Best, Paul (DNB00)


BEST, PAUL (1590?–1657), controversialist, came of a family which had been long of the gentry in the North Riding of Yorkshire; but his father, James Best, having removed to the East Riding, was resident in the rectory-house of Hatton Cranswick, near Driffield, known as the burial-place of Alfred, king of Northumbria. Here it is believed Paul was born 'about 1590.' In 1598 his father purchased the manor of Ems well, about two miles from Driffield, for 2,050l. It had been a monastery of St. Mary of York, and in pos- session of Sir Thomas Crompton. James Best, as was the wont then with squires, cultivated his own land and grew rich. Dying in April 1617, he left in his will 'competent portions' to his younger children, and his manor of Emswell and messuages at Beverley to Paul, his eldest son. Paul was at the university of Cambridge when the message reached him of his father's death. From a manuscript written by the Rev. Roger Ley, we learn that Paul was of Jesus College, Cambridge, having Sir William Boswell, afterwards ambassador for England at the Hague, as his tutor, and this Roger Ley as his fellow-student and 'intimate.' In September 1617 he left Jesus, and became a fellow of Catherine Hall. His father, who was most probably a puritan, had meant him to be of Emmanuel. On 13 Feb. 1618 he parted with his manor of Emswell to his younger brother Henry for the sum of 2,200l., which was paid him as an annuity for his life. Of his character while at the university Ley thus writes: 'In wit he surpassed the ordinary sort, and had a mighty reach. Yet was he more nimble than staid. His quaint and curious searches in philosophy above the ordinary strain made me and others much admire him. For a serious study he excelled in the mathematics, and for a pleasantrie in poetry.' Verses by P. B. prefixed to Robert Anton's 'Vice's Anatomy' (1617) have been assigned to him, but this P. B. was of Magdalen College. The only poetry by him now traceable is a copy of verses 'to Christ.' On leaving Cambridge .he followed 'uncertain courses.' He proceeded to the continent, and mingled a good deal with educated and 'disputative' men of the period. He is found in Germany in 1624, and in Poland, and as a soldier under Gustavus Adolphus; but Ley, his biographer, does not claim for him military renown. 'If he had any good military parts,' he says, 'I may say he was able tam Marte quam Mercurio. Fit to hold discourse with any man he was, and an excellent companion.' Ley continues: 'He fell to dispute often where he had opportunity, as in the university of Gryphiswald in Pomerania . . . where Priscian was slain. ... In these northern parts of Germany, and also Poland and Transylvania, places not free from error, he unhappily disputed with some anti-trinitarians, and more adhering to carnal reason than to mysteries of faith, he was drawn to the dangerous opinion, the denial of our Saviour's divinity.'

His return was preceded by some years of retirement in Germany, chiefly spent in the study of unitaritan theology. His annuity from the sale of Emswell is traced as having been paid 26 May 1628, also in 1632 at Emswell, and again upon August 1632 and April 1634. The chronology is not exact, but after-allusions bring him before us as a sufferer for his opinions. Having written out his conclusions on the doctrine of the Trinity, he submitted his 'loose papers' to the Rev. Roger Ley for his judgment. The manuscript was sent privately and in confidence. Ley appears to have instantly made the 'loose papers' public by bringing them under the notice of those in authority. Best never changed in this allegation. In his last pamphlet, 'Mysteries discovered,' in a reiterated copy of his 'Humble Petition' he expressly places it on record that he had been 'a close prisoner ever since the 14th February 1644[-5] onely for this his presumed reason or opinion, committed to a minister (a supposed friend) for his judgment and advice onely.' Be this as it may, all we learn is that Roger Ley and other divines were assiduous and earnest in their visits and reasonings with the prisoner.

Roger Ley's manuscript, as well as Whitelocke's ' Memorial of the English Affairs during the Reign of Charles I,' enables us to go behind the scenes so far. Best is represented as having applied 'the most profane epithets to the doctrine of the Trinity,' calling it 'a mystery of iniquity, a three-headed monster, a figment, a tradition of Rome, monstrum biforme and triforme,' &c. For this he was committed to the Gatehouse 14 Feb. 1644–5. After several examinations, on 28 March 1645–6 the house voted that he be hanged for his offence. On 23 Nov. a provision, affirming the lawfulness of capital punishment for heresy, was earned, but it was not till 2 May 1648 that the ordinance was actually passed, and by that date Best had been released. In 1646 Best drew up 'A Letter of Advice vnto the Ministers assembled at Westminster, with severall parcels of Queries, recommended to their saddest considerations. . . . The possibility of a heretick's repentance, so long as he lives, and such as do any wayes cause him to dye in heresie, as much as in them lyes, do effectually damn him eternally: and consequently, that Paul Best (what-ever his errours be at present), as well as Paul the Apostle, once a blasphemer, may one day become a convert, if he be not untimely starved to death beforehand, 1646' [in MS. marked 28 April]. Having launched his 'Letter of Advice,' Best set about the reparation of a respectful petition to the House of Commons. He appealed to the house to 'be pleased to take notice' that he had been 'eighteen months imprisoned, with what 'impairing of his substance' he forbore stating. The petition sought release or 'a speedie hearing.' This was on 13 Aug. 1646. Still his release lingered. He once more appealed to the authorities in a treatise entitled: 'Mysteries Discovered, or a Memoriall Picture pointing out the Way from Babylon to the Holy City, for the good of all such as during that night of general errour and apostacie (2 Thess. ii. 3, Revel. iii. 10) have been so long misled with Rome's hobgoblins. By me, Paul Best, Prisoner in the Gatehouse, Westminster, 1647.' This is an appeal to justice, and a defence against the charges brought against him. On the blank spaces of the Bodleian copy is a manuscript anti-Trinitarian note in Latin, which was supposed by Brook Aspland to be in Milton's autograph. It seems most probable that Cromwell at last interfered. However it came about, he was silently released towards the close of 1647. He quietly returned to his family seat. His brother Henry was then dead, and had been succeeded in Elmswell by his son, John Best, to whom by some arrangement Paul (his uncle) surrendered his annuity on 22 Jan. 1651-2, and, with what of his,fortune he had left, cultivated a farm. He still pursued his old studies, and masses of his manuscripts were left behind at his death. The parish register of Little Driffield gives the dates of death and burial: '1657. Paul Best, Master of Arts, died at Great Driffield 17 Sept., and was buried at Little Driffield 19 Sept. in the churchyard.'

[Ley's MS., formerly in possession of H. B. Bright, and latterly of Joseph Hunter, from the Chorus Vatum; letters from Rev. Horace Newton, Driffield; [Robert] Wallace's Anti-Trinitarian Biography, i. 87, iii. 161; [Bulstrode] Whitelocke's Memorials; [Daniel] Neal, iii. 292; Best's Works.]

A. B. G.