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Burnet, Thomas (1694-1753) (DNB00)

BURNET, Sir THOMAS (1694–1753), judge, was grandson of the Scotch judge, Lord Cramond, and third and youngest son of Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury [q. v.], by his second wife, Mrs. Mary Scott, a rich Dutch lady of Scotch extraction. He was born in 1694, was educated at home, entered at Merton College, Oxford, and in 1706 went to the university of Leyden, where he remained two years. Afterwards he travelled in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and on his return entered at the Middle Temple in 1709. He appears to have been called to the bar in 1715 (see a pamphlet, Letter to a Merry Young Gentleman, T. Burnet, Esq., 1715). His attention was, however, directed to politics, not law, and he was notorious among the men of his time about town for debauchery and wit. Swift, writing of the Mohocks to Stella in 1712, says: ‘The bishop of Salisbury's son is said to be of the gang; they are all whigs.’ He published many pamphlets, for one of which, ‘Certain information of a certain discourse,’ the government imprisoned him. A story is told that his father, finding him one day in deep meditation, asked him of what he was thinking. ‘Of a greater work than your lordship's Reformation; of my own,’ said he. The whigs, on their accession to power, rewarded him with the consulship at Lisbon, and Pope says of him and Ducket:

Like are their merits, like rewards they share;
That shines a consul, this commissioner.

There he quarrelled with Lord Tyrawley, the English ambassador, and took a curious revenge, by appearing on a great fête in a plain suit himself, but with lacqueys in suits copied from that which the ambassador was to wear. After remaining some years at Lisbon he returned to England, and at length began practice at the bar; he was made a serjeant-at-law in Easter term 1736, and succeeded Serjeant Eyre as king's serjeant in May 1740. He was appointed to a judgeship of the court of common pleas in October 1741, when Mr. Justice Fortescue became master of the rolls, and enjoyed a high reputation as a judge for learning. He was not knighted until November 1745, when, with three other judges, he received that honour on the occasion of the bench ‘serjeants’ and bar presenting an address of ‘utter detestation of the present wicked and most ungrateful rebellion.’ He was a member of the Royal Society. He died unmarried, at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, on 8 Jan. 1753, of gout in the stomach, and was buried near his father at St. James's Church, Clerkenwell, where, on taking down the church in Sep- tember 1788, his body was found on the south side of his father's, and was replaced in the same position in the new church (Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, i. 285). ‘By his death the public lost an able and upright judge, his friends a sincere, sensible, and agreeable companion, and the poor a great benefactor’ (Gent. Mag. xxiii. 51). Some scandal was created by a clause in his will that he ‘lived as he trusted he should die, in the true faith of Christ as taught in the scriptures, but not in any one visible church that I know of, though I think the church of England is as little stuffed with the inventions of men as any of them’ (ib. p. 98). His writings were numerous. To his father's ‘History of my own Time’ he prefixed a life and copy of his will (cf. Letter, 10 Feb. 1732, of Bishop Warburton to Dr. Stukely; Nichols, Lit. Illustr. ii. 22). He is said to have submitted his father's manuscript to the Duchess of Marlborough, who made some alterations, and to have curtailed it himself (Burnet, Own Times (ed. 1823), Earl of Dartmouth's note, iv. 156, Earl of Hardwicke's note, iv. 158). The bishop's will had directed that no passages should be omitted, and in the second volume Burnet had promised to deposit the manuscript of both volumes, written by the bishop's amanuensis and corrected throughout by himself, in the Cotton Library, but failed to fulfil his promise (see A Letter to Thos. Burnet, Esq., 1736, and another pamphlet, Some Remarks on a late Letter to T. Burnet, 1736, apparently by a son of the nonjuror, Dr. W. Beach, of Salisbury). For the omitted passages see ‘European Magazine,’ v. 27, 39, 157, 221, 374. Others of his works are ‘Our Ancestors as Wise as we,’ by T. B., 1712, and a sequel, ‘The History of Ingratitude;’ ‘Essays Divine, Moral, and Political, by the Author of “The Tale of a Tub,”’ 1714; ‘The True Character of an Honest Man;’ ‘Truth if you can find it;’ ‘A Letter to the People, to be left for them at the Booksellers';’ ‘Some New Proofs by which it appears that the Pretender is truly James III,’ 1713 and 1714; ‘A Second Tale of a Tub,’ 1715; ‘British Bulwark,’ 1715; ‘The Necessity of impeaching the late Ministry, a Letter to Earl of Halifax,’ three editions, 1715; ‘Homerides, by Sir Iliad Doggerel’ (an attack on Pope in collaboration with Ducket); ‘The True Church of Christ,’ 1753; and a volume of posthumous poems, 1777. He also wrote in the ‘Grumbler,’ and replied to Granville's vindication of General Monk against Gilbert Burnet's strictures.

[Foss's Lives of the Judges; Biog. Brit. (Kippis), iii. 39–40; Nichols's Life of Bowyer; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Gent. Mag. xxiii. 21, 98, xlix. 256; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ‘Granville’; cf. Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 71 and 588; An Account of the Life and Writings of T. Burnet, Esq., 1715; Pope's Dunciad, iii. 179.]

J. A. H.