friendship with Leighton, drew upon him the jealousy of the Scotch bishops, who regarded him as set up by Lauderdale to oppose their action. It was now that, upon the introduction of Robert Moray, the first president, Burnet became a member of the newly established Royal Society. Saltoun being now vacant, Fletcher again pressed it upon Burnet, who officiated for four months, at his own desire, upon probation, at the end of which time he received a unanimous call from the parishioners. He went through his first trials during November and December 1664, was inducted on 29 Jan. 1665, instituted on 15 June of the same year, and ‘approved’ at the visitation of 5 July 1666. On 9 May 1667 he became clerk of the presbytery of Haddington (Bannatyne Club Miscell. iii.) During the five years of his ministry he devoted himself, in a spirit very different from that of most of the Scottish clergy, to the duties of a parish priest. So entirely did he gain the affections of his people by his unwearied diligence and by his generosity, that, if we may believe the biography left by his son, he overcame the hostility even of the rigid presbyterians, in spite of the fact that he stood almost alone in making use of the Anglican prayers. In the midst of his work he found time, however, to draw up a memorial against the abuses of the bishops, which later discoveries show to have been more than justified. As he says himself, ‘I laid my foundation on the constitution of the primitive church, and showed how they had departed from it.’ Whether he would have done this had he not been secure of the approbation of Lauderdale may be doubted. In any case it was a bold and a striking act in a young man of twenty-three, and still bolder was the step he took in signing the copies and forwarding them to all the bishops whom he knew. It is not surprising that he was called before the bishops, when he defended himself with spirit and success against the hectoring of Sharp, who proposed that he should be excommunicated; to this, however, the other bishops would not consent. He refused to ask pardon, and the matter dropped; but Burnet, having delivered his mind, thought it now the best course to confine himself strictly to the functions of his ministry. For some while he lived the life of an ascetic, to such an extent that he twice became dangerously ill.
Burnet continued in the confidence of the moderate men, who at that time adhered to Lauderdale. As early as April 1667 he was informed by Kincardine of the meditated coup d'état by which, a month or two later, Lauderdale dismissed Rothes from the commissionership, and thus broke the strength of the extreme church party. Burnet was consulted by Tweeddale and Kincardine with reference to their desire to give Leighton influence in the church, and to induce as many of the presbyterian clergy as possible to waive their non-Erastian principles and to accept the council's appointment to preach in vacant parishes. He participated, however, in the coldness which, under the influence of Lady Dysart, Lauderdale now showed to Moray.
It would appear that Burnet was already on terms of confidence with both the king and the Duke of York and with many court officials. In nothing, indeed, is his freedom from the narrowness of interest usual among his brethren more displayed than in the fact that, whether from ambition or from the natural inclination of a mind widened by culture and conscious of its own power, he kept himself as well informed of the politics of the English court as of those of his own country. He was applied to both by Lauderdale and Sir Robert Moray to give an opinion upon the question how far the queen's barrenness would justify a divorce or polygamy on the part of Charles. He himself states that he answered in the negative. There is, however, a paper extant, supposed to be by him, in which the affirmative is maintained; but it is impossible that this can really have been from his hand.
In 1669 Burnet was intimately concerned with the scheme of conciliation, involving a great diminution of the power of the bishops, which Leighton, now archbishop of Glasgow, especially desired to set on foot, and was employed as his agent to treat with the presbyterians. He went in the first place to Hutcheson, the leader of the moderate presbyterian party; and, when the treaty hung fire, was sent into the west to report upon the feeling of the more discontented districts. At Hamilton he made the acquaintance of the duchess, who advised the planting of a number of presbyterian ministers in vacant parishes, and he wrote a long letter to Tweeddale urging the plan. Burnet adds that the letter was read to the king, and that, through the advice it contained, some forty ministers, thence called ‘king's curates,’ were permitted to take the vacant parishes, with a pension of 20l. a year each. His visit to Hamilton resulted in a great change for himself. He there made the acquaintance of the regent of the university of Glasgow, who, when a vacancy occurred shortly afterwards in the divinity professorship, obtained the post for Burnet. His hesitation in leaving Saltoun (Bannatyne Club Miscell. iii.), to which parish at his death he bequeathed 20,000 merks for useful and charitable objects, was overcome by Leighton, and in 1669 he began residence at Glasgow, where he remained four years and a half ‘in no small exercise of my patience.’ As was but natural, his late action had earned him the distrust and dislike both of strong presbyterians and of strong episcopalians. He carried, however, to this new work exactly the same zeal and thoroughness that he had displayed at Saltoun, devoting the hours from four to ten in the morning to his own study, and from ten till late at night in the active work of teaching. Throughout life, aided by magnificent health, he did a stupendous amount of work, and always did it well. His ‘Modest and Free Conference between a Conformist and a Nonconformist’ was written at this time. It is an able exposition of the liberal principles regarding church government which he upheld through life. Being now in a position of influence, Burnet was frequently applied to both by the clergy who found their churches deserted, and by the gentry who came to complain of the foolish conduct of the clergy. Conventicles were increasing rapidly, and the disorder threatened to be so serious that at Burnet's proposal a committee of council was sent into the west to ascertain the state of affairs. The distrust entertained of him by the presbyterians seems to have been increased by the pressure exercised by this committee, while the episcopalians were annoyed by the gentle treatment that he managed to secure for imprisoned conventiclers.
In 1670, Leighton, now archbishop of Glasgow, who was intent upon bringing the moderate presbyterians to fall in with the measures of conciliation tentatively put forward by the crown, took Burnet with him on his progress. Upon Lauderdale's arrival a conference was arranged in his presence between Leighton and six of the preachers. On its failure Leighton sent Burnet, along with Nairn, Charteris, and three others, to argue the question afresh with the malcontents. This attempt again failing, he was once more employed as chief representative of Leighton in the same way at Paisley, and later at Edinburgh, but all attempts at accommodation were abortive. Once more Burnet, who now refused an offered bishopric, determined to leave public affairs and give himself to study and retirement.
His vacations were spent chiefly in Hamilton, where the duchess engaged him in putting in order all the papers relating to her father's and uncle's political careers. Lauderdale, who had his own reasons for anxiety as to the light which might be cast upon transactions in which he had himself been engaged, no sooner heard of this than he sent for Burnet to come to court that he might give him all the information in his power. The ‘Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton,’ Burnet's first historical work, was published in 1676. His investigations led in a curious way to a reconciliation between Hamilton and the court. Among the papers which he examined were found undoubted claims of the family upon the crown, for satisfaction of which Hamilton consented to concur in the court measures. This was in 1671.
Upon his obeying Lauderdale's summons to London, Burnet found himself for a while in a position of great influence with the secretary. In spite of a refusal to give up his friendship with Robert Moray, he was treated with confidence both by Lauderdale and Lady Dysart, and busied himself, though in vain, in trying to bring about a reconciliation between Lauderdale and Tweeddale. His proposals for a further indulgence to the covenanting ministers—detailed in the ‘History’—were accepted by Lauderdale, and sent down to Scotland in the shape of instructions. He was now offered the choice of four Scotch bishoprics, Edinburgh being one, but declined a preferment that would have fettered his future action.
Shortly after his return to Glasgow, Burnet in 1671 married Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter of the first earl of Cassilis [see Burnet, Margaret]. She was considerably older than himself, and wealthy; and Burnet, in order to avoid uncharitable remarks, signed a deed, previous to the marriage, in which he relinquished all pretensions to her fortune. He had no family by her.
In 1672 Lauderdale came down to Scotland and began his changed career of violent oppression. This again alienated Hamilton, who vehemently opposed Lauderdale's measures, and induced Burnet to represent his views. Burnet states that he was now beyond measure weary of the court, and was prevailed upon only by the general opinion of his usefulness to stay in attendance. By his own account he acted a perfectly independent part, but retained confidence so entirely that a bishopric was again offered him, with the promise of the first archbishopric that should fall vacant. He was now but twenty-nine years of age. He gives a vivid account of Lauderdale's brutal and arbitrary government, which so harassed Leighton that, taking Burnet into consultation, he resolved to retire from his post. It was during these events that the ‘Vindication of the Authority, Constitution, and Laws of the Church and State of Scotland’ was compiled, wherein Burnet made himself acceptable to the higher powers by his dedication to Lauderdale and by maintaining the cause of episcopacy and the illegality of resistance merely on account of religion. This, with various controversial tracts against popery, was published in 1673, in the summer of which year Burnet went to London once more to obtain the necessary license for the publication of his ‘Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton.’
He now, by the favour shown him by Charles, who had made him one of his chaplains, and still more by that of James, drew upon himself the active jealousy both of Lauderdale and of his wife. On his return to Edinburgh on the day before the meeting of parliament he found that Hamilton had organised an opposition to Lauderdale, against which he argued in vain. The blame was laid upon himself by Lauderdale, who denounced him as a marplot to the king. Lauderdale was no doubt irritated by Burnet's freedom in discussing both with the king and with the duchess his conduct regarding popery. He hereupon retired to Glasgow, and remained there until the following June. It is sufficient evidence of Burnet's favour at court and of his never-failing self-confidence, that he proposed that himself and Stillingfleet, whom he introduced to the duke, should hold a conference in James's presence with the leaders of the Roman catholics, and that he took upon him the still bolder task of remonstrating freely with Charles upon his evil life. In June 1674 he was again in London, where he found that Lauderdale's influence had been active to his prejudice. In a letter from Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh, to James Sharp, who was then in London, it is urged that Burnet should be appointed to a country living, where he would be less hurtful than in London (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. 203). He was struck off the list of chaplains by Charles on the ground that he had been ‘too busy;’ and, though a reconciliation with the king was effected by James, Lauderdale continued implacable. Burnet, rather than run the risk of persecution in Scotland, now determined, probably nothing loth—for he was essentially English in his views and sympathies—to settle in England. He preached with great and growing reputation in several London churches (Evelyn, 15 Nov. 1674), and through James's favour was offered a living—he does not say where. Lauderdale, however, when he found that Burnet would not forsake Hamilton, induced the king to prevent the appointment. He was shortly afterwards forbidden the court, ordered to leave London, and not to come within twenty miles (twelve miles, according to the Parl. Hist.) This last injunction, however, was not enforced. In 1675, after having declined the living of St. Giles, Cripplegate, on grounds creditable to his feelings, he was made chaplain to the Rolls Chapel by the master, Sir Harbottle Grimston, against court influence, and retained that post for ten years, the lectureship to St. Clement's being shortly afterwards added.
The persecution which he suffered, and which, as he fairly says, might have heated a cooler and older man, now induced Burnet to disclose what he knew of Lauderdale's unconstitutional designs, as they had been privately imparted to him when he was on confidential terms with the duke. It has been assumed, quite unnecessarily, that Burnet had derived much of his information from his wife, formerly an intimate friend of Lauderdale. His revelations were soon turned to account by Lauderdale's enemies, who, when the earl was impeached, moved that Burnet should be examined by a committee of the House of Commons. At his examination, he says, he concealed as long as possible the private conversation, and told only what had happened to himself and what had been said to him before others, but was finally compelled to tell all (Parl. Hist. iv. 683). Those who dislike Burnet have naturally assumed that his hesitation was affected and that he yielded to pressure readily enough, but a general consideration of his character renders this unlikely; the naïve and candid judgment which he passes on his own conduct probably represents the actual state of the case (Own Times, Oxford ed. ii. 66). He now once more retired from public life, though this did not prevent him from bearing an important share in the controversy which was beginning to absorb all other questions. In 1676 he took part with Stillingfleet in a controversy with Coleman and several Romish priests, and subsequently published an account of it. Another outcome of the conference was his ‘Vindication of the Ordinations of the Church of England.’ He next undertook, at the suggestion of Sir William Jones, the attorney-general, his ‘History of the Reformation in England,’ for which Evelyn contributed some materials. For a while he was hindered in his researches in the Cotton Library by Lauderdale's influence and misrepresentation of his object, but after the publication of the first volume he was granted free access. This publication, however, did not take place until 1679, when, the country being in the throes of the popish terror, the spirit in which the work is written caused it to receive so enthusiastic a welcome, that the thanks of both houses were given to him, with a request that he would complete the work. The second volume appeared in 1681, with equal applause; it is said that the historical portion was written in the space of six weeks; the third and last volume was published in 1714; the abridgment of the whole work in 1719.
Burnet had influence over men of widely differing natures; it was at the period at which we have arrived that he had the credit of the conversion, apparently genuine, of one of the worst libertines of the court, Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and of Miss Roberts, one of the king's mistresses; of the former, whose dying declaration is dated 16 June 1680 (Blare, Miscell.), he wrote an account.
Burnet was intimately acquainted in 1678 with the early stages of the popish terror, and apparently drew upon himself the anger of Jones, Shaftesbury, and other violent anti-popery men, as well as a false accusation of Lauderdale to the king, by the stand he made in defence of the first catholic victim of the ‘plot.’ Two years later, when the exclusion bill was contested, he did his best to bring the two parties to moderation. Whether or not from a desire to conciliate one so fearless, and who was trusted by Essex, Sunderland, Monmouth, and his brother, Charles now offered Burnet the bishopric of Chichester, provided, says his son, he would entirely come in to the court interests. Frequent meetings had taken place between them at Chiffinch's, at which the king had freely expressed his belief that the ‘plot’ was a got-up affair; and from his own account Burnet appears to have been sufficiently frank in the advice which he gave the king to amend his life. Probably the like of the letter which he addressed to the king on 29 Jan. 1680 never passed between a simple clergyman within reach of high preferment and a monarch little accustomed to hear plain truths. After saying that, though ‘no enthusiast in opinion or temper,’ he felt constrained to write, he points out to the king the certain failure of the plans hitherto suggested for extricating him from his difficulties, and then comes to the real point: ‘There is one thing, and indeed the only thing, which can easily extricate you out of all your troubles; it is not the change of a minister or of a council, a new alliance, or a session of parliament; but it is a change in your own heart and in your course of life. And now, Sir, permit me to tell you that all the distrust your people have of you, all the necessities you now are under, all the indignation of Heaven that is upon you, and appears in the defeating of all your counsels, flow from this, that you have not feared nor served God, but have given yourself up to so many sinful pleasures.’ The rest of the letter is in the same strain. Charles read it over twice, threw it into the fire, and for a while was evidently annoyed; but from Burnet's reception a year later, when Halifax, in close intimacy with whom he now lived, took him again to the king, the affair seemed to have entirely dropped from his mind. It is to be noticed that in this year Burnet was thanked for his poems by the House of Commons—the only notice of poems of his that we possess (Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. 197). When Viscount Stafford was condemned, he sent for Burnet. Declining controversy on religion, he requested Burnet to do what he could in the way of intercession, and Burnet appears to have done his best, apparently thereby injuring himself still further with the supporters of the plot, as well as with James, who suspected that Stafford had accused him to Burnet. Like every one else, he had an ‘expedient,’ which excited some attention, for settling the exclusion question, viz. that a protector should be declared, and that Orange should be named to the post.
During the reaction of 1681 Burnet, finding himself regarded with increasing suspicion and dislike, especially by James, went into close retirement, occupied himself with philosophy, algebra, and chemistry, for which he built himself a laboratory, and confined his intimate friendship to Russell, Essex, and Halifax. He had hopes that through the influence of Halifax, who remonstrated with him on his seclusion, and of Clarendon, that he might be appointed to the vacant mastership of the Temple; and he was favourably received by the king. A condition, however, appeared to be that he should abandon the society of his other friends, and this he would not do. From Scotch affairs he kept aloof; but when the test of 1682 turned out of their livings some eighty of the best of the clergy, he was successful in obtaining places for them in England, while writing in favour of the test itself, and removing Hamilton's scruples on the subject. At the same time he exerted himself, by intercession with Halifax, and through him with the king, to save Argyll from the infamous condemnation which followed his refusal of the test. This was the occasion for a reconciliation with Lauderdale. By Halifax he was a good deal consulted during the ministerial changes of 1682. About the end of this year he was offered a living of 300l. by Essex, on condition that he would reside in London, though the parish was in the country. It is, for that age, a remarkable instance of his high feeling of professional duty that he refused it on such terms. In 1683 took place the Rye House plot, which proved fatal to his two best friends, Essex and Russell. Burnet attended Russell at his trial and in the prison, performed for him the last offices on the scaffold, when Russell gave him his watch as a parting present, and drew up for him the paper which he left in his justification. He afterwards defended the course he had taken with spirit and success before the council (Lord John Russell, Life of Russell, Appendix 8). Burnet now, finding himself silenced (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 498 b), thought it wise to leave England. He went to France in the beginning of September (ib. 289 a) with introductions from the French ambassador, Rouvigny, uncle to Lady Russell. Here he found himself in company with Algernon Sidney and Fletcher of Saltoun. He was treated with the highest consideration by Louis, who never failed to try to secure the sympathies of leading men in England, and he made the acquaintance of Schomberg, Condé (who, however, intimated his intention of not accepting another visit) (ib. 380 b), Bourdaloue, Père-la-Chaise, Maimbourg, and other men distinguished in church and state, as well as with the leading protestant clergy. After describing the extraordinary honours paid to Burnet, and how he was caressed by people of the best quality of both sexes that could be, Lord Preston concludes his letter from Paris: ‘I shall only add that no minister of the king's hath had, that I hear of, such a reception’ (ib. 344 a). This roused, we are told, still further the liveliest jealousy of James, who caused it to be so clearly made known to Louis how great were his dislike and suspicion of Burnet, that the French monarch thought it best to offer his excuses (ib. 394 a). Burnet returned at personal risk, and against the warnings of his friends, declaring himself conscious of no crime. His movements were carefully watched, and upon his return at the end of October he was dismissed by the royal mandate from the St. Clement's lectureship, and in December 1684 was also deprived of his chaplaincy at the Rolls; this was the result of a vehement sermon against popery on 5 Nov. He preached for two hours amid great applause from the text, ‘Save me from the lion's mouth; thou hast heard me from the horn of the unicorn;’ it well illustrates the feverish state of people's minds that this choice of a text—the lion and the unicorn being the royal arms—was represented as pointing to the disaffection of the preacher (Macaulay). Burnet appears, from all the notices of his sermons, to have been a singularly effective preacher (see especially for this, Evelyn's Diary for 15 Nov. 1674, 28 May 1682, 9 March 1690, 6 Jan. 1692, and 25 March 1700).
During the last seven years his pen had been active. In 1682 he published his ‘Life of Matthew Hale,’ the ‘History of the Rights of Princes in the Disposing of Ecclesiastical Benefices and Church Lands,’ as well as an answer to the ‘Animadversions’ upon this work. In 1683 he wrote several tracts against popery, and translated the ‘Utopia,’ and the letter of the last general assembly of the clergy of France to the protestants.
Upon the accession of James, Burnet, having no employment, and being refused admittance at court, obtained leave to go abroad. Avoiding Holland, on account of the number of exiles living there, and the consequent danger of being compromised by association with them, he went, upon promise of protection to Paris. There he lived in close intercourse with Lord Montague, in a house of his own, until August 1685, when Monmouth's rebellion and the consequent troubles were over. He then, in company with a French protestant officer, Stouppe, made a journey into Italy. At Rome he was treated with distinction by Innocent XI and by Cardinals Howard and D'Estrées. He soon, however, received a hint to leave, and returned through the south of France and Switzerland. In France he was a witness of the outburst of cruelty which followed the revocation of the edict of Nantes. It is significant of the tone of Burnet's mind that while at Geneva he successfully employed his influence to induce the Genevan church to release their clergy from compulsory subscription to the consensus; that he stayed in close communion with Lutherans at Strasburg and Frankfort, and with Calvinists at Heidelberg. He published in 1687 an able account of his travels, in a series of letters to Robert Boyle, directed naturally in the first place to the exposure, as he says, of popery and tyranny. He now, in order to be nearer England, came to Utrecht, where he found an invitation from the Prince and Princess of Orange to reside at the Hague. He was at once taken into the confidence of the prince, who was glad of an agent so trusted by his friends in England, and still more into that of the princess. Burnet urged William to have his fleet in readiness, but not to move until the cause was sufficiently important to justify him in all eyes. He was still more useful in preparing Mary to yield, on her own motion, and gracefully, what he knew William would insist upon, an engagement that if their plans were successful she would place all power in his hands. Burnet declares solemnly that no one had moved him to do this, but he no doubt knew that it would be a service eminently valued by William. It was now that Burnet met William Penn the quaker, of whom he gives so unfavourable a character. Penn had come to try to secure the prince's consent to the abolition of the Test Acts, and endeavoured to convert Burnet to his views. The two men were perhaps too similar in their unquestioning self-confidence and controversial eagerness to like one another.
The favour in which Burnet lived at the Hague aroused James's jealousy. He twice remonstrated with William, and when D'Albeville came over to treat with the prince, Burnet's dismissal was made a preliminary. William thought it better to comply, and, though consulting him constantly, and employing him to draw up the instructions for Dyckvelt, who was going on a mission to James, never again actually saw him until a few days before setting sail for England. So high had James's displeasure risen that, hearing that Burnet was about to make a rich marriage in Holland, he set on foot against him a prosecution for high treason in Scotland, on the ground of former correspondence with Argyll. Warned of this, Burnet wrote to Middleton on 20 May 1687, saying that he hoped James would not compel him to defend himself, as he should in that case be obliged to mention details which might cause his majesty annoyance; he informed him of his approaching marriage, and also that he had secured his naturalisation as a Dutch subject (Burnet Tracts, Brit. Mus. 699, f. 6). In his second letter, dated 27 May, the citation having now been received, he insists upon reparation being made him, and offers a fortnight's delay before printing his own justification, which he again intimates will give James no case for satisfaction. The citation had declared that he had had correspondence, treasonably, with Argyll during 1682–5, and with Ferguson, Stuart, and others during 1685–7.
The expressions of his first letter angered James so much that he set on foot another prosecution on the strength of them. Burnet was outlawed, and D'Albeville was instructed to demand his surrender, which the States, of course, after examination, refused. In a third letter of 17 June he explains the phrases objected to. It is at this time that Burnet says he received trustworthy information of a plot for his murder (ib.) He shortly afterwards married his second wife, Mary Scott, a wealthy Dutch lady of Scotch extraction. She seems to have been exceptionally accomplished and beautiful. An autograph prayer on the occasion of his marriage, dated 25 May 1687, is extant in manuscript (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. 460 a). To his firstborn child the prince and princess stood sponsors on 2 April 1688 (ib. 5th Rep. 319). He had meanwhile written, among many other pamphlets, a severe and acrimonious reply to Parker's book on the ‘Reasons for abrogating the Test Act.’ He says of it: ‘It was thought that it helped to put an end to the life of the worst-tempered man I ever knew.’
Burnet was kept fully aware of all William's preparations. He gave an early intimation to the Princess Sophia, and was acute enough to do this without William's previous knowledge, to his great satisfaction. At the same time he was in the full confidence of the revolution party in England. He was responsible for the text of William's declaration; and with regard to Scotland he induced him to alter the passage in which he had by implication, upon the urgency of the Scotch exiles, declared for presbyterianism. On 5 Nov. he landed with William at Torbay, this place being selected at the last moment instead of Exmouth, at his suggestion (Egerton MSS. 2621, Brit. Mus.). There is extant, in Burnet's handwriting, his ‘Meditation on my Voyage for England, intending it for my last words in case this expedition should prove either unsuccessful in general or fatal to myself in my own particular’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. 460 a). On the march to Exeter he was entrusted with the duty of preventing violence by the soldiers on the road; and he drew up the engagement which was signed by all the noblemen who came in. A curious instance of his want of delicacy, when at Salisbury Cathedral, is quoted from Clarendon's Diary by Macaulay (History, i. 297). Letters are extant in manuscript from him to Admiral Herbert, full of interesting details, written during the march to London (Egerton MSS. 2621, Brit. Mus.) When Halifax came with the commissioners from James to treat with William, Burnet urged that the king should be allowed to leave the kingdom, and when he was detained at Feversham expressed his vexation at the blunder, and advised William at once to take steps for securing his good treatment. He describes these two events himself in letters written on 9 Dec. and Christmas day. He was most useful, too, in securing indulgence for the papists and Jacobites in London, thus avoiding the danger of a reaction founded on a charge of oppression of Englishmen. His political wisdom was shown in his consistent opposition to Halifax's proposal that the crown should be given to the prince without regard to Mary, and his watchfulness warded off all attempts to cause a difference between them. It was probably during these months that he published a vigorous and useful pamphlet on the question whether the country was bound to treat with James or call him back.
On 23 Dec. he preached at St. James's on the text ‘It is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes,’ and on 1 Feb. was thanked by the House of Commons for the ‘Thanksgiving Sermon’ of 31 Jan. (Burnet Tracts, 699, f. 2). Burnet was soon rewarded by the bishopric of Salisbury. He had previously refused that of Durham, as the conditions were that Crew, who then held it, should resign and receive 1,000l. a year during life from the revenue. It is stated, moreover, that when Salisbury fell vacant Burnet asked that it might be given to Lloyd. Sancroft refused to consecrate him, but was prevailed upon to grant a commission for the purpose to the bishops of the province. Burnet's presence in the House of Lords was of immediate service, for the question of toleration, of comprehension, and of the oaths came on at once. On the third of these points he spoke for the clergy, but acquiesced in the imposition when he found that they were busily opposing the crown. His pastoral letter to his clergy, in which he urged them to take the oaths, was afterwards ordered to be burnt by the hangman, on account of a claim on William's behalf to the crown by right of conquest, and because Burnet declared that the clergy ought to acquiesce in the possession even when the title was visibly and indefensibly bad. He zealously advocated toleration, and on the question of comprehension argued successfully against the proposed mixed committee for revising the ecclesiastical constitution, though he afterwards changed his opinion on this point. On all other matters he was on the moderate side, and opposed the enforcement of kneeling at the Sacrament and of the use of the cross in baptism. He was the author of a clause in the Bill of Rights absolving subjects from their allegiance if a papist, or one married to a papist, succeeded to the crown. He was chosen by William to propose in the House of Lords the naming of the Duchess of Hanover and her posterity to the succession; and, when the succession actually took place, in 1701, he was named chairman of the committee to whom the bill was referred. This was the beginning of a correspondence with that princess which lasted till her death. We find one of his descendants in 1729 mentioning the medals, gilt tea service and table plate, which had been presented to him by the princess (Add. MS. 11404, Brit. Mus.). It was in the summer of this year, 1689, that the well-known picture by Kneller was painted (Evelyn, 9 June 1689). He was chosen in April to preach the coronation sermon, which, with that upon 5 Nov. before the House of Lords, and that of Christmas day before the king and queen, was ordered to be printed. His ‘Exhortation to Peace and Union’ was published on 29 Nov. (Burnet Tracts, Brit. Mus.) Burnet was naturally much consulted by William regarding the Scotch church, and is probably responsible (indeed, he himself intimates this) for the letter in which the king promised protection to the bishops on their good behaviour, joined with full toleration of the presbyterians, though he himself declared in 1688 that he did not meddle with Scotch affairs. In the subsequent negotiations he was, however, shut out by the jealousy of the presbyterians from further influence, though he did his best for the bishops. His action was dictated by his prevailing desire to further an accommodation between the Anglican and presbyterian churches (Macaulay, iv. 10). On 13 Sept. 1689 he was placed on the commission for comprehension. On the occasion of the Montgomery conspiracy, Burnet was able, by information which reached him anonymously, to cause its miscarriage. He soothed William's feelings when the commons jealously granted the revenue for five years only. He urged the adoption of the Abjuration Bill, which the king wisely allowed to drop. During the latter's absence in Ireland Burnet was, at express desire, in close attendance on the queen. For his various political and polemical writings during the last three years, see the appendix to the Clarendon Press edition of his ‘History.’ The most important was the pastoral letter above mentioned. On the death of Mary he wrote his essay on her character. During her life she had had the entire control of church matters. At her death a commission was appointed for all questions of preferment. Burnet was placed upon this, and, when a similar commission was named in 1700, he was again included in it.
Burnet has been accused of undue eagerness to serve William's wishes, and his promotion of the bill of attainder in Fenwick's case is especially cited. It appears to have been a speech from him which gained the small majority for the bill, and his own justification of it is in an evidently apologetic tone; this was in 1697. In 1698 his wife died of small-pox, and in a few months he married his third wife [see Burnet, Elizabeth]. By her he had no children. In 1698 also he was appointed governor to the young Prince of Gloucester. He states that he accepted this charge unwillingly, as he did not receive the same confidence from William as of old, for the king had indeed resented more than once his occasionally intrusive lectures. His son relates that when, in consequence of the king's urgency, he assented, he asked leave to resign his bishopric as inconsistent with the employment, and only retained it on condition that the prince should reside at Windsor, which was in his diocese, during the summer, and that ten weeks should be allowed him for visiting the other parts of his diocese. In 1699 (Macaulay, iii. 230) he was appointed to attend Peter the Great; and he leaves a character of that monarch which later accounts prove to be remarkably true. In this year, too, he published his ‘Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England,’ a laborious work, over which he had spent five years. It was received with applause, except by Atterbury, who wrote against it, and by the high-church lower house of convocation, by whom it was censured in the turbulent meeting of 1701, on the grounds that it tended to foster the very latitude which the articles were intended to avoid; that it contained many passages contrary to their true meaning; and that it was dangerous to the church of England. The upper house, however, refused to admit the censure, on the grounds that it consisted only of generalities, and also that the power of censure against a bishop did not belong to the lower house. After frequent adjournments the matter fell through. The dispute gave rise to a fierce discussion as to whether the archbishop might adjourn the houses by his sole authority (Convocation Tracts, Brit. Mus.). The reason which caused its publication at that time was, Burnet states, the increase of popery; this danger also induced him, in spite of his general toleration principles, to vote for the severe act of that year against papists.
Burnet relates that in 1699 an attempt was made in the commons to turn him out of his tutorship of the Duke of Gloucester, and that an address was moved for his removal, but that it was lost by a large majority (Macaulay, iv. 517). It should be noticed that, according to Ralph, the bishop spent the whole of the salary which he received from this office, 1,500l., in private charity.
In the debate on the bill for vesting the confiscated Irish estates in trustees, Burnet, in 1700, took the side opposed to the court (though he afterwards changed his opinion), and thereby aroused William's displeasure. In this year his pupil died, and on 8 March 1702 he, with Archbishop Tenison, attended William himself on his deathbed. He appears after this to have paid court somewhat obsequiously to the Marlborough faction. He wrote an elegy on William's death. In 1703 he strongly opposed the bill against occasional conformity. I was moved,’ he said, ‘never to be silent when toleration should be brought into debate; for I have long looked on liberty of conscience as one of the rights of human nature, antecedent to society, which no man could give up, because it was not in his own power.’ His speech, which is extant, and which is studiously moderate and very able, formed the subject of a bitter and able attack from Atterbury, who affected to vindicate him from the libel of being the author of it (Burnet Tracts, Brit. Mus.) It appears, however, from the speech, that, although not willing that nonconformists should be fined, or that foreign churches should be included in the disabling acts, Burnet was perfectly willing that no non-communicants should be capable of bearing office. Whether he opposed the bill on its passage through the lords in 1711 does not appear. In 1709 he spoke against the bill establishing forfeitures in Scotland in cases of treason, and in favour of the general naturalisation of all protestants. In 1710 he was attacked by Sacheverell, and spoke against him in the debate on his case in the Lords. He remonstrated openly with Anne upon her supposed intention of bringing in the Pretender, and in 1711 spoke his mind to her against a peace which allowed the house of Bourbon to retain possession of Spain and the West Indies.
Burnet's episcopate stands alone in that age as a record of able and conscientious government. A detailed account of it would be but a repetition of what his son has written. He did his best by careful examination to secure a learned and competent clergy, and stood out against admitting unqualified nominees to livings; waged war against pluralities; established a divinity school at Salisbury. He was tolerant both to nonjurors and to presbyterians to a degree which roused the anger of all extreme men; and his habitual generosity was shown by his entertainment at his own charge of all the clergy who waited upon him at his visitations. The most lasting work, however, which he inaugurated was the provision for the augmentation of livings, generally known as Queen Anne's Bounty. He was anxious that the church should be better represented in the market towns, and for this purpose he set on foot a scheme (after the miscarriage of a design on a smaller scale in his own diocese) applicable to the whole kingdom. In two memorials, dated January 1696 and December 1697, Burnet proposed to the king that the first-fruits and tenths, which had been granted away by Charles II in pensions to his mistresses and natural children, should be applied to the increase of poor livings. The plan met with opposition sufficient to obstruct it until William's death, but Burnet lived to see it become law in 1704. It is worthy of notice that in the memorials mentioned above Burnet suggests the plan as a good one for gaining the support of the clergy in view of coming elections. Burnet's influence in the House of Lords seems to have been considerable, but it was probably more from his representative character than from his oratory. This, if we may judge from the speech against concluding a separate peace with France in 1713, which he has himself carefully preserved, and which may therefore be considered a favourable specimen, was pedantic and heavy. His speeches in 1703 and 1710 upon the Occasional Conformity Act and the Sacheverell impeachment have also been published.
Burnet's most important work, the ‘History of my own Time,’ was not published until after his death, the first volume in 1723, the second in 1734, though there is a receipt for 25s., being half the price of the second volume, dated in June 1733. It has been, naturally enough, the subject of violent attack on the score of inaccuracy and prejudice. On its first appearance we hear that ‘no one speaks well of it’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 512), and individuals whose conduct was censured expressed themselves in the bitterest terms. As an instance of this we may quote the Earl of Aylesbury: ‘He wrote like a lying knave, and, as to my own particular, the editors deserved the pillory, for what relates to me is all false as hell’ (Egerton MSS. 2621, Brit. Mus.) Actually, however, leaving out of account perhaps his views as to the legitimate birth of James's son, nothing could be a more admirable illustration of the general candour of his mind and of his full and accurate information. That portion where, from the peculiar circumstances, he might not inexcusably have given a partisan colouring to his narrative, and where injustice and inaccuracy would have been extremely difficult to expose, is the portion that treats upon Scottish affairs in the reign of Charles II. An examination of the Lauderdale MSS. in the British Museum, however, enables it to be affirmed that the accuracy of this portion is remarkable not only as regards actual facts, but even as regards the character of men whom he either vehemently admired or as vehemently disliked and opposed. To literary style or to eloquence Burnet has no pretensions, nor is there even the slightest appearance of an attempt at style; his epithets are often clumsy, and his constructions ungainly. From this criticism, however, the most admirable ‘conclusion’ must be excepted. This gives Burnet at his very best; the thoughts are matured and noble, and the diction is elevated and impressive. The whole work has been subject to the acrimonious criticism of Dartmouth and the pungent satire of Swift, to whom he was especially obnoxious, and who is no doubt the author of a satirical epitaph upon him (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. 468 b); but while the former of these, who frequently accuses him of deliberate falsehood through party feeling (e.g. 6th Rep. 245 note), has now and again hit undoubted blots, the value of the ‘History of my own Time’ as a candid narrative and an invaluable work of reference has continually risen as investigations into original materials have proceeded.
The historical interest of Burnet's character lies in the fact that from his entrance upon public life as a mere boy he was the consistent representative of broad church views both in politics and doctrine. Except in the two or three instances mentioned, his voice was ever for toleration, and his practice in his diocese was still more emphatically so. He was a man perfectly healthy and robust in body and in mind; a meddler, and yet no intriguer; a lover of secrets, which he was incapable of keeping; a vigorous polemist, but without either spite or guile; whatever the heart conceived the tongue seemed compelled to utter or the pen to write. We can well understand Lord Hailes's impression that he was ‘a man of the most surprising imprudence that can be imagined’ (ib. 532). Essentially a politician and a man of action, he was the most pastoral, as he was the ablest, of the prelates of his day; unostentatious in his own life and considerate of others, he was unsparing in labour as in charity. His openhandedness is expressed in a contemporary letter thus: ‘He hath always ready money about him to pay what is anywhere due’ (ib. 7th Rep. 505 b). ‘He was not one to create a set of spiritual or ecclesiastical forces whose influence remains unspent for generations. He was rather the child of his own age, the embodiment of some tendencies which were then emerging into importance’ (Jubilee Lectures, ii. 5; cf. Macaulay, ii. 11). It must, of course, be borne in mind that the two chief authorities on the character of Burnet are likely to be partial, himself and his son. There are plenty of descriptions to be found, depicting him in the darkest colours, but they are too much coloured by political dislike and too slightly illustrated by facts to be worth recording. One, perhaps, by a man who knew him well, may be given here, as it is newly discovered; ‘he was zealous for the truth, but in telling it always turned it into a lye; he was bent to do good, but fated to mistake evil for it’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. 355).
Burnet died on 17 March 1715 of a violent cold, which turned to a pleuritic fever. He was buried in the parish church of St. James, Clerkenwell, having resided at St. John's Court in that parish during the last few years of his life.
By his second wife Burnet had seven children, three sons and four daughters; two of the latter, Mary and Elizabeth, survived him, as did his three sons, William, Gilbert, and Thomas, the youngest of whom, Thomas, became his biographer [see Burnet, Sir Thomas].
William, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Leyden. He had a post in the revenue, but lost money in the South Sea scheme, and obtained the governorship of New York and New Jersey. In 1728 he was transferred, against his will, to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He quarrelled with the assembly, who refused a fixed salary, and tried to make up for it by a fee on ships leaving Boston, but this was disallowed at home. He died of a fever 7 Sept. 1729. He married a daughter of Dean Stanhope.
Gilbert (1690–1726) educated at Leyden and Merton, contributed to ‘Hibernicus' Letters,’ a Dublin periodical (1725–7), and to Philips's ‘Freethinker.’ He supported Hoadly in the Bangorian controversy. He was appointed chaplain to the king in 1718, and in 1719 published an abridgment of his father's ‘History of the Reformation.’
His robust, hearty, and vivacious nature was singularly reflected in his personal appearance. On this point at least, though probably in no other, Dryden may be accepted as a fair witness when he describes him thus (Hind and Panther, l. 2435):—
A portly prince, and goodly to the sight,
He seemed a son of Anak for his height,
Like those whom stature did to crowns prefer,
Black-browed and bluff, like Homer's Jupiter;
Broad-backed and brawny, built for love's delight,
A prophet formed to make a female proselyte.
This description is borne out by Lely's portrait.
A full list of Burnet's works is given in the Clarendon Press edition of his ‘Own Time’ (1823), vi. 331–52. A full list is also given in Lowndes, together with the titles of many other tracts relating to the various controversies. Burnet published nearly sixty sermons, thirty of which are in ‘A Collection of Tracts and Discourses’ (1704), and sixteen in a volume published in 1713. His principal works are as follows: 1. ‘Discourse on Sir Robert Fletcher of Saltoun,’ 1665. 2. ‘Conference between a Conformist and a Nonconformist, in seven dialogues,’ 1669. 3. ‘A Resolution of Two Important Cases of Conscience’ (said to be written about 1671, printed in Macky's ‘Memoirs.’ This is the paper erroneously attributed to Burnet upon the proposed divorce of Charles II). 4. ‘Vindication of the Authority … of Church and State of Scotland,’ 1673. 5. ‘The Mystery of Iniquity Unveiled …’ (against Romanism), 1673. 6. ‘Rome's Glory; or a Collection of divers Miracles wrought by Popish Saints,’ 1673. 7. ‘Relation of a Conference held about Religion, by E. Stillingfleet and G. Burnet with some Gentlemen of the Church of Rome,’ 1676. 8. ‘Memoires of … James and William, dukes of Hamilton,’ 1676. 9. ‘Vindication of the Ordinations of the Church of England,’ 1677. 10. ‘Two Letters upon the Discovery of the late Plot,’ 1678. 11. ‘History of the Reformation,’ vol. i. 1679, vol. ii. 1681, vol. iii. 1714. The best edition, edited by the Rev. N. Pocock, was published by the Clarendon Press in 1865. An abridgment by the author appeared in 1682 and 1719. 12. ‘Some Passages in the Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester,’ 1680 (reprinted in Wordsworth's ‘Ecclesiastical Biography,’ vol. vi.). 13. ‘Infallibility of the Roman Church … confuted,’ 1680. 14. ‘News from France: a Relation of the present Difference between the French King and the Court of Rome,’ 1682. 15. ‘History of the Rights of Princes in the Disposing of Ecclesiastical Benefices, &c.,’ 1682. 16. ‘Life and Death of Sir Matthew Hale,’ 1682. 17. ‘Life of Bishop Bedell,’ 1685. 18. ‘Some Letters containing an account of what seemed most remarkable in Switzerland, Italy, &c., written by G. B. to T[he] H[onourable] R[obert] B[oyle], to which is annexed an answer to Varelles’ ‘History of Heresies’ (in defence of the ‘History of the Reformation’), 1687. Afterwards as ‘Travels.’ 19. Six papers (containing an argument against repealing the Test Act, the citation of G. Burnet to answer … for high treason, and other tracts on the politics of the time), 1687. 20. A collection of eighteen papers, written during the reign of James II, 1689. 21. ‘A Discourse of the Pastoral Care,’ 1692. 22. ‘Four Discourses to the Clergy of the Diocese of Salisbury,’ 1694. 23. ‘Essay on the Memory of Queen Mary,’ 1695. 24. ‘Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles,’ 1699. 25. ‘Exposition of the Church Catechism,’ 1710. 26. ‘Speech on the Impeachment of Sacheverell,’ 1710. 27. Four letters between Burnet and Henry Dodwell, 1713. 28. ‘History of his own Times,’ vol. i. 1723, vol. ii. 1734. The Clarendon Press edition, 1823 and 1833, was superintended by Dr. Routh. A rough draft, with important variations, is in the Harleian MSS. No. 6584. Ranke, in his ‘History of England’ (Engl. Transl. vi. 73–85), has noted the chief differences between this manuscript and the ordinary text. He sets a high value on the earlier version.
[Considering the importance of Burnet's career and the strongly marked features of his character, the authorities on the subject are very limited. The chief are, of course, are the Biography by his son affixed to the Clarendon Press edition of his History, and the History itself. Both will be read with caution, though not with suspicion. The remarkable honesty and accuracy of the History are established by the Lauderdale MSS., which also contain many notices of Burnet personally. The Letters to Herbert in the Egerton MSS. are of great service for the period of the invasion, while the notices in the Historical Commission Reports, especially those contained in Lord Preston's Letters from Paris, are numerous and interesting.]