Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
Critical Introduction by F. C. Montague
Gilbert Burnet (16431715)
[Bishop Burnet was born in Edinburgh on the 18th of September 1643. He was educated, first at home, and subsequently at the Marischal College, Aberdeen. In 1661 he became a clergyman of the Scotch Church. He was always interested in general literature, and still more in politics, which attracted him to London. He became intimate with King Charles II., who made him a royal chaplain, and with James, Duke of York. But Burnet was a zealous Protestant, and a personal friend of Lord William Russell and the Earl of Essex, so that he lost favour with Charles, and on the accession of James thought fit to go abroad. He became intimate with the Prince and Princess of Orange, accompanied the expedition of 1688, and after the Revolution was rewarded with the Bishopric of Salisbury. He proved an excellent bishop, without ceasing to be an active politician. In 1698 he became Preceptor to the Duke of Gloucester, son of the Princess Anne. He suggested to Anne, when Queen, the provision for augmenting poor livings, known as Queen Annes bounty. He died in London on the 7th of March 1715. For more than fifty years he had been a most prolific writer. He composed histories, biographies, theological treatises, sermons, and political pamphlets. A complete list of his writings will be found (vol. vi. pp. 331352) in the Clarendon Press edition of his principal work The History of my Own Times.]
BURNET took so keen a part in the political and religious controversies of a troubled time that the worth of his writings has been very differently judged by Whigs and by Tories, by Low Churchmen and by High Churchmen. But after the lapse of nearly two centuries it is no longer difficult to determine his real position in literature. He was a man of quick feelings, extraordinary energy, varied experience, and very wide reading. He was not an original thinker or a master of literary expression. Most of his works were written for an immediate purpose. The many sermons and pamphlets which came from his pen are creditable productions of their kind, but possess none of those transcendant qualities which alone can raise a fugitive piece to the dignity of a classic. His works of divinity would hardly by themselves suffice to preserve his memory. That he still holds a place in English literature is due to his biographical and historical writings.
Some Passages of the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester, should not perhaps be termed a biography, since it passes very rapidly over Rochesters career to dwell upon the close of his life and his conversion by the author. One of the cleverest and most dissolute among the many men of wit and pleasure who gathered round Charles II., Rochester had exhausted a vigorous constitution and fine talents whilst yet little more than thirty years of age. His conversations with Burnet give a lively idea of the religious and moral scepticism which was then fashionable, and of the arguments with which it was assailed. The Life of Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice of England, portrays a very different character, a great judge, and a man of antique virtue. In this work, also, the sermon encroaches on the biography. Yet, it is agreeable reading. The deficiencies of Burnets thought and style are less remarkable in brief occasional performances of this class, than in longer and more elaborate compositions. Burnets reputation as a historian rests chiefly on the History of the Reformation and the History of My Own Time. The first volume of the History of the Reformation appeared in 1679, the second in 1681, and the third in 1714. Published at a time when the pretended discovery of the Popish plot had given a new edge to Protestant enthusiasm, the first volume received the formal thanks of the House of Commons. The whole work attracted considerable attention on the Continent as well as in England. Nor was this attention undeserved. For Burnet had shown considerable industry in research, and had as much regard for truth as is ever found in a zealous party man. But in writing the History of the Reformation he laboured under two grave disadvantages. He had no access to many sources of information which have been laid open since his time. He wrote at a time when the conflict between Protestant and Catholic was still raging, and could not be expected to discuss the first phase of that conflict in the philosophical spirit, possible to those who write after the conflict has been decided. For these reasons the History of the Reformation has already become more or less obsolete. A more enduring importance belongs to the History of My Own Time, which was not published in the life of the author. Beginning with a sketch of the period of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth, it traces the course of events in England and Scotland from the Restoration of Charles II. down to the close of the reign of Anne. For writing such a history Burnet possessed unusual advantages. Engaged in politics for nearly fifty years, personally intimate with five English sovereigns, and the centre of a wide circle of acquaintance which comprised most of the men prominent, whether in Church or in State, both in England and in Scotland, he had every opportunity of collecting those precious facts which are not recorded in state papers but which illustrate the very soul of the time. As a contemporary narrative the History of My Own Time has the same indestructible value which belongs to the History of the Great Rebellion. As a work of literary art, however, Burnets history cannot be compared with Clarendons history. Clarendons lofty rhythm, restrained pathos, and fine discrimination of language are all wanting to Burnet. Whatever the subject in hand, a battle or a revolution, the character of a great statesman or the untimely death of a dear friend, Burnets narrative jogs along at the same slow apathetic pace. The lack of eloquence is not compensated by clearness or method, for the arrangement is careless and the impression left on the reader is one of confusion. Still less is the uncouthness of the form compensated by the profundity of the thought. That Burnet was a champion of the party which saved civil and religious freedom does not make him less a partisan. How much his perception of facts was impaired by his Whig zeal, may be gathered from the remonstrance against peace with France which he addressed to Anne after the Tories had come into power. I said, he writes, any treaty by which Spain and the West Indies were left to King Philip must in a little while deliver all Europe into the hands of France; and, if any such peace should be made, she was betrayed and we were all ruined; in less than three years time she would be murdered, and the fires would be again raised in Smithfield (vol. vi. p. 71).
Defects of method, of historical insight, and of impartiality are, however, equally conspicuous in Clarendons history, and are perhaps inevitable in a contemporary record of political events. Burnet has been further charged with grave inaccuracy in his statement of facts, but this accusation is not well founded. The conclusion has evidently been elaborated with much care, and in point of style rises as far above Burnets usual level as the rest of the history sinks below.