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Gilbert Burnet

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Gilbert Burnet

Gilbert Burnet
Bishop of Salisbury
Portrait of Gilbert Burnet after John Riley, circa 1689–1691
Church Church of England
Predecessor Seth Ward
Successor William Talbot
Personal details
Born 18 September 1643
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died 17 March 1715(1715-03-17) (aged 71)
St John's Court, Clerkenwell, London, England

Gilbert Burnet (18 September 1643 – 17 March 1715) was a Scottish theologian and historian, and Bishop of Salisbury. He was fluent in Dutch, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Burnet was respected as a cleric, a preacher, and an academic, as well as a writer and historian. He was associated with the Whig party.[1]

Early life: 1643–1674

Burnet was born at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1643, the son of Robert Burnet, Lord Crimond, a Royalist and Episcopalian lawyer, who became a judge, and of Rachel Johnston, the sister of Johnston of Warristoun, a leader of the Covenanters. His father was his first tutor until he began his studies at the University of Aberdeen, where he earned a Master of Arts in Philosophy at the age of thirteen. He studied law briefly before changing to theology. He did not enter into the ministry at that time, but travelled for several years. He visited Oxford, Cambridge, London, the United Provinces and France. He studied Hebrew under a Rabbi in Amsterdam. By 1665 he returned to Scotland and was ordained in the Church of Scotland (then episcopal) by the bishop of Edinburgh. [2]

He began his ministry in the rural church at East Saltoun, East Lothian, and served this community devoutly for four years. In 1669, without his asking or even consent, he was named to the vacant chair of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. At first he declined, since his congregation unanimously asked him to remain. But, when Bishop of Edinburgh Leighton urged him, he accepted the post. He was later offered, but declined, a Scottish bishopric.[2]

London: 1674–1685

With the unsettled political times, he left the University in 1674 and moved to London. In London, his political and religious sentiments prompted him to support the Whigs. His energetic and bustling character led him to take an active part in the controversies of the time, and he endeavoured to bring about a reconciliation between Episcopacy and Presbytery.

Going to London he was in some favour with Charles II, from whom he received various preferments.[2] He described Charles shrewdly as a man, who despite his affable manner and famed courtesy was the archetypal cynic: "he has a very ill opinion of men and women, and so is infinitely distrustful.... he thinks the world is governed wholly by (self) interest".[3] He also recorded some of the King's most memorable sayings, such as "Appetites are free, and Almighty God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure".[4] During the Popish Plot, when Queen Catherine was accused of treason, the King confided to Burnet his feelings of guilt about his ill treatment of the Queen, "who is incapable of doing a wicked thing", his resolve not to abandon her ("that would be a horrible thing, considering my faultiness to her"), and his wish to live a more moral life in future.[5] Burnet, for his part, told the King frankly that he was wrong to believe that the Earl of Shaftesbury had any part in the charges of treason made against the Queen: Shaftesbury was simply too shrewd a statesman to make such a serious political misjudgment.[6]

History of the Reformation

Engraved Titlepage of the first volume of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England.

In the mid-1670s, a French translation of Nicholas Sanders' De origine et progressu schismatio Anglicani libri tres (1585) appeared. Sanders attacked the English Reformation as a political act carried on by a corrupt king. Several of Burnet's friends wished him to publish a rebuttal of the work, so in 1679 his first volume of The History of the Reformation of the Church of England was published. This covered the reign of Henry VIII; the second volume (1681) covered the reign of Elizabeth and the Elizabethan Religious Settlement; the third volume (1714) consisted of corrections and additional material.[1] His literary reputation was greatly enhanced by this publication. The Parliament of England voted thanks for Burnet after the publication of the first volume, and in 1680 the University of Oxford awarded Burnet the degree of Doctor of Divinity on the advice of William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. For over a century this was the standard reference work in the field, although Catholics disputed some of its content.

Exile: 1685–1688

Upon the succession of Roman Catholic King James II in 1685, Burnet requested permission to go abroad, which James heartily consented to. He left on 11 May and reached Paris at the end of that month. He travelled through Switzerland to Italy, where Pope Innocent XI offered him an audience, which Burnet declined on account of his poor Italian. After more months of travelling across France, Switzerland and Germany he arrived at Utrecht, Netherlands in May 1686. He was sent letters from the court of William, Prince of Orange and his wife Princess Mary inviting him to take up residence at The Hague. This courting of Burnet infuriated James and under his pressure he was formally dismissed from court but still kept in contact with William and Mary.[1]

In 1687, in light of James' policy of wanting to receive William and Mary's support for the repeal of the Test Act, Burnet wrote a pamphlet against repeal. William and Mary declined to support repeal, apparently on Burnet's advice.[1] Burnet also upset James by becoming engaged to the wealthy heiress Mary Scott. James prosecuted Burnet for high treason in Scotland, accusing him of corresponding with the Duke of Argyll and others convicted of high treason. To safeguard Burnet, the States General of Holland naturalised him without opposition and James's request for Burnet's extradition was declined.

Burnet was not privy to William's decision-making process because he was apparently unable to keep a secret (he was not informed of William's planned invasion of England until July 1688). However his help was needed to translate William's Declaration which was to be distributed in England after his landing. When William's fleet set sail for England in October 1688, Burnet was made William's chaplain.

Glorious Revolution

William landed at Torbay on 5 November.[2] When Burnet came ashore he hastened to William and eagerly inquired of what William now intended to do. William regarded the interference in military matters by non-military personnel with disgust but he was in good humour at this moment and responded with a delicate reproof: "Well, Doctor, what do you think of predestination now?"[7]

Burnet was appointed to preach the coronation sermon, on 11 April 1689.[2]

Bishop of Salisbury

Gilbert Burnet was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury on Easter 1689.
On Easter 1689, Burnet was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury and three days later was sworn as chancellor of the Order of the Garter.[1] His office as bishop is noted for his liberal views and zealous discharge of duty.
His jurisdiction extended over Wiltshire and Berkshire. These counties he divided into districts which he sedulously visited. About two months of every summer he passed in preaching, catechizing, and confirming daily from church to church. When he died there was no corner of his diocese in which the people had not had seven or eight opportunities of receiving his instructions and of asking his advice. The worst weather, the worst roads, did not prevent him from discharging these duties. On one occasion, when the floods were out, he exposed his life to imminent risk rather than disappoint a rural congregation which was in expectation of a discourse from the Bishop. The poverty of the inferior clergy was a constant cause of uneasiness to his kind and generous heart. He was indefatigable and at length successful in his attempts to obtain for them from the Crown that grant which is known by the name of Queen Anne's Bounty. He was especially careful, when he travelled through his diocese, to lay no burden on them. Instead of requiring them to entertain him, he entertained them. He always fixed his headquarters at a market town, kept a table there, and by his decent hospitality and munificent charities, tried to conciliate those who were prejudiced against his doctrines. When he bestowed a poor benefice, and he had many such to bestow, his practice was to add out of his own purse twenty pounds a year to the income. Ten promising young men, to each of whom he allowed thirty pounds a year, studied divinity under his own eye in the close of Salisbury.[8]
He was present at King William's deathbed. He was out of royal favour in the reign of Queen Anne. He was nominated by John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, to write answers to the works sponsored by Tillotson's friend, the Socinian businessman and philanthropist Thomas Firmin, who was funding the printing of Socinian tracts by Stephen Nye. Yet neither Burnet nor Tillotson was entirely unsympathetic to non-conformism. Of the Athanasian Creed, the new Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the new Bishop of Salisbury, "I wish we were well rid of it".[9]]

Last years

In 1714, as Queen Anne approached death, Burnet became briefly, and in the opinion of his critics, somewhat hysterically concerned at the dire consequences for Protestants of a Catholic successor to the throne. His predictions of doom were received with general scepticism: "Be easy my Lord, and disturb not the peace of your old age with vain imaginings... I am sure you need not die a martyr for your faith" wrote one correspondent acidly. In the event the throne passed peacefully to the Protestant House of Hanover in August 1714, a few months before Burnet's own death.[10]

History of My Own Time

Burnet began his History of My Own Time in 1683, covering the English Civil War and the Commonwealth of England to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The first volume was published in 1724, ending before the Glorious Revolution. In 1734 the second volume was published, taking the History to the Treaty of Utrecht.[1] A critical edition in six volumes with numerous footnotes was edited by Martin Routh and published by Oxford University Press in 1823 (updated 1833). The work gives a sketch of the history of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth, and a detailed account of the immediately succeeding period down to 1713. While not free from egotism and some party feeling, it is written with a sincere desire for accuracy and fairness, and it has largely the authority of an eye-witness. The style, if somewhat lacking in dignity, is lively and picturesque.

A supplemental biography of Burnet, titled A Supplement to Burnet's History of my Own Time[11] and edited by H. C. Foxcroft and T. E. S. Clarke, was published in 1902.


Gilbert Burnet had three wives in succession: Lady Margaret Kennedy, Mary Scott, and Elizabeth Berkeley.

He married three times, firstly to Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter of John Kennedy, 6th Earl of Cassilis (died 1684); secondly to Mary Scott (died 1698), a Dutch heiress of Scots descent, and thirdly to Elizabeth Berkeley (née Blake), a religious writer of some note, who died in 1709.[12] All his surviving children were by Mary Scott; Elizabeth bore two daughters who died young.

By Mary he had five sons of whom two died young. The three surviving sons were –

He and Mary had twin daughters of whom-

Influential close relatives include Burnet's mother's brother Archibald Johnston and his son James Johnston.


Thomas Babington Macaulay describes Burnet in relation to the king he served, William of Orange:

When the doctor took liberties, which was not seldom the case, his patron became more than usually cold and sullen, and sometimes uttered a short dry sarcasm which would have struck dumb any person of ordinary assurance. In spite of such occurrences, however, the amity between this singular pair continued, with some temporary interruptions, till it was dissolved by death. Indeed it was not easy to wound Burnet's feelings. His self-complacency, his animal spirits, and his want of tact, were such that, though he frequently gave offence, he never took it.—History of England, Vol. 2, Ch 7.

In J.P. Kenyon's view Burnet's great gifts never quite received the recognition they deserved, perhaps because there was always "something of the buffoon" about him.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Martin Greig, 'Burnet, Gilbert (1643–1715)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008, accessed 12 December 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d e Airy 1886.
  3. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuarts Fontana Edition 1966 p. 117
  4. ^ Kenyon p.138
  5. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 pp.127–8
  6. ^ Kenyon 2000 p.125
  7. ^ Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second. Popular Edition in Two Volumes. Volume I (London: Longmans, 1889), p. 565.
  8. ^ Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England from the Accession of James II. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1878. Vol. III, pages 62–63
  9. ^ Leonard Williams Levy Blasphemy: verbal offense against the sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie p 230
  10. ^ Kenyon, J.P. Revolution Principles Cambridge University Press 1977 pp.164–5
  11. ^ A Supplement to Burnet's History of my Own Time. Clarendon Press. 1902. 
  12. ^ Burnet, Gilbert Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J. Routh (1823):Volume I,
  13. ^ Gilbert Burnet
  14. ^ Kenyon 1977 p.162


External links

Church of England titles
Preceded by
Seth Ward
Bishop of Salisbury
Succeeded by
William Talbot
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