ATTERBURY, FRANCIS (1662-1732), English man of letters, politician and bishop, was born in the year 1662, at Milton or Middleton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, a parish of which his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster school and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he became a tutor. In 1682 he published a translation of Absalom and Ahithophel into Latin verse; but neither the style nor the versification was that of the Augustan age. In English composition he succeeded much better. In 1687 he published An Answer to some Considerations on the Spirit of Martin Luther and the Original of the Reformation, a reply to Obadiah Walker, who, elected master of University College in 1676, had printed in a press set up by him there an attack on the Reformation, written by Abraham Woodhead. Atterbury’s treatise, though highly praised by Bishop Burnet, is perhaps more distinguished for the vigour of his rhetoric than for the soundness of his arguments, and the Papists were so much galled by his sarcasms and invectives that they accused him of treason, and of having, by implication, called King James a Judas.
After the Revolution, Atterbury, though bred in the doctrines of non-resistance and passive obedience, readily swore fealty to the new government. He had taken holy orders in 1687, preached occasionally in London with an eloquence which raised his reputation, and was soon appointed one of the royal chaplains. But he ordinarily resided at Oxford, where he was the chief adviser and assistant of Dean Aldrich, under whom Christ Church was a stronghold of Toryism. Thus he became the inspirer of his pupil, Charles Boyle, in the attack (1698) on the Whig scholar, Richard Bentley (q.v.), arising out of Bentley’s impugnment of the genuineness of the Epistles of Phalaris. He was figured by Swift in the Battle of the Books as the Apollo who directed the fight, and was, no doubt, largely the author of Boyle’s essay. Bentley spent two years in preparing his famous reply, which proved not only that the letters ascribed to Phalaris were spurious, but that all Atterbury’s wit, eloquence and skill in controversial fence was only a cloak for an audacious pretence of scholarship.
Atterbury was soon occupied, however, in a dispute about matters still more important and exciting. The rage of religious factions was extreme. High Church and Low Church divided the nation. The great majority of the clergy were on the High Church side; the majority of King William’s bishops were inclined to latitudinarianism. In 1700 Convocation, of which the lower house was overwhelmingly Tory, had not been suffered to meet for ten years. This produced a lively controversy, into which Atterbury threw himself with characteristic energy, publishing a series of treatises written with much wit, audacity and acrimony. By the mass of the clergy he was regarded as the most intrepid champion that had ever defended their rights against the oligarchy of Erastian prelates. In 1701 he was rewarded with the archdeaconry of Totnes and a prebend in Exeter cathedral. The lower house of Convocation voted him thanks for his services; the university of Oxford created him a doctor of divinity; and in 1704, soon after the accession of Anne, while the Tories still had the chief weight in the government, he was promoted to the deanery of Carlisle.
Soon after he had obtained this preferment the Whig party 881 came into power. From that party he could expect no favour. Six years elapsed before a change of fortune took place. At length, in the year 1710, the prosecution of Sacheverell produced a formidable explosion of High Church fanaticism. At such a moment Atterbury could not fail to be conspicuous. His inordinate zeal for the body to which he belonged, his turbulent and aspiring temper, his rare talents for agitation and for controversy, were again signally displayed. He bore a chief part in framing that artful and eloquent speech which the accused divine pronounced at the bar of the Lords, and which presents a singular contrast to the absurd and scurrilous sermon which had very unwisely been honoured with impeachment. During the troubled and anxious months which followed the trial, Atterbury was among the most active of those pamphleteers who inflamed the nation against the Whig ministry and the Whig parliament. When the ministry had been changed and the parliament dissolved, rewards were showered upon him. The lower house of Convocation elected him prolocutor, in which capacity he drew up, in 1711, the often-cited Representation of the State of Religion; and, in August 1711, the queen, who had selected him as her chief adviser in ecclesiastical matters, appointed him dean of Christ Church on the death of his old friend and patron Aldrich.
At Oxford he was as conspicuous a failure as he had been at Carlisle, and it was said by his enemies that he was made a bishop because he was so bad a dean. Under his administration Christ Church was in confusion, scandalous altercations took place, and there was reason to fear that the great Tory college would be ruined by the tyranny of the great Tory doctor. In 1713 he was removed to the bishopric of Rochester, which was then always united with the deanery of Westminster. Still higher dignities seemed to be before him. For, though there were many able men on the episcopal bench, there was none who equalled or approached him in parliamentary talents. Had his party continued in power it is not improbable that he would have been raised to the archbishopric of Canterbury. The more splendid his prospects the more reason he had to dread the accession of a family which was well known to be partial to the Whigs, and there is every reason to believe that he was one of those politicians who hoped that they might be able, during the life of Anne, to prepare matters in such a way that at her decease there might be little difficulty in setting aside the Act of Settlement and placing the Pretender on the throne. Her sudden death confounded the projects of these conspirators, and, whatever Atterbury’s previous views may have been, he acquiesced in what he could not prevent, took the oaths to the house of Hanover, and did his best to ingratiate himself with the royal family. But his servility was requited with cold contempt; and he became the most factious and pertinacious of all the opponents of the government. In the House of Lords his oratory, lucid, pointed, lively and set off with every grace of pronunciation and of gesture, extorted the attention and admiration even of a hostile majority. Some of the most remarkable protests which appear in the journals of the peers were drawn up by him; and, in some of the bitterest of those pamphlets which called on the English to stand up for their country against the aliens who had come from beyond the seas to oppress and plunder her, critics easily detected his style. When the rebellion of 1715 broke out, he refused to sign the paper in which the bishops of the province of Canterbury declared their attachment to the Protestant succession, and in 1717, after having been long in indirect communication with the exiled family, he began to correspond directly with the Pretender.
In 1721, on the discovery of the plot for the capture of the royal family and the proclamation of King James, Atterbury was arrested with the other chief malcontents, and in 1722 committed to the Tower, where he remained in close confinement during some months. He had carried on his correspondence with the exiled family so cautiously that the circumstantial proofs of his guilt, though sufficient to produce entire moral conviction, were not sufficient to justify legal conviction. He could be reached only by a bill of pains and penalties. Such a bill the Whig party, then decidedly predominant in both Houses, was quite prepared to support, and in due course a bill passed the Commons depriving him of his spiritual dignities, banishing him for life, and forbidding any British subject to hold intercourse with him except by the royal permission. In the Lords the contest was sharp, but the bill finally passed by eighty-three votes to forty-three.
Atterbury took leave of those whom he loved with a dignity and tenderness worthy of a better man, to the last protesting his innocence with a singular disingenuousness. After a short stay at Brussels he went to Paris, and became the leading man among the Jacobite refugees there. He was invited to Rome by the Pretender, but Atterbury felt that a bishop of the Church of England would be out of place at the Vatican, and declined the invitation. During some months, however, he seemed to stand high in the good graces of James. The correspondence between the master and the servant was constant. Atterbury’s merits were warmly acknowledged, his advice was respectfully received, and he was, as Bolingbroke had been before him, the prime minister of a king without a kingdom. He soon, however, perceived that his counsels were disregarded, if not distrusted. His proud spirit was deeply wounded. In 1728 he quitted Paris, fixed his residence at Montpelier, gave up politics, and devoted himself entirely to letters. In the sixth year of his exile he had so severe an illness that his daughter, Mrs Morice, herself very ill, determined to run all risks that she might see him once more. She met him at Toulouse, received the communion from his hand, and died that night.
Atterbury survived the severe shock of his daughter’s death two years. He even returned to Paris and to the service of the Pretender, who had found out that he had not acted wisely in parting with one who, though a heretic, was the most able man of the Jacobite party. In the ninth year of his banishment he published a luminous, temperate and dignified vindication of himself against John Oldmixon, who had accused him of having, in concert with other Christ Church men, garbled the new edition of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. The charge, as respected Atterbury, had not the slightest foundation; for he was not one of the editors of the History, and never saw it till it was printed. A copy of this little work he sent to the Pretender, with a letter singularly eloquent and graceful. It was impossible, the old man said, that he should write anything on such a subject without being reminded of the resemblance between his own fate and that of Clarendon. They were the only two English subjects who had ever been banished from their country and debarred from all communication with their friends by act of parliament. But here the resemblance ended. One of the exiles had been so happy as to bear a chief part in the restoration of the royal house. All that the other could now do was to die asserting the rights of that house to the last. A few weeks after this letter was written Atterbury died, on the 22nd of February 1732. His body was brought to England, and laid, with great privacy, under the nave of Westminster Abbey. No inscription marks his grave.
It is agreeable to turn from Atterbury’s public to his private life. His turbulent spirit, wearied with faction and treason, now and then required repose, and found it in domestic endearments, and in the society of the most illustrious literary men of his time. Of his wife, Katherine Osborn, whom he married while at Oxford, little is known; but between him and his daughter there was an affection singularly close and tender. The gentleness of his manners when he was in the company of a few friends was such as seemed hardly credible to those who knew him only by his writings and speeches. Though Atterbury’s classical attainments were not great, his taste in English literature was excellent; and his admiration of genius was so strong that it overpowered even his political and religious antipathies. His fondness for Milton, the mortal enemy of the Stuarts and of the Church, was such as to many Tories seemed a crime; and he was the close friend of Addison. His favourite companions, however, were, as might have been expected, men whose politics had at least a tinge of Toryism. He lived on friendly terms with Swift, Arbuthnot and Gay. With Prior he had a close intimacy, 882 which some misunderstanding about public affairs at last dissolved. Pope found in Atterbury not only a warm admirer, but a most faithful, fearless and judicious adviser.
See F. Williams, Memoirs and Correspondence of Atterbury with Notes, &c. (1869); Stuart Papers, vol. i.: Letters of Atterbury to the Chevalier St George, &c. (1847); J. Nichols, Epistolary Correspondence, &c. (1783-1796); and H.C. Beeching, Francis Atterbury, (1909).
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