1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Henry Stubbe

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:479-83.



HENRY STUBBE, an English writer of uncommon parts and learning, and very celebrated in his day, was born at Partney, near Spilsbye in Lincolnshire, Feb. 28, 1631. His father was a minister, and lived at Spilsbye; but being inclined to be an anabaptist, and forced to leave that place, he went with his wife and children into Ireland. Upon the breaking out of the rebellion there in 1641, the mother fled with her son Henry into England; and, landing at Liverpool, went on foot from thence to London, where she gained a comfortable subsistence by her needle, and sent her son Henry, being then ten years of age, to Westminster-school. There Dr. Busby, the master, was so struck with the surprising parts of the boy, that he shewed him more than ordinary favour; and recommended him to the notice of sir Henry Vane, junior, who one day came accidentally into the school. Sir Henry took a fancy to him, and frequently relieved him with money, and gave him the liberty of resorting to his house, "to fill that belly," says Stubbe, "which otherwise had no sustenance but what one penny could purchase for his dinner, and which had no breakfast except he got it by making somebody's exercise." He says this in the preface to his "Epistolary Discourse concerning Phlebotomy;" where many other particulars of his life, mentioned by Mr. Wood, and here recorded, are also to be found. Soon after he was admitted on the foundation, and his master, in consideration of his great progress in learning, gave him additional assistance in books and other necessaries.

In 1649, be was elected student of Christ-church in Oxford; where, shewing himself too forward, saucy, and conceited, he was, as Mr. Wood relates, often kicked and beaten. However, through the interest of his patron, he was certainly of no small consequence; for the oath, called the Engagement, being framed by the parliament that same year, was some time after sent down to the university by him; and he procured some to be turned out, and others to be spared, according as he was influenced by affection or dislike. While he continued an under-graduate, it was usual with him to discourse in the public schools very fluently in Greek, which conveys no small idea of his learning. After he had taken a bachelor of arts degree, he went into Scotland, and served in the parliament army there from 1653 to 1655: then he returned to Oxford, and took a master's degree in 1656; and, at the motion of Dr. Owen, was in 1657 made second-keeper of the Bodleian library, under Dr. Barlow. He made great use and advantage of this post for the assistance of his studies, and held it till 1659; when he was removed from it, as well as from his place of student of Christ church; for he published the same year, "A Vindication" of his patron sir Henry Vane; "An Essay on the good Old Cause;" and a piece, entitled "Light shining out of Darkness, with an Apology for the Quakers," in which he reflected upon the clergy and the universities.

After his ejection, he retired to Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire, in order to practise physic, which he had studied some years; and upon the Restoration applied to Dr. Morley, soon after bishop of Winchester, for protection in his retirement. He assured him of an inviolable passive obedience, which was all he could or would pay, till the covenant was renounced; and, upon the re-establishment of episcopacy, received confirmation from the hands of his diocesan. In 1661, he went to Jamaica, being honoured with the title of his majesty's physician for that island; but the climate not agreeing with him, he returned and settled at Stratford. Afterwards he removed to Warwick, where he gained very considerable practice, as likewise at Bath, which he frequented in the summer season. He did not, however, apply so closely to the business of his profession, as to neglect every thing else: on the contrary, he was ever attentive to the transactions of the literary world, and was often a principal party concerned. Before the Restoration, he had joined Mr. Hobbes, with whom he was intimately acquainted, against Dr. Wallis, and other mathematicians; and had published a very smart tract or two in that controversy, in which he was regarded as second to Hobbes. After the Restoration, he was engaged in a controversy with some members of the Royal Society, or rather with the Royal Society itself; in which, far from being a second, he was now a principal, and indeed alone.

The Royal Society had from its first institution alarmed the zealous admirers of the old philosophy, who affected to represent the views of many of its members to be the destruction, not only of true learning, but even of religion itself. This gave occasion to Dr. Sprat's "History of the Royal Society" in 1667, and to a discourse by Mr. Glanvill in 1668, under the title of "Plus ultra, or, the progress and advancement of Knowledge since the days of Aristotle, in an account of some of the most remarkable late impovements of practical useful learning, to encourage philosophical endeavours." Mr. Stubbe attacked both these works with great warmth and severity, yet with prodigious acuteness and learning, in a 4to volume, entitled, "Legends no history, or a specimen of some animadversions upon the History of the Royal Society; together with the Plus ultra of Mr. Glanvill, reduced to a Non plus, 1670." In this book he charges the members of the Royal Society with intentions to bring contempt upon ancient and solid learning, especially the Aristotelian philosophy, to undermine the universities, to destroy the established religion, and even to introduce popery. This laid the foundation of a controversy, which was carried on with asperity for some time; and Stubbe wrote several pieces to support his allegations. He was encouraged in this affair by Dr. Fell, who was no admirer of the Royal Society; and he made himself so obnoxious to that body, that, as he himself informs us, "they threatened to write his life."

The writings of Mr. Stubbe, though his life was no long one, were extremely numerous, and upon various subjects. Those which he published before the Restoration were against monarchy, ministers, universities, churches, and every thing which was dear to the royalists; yet he did this more to please and serve his friend and patron sir Henry Vane, than out of principle, or attachment to a party: and when his antagonists insulted him for changing his tone afterwards, he made no scruple at all to confess it: "My youth," says he, "and other circumstances, incapacitated me from rendering him any great services; but all that I did, and all that I wrote, had no other aim: nor do I care how much any man can inodiate my former writings, so long as they were subservient to him." "The truth is, and all," says Wood, "who knew him in Oxford, knew this of him for certain, that he was no frequenter of conventicles, no taker of the covenant or engagement, no contractor of acquaintance with notorious sectaries; that he neither enriched nor otherwise advanced himself during the late troubles, nor shared the common odium, and dangers, or prosperity of his benefactor." On this account he easily made his peace with the royalists, after the Restoration: yet not, as it should seem, without some overt acts on his part, for, besides conforming entirely to the church of England, he wrote a small piece against Harrington's "Oceana," in 1660; which, in the preface to "The good old Cause," printed in 1659, he had extolled, "as if," says Wood, "it were the pattern in the mount." By these means he made amends for all the offence he had given: "I have at length," says he, "removed all the uunbrages I ever lay under; I have joined myself to the church of England, not only on account of its being publicly imposed (which in things indifferent is no small consideration, as I learned from the Scottish transactions at Perth;) but because it is the least defining, and consequently the most comprehensive and fitting to be national."

After a life of almost perpetual war and conflict in various ways, this extraordinary man came to an untimely end: yet not from any contrivance or designs of his enemies, although his impetuous and furious zeal hurried him to say that they often put him in fear of his life. Being at Bath in the summer season, he had a call from thence to a patient at Bristol; and whether because it was desired, or from the excessive heat of the weather, he set out in the evening, and went a by-way. Mr. Wood says that "his head was then intoxicated with bibbing, but more with talking and snuffing of powder:" be that as it may, he was drowned in passing a river about two miles from Bath, on the 12th of July, 1676. His body was taken up the next morning, and the day after buried in the great church at Bath; when his old antagonist Glanvill, who was the rector, preached his funeral sermon; but, as it is natural to imagine, without saying much in his favour. Soon after, a physician of that place made the following epitaph, which, though never put over him, deserves to be recorded: "Memoriae sacrum. Post varios casus, et magna rerum discrimina, tandem hic quiescunt mortalitatis exuviae Henrici Stubbe, medici Warwicensis, quondam ex aede Christi Oxoniensis, rei medicae, historicae, ac mathematicae peritissimi, judicii vivi, & librorum helluonis: qui, quum multa scripserat, & plures sanaverat, aliorum saluti sedulo prospiciens, propriam neglexit. Obiit aquis frigidis suffocatus, 12 die Julii, A.D. 1679."

Wood was contemporary with Stubbe at Oxford, and has given him this character: that, "he was a person of most admirable parts, and had a most prodigious memory; was the most noted Latinist and Grecian of his age; was a singular mathematician, and thoroughly read in all political matters, councils, ecclesiastical and profane histories; had a voluble tongue, and seldom hesitated either in public disputes or common discourse; had a voice big and magisterial, and a mind equal to it; was of an high generous nature, scorned money and riches, and the adorers of them; was accounted a very good physician, and excellent in the things belonging to that profession, as botany, anatomy, and chemistry. Yet, with all these noble accomplishments, he was extremely rash and imprudent, and even wanted common discretion. He was a very bold man, uttered any thing that came into his mind, not only among his companions, but in public coffee-houses, of which he was a great frequenter: and would often speak freely of persons then present, for which he used to be threatened with kicking and beating. He had a hot and restless head, his hair being carrot-coloured, and was ever ready to undergo any enterprise, which was the chief reason that macerated his body almost to a skeleton. He was also a person of no fixed principles; and whether he believed those things which every good Christian cloth, is not for me to resolve. Had he been endowed with common sobriety and discretion, and not have made himself and his learning mercenary and cheap to every ordinary and ignorant fellow, he would have been admired by all, and might have picked and chused his preferment; but all these things being wanting, he became a ridicule, and undervalued by sober and knowing scholars, and others too."