Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wotton, William
WOTTON, WILLIAM (1666–1727), scholar, second son of Henry Wotton, incumbent of Wrentham, Suffolk, was born in that parish on 13 Aug. 1666. His father, after seven years at the free school at Canterbury, lived in the household of Meric Casaubon [q. v.], and was by him trained in Latin and Greek. Casaubon's method seems to have suggested to Henry Wotton the advantage of trying from the beginning to interest children in their studies, and his ‘Essay on the Education of Children’ was published posthumously in 1753.
William could read a psalm when aged four years and six weeks, and from that date his father laboured at his education. He liked reading in big books such as Buck's ‘Cambridge Bible.’ One day a friend called on his father, bringing with him Bucer's ‘Commentary on the Gospel.’ The child looked into the book and tried to spell out the Latin words, and thus became eager to know that language. He worked into it by learning the names of things, and so was soon able to read the gospel of St. John in the Vulgate. After two months at St. John's gospel in Latin his father showed him the Greek Testament, and by five years of age he could read St. John's Gospel through. Two months later he began Hebrew, and soon read the first psalm. Every day he then read English at eight, Latin at ten, Greek at two, and Hebrew at four. He gradually acquired a natural perception of grammar. At five and a half he began Homer and Virgil, and by six he had read the whole ‘Batrachomyomachia,’ the golden verses of Pythagoras, and the first three eclogues of Virgil, and some Terence and Corderius. He then for the first time learned the declensions, and soon after the rest of grammar. On 24 May 1672 John Ombler, fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, examined him and certified to his knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Philip Skippon on 4 Sept. 1672 testified that he could translate Hebrew, Greek, and Latin into English; and on 20 July in the same year Sir Thomas Browne the physician certified that he read a stanza in Spenser very distinctly, also some verses of the first eclogue of Virgil, some verses of Homer, and of the Carmina Aurea, and the first verse of the fourth chapter of Genesis in Hebrew, and construed all accurately.
He was admitted at Catharine Hall, Cambridge, in April 1676, and John Eachard [q. v.], the master, recorded in the register that he was less than ten years of age and ‘nec Hammondo nec Grotio secundus,’ in reading which statement it must, however, be remembered that Eachard had a vein of ironical humour which made Swift come to visit him. James Duport [q. v.], master of Magdalene, described his merits in some Latin verses ‘In Gulielmum Wottonum.’ He graduated B.A. in 1679. In 1680 Gilbert Burnet invited him to London and introduced him to Bishop William Lloyd (1627–1717) [q. v.], who took him in 1681 to St. Asaph, and employed him to arrange his library. Dr. Francis Turner (afterwards bishop of Ely) [q. v.] got him a fellowship at St. John's College, Cambridge, and he graduated M.A. in 1683, and B.D. in 1691. He was elected F.R.S. on 1 Feb. 1687.
In 1694 Wotton published ‘Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning,’ a contribution on the side of the moderns to the controversy between Sir William Temple and Monsieur Perrault. Unlike most controversial writings it is chiefly devoted to the clear statement of facts, and may still be read as the best summary of the discoveries in nature and physical science up to its date. A second edition appeared in 1697. Swift, on the other side of the controversy, attacks him in the ‘Battle of the Books.’ In 1695 Wotton published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ an abstract of Scilla's treatise on petrifaction, and in 1697 a vindication of that abstract and ‘An Examination of Dr. Woodward's Account of the Deluge;’ these were followed in 1698 by ‘An Answer to a late Pamphlet.’ He paid much attention to medals, and in 1701 wrote a ‘History of Rome from the Death of Antoninus Pius to the death of Severus Alexander,’ intended for the Duke of Grafton, of which it is said that Leibnitz praised it to George II.
Meantime Wotton received preferment, and was in 1691 given the living of Llandrill-yn-Rhôs in Denbighshire, became chaplain to Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham, and a little later rector of Middleton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. In 1704 he published ‘A Letter to Eusebia,’ an attack on Toland, and in 1705 a ‘Defence’ of his own ‘Reflections.’ Bishop Burnet presented him on 18 Nov. 1705 to the prebend of Grantham South in Salisbury Cathedral, which he held till his death, and Archbishop Tenison in 1707 conferred upon him the degree of D.D. He published in 1706 a visitation sermon, ‘A Defence of the Rights of the Christian Church,’ which attacked Tindal and received much applause. He was constantly at work, and published in 1708 ‘A Short View of Hickes's “Thesaurus,”’ in 1711 ‘The Rights of the Christian Church Adjusted,’ and ‘The Case of Convocation Considered.’ He was in embarrassed circumstances in 1714 and retired into Wales, where he wrote a treatise ‘De Confusione Linguarum Babylonica’ (published posthumously, 1730, 8vo). He published in 1718 two volumes entitled ‘Miscellaneous Discourses relating to the Traditions and Usages of the Scribes and Pharisees.’ The work is in four parts, of which the first two are on Misna, the third on Shema, phylacteries, and gates and door-posts, the fourth on the observance of one day in seven. He urges the clergy whenever possible to learn Hebrew and the history of Jewish customs from learned Jews. Simon Ockley [q. v.], the historian of the Saracens, commended the book in a letter to the author, and it has often been quoted in later theological writings. He published a ‘Description of the Cathedral of Llandaff’ in 1719.
Wotton diligently studied Welsh, and on his return to London preached a sermon in Welsh, dedicated to the stewards of the Society of Ancient Britons, on 1 March 1722, which was published in 1723. He also made considerable progress in an edition with translation of the laws of Hywel Dda, published after his death as ‘Leges Wallicæ’ in 1730, fol. He was probably encouraged in Celtic studies at Catharine Hall, which has from the time of Nehemias Donellan [q. v.] to that of George Elwes Corrie [q. v.], and even later, produced a series of students of Celtic languages. In 1723 he revised ‘A New History of Ecclesiastical Writers’ of Du Pin.
Wotton died on 13 Feb. 1726–7 at Buxted in Essex. After his death editions of several of his works appeared, and in 1734 ‘Some Thoughts concerning a Proper Method of studying Divinity.’ He retained a powerful memory throughout life, his learning was always ready, and he helped many other scholars, among them Browne Willis [q. v.] His handwriting was of fine strokes and very clear. He was of a genial disposition and fond of smoking. He gave a Roman urn, which had been dug up at Sandy, Bedfordshire, to Archdeacon Battely of Canterbury for a tobacco-jar (Letter in Nichols's Illustrations, iv. 99). He was the friend of Richard Bentley and of Sir Isaac Newton, and seems to have felt no resentment at the sarcasms of Swift. He left, by his wife Anne Hammond, of St. Alban's Court, near Canterbury, one daughter Anne (1700–1783), who married William Clarke (1696–1771) [q. v.][Henry Wotton's Essay on the Education of Children, London, 1753. The Cambridge University Library copy of this work contains a manuscript note stating that the original manuscript of the essay was given to T. Waller the bookseller, who issued it, by E. Umfreville. It was written with a dedication to Charles II in 1673, but not printed till 1753. The same copy contains careful notes by Richard Porson. Monthly Review, 1753; Monk's Life of Bentley, 1833, vol. i.; Le Neve's Fasti Eccles. Anglicanæ, vol. ii.; Nichols's Literary Illustrations; Wotton's Works.]