Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atterbury, Francis
ATTERBURY, FRANCIS (1662–1732), bishop of Rochester, was born at Milton or Middleton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. His father, Lewis Atterbury, was rector of the parish, and educated both Francis and his elder brother Lewis until they were old enough to go to Westminster, then in the zenith of its fame under Dr. Busby. From Westminster Francis proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, being at the head of the four Westminster students elected in 1680. After he had graduated, he continued to reside at Oxford, taking part in the tutorial work at Christ Church, and acting as a sort of right-hand man to Dean Aldrich. In 1682 he published a translation into Latin verse of Dryden's 'Absalom and Achitophel,' in 1684 an 'Anthologia,' or selection of Latin poems, and about the same; time two or three little treatises on classical subjects. But he was soon engaged in more important literary work. The attempt of James II to force his creed upon an unwilling university called forth many champions of the faith, and among others the able young tutor of Christ Church. One of the chiefs of the romanising party at Oxford, Obadiah Walker, who had been thrust by the king into the mastership of University College, had written, under the pseudonym of Abraham Woodhead, an attack upon the Reformation. In reply to this Atterbury published (1687) 'An Answer to some Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther, and the Original of the Reformation,' which Bishop Burnet pronounces to be one of the ablest of the many vindications of the church of England which were about that time issued from Oxford. Atterbury's next essay at controversy, though its contemporary reputation was much higher, was in reality very far from beiug so successful. It was a defence of the genuineness of the 'Epistles of Phalaris' against the great Dr. Bentley, and was nominally written by Atterbury's pupil, the Hon. Charles Boyle, but in reality by Atterbury himself. Though written earlier, it was not published until 1698, and for Atterbury's sake it would have been well if it had never been published at all. It is now universally acknowledged that Bentley was in the right, but that was by no means the opinion even of the ablest contemporaries. Swift in his 'Battle of the Books' describes Boyle as 'advancing immediately against his trembling foe clad in a suit of armour given him by all the gods,' and (aiding the battle very quickly by 'transfixing Bentley and Wotton.' 'The gods' were the Christ Church wits, chief among whom was Atterbury, who accordingly figures as Apollo, the god of wisdom. About 1687 Atterbury received holy orders, and he soon won considerable reputation as a preacher. He was in the habit of preaching occasionally in London, and his sermons were so well appreciated that he was appointed, over the heads of many candidates, lecturer of St. Bride's by the Bishop of London in 1691 ; he was next made chaplain to King William and Queen Mary, and preacher at Bridewell Hospital, While at Oxford he married Miss Katherine Osborn, who, in the words of his biographer, 'was the inspiration of his youth and the solace of his riper years.' After his marriage he left Oxford for London. In 1700 Atterbury again came prominently before the public as a controversialist. For ten years convocation had not been suffered to meet for the despatch of business ; by a series of successive prorogations the church's parliament had practically become a dead letter. But not without remonstrance. Among other protests 'A Letter to a Convocation Man' (1697) attributed the irreligion and immorality, of which there was so general a complaint, to the virtual suppression of convocation. The 'Letter' caused a great sensation, and was answered in a 'Letter to a Member of Parliament' and also in a work by Dr. Wake, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, entitled 'The Authority of Christian Princes over their Ecclesiastical Synods.' In opposition to Dr. Wake, and in defence of the 'Letter to a Convocation Man,' Atterbury published his 'Rights and Privileges of an English Convocation stated and vindicated,' in which he roundly charged Dr. Wake with subjecting the liberties both of church and state to the arbitrary will of one man. The subject is treated historically, so that it is impossible to describe the work in detail ; but its general object is stated in the preface, 'to perpetuate to the church the use of her parliamentary assemblies, and of that free debate which is inseparable from such assemblies.' Dr. Wake was supported by Dr. White Kennett and Dr. Edmund Gibson, both men of learning and ability, and both afterwards bishops. The most contradictory opinions have been expressed as to the side on which the victory lay ; but the general mass of the clergy gratefully recognised Atterbury as an able champion of their order against Erastianism in high places both in church and state : and it really is difficult to controvert the assertion of Warburton, who was no friend to convocation, but whose lawyer-like mind at once grasped the real gist of the dispute. 'Atterbury,' he writes to Hurd, 'goes upon principles, and all that Wake and Kennett could possibly oppose are precedents.' One result of Atterbury's work was that he was made in 1701 archdeacon of Totnes, and in the same year a prebendary of Exeter Cathedral by his faithful and lifelong friend. Sir Jonathan Trelawney, then bishop of Exeter, 'in reward,' writes Atterbury himself, 'for my honest endeavours to retrieve the synodical rights of the clergy.' The lower house of convocation passed a vote of thanks to him, and his own university conferred upon him the degree of D.D. without the usual fees.
Atterbury did not lose his favour at court through his bold advocacy of the rights of the clergy. He had long been a favourite preacher at the Chapel Royal, and on Queen Mary's death in 1694 he was the only royal chaplain who was still retained. The Princess Anne and her husband highly esteemed him, and when the former succeeded to the throne she made him her chaplain in ordinary, and in 1704 dean of Carlisle. In 1709 he was appointed preacher at the Rolls Chapel, where several of his printed sermons were delivered. The tory reaction which marked the last four years of Queen Anne's reign naturally brought Atterbury into still greater prominence. In fact, if the tradition be true (and there is no reason to doubt its truth) that he took a chief part in the composition of Dr. Sacheverel's speech before the House of Lords in 1710, he had no small share in bringing about that reaction. Queen Anne consulted him largely about church matters, and in 1711-12 appointed him as successor to his old friend and chief. Dr. Aldrich, in the deanery of Christ Church. Since the time when convocation, largely through Atterbury's means, had resumed its active functions, he had been a most prominent figure in the assemblies of the lower house. He was the life and soul of the party which carried on its long warfare against the latitudinarian bishops. In 1709 he was associated with the excellent Archbishop Sharp's scheme to bring before convocation the question of providing bishops for the plantations. In 1710 he was elected prolocutor of the lower house by a large majority, and in that capacity, in 1711, he drew up by the queen's command that famous 'Representation of the State of Religion' which has been so often quoted in histories of the times, but for which the bishops insisted upon substituting a less unfavourable report. No doubt Atterbury took a gloomy view of the situation in this 'Representation,' but he expressed his honest convictions, and did not pen it for mere political purposes; his tone is quite as desponding in his charges as archdeacon of Totnes. In 1713 he was made bishop of Rochester and dean of Westminster, two posts which, according to the objectionable custom of the times, always went together. 'Thus,' says his enemy, Bishop Burnet, 'he was promoted and rewarded for all the flame he had raised in our church.' As a debater and public speaker he had long held the highest rank among the representatives of the clergy in convocation, and he soon became almost as prominent a figure in the House of Lords. A fine person and graceful delivery contributed to his success, and, to judge by the almost unanimous testimony of contemporaries, he must have been one of the greatest orators of his day.
There is no doubt that, during the lifetime of Queen Anne, Atterbury had, like a vast number of his contemporaries, shown a leaning to the Jacobite cause; but the oft-repeated story, that he offered to head the procession in his lawn sleeves to proclaim King James III at Charing Cross, rests on doubtful authority. At any rate, he submitted to the new regime, and took part officially, as bishop of Rochester, at the coronation of George I. He was entitled to the throne and canopy as his perquisites, but gracefully offered them to the king. The present was rejected, and Atterbury could scarcely help regarding this as a studied affront. Again, the declaration of confidence in the government after the rebellion of 1715 contained many reflections upon the high-church party, the very party of which Atterbury was the undoubted chief. He refused to sign it, and became more and more alienated from the ruling powers, which he attacked frequently and vehemently, and at last drifted away entirely into the service of him whom he considered to be the rightful monarch. It was about the year 1717 that Atterbury began to hold direct communication with the Jacobites. The climax was reached about five years later. The birth of a son to the exiled 'Chevalier' in 1720 raised the hopes of the Jacobites in England. The bursting of the South Sea bubble increased the prevalent disaftection to the reigning dynasty, and the conjuncture was regarded as favourable for another attempt to restore the ancient line. That Atterbury was really involved in this attempt there can be no doubt; but whether the mode of proceeding against him was justifiable is another question. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, and a bill of pains and penalties was brought against him in the House of Commons. He declined to plead his cause before the house, declaring, with some dignity, that he was 'content with the opportunity (if the bill went on) to make his defence before another house, of which he had the honour to be a member.' After the bill had passed its third reading in the Commons, it was sent up to the Lords, and Atterbury was sent for from the Tower, where he had been confined for seven months, to plead his cause. The evidence which chiefly contributed to condemn him was curious. A Mrs. Bates, being examined by the crown, admitted that a little spotted dog, named Harlequin, was sent by the Earl of Mar as a present to the Bishop of Rochester. This dog was often mentioned in correspondence which contained treasonable matter, and thus the bishop was compromised. He employed his wonted eloquence in making his memorable defence, but all to no purpose. He was condemned by a majority of 83 to 43, and the sentence pronounced against him was that he should be deprived of all his ecclesiastical offices, be incapacitated for holding any civil offices, and be banished for ever from the realm, and that no British subject should hold any intercourse with him, except by the royal permission. In the majority were all his brother prelates except one (Bishop Gastrell, of Chester, an 'old Westminster'), and so strong was the feeling against him that Lord Bathurst (Pope's, and therefore Atterbury's, firm friend) declared that the inveterate hatred could only be accounted for on the principle of the 'wild Americans, who fondly hoped to inherit not only the spoils but the abilities of him whom they should destroy.' But outside the walls of parliament the deepest sympathy with him was displayed, especially among the clergy. He was publicly prayed for in the London churches 'as one afflicted with the gout;' verses were written in his honour; and a print was circulated representing him as looking through the bars of his prison, and holding in his hand a portrait of the martyred Laud. An attempt was made to raise a prejudice against him as a papist in disguise; but his life and opinions were too well known to allow reasonable people long to doubt his attachment to the church of England. In fact, from first to last he was conspicuously and aggressively anti-Roman. The sympathy with him was heightened by the rumour that he had been harshly treated in the Tower. For some time his dearly loved and loving daughter had not been allowed to see him, except in the presence of the officers; but this restriction was removed through the kindness of Lord Townshend.
In the summer of 1723 he left England never to return, accompanied by his daughter and her husband (Mr. and Mrs. Morice) and a kind clergyman, the Rev. B. Hughes. By a curious coincidence he met at Calais Lord Bolingbroke returning from the exile to which he himself was condemned, and exclaimed, 'Then we are exchanged!' To appreciate the severity of his sentence, it must be remembered that he was verging upon old age, that he was a constant martyr to the gout and the stone, that his health was generally delicate, and that he had an unusually large circle of friends in England. To add to his sorrows, he had just lost his wife. Atterbury was regarded as indisputably the best preacher of his day. To this reputation no doubt his manner and person contributed greatly. The 'Tatler' (No. 66, by Steele), in a well-known passage, contrasts the apathy of the greater part of the clergy in the pulpit with 'the dean we heard the other day,' who 'is an orator. He has so much regard to his congregation that he commits to his memory what he has to say to them, and has so soft and graceful a behaviour that it must attract your attention. His person, it is to be confessed, is no small recommendation; but he is to be highly commended for not losing that advantage, and adding to the propriety of speech, which might pass the criticism of Longinus, an action which would have been approved by Demosthenes.' The writer then goes on to praise the matter of the dean's sermons, a point on which a reader may judge for himself, as many of them are still extant. They are not for a moment to be compared with the sermons, e.g., of Jeremy Taylor, or South, or Barrow; but they are written in plain and lucid English; the preacher adheres closely to his text, and is always earnest and sensible. His sermon on the power of charity to cover sin brought him into controversy with Hoadly, and that on the 'Scorner incapable of True Wisdom' gave offence as containing a supposed reflection on Tillotson's orthodoxy.
Atterbury was far more intimate with the great men of letters who adorned the reign of Queen Anne than most of the clergy of his day. He held constant intercourse with Swift, who for some time lodged near him at Chelsea, and frequently alludes in his correspondence to 'my neighbour over the way.' The letters between these two celebrated men are singularly courteous and interesting. His intimacy with Pope was still closer; and when Atterbury became bishop of Rochester, the poet Awas a frequent guest at Bromley. Atterbury strove to convert Pope from Romanism, and thougli he did not succeed he elicited from the poet expressions of a deeper sense of religion than he has been sometimes credited with. Pope gave evidence in favour of Atterbury at his trial, and to the last believed him innocent. One of the most touching of all Atterbury's letters was that which he addressed to Pope 'from the Tower, 19 April 1723,' which he concludes with the fine lines of his favourite poet —
Some natural tears he dropped, but wiped them soon.
The world was all before him, where to choose
His place of rest, and Providence his guide.
Atterbury lived in exile nearly nine years. His first residence was at Brussels, but his health was so bad there that he removed to Paris, his faithful daughter acting as 'the kindest of nurses to the best of fathers,' as her husband expressed it. At Paris she left him, recovered in health, and the bishop threw himself heart and soul into James's cause, acting as a general adviser and supervisor of his affairs at home and abroad. The service was not a smooth one, owing partly to the impracticable character of the master, and partly to the petty jealousies and self-seeking of the followers. James, in 1725, described Atterbury as 'one in whose fidelity and ability he placed the greatest trust and confidence,' but he acted towards him in so different a spirit that in 1728 Atterbury quitted his service. The lonely old man had other troubles. His only surviving son, Osborn, was a constant source of anxiety to him. His brother Lewis, whom he had declined to appoint archdeacon of Rochester, never quite forgave the slight, and behaved shabbily in money transactions between them [see Atterbury, Lewis, 1656-1731]. He was once nearly involved in trouble with the French police, being suspected of having helped Père Courayer in his escape to England. Courayer's offence was simply an inclination towards the Anglican in preference to the Gallican church, and it is highly probable that Atterbury, who was from first to last a staunch Anglican, may have influenced the father, with whom he had certainly been intimate. But Atterbury's great sorrow was the loss of that daughter who, with her husband, had been his greatest earthly comfort and support. After Atterbury's rupture with James he left Paris for the south of France, in the hope of restoring his failing health, and settled at Montpelier. His daughter in England, whose health was also failing, felt a longing desire to see her father once more; and as he could not go to her she determined at all hazards to go to him. Unfortunately, the weather proved most unfavourable for a sea voyage; and when Bordeaux was at length reached, Mrs. Morice was all but a dying woman. Her father had been as anxious to see her as she to see him. 'I live only,' he writes with real pathos, 'to help towards lengthening your life, and rendering it, if I can, more agreeable to you. I see not of what use I can be in other respects.' The meeting took place at Toulouse, it being found impossible to convey the dying woman as far as Montpelier. The bishop was just in time to administer to her the last rites of the church: she died within twenty hours after her arrival. A most interesting correspondence between the bereaved father and his faithful friend Pope on the sad subject is extant. Atterbury had not many friends left; his Jacobite helpers in England had dropped off one by one; his son-in-law, Mr. Morice, was most faithful to him; and the old man took the greatest interest in his grandchildren, who paid him a visit. He had also a most devoted friend in the Dowager Duchess of Buckingham. He survived his daughter two years, and actually entered once more into James's service, and his last letter was one of advice to that very impracticable master. He also wrote in his last days a dignified vindication of himself against the aspersions of Oldmixon, who accused him of tampering with the new edition of Lord Clarendon's 'History of the Rebellion.' The end came suddenly at last, in 1732. His body was conveyed to England, and buried privately in Westminster Abbey.
Atterbury cannot be regarded as a perfect character or as a great divine; but he was a very able man, and in his way a brave and faithful son of the church. If he mingled politics too much with religion, it must be remembered, in justice to him, that the two subjects were so strangely mixed up in that eventful time that it was all but impossible for a public character to disentangle the one from the other. His name will always be a prominent one in the complicated history of the church and nation of England in the latter part of the seventeenth and the early part of the eighteenth century.
[Bishop Atterbury's Works, passim; The Stuart Papers; The Atterbury Papers; Williams's Memoirs and Correspondence of Francis Atterbury; Stackhouse's Memoirs of Atterbury, from his Birth to his Banishment; Macaulay's Biographies, 'Francis Atterbury;' Atterbury's Correspondence, edited by Nichols.]