Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burgess, John (1563-1635)

BURGESS, JOHN (1563–1635), who held a unique position in the so-called puritan section of the English clergy, was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, and graduated at that university as B.A. in 1586.

From his having been rector of the small living of St. Peter Hungate in Norwich as early as 1590, when he can hardly have been more than twenty-seven years old, it may be conjectured that he was a Norfolk man. When proceedings were taken against Cartwright and his supporters, and the rigour of the dominant party in the church began to be felt by all except the narrowest conformists, Burgess, whose sympathies were all with the puritan party, threw the responsibility of choosing what course he should adopt upon his congregation at Norwich. For himself he accepted loyally the position which Cartwright had taken up at the first for the surplice and the cross in baptism, they were not unlawful, they were inexpedient. From that position Burgess never departed through his life; with him it was always a question of degree; the ceremonies at one time might be so inexpedient as to be ruinous to the church that adopted them, at another so unimportant the one way or the other that they were not worth disputing about. In the one case it was a man's duty to suffer the loss of all things rather than submit to them, in the other case it was his duty to submit for peace sake and to avoid schism or strife. With this view of the case he left himself in the hands of his congregation; if they would not be scandalised by his wearing the surplice and using the ceremonies, he would conform; if their consciences would be wounded by his submission, he would not. They answered that if he wore the surplice 'they would never profit by his ministry,' and accepting the verdict he resigned. Very soon they all bitterly regretted their decision, but it was too late.

Not long after this Burgess removed into the diocese of Lincoln, and had for his diocesan William Chadderton, who was translated from Chester in 1595. Here he held some benefice the name of which has not been ascertained, and Chadderton seems to have left him unmolested during the remainder of Queen Elizabeth's reign.

Throughout the first year after James I's accession the nonconformist party gave the king no peace. On 16 July 1604 a proclamation was issued requiring all ministers to conform to the new book of ecclesiastical canons before the last day of November following. The nonconforming clergy were much distressed and alarmed, and it is clear that Burgess was regarded as a leading man among the conscientiously disaffected. While the convocation was deliberating on the canons he was called upon to explain the ground he took and to preach before the king at Greenwich on 19 June 1604. Burgess chose his text from Psalm cxxii. 8, 9. The sermon was a poor performance and somewhat offensive in its tone, but one passage seems to have provoked the king beyond measure, though it is difficult to say why. Burgess likened the ceremonies to Pollio's glasses, 'which were not worth a man's life or livelihood,' and for this and other expressions he was sent to the Tower. He was not kept long in prison; on sending a written copy of his sermon with a most humble letter of submission to the king and another to the lords of the privy council, he was released, though he tells us he was 'of mind either to refuse subscription ... or else to be assured by the bishop . . . that there was no such variation in the doctrine or intention of the church as [he] and others suspected.' With this view he drew up his 'Apology,' which was addressed to Bishop Chadderton, and sent to him in manuscript; another copy was presented to the king by Sir Thomas Jermyn of Rushbrook, Suffolk, whom Burgess calls 'mine honorable friend.' Burgess evidently was proud of this performance; the pamphlet was circulated somewhat widely, and Dr. Covell, afterwards subdean of Lincoln, was ordered to prepare an answer, 'and thus,' says Burgess, 'that writing which was private became public without my knowledge of it; but no man can truly say that in that book I say anything at all to prove these ceremonies unlawful to be used, whatever be there said against the urging of them.' When the day appointed for subscribing to the canons arrived, Burgess refused, resigned his living, and was silenced; thereupon he left England and retired to Leyden, where for the next six or seven years he studied medicine and took the degree of doctor of physic. He seems to have returned to England in 1612 or 1613; in June of the latter year James I wrote a letter to the university of Cambridge complaining that he had been allowed to take the degree of doctor of physic without subscription to the three articles of the 36th canon, branding him as one 'who upon a humour or spirit of faction or schism apostatising from his orders and ministry, hath betaken himself to the profession of physic.' The university, in consequence of the king's letter, passed a statute enacting that none should take the doctorate in any faculty without previously subscribing. The king had not yet done with him. Burgess had taken up his residence in London, and by a stretch of the royal prerogative he was prevented from practising physic in London on the ground that he had been in holy orders. Hereupon he removed to Isleworth, and here he rapidly acquired a very large and lucrative practice. Sir Theodore Mayerne, the great court physician, warmly defended him, and among other illustrious patients was Lucy, countess of Bedford, who for a time was so much under his influence that Donne, in one of his letters, complains that Burgess had induced her ladyship to treat him with coldness at a time when he sorely needed her help. In June 1616 Bacon wrote to Villiers suggesting that he should intercede for Burgess with the king, saying that the doctor was then prepared to subscribe, desired to resume his ministry, and that there was some talk of the benchers of Gray's Inn choosing him as their preacher. It does not appear that he ever was chosen, but he was elected to a preachership at Bishopsgate, and six months afterwards he was offered and he accepted the living of Sutton Coldfield in Warwickshire, which had been resigned by Dr. Chetwynd on his promotion to the deanery of Bristol in July 1617. On the 5th of that month he preached at Paul's Cross, where, writes Chamberlain to Carleton, 'Mr. Secretary (Winwood) and his lady were present, and as great an auditory as hath been seen there. . . . For my part,' he adds, 'I can discover nothing so extraordinary in him but opinion.' Burgess's friends in London were not pleased at his removal to the country; perhaps they thought that he might have Burgess expected higher preferment if he remained near the court. He himself had reason to know that James I never loved him, and that there was nothing to expect from royal favour. When Sir Horatio Vere went out to engage in the war of the Palatinate in 1620, Burgess accompanied him as his chaplain; he does not seem to have remained long with the English force, and he was succeeded by his future son-in-law, Dr. Ames. In January 1625 Bishop Morton collated him to the prebendal stall of Wellington in the cathedral of Lichfield, which he subsequently resigned for that of Hamsacre in the same church.

At Sutton Coldfield he continued to reside till the end of his life, being, as Wood tells us, 'held in much respect among the godly.'

On 10 July 1627 Burgess was one of fifty-nine Cambridge men who incorporated at Oxford, 'at which time liberty was allowed to him by the venerable congregation that he might study in the public library, being then a conformist to the church of England.' Four years after this he published his last work, 'An Answer Enjoyned to that much applauded Pamphlet of a Namelesse Author, bearing this Title, viz. "A Reply to Dr. Morton's General Defence of three nocent Ceremonies, &c." . . . Published by his Majestie's special command, London, 4to, 1631.' The book, though the subject is worn out and repulsive, is a pathetic and generous one, and the preface, in which he glances at his previous career, is characterised by great earnestness and nobility of sentiment.

Burgess died 31 Aug. 1635, aged 74, 'or thereabouts,' as Wood says, and was buried in the chancel of Sutton Coldfield church, where a monument exists to his memory. He seems never to have quite relinquished his medical practice, for as late as August 1634 he was admitted an extra licentiate of the College of Physicians. Possibly this may have been no more than a complimentary degree. In the preface alluded to above he boasts 'I have parted with more profit by taking up Conformity and a Benefice than any man in England hath done by his Inconformity and loss of his benefice; therefore it was not a benefice that drew me on.' Burgess married Dorothy, daughter of Thomas Wilcox, whose works he edited in folio in 1624. By her he had at least three daughters, one married to Dr. William Ames [q. v.], an eminent nonconformist divine; one to Mr. William Hill, master of the school at Sutton Coldfield ; a third to a certain Mr. Sherman, of whom nothing is known. Dr. Munk credits him with a son, but he is almost certainly mistaken.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), i. 691, ii. 641, 647, iii. 800; Fasti, ii. 434; Heylyn's Hist. of Presbyt. 377, 380; Cal. of State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1603-10, p. 127; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iii. 59, 60; Ussher's Works (Elrington), xvi. 333; Court and Times of James I, i. 262, 303, 424, ii. 28; Bacon's Letters (Spedding), v. 372, 373; Le Neve's Fasti; Arthur Wilson's James I, anno 1603-20; Donne's Letters 4to, 1654, 218; Burgess's Answer Enjoyned, 4to, 1631, Preface, 14 et seq.; Munk's Coll. of Phys. i. 201; MS. of Burgess, sermon (in the writer's possession) preached at Greenwich‒it is incomplete.]

A. J.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.43
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
311 ii 14 Burgess, John: for Hamsacre read Hunsacre
3-1 f.e. for Dr. Munk . . . certainly mistaken read He also had a son, Dr. John

Burgess of Sutton Coldfield, whose 'Medical Commonplaces' are preserved in Sloane MS. 250