Read THOMAS SPRAT (BISHOP of ROCHESTER) of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. III, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

Was descended from a very worthy, though obscure family, being the son of a private country minister; but his great merit raised him to that eminent station in the church, wherein he long presided, and was deservedly accounted one of the most considerable prelates of his time.  The Oxford antiquary informs us, that on the 16th of January 1654, he was entered in Wadham-College, where he pursued his studies with the closest application, and distinguished himself by his prudent and courteous behaviour.

On the 3d of July 1669, Mr. Sprat took his master of arts degree, and the same day, commenced doctor in divinity.  He had not long been in holy orders, till he was introduced at court, and by a happy power in conversation, so attracted the regard of Charles the IId. that he was considered as a man standing fair for preferment.  In 1683, broke out the Rye-house Plot, a relation of the particulars of which, Charles the IId. commanded Dr. Sprat to draw up.  This the Dr. in a letter to lord Dorset, informs us, he did with great unwillingness, and would have been impelled by no other consideration, than that of a royal command.  The reason he executed these orders with so much reluctance, was, because many of the most popular men in the nation were either concerned themselves, or had some relations engaged, so that an account of a plot thus supported, must expose he writer to partial or popular resentments.

He requested the king, that he might be permitted to spare some names, and to represent the behaviour of others in as candid a light as possible, in which request his majesty indulged him; but notwithstanding all the candour he observed, and the most dispassionate representation of facts, yet his composing this relation, was brought against him as a crime, for which an opposite party endeavoured, and had almost effected his ruin.  This work, tho’ finished in the year 1683 was not published till 1685, when it came into the world, under the immediate direction of king James the IId.  It was no doubt in consequence of this court service, that he was made dean of Westminster, Anno 1683; and bishop of Rochester the year following.  Another step he took in the short reign of king James, likewise exposed him to the resentment of that power which took place at the revolution, which was his sitting in the ecclesiastical commission.  By this he drew upon himself almost an universal censure, which he acknowledges to be just; as appears by a letter he wrote upon that occasion to the earl of Dorset, in the year 1689; which thus begins.

’My Lord,

I think I should be wanting to myself at this time, in my own necessary vindication, should I forbear any longer to give my friends a true account of my behaviour in the late ecclesiastical commission.  Though I profess what I now say, I only intend as a reasonable mitigation of the offence I have given, not entirely to justify my sitting in that court; for which I acknowledge I have deservedly incurred the censure of many good men; and I wish I may ever be able to make a sufficient amends to my country for it.’

His crime in this particular was somewhat alleviated, by his renouncing the commission, when he perceived the illegal practices they were going to put in execution.  His offences were strenuously urged against him, and had not the earl of Dorset warmly espoused his interest, he had probably been stript of his ecclesiastical preferments.  His lordship charged the ill-conduct of both these affairs upon king James and his ministry; and thereby brought the bishop’s opponents to a perfect reconciliation with him.

Notwithstanding this accommodation, such was the inquietude of the times, that his lordship had not long enjoyed this tranquility, before there was hatched a most villainous contrivance; not only to take away his life, but, the lives of archbishop Sancroft, lord Marlborough, and several other persons of honour and distinction; by forging an instrument under their hands, setting forth, that they had an intent to restore king James, and to seize upon the person of the princess of Orange, dead or alive; to surprize the tower, to raise a mighty army; and to bring the city of London into subjection.  This black conspiracy to murther so many innocent persons, was by the providence of God soon detested; and his lordship drew up, and published an account of it, under this title, A Relation of the Wicked Contrivance of Stephen Blackhead, and Robert Young, against the Lives of several Persons, by forging an Association under their Hands.  In two parts.  The first being a Relation of what passed at the three Examinations of his Lordship, by a Committee of Lords of the Privy-Council.  The second, being an Account of the two Authors of the Forgery; printed in quarto, in the year 1692.

His lordship was honourably acquitted; and he ever after looked upon this escape, as one of the most remarkable blessings of his life.  ’In such ’critical times (says he) how little evidence would have sufficed to ruin any man, that had been accused with the least probability of truth?  I do therefore, most solemnly oblige myself, and all mine, to keep the grateful remembrance of my deliverance, perpetual and sacred.’

Hitherto, we have considered Dr. Sprat in his episcopal, and public character; in which if he fell into some errors, he has a right to our candour, as they seem rather to have proceeded from misinformation, and excess of good-nature, than any malevolent, or selfish principle:  We shall now take a view of him as an author.

His first appearance in that sphere, was in the year 1659, when in concert with Mr. Waller, and Mr. Dryden, he printed a Pindarique Ode, to the Memory of the most renowned Prince, Oliver, Lord Protector, &c. printed in quarto, which he dedicated to the reverend Mr. Wilkin’s, then warden of Wadham-College; by whose approbation and request, it was made public, as the author designed it only for a private amusement.  This was an unfavourable circumstance for our author, as it more particularly shews the fickleness of his disposition in state-matters, and gave him less credit with those parties he afterwards espoused.

His next production in poetry, was an Ode on the Plague of Athens; which happened in the second year of the Pelopponesian war, first described by Thucydides, afterwards by Lucretius:  This Mr. Sprat dedicated to his worthy and learned friend, Dr. Walter Pope.  The performance stood the test of the severest critics; and in the opinion of the best judges, the manner of his great original was judiciously imitated.  Soon after this, he proceeded to give the public a specimen of his abilities in another kind, and succeeded with the greatest applause; which was his Observations on Monsieur de Serbiere’s Voyage into England, written to Dr. Wren, professor of astronomy in Oxford; printed in octavo, in the year 1665.

Mr. Sprat in the beginning of his letter acquaints the Dr. with the motives of his engaging with Monsieur Serbiere, ’Having now (says he) under my hands, the history of the Royal-Society, it will be in vain for me to try to represent its design to be advantageous to the glory of England, if my countrymen shall know, that one who calls himself a member of that society, has escaped unanswered in the public disgraces, which he has cast on our whole nation.’ In this performance Mr. Sprat has given an undeniable proof, that the strength and solidity of an English pen, is infinitely superior to the gallant air of a French author, who is sprightly without propriety, and positive without truth.

About two years after, 1667, our author published his incomparable History of the Royal Society of London, for the improvement of natural knowledge; a work which has acquired him very great reputation, and has ranked him with the most elegant and polite writers of that age.  Soon after this, Mr. Sprat lost his amiable and much esteemed friend Mr. Abraham Cowley, who by his will recommended to the care of his reverend friend, the revising of all his works that were printed, and the collecting of those papers which he had designed for the press.  This truth Mr. Sprat faithfully discharged, and to the new edition of Mr. Cowley’s Works, he prefixed an account of his life and writings, addressed to Mr. Martin Clifford.  Happy is it for a good man, when he has such a friend to close his eyes:  This is a desire peculiar to all, and the portion of few to enjoy.

  For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
  This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d;
  Left the warm precincts of the chearful day,
  Nor cast one longing lingring look behind.

  On some warm breast the parting soul relies,
  Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
  E’en from the tomb, the voice of nature cries,
  Awake! and faithful to her wonted fires.

This life of Cowley, by Dr. Sprat has been esteemed one of the most elegant compositions in our language; there are several extracts from it in our account of the life of that amiable Poet.

These are the most material performances of Dr. Sprat:  a man, who was early introduced into an elevated station in life, which he held not without enemies to his dying moments.  Villiers duke of Buckingham was his first patron, who notwithstanding his fickleness, and inconsistent levity, never forsook him; a circumstance which has induced many to believe, that that nobleman owed much to the refinement of our author; and that his Rehearsal had never been so excellent, nor so pungent a satire, had it not first passed under Dr. Sprat’s perusal.

This learned prelate died of an apoplexy, May the 20th, 1713, at his episcopal feat in Bromly in Kent, in the 79th year of his age; and was interred in the Abbey-Church of Westminster.

As he lived esteemed by all his acquaintance, as well as the clergy of his diocese, so he died regretted by them, and indeed by all men of taste; for it is the opinion of many, that he raised the English tongue to that purity and beauty, which former writers were wholly strangers to, and which those who have succeeded him, can but imitate.

The benevolence of our author is very conspicuous in his last will, in favour of his widow and son; in which he commands them to extend that beneficence to his poor relations, which they always found from him; and not to suffer any of those to want, whose necessitous merit, had shared in all the external advantages he possessed.  As he may be proposed (considered meerly as a writer) for an example worthy of imitation; so in the character of a dignified clergyman, he has likewise a claim to be copied in those retired and private virtues, in those acts of beneficence and humility, and that unaffected and primitive piety, for which he was justly distinguished.