Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sprat, Thomas

SPRAT, THOMAS (1635–1713), bishop of Rochester and dean of Westminster, born in 1635 at Beaminster in Dorset, as he states in his ‘Sermon before the Natives of Dorset, 8 Dec. 1692’ (p. 38), was son of Thomas Sprat, minister of that parish, who is said to have married a daughter of Mr. Strode of Parnham. The father was in 1646 sequestrator of the parish of St. Alphege, Greenwich (Drake, Blackheath, p. 99), and in 1652 was in charge of the parish of Talaton in Devonshire.

After receiving the rudiments of education ‘at a little school by the churchyard side,’ Sprat matriculated from Wadham College, Oxford, on 12 Nov. 1651, and on 25 Sept. 1652 was elected a scholar. He graduated B.A. 25 June 1654, M.A. 11 June 1657, and B.D. and D.D. 3 July 1669. In 1671 he was incorporated at Cambridge. From 30 June 1657 to 24 March 1670 (when he resigned) he held a fellowship at Wadham, and on 6 Dec. 1659 he was elected catechist. The college, which was presided over by Dr. John Wilkins, was then the meeting-place of Seth Ward [q. v.], Christopher Wren [q. v.], Dr. Ralph Bathurst [q. v.], and others who were interested in scientific study, and Sprat was drawn by their influence into the same pursuits. From these gatherings sprang the Royal Society.

Sprat was one of the contributors of satirical commendatory verses to the ‘Naps upon Parnassus,’ 1658, of Samuel Austin, the younger [q. v.] A poem by him ‘upon the death of his late highnesse, Oliver, lord-protector,’ was published, with others by Dryden and Waller, in 1659, and was dedicated to Dr. Wilkins. It was reprinted in 1682 and 1709, and was included in the first part of Dryden's ‘Miscellany.’ Its laudation of Cromwell frequently exposed Sprat to censure in after years. From a second poem, ‘The Plague of Athens,’ composed ‘after incomparable Dr. Cowley's Pindarick way,’ he was known as ‘Pindaric’ Sprat. It appeared in 1659, was reprinted in 1665, 1676, and 1688, and was included in Dryden's ‘Miscellany’ and Pratt's ‘Cabinet of Poetry’ (vol. ii.) The poems of Sprat were included in the collections of Johnson, Anderson, Chalmers, and Sanford. It is his misfortune that through this circumstance his name is better known as a versifier than as a master of English prose.

After the Restoration the political views of Sprat changed. He ‘turned about with the virtuosi’ and was ordained priest on 10 March 1660–1. He was the friend as well as the imitator of Cowley, on whose recommendation he was appointed chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham. He was probably indebted to the same patron for the prebend of Carlton-cum-Thurlby in Lincoln Cathedral, to which he was instituted on 20 Oct. 1660, holding it until 1669. Sprat afterwards acknowledged that the duke had encouraged his studies (Life of Cowley, pp. 8–9). At this period his life was passed between Oxford and London. On the royal visit to Oxford in 1663 he preached at St. Mary's on 27 Sept., and on 29 Sept., when the king visited Wadham College, ‘Sprat spoke a speech’ (Wood, Life, Oxford Hist. Soc. i. 495–8).

Within the next four years were published Sprat's two most important works—the answer to Sorbière and the history of the Royal Society. Samuel de Sorbière, a Frenchman, published in 1664 a work entitled ‘Relation d'un Voyage en Angleterre,’ in which he touched upon some of the defects of the national character. Sprat, with some assistance from Evelyn (Diary and Corresp. 1850–2, iii. 144–7), composed a biting reply under the title ‘Observations on Monsieur de Sorbier's Voyage into England.’ It was addressed to his friend and frequent correspondent, Christopher Wren, and dated London, 1 Aug. 1664; it was published in 1665 and 1668, and reissued, with a translation into English of the original work, in a volume dated 1709. An adaptation of it by Joh. Maximilian Lucas, with a dedication to John, duke of Lauderdale, appeared at Amsterdam in 1675. It was a popular vindication of Englishmen, praised by Addison as ‘full of just satire and ingenuity.’ Johnson's comment on it was that it was ‘not ill performed, but perhaps rewarded with at least its full proportion of praise’ (Jusserand, English Essays, 1895, pp. 158–92).

In 1663 Sprat was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. His ‘History of the Royal Society of London’ came out in 1667, and was often republished down to 1764. A French translation appeared at Geneva in 1669, and at Paris in 1670. Only the second part specifically relates to the society, the first and third deal respectively with ancient philosophy and experimental knowledge. The work was attacked by Henry Stubbe [q. v.] in three curious pamphlets in 1670, mainly on the ground that it was ‘destructive to the established Religion and Church of England.’ Sprat needlessly defended himself in ‘A Letter to Mr. H. Stubs’ (sic), 1670 (D'Israeli, Quarrels of Authors, 1814, ii. 1–77). Cowley, in his ode to the Royal Society, praised Sprat's work, and Dr. Johnson declared it ‘one of the few books which selection of sentiment and elegance of diction have been able to preserve, though written upon a subject flux and transitory.’ Written in excellent English, it impresses even modern readers with its ‘bold and liberal spirit’ of observation.

In 1667 Sprat's friend Cowley died, and next year he wrote ‘An Account of the Life of Mr. Abr. Cowley’ in a communication to Martin Clifford [q. v.], which he prefixed to Cowley's ‘De Plantis lib. 6.’ It was considerably amplified and placed before the 1668 edition of the poet's ‘English Works,’ which he undertook in accordance with the terms of Cowley's will, and until 1826 it was often reprinted. His defence of his friend's poem of the ‘Mistress’ was attacked by the Rev. Edmund Elys [q. v.], in ‘An Exclamation against an Apology by an ingenious person for Mr. Cowley's lascivious and prophane Verses.’ Johnson justly spoke of the biography as ‘a funeral oration rather than a history,’ a character, not a life, with its few facts ‘confused and enlarged through the mist of panegyrick.’ Clifford and Sprat possessed many of Cowley's letters, which were full of charm; but they would not publish them, and it is not now known whether they are in existence (Fraser's Magazine, xiii. 395–409, and xiv. 234–41; Athenæum, 17 July 1897, p. 99). Coleridge regretted ‘the prudery of Sprat in refusing to let Cowley appear in his slippers and dressing gown.’ The inscription on Cowley's monument in Westminster Abbey was by Sprat. Johnson always read it ‘with indignation or contempt’ on account of its pagan phraseology and expressions ‘too ludicrous for reverence or grief, for Christianity and a temple’ (‘Essay on Epitaphs,’ Works, 1825 ed. v. 262–3).

Sprat was long regarded rather as a wit and man of letters than as a serious divine and politician. On 22 Feb. 1668–9, however, he was appointed to a canonry at Westminster, and on 22 Feb. 1669–70 he was presented by the Duke of Buckingham to the rectory of Uffington in Lincolnshire. Even then he did not abandon altogether his love of satire. He is said to have been one of the duke's coadjutors in the composition of the ‘Rehearsal,’ and to have joined Clifford and ‘several of the best hands of these times’ in assisting Elkanah Settle [q. v.] in writing the ‘Anti-Achitophel.’ On 12 Aug. 1676 he was nominated chaplain to Charles II, and on 29 Sept. 1679 curate and lecturer at St. Margaret's, Westminster. A few weeks later Evelyn went to St. Paul's Cathedral ‘to hear that great wit, Dr. Sprat,’ and noted that ‘his talent was a great memory, never making use of notes, a readiness of expression in a most pure and plain style of words, full of matter, easily delivered’ (Diary, 1850, 2nd ed. ii. 137–8).

By this time Sprat was recognised both as an attractive preacher and as a bold upholder among the clergy of high-church doctrines and the divine right of kings. A fortunate circumstance secured for him still higher preferment. On 22 Dec. 1680, a fast day, he and Burnet both preached before the House of Commons—Burnet in the morning, and Sprat in the afternoon. The congregation applauded Burnet, but was highly offended with the other's ‘insinuations of undutifulness to the king,’ and would not compliment him with the accustomed vote of thanks. This ‘raised his merit at court,’ and on 14 Jan. 1680–1 Sprat was installed in a canonry at Windsor.

On 21 Sept. 1683 he was installed in the deanery of Westminster, and he was consecrated at Lambeth as bishop of Rochester on 2 Nov. 1684, holding both preferments until his death. The first of these appointments compelled him to vacate his canonry in the abbey and his post at St. Margaret's; the second required his cession of the canonry at Windsor. He marked his gratitude for his new preferments by bringing out at the close of May 1685 ‘A True Account and Declaration of the Horrid Conspiracy against the late King, his present Majesty and the Government,’ which, though anonymous, was known to be the composition of Sprat. It purported to be an account of the Rye House plot, and he drew it up after much hesitation, as he subsequently pleaded, at the command of Charles II, who granted ‘free liberty to consult the Paper-office and council-books.’ A second edition appeared in the same year, a third in 1686, and a fourth in 1696. He subsequently evaded the reiterated commands of James to write an account of the invasions of the Duke of Monmouth and the Earl of Argyll.

The last distinction conferred on Sprat was the post of clerk of the closet (29 Dec. 1685), but he probably aspired to the archbishopric of York, which was kept vacant for more than two years. Either under the influence of this bait or from natural pliancy of disposition he accepted on 14 July 1686 a seat on the new ecclesiastical commission of James II, and next month opened its proceedings at Whitehall. His conduct in joining this body was much condemned, both before and after the revolution. His own defence of his actions in this matter, as well as his apology for undertaking the history of the Rye House plot, is set out in two separately issued letters to the Earl of Dorset and Middlesex, one dated 21 Feb. 1688–9, and the other 26 March 1689 (the first was translated into Dutch at Amsterdam in 1689); both were reprinted in 1711. A few weeks after their appearance they were criticised in printed answers ‘by an Englishman,’ who is said by Anthony à Wood to have been Mr. Charlton. The bishop pleaded that his name was inserted in the commission without his knowledge and during his absence at Salisbury, and that he did not suspect any illegality in its constitution. When he found the heat with which his colleagues were proceeding against Compton, the bishop of London, he gave his ‘positive vote’ for him, and joined with Bishop Crewe in administering the diocese. With the object of modifying the commission's procedure he stayed on, and he recounts the instances in which his actions obstructed the proceedings of the court.

Sprat was not averse to the issue by James of his declaration for liberty of conscience, and it was read in Westminster Abbey by his orders. William Legge, first earl of Dartmouth [q. v.], who was then a boy at Westminster school, witnessed the scene. There was ‘so great a murmur and noise that nobody could hear,’ and before it was finished no one remained in the building but ‘a few prebends in their stalls, the queristers, and the Westminster scholars.’ Sprat himself could hardly ‘hold the proclamation in his hands for trembling.’ He would not concur with his colleagues in ordering proceedings against the clergymen who refused to read the declaration, and on 15 Aug. 1688 he sent from Bromley ‘a very honest and handsome letter’ (Evelyn, Diary, ii. 279) announcing his withdrawal from the commission. It was printed separately in a single sheet (reprint in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1784, ii. 673), and was praised by Macaulay as ‘written with great propriety and dignity of style.’ On its receipt Sprat's colleagues ‘adjourned in confusion for six months,’ and their subsequent proceedings were of no interest. After penning this letter Sprat went to Sancroft to excuse his presence on the commission on the ground that he intended to restrain his fellow members from violent action. ‘My dear brother,’ said the archbishop, ‘I will tell you the reason: you cannot live on forty pounds a year as I can.’ This keen dissection of Sprat's character is confirmed by Lord Ailesbury's remark: ‘He was a man of worth, but loved hospitality beyond his purse’ (Memoirs, Roxburghe Club, i. 154).

Sprat drew up the form of prayer for the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1688, and he was one of the members of the episcopal bench summoned by James to a conference on 6 Nov. 1688. In the convention of 1689 he opposed the resolution declaring the throne vacant, but afterwards assisted at the coronation of William and Mary. It was his hand that added to the service of 5 Nov. the sentences of the church's gratitude for her second great deliverance on that day. The commissioners for the revision of the Liturgy sat in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster as his guests from 3 Oct. to 18 Nov. 1689, but at the second meeting he raised doubts as to the legality of their action and finally withdrew.

In May 1692 Sprat fell a victim to a villainous plot. On the 7th of the month he was suddenly arrested on the false information of a rascal named Robert Young (d. 1700) [q. v.] on suspicion of conspiring for the restoration of James II. It appeared that Young had caused an accomplice, Stephen Blackhead, to secretly deposit in the bishop's palace at Bromley, Kent, a paper purporting to be an address of an association formed for the purpose of restoring James II, and bearing the forged signatures of Sprat and others. Sprat was confined in the deanery at Westminster under a guard, but the messengers sent to his palace, in accordance with Young's evidence to discover the incriminating document, failed by an accident to lay hands on it. Sprat was examined, denied all knowledge of any conspiracy or of any such document as was alleged to be at the palace, and, after a detention of ten days, was permitted to return to Bromley. But Blackhead contrived to find the forged paper at the palace, and to bring it to London. Sprat was again summoned to Whitehall, but when confronted by Blackhead drove him to confess the truth. The bishop was in consequence set at liberty on 13 June 1692, which for the rest of his life he kept ‘solemnly as a day of thanksgiving for his deliverance’ (Dartmouth MSS. Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. App. v. 310). He wrote a narrative of the plot, in two parts, entitled ‘A Relation of the late wicked Contrivance of Stephen Blackhead and Robert Young against the lives of several persons.’ The third edition is dated 1693; the first part was reprinted, with a preface of extracts from the second part, in 1722, and it was included in volume vi. of the ‘Harleian Miscellany’ (1744). Macaulay says ‘there are very few better narratives in the language.’

After this date the bishop passed his days in comparative seclusion. It was rumoured in December 1702 that he would be made lord primate of Ireland, but the translation was not effected. As a tory and high-churchman he spoke and voted for Sacheverell. In September 1711 his name was inserted in the commission for building fifty new churches in and near London. In 1712 he was the sole bishop of the province of Canterbury that dissented from the resolution of the upper house of convocation on the validity of lay baptism with water in the name of the Trinity. He died of apoplexy in the palace at Bromley on the morning of 20 May 1713, and on 25 May was buried in Westminster Abbey, on the south side of St. Nicholas's Chapel. A monument, with a long inscription by John Freind, M.D. [q. v.], to the memory of the bishop and his son, Thomas Sprat, was placed in that chapel, but afterwards, for greater publicity, moved to the south aisle, near the west door. A portrait by M. D6ahl of the bishop and his son Thomas is at the Bodleian Library, and a copy of it was made in 1825 for Wadham College. It was engraved by John Smith in 1712, and was included in 1811 in Boydell's ‘Illustrious Heads’ (J. C. Smith, British Portraits, iii. 1225). Another portrait of him, probably by Sir Peter Lely, is at the deanery, Westminster, and a third and larger portrait is in the chapter-house at Rochester. That by Lely was engraved by Vandergucht. Another portrait of him by Loggan was also engraved.

Sprat married at the Charterhouse, where his friend Martin Clifford [q. v.] was master, Helen, eldest daughter and coheiress of Devereux Wolseley of Ravenstone, Staffordshire, by Elizabeth, third daughter and at length coheiress of Sir John Zouch, knight, of Codnor Castle, Derbyshire. His wife was born at Ravenstone on 15 May 1647, died 26 Feb. 1725–6, and was also buried in the chapel of St. Nicholas at Westminster. A monument to their child, George Sprat, buried 4 Oct. 1683, is in St. Benedict's Chapel near the Poets' Corner. Their only surviving son, Thomas Sprat, archdeacon of Rochester, was buried in the abbey on 15 May 1720 (cf. Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 415).

When Sprat was dean the extensive repairs to the abbey, under the direction of his old friend Sir Christopher Wren, were commenced. On his application a marble altar-piece, which had for some time lain among the stores of Hampton Court, was granted by Queen Anne to the abbey and erected there. As soon as he heard of Dryden's death he ‘undertook to remit all the fees and offered himself to perform the rites of interment in the abbey,’ but the larger inscription intended for Shadwell's bust in the abbey was suppressed by him, as some of the clergy had objected to its terms as ‘too great an encomium on plays to be set up in a church,’ and the lines in Dr. Freind's epitaph on John Philips (1676–1709) [q. v.], ‘Uni in hoc laudis genere Miltono secundus, primoque pæne par,’ were omitted by his orders (Sewell, Life of Philips, 1715, p. 34). In 1699 he pulled down and rebuilt the old chapel at Bromley Palace, and made considerable improvements in the building. The bishop's profuseness in spending money did not permit him to die wealthy. He left his money to his son Thomas, but the widow was to enjoy the interest during her life.

As a popular preacher Sprat's talents were in frequent demand on public occasions, at least eleven of such sermons being separately printed between 1677 and 1695. That before the king at Whitehall on 24 Dec. 1676, the subject being ‘Unfeigned Simplicity,’ was No. 21 of the ‘Bishops' Tracts,’ published at Edinburgh about 1840. The ‘discourse to his clergy at his visitation in 1695,’ printed in the ensuing year, inculcated the duty of good reading and preaching, and the necessity for liberality in the payment of curates. It was reprinted in 1710, 1729, and 1761, and included in the ‘Clergyman's Instructor’ (1807, 1824, and 1843). A volume containing five of his collected sermons was struck off in 1697, and a second, with ten sermons, appeared in 1710 and 1722.

‘Maxime semper valuit authoritate,’ says the inscription on Sprat's monument in the abbey, and that was a leading trait in his character. He also loved ease and good living, and was warped in his views by the advantages of the position which he had acquired. Macaulay calls him ‘a great master of our language, who possessed at once the eloquence of the preacher, of the controversialist, and of the historian.’ Dr. Johnson had heard it observed, ‘and with great justness,’ that every book by him is of a different kind, ‘and that each has its distinct and characteristical excellence.’ His name is connected with a masterpiece in English literature, for he assisted Dean Aldrich in revising for original publication Lord Clarendon's ‘History of the Civil War.’

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 675, 1080, 1260, iv. 727–30; Wood's Fasti, ii. 213; Wood's Life (Oxford Hist. Soc.), ii. 505–7, iii. 116, 173; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Gardiner's Wadham College, i. 194; Jackson's Wadham College, p. 185; Welch's Westminster School (ed. 1852), pp. 27–8, 143, 233, 289; Neale's Westminster Abbey, i. 174–9, ii. 150, 173, 234, 301; Chester's Westminster Abbey Registers, pp. 217, 276–7, 316; Stanley's Westminster Abbey, pp. 302–7, 525–7, 550; Walcott's St. Margaret's, Westminster, pp. 77–87; Walcott's Memorials of Westminster, p. 121; Le Neve's Fasti, ii. 125, 574, iii. 349, 361, 405; Spence's Anecdotes (1858 ed.), pp. 10, 51; Addison's Works, vi. 132; Swift's Works (1883 ed.), xii. 198; Johnson's Poets (ed. Napier) ii. 41–7, (ed. Cunningham) ii. 73–8; Notes and Queries 1st ser. x. 84, 6th ser. iii. 152–3, vii. 106, 395, 9th ser. i. 323–4; Biogr. Brit. (1763) vi. 3814–20; Luttrell's Historical Relation, i. 368, 383, ii. 605, iii. 31, v. 251, vi. 558; Burnet's Hist. (1823 ed.) ii. 248, iii. 218, 226–7, vi. 117, 164–5; Macaulay's Hist. ii. 95, 423, 495, iii. 118, 471–2, iv. 248–55; Gent. Mag. 1779, p. 511; Wren's Parentalia, 1750, pp. 254–60; Peck's Cromwell, 1740, pp. 81–2; Stebbing's Verdicts of History Reviewed, p. 78; D'Israeli's Quarrels of Authors (1814 ed.), ii. 1–77; Dunkin's Bromley (1815), pp. 13–22; Curll published in 1715 a meagre account of Sprat, with a copy of his will; information has also been furnished for this article by Capt. William Spratt, R.N.]

W. P. C.