PETER HEYLIN was born at Burford in Oxfordshire, on the 29th of November 1600. The family from which he descended had been long seated at Pentric-Heylin, in Montgomeryshire.
At an early age, he was distinguished by remarkable vivacity of genius, and by early poetical ambition. At school he wrote a tragicomedy on the wars and disasters of Troy. In the thirteenth year of his age, he had made such progress in his studies, that he was ready to leave school for the university.
He became, in the year 1613, a student in Harthall, in the university of Oxford. In 1615, he was elected to a scholarship in Magdalen college, where he produced a tragedy, to which he gave the name of Spurius, which was represented in the apartments of the president, Dr. Langton.
He afterward read lectures on Cosmography, or Geography, which produced him much popularity, and exalted his reputation in the university. The study was then new at Oxford. Munster in Germany, his translator Bellesforests in France, and Ortelius, in Holland, had produced works on Universal Geography, of which the fame and utility were great and extensive. Camden had honoured his country with a topographical history, the most elaborate and satisfactory that had been seen in ancient or modern times. A taste for the knowledge of geography or cosmography had, especially since the era of the Portuguese and Spanish discoveries in the East and West Indies, become continually more general in England. Heylin had the merit of being the first to recommend it at Oxford to the dignity of a peculiar academical study. The undertaking, and its success, were sufficient to confer eminent distinction on so young a man. He was accordingly elected to a fellowship in his college, when he was only in the nineteenth year of his age.
He continued to prosecute with zeal the study in which his endeavours were so fortunate. He published in the year 1621, the substance of his lectures, corrected and expanded, under the title of Microcosmos, or a Description of the Great World. Its reception in the world was highly favourable, and in 1624, it was republished in a second edition. It was dedicated to prince Charles, and was read by King James himself with great delight; especially after the author had expunged a passage in which he had inadvertently attributed to the sovereigns of France the precedency in Christendom before those of Great Britain. The work was reprinted in many succeeding editions; and was gradually enlarged till it came to fill a bulky folio.
In the year 1625, Heylin made an excursion to France. His memoir of the particulars which he observed on this journey, was at the distance of thirty years afterward made public by himself.
In April 1627, in pursuance of the theological direction of his studies, he performed exercises on these two questions: "Whether the true church was ever invisible?" and "whether it be possible for the church to err?" In his exercises, he maintained the affirmative, in answer to both these questions. His affirmations were vehemently impugned by Dr. Prideaux, professor of divinity; who even accused Heylin of a popish adherence to the doctrines of Bellarmine, for having dared to maintain them. Such a charge was at that time dangerous to the quiet and reputation of any person, against whom it was feasibly advanced. Heylin took therefore an early opportunity to vindicate himself against Prideaux' accusation, in a sermon preached before king Charles the first, in which he warmly argued against some of the errors of popery. In the year 1628, he was recommended by his friend, the earl of Darby, to the favour of Dr. Laud, then bishop of Bath and Wells. Upon the friendly recommendation of Laud, he was, in 1629, nominated a chaplain in ordinary to the king.
A sermon against a knavish and unjust scheme, then in a train of execution for the buying in of lay impropriations, was preached by him, in the year 1630, on Act-Sunday, at Oxford, which gave great satisfaction to those who were capable of discerning the injustice and perfidy of that design.
Having married, he resigned his fellowship.
He published in the year 1631, a History of St. George of Cappadocia, the patron-saint of England: with an account subjoined of the institution of the order of St. George, or the Garter.
His merits as a divine an a scholar, were now eminently conspicuous. He was now of an age when preferment could be no longer reasonably denied him on account of his youth. His principles in matters of church and state, were sufficiently akin to those of Laud, now bishop of London, by whose advice all ecclesiastical affairs were almost implicitly administered. In October 1631, he was presented by the king to the rectory of Hemmingford, in Huntingdonshire. In the subsequent month of November, he was further gratified with a prebend in Westminster cathedral. He obtained soon after the valuable rectory of Houghton, in the bishopric of Durham.
In the month of April 1631, he was raised at Oxford to the degree of Doctor in Divinity. His public disputations were, on this occasion, upon these three questions: — "Whether the Church have authority to determine in controversies of faith? Whether the church have authority to interpret the holy scriptures? Whether the church have authority to appoint rites and ceremonies?" The affirmative positions which he maintained in answer to these questions, were again impugned by Prideaux; and the disputation was managed between them with no small asperity.
Prideaux affected the favour of the puritans; yet had published a Latin lecture upon the subject of the religious observance of the sabbath, in which he did not insist on that rigorous sanctification of this day, which puritanical zeal required. The king soon afterward, authorized by proclamation, Sunday sports, of which the profaneness was, by the puritans, contemplated with horror. Heylin, pleased to wrest the authority of the book of Prideaux to a purpose, which might render its author odious to his very friends, translated that lecture into English; prefixed a large preface; and, in 1633-4, made, the whole public, as a defence of the royal proclamation against the puritans. Prideaux, viewed the artifice with inexpressible vexation and resentment.
Heylin, thus zealously subservient to the views of Laud, was naturally rewarded from time to time with new preferments. He succeeded archbishop Williams, in the year 1637, in the office of treasurer to the church of Westminster. He was in the same year presented by the chapter that church to the rectory of Islip, near Oxford, a living in their gift. This he exchanged in the year 1638, for the rectory of South-Warnborough in Hampshire. He was that same year nominated to be one of the justices of the peace for that county.
When the grand rebellion broke out, Heylin still continued bold in his wonted zeal for the interests of the episcopal church and the royal power. When the king left London, Heylin retired to his parsonage in Hampshire. Even there he began to think his safety in danger; and, after a time, went to join the king at Oxford. He was, upon this, stigmatized by the long parliament, as a delinquent; his estate was sequestered, and his goods were seized by their order. He regretted especially, the loss of his library, which was very valuable.
At Oxford, he did not remain idle. By the king's command, he there wrote and published for some time, a weekly paper of news and political discussion, under the title of Mercurius Aulicus.
In 1645, when the royal cause became more desperate, and the Mercurius Aulicus was discontinued, Dr. Heylin quitted Oxford, and with his family wandered for a time from place to place, unable to find any secure residence, and in great difficulties for the very means of subsistence.
At Winchester, he found a temporary retreat, in which be remained with his wife, till that city could no longer hold out against the forces of the parliament.
He passed the next six or seven years of his life at Minster-Lovel, in Oxfordshire, the seat of the family of his elder brother; and paid rent for the house, and the adjoining farm to colonel Heylin, his nephew. From Minster-Lovel, he removed to Abingdon, and there continued to reside till the era of the restoration.
His fervent mind could not languish in inactivity: during his retirement at Minster-Lovel and at Abington, he continued to prosecute his studies with incessant diligence, and composed a variety of books. His loyalty and episcopal zeal were unshaken by his misfortunes. He wrote nothing that had not, directly or indirectly, a tendency to serve the interests of the royal cause; and he made no sacrifice of principles to personal convenience or safety.
After the restoration, he was restored to the enjoyment of all his former preferments in the church. His hopes of further emoluments and honours were, however, like those of many others on the same occasion, disappointed. He died May 8, 1661.
His person was mean, his spirit bold, his eloquence lively and fluent. His works are pregnant with acute and subtle argumentation, with much important knowledge, moral, historical, and theological, unfolded in a clear, vigorous, and correct style.