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Devoted Daughters of the Church: Elizabeth Burnet and Mary Astell

  • Melinda S. Zook
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Part of the Early Modern History: Society and Culture book series

Abstract

Mary II had attracted many admirers. Her gentle ways and cheerful demeanor; her extraordinary generosity; her devotion to her faith and moderation towards nonconforming Protestants; and her ardent belief in her husband and the Protestant Cause certainly recommended her to those of like-minded sensibility. Among her biggest fans was the Bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet, who was utterly heartbroken by her sudden death. Years later, in 1700, he married a woman whose values were remarkably similar to his own and whose virtues resembled those of the Queen. Yet Burnet’s third wife, Elizabeth (formerly, Berkeley) Burnet (1661–1709) was hardly a tabula rasa on which the bishop might inscribe his convictions. Gilbert was Elizabeth’s second husband. She had been a widow for seven years and was already something of a known entity among the political and cultural elite of London. Prior to the Revolution, she had met Gilbert Burnet, along with other English and Scottish refugees, in the United Provinces. She was acquainted with the Prince and Princess of Orange whose invasion of England she warmly supported. On her return to England after the Revolution, she became a frequent guest at the palace of Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, a place where she was renowned for her piety and charity. She was also friendly with Stillingfleet’s philosophical combatant, John Locke; and by 1701, she was an intimate of Sarah Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough, with whom she shared a zeal for the success of the Whig agenda in Parliament.

Keywords

Religious Pluralism Christian Religion Early Eighteenth Century United Province Political Writing 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Colley Cibber, A Poem on the Death of Our Late Sovereign Lady, Queen Mary (London, 1695), p. 2.Google Scholar
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    Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Professed by a Daughter of the Church of England (London, 1705).Google Scholar
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    There is nothing yet written on the nonjuring clergy that is not problematic, but one might consult, Robert D. Cornwall, Visible and Apostolic: The Constitution of the Church in High Church Anglican and Non-Juror Thought (Newark: University of Delaware, 1993); Gordon Rupp, Religion in England, 1688–1791 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), ch. 1.Google Scholar
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    The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion were devised in 1563 to clarify the Church’s doctrinal positions in relation to Catholicism and continental Protestantism.Google Scholar
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    Her mother’s father may have been the physician, John Bathurst, (d. 1659) but this is not clear. See Frances Harris, “Burnet [née Blake; other married name Berkeley], Elizabeth (1661–1709),” ODNB.Google Scholar
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    Robert’s grandfather, Sir Robert Berkeley, was an eminent lawyer and one of the judges on the Court of King’s Bench. He had sided with the royalists during the Civil Wars. He left his estate to his grandson, Robert, rather than his son, Thomas, because Thomas had converted to Catholicism while in exile in Belgium. Thomas also married a Catholic, Anne Darell, Robert’s mother. Bernard Burke, A Genealogy and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland, 3 vols. (London, 1939), 1: 145. Shelia Doyle, “Berkeley, Sir Robert (1584–1656),” ODNB. Bishop Fell was connected to the Berkeley family through his mother who was the niece of Sir Robert Berkeley, senior.Google Scholar
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    “Account of the Life of the Author,” pp. vi–vii, viii–ix; H.C. Foxcroft and T.E.S. Clark, A Life of Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907), p. 353; C. Kirchberger, “Elizabeth Burnet,” p. 20.Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Burnet wrote that she was generally disinclined to the idea of a second marriage, but she felt that it could help Bishop Burnet navigate Court politics since his free and generous nature made him susceptible to the snares of “designing men.” Rawl. D. 1092, f. 136.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Foxcroft and Clark, A Life of Gilbert Burnet, p. 380.Google Scholar
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    She took her stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and two stepsons, William, the eldest son, and Thomas, the youngest. The boys were to spend a year at the University of Leyden. Kirchberger, “Elizabeth Burnet,” pp. 222–3.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in The Method of Devotion, p. 16. Burnet was strongly opposed to any sort of pharisaical show of one’s piety and felt that one’s relationship with God should be intimate and private.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Foxcroft and Clark, A Life of Gilbert Burnet, p. 381.Google Scholar
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    “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.” William Blake, There Is No Natural Religion (London, 1788), broadside. Ratio is Latin for reason plus calculation.Google Scholar
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    See Appendix C: Elizabeth Burnet’s Recommended Reading List in A Method of Devotion. This list is discussed at the end of this section.Google Scholar
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    A Method of Devotion (London, 1713), p. xxxvii. I have no evidence, however, of who actually read Burnet’s work. It did go into several editions (1708, 1709, 1713 and 1738) which would suggest some popularity.Google Scholar
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    She was a wide-ranging reader as well since she not only read mystics like Antoinette Bourignon, but according to her spiritual diary, she also read the nonjurors, Henry Dodwell and George Hickes.Google Scholar
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    Among the Cambridge Platonists, Burnet lists Henry More, Benjamin Whichcote, John Norris, and John Worthington.Google Scholar
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    Both Burkitt and Lewis were Low Churchmen. Burkitt held puritanical sympathies and had numerous ties to Dissenters while the Whiggish Lewis publicly attacked High Church principles. N. Pankhurst, The Life of the Rev. W. Burkitt (London, 1704); J. Shirley, “John Lewis of Margate,” Archaeologia cantiana 64 (1951): 39–56.Google Scholar
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    James Bonnell (1653–99) was a deeply pious government official working in Ireland during the Revolution and the 1690s. He supported the comprehension of nonconformists and promoted religious societies in Dublin. Bonnell’s life, written by Archdeacon William Armagh, was extremely popular, going through seven editions by 1741. D.W. Hayton, “Bonnell, James (1653–1699),” ODNB.Google Scholar
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    John Sharp, Government of Thoughts: A Sermon Preached before the King and Queen at Whitehall (London, 1694); Francis Atterbury, On the Excellency and Advantage of Private Prayer (London, 1704); Charles Leslie, A Short and Easy Method with a Deist (London, 1697); Jeremy Collier, Short View of the Immortality and Profaneness of the England Stage (London, 1698); A Defense of A Short View (London, 1699); A Second Defense of a Short View (London, 1700).Google Scholar
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    The Whiggish Edward Synge, who was appointed Archbishop of Tuam in 1716, trended toward a Deist position. Edward Clarke, a theologian and philosopher, would come to doubt the divinity of Christ, but Burnet only includes his earliest and uncontroversial work, Three Practical Essays, viz. On Baptism, Confirmation, and Repentance (London, 1699).Google Scholar
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    Hugo Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion: In Six Books. Trans. Simon Patrick (London, 1683); Jean Frederic Ostervald, A Treatise Concerning the Causes of the Present Corruptions of Christians (London, 1702); The Grounds and Principles of the Christian Religion (London, 1704).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    Locke Correspondence, 5: 665.Google Scholar
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    Between 1696 and 1701, Elizabeth’s surname was still “Berkeley,” but to avoid confusion she is referred to throughout this section as “Burnet,” her last husband’s surname.Google Scholar
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    Locke Correspondence, 5: 664. Burnet is almost certainly referring to Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity which appeared in August 1695.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 5: 664–5. Although it is dated 1696, Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious first appeared in December of 1695.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 5: 785. Stillingfleet’s A Discourse in Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity appeared in November 1696.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 6: 509. Locke’s second letter to Stillingfleet was entitled, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Letter, and appeared in June 1697.Google Scholar
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    Stillingfleet’s last reply to Locke was entitled, The Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to Mr. Locke’s Second Letter and dated September 1697. Locke’s responded with, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter (London, 1699).Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Burnet had an estate at St. John’s Court, Clerkenwell, on the edge of London. This was probably their “London residence” after the Bishop lost his apartments at St. James’s upon the ascension of Queen Anne. Elizabeth willed the Clerkenwell house to Gilbert and it became his permanent residence toward the end of his life. NA, PROB 11/50/26.Google Scholar
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    Catharine Trotter, A Defense of the Essay of Human Understanding (London, 1702). Thomas Burnet (1635?–1715) was a theologian and master of the Chatterhouse; his tract, Remarks upon an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (London, 1697) accused Locke of Deism and Socinianism. On Trotter, see Anne Kelley, Catharine Trotter: An Early Modern Writer in the Vanguard of Feminism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1988).Google Scholar
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    It seems likely that Burnet was acquainted with John Norris. He had a circle of female admirers including Lady Damaris Masham and Mary Astell. Burnet recommended two of his books to her readers. She also asked Locke in November of 1702 if he had read Norris’s An Essay towards the Theory of an Ideal and Intelligible World (which appeared in two parts, the first one in 1701) and to send her his thoughts on it.Google Scholar
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    Locke Correspondence, 7: 638. Two of Elizabeth Burnet’s letters to Catharine Trotter have been printed and are found in The Works of Mrs. Catharine Cockburn, ed. Thomas Birch, 3 vols., (London, 1751), 1: xvii–xviii, xxxi–xxxii.Google Scholar
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    The most authoritative study of Sarah Churchill is Frances Harris, A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); see also, Ophelia Field, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen’s Favorite (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).Google Scholar
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    In her memoirs, the Duchess of Marlborough wrote: “The word CHURCH had never any charm for me in the mouths of those who make the most noise with it.” She castigates those who have a “persecuting zeal against Dissenters, and against those real friends of the Church, who would not admit that persecution was agreeable to its doctrine.” Sarah Churchill and Nathaniel Hooke, An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (London, 1742), p. 134.Google Scholar
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    Foxcroft and Clark, A Life of Gilbert Burnet, pp. 381–2.Google Scholar
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    Although, as Frances Harris points out, it was also true that relations between the Queen and her favorite had become strained by 1704 which was something the Duchess hid from her friends. Frances Harris, “Accounts of the Conduct of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1704–1742,” The British Library Journal 8/1 (1982), p. 9.Google Scholar
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    BL, Add 61,458, ff. 3, 4v, 8, 10. The Burnets’ daughter, tellingly named Anna Sophia, was baptized on July 5 and buried on July 31. Foxcroft, A Supplement, p. 409.Google Scholar
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    BL, Add. 61,458, ff. 6, 19.Google Scholar
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    BL, Add. 61,458, f. 30; also quoted in Snyder, “The Defeat,” p. 178. The Tory, Admiral Sir George Rooke was a naval commander whose battle with the French at Malaga in August 1704 was compared in the Tory press to Blenheim. Naturally, this was something the Marlboroughs highly resented. W.A. Speck, The Birth of Britain: A New Nation, 1700–1710 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), pp. 73–4.Google Scholar
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    BL, Add. 61,458, f. 30; also quoted in Snyder, “The Defeat,” p. 179.Google Scholar
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    The Duchess of Marlborough’s “A True Account” is found in BL, Add. 61,421. She calls Burnet’s affection for William and Mary “wonderful partiality” on f. 1. As Frances Harris has pointed out, the Duchess’s “A True Account” was written to set Elizabeth Burnet straight and was later transformed into the Duchess’s famous, An Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (London, 1742). Harris, “Accounts of the Conduct of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 1704–1742,” The British Library Journal 8/1 (1982): 7–35.Google Scholar
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    BL, Add. 61,458, f. 27. Also quoted in Harris, “Accounts,” p. 10.Google Scholar
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    The contours of Astell’s life are sufficiently well known. Ruth Perry’s biography (and ODNB entry) as well as those secondary sources cited below should be consulted by those readers desiring more than is provided here. Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 29–51, 66–7.Google Scholar
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    There are modern editions of both of these early works by Astell. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, parts I and II, ed. Patricia Springborg (London: Broadview Press, 1985); Mary Astell and John Norris, Letters Concerning the Love of God, eds. E. Derek Taylor and Melvyn New (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).Google Scholar
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    Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell, p. 42. Also on Astell’s circle of friends, see Florence M. Smith, Mary Astell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916), pp. 9–11; Bridget Hill, The First English Feminist Reflections upon Marriage and other Writings by Mary Astell (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), pp. 7–12.Google Scholar
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    An Elegy upon the Death of Mrs. A. Behn, the Incomparable Astraea (London, 1689). Astell and Behn are often bundled together as Tories or early feminists or both; see, for example, Hilda L. Smith, Reason’s Disciples: Seventeen-Century English Feminists (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 3; Joan K. Kinnaird, “Mary Astell and the Conservative Contribution to English Feminism,” JBS 19/1 (Fall 1979), p. 59, 19n; Bridget Hill, The First English Feminist, p. 53.Google Scholar
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    Astell’s first political tract, Moderation Truly Stated, was mistaken for the work of Charles Leslie. In the addendum to A Fair Way, Astell wrote that her tract was “Not writ by Mr. L-y or any other furious Jacobite.”Google Scholar
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    None of these charges were uncommon among Tories and High Churchmen. Charles Leslie makes them in several of his publications; see, for example, The Wolf Stript of his Shepherd’s Clothing (London, 1704), pp. 7–9.Google Scholar
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© Melinda S. Zook 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Melinda S. Zook
    • 1
  1. 1.Purdue UniversityUSA

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