Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burnet, Elizabeth

BURNET, ELIZABETH (1661–1709), religious writer, third wife of Bishop Burnet, was born at Earontoun, near Southampton, on 8 Nov. 1661. Her father was Sir Richard Blake; her mother was Elizabeth, a daughter of Dr. Bathurst, a London physician, and she was their eldest daughter (Some Account of her Life, p. v). Fell, bishop of Oxford, was known to her and her family, and he being a guardian of Robert Berkeley of Spetchley, Worcestershire (grandson of Sir Robert Berkeley [q. v.]), brought about an acquaintance between Elizabeth and his ward, which ended in their marriage in 1678 (ib. v), Elizabeth being then seventeen years old. Mrs. Berkeley had no skill in the learned languages, but she was an incessant reader of the scriptures and of commentators (see her ‘List of Books’ recommended, ib. 391); Stillingfleet said he ‘knew not a more considerable woman in England than she’ (ib. ix). About 1684, Mr. and Mrs. Berkeley left England for Holland (ib. viii), and settled at the Hague. There they became warm adherents of the Prince of Orange (ib. xxx), and they returned to their country life at Spetchley soon after the prince became William III. Their riches were great, and their charities kept measure with them. They projected building a hospital at Worcester, and a school for poor children; and in 1693, when Berkeley died, Mrs. Berkeley carried out these projects (ib. xii). Her widowhood lasted seven years, during which she wrote ‘A Method of Devotion,’ the book by which she is chiefly known. She then married Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, who had lost his second wife in 1698, and by him she had two children, who died infants (Ballard, British Ladies, p. 403, note). The bishop placed his children by an earlier marriage in her charge entirely, and gave her thorough control of her separate fortune, one-fifth of this being kept by her for herself, and the other four-fifths being devoted to her charities. She had more than one edition of her book printed at her own expense for distribution, and printed anonymously (Some Account iii); yet she was generally known as an author. Ralph Thoresby writes: ‘I was with several … authors, as the Bishop of Sarum's lady … [who] has writ a “Method for Devotion”’ (Nichols, Illustrations of Literature, i. 804); the manuscript of her work came afterwards into Thoresby's possession (Ballard, British Ladies, p. 402). In 1707 Sir Godfrey Kneller painted Mrs. Burnet's portrait, an engraving from which is the frontispiece to ‘Some Account;’ and in the same year she went to Spa for her health (Some Account, xvi). On her return for the winter of 1708–9 her health was better, and she entered into society in London; but on the breaking up of the frost on 27 Jan. 1708–9 she was seized with pleuritic fever, and died in a week, on 3 Feb., aged 48.

Mrs. Burnet was buried at Spetchley. Immediately after her death her book was published with her name affixed; Goodwyn, archdeacon of Oxford, afterwards archbishop of Cashel (Biog. Brit. i. 1041, note), contributed to the edition ‘Some Account’ of her life. A second edition was called for, still in the same year; and there were further issues in 1713 and 1738. Some of Mrs. Burnet's prayers are given in the volume. They are very lengthy. One, to be used by a child twice a day, runs to 35 lines, and a Prayer for Servants covers 3¼ pages.

[Elizabeth Burnet's Method of Devotion, &c.; Ballard's Memoirs of British Ladies; Wilford's Memoirs of Eminent Persons; Biog. Brit.; Nichols's Illustrations of Literature, i. 804.]

J. H.