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Gilbert Burnet: Bishop and Historian

The author of the History of My Own Time was both a keen churchman and a compulsive writer. Mary Delorme describes how Burnet's style, whether graphic, humorous or pompous, was usually as free and expansive as the historian himself.

Gilbert Burnet was born in 1643, when England and Scotland were vexed by religious and political conflict; and he became a churchman early in life. He was a compulsive writer, whose expressed hatred of sectarian persecution soon lost him the favour of his bishops; and, after receiving a commission to write the Memoirs of the Dukes of Hamilton, he became an historian. Of his two greatest works, the first, A History of the Reformation of the Church of England, has its tercentenary this year.

It was immediately successful, and is still a useful work, like his History of My Own Time. The latter was written during the years between his late twenties and his death in 1715, recounting events as they occurred; it was intended for posthumous publication. Clerical influence returned to him only in middle age, when, as Bishop of Salisbury, he was able to put his advanced pastoral theories into practice.

The Burnets, though not aristocratic, were an ancient Scottish family. During Gilbert’s youth, Scotland was torn by sectarian struggles even more strongly than England; Episcopalians and Presbyterians alternately gained the ascendancy, and both were merciless. Gilbert’s father, Robert, was an unusually tolerant Episcopalian lawyer; but the family was divided; for his wife had been Rachel Warriston, and, despite a happy marriage, she could never relinquish her parents’ fierce Presbyterianism.

Gilbert, her youngest child, was only a few months old when Robert had to escape to Paris. His exile lasted several years, during which he admonished his bigoted brother-in-law. ‘Be not too violent then,’ he wrote, ‘and do as you would be done to, for you know not how the world will turn yet.’

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