Rare Book of the Month: January 2017

Gilbert Burnet’s The History of the Reformation of the Church of England … the fourth edition

In honour of the knighthood awarded to Master Mark Rylance’s in the 2017 New Year Honours, the January 2017 rare book of the month is Gilbert Burnet’s 1715 The History of the Reformation of the Church of England … the fourth edition. Sir Mark, who was admitted as an honorary Bencher to Middle Temple in 2003, played Thomas Cromwell (who was an important figure in the Reformation) in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, broadcast in 2015.

Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715) was born in Edinburgh on 18 September 1643 and died in London in 1715; he is buried in St. James Churchyard in Clerkenwell and his memorial remains intact in the church. Burnet’s career was somewhat turbulent and he fell in-and-out of favour with the crown at various points during his lifetime. Despite this, in 1675 he was appointed as chaplain to the Rolls Chapel as well Thursday lecturer at St. Clement Danes. This allowed him to spend “the next ten years … preaching and writing”, living in relative comfort at Lincoln’s Inn Fields; his neighbour was Sir Thomas Littleton. He left England in 1685 upon the succession of James II. Upon arriving in the Netherlands in 1686, he was invited by William, Prince of Orange and Princess Mary to come live in The Hague and subsequently became William’s chaplain. He was thus part of the 1688 expedition from The Netherlands to England to overthrow James II. In 1689 he was appointed Bishop of Salisbury.

He began work on The History of the Reformation in 1677. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, it was “the first attempt to write an account of the English Reformation from authentic sources”. As such, each volume in this fourth edition has an additional section entitled ‘A collection of records, letters, and original papers’. Brunet’s access to these authentic sources was somewhat patchy and as he did not “commit the time and attention to detail” required to complete a work of this scale, it was unfortunately full of errors. The first volume was nonetheless a huge success and Burnet was awarded the degree of doctor of divinity by the University of Oxford.

The History of the Reformation was originally published in one volume in 1679 with the second volume being published in 1681; the third did not appear until 1714. Various editions and abridgments of the work were published