Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baker, Thomas (1656-1740)
BAKER, THOMAS (1656–1740), an eminent author and antiquary, was born at Lanchester, in the county palatine of Durham, 14 Sept. 1656, the younger son of George Baker, esquire, of Crook, and Margaret Forster, his wife. He received his early education at Durham, and at the age of sixteen was entered a pensioner of St. John's College, Cambridge, along with his elder brother George (Mayor, Admissions to St. John's, pt. ii. p. 50), under Ralph Sanderson, a north-countryman and fellow of the college. He was elected a scholar, and subsequently (30 March 1680) fellow of his college, on the foundation of Dr. Ashton, dean of York, to whom he has recorded his sense of gratitude as one to whom he was indebted for 'the few comforts' he afterwards enjoyed in life. Horace Walpole (Corresp. with Cole, iv. 114) observes, 'that it would be preferable to draw up an ample character of Mr. Baker, rather than a life. The one was most beautiful, amiable, conscientious; the other totally barren of more than one event.' During the time that he retained his fellowship, his pursuits afforded an admirable illustration of the uses which such endowments, when rightly applied, are capable of subserving. He was a model of an able, high-minded, and conscientious scholar, his time and energies being mainly devoted to antiquarian and historical research. Unfortunately he was a nonjuror, and as early as 1690 he resigned the living of Long Newton to which he had been presented by Lord Crewe, bishop of Durham. On the accession of George I, the enactment of the abjuration oath brought the law to bear with renewed severity on non-compliers, and on 21 Jan. 1716-7 Baker also was compelled to resign his fellowship—a fate, observes Cole, which had already befallen 'many more worthy and conscientious men.' Dr. Jenkin, the master of St. John's, had himself been required to take the oath of allegiance on proceeding B.D., and had complied, although he had formerly professed the same principles as Baker. The latter, however, was possessed by the belief that Dr. Jenkin could have screened him had he chosen to do so, and he continued long after to cherish feelings of dignified resentment. Baker, in fact, could never altogether overcome his sense of wrong at his ejection, although the blow was considerably mitigated by the consideration shown him by the college authorities, and by the kindness of friends. He was permitted to retain his rooms in college, and continued to reside there as a commoner-master until his death. Among the fellows of St. John's was Matthew Prior, the poet ; and according to Dr. Goddard, the writer of the life in the 'Biographia Britannica' (p. 520), being in easy circumstances, Prior handed his fellowship dividend, as he received it, over to his friend Baker. This statement, however, is discredited by Masters (Life of Baker, p. 120), who states that Baker 'lived comfortably and much to his own satisfaction' on an annuity of 40l. a year which he inherited from his father (ibid. p. 89).
Such were the circumstances under which the indefatigable scholar laboured on for some four-and-thirty years, during which period he acquired the well-earned reputation of being inferior to no living English scholar in his minute and extended acquaintance with the antiquities of our national history. His friends and correspondents, among whom were Burnet, Fiddes, Kennet, Hearne, Strype, Archbishop Wake, Le Neve, Peck, Dr. Rawlinson, Dr. Ward, Ames, Browne Willis, Dr. Richardson, John Lewis, Humphrey Wanley, and Masters (his biographer), represented the chief names in English historical literature in his day. To Wake, at that time dean of Exeter, he rendered material assistance in the compilation of his 'State of the Church,' although the work was conceived in a spirit diametrically opposed to the doctrines of the Anglican party. Wake, in order to show his sense of these services, afterwards offered to present any one of Baker's friends, whom the latter (being himself ineligible) might name to him, to a benefice of the value of 200l. per annum. Baker declined the offer, but asked the archbishop to present him with a copy of his 'State of the Church,' containing corrections and additions in his own handwriting. To this request Wake acceded, and the volume is now in the possession of the university library at Cambridge. To Burnet, Baker rendered similar service by forwarding a series of corrections and criticisms of the 'History of the Reformation.' It is not surprising that Burnet should have felt himself unable to accept them all without some reservations; but the following entry by Baker in the third volume of his copy of the 'History' preserved in the university library is creditable to both: 'Ex dono doctissimi auctoris, ac celeberrimi præsulis Gilberti episcopi Sarisburiensis. I shall always have an honour for the author's memory, who entered all the corrections I had made at the end of this volume. If any more are found they were not sent, for he suppressed nothing.'
Baker himself aspired to write an 'Athenæ Cantabrigienses,' if not a history of the university, on the plan of Anthony Wood's well-known work relating to Oxford (Letter to Wanley, Harl. MSS. 3778); and with this design accumulated a great mass of materials, mainly from manuscript sources, which he transcribed into forty-two folio volumes. The sound judgment and scrupulous care shown in this collection impart to it an unusual value. The first twenty-three volumes, which he bequeathed to his friend Harley, Lord Oxford, are now in the Harleian collection in the British Museum ; volumes xxiv. to xlii. are in the university library at Cambridge. An index to the whole series was published in 1848 by four members of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and a 'Catalogue' (of a far more elaborate character) of the contents of the Cambridge volumes, by Professor John E. B. Mayor, was published for the syndics of the University Press in 1867. The 'History of St. John s College' in the former series (MS. Harl. 1039), by Baker himself, has been edited by Professor Mayor (1869) with extensive additions and annotations, and the whole work stands unrivalled as a history of a single collegiate foundation, in accuracy, completeness, and general excellence.
Baker also reprinted, with a valuable biographical preface, Bishop Fisher's funeral sermon for the Lady Margaret, mother of King Henry VII (London, 12mo, 1708); a copy, with transcripts of his manuscript notes, is preserved in the Bodleian library, and has been printed by Dr. Hymers. But the work by which he earned his chief contemporary reputation was published anonymously; this was his 'Reflections on Learning,' a treatise which went through seven editions. In its main object it somewhat resembled Dryden's 'Religio Laici,' being designed to enforce the insufficiency of the human understandingand of science as guides for the formation of belief and the conduct of life. The literary merits of the work and the manner in which it harmonised with the theological prejudices of the time, gained for it an amount of popularity which it scarcely merited, when we consider that its depreciatory estimate of the value of scientific research is derived from a survey of the subject in which Bacon is but faintly commended, the name of Locke entirely omitted, and the Copernican system referred to in contemptuous terms (7th ed. pp. 104-9). 'We,' says Baker, in conclusion, 'who know so little of the smallest matters, talk of nothing less than new theories of the world, and vast fields of knowledge; busying ourselves in natural inquiries, and flattering ourselves with the wonderful discoveries and mighty improvements that have been made in humane learning, a great part of which are purely imaginary, and at the same time neglecting the only true and solid and satisfactory knowledge' (p. 285),
Baker died somewhat suddenly on 2 July 1740, having been seized with apoplexy and found insensible on the floor of his study. During his lifetime he had expressed the wish that he might be buried near the grave of the founder, to whose liberality he felt himself under so much obligation. His desire found its accomplishment, and he was interred near Dr. Ashton's tomb in the ante-chapel of the former chapel of St. John's College. Cole (MSS. xlix. 93) describes his funeral as 'very solemn, with procession round the first court in surplices and candles.'
Baker was a grandson of Colonel Baker of Crooke, a staunch royalist, who distinguished himself in the civil war by his gallant defence of Newcastle against the Scots in 1639. A nephew of the antiquarian, George Baker, entered as a fellow commoner at St. John's only the day before his uncle's seizure. Few scholars have enjoyed a better reputation than Baker even among those who differed from them in opinion; and his slender purse was ever open even to assist those with whose views he did not altogether sympathise. In imparting knowledge from his own great stores, he was equally unselfish; and by Zachary Grey (a friend of Cole's), who collected the materials for his life, he is designated not only 'the most knowing in our English history and antiquitys,' but also 'the most communicative man living' (Examination of Neal's History of the Puritans, ii. 62 n.; see also Fiddes's Life of Wolsey, p. 312). His generosity met with a certain return, and many of his friends were in the habit of presenting him with books, while he himself was an indefatigable collector. He subscribed to all antiquarian works, and procured subscribers. At his death the greater part of his collections came into the possession of the college, and the shelves of the college library were enlarged for their reception. Two large volumes of his letters to Hearne are in the Bodleian, and also some of his books. His letters to Strype are in the Cambridge University library, and the publication of his whole correspondence is in contemplation by the Surtees Society. His notes on Wood's 'Athenæ' are incorporated in the edition by Bliss. Most of his books contain notes, sometimes of considerable value, in his own handwriting, a hand always recognisable by its size and great legibility. His sense of the wrong which he had experienced is left on lasting record, owing to his invariable practice of appending to his name on the blank leaf the words 'Socius ejectus.' There are portraits of Baker in St. John's College and in the Bodleian, the latter having been formerly in the possession of Lord Oxford.
Baker's valuable manuscript collections have been largely utilised by Messrs. C. H. and Thompson Cooper in their successive works, the 'Annals of Cambridge,' the 'Athenæ Cantabrigienses,' and the 'Memorials of Cambridge.' The fact that his history of his own college was allowed to remain so long in manuscript is probably to be attributed to the prejudices excited against him as a nonjuror, and, consequently, an opponent of all religious tests. The college, however, early procured a transcript (see Mayor's Pref. p. vi). The additions to the copy in the Cole manuscripts are incorporated in the edition of 1869. Cole tells us that Dr. Powell (master of St. John's 1765-75), a violent, dogmatic man, could never listen with patience to any commendation either of the history or its author.[Marshall's Genealogist's Guide; Lives (compiled chiefly from materials collected by Zachary Grey) by Masters (Camb., 1784), by Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, v. 106-117 and index; and by the author of the Life in the Biographia Britannica; Life by Horace Walpole. Works, ii. 339; Index to Baker's History of St. John's College, ed. J. E. B. Mayor; Brydges's Restituta, iv. 409 ; Freeman's Portrait Pictures of St. John's College; Index to Reliquiæ Hearnianæ.]