Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Aubrey, John
AUBREY, JOHN (1626–1697), antiquary, was born at Easton Pierse, or Percy, in the parish of Kington in Wiltshire, on 12 March 1625-6, and not on 3 Nov. as stated by some of his biographers. His father, Richard Aubrey, was a gentleman of fortune, possessed of estates in Wiltshire, Herefordshire, and Wales, Young Aubrey was a sickly boy, and received the first part of his education privately under the Rev. Robert Latimer, vicar of Leigh Delamere near Malmesbury, the preceptor of Hobbes. He afterwards went to Blandford grammar school, and in May 1642 was entered a gentleman commoner at Trinity College, Oxford. While yet an undergraduate he evinced his antiquarian tastes by contributing a plate of Oseney Abbey to Dugdale's 'Monasticon.' In 1643 he was driven from the university by smallpox and civil war, 'and for three years led a sad life in the country.' In 1646 he became a student at the Middle Temple, but was never called to the bar, and returned from time to time to Oxford, where he declares he enjoyed the greatest felicity of his life. He was also frequently at home upon his father's business, and in 1649 brought to light the extraordinary megalithic remains at Avebury, which had been unheeded till then. In 1652, on his father's death, he inherited the family estates, and along with them numerous law-suits, which, combined with his careless and extravagant habits of living, eventually reduced him to poverty. 'Several love and lawe suits,' he notes of the year 1656. He must, nevertheless, have kept up his literary and scientific interests, for he belonged to the club of 'Commonwealth Men,' founded on the principles of Harrington, of which he has left an entertaining description, and in May 1663 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1662 he sold his Herefordshire property. In 1665 'I made my first address (in an ill hour) to Joane Sumner.' His biographers, previous to Mr. Britton, have not unnaturally concluded that he espoused this lady, but the register of his death and passages in his autobiographical notes prove that this cannot have been the case. Instead of going to the altar she went to law with him, and 'all my business and affairs ran kim kam.' He nevertheless gained several causes, but in 1670 was compelled to sell his remaining landed property. 'From 1670 to this very day,' he notes, 'I have enjoyed a happy delitescency.' The term is emphasised by the entry for the following year, 'Danger of arrests.' In 1677 he was obliged to part with his books, but this year seems to have been the term of his misfortunes. Having lost everything, he was no longer disquieted by lawsuits; and his good humour made him a welcome guest in many families, especially that of 'the Earl of Thanet, with whom I was delitescent near a year,' and of 'Mr. Edmund Wyld, with whom I most commonly take my diet and sweet otiums.' To these protectors may be added Sir William Petty, Hobbes, Ashmole, and Lady Long, of Draycott, in Wilts, with whom he frequently resided during his latter years. When not thus enacting the part of a highly accomplished Will Wimble, he spent his time in country excursions, collecting materials for his antiquarian works. He had in 1671 received a patent empowering him to make antiquarian surveys under the crown, and had perambulated Surrey in 1673, forming copious topographical collections. He had also since 1659 been more or less engaged on a similar undertaking for North Wilts, and in 1685 'tumultuarily stitched up' his notes on the natural history of that county. He also composed, by order of Charles II, as is said, an unpublished discourse on Stonehenge and other ancient stone monuments, which he regarded as druidical. In 1667 he had made the acquaintance of Anthony Wood, and aided him materially in his 'Antiquities of Oxford,' published in 1674. His correspondence with Wood was continued until, in 1680, he sent the latter his 'Minutes of Lives,' with a highly characteristic letter. Wood made great use of his information, which continued to be furnished until the publication of the 'Athenæ Oxonienses' in 1690. Unfortunately one of Aubrey's notes, reflecting upon Lord Chancellor Clarendon, caused Wood to be visited by a prosecution; and this seems to have occasioned an estrangement, and to have prompted the unfavourable character which Wood has left of his disinterested if not always judicious ally. Aubrey continued to occupy himself with his history of Wiltshire, but, feeling that he should not live to finish the work, in 1695 imparted his papers to Tanner, afterwards Bishop of St. Asaph, In 1696 he issued the only book he ever printed himself, the 'Miscellanies,' a highly entertaining collection of ghost stories and other anecdotes of the supernatural. In June 1697 he died at Oxford, on his way from London to Draycott, and was buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Aubrey left a mass of manuscript material behind him, which long remained unpublished. His 'Perambulation of Surrey' was incorporated in Rawlinson's 'Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey,' printed in 1719, which is indeed substantially Aubrey's work. Part of his Wiltshire collections was used by Tanner for Bishop Gibson's edition of Camden. Aubrey's own manuscript was presented by the writer to the Ashmolean Library. It was in two volumes, one of which was borrowed by his brother and lost. Portions of the other were privately printed by Sir Thomas Phillips in 1821 and 1838, but the edition, which is far from correct, was never completed. The work was finally edited for the Wiltshire Topographical Society by the Rev. J. S. Jackson (Devizes, 1862). 'The Natural History of Wilts,' abstracted by the author from his larger work, was left by him in two manuscripts, one at Oxford, the other in the library of the Royal Society. The portions immediately concerning Wiltshire were edited for the Wiltshire Topographical Society by Mr. John Britton. The 'Minutes of Lives,' given to Wood, were first published in a collection entitled 'Letters written by Eminent Persons in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries' (London, 1813). The most recent edition of the 'Miscellanies' is that in Russell Smith's Library of Old Authors, in 1857. Aubrey also wrote a life of Hobbes, which formed the groundwork of Blackburn's Latin biography. The manuscript of his 'Monumenta Britannica' is in the Bodleian. His 'Architectonica Sacra,' 'Idea of Education of Young Gentlemen,' and other works of less importance, are extant in the Ashmolean Library or in private hands. His 'Remains of Gentilism and Judaism' is preserved among the Lansdowne MSS. in the British Museum. Extracts from it have been given in Brand's 'Popular Antiquities' and Thoms's 'Anecdotes and Traditions,' and the entire text, with White Kennet's additions, was issued by the Folk-lore Society in 1880.
Aubrey was the very type of the man who is no man's enemy but his own. He possessed every virtue usually associated with an easy careless temper, and an industry in his own pursuits which would have done credit to one of robuster mould. 'My head,' he says, 'was always working, never idle, and even travelling did glean some observations, some whereof are to be valued.' They assuredly are, and many, especially those on the alteration of manners in his time, exhibit real shrewdness. He was well aware of his failings, and it is impossible not to sympathise with his regret for the abolition of the monasteries which would have afforded him a congenial refuge; and his verdict that 'if ever I had been good for anything, 'twould have been a painter.' His buoyant cheerfulness defied calamity, and presented his self-respect under the hard trial of dependence. His character as an antiquary has been unworthily traduced by Anthony à Wood, but fully vindicated by his recent editors and biographers. He certainly is devoid of literary talent, except as a retailer of anecdotes; his head teems with particulars which he lacks the faculty to reduce to order or combine into a whole. As a gossip, however, he is a kind of immature Boswell; and we are infinitely beholden to him for the minute but vivid traits of Bacon, Milton, Raleigh, Hobbes, and other great men preserved in his 'Minutes of Lives.' His 'Natural History of Wilts' is full of quaint lore, and one need not believe in spirits to enjoy his 'Miscellanies.' Half the charm is in the simple credulity of the narrator, who seems, nevertheless, to have inclined to the philosophy of his friend Hobbes.
[Aubrey left two papers of autobiographical memoranda. Every circumstance respecting him has been collected and carefully investigated in the excellent biography by J. Britton (London, 1845), the only work of authority. The best criticism upon his life and writings is an admirable essay by Professor Masson in vol. xxiv. of the British Quarterly Review.]