Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 07.djvu/410

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

was censured expressed themselves in the bitterest terms. As an instance of this we may quote the Earl of Aylesbury: ‘He wrote like a lying knave, and, as to my own particular, the editors deserved the pillory, for what relates to me is all false as hell’ (Egerton MSS. 2621, Brit. Mus.) Actually, however, leaving out of account perhaps his views as to the legitimate birth of James's son, nothing could be a more admirable illustration of the general candour of his mind and of his full and accurate information. That portion where, from the peculiar circumstances, he might not inexcusably have given a partisan colouring to his narrative, and where injustice and inaccuracy would have been extremely difficult to expose, is the portion that treats upon Scottish affairs in the reign of Charles II. An examination of the Lauderdale MSS. in the British Museum, however, enables it to be affirmed that the accuracy of this portion is remarkable not only as regards actual facts, but even as regards the character of men whom he either vehemently admired or as vehemently disliked and opposed. To literary style or to eloquence Burnet has no pretensions, nor is there even the slightest appearance of an attempt at style; his epithets are often clumsy, and his constructions ungainly. From this criticism, however, the most admirable ‘conclusion’ must be excepted. This gives Burnet at his very best; the thoughts are matured and noble, and the diction is elevated and impressive. The whole work has been subject to the acrimonious criticism of Dartmouth and the pungent satire of Swift, to whom he was especially obnoxious, and who is no doubt the author of a satirical epitaph upon him (Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. 468 b); but while the former of these, who frequently accuses him of deliberate falsehood through party feeling (e.g. 6th Rep. 245 note), has now and again hit undoubted blots, the value of the ‘History of my own Time’ as a candid narrative and an invaluable work of reference has continually risen as investigations into original materials have proceeded.

The historical interest of Burnet's character lies in the fact that from his entrance upon public life as a mere boy he was the consistent representative of broad church views both in politics and doctrine. Except in the two or three instances mentioned, his voice was ever for toleration, and his practice in his diocese was still more emphatically so. He was a man perfectly healthy and robust in body and in mind; a meddler, and yet no intriguer; a lover of secrets, which he was incapable of keeping; a vigorous polemist, but without either spite or guile; whatever the heart conceived the tongue seemed compelled to utter or the pen to write. We can well understand Lord Hailes's impression that he was ‘a man of the most surprising imprudence that can be imagined’ (ib. 532). Essentially a politician and a man of action, he was the most pastoral, as he was the ablest, of the prelates of his day; unostentatious in his own life and considerate of others, he was unsparing in labour as in charity. His openhandedness is expressed in a contemporary letter thus: ‘He hath always ready money about him to pay what is anywhere due’ (ib. 7th Rep. 505 b). ‘He was not one to create a set of spiritual or ecclesiastical forces whose influence remains unspent for generations. He was rather the child of his own age, the embodiment of some tendencies which were then emerging into importance’ (Jubilee Lectures, ii. 5; cf. Macaulay, ii. 11). It must, of course, be borne in mind that the two chief authorities on the character of Burnet are likely to be partial, himself and his son. There are plenty of descriptions to be found, depicting him in the darkest colours, but they are too much coloured by political dislike and too slightly illustrated by facts to be worth recording. One, perhaps, by a man who knew him well, may be given here, as it is newly discovered; ‘he was zealous for the truth, but in telling it always turned it into a lye; he was bent to do good, but fated to mistake evil for it’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. 355).

Burnet died on 17 March 1715 of a violent cold, which turned to a pleuritic fever. He was buried in the parish church of St. James, Clerkenwell, having resided at St. John's Court in that parish during the last few years of his life.

By his second wife Burnet had seven children, three sons and four daughters; two of the latter, Mary and Elizabeth, survived him, as did his three sons, William, Gilbert, and Thomas, the youngest of whom, Thomas, became his biographer [see Burnet, Sir Thomas].

William, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Leyden. He had a post in the revenue, but lost money in the South Sea scheme, and obtained the governorship of New York and New Jersey. In 1728 he was transferred, against his will, to Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He quarrelled with the assembly, who refused a fixed salary, and tried to make up for it by a fee on ships leaving Boston, but this was disallowed at home. He died of a fever 7 Sept. 1729. He married a daughter of Dean Stanhope.

Gilbert (1690–1726) educated at Leyden and Merton, contributed to ‘Hibernicus' Letters,’ a Dublin periodical (1725–7), and to Philips's ‘Freethinker.’ He supported Hoadly in the Ban-