Gilbert Burnet

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Gilbert Burnet

The British prelate Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) was a noted historian and a political and spiritual adviser to the British monarchs William and Mary.

Gilbert Burnet was born in Edinburgh, where his father was an advocate. He was educated by his father until the age of 10; he then entered the University of Aberdeen. By 14 Burnet had mastered Latin, Greek, and Aristotelian philosophy and had received a master's degree. He then studied civil law, but at his father's behest he turned to theology. By 18 Burnet had mastered the subject and was offered a church living. He declined it, however, on the grounds that he was too young for the pastoral calling.

In 1663 Burnet visited England, where he met the leading intellectual figures at Oxford and in London. He traveled to Europe in 1664, where his bent toward toleration was strengthened in Holland and his hatred of tyranny confirmed in France. In 1665 he accepted a church living in Scotland, and in 1669 he became a professor of divinity at the University of Glasgow. His patron was Lord Lauderdale, Charles II's chief adviser on Scottish affairs. By 1672, however, Burnet came to oppose Lauderdale's ruthless policy of government and turned to the Duke of Hamilton as his patron.

To avoid Lauderdale's wrath, Burnet settled in London. His testimony was crucial in the impeachment of Lauderdale by the House of Commons in 1674. During this period Burnet began his History of the Reformation in England, and the first volume was published during the uproar over the Popish Plot. He defended many of the victims of the plot, however, and did not favor the exclusion of Charles II's Catholic brother James from the succession. He had long been acquainted with James, who treated him well, even though Burnet repeatedly tried to persuade him to renounce Catholicism. Burnet's solution for the exclusion crisis was that James should keep the crown but that the Protestant William of Orange should exercise power as protector. When exclusion was defeated, Burnet fell out of favor. In 1683 he was forbidden to preach, and he left England for France.

By 1687 Burnet had moved to Utrecht and become a political adviser to William of Orange and religious guide to William's wife, Mary. In 1688 he accompanied William on his invasion of England; upon the entry into London he preached on the text, "It is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes." After the accession of William and Mary in 1689, Burnet was made bishop of Salisbury. His episcopate was marked by his strong spirit of tolerance and by vigorous efforts to improve the clergy in the diocese.

Burnet influenced William's successor, Anne, to augment the income of poor Anglican clergymen; the fund became known as "Queen Anne's Bounty." Otherwise Burnet's tolerance was not congenial to Anne, and he devoted his last years to his diocese and the completion of History of His Own Times, the record of an intelligent, tolerant, and moderate man in an age of passionate religious and political antagonisms.

Further Reading

The best biography of Burnet is still his History of His Own Times (many editions). See also T. E. S. Clarke, A Life of Gilbert Burnet (1907). Background studies which discuss Burnet include Geoffrey S. Holmes and W. A. Speck, eds., The Divided Society: Parties and Politics in England, 1694-1716 (1967), and Geoffrey S. Holmes, ed., Britain after the Glorious Revolution, 1689-1714 (1969). □

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Burnet, Gilbert (1643–1715). Whig bishop and historian. Born in Edinburgh and educated at Aberdeen University, Burnet became professor of divinity at Glasgow at the age of 26. When he moved in the 1670s to London, he was for a time in favour with Charles II, whom he rebuked for ‘sinful pleasures’, but increasingly was involved with the opposition Whigs, and attended Lord Russell on the scaffold in 1683. He then moved to Holland, was in high favour with William of Orange, accompanied him on the expedition of 1688, and wrote the declaration on landing. His reward was the bishopric of Salisbury, which he held for the rest of his life. He was governor of Prince William of Gloucester, who died in 1700. Burnet's best-known historical work is the History of my Own Time, published posthumously and dealing with the Restoration to the treaty of Utrecht. Macaulay made great use of it and offered a strong defence of Burnet's character and writings. A more scholarly work was the History of the Reformation, which used archival sources (1679) and for which Burnet received the thanks of Parliament. A large, powerful, and confident man, Burnet was a vigorous preacher and a diligent bishop. He was in the thick of controversy all his life, a thorn in the side of the Tories, and lived to see the Hanoverian succession established.

J. A. Cannon

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