English bishop and historian, was born in Edinburgh on the 15th of September 1643, of an ancient and distinguished Scottish house. He was the youngest son of Robert Burnet (1592-1661), who at the Restoration became a lord of session with the title of Lord Crimond. Robert Burnet had refused to sign the Scottish Covenant, although the document was drawn up by his brother-in-law, Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston. He therefore found it necessary to retire from his profession, and twice went into exile. He disapproved of the rising of the Scots, but was none the less a severe critic of the government of Charles I. and of the action of the Scottish bishops. This moderate attitude he impressed on his son Gilbert, whose early education he directed. The boy entered Marischal College at the age of nine, and five years later graduated M.A. He then spent a year in the study of feudal and civil law before he resolved to devote himself to theology.
He became a probationer for the Scottish ministry in 1661 just before Episcopal government was re-established in Scotland. His decision to accept Episcopal orders led to difficulties with his family, especially with his mother, who held rigid Presbyterian views. From this time dates his friendship with Robert Leighton (1611-1684), who greatly influenced his religious opinions. Leighton had, during a stay in the Spanish Netherlands, assimilated something of the ascetic and pietistic spirit of Jansenism, and was devoted to the interests of peace in the church. Burnet wisely refused to accept a benefice in the disturbed state of church affairs, but he wrote an audacious letter to Archbishop Sharp asking him to take measures to restore peace. Sharp sent for Burnet, and dismissed his advice without apparent resentment. He had already made valuable acquaintances in Edinburgh, and he now visited London, Oxford and Cambridge, and, after a short visit to Edinburgh in 1663, when he sought to secure a reprieve for his uncle Wariston, he proceeded to travel in France and Holland. At Cambridge he was strongly influenced by the philosophical views of Ralph Cudworth and Henry More, who proposed an unusual degree of toleration within the boundaries of the church and the limitations imposed by its liturgy and Episcopal government; and his intercourse in Holland with foreign divines of different Protestant sects further encouraged his tendency to latitudinarianism.
When he returned to England in 1664 he established intimate relations with Sir Robert Moray and with John Maitland, earl and afterwards first duke of Lauderdale, both of whom at that time advocated a tolerant policy towards the Scottish covenanters. Burnet became a member of the Royal Society, of which Moray was the first president. On his father's death he had been offered a living by a relative, Sir Alexander Burnet, and in 1663 the living of Saltoun, East Lothian, had been kept open for him by one of his fathers friends. He was not formally inducted at Saltoun until June 1665, although he had served there since October 1664.
For the next five years he devoted himself to his parish, where he won the respect of all parties. In 1666 he alienated the Scottish bishops by a bold memorial (printed in vol. ii. of the Miscellanies of the Scottish Historical Society), in which he pointed out that they were departing from the custom of the primitive church by their excessive pretensions, and yet his attitude was far too moderate to please the Presbyterians. In 1669 he resigned his parish to become professor of divinity in the university of Glasgow, and in the same year he published an exposition of his ecclesiastical views in his Modest and Free Conference between a Conformist and a Nonconformist (by a lover of peace).
He was Leighton's right hand in the efforts at a compromise between the Episcopal and the Presbyterian principle. Meanwhile he had begun to differ from Lauderdale, whose policy after the failure of the scheme of Accommodation moved in the direction of absolutism and repression, and during Lauderdale's visit to Scotland in 1672 the divergence rapidly developed into opposition. He warily refused the offer of a Scottish bishopric, and published in 1673 his four conferences, entitled Vindication of the Authority, Constitution and Laws of the Church and State of Scotland, in which he insisted on the duty of passive obedience.
It was partly through the influence of Anne (d. 1716), duchess of Hamilton in her own right, that he had been appointed at Glasgow, and he made common cause with the Hamiltons— against Lauderdale. The duchess had made over to him the papers of her father and uncle, from which he compiled the Memoirs of the Lives and Actions of James and William, dukes of Hamilton and Castleherald. In which an account is given of the Rise and Progress of the Civil Wars of Scotland, together with many letters, written by King Charles I. (London, 1677; Univ. Press, Oxford, 1852), a book which was published as the second volume of a History of the Church of Scotland, Spottiswoode's History forming the first. This work established his reputation as an historian.
Meanwhile he had clandestinely married in 1671 a cousin of Lauderdale, Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter of John Kennedy, 6th earl of Cassilis; a lady who had already taken an active part in affairs in Scotland, and was eighteen years older than Burnet. The marriage was kept secret for three years, and Burnet renounced all claim to his wifes fortune.
Lauderdale's ascendancy in Scotland and the failure of the attempts at compromise in Scottish church affairs eventually led Burnet to settle in England. He was favorably received by Charles II. in 1673, when he went up to London to arrange for the publication of the Hamilton Memoirs, and he was treated with confidence by the duke of York. On his return to Scotland Lauderdale refused to receive him, and denounced him to Charles II. as one of the chief centres of Scottish discontent.
Burnet found it wiser to retire to England on the plea of fulfilling his duties as royal chaplain. Once in London he resigned his professorship (September 1674) at Glasgow; but, although James remained his friend, Charles struck him off the roll of court chaplains in 1674, and it was in opposition to court influence that he was made chaplain to the Rolls Chapel by the master, Sir Harbottle Grimston, and appointed lecturer at St Clements.
He was summoned in April 1675 before a committee of the House of Commons to give evidence against Lauderdale, and disclosed, without reluctance according to his enemies, confidences which had passed between him and the minister. He himself confesses in his autobiography that it was a great error to appear in this matter, and his conduct cost him the patronage of the duke of York.
In ecclesiastical matters he threw in his lot with Thomas Tillotson and John Tenison, and at the time of the Revolution [Glorious] had written some eighteen polemics against encroachments of the Roman Catholic Church. At the suggestion of Sir William Jones, the attorney-general, he began his History of the Reformation in England, based on original documents.
In the necessary research he received some pecuniary help from Robert Boyle, but be was hindered in the preparation of the first part (1679) through being refused access to the Cotton library, possibly by the influence of Lauderdale. For this volume he received the thanks of parliament, and the second and third volumes appeared in 1681 and 1715. In this work he undertook to refute the statements of Nicholas Sanders, whose De Origine et pro gressu schismatis Anglicani libri tres (Cologne, 1585) was still, in the French translation of Maucroix, the commonly accepted account of the English reformation. Burnet's contradictions of Sanders must not, however, be accepted without independent investigation.
At the time of the Popish Plot in 1678 he displayed some moderation, refusing to believe the charges made against the duke of York, though he chose this time to publish some anti-Roman pamphlets. He tried, at some risk to himself, to save the life of one of the victims, William Staly, and visited William Howard— Viscount Stafford— in the Tower. To the Exclusion Bill he opposed a suggestion of compromise, and it is said that Charles offered him the bishopric of Chichester, if he would come entirely into his interests.
Burnets reconciliation with the court was short-lived. In January 1680 he addressed to the king a long letter on the subject of his sins. He was known to have received the dangerous confidence of Wilmot, earl of Rochester, in his last illness; and he was even suspected, unjustly, in 1683, of having composed the paper drawn up on the eve of death by William Russell—Lord Russell—whom he attended to the scaffold.
On the 5th of November 1684 he preached, at the express wish of his patron Grimston, and against his own desire, the usual anti-Catholic sermon. He was consequently deprived of his appointments by order of the court, and on the accession of James II., retired to Paris. He had already begun the writing of his memoirs, which were to develop into the History of His Own Time.
Burnet now travelled in Italy, Germany and Switzerland, finally settling in Holland, at the Hague, where he won from the princess of Orange a confidence which proved enduring. He rendered a signal service to William by inducing the princess to offer to leave the whole political power in her husband's hands in the event of their succession to the English crown. A prosecution against him for high treason was now set afoot both in England and in Scotland, and he took the precaution of naturalizing himself as a Dutch subject.
Lady Margaret Burnet was dying when he left England, and in Holland he married a Dutch heiress of Scottish descent, Mary Scott. He returned to England with William and Mary, and drew up the English text of their declaration. His earlier views on the doctrine of non-resistance had been sensibly modified by what he saw in France after the revocation of the edict of Nantes and by the course of affairs at home, and in 1688 he published an Inquiry into the Measures of Submission to the Supreme Authority in defence of the revolution. He was consecrated to the see of Salisbury on the 31st of March, 1689 by a commission of bishops to whom Archbishop Sancroft had delegated his authority, declining personally to perform the office.
In his pastoral letter to his clergy urging them to take the oath of allegiance, Burnet grounded the claim of William and Mary on the right of conquest, a view which gave such offence that the pamphlet was burnt by the common hangman three years later.
As bishop he proved an excellent administrator, and gave the closest attention to his pastoral duties. He discouraged plurality of livings, and consequent non-residence, established a school of divinity at Salisbury, and spent much time in preparing candidates for confirmation, and in the examination of those who wished to enter the priesthood. Four discourses delivered to the clergy of his diocese were printed in 1694.
During Queen Mary's lifetime ecclesiastical patronage passed through her hands, but after her death William III. appointed an ecclesiastical commission, on which Burnet was a prominent member, for the disposal of vacant benefices. In 1696 and 1697 he presented memorials to the king suggesting that the first fruits and tithes raised by the clergy should be devoted to the augmentation of the poor, and though his suggestions were not immediately accepted, they were carried into effect under Queen Anne by the provision known as Queen Anne's Bounty.
His second wife died of smallpox in 1698, and in 1700 Burnet married again, his third wife being Elizabeth (1661-1709), widow of Robert Berkeley and daughter of Sir Richard Blake, a rich and charitable woman, known by her Method of Devotion, posthumously published in 1710. In 1699 he was appointed tutor to the royal duke of Gloucester, son of the Princess Anne, an appointment which he accepted somewhat against his will. His influence at court had declined after the death of Queen Mary. William resented his often officious advice, placed little confidence in his discretion, and soon after his accession is even said to have described him as em rec liter Tartztffe.
Burnet made a weighty speech against the bill (1702-1703) directed against the practice of occasional conformity, and was a consistent exponent of Broad Church principles. He devoted five years labor to his Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (1699; ed. J. R. Page, 1837), which was severely criticized by the High Church clergy. But his hopes for a comprehensive scheme which might include non-conformists in the English Church were necessarily destroyed on the accession of Queen Anne.
He died on the 17th of March 1715, and was buried in the parish of St James, Clerkenwell. Burnet directed in his will that his most important work, the History of His Own Time, should appear six years after his death. It was published (2 Vols., 1724, 1734) by his sons, Gilbert and Thomas, and then not without omissions. It was attacked in 1724 by John Cockburn in A Specimen of some free and impartial Remarks. Burnet's book naturally aroused much opposition, and there were persistent rumours that the MS. had been unduly tampered with. He has been freely charged with gross misrepresentation, an accusation to which he laid himself open, for instance, in the account of the birth of James, the Old Pretender. His later intimacy with the Marlboroughs made him very lenient where the duke was concerned. The greatest value of his work naturally lies in his account of transactions of which he had personal knowledge, notably in his relation of the church history of Scotland, of the Popish Plot, of the proceedings at the Hague previous to the expedition of William and Mary, and of the personal relations between the joint sovereigns.
Of his children by his second wife, William (d. 1729) became a colonial governor in America; Gilbert (d. 1726) became prebendary of Salisbury in 1715, and chaplain to George I. in 1718; and Sir Thomas (1694-1753), his literary executor and biographer, became in 1741 judge in the court of common pleas.