Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnet, Alexander

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BURNET, ALEXANDER (1614–1684), Scotch archbishop, was the son of Mr. John Burnet, a Scotch minister; his mother was of the Traquair family. After his ordination he first acted as chaplain to the Earl of Traquair. Whether he took the covenant or not is not certainly known; probably he fled to England to escape being compelled to do so, for he was in that country very shortly after the beginning of the war with Charles. He received holy orders in the English church, in communion with which he lived throughout, and held a rectory in Kent, from which, in 1650, he was ejected for loyalty (Keith, Scottish Bishops). He then went beyond sea, and served Charles II by intelligence from England and elsewhere. It is curious, however, that we find an A. Burnett mentioned as minister of Tenham in Kent on 22 Jan. 1657 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1657, p. 247). Upon the Restoration we find him chaplain to his father's first cousin, Lord Rutherford, afterwards Earl Teviot, who was in command at Dunkirk, and to the English garrison there (‘Lauderdale Papers,’ Camden Miscellany, 1883). His brother, Dr. Burnet, was physician at the same place. A manuscript in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, states that he was ‘dean of the city of Dunkirk.’ His first letter to Sheldon in the Sheldon MSS. is written from that town, and expresses his anxiety to erect a church there suitable to the dignity of the English communion. Upon the restoration of episcopacy in Scotland he did not at once receive preferment; but in 1663, on the death of Bishop Mitchell, he was placed in the see of Aberdeen, being consecrated at St. Andrews by Sharp, assisted by others of the bishops, on 18 Sept. On 18 June in that year he preached the sermon to the parliament from 2 Chron. xix. 6 (Lamont, Diary, pp. 200, 204; Grubb, Hist. Church of Scotland, p. 212; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1663, 18 June). In January 1664, on the death of Fairfoul, he became archbishop of Glasgow, being installed on 11 April 1664. A more unfortunate appointment, considering the time and place, could not have been made. His views of church government were of the most advanced Laudian type; he hated dissent of all kinds vehemently, and his want of common sense was seen in the attempts he made to carry out his high Anglican views to the fullest extent in that part of Scotland which was particularly steeped in covenant principles. This is fully illustrated by the correspondence with Sheldon referred to. At the same time Gilbert Burnet calls him a man of blameless private life, and even Wodrow admits that he ‘was certainly one of the best morals among the present clergy.’ He was, it should be added, absolutely honest and consistent, even to the loss of his archbishopric. At his first diocesan meeting he put several of his clergy in English orders, and turned out some of the presbyterian clergy whom Fairfoul had permitted to remain. He appears to have strained his power by encroaching upon the functions of the Glasgow magistrates. Burnet the historian further describes him as a ‘soft and good-natured man, inclined to peaceable and moderate counsels,’ which, if it be a true description, only shows how completely his belief in the advantages of the Anglican system overcame his own nature. On 29 April 1664 he was made a privy councillor (Stephen, History of the Church of Scotland). The severity with which he treated the covenanters, against whom, in opposition to Lauderdale and his friends, he continually urged strong measures, was doubtless a leading cause of the Pentland revolt in 1666, and he was largely responsible for the horrors of its repression by Dalyell, Drummond, Hamilton, Rothes, and others, with whom he was at that time in cordial friendship. We hear of him as being ‘deadly sick’ on 6 Nov. 1666; but a fortnight later, 22 Nov., it is recorded that ‘the breaking out of the rebels has cured him,’ while he is mentioned as being ‘very active’ during the rebellion (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1666–7, pp. 244, 280, 336). Keith asserts that Burnet wrote to Arlington and to Charles to recommend lenity, and he himself declares to Sheldon that he never opposed ‘the granting of remissions to any person that acknowledged their fault, but on the contrary laboured what he could to make them capable of pardons.’ The passages, however, in which he counsels severity are far more frequent, and it is perfectly certain that he constituted the chief obstacle to the policy of conciliation which Lauderdale, in order to frustrate the schemes of the party opposed to him among the Scotch nobility, began to initiate in 1667. The necessity of getting rid of Burnet—Longifacies or Long Nez, as he is called from some facial peculiarity (there is no portrait of him extant)—is prominent in the letters that passed between Lauderdale and Robert Moray, and his other agents in Scotland (Lauderdale Papers, vols. i. and ii., Camden Society). An additional cause of Lauderdale's enmity was, perhaps, the fact that Burnet had sent information on the proceedings of the council to Arlington and Charles without consulting him. In the intrigues which followed, Burnet, in contrast to James Sharp, who had been for the time won over by Lauderdale, and was used now to counteract his colleague, pursued a thoroughly honest course in opposition to conciliation, under the encouragement of Sheldon. ‘Honest’ and ‘stout’ are epithets often used of him. In 1669 Lauderdale came to Scotland as high commissioner. The Act of Supremacy was immediately passed, by which the absolute control of all persons and matters in the church was put in the king's hands. Burnet had shortly before held a synod at Glasgow, in which he put forth a vehement remonstrance against Lauderdale's policy. The new act was at once, and in the first place, used to insist upon his resignation, a copy of which, dated 24 Dec. 1669, is among the Sheldon MSS. For the events which led to his resignation, and of which the foregoing sentences are a summary, see ‘Lauderdale Papers,’ referred to above. He was succeeded by Leighton, a devoted favourer of conciliation, and for four years lived in retirement. In his letter to Sheldon at the time of his resignation he begs that some private corner may be found for him in England, where he may die, as he has lived, in fellowship with that church. On Leighton's retirement in 1674, Lauderdale's policy having changed, Burnet was, on 29 Sept., restored to his archbishopric, probably in deference to the opinion of the English bishops. He was restored to the privy council on 3 Dec. of the same year. Wodrow (ii. 144) mentions an additional reason for this restoration, which in itself is most probable, having regard to the corruption of the administration, but for which he does not himself vouch, and which is not supported by Gilbert Burnet or by any other authority. Burnet, according to his questionable anecdote, was to regain his archbishopric in return for sacrificing the claims of his daughter, the widow of the late heir to the Elphinstone property, to her jointure, in favour of Lauderdale's niece, who was to marry the next heir. Upon the murder of Sharp in 1679 Burnet was promoted to the primacy on 28 Oct., and retained the post until his death in the Novum Hospitium of St. Andrews on 22 Aug. 1684. He is stated by Fountainhall to have been buried in St. Salvator's College, near the tomb of Bishop Kennedy; there is, however, now no trace of the burial-place visible. In his will occurs a gift of one thousand merks to the poor of St. Andrews (Gordon, Scotichronicon). On the last letter which he received from Burnet, Archbishop Sancroft endorsed the following lines:—

Obiit Aug. 22, 1684, horâ matutinâ.
Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit:
Nulli flebilior quam tibi, Scotia.

Burnet married Elizabeth Fleming of Littrie in Fife, and left two daughters, who married respectively the son of Lord Elphinstone and Lord Elliebank (MS. Advocates' Library).

[Keith's Scottish Bishops; Burnet's Own Time; Sheldon MSS. Bodleian Library; the greater number of the letters from Burnet to Sheldon will be found in the Appendix to vol. ii. of the Lauderdale Papers (Camden Society), a selection from the Lauderdale MSS. British Museum; Wodrow's Hist. Church of Scotland; Fountainhall's Chronicles; Grubb's Hist. Church of Scotland; Stephen's Hist. Church of Scotland; Gordon's Scotichronicon; Law's Memorials; Mackenzie's Memoirs; Collection of Letters to Sancroft, edited from the originals in the Bodleian by Dr. Nelson Clarke; Abstract of the Writs of the City of St. Andrews, 1767; Lyon's Hist. of St. Andrews.]

O. A.