15447151911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 — Aubrey, John

AUBREY, JOHN (1626–1697), English antiquary, was born at Easton Pierse or Percy, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, on the 12th of March 1626, his father being a country gentleman of considerable fortune. He was educated at the Malmesbury grammar school under Robert Latimer, who had numbered Thomas Hobbes among his earlier pupils, and at his schoolmaster’s house Aubrey first met the philosopher about whom he was to leave so many curious and interesting details. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but his studies were interrupted by the Civil War. In 1646 he became a student of the Middle Temple, but was never called to the bar. He spent much of his time in the country, and in 1649 he brought into notice the megalithic remains at Avebury. His father died in 1652, leaving to Aubrey large estates, and with them, unfortunately, complicated lawsuits. Aubrey, however, lived gaily, and used his means to gratify his passion for the company of celebrities and for every sort of knowledge to be gleaned about them. Anthony à Wood prophesied that he would one day break his neck while running downstairs after a retreating guest, in the hope of extracting a story from him. He took no active share in the political troubles of the time, but from his description of a meeting of the Rota Club, founded by James Harrington, the author of Oceana, he appears to have been a theorizing republican. His reminiscences on this subject date from the Restoration, and are probably softened by considerations of expediency. In 1663 he became a member of the Royal Society, and in the next year he met Joan Somner, “in an ill hour,” he tells us. This connexion did not end in marriage, and a lawsuit with the lady complicated his already embarrassed affairs. He lost estate after estate, until in 1670 he parted with his last piece of property, Easton Pierse. From this time he was dependent on the hospitality of his numerous friends. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony à Wood at Oxford, and when Wood began to gather materials for his invaluable Athenae Oxonienses, Aubrey offered to collect information for him. From time to time he forwarded memoranda to him, and in 1680 he began to promise the “Minutes for Lives,” which Wood was to use at his discretion. He left the task of verification largely to Wood. As a hanger-on in great houses he had little time for systematic work, and he wrote the “Lives” in the early morning while his hosts were sleeping off the effects of the dissipation of the night before. He constantly leaves blanks for dates and facts, and many queries. He made no attempt at a fair copy, and, when fresh information occurred to him, inserted it at random. He made some distinction between hearsay and authentic information, but had no pretence to accuracy, his retentive memory being the chief authority. The principal charm of his “Minutes” lies in the amusing details he has to recount about his personages, and in the plainness and truthfulness that he permits himself in face of established reputations. In 1592 he complained bitterly that Wood had destroyed forty pages of his MS., probably because of the dangerous freedom of Aubrey’s pen. Wood Was prosecuted eventually for insinuations against the judicial integrity of the earl of Clarendon. One of the two statements called in question was certainly founded on information provided by Aubrey. This perhaps explains the estrangement between the two antiquaries and the ungrateful account that Wood gives of the elder man’s character. “He was a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with follies and misinformations, which sometimes would guide him into the paths of error.”[1] In 1673 Aubrey began his “Perambulation” or “Survey” of the county of Surrey, which was the result of many years’ labour in collecting inscriptions and traditions in the country. He began a “History of his Native District of Northern Wiltshire,” but, feeling that he was too old to finish it as he would wish, he made over his material, about 1695, to Thomas Tanner, afterwards bishop of St Asaph. In the next year he published his only completed, though certainly not his most valuable work, the Miscellanies, a collection of stories on ghosts and dreams. He died at Oxford in June 1697, and was buried in the church of St Mary Magdalene.

Beside the works already mentioned, his papers included: “Architectonica Sacra,” notes on ecclesiastical antiquities; and “Life of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury,” which served as the basis of Dr Blackburn’s Latin life, and also of Wood’s account. His survey of Surrey was incorporated in R. Rawlinson’s Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey (1719); his antiquarian notes on Wiltshire were printed in Wiltshire; the Topographical Collections of John Aubrey, corrected and enlarged by J.E. Jackson (Devizes, 1862); part of another MS. on “The Natural History of Wiltshire” was printed by John Britton in 1847 for the Wiltshire Topographical Society; the Miscellanies were edited in 1890 for the Library of Old Authors; the “Minutes for Lives” were partially edited in 1813. A complete transcript, Brief Lives chiefly of Contemporaries set down by John Aubrey between the Years 1669 and 1696, was edited for the Clarendon Press in 1898 by the Rev. Andrew Clark from the MSS. in the Bodleian, Oxford.

See also John Britton, Memoir of John Aubrey (1845); David Masson, in the British Quarterly Review, July 1856; Émile Montégut, Heures de lecture d’un critique (1891); and a catalogue of Aubrey’s collections in The Life and Times of Anthony Wood ..., by Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1891–1900, vol. iv. pp. 191-193), which contains many other references to Aubrey.

  1. “Life of Anthony à Wood written by Himself” (Athen. Oxon., ed. Bliss).