Though Francis Atterbury was not raised to the episcopate till he succeeded Spratt at Rochester (1713-23), his name is very prominent throughout the first twenty years of the century. The fame which he had won at Oxford for wit and talent and great command of language followed him to London, where, he was appointed lecturer at St. Bride's in 1691, chaplain to William and Mary in 1694, and preacher at the Rolls in 1698. Among the many distinguished preachers who adorned the London pulpits of that period, none held a place superior in general estimation to that of Atterbury. Leading men of every party thronged to the Chapel Royal to listen to his persuasive reasonings and impassioned appeals, adorned with every grace of voice and gesture. The testimony of the Jacobite Duke of Wharton is naturally a favourable one. But in what he says of his speech, "as honey sweet, as soft as heavenly dew," of his forcible expression, of his "manly sense in easy language dressed," he does but repeat the praise with which Steele in the Tatler points his satire on the heavy, lifeless manner of preaching too prevalent among the clergy of his day. Doddridge, dwelling upon the beauty and purity of his language, calls him "the glory of English orators."
Atterbury's later Jacobitism sometimes brought upon him the charge of disloyalty to his Church no less than to the established dynasty. "While we were in the church," wrote Thoresby in 1723, "there was a mighty shout in the street, which we were told was upon the Bishop of Rochester passing by, some crying out, "No Popish bishop! no English cardinal!" But the guards restrained them as much as possible. From mobs of all sorts, "libera nos, Domine." There was no real ground for the imputation. He was, indeed, among the highest of High Churchmen; but, like other High Churchmen of that period, he was a firm and thorough Protestant. Towards the close of the seventeenth century he had joined with ardour in the controversy against Rome, and one of his literary works was a warm defence of Luther against the attacks of Roman polemical writers. It is told of him that he made various efforts to gain over to Protestantism Pope, who, like most other eminent literary men of Queen Anne's time, was one of his friends and frequent associates. Even in his later days, when he was living in exile as a banished man in the daily company of Roman Catholics, he asserted that he would rather die at the stake than abandon the principles of the Church of England.
As opposed to the Whig and Latitudinarian Churchmen, who were particularly strong on the Episcopal bench, Atterbury was one of the straitest of his party. His enemies called him "a fiery and factious bigot." He was made Prolocutor of Convocation, and none pressed with such vehemence as he for all the utmost rights of the assembly of which he was the chief representative, and of that mass of indignant clerics who complained that they were misrepresented and betrayed by the very men who should be their fathers and guides. It was he who chiefly composed Sacheverell's defence. It was he who drew up the most violent protests of discontented peers in Parliament. Clarke and Whiston, and all leaders of the heterodox, found in him their most uncompromising opponent. He abstained, it is true, so long as Anne was upon the throne, from lending much countenance to that "Church in danger" cry which proved so effectual in fanning the flames of ecclesiastical and political partisanship. But so soon as the Queen was dead, the new-made prelate was vehement with voice and pen in denouncing the ungodly league of Whig politicians and Whig bishops to subvert the constitution of the Church and confuse its doctrines.
It is not to be wondered at that Atterbury incurred strong hostility on the part of his opponents. Burnet could not bear with a man who, he allowed, had great learning and extraordinary parts, but whom he accused of being "ambitious and virulent out of measure, with a singular talent in asserting paradoxes with a great air of assurance, and showing no shame when he was detected in them." Hoadly, whose whole tone of mind was entirely opposite to his, pursued him with a dogged pertinacity of opposition, which gave occasion to a witty quotation. It was said of him, in allusion to his lameness,
Raro antecedentem scelestum
Deseruit pede poena claudo.
Whether it were a sermon, or a pamphlet, or a treatise; whether the subject were passive obedience, or the rights of Convocation, or the power of charity to cover sins, or the temporal rewards of virtue; — no sooner had Atterbury published, than it might be reasonably expected that Hoadly was preparing his "Exceptions," or his "Remarks," or his more elaborate Confutation of certain arguments used by his eloquent adversary. Such opposition was fair enough; but Hoadly did himself little credit when he joined, with what appeared a personal animosity, in the outcry that attended Atterbury's fall. There was a not unmerited sting in Lord Bathurst's taunt when he turned to the Bench and said that "he could hardly account for the inveterate hatred and malice some persons bore to the learned and ingenious Bishop of Rochester, unless they were intoxicated with the infatuation of the wild Indians, who fondly believe they inherit not only the spoils but the abilities of every great enemy they kill."
Atterbury's Jacobitism did not take any very overt form until the accession of George the First. So long as Anne was reigning, it was quite possible to be both a Jacobite and a loyal subject. But he was one of a considerable party with whom allegiance to the daughter of James was not lightly to be transferred to an alien ruler in whom the blood of the royal martyr did not flow. Even among the great body of the people the memory of Charles the First was held in affectionate and pitying remembrance. Their attachment to the Protestant succession was by far the stronger feeling. But if the grandson of Charles could have been induced by the urgent persuasions of his English followers to be so untrue to his convictions as to give even a dissembling adherence to Anglican tenets, he would probably have succeeded Anne without a struggle.
Meanwhile, apart from Nonjurors and open Jacobites, there were many men — and some of them high in power — who would have rejoiced, even without conditions, to hail a Stuart for their king. Their number had greatly increased in the latter part of Queen Anne's reign. Atterbury was one of them. The story (though its authenticity is not certain) is well known how, immediately on the Queen's demise, he proposed to Bolingbroke to proclaim James at Charing Cross, and to head the procession in his lawn sleeves, and how, when Bolingbroke shrank from the enterprise as desperate, Atterbury exclaimed, "There is the best cause in Europe lost for want of spirit!" His Jacobitism was not quite that of the Nonjurors, who felt that a transfer of allegiance was prohibited them by the sacred obligations of religion. Neither was it quite that of the many country gentlemen who could not bear the break in the old succession, and hated the Whig settlement and the German dynasty. If Atterbury could have persuaded himself that the Church would be as safe under George as it had been under Anne, he would have engaged in no Jacobite plots. But it is evident that he was full of alarm at what might happen under the new rule. Not one man in the kingdom would have been so rapturously delighted if the Pretender had renounced his Roman Catholic opinions. But as this was not to be, he became convinced that it was far better for Church and State that Tory and High Church principles should flourish under a Papist king, than that dogmas which he abominated should triumph under a Protestant succession. When, two or three years before, he had drawn up, at the request of the Lower House of Convocation, a "Representation of the Present State of Religion," he had not disguised the gloomy forebodings with which he looked abroad. And now it appeared to him that such forebodings were being indeed realised. The venerable assembly of which he had been the champion was prorogued and silenced; impugners of received doctrines were permitted to vent their blasphemies ("for I cannot," he, said, "give the tenets of Mr. Whiston, or even of Dr. Clarke, a softer name") without punishment or rebuke; schismatics were lifting up their heads, and were already clamorous to be released from the restraints which "the wholesome policy of our good queen" had so lately imposed; the Bishops' Bench would be more than ever replenished with traitors in whose hands the bulwarks of the Church would be yielded to the enemy; the gracious edifice itself, tampered with and betrayed, would lose all its fair distinctiveness, and be handed over to the mercies of Arians and heretics, Presbyterians and Dutch Protestants. Such, with little exaggeration, were the fears which drove Atterbury into Jacobite intrigues.
But plots and intrigues flourish in an air very unfavourable to rectitude and high principle, and Atterbury's virtue was not proof against the temptations which now beset it. He was not disposed, to be a martyr to the cause he cherished; and when he saw the unsparing severity practised against men who, by overt act, or even by carefully worded doubts, disputed the legality of George the First's title to the crown, he was only too ready to make use of all the dissembling artifices of conspirators. There may still be a faint shadow of question as to the genuineness of Atterbury's letters in the Stuart correspondence. But if, as is almost universally agreed, they are authentic, it is certain that a dark blot of dissimulation and falsehood must rest upon this latter period of his life. Such conduct can be but slightly palliated by a consideration of the extreme difficulty of the position in which the death of Queen Anne had placed him, and by the fact that political virtue was at this time corrupted and undermined, even in the highest quarters, by an utter decay of loyalty. It was a period when it might appear that no professions of sincerity could anywhere be trusted in those who took any part in the intricate politics of the day. Painful as it is to read Atterbury's strong disavowals of complicity in machinations into which his whole energy was thrown, it is some satisfaction to know that, although he sacrificed truth to the fear of death or disgrace, he at all events did not yield to those more sordid temptations under which so many of his contemporaries fell. Had he given way to the solicitations of Walpole and Sunderland, both of whom thoroughly recognised his great abilities, he might not only have avoided banishment and poverty, but could have obtained from them ampler revenues and high promotion.
If we could but forget Atterbury's protestations of injured innocence, or if we could believe, notwithstanding the evidence, that up to the time of his trial he had kept aloof from actual conspiracy, we should feel nothing but pity for this distinguished prelate in his exile. It was a sad conclusion to a life in which high abilities, generous affections, and unwearied energy had been lavishly spent in the cause, as he believed, of his country and his Church. An alien among strangers who looked upon his countrymen as enemies and upon his creed as heresy, he saw month by month his hopes dwindling away, and the cause he had attached himself to wrecking itself by incompetence and neglect. Paltry jealousies were rife in the factitious Court of the Pretender, and before long the unfortunate bishop found himself neglected and cast over by the worthless Prince for whom he had made such unsparing sacrifices. In his declining years he began at last to long for rest. But he was too valuable an ally for such rest to be permitted him, and the air of intrigue in which he had lived so long encompassed him to the end. He became ill; but it was only after humble solicitations and heavy payments that his daughter was at length permitted to visit him. And when he died, although his bones were suffered to rest in the great Abbey which he had so often adorned by his eloquence, the indignity was offered to his remains of careful search, in the fear that traitorous papers might perchance lurk within his coffin.