BURNET, GILBERT (1643-1715), English bishop and historian, was born in Edinburgh on Sept. 15, 1643, the youngest son of Robert Burnet (1592-1661), afterwards Lord Crimond. Robert Burnet had been twice exiled on account of his refusal to sign the Covenant, but he was none the less a severe critic of the government of Charles I. and his attitude certainly influenced his son. Gilbert Burnet was educated at Marischal college, Aberdeen, and in 1661 became a probationer for the Scottish ministry. In that year his father died, and Gilbert was offered a benefice which he declined on account of the unsettled state of Church affairs. He now visited Oxford and Cambridge, and after six months' absence returned to Scotland. He again refused offers of prefer ment and went to Holland and France. In Amsterdam he studied Hebrew and met Protestant divines of all shades of opinion, and in Paris he also met the leading Protestant ministers.
On his return to England in 1664 he became intimate with Sir Robert Moray and with John Maitland, afterwards duke of Laud erdale, both of whom at that time favoured leniency towards the Scottish Covenanters. While he was in London Burnet also be came a member of the newly established Royal Society. his absence abroad the living of Saltoun, East Lothian, had been kept open for him, and he began his ministrations there in Oct. 1664. In 1669 he resigned his parish to become professor of divin ity in the University of Glasgow. He had already begun to differ from Lauderdale, who was moving in the direction of repression, and became Leighton's right hand in the attempt to secure a com promise between episcopacy and presbyterianism. He had on his side Anne, duchess of Hamilton, on whose behalf he edited Memoirs of the Lives and Actions of James and William, dukes of Hamilton and Castleherald . . . (London, 1676). Meanwhile, he had married an heiress, Lady Margaret Kennedy, daughter of the 6th earl of Cassilis and a cousin of Lauderdale. He renounced all claim to his wife's fortune, and the marriage itself was kept secret for three years.
The ascendancy of Lauderdale in Scotland induced Burnet to settle in England. He went up to London in 1673 to arrange for the publication of the Hamilton Memoirs and on his return to Scotland found that Lauderdale would not see him and had de nounced him to Charles II. as a centre of Scottish discontent. Burnet returned to London and resigned his professorship at Glasgow. He had been appointed one of the court chaplains, but Charles II. struck him off the roll. He became, however, chaplain to the Rolls Chapel, and was elected lecturer at St. Clement's. Up to April 1675 he had enjoyed the favour of the duke of York, who was, however, alienated when Burnet gave evidence before a committee of the House of Commons against Lauderdale.
He presently began the preparation of his History of tile Ref ormation in England. This book was prepared from the original sources, but unfortunately Burnet was denied access to the Cotton library, possibly through Lauderdale's influence. The first volume was published in 1679, the second in 1681, and the third in 1715. During the agitation about the popish plot in 1678 he acted with moderation and tried to save at least one of the victims, William Staly. He proposed a compromise in place of the Exclusion bill, a course which led to a very brief reconciliation with the court. He was known to have received the confidence of Wilmot, earl of Rochester, before his death, and he attended Lord Russell on the scaffold; further, against his own wish, it is true, he preached the usual anti-Catholic sermon on Guy Fawkes day (1684) . He was consequently deprived of his appointments by order of the court, and on the accession of James II. retired to Paris, and eventually to The Hague, where he took the precaution of naturalizing him self as a Dutch subject, by way of protection against a prosecu tion for high treason threatened in England. His first wife was now dead, and he married a Dutch heiress of Scottish descent, Mary Scott.
Burnet was able to render great service to William, prince of Orange, because of the confidence placed in him by Princess Mary. He persuaded the princess to offer to leave the whole political power in her husband's hands in the event of their joint succession to the English crown. At the revolution he returned to England with William and Mary, and the English text of their declaration was drawn up by him. On his own account he published an Inquiry into the Measures of Submission to the Supreme Authority, de fending the revolution. For these services he was rewarded by the see of Salisbury, and was consecrated on March 31, 1689, by a commission of bishops, Archbishop Sancroft having declined personally to perform the office. Burnet commanded the confi dence of Queen Mary, and of ter her death William III. appointed an ecclesiastical commission, of which Burnet was a prominent member, for the disposal of vacant benefices, which had been personally supervised by Mary during her lifetime. The provision for the poorer livings afterwards carried out by the measure known as Queen Anne's Bounty was originally a proposal made by Burnet. He became tutor (1699) to Princess Anne's son, the duke of Gloucester, but his influence at court declined after Queen Mary's death, and disappeared after the accession of Queen Anne.
From 1685 onwards Burnet had been employed on his History of His Own Time, but he had from time to time written pamphlets in defence of the Broad Church position. Of these, probably the most important was his Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (1699) which was intended to pave the way for the re-admission of Nonconformists to the Church of England, and which gave great offence to the High Church clergy. His History of His Own Time was, by his direction, not published until six years after his death. Even then, the work (2 vols. 1724-34) appeared with some omissions made by his sons, Gilbert and Thomas. Burnet has frequently been charged with misrepresentation, notably in his account of the birth of James, the old Pretender. The most valu able part of his work is naturally that relating to transactions of which he had personal knowledge, notably the Church history of Scotland and the events leading up to the revolution.
Burnet's second wife died in 1698, and in 1700 he married Elizabeth Berkeley, the author of A Method of Devotion, post humously published in 171o. Of his children by his second wife, William (d. 1720) became a colonial governor in America; Gilbert (d. 1,26) 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.
ran through many editions before it was reprinted at the Clarendon Press (1823) , and supplementary volume (1833) , with the suppressed passages of the first volume and notes by the earls of Dartmouth and Hardwicke, with the remarks of Swift. This edition, under the direc tion of M. J. Routh, was enlarged in a second Oxford edition of 1833. A new edition, based on this, but making use of the Bodleian ms., which differs very considerably from the printed version, was edited by Osmund Airy (1897, etc.) . In 1902 (Clarendon Press) Miss H. C. Foxcroft edited A Supplement to Burnet's History of His Own Time, to which is prefixed an account of the relation between the different versions of the History—the Bodleian ms., the fragmentary Harleian ms. in the British Museum and Sir Thomas Burnet's edition ; the book contains the remaining fragments of Burnet's original memoirs, his autobiography, his letters to Admiral Herbert and his private meditations. His History of the Reformation of the Church of Eng land was edited (Clarendon Press, 1865) by N. Pocock.
See also A Life of Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury (19o7), by T. E. S. Clarke and H. C. Foxcroft, with an introduction by C. H. Firth, which contains a chronological list of Burnet's published works. Of Burnet's personal character there are well-known descriptions in chapter vii. of Macaulay's History of England, and in W. E. H. Lecky's History of England in the Eighteenth Century.