Matthew Prior has been reputed a native of London; but was born at Winburn in Dorsetshire, July 21, 1664. (Hutchins's Hist. vol. II. p. 75). His father dying while he was very young, his uncle (a vintner near Charing Cross) had the charge of him, sent him to Westminster School, and afterward took him into his own business. In this situation he was accidentally distinguished by Charles earl of Dorset; who, determining to place him in a situation more suited to his fine parts, sent him to St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1682; where he proceeded bachelor of arts in 1686, and was shortly after chosen fellow. At the university, he contracted an intimate acquaintance with Mr. Charles Montague, afterward earl of Halifax. On the Revolution, he was brought to court by his great patron the earl of Dorset. In 1690, he was secretary to the plenipotentiaries at the Hague; and king William was so satisfied with his services, that, in the resolution to keep him near his person, he appointed him a gentleman of the bed-chamber. He was again employed as secretary, at Ryswick, in 1697; having been the same year nominated principal secretary of state in Ireland. In 1697, he went secretary to the earl of Portland, in his embassy to France. In 1699, he was made under-secretary in the office of the earl of Jersey; and in a few days was ordered back to Paris, to assist the ambassador in the Partition-treaty; which he dispatched to the satisfaction of both Sovereigns. In 1700, he was appointed one of the lords commissioners for trade and plantations, and was elected member for East Grinsted. In 1704 and 1706, he exerted his poetical talent in honour of his country, on the success of her Majesty's arms. In July, 1711, he was employed in a secret negotiation at Paris. In August 1712, being sent again to France, to accommodate such matters as then remained unsettled in the congress at Utrecht, he had the honour of being presented with the French king's picture set with diamonds. From the end of that month, he had the appointment and authority of an ambassador, till the death of the Queen; and remained at Paris in a public character some months after the succession of king George I. On his arrival in England, March 25, 1715, he was taken into custody. In 1717 he was excepted out of the act of grace; and, at the close of that year, being discharged from his confinement, retired from business, to Down Hall, in Essex; where he died, of a lingering fever, Sept. 11, 1721. — "One Prior (sys Bp. Burnet), who had been Jersey's secretary, upon his death, was employed to prosecute that which the other did not live to finish. Prior had been a boy taken out of a tavern by the earl of Dorset, who accidentally found him reading Horace." — this ill-natured reflection produced the following epigram by Mr. Dodsley, "Trifles," p. 241.
One Prior! and is this, this all the fame,
The Poet from th' Historian can claim?
No; Prior's verse posterity shall quote,
When 'tis forgot one Burnet ever wrote.