Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Basset, Joshua

BASSET, JOSHUA (1641?–1720), master of Sidney College, Cambridge, was born in or about 1641, being the son of John Basset, a merchant of Lynn Regis, in Norfolk, and probably an alderman of that borough. He was educated in his native town under the care of Mr. Bell, and on 13 Oct. 1657 he was admitted a sizar of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, under the tuition of Mr. Bolt, being then of the age of sixteen years. He was elected a junior fellow of that college in 1664, and became a senior fellow in 1673. The dates of his degrees are B.A. 1661, M.A. 1665, B.D. 1671. On the death of Dr. Richard Minshull, in December 1686, he was, by a royal mandate from James II, elected the fifth master of Sidney College, the taking of the usual oaths being dispensed with, and in January 1686–7 he ‘declared himself a papist’ (Luttrell, Historical Relation of State Affairs, i. 391). He had mass publicly said in his college, and Cole, the antiquary, remarks: ‘I have met with several people in Cambridge who have been present during the celebration of it’ (MS. Collections for Cambridgeshire, xx. 117). During his mastership he got the statutes of his college altered for the accommodation of members of his own communion. In reference to these innovations Sprat, bishop of Rochester, in a ‘Letter to the Earl of Dorset’ (1688, p. 13) justifying his sitting in the ecclesiastical commission, says: ‘I absolutely resisted all the alterations in the statutes of Sidney College, and all other changes and abrogations of oaths that were then made or designed in the statutes of either university for the advantage of popish priests and students, and for the freer course of mandamuses in their favour.’

When Father Alban Francis, a Benedictine monk, went to Cambridge with a mandate from James II to the university authorities to confer on him the degree of M.A. without administering to him the usual oaths, the vice-chancellor took alarm, and refused to comply with the request. Basset happened to be one of the caput, and a grace to refuse granting it would certainly have been stopped in that body. To prevent this difficulty the academical authorities adopted another course, and sent a petition to the king through the Duke of Albemarle, their chancellor, praying that his majesty would recall his mandate. The story of its reception is told in Macaulay's ‘History’ (chap. viii.).

During his mastership the college chapel was not taken away from the fellows, and Basset was content to have mass in a private room in his own lodge, ‘the altar-piece of which,’ says Cole, writing apparently in 1748 (in the manuscript cited above), ‘is to this day hanging over one of the doors in the audit-room, being only the I H S in a glory and cherubims about it. This, with much other of his furniture, at his leaving the college upon King James's revoking all the mandamuses in December 1688, was left here, as I have been informed by the present master. When, upon some occasion of congratulation in the next reign, his successor was in London, Basset, being in necessitous circumstances, desired that he might have his goods from the college, he was roughly made to understand that if he did not desist he would be informed against as a popish priest.’ There is no reason to believe, however, that Basset ever took catholic orders.

The Rev. Joseph Craven, B.D., master of Sidney College, in a letter to Dr. Reynolds, bishop of Lincoln, 11 Jan. 1725–6, in reply to some inquiries concerning Basset, wrote as follows: ‘As to his government, we found him a passionate, proud, and insolent man wherever he was opposed, which made us very cautious in conversing with him, who saw he waited for and catched at all occasions to do us mischief in what concerned our religion. I do not deny that he had learning and other abilities to have done us good; but his interest lay the contrary way, and therefore he procured from the commissioners our statutes to be altered, and whatever was in behalf of the protestant religion to be taken away. He threatened us several times to take the chapel to himself and his worship, or to divide it with us, and one 5th of November, because we refused to omit the service of the day, he shut the chapel door against us, and hindered divine service for that time. I think I may mention, as a great instance of injustice to us, that the king dispensed with his taking the oath of a master, and he never took any; and so was let loose upon us to do what he pleased with us. Before he came amongst us he had given a notable specimen of his violence in serving the ends of popery by prosecuting Mr. Spence, of Jesus, for a speech on the 5th of November before the university, wherein he had satirically enough treated the Church of Rome. By threatening him with the resentments of the court he brought him to a public recantation in the Senate House’ (MS. Lansd. 988, f. 190). The writer of this letter alleges that Basset was ‘a mongrel papist, who had so many nostrums in his religion that no part of the Roman Church could own him.’

Basset died in London, very poor, about 1720.

The only work which has his name on the title-page is ‘Ecclesiæ Theoria Nova Dodwelliana exposita. Cui accessit Rerum quæ indiligentes Lectores fugiant Indiculus,’ London, 1713, 8vo; but he is credited with the authorship of two other books of greater importance. Of these the first is ‘Reason and Authority, or the Motives of a late Protestant's Reconciliation to the Catholick Church. Together with remarks upon some late Discourses against Transubstantiation,' London, 1687, 4to. This book, which is attributed to Basset in the Bodleian and Dublin catalogues, was answered by Dr. Thomas Bainbrigg in the same year, and in 1705 by Nathaniel Spinckes, M.A., and Edward Stephens. Dodd (Church History, iii. 482) ascribes the authorship to John Goter, but it can scarcely be the production of that eminent controversialist, because the writer represents himself as having been converted to catholicism after the publication of Tillotson's ‘Discourse against Transubstantiation,' which appeared in 1685. Indeed, Dodd himself states elsewhere (Certamen utriusque Ecclesiæ, 16) that the treatise on 'Church Authority,' which was answered by Stephens, was the production of Basset's pen. It seems to be established also that Basset was the author of 'An Essay towards a Proposal for Catholick Communion. Wherein above sixty of the principal controverted points which have hitherto divided Christendom being call'd over, 'tis examin'd how many of them may and ought to be laid aside, and how few remain to be accommodated for the effecting a General Peace. By a Minister of the Church of England,' London, 1704, 1705, 1812, 1879, this last edition being entitled 'An Eirenicon of the Eighteenth Century,' and having a long introduction by the editor, Henry Nutcombe Oxenham, M.A. The reprint of 1705 is accompanied with a reply by the Rev. Edward Stephens, and the ‘Essay’ was also attacked by two nonjuring clergymen, viz. Samuel Grascome and Nathaniel Spinckes. Dodd (Certamen utriusque Ecclesiæ, 16) attributes the authorship to Thomas Deane, a catholic fellow of University College, Oxford; but Wood, who has given some account of Deane (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 450), does not include this essay among his other works. Mr. Oxenham is disposed to think that the real author was William Basset [q. v.], rector of St. Swithin's, London; but his ingenious theory is completely upset by the fact that this Basset died eight years before the 'Essay' was published (Newcourt, Repertorium Ecclesiasticum, i. 544). It must, however, be admitted that the following account of the author given by Michel le Quien (Nullité des Ordinations Anglicanes, Paris, 1725, i. introd. p. xxx) is, if correct, irreconcilable with the known date of Joshua Basset's conversion:—

‘Tant s'en faut que les Anglois pensent aussi sérieusement qu'on voudroit le faire croire, à se réünir avec nous, qu'il y a peu d'années qu'un de leurs ministres, nommé M. Basset, qui le souhaittoit plus que les autres, ayant publié un Ecrit en maniere d'Essai ['An Essay towards a Proposal for Catholick Communion'] pour y parvenir, fut cité à comparoître devant la Convocation ou Assemblée du Clergé pour y rendre compte de ses sentimens et de sa doctrine; et sur le refus qu'il fit de se rétracter, il fut déposé du Ministere et de la Cure dont il joüissoit dans Londres; ensorte qu'ayant été obligé de chercher une retraitte à la campagne, il fut réduit à gagner sa vie en apprenant à lire aux enfans des paysans. Cette persecution a contribué à lui ouvrir les yeux: il a enfin abjuré absolument l'hérésie, et est entré dans la Communion de l'Eglise qu'il avoit long-temps desirée.'

Joshua Basset contributed verses to the 'Cambridge University Collections' on the death of the Duke of Albemarle (1670), the accession of James II (1684), and the birth of the Prince of Wales (1688).

[MS. Addit. 5821 f. 119, 5846 f. 447, 5864 f. 92; MS. notes in copy of Essay towards a Proposal for Catholick Communion (1705), in Brit. Mus.; MS. Lansd. 88 f. 40; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iii. 614, 616, 636, 642; Bibl. Hearniana, 25; Oxenham's Eirenicon of the Eighteenth Century, introd. 17; Jones's Cat. of Popery Tracts (Chetham Soc.), i. 148; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 199, 3rd ser. iii. 140, xi. 479.]

T. C.