Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/404

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
Burnet
Burnet
398

leaders of the Roman catholics, and that he took upon him the still bolder task of remonstrating freely with Charles upon his evil life. In June 1674 he was again in London, where he found that Lauderdale's influence had been active to his prejudice. In a letter from Paterson, bishop of Edinburgh, to James Sharp, who was then in London, it is urged that Burnet should be appointed to a country living, where he would be less hurtful than in London (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. 203). He was struck off the list of chaplains by Charles on the ground that he had been ‘too busy;’ and, though a reconciliation with the king was effected by James, Lauderdale continued implacable. Burnet, rather than run the risk of persecution in Scotland, now determined, probably nothing loth—for he was essentially English in his views and sympathies—to settle in England. He preached with great and growing reputation in several London churches (Evelyn, 15 Nov. 1674), and through James's favour was offered a living—he does not say where. Lauderdale, however, when he found that Burnet would not forsake Hamilton, induced the king to prevent the appointment. He was shortly afterwards forbidden the court, ordered to leave London, and not to come within twenty miles (twelve miles, according to the Parl. Hist.) This last injunction, however, was not enforced. In 1675, after having declined the living of St. Giles, Cripplegate, on grounds creditable to his feelings, he was made chaplain to the Rolls Chapel by the master, Sir Harbottle Grimston, against court influence, and retained that post for ten years, the lectureship to St. Clement's being shortly afterwards added.

The persecution which he suffered, and which, as he fairly says, might have heated a cooler and older man, now induced Burnet to disclose what he knew of Lauderdale's unconstitutional designs, as they had been privately imparted to him when he was on confidential terms with the duke. It has been assumed, quite unnecessarily, that Burnet had derived much of his information from his wife, formerly an intimate friend of Lauderdale. His revelations were soon turned to account by Lauderdale's enemies, who, when the earl was impeached, moved that Burnet should be examined by a committee of the House of Commons. At his examination, he says, he concealed as long as possible the private conversation, and told only what had happened to himself and what had been said to him before others, but was finally compelled to tell all (Parl. Hist. iv. 683). Those who dislike Burnet have naturally assumed that his hesitation was affected and that he yielded to pressure readily enough, but a general consideration of his character renders this unlikely; the naïve and candid judgment which he passes on his own conduct probably represents the actual state of the case (Own Times, Oxford ed. ii. 66). He now once more retired from public life, though this did not prevent him from bearing an important share in the controversy which was beginning to absorb all other questions. In 1676 he took part with Stillingfleet in a controversy with Coleman and several Romish priests, and subsequently published an account of it. Another outcome of the conference was his ‘Vindication of the Ordinations of the Church of England.’ He next undertook, at the suggestion of Sir William Jones, the attorney-general, his ‘History of the Reformation in England,’ for which Evelyn contributed some materials. For a while he was hindered in his researches in the Cotton Library by Lauderdale's influence and misrepresentation of his object, but after the publication of the first volume he was granted free access. This publication, however, did not take place until 1679, when, the country being in the throes of the popish terror, the spirit in which the work is written caused it to receive so enthusiastic a welcome, that the thanks of both houses were given to him, with a request that he would complete the work. The second volume appeared in 1681, with equal applause; it is said that the historical portion was written in the space of six weeks; the third and last volume was published in 1714; the abridgment of the whole work in 1719.

Burnet had influence over men of widely differing natures; it was at the period at which we have arrived that he had the credit of the conversion, apparently genuine, of one of the worst libertines of the court, Wilmot, earl of Rochester, and of Miss Roberts, one of the king's mistresses; of the former, whose dying declaration is dated 16 June 1680 (Blare, Miscell.), he wrote an account.

Burnet was intimately acquainted in 1678 with the early stages of the popish terror, and apparently drew upon himself the anger of Jones, Shaftesbury, and other violent anti-popery men, as well as a false accusation of Lauderdale to the king, by the stand he made in defence of the first catholic victim of the ‘plot.’ Two years later, when the exclusion bill was contested, he did his best to bring the two parties to moderation. Whether or not from a desire to conciliate one so fearless, and who was trusted by Essex, Sunderland, Monmouth, and his brother, Charles now offered Burnet the bishopric of Chichester, provided, says his son, he would entirely come in to the court interests. Fre-