Gilbert Burnet (18 September 1643 – 17 March 1715) was a Scottish
philosopher and historian, and Bishop of Salisbury. He was fluent in
Dutch, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Burnet was highly respected
as a cleric, a preacher, an academic, a writer and a historian. He was
always closely associated with the Whig party, and was one of the few
close friends in whom King William III confided.
1 Early life: 1643–1674
2 London: 1674–1685
2.1 The Popish Plot
3 History of the Reformation
4 Exile: 1685–1688
5 Glorious Revolution
6 Bishop of Salisbury
7 Under Queen Anne
8 Last years and death
9 History of My Own Time
14 External links
Early life: 1643–1674
Portrait of Gilbert Burnett, Bishop of Salisbury, painted in the style
of Pieter Borsseler.
Burnet was born at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1643, the son of Robert
Burnet, Lord Crimond, a Royalist and Episcopalian lawyer, who became a
judge of the Court of Session, and of his second wife Rachel Johnston,
daughter of James Johnston, and sister of
Archibald 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
was ordained in the Church of
Scotland (then episcopal) by the bishop
of Edinburgh. In 1664 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
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 being asked, 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 at East Saltoun; but,
when the Bishop of Edinburgh, Leighton, urged him, he accepted the
post. He was later offered, but declined, a Scottish bishopric.
In 1672 or 1673 he privately married Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter
of the Earl of Cassilis, who was many years his senior. The great
differences between the couple in age, rank and fortune caused them to
keep the marriage secret for a considerable time. Burnet's motives for
marriage were certainly not mercenary, seeing as he entered into what
has been described as an early form of "pre-nuptial agreement" by
which he renounced any claim to his wife's money. Burnet himself
recalled that they had been good friends for several years, but that
in his view such a close friendship between a single man and a single
woman could not continue indefinitely unless they married. The
marriage seems to have been happy, despite their lack of children,
which Burnet regretted. He was to have numerous children by later
In view of 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.
At Court, where his brother Thomas was a royal physician, he gained
the favour of Charles II, from whom he received various
preferments. He described Charles shrewdly as a man who, despite
his affable manner and famed courtesy, was at heart 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". Burnet noted fairly that this attitude was quite
understandable, given the King's experiences in the English Civil War
and the Interregnum, which had shown him when he was still very young
the "baseness of human nature". Like many other observers he noted
Charles's remarkable self-control: "he has a strange command of
himself: he can pass from business to pleasure, and from pleasure to
business, in so easy a manner that all things seem alike to him."
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".
The Popish Plot
During the Popish Plot, when Queen Catherine was accused of treason,
(it was alleged that she had conspired to murder her husband), 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. 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, who was well
aware of the Queen's great popularity with the English ruling class,
was simply too shrewd a statesman to make such a serious political
As regards the veracity of the Plot itself, while the King quickly
became a total sceptic on the subject, Burnet probably captures
Charles's first reaction to the accusations neatly enough: "among so
many particulars I do not know but there may be some truth." Burnet
himself was neither a sceptic about, nor a convinced believer in the
Plot. Like many sensible Protestants he believed that there had
probably been a Catholic conspiracy of some sort, but he had grave
doubts about the veracity of the informers, especially Titus Oates,
while he regarded Israel Tonge, the co-author of the Plot, as insane.
He recognised the danger that innocent people might be falsely
accused, and is notable that he praised the Catholic martyr Oliver
Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, who is nowadays probably the
best-known victim of the Plot, as a good and innocent man who was
destroyed by the malice of his personal enemies. He also argued
strongly that the first victim of the Plot, the young Catholic banker
William Staley, was innocent, although his narrative of Staley's trial
was undoubtedly coloured by his detestation of William Carstares, the
Crown's chief witness at Staley's trial. Whether the Catholic
nobleman William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, executed for treason
in 1680, was innocent or guilty he regarded as a mystery whose
solution must await "the great revelation of all secrets".
History of the Reformation
Engraved Title page 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
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
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
(1715) consisted of corrections and additional material.
His literary reputation was greatly enhanced by this publication. The
Parliament of England
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
Initial publication of the three volumes of the History of the
These early editions of Gilbert Burnet's The History of the
Reformation of the
Church of England
Church of England were all published in London:
1679 : first edition of Volume 1, that is, The First Part, of the
Progress made in it during the Reign of K. Henry the VIII. London:
1681 : second edition of Volume 1. London: Richard Chiswell.
1681 : first edition of Volume 2, that is, The Second Part, of
the Progress made in it till the Settlement of it in the beginning of
Q. Elizabeths Reign. London: Richard Chiswell.
1683 : second edition of Volume 2. London: Richard Chiswell.
1714 : An Introduction to the Third Volume of The History of the
Reformation of the Church of England. London: John Churchill. 72
pages. The text of this Introduction was reprinted the following year
in Volume 3.
1715 : first edition of Volume 3, that is, The Third Part. Being
Supplement to the Two Volumes formerly publish'd. London: John
1715 : fourth edition of Volume 1. London: Daniel Midwinter; and
1715 : fourth edition of Volume 2. London: Daniel Midwinter; and
Although a "fourth" edition was published in 1715 by Midwinter and by
Cowse, a third edition of these volumes was neither prepared nor
published by Burnet.
Some letters containing an account of what seemed most remarkable in
Switzerland, Italy, 1686
Upon the succession of the 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 knowledge of the Italian language. We cannot know whether a
personal meeting with the Pope would have altered Burnet's low opinion
of him (in his History he describes Innocent as "jealous, fearful and
extremely ignorant", a view not shared by later historians). 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. It was Burnet who pointed out that William's marriage to Mary
did not in itself entitle him to reign jointly with her if she became
Queen, and that further steps would be necessary to ensure his right
to the throne.
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. Burnet also upset James by becoming
engaged to the wealthy heiress Mary (Maria) Scott (his first wife Lady
Margaret had died in 1685). James prosecuted Burnet for high treason
in Scotland, accusing him of corresponding with Archibald Campbell,
9th Earl of Argyll and others convicted of high treason. To safeguard
Burnet, the States General of the
Netherlands naturalised him without
opposition, and James's request for Burnet's extradition was declined.
Burnet and Mary Scott were married and the marriage proved to be a
happy one. Burnet, who had long been resigned to being childless (as
his first wife Lady Margaret Kennedy had been nearly twenty years his
senior), quickly found himself the father of an increasing family.
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.
William landed at
Torbay on 5 November. When Burnet came ashore he
hastened to William and eagerly inquired of him 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?"
Burnet was appointed to preach the coronation sermon, on 11 April
He was appointed tutor to the future Queen Anne's only surviving
child, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, in 1698. He attempted to
refuse the appointment, knowing that Anne, who instinctively disliked
anyone whom William favored, was strongly opposed to it, but the King
was adamant, despite Burnet's plea that he was still in mourning for
his second wife Mary Scott, who had recently died of smallpox while on
a visit to Rotterdam. The appointment was unwelcome to most of Anne's
household as well as to the Princess herself, but as Burnet recalled
cheerfully, "I lived with them well enough". He was well known for
having no feelings to be hurt. After Mary's death, Burnet in 1700
remarried Elizabeth Berkeley (née Blake): his choice of a third wife
met with general approval, as Elizabeth had been Mary's best friend,
and Mary herself had told her husband that should he outlive her, she
would wish him to marry Elizabeth.
Bishop of Salisbury
Gilbert Burnet was consecrated
Bishop of Salisbury
Bishop of Salisbury on Easter 1689.
On Easter 1689, Burnet was consecrated
Bishop of Salisbury
Bishop of Salisbury and three
days later was sworn as chancellor of the Order of the Garter. His
office as bishop is noted for his liberal views and zealous discharge
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.
Under Queen Anne
He was present at King William's deathbed, and with that knack for
appearing absurd which sometimes detracted from his genuine gifts, he
rushed in haste to be the first to break the news to the new Queen,
and went on his knees in front of her, only to find himself "generally
laughed at". He was out of royal favour in the reign of Queen
Anne: apart from Anne's reflexive hostility to anyone whom King
William had favoured, she apparently thought Burnet to be something of
a buffoon, although he could sometimes be an entertaining one.
Nonetheless, like her four royal predecessors, she occasionally
confided in him. In 1713 he warned her of an impending Jacobite
invasion: the Queen, unimpressed, noted drily that while Burnet
apparently considered himself to be all-knowing, she could not help
recalling that he had made a similar prophecy the previous year, which
had proved to be entirely groundless.
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".
Last years and death
In 1714, as Queen Anne approached death, Burnet became briefly, and in
the opinion of his critics, somewhat hysterically concerned about the
dire consequences for Protestants if her Catholic half-brother, the
Old Pretender, succeeded 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 of a second Revolution
and a flight to Holland... 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
House of Hanover in August 1714,
seven months before Burnet's own death.
Burnet died of a fever on 17 March 1715, having been ill for only
three days. His mood in his final days was described as being calm,
cheerful and absolutely resigned to death. His will has been called
one of those rare dispositions of one's property which please
everyone: one third of his estate was left to his eldest son and the
rest was divided among the other four children. What happened to his
daughter Elizabeth's share of the money is something of a puzzle, as
she is known to have spent her last years in poverty.
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
Commonwealth of England to the
Treaty of Utrecht
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. A critical edition in six
volumes with numerous footnotes was edited by
Martin Routh and
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 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 c.1672 to Lady Margaret Kennedy,
John Kennedy, 6th Earl of Cassilis and his wife Lady Jean
Hamilton, a lady famous for her beauty and strength of character, and
many years older than her husband. The marriage was kept secret for
some time, and Gilbert renounced any claim to his wife's fortune. She
is said to have lost her memory completely some time before she died
He was married secondly in 1687 to Mary Scott (Maria Schotte)
(1660–1698), a Dutch heiress of Scots descent: she was a
granddaughter of the prominent statesman and jurist Apollonius
Schotte. Although Mary brought him a fortune, it was generally
regarded as a love match on both sides: Mary, whose wealth gave her an
unusual degree of freedom for a woman of her time, had always
maintained that she would only marry a man she really cared for. She
died of smallpox while visiting
Rotterdam on business in 1698.
He married thirdly in 1700 Elizabeth Berkeley (née Blake), widow of
Robert Berkeley, and daughter of Sir Richard Blake of Clerkenwell; she
was a religious writer of some note. She died in 1709. This marriage
was largely the work of Burnet's second wife Mary, who, apprehensive
that she might die on her last visit to Rotterdam, where the smallpox
was raging, advised Burnet in the event of her death to marry
Elizabeth, who was a close friend of hers.
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
William Burnet, the Royal governor of New Jersey (1720–1728), and
later of Massachusetts and New Hampshire;
Gilbert Burnet, the pamphleteer;
Thomas Burnet, judge of the Court of Common Pleas
He and Mary also had twin daughters :
Mary, who married David Mitchell, nephew and heir of admiral Sir David
Elizabeth, who married Richard West, a distinguished lawyer who became
Lord Chancellor of Ireland, by whom she was the mother of Richard West
the younger, the poet and friend of Thomas Gray.
Burnet was a devoted parent and all his children were deeply attached
to him. Even Thomas, whose youthful reputation for debauchery caused
his father much distress, sincerely mourned "the best of fathers".
Influential close relatives include Burnet's mother's brother
Archibald Johnston and his son James Johnston.
Burnet's third wife Elizabeth Berkeley, portrait by Sir Godfrey
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.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k Airy, Osmund (1908–1909). "Gilbert Burnet".
In Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney. The Dictionary of National Biography
(2 ed.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 394–404.
^ "Fellow details". Retrieved 18 January 2017.
^ Kenyon, J.P. The Stuarts Fontana Edition 1966 p. 117
^ Kenyon p.116
^ Kenyon p.138
^ Kenyon, J.P. The
Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 pp.127–8
^ Kenyon 2000 p.125
^ Kenyon 2000 p.61
^ Carstares is a somewhat mysterious individual, but he was clearly
not the Scottish cleric William Carstares, who was in prison himself
at that time on suspicion of treason.
^ Kenyon 2000 p.279
^ a b Lowndes, William Thomas (1834). The Bibliographer's Manual of
English Literature. 1. London: William Pickering.
^ a b Allibone, Samuel Austin (1870). A Critical Dictionary of English
Literature and British and American Authors. 1. Philadelphia: J. B.
Lippincott Company. p. 296.
^ 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.
^ Gregg Queen Anne
Yale University Press
Yale University Press 2001 p.115
^ Macaulay, Thomas Babington, The History of England from the
Accession of James II. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1878.
Vol. III, pages 62–63
^ Gregg p.129
^ Leonard Williams Levy Blasphemy: verbal offense against the sacred,
from Moses to Salman Rushdie p 230
^ Kenyon, J.P. Revolution Principles
Cambridge University Press 1977
^ Foxcroft and Clarke Supplement to Burnet's History of My Own Time
^ A Supplement to Burnet's History of my Own Time. Clarendon Press.
^ Burnet, Gilbert Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J.
Routh (1823):Volume I,
^ Gilbert Burnet
^ Hattendorf, John B. "Mitchell, Sir David".
Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography (online ed.).
Oxford University Press.
doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18836. (Subscription or UK public library
^ Kenyon 1977 p.162
Osmund Airy, "Gilbert Burnet", in The Dictionary of National
Biography, eds. Leslie Stephen & Sidney Lee, 2nd ed. (London:
Smith, Elder & Co. 1908), vol. 3, pp. 394–404.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession
of James the Second. Popular Edition in Two Volumes. (London:
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gilbert Burnet.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article
Works by or about
Gilbert Burnet at Internet Archive
Gilbert Burnet at
LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
"Archival material relating to Gilbert Burnet". UK National
Individual online books
Relation of the Bloody and Barbarous Massacre of about One Hundred
Thousand Protestants, Begun at Paris and Carried on All Over France by
the Papists in the Year 1572 by
Gilbert Burnet (1678)
Some letters containing an account of what seemed most remarkable in
Switzerland, Italy by
Gilbert Burnet (1686)
Dr. Burnet's Travels: or Letters Containing an Account of What Seemed
Most Remarkable in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and France, &c. by
Gilbert Burnet (1687)
A Discourse of the Pastoral Care by
Gilbert Burnet (1713)
Historical and Critical Remarks Upon Bishop Burnet's History of His
Own Time by B. Higgons (1727)
Some Account of the Life and Death of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
Gilbert Burnet (Munroe and Francis, 1812)
The Life of Sir Matthew Hale, Knt., Sometime Lord Chief Justice of His
Majesty's Court of King's-Bench by
Gilbert Burnet (C. & J.
The History of the Reformation of the
Church of England
Church of England by Gilbert
Oxford University Press, 1829): Volume I,Volume I, Part II,
Volume II, Volume II, Part II, Volume III Volume III, Part II
Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J. Routh (1823):Volume
I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI
Lives, Characters, and an Address to Posterity by Gilbert Burnet, ed.
John Jebb (1833)
An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the
Church of England
Church of England by
Gilbert Burnet (G. S. Appleton, 1850)
The Court Sermon: 1674 by
Gilbert Burnet (R. Clarke, 1868)
A Supplement to Burnet's History of My Own Time (Clarendon Press,
A Life of Gilbert Burnet,
Bishop of Salisbury
Bishop of Salisbury by T. E. S. Clarke
Gilbert Burnet as Educationist, Being His Thoughts on Education, With
Notes and Life of the Author by John Clarke (1914)
Church of England
Church of England titles
Bishop of Salisbury
ISNI: 0000 0001 1022 4049
BNF: cb11996375w (data)