1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Francis Atterbury

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 4.



ATTERBURY, bishop of Rochester, was born in 1662, at Milton-Keynes, near Newport-Pagnel, in Buckinghamshire, where his father, Dr. Lewis Atterbury, was rector. He had his early education at Westminster school, whence he was elected off to Christ-church college, Oxford. He soon distinguished himself by his classical attainments and taste for polite literature. He took the degree of M.A. in 1687, and, in the same year, made his public appearance as a controversialist in favour of the Reformation by answering Obadiah Walker's Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther, &c. In this piece Atterbury vindicated the German reformer in a very able and lively manner.

During his stay at the university, he had a considerable share in the famous controversy between Bentley and Boyle, afterwards earl of Orrery, concerning the genuineness of Phalaris's Epistles; it appears that more than half of the book published under the name of Boyle was written by Atterbury. He was not quite satisfied, however, with his situation at the university, and thought himself qualified for more active and important scenes. In a letter to his father, dated Oxford, Oct. 24, 1690, he says: "My pupil I never had a thought of parting with till I left Oxford. I wish I could part with him tomorrow on that score, for I am perfectly wearied with this nauseous circle of small affairs that can now neither divert nor instruct me. I was made, I am sure, for another scene, and another sort of conversation, though it has been my hard luck to be pinned down to this. I have thought and thought again, Sir, and for some years, nor have I ever been able to think otherwise, than that I am losing time every minute I stay here. The only benefit I ever propose to myself by the place, is studying; and that I am not able to compass. Mr. Boyle takes up half my time, and I grudge it him not, for he is a fine gentleman, and while I am with him, I will do what I can to make him a man; college and university-business take up a great deal more, and I am forced to be useful to the dean in a thousand particulars, so that I have very little time."

In 1690, he married Miss Osborne, a lady of great beauty and some fortune. In 1690 and 1691, he appears to have held the office of censor, or president, in the classical exercises. At the same time he held the catechetical lecture founded by Dr. Busby. About this period he took orders, but being disappointed in his desire of succeeding to his father's rectory, he came, in 1693, to the metropolis, where he was immediately elected lecturer of St. Bride's church, and preacher at Bridewell chapel, and soon after he was appointed chaplain to King William and Queen Mary. His sermons were from the first distinguished for their boldness of sentiment as well as for their elegance of language. One of them, On the Power of Charity to Cover Sin, drew down the animadversions of Hoadly, afterwards bishop of Winchester, and another on the character of The Scorner, met with a more acrimonious censurer. Controversy, however, was no very formidable thing in the estimation of our divine, for we find him in 1700 encountering Dr. Wake, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, and others, in a dispute concerning the rights and privileges of convocations, which was carried on for four years with no small degree of acrimony and bitterness on both sides. Atterbury took the high-church side of the question, and displayed so much zeal for the interests of his order that the lower house of convocation returned him their thanks, and the university of Oxford complimented him with the degree of D.D. His first piece upon this subject was intituled: The Rights, Powers, and Privileges, of an English Convocation, stated and vindicated, in answer to a late book of Dr. Wake's, intituled, The Authority of Christian Princes, &c. This piece appeared at first without the author's name; but the year following, Atterbury published a second edition, with his name prefixed to it, and very considerable additions. In this piece he treated Dr. Wake's book as "a shallow empty performance, written without any knowledge of our constitution, or any skill in the particular subject of debate; upon such principles as are destructive of all our civil as well as ecclesiastical liberties; and with such aspersions on the clergy, both dead and living, as were no less injurious to the body than his doctrine." "The very best construction (he tells us) that has been put upon Dr. Wake's attempt by candid readers, is, that it was an endeavour to advance the prerogative of the prince in church-matters as high, and to depress the interest of the subject-spiritual as low, as ever he could, with any colour of truth." Bishop Burnet wrote against this performance of Atterbury's. He says, "that he (Atterbury) had so entirely laid aside the spirit of Christ, and the characters of a Christian, that, without large allowances of charity, one can hardly think that he did once reflect on the obligations he lay under to follow the humility, the meekness, and the gentleness of Christ. So far from that, he seems to have forgot the common decencies of a man, or of a scholar." His lordship adds, that "a book written with that roughness and acrimony of spirit, if well received, would be a much stronger argument against the expediency of a convocation than any he brings or can bring for it." Dr. Wake, in the preface to his State of the Church and Clergy of England, in their Councils, Synods, Convocations, &c. says, that, "upon his first perusal of Dr. Atterbury's book, he saw such a spirit of wrath and uncharitableness, accompanied with such an assurance of the author's abilities for such an undertaking, as he had hardly ever met with in the like degree before." He afterwards says, "in my examination of the whole book, I find in it enough to commend the wit, though not the spirit of him who wrote it. To pay what is due even to an adversary, it must be allowed, that Dr. Atterbury has done all that a man of forward parts and a hearty zeal could do, to defend the cause which he has espoused. He has chosen the most plausible topics of argumentation; and he has given them all the advantage, that either a sprightly wit, or a good assurance, could afford them. But he wanted one thing; he had not Truth on his side: and Error, though it may be palliated, and by an artificial manager — such as Dr. Atterbury without controversy is — be disguised so as to deceive sometimes even a wary reader, yet it will not a bear strict examination. And accordingly I have shown him, notwithstanding all his other endowments, to have deluded the world with a mere romance; and, from the one end of his discourse to the other, to have delivered a history, not of what was really done, but of what it was his interest to make it believed had been done."

On the 29th of January, 1700, Atterbury was installed archdeacon of Totness, having been promoted to that dignity by Sir Jonathan Trelawney, then bishop of Exeter. The principles of this prelate, both respecting church and state, were those of Dr. Atterbury, who frequently corresponded with him concerning the transactions of the convocation. In one of Atterbury's letters to the bishop, is the following passage: "Things go not well here; the spirit of moderation prevails to an immoderate degree, and the church is dropped by consent of both parties. Carstaires, and the agent for the Irish Presbyterians, are more familiarly seen, and more easily received, at the levees of some great ministers (who are called our friends) than honester men." In another letter, dated March 11th, 1700-1, Atterbury says: "Dr. Jane has taken the chair in the committee for inspecting books written against the truth of the Christian religion. We sat today; and several books were brought in to be censured, and an extract from one Toland's Christianity not mysterious laid before us. Dr. Jane is very hearty in it, and moved, that we might sit de die in diem till we had finished our business. I bring in tomorrow a book of one Craig, a Scotchman, chaplain to the bishop of Sarum, (Dr. Burnet,) to prove by mathematical calculation, that, according to the pretension of the probability of historical evidence, in such a space of time the Christian religion will not be credible. It is dedicated to the bishop. We have made a previous order, that nothing done in this committee shall be divulged till all is finished; and therefore I must humbly beg your lordship to keep these particulars secret." The same year he was engaged, with some other learned divines, in revising an intended edition of the Greek Testament, with Greek scholia, collected chiefly from the fathers by Mr. Archdeacon Gregory. As archdeacon of Totness, Dr. Atterbury addressed several visitation-charges to the clergy of that archdeaconry. In one of these, delivered in 1703, is the following passage: "The men who take pleasure in traducing their brethren have endeavoured to expose those of them who appeared steady in this cause, under the invidious name of high-churchmen. What they mean by that word I cannot tell. But if an high-churchman be one who is for keeping up the present ecclesiastical constitution in all its parts, without making any illegal abatements in favour of such as either openly oppose or secretly undermine it, — one who, though he lives peaceably with all men of different persuasions, and endeavours to win them over by methods of lenity and kindness, yet is not charitable and moderate enough to depart from the establishment, (even while it stands fixed by a law,) in order to meet them half-way in their opinions and practices, — one who thinks the canons and rubric of the church, and the acts of parliament made in favour of it, ought strictly to be observed and kept up to, till they shall, upon a prospect of a thorough compliance from those without, (if such a case may be supposed,) be released, in any respect, by a competent authority; I say, if this be the character of an high-churchman, (how odious a sound soever that name may carry,) I see no reason why any man should be displeased with the title, because such an high-churchman is certainly a good Christian, and a good Englishman."

The accession of Queen Anne was a favourable event for men of Atterbury's principles. She immediately appointed the doctor one of her chaplains in ordinary, and in 1704 he was advanced to the deanery of Carlisle. In 1707, the bishop of Exeter appointed him one of his canon-residentiaries. Two years afterwards we find him engaged in a fresh dispute with Hoadley respecting the doctrine of passive obedience occasioned by his Concio ad Clerum Londinensem; and in 1710 he busied himself, in conjunction with Drs Smalridge and Freind, in aiding Dr. Sacheverell on his trial. The same year he was chosen prolocutor of the lower house of convocation; and in May, 1711, he was appointed one of the committee of inquiry into Whiston's doctrines. In June following he aided in drawing up the Representation of the present state of Religion, which was thought too violent to be presented to the queen, but was privately circulated. The following are extracts from this document: — "We cannot, without unspeakable grief, reflect on that deluge of impiety and licentiousness which hath broke in upon us, and overspread the face of this church and kingdom, eminent in former times for purity of faith and sobriety of manners. The source of these great evils, as far back as we have traced it, seems to have been that long unnatural rebellion which loosened all the bands of discipline and order, and overturned the goodly frame of our ecclesiastical and civil constitution. The hypocrisy, enthusiasm, and variety of wild and monstrous errors, which abounded during these confusions, begat in the minds of men (too easily carried into extremes) a disregard for the very appearances of religion, and ended in a spirit of downright libertinism and prophaneness, which hath ever since too much prevailed among us. It was, indeed, checked and kept under for a time by the legal restraints laid on the press, and by the just dread of popery which hung over our heads; but as soon as these fears were removed, and those restraints were taken off; it broke out with the greatest freedom and violence.

"The dispute with our enemies of the church of Rome, managed with so much honour and advantage to the church of England, was no sooner happily ended, but other adversaries arose who openly attacked the fundamental articles of the catholic faith, and scattered the poison of Arian and Socinian heresies through all the parts of this kingdom. The doctrine of a trinity of persons in the unity of the Godhead was then denied and scoffed at; the satisfaction made for the sins of mankind by the precious blood of Christ was renounced and exploded; the ancient creeds of the church were represented as unwarrantable impositions, and treated with terms of the utmost contumely and reproach. And the divulgers of these wicked errors and blasphemies proceeded with as little disguise and caution as if some new law had been made in their favour, notwithstanding that care had been taken by those who passed the act of indulgence, expressly to exclude them from the benefit of it.

"Nor ought we, among the several instances of infidelity, and of the approaches made towards it, to omit the mention of those damnable errors which have been embraced and propagated by the sect of Quakers; who, in several of their treatises, in their catechisms and primers, have taught the rudiments of the Christian faith in such a manner as to make it seem to be little more than a complicated system of deism and enthusiasm.

"Among the chief causes of this falling away and apostasy, the Representation points out an unrestricted press. The general liberty of the press happened not long after the time when, by reason of confusions and disorders that usually attend great changes of state, the reins of government were unavoidably slackened, and parties of men were suffered to express their mutual resentments, and manage their debates against each other, with a freedom not often permitted or practised in more quiet and settled times.

"We cannot but observe to your majesty, that they who derided churches, and creeds, and mysteries, were the same who insulted the memory and justified the murder of the royal martyr, — applauded the rebellion raised against him, and have taken a great deal of wicked pains in collecting and publishing the works of those writers who were the most declared and irreconcilable enemies to monarchy." Hope is afterwards expressed of the great advantages which might be derived from the exercise of the powers of convocation. "Nor are we without hope, that these our synodical assemblies, regularly and constantly held, may be one useful means of checking the attempts of profane men, and preventing the growth of pernicious errors; especially if, by the authority or intervention of such synods, some way might be found to restore the discipline of the church, now too much relaxed and decayed, to its pristine life and vigour; and to strengthen the ordinary jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts, now too much restrained and enfeebled."

In 1712, Dr. Atterbury was made dean of Christ-church, Oxford; and in June, 1713, on the recommendation of the lord-chancellor Harcourt, he was advanced to the bishopric of Rochester, with the deanery of Westminster in commendam. It has been said that he had in view the primacy, and that his credit with the queen and ministry was so considerable, and his schemes so well laid, as probably to have carried it upon a vacancy, had not the queen's death, in August, 1714, prevented him. But Warton says, "It was with difficulty Queen Anne was persuaded to make Atterbury a bishop; which she did at last, on the repeated importunities of Lord Harcourt, who pressed the queen to do it because she had before disappointed him in not placing Sacheverell on the bench. After her decease, Atterbury vehemently urged his friends to proclaim the pretender; and on their refusal, upbraided them for their timidity with many oaths; for he was accustomed to swear on any strong provocation."

In the beginning of the succeeding reign his tide of prosperity began to turn. George I. soon manifested a personal dislike to him, and rejected in a very scornful manner the advances which the bishop seemed at first inclined to make, which the bishop resented by every token of disaffection to the government. During the rebellion in Scotland, when the archbishop of Canterbury drew up a declarations in name of the bishops, of their abhorrence of that attempt, the bishop of Rochester, and Bishop Smalridge at his instigation, were the only members oŁ the episcopal bench who refused to sign it; and the name of Atterbury in fact occurs in all the strongest protests against the measures of that reign. In 1716 we find him advising Dean Swift on the management of a refractory chapter.

On the 26th of April, 1722, he sustained a severe trial in the loss of his wife, by whom he had four children. On the 24th of August, in the same year, he was apprehended on suspicion of being concerned in a plot in favour of the exiled Stuarts, and committed prisoner to the Tower. In the ensuing March, a bill was brought into the house of commons for inflicting certain pains and penalties on him; but he declined making any appearance in defence against it until it should be sent up to the other house. On the 9th, this bill passed the house of commons; and on the 10th it was sent up to the lords for their concurrence. The bill was read a first time on the 6th of May; and on the 11th of that month the bishop was allowed to plead his own cause, having been escorted from the Tower for that purpose. His defence was able and eloquent, and he displayed much firmness throughout the whole proceedings. Speaking of the pains and penalties which were to be inflicted against him by the bill, he says, "The person thus sentenced below to be deprived of all his preferments, — to suffer perpetual exile, — to be rendered incapable of any office or employment, or even of any pardon from the crown, — and with whom no man must hereafter converse, or correspond by letter, message, or otherwise, without being guilty of felony, — is a bishop of this church, and a lord of parliament; the very first instance of a member of this house so treated, so pre-judged, so condemned, originally in another; and may it be the last! Though such precedents, once set, seldom stand single; but are apt, even without a blessing, to be fruitful and multiply in after times; a reflection that deserves seriously to be considered by those who, observing that this case has never before in all its circumstances happened, may too easily conclude that it will never happen again!" The bishop afterwards enters into a particular examination of the nature and circumstances of the evidence against him, and then says: "Our law has taken care that there should be a more clear and full proof of treason than of any other crime whatsoever. And reasonable it is, that a crime, attended with the highest penalties, should be made out by the clearest and fullest evidence. And yet here is a charge of high treason brought against me, not only without evidence, but without any evidence at all, that is, any such evidence as the law of the land knows and allows. And what is not evidence at law, (pardon me for what I am going to say,) can never be made such, in order to punish what is past, but by a violation of the law. For the law, which prescribes the nature of the proof required, is as much the law of the land as that which declares the crime; and both must join to convict a man of guilt. And it seems equally unjust to declare any sort of proof legal which was not so before a prosecution commenced for any act done, as it would be to declare the act itself ex post facto to be criminal. Shall I my lords, be deprived of all that is valuable to an Englishman (for, in the circumstances to which I am to be reduced, life itself is scarcely valuable,) by such evidence as this? such evidence as would not be admitted, in any other cause, in any other court; nor allowed, I verily believe, to condemn a Jew in the inquisition of Spain or Portugal! Shall it be received against me, a bishop of this church, and a member of this house, in a charge of high treason brought in the high court of parliament? God forbid! My ruin is not of that moment to any man, or any number of men, as to make it worth their while to violate (or even seem to violate) the constitution in any degree to procure it. In preserving and guarding that against all attempts, the safety and the happiness of every Englishman lies. But when once, by such extraordinary steps as these, we depart from the fixed rules and forms of justice, and try untrodden paths, no man knows whither they will lead him, or where he shall be able to stop, when pressed by the crowd that follow him. Though I am worthy of no regard, though whatever is done to me may be looked upon as just, yet your lordships will have some regard to your own lasting interests and those of the state, and not introduce into criminal cases a sort of evidence with which our constitution is not acquainted; and which, under the appearance of supporting it at first, may be afterwards made use of (I speak my honest fears) gradually to undermine and destroy it. For God's sake, my lords, lay aside these extraordinary proceedings! Set not these new and dangerous precedents! And I, for my part, will voluntarily and cheerfully go into perpetual exile, and please myself with the thought that I have in some measure preserved the constitution by quitting my country: and I will live, wherever I am, praying for its prosperity, and die with the words of Father Paul in my mouth, which he used of the republic of Venice, 'Esto perpetus!' The way to perpetuate it is, not to depart from it. Let me depart; but let that continue fixed on the immovable foundations of law and justice, and stand for ever." After a long and warm debate, the bill was passed, on the 16th, by a majority of eighty-three to forty-three; and he was accordingly condemned to the deprivation of all his offices and benefices, and to suffer perpetual exile. How far the bishop was really guilty of treasonable correspondence, has been keenly disputed. It seems, indeed, scarcely probable that a person of his station should have been weak enough seriously to involve himself in such hopeless negotiations; but, if he was really stimulated to such a measure by his wounded feelings, and perhaps by early prejudices of education, it must also be allowed that the proceedings against him were conducted in a very rancorous spirit.

On the 18th of June, 1723, Bishop Atterbury, accompanied by his favourite daughter, Mrs. Morice, embarked on board the Aldborough man-of-war, and landed the Friday following at Calais. On going ashore he was informed that Lord Bolingbroke — who, after the rising of parliament, had received the king's pardon — was arrived at the same place on his return to England, whereupon he is reported to have observed with an air of pleasantry, "Then I am exchanged." From Calais he went to Brussels, and afterwards to Paris, where he was certainly actively engaged in secret negotiations with the Highlands of Scotland, on behalf of the pretender. The letters which passed on this subject were published at Edinburgh in 1768, and their authenticity has never been called in question. In 1729 he lost his favourite daughter, an event which deeply afflicted him, and which is supposed to have hastened his own dissolution, which took place on the 13th of February, 1732. His body was brought over to England, and interred in Westminster abbey.

Not long before his death, he published a vindication of himself, Bishop Smalridge, and Dr. Aldrich, from a charge which had been brought against them by Mr. Oldmixon, of having altered and interpolated the MS. of Lord Clarendon's History of the Rebellion, previous to its publication. His sermons are extant in four vols. 8vo., the first two having been published by himself. Four Visitation charges, accompanying his Epistolary correspondence, were published by Nicholls in five vols. 8vo. Atterbury's literary character has perhaps been raised above its due level by his intimacy with Pope and the other leading writers of the day; but it is generally acknowledged that his sermons are models in their way, and it may be said that he owed his preferment to the excellent appearance which he always made in the pulpit. "He has," says a writer in the Tatler, "so particular a regard to his congregation, that he commits to his memory what he has to say to them; and has so soft and graceful a behaviour, that it must attract your attention. His person, it is to be confessed, is no small recommendation; but he is to be highly commended for not losing that advantage, and adding to propriety of speech — which might pass the criticism of Longinus — an action which would have been approved by Demosthenes. He never attempts your passions till he has convinced your reason. All the objections which you can form are laid open, and dispersed, before he uses the least vehemence in his sermon; but when he thinks he has your head, he very soon wins your heart, and never pretends to show the beauty of holiness, till he has convinced you of the truth of it." His letters are light and easy, and furnish better specimens of the epistolary style than those of some of his more gifted correspondents. As a controversialist, he is keen and dexterous, but deals too much in mere satire and invective; his personal conduct was also frequently marked by the rancour of party. Smalridge styles him, "vir in nullo literarum genere hospes, in plerisque artibus et studiis duo et feliciter exercitatus, in maxime perfectis literarum disciplinis perfectissimus." Dr. Warton says, "Atterbury was, on the whole, rather a man of ability than a genius. He writes more with elegance and correctness, than with force of thinking or reasoning. His letters to Pope are too much crowded with very trite quotations from the classics. It is said, he either translated, or intended to translate, the Georgics of Virgil, and to write the Life of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he much resembled. Dr. Warburton had a mean opinion of his critical abilities, and of his Discourse on the lapis of Virgil. He was thought to be the author of the Life of Waller, prefixed to the first octavo edition of that poet's works. The turbulent and imperious temper of this haughty prelate were long felt and remembered in the college over which he presided." Pope has written an epitaph on Bishop Atterbury, in the form of a dialogue between himself and his daughter, who is supposed to be expiring in his arms. It is as follows:—

SHE.— Yes, we have lived, — one pang, and then we part!
May heaven, dear father now have all thy heart!
Yet, ah! how much we lov'd, remember still,
Till you are dust like me.—

HE.— Dear shade, I will!
Then mix this dust with thine. O spotless ghost!
O more than fortune, friends, or country lost!
Is there on earth, one care, one wish beside?
Yes! Save my country, Heav'n! he said, and died.