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Somerville, Thomas (DNB00)


SOMERVILLE, THOMAS (1741–1830), divine and historian, born at Hawick, Roxburghshire, on 15 Feb. 1740–1, was the only son of William Somerville, minister of Hawick, by his first wife, Janet, daughter of John Grierson, minister of Queensferry in Linlithgowshire. The father was descended from the Somervilles of Cambusnethan [see Somerville, Hugh, fifth Lord Somerville].

Thomas was educated at Hawick and afterwards, under the care of his relative, Adam Dickson [q. v.], at Duns in Berwickshire. He entered Edinburgh University in November 1756. His father, dying in the following year, left him and his sisters in narrow circumstances, and he accepted the office of tutor in the family of George Burges of Greslee, Berkshire, commissioner of the excise and father of Sir James Bland Burges [q. v.] He was licensed by the Edinburgh presbytery on 28 Nov. 1764. Shortly after Sir Gilbert Elliot [q. v.] appointed him tutor to his son Gilbert (afterwards first Earl of Minto) [q. v.], and from that time Somerville found in the Elliot family constant friends and patrons. In December 1776 he was presented by Sir Gilbert to the parish of Minto in Roxburghshire, and was ordained on 24 April 1767. In 1769 he visited London in the company of Sir Gilbert, and was introduced by him to many literary men, among others to John Blair, author of ‘The Chronology and History of the World,’ to Dr. Vincent, master of Westminster school, and to Dr. Rose of Chiswick. In the society of William Strahan, the printer, he also met David Hume, Sir John Pringle, Benjamin Franklin, and other well-known men. Subsequently he came to know Sir Walter Scott (Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, ed. 1845, pp. 71, 636), and befriended many of the younger generation. To John Logan [q. v.], in particular, his friendship was invaluable in supporting him under the hostile attacks persistently made on him on account of his connection with the stage.

On 27 July 1772 Somerville was presented by the king to the parish of Jedburgh. Patronage was then extremely unpopular in Scotland, and his appointment occasioned great opposition. Repeated protests were made at first, but the uprightness of his character gradually quieted the discontent and won him the favour of his parishioners.

Soon after the outbreak of the American war, Somerville published a pamphlet entitled ‘Candid Thoughts on American Independence’ (London, 1780), in which he severely condemned the action of the colonists and supported the attitude of Lord North. His criticisms provoked a reply from Tod of Kirtlands, entitled ‘Consolatory Thoughts on American Independence.’ Somerville's pamphlet met with approbation, and, as his pecuniary circumstances were embarrassed, he conceived the idea of turning author on a larger scale. In 1782 he began his history of the revolution of 1688, which was published in 1792 under the title ‘History of Political Transactions and of Parties from the Restoration of King Charles II to the Death of King William III’ (London, 4to). Somerville spent ten years collecting materials and writing his ‘History.’ He examined the documents on the period in the British Museum and in the libraries in Edinburgh and extended his researches to such private collections as he could obtain access to (e.g. the Shrewsbury, Hardwicke, and Townshend papers). He endeavoured to deal impartially with political questions, but he was biassed by antipathy to Roman catholicism. The second part of his work, the ‘History of Great Britain during the Reign of Queen Anne’ (London, 1798, 4to), is the more valuable of the two, and may still claim to be an adequate history of the times of which it treats. Somerville maintained that the party distinctions in Anne's reign were altogether different from those under George III, though the terms ‘whig’ and ‘tory’ were current at both periods [see art. Stanhope, Philip Henry, fifth Earl Stanhope].

On 17 July 1789 Somerville received the honorary degree of D.D. from the university of St. Andrews, and in October 1793 he was appointed one of his majesty's chaplains for Scotland. About the same time he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 1798 he declined the professorship of church history in the university of Edinburgh, and he received a yearly pension from the king in 1800. Notwithstanding his great age, he continued the discharge of his ministerial duties until his death on 16 May 1830. He was buried in the lady-chapel of Jedburgh Abbey. He married, on 5 June 1770, Martha, daughter of Samuel Charters, solicitor of customs. She died on 17 Dec. 1809, leaving, with four daughters, two sons: William, M.D. (1771–1860) [q. v.], and Samuel, writer to the signet.

Besides the works already mentioned, several sermons, and the article on ‘Jedburgh’ in Sinclair's ‘Statistical Account,’ Somerville wrote:

  1. ‘Observations on the Constitution and State of Britain,’ Edinburgh, 1793, 8vo.
  2. ‘The Effects of the French Revolution with respect to the Interests of Humanity, Liberty, Religion, and Morality,’ Edinburgh, 1793, 8vo.
  3. ‘Collection of Sermons,’ Edinburgh, 1813, 8vo.
  4. ‘My own Life and Times,’ Edinburgh, 1861, 8vo, which, though written in 1813–14, was, according to his directions, first published thirty years after his death. It was edited by William Lee, minister of Roxburgh and son of John Lee (1779–1859) [q. v.], principal of Edinburgh University.

[Somerville's Life and Times; Annual Biography and Obituary, 1831, pp. 374–85 (by an intimate friend); Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, pp. 385–6; Anderson's Scottish Nation, iii. 490; Scott's Fasti Eccl. Scot. I. i. 396, ii. 482, 507; Gent. Mag. 1830, ii. 183; Athenæum, 1861, i. 657; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.]

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