John Aubrey

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 3:137-40.

JOHN AUBREY an eminent English antiquary, descended from an ancient family in Wiltshire, was born at Easton-Piers in that county, Nov. 3, 1625 or 1626. He received the first rudiments of his education in the grammar- school at Malmesbury, under Mr. Robert Latimer; who had also been preceptor to the famous Thomas Hobbes, with whom Mr. Aubrey commenced an early friendship, which lasted as long as Mr. Hobbes lived. In 1642, Mr. Aubrey was entered a gentleman-commoner of Trinity college at Oxford, where he pursued his studies with great diligence, making the history and antiquities of England his peculiar object. About this time the famous "Monasticon Anglicanum" was talked of in the university, to which Mr. Aubrey contributed considerable assistance, and procured, at his own expence, a curious draught of the remains of Osney abbey near Oxford, which were entirely destroyed in the civil wars. This was afterwards engraved by Hollar, and inserted in the Monasticon with an inscription by Aubrey. In 1646 he was admitted of the Middle Temple, but the death of his father hindered him from pursuing the law. He succeeded to several estates in the counties of Wilts, Surrey, Hereford, Brecknock, and Monmouth, but they were involved in many law-suits. These suits, together with other misfortunes, by degrees consumed all his estates, and forced him to lead a more active life than he was otherwise inclined to. He did not, however, break off his acquaintance with the learned at Oxford or at London, but kept up a close correspondence with the lovers of antiquity and natural philosophy in the university, and furnished Anthony Wood with a considerable part of the materials for his two large works. Wood, however, in his own life, does not speak very respectfully of his assistant. He calls him a pretender to antiquities, and after giving an account of the origin of their acquaintance, of the gay appearance which Aubrey made at Oxford, and of his subsequent poverty, Wood adds, "He was a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased. And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent to A. W. with fooleries and mis-informations, which sometimes would guide him into the paths of error."

Aubrey preserved an intimacy with those great persons, who then met privately, and were afterwards formed into the Royal Society. Soon after the restoration, he went into Ireland, and returning from thence, in the autumn of 1660, narrowly escaped shipwreck near Holyhead. On the 1st of Nov. 1661, he was so unfortunate as to suffer another shipwreck. In 1662, he was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society. In June 1664, he travelled through France into Orleans, and returned in the month of October. In 1666, he sold his estate in Wiltshire; and was at length obliged to dispose of all he had left, so that, in the space of four years, he was reduced even to want; yet his spirit remained unbroken. His chief benefactress was the lady Long of Draycot in Wilts, who gave him an apartment in her house, and supported him as long as he lived. When his death happened is uncertain: we are only told in general that he died suddenly on a journey to Oxford in his way to Draycot; and he was there buried, as near as can be conjectured, in 1700. He was a man of an excellent capacity, and indefatigable application; a diligent searcher into antiquities, a good Latin poet, an excellent naturalist, but somewhat credulous, and tinctured with superstition.

The character Mr. Malone has given him, in his Historical account of the English Stage, is worthy of transcription, as the opinion of one who has had every opportunity to investigate his merits. "That," says Mr. Malone, "the greater part of his life was devoted to literary pursuits, is ascertained by the works which he has published, the correspondence which he held with many eminent men, and the collections which he left in manuscript, and which are now reposited in the Ashmolean Museum. Among these collections is a curious account of our English poets and many other writers. While Wood was preparing his Athenae Oxonienses, this manuscript was lent to him, as appears from many queries in his hand-writing in the margin; and his account of Milton, with whom Aubrey was intimately acquainted, is (as has been observed by Mr. Warton) literally transcribed from thence. Wood afterwards quarreled with Mr. Aubrey, whom in the second volume of his Fasti, p. 262, he calls his friend, and on whom, in his History of the University of Oxford he bestows the highest encomium; and, after their quarrel, with his usual warmth, and, in his loose diction, he represented Aubrey as a pretender, &c. But whatever Wood in a peevish humour may have thought or said of Mr. Aubrey, by whose labours he highly profited, or however fantastical Aubrey may have been on the subject of chemistry and ghosts, his character for veracity has never been impeached; and as a very diligent antiquary, his testimony is worthy of attention. Mr. Toland, who was well acquainted with him, and certainly a better judge of men than Wood, gives this character of him: "Though he was extremely superstitious, or seemed to be so, yet he was a very honest man, and most accurate in his account of matters of fact. But the facts he knew, not the reflections he made, were what I wanted."

The manuscripts mentioned by Mr. Malone, now in the Museum, at Oxford, are, "An Apparatus for the Lives of our English mathematical and other writers: an Interpretation of Villare Anglicanum: Designatio de Easton-Piers in com. Wilts: A volume of Letters and other papers of E. Ashmole's, relating chiefly to Dr. Dee and sir Edward Kelly: two volumes of Letters from eminent persons to John Aubrey, esq." His principal works besides are, 1. The Life of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, a manuscript written in English, but never published; the principal part has been used by Dr. Blackbourne, in his Vitae Hobbianae auctarium, published in 1681. — 2. Miscellanies on the following subjects: 1. Day-fatality. 2. Local fatality. 3. Ostenta. 4. Omens. 5. Dreams. 6. Apparitions. 7. Voices. 8. Impulses. 9. Knockings. 10. Blows invisible. 11. Prophecies. 12. Marvels. 13. Magic. 14. Transportation in the air. 13. Visions in a beril or speculum. 16. Converse with angels and spirits. 17. Corpse candles in Wales. 18. Oracles. 19. Extasies. 20. Glances of love and envy. 21. Second-sighted persons. 22. The discovery of two murders by apparitions, often reprinted. — A Perambulation of the county of Surry, begun 1673, ended 1692. This work the author left behind him in manuscript; it was published, 1719, in five volumes 8vo, and is now scarce. 4. Monumenta Britannica, or a discourse concerning Stone-henge and Rollich-stones in Oxfordshire; a manuscript. This is said to have been written at the command of Charles II. who meeting Mr. Aubrey at Stone-henge, as his majesty was returning from Bath, conversed with him in relation to that celebrated monument of antiquity; and also approved of his notion concerning it, which was this, that both it and the stones in Oxfordshire were the remains of places dedicated to sacred uses by the Druids, long before the time of the Roman invasion. See a letter from Mr. Paschal to Mr. Aubrey, prefixed to his Memoirs. 5. Architectonica sacra, a Dissertation concerning the manner of our Church-building in England, a manuscript in the Museum at Oxford. 6. The Idea of universal Education. There are besides many letters of our author relating to natural philosophy, and other curious subjects, published in several collections.