Francis Atterbury

Francis Atterbury (March 6, 1663 – February 22, 1732), was an English man of letters, politician and bishop.

He was born at Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he became a tutor. In 1682, he published a translation of Absalom and Achitophel into Latin verse with a style nor the versification atypical of the Augustan age. In English composition he met greater success; in 1687 he published An Answer to some Considerations, the Spirit of Martin Luther and the Original of the Reformation, a reply to Obadiah Walker, who, when elected master of University College, Oxford 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 Gilbert Burnet, was more distinguished for the vigour of his rhetoric than the soundness of his arguments, and the Papists accused him of treason, and of having, by implication, called King James "Judas".

After the "Glorious Revolution", Atterbury 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. He ordinarily lived at Oxford, where he was the chief adviser and assistant of Henry Aldrich, under whom Christ Church was a stronghold of Toryism. He inspired a pupil, Charles Boyle, in the attack (1698) on the Whig scholar Richard Bentley, arising out of Bentley's impugnment the genuineness of the Epistles of Phalaris. He was figured 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 owned not only that the letters ascribed to Phalaris were spurious, but that all Atterbury's wit and eloquence were a cloak for an audacious pretence at scholarship.

Atterbury was soon occupied in a dispute about matters still more important and exciting. High Church and Low Church divided the nation. The majority of the clergy were on the High Church side; the majority of King William's bishops were inclined to latitudinarianism. In 1700 the Convocation, of which the lower house was overwhelmingly Tory, met after a gap of ten years. Atterbury threw himself with characteristic energy into the controversy, publishing a series of treatises. Many regarded him as the most intrepid champion that had ever defended the rights of the clergy against the oligarchy of Erastian prelates. In 1701 he was awarded 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 rector of divinity; and in 1704, soon after the accession of Queen Anne, he was promoted to the deanery of Carlisle (although the Tories still had the chief weight in the government).

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 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 and 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 left Paris, occupied his residence at Montpelier, gave up politics, and devoted himself entirely to letters. In the sixth year of his exile he had 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 man, and died that night.

Atterbury survived the severe shock of his daughter's death for years. He even returned to Paris and to the service of the Pretender, who had found out that he had not acted wisely in consorting with one who, though a heretic, was the most able man 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 Clarendon's History of the Rebellion. The charge, as respected Atterbury, had not the' slightest foundation; for he was not one 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 an 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 so 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 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 age. 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 as such as seemed hardly credible to those who knew him only his writings and speeches. Atterbury's 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 John Milton, the mortal enemy of the Stuarts and of the church, seemed a crime to many Tories; 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 was friendly with Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot and John Gay. With Matthew Prior he had a close intimacy. Alexander 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, etc. (1869); Stuart Papers, vol. i.: Letters of Atterbury to the chevalier St George, etc. (1847); J Nichols, Epistolary Correspondece, etc. (1783-1796); and HC Beeching, Francis Atterbury, (1909).

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