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On this day in history in 1643, was born Gilbert Burnet.
Burnet was a cleric and Classical scholar who became famous for his History of My Own Time, a text which became the template for historical narrative.
Gilbert Burnet was born on 18th September 1643, at Edinburgh, the son of Robert Burnet, member of the Scottish Bar, and later a judge of the Court of Session, under the judiciary title Lord Crimond. He was educated at home until he reached the age of 10, when he was sent to Marischal College, now part of Aberdeen University. He obtained a Master of Arts in Philosophy at the age of 13, by which time he was fluent in Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew. He went on to read theology and gained his Doctor of Divinity in 1661.
These were difficult times for theologians in Scotland. After the downfall of Cromwell’s regime and the restoration of Charles II, Episcopal government was re-established and Presbyterianism was in decline, but the two sides of the church could not be reconciled. Burnet, quite wisely, decided to defer his advancement to the ministry and take a leisurely tour of England and the Continent. He visited Oxford, Cambridge, London, Amsterdam and Paris, where he met influential people, who had shaped the Cromwell regime, and later restored Charles II. In 1665, he returned to Scotland and was ordained by the Bishop of Edinburgh, and took up a ministry at Saltoun.
In 1669, he was urged to accept the position of Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow. Here he dealt with the current controversies by not taking sides in debate, and by expressing his belief in the principle of latitudinarianism, a doctrine which allows differing belief systems to exist within the same church. In 1674, he fled the divisions within the Scottish Church, and left Glasgow for London, but left behind the latitudinarian ideals which still exist in the Church of Scotland.
In London, he busied himself with writing, his History of the Reformation of the Church of England, a work which earned him the thanks of Parliament and the favour of Charles II. The king introduced him to the court and he became acquainted with the king’s ministers, who had served him during his exile in France, and he was introduced to James, Duke of York, later James II, Princes Mary, later Mary II, and Princess Anne, later Queen Anne. When James II came to the throne in 1685, he found his style of government distasteful and left for Holland, where he stayed at the court of the Prince of Orange, later William III.
When William and Mary ascended the throne in 1688, Burnet was invited back to be consecrated Bishop of Salisbury, a post that he held until his death. At Salisbury, he took to writing up his life experiences and the historical accounts that he had learnt from the great personages he had encountered. This account was later to be published as The History of My Own Times, and covered the period from the English Civil War to the reign of Queen Anne. He wrote in the style of the omniscient author, as if he had been an eye-witness of the events, adding a lively and graphic description to the detailed analysis of the episodes he describes. Although not a complete chronological account of the era, the work describes in great detail many of the incidents of the day and gives the reader a vivid insight into one of the most significant periods of British history.
Burnet died on 17th March 1715, after living through the reigns of seven monarchs and recording a great deal of their secrets of government. He is buried in the parish of St. James's, Clerkenwell. [St. James Church, Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0EA]
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