Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Benson, William (1682-1754)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BENSON, WILLIAM (1682–1754), critic and politician, was the eldest son of William Benson, sheriff of London 1706–7, who was knighted 8 Dec. 1706—a pedigree of the family is given in Le Neve's ‘Knights’ (Harl. Soc.), pp. 494–5—and was born in 1682. During the early years of the reign of Queen Anne he travelled in Germany and Sweden, and on his return became the owner of considerable property in Dorsetshire and Wiltshire, in consequence of which he was sheriff for the latter county in 1710. Wilbury House, in Wiltshire, was built from his designs in the style of Inigo Jones; views of it are in Campbell's ‘Vitruvius Britt.’ i. 51–2. In 1711 he published his ‘Letter to Sir Jacob Bankes [M.P. for Minehead 1695–1714], by birth a Swede, concerning the late Minehead Doctrine,’ that kings were only accountable to God, and that subjects should obey whatever might happen, wherein he depicted the miseries of the Swedes after the surrender of their liberties to arbitrary power, and reflected on the danger of a spread of similar principles at home. Eleven editions were issued in 1711, and 100,000 copies in all are said to have been sold. The Swedish ambassador formally complained of the pamphlet, and Benson was summoned before the authorities, but nothing followed. In 1713 he contested Minehead against Bankes without success. At the election of 1714–15 he fought Shaftesbury, and, on petition, gained the seat; when he vacated the seat by his appointment as surveyor-general of works in place of Sir Christopher Wren, he was returned at the poll, but rejected on petition. Unfortunately for his reputation he condemned the House of Lords and the painted chamber as ‘in immediate danger of falling,’ but a committee of the house, after an examination, decided that the statement was ‘false and groundless,’ and he was suspended from his office. As some compensation for this loss he received an assignment of a considerable debt due to the crown in Ireland, and also the reversion of the auditorship of the imprest, which he lived to enjoy. From September 1741 to December 1742 he was out of his mind; and although he recovered from this malady, his latter days were passed in a retirement in which even his love of books deserted him. He died at Wimbledon 2 Feb. 1754; his first wife (who died 5 Feb. 1721) and several of his children and descendants are buried at Newton Toney.

Benson was a generous patron of literature, and a ‘professed admirer of Milton,’ in which capacity Francis Peck dedicated to him his ‘Memoirs of Cromwell’ (1740). In honour of his favourite poet he erected, in 1737, a monument in Westminster Abbey, engraved a medal of him, and gave William Dobson 1,000l. for a translation of ‘Paradise Lost’ into Latin verse. Pope, not averse to a sneer at a whig, pilloried Benson in the ‘Dunciad’ with the line, ‘On poets' tombs see Benson's titles writ,’ and again reverted to the subject when he was asked for an inscription on Shakespeare's monument. Another work encouraged by Benson was Christopher Pitt's translation of the ‘Æneid;’ his enthusiasm for these two poets, Virgil and Milton, was shown in two anonymous volumes, ‘Virgil's Husbandry, or an Essay on the Georgics, being the first book translated into English verse’ (1725), with Dryden's version and notes ‘critical and rustick,’ and ‘Letters concerning Poetical Translations and Virgil's and Milton's Arts of Verse’ (1739). In the fourth book of the ‘Dunciad’ (110–112), Pope alluded to Benson as propped on two unequal crutches: ‘Milton's on this, on that one Johnston's name.’ This referred to his sumptuous editions of Arthur Johnston's Latin versions of the Psalms of David (1740 and 1741), which he preceded by a prefatory discourse (1740), with a conclusion and a supplement (both issued in 1741), comparing Johnston and Buchanan to the disadvantage of the latter, a proceeding for which he was sharply attacked by Thomas Ruddiman in 1745. Benson's attachment to the whigs and his blunder over the stability of the House of Lords exposed him to much ridicule from the poets of the opposite side in politics; but he was a sincere lover of art and letters. The fountains at Herrenhausen, the chief attraction of the dull palace of the electors of Hanover, were designed by him.

[Hoare's Wiltshire, ii. (Ambresbury), 103–5; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, i. 73, 512, 519, ii. 136–9, ix. 492, 601; Oldfield's Representative Hist. iii. 393–4; Luttrell, vi. 696; Chalmers.]

W. P. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.23
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
261 i 30 Benson, William: after steps insert Sir Jacob Bankes was M.P. for Minehead from 1695 to 1714 and in 1713 Benson unsuccessfully contested the constituency against him
ii 37 for Herenhausen read Herrenhausen