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  John Earle (1598x1601–1665), by unknown artist, c.1660 John Earle (1598x1601–1665), by unknown artist, c.1660
Earle, John (1598x1601–1665), bishop of Salisbury and character writer, was born at York, the son of Thomas Earle or Earles, registrar of the archbishop's court in the city. He matriculated, ‘aged eighteen’ (Foster, Alum. Oxon.), from Christ Church, Oxford, on 4 June 1619, but may have been two or three years older and may have already spent some time at the university, and was probably thus also the John Earle who graduated BA from Merton on 8 July and who became a fellow there the same year. He proceeded MA in 1624.

Earle's first known work is a poem on the death in 1616 of Francis Beaumont the dramatist, subsequently published in Poems by Francis Beaumont, Gent. (1640). He also wrote lines on the return of Prince Charles from his jaunt to the Spanish court in 1623, a short poem on Sir John Burroughs, who was killed in the unsuccessful August 1626 expedition to the Île de Rhé, and, while a fellow of the college, a Latin poem, ‘Hortus Mertonensis’, first printed in John Aubrey's Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey (5 vols., 1718–19, 4.167–71). Earle's Microcosmographie, or, A Peece of the World Discovered in Essayes and Characters was published anonymously by Edward Blount in 1628, but was soon known to be Earle's work. The craze for characters—pithy, ironic, pen portraits of social or moral types, often with a didactic moral purpose—began with Isaac Casaubon's translations of the Greek characters of Theophrastus in the 1590s. Sir Thomas Overbury and Joseph Hall made notable contributions to the genre, but Earle's book was immensely popular and went through many editions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, in the course of which the original fifty-four characters were augmented to seventy-eight.

In 1630 Earle wrote a short poem on the death of William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke, elder brother of Philip, fourth earl and chancellor of Oxford University. The following year he served as a university proctor, and about that time he also became the chancellor's chaplain, a position which brought him a lodging at court. At an unknown date he married Bridget and may have been the John Earles who married Bregit Dixye on 7 October 1637 at St Mary Magdalen, Old Fish Street, London. In 1639 Pembroke presented him to the rectory of Bishopston, Wiltshire, in succession to William Chillingworth.

During the 1630s Earle was one of those in the habit of meeting at Lord Falkland's house. ‘He would frequently profess’, wrote the earl of Clarendon, ‘that he had got more useful learning by his conversation at Tew than he had at Oxford’. In his rose-tinted account of the circle at Great Tew, Clarendon described Earle's conversation as ‘so pleasant and delightful, and so very facetious, that no man's company was more desired and more loved’ (Hyde, Selections, 38). The king also formed a high opinion of him, and appointed him tutor to the prince of Wales in succession to Brian Duppa when the latter became bishop of Salisbury in 1641. On 20 November the previous year Earle had proceeded DD at Oxford.

In 1643 Earle was nominated to the Westminster assembly, but the nature of his views on the Church of England did not permit him to attend. On 10 February 1644 he was elected chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral but soon afterwards, as a malignant, he was deprived both of this appointment and of the living of Bishopston. His wife, Bridget, petitioned in 1646 for the fifth of the living's profits which was allowed to the wives and families of sequestered ministers. After pressure from the committee for plundered ministers the Wiltshire county committee let the rectory for a year at £280, of which Mrs Earle was to receive a fifth.

Earle went into exile in the later 1640s and continued to occupy himself with translations into Latin. His edition of Richard Hooker's The Laws of Ecclesiastical Politie was written chiefly at Cologne, but although believed by Isaac Walton to be nearly finished in 1665, was, according to a letter to Thomas Hearne, ‘utterly destroyed by prodigious heedlessness and carelessness’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.718); his edition of Eikon basilike was published in 1649. On 27 June 1647 he married John Evelyn and Mary Browne at Sir Richard Browne's chapel in Paris, and Evelyn reports Earle's presence in the city again in 1649. During the period of Charles II's expedition in Scotland, Earle, with George Morley, future bishop of Winchester, appears to have lived in the house of Sir Charles Cotterell at Antwerp. From 1651 he was at the royal court in exile in Paris, attending Charles as chaplain and clerk of the closet. That year he and fellow chaplain John Cosin debated with Father Coniers to reclaim Thomas Keightley for protestantism. When Evelyn heard Earle preach against the vicious life of the exiled cavaliers that September, ‘the discourse was so passionate, that few could abstaine from tears’. However, these were also difficult years. Charles often lacked funds to pay Earle and Cosin. Earle often had to cope alone and seems to have relied on gifts from friends and possibly from his wife, who travelled between England and her husband on the continent.

Following the Restoration, Earle was preferred in June 1660 to the deanery of Westminster, as had been planned as early as July the previous year. On 25 March 1661 he was nominated as a commissioner to review the prayer book, on 28 March he preached at court, and on 23 April he assisted at the coronation. He was one of the commissioners at the Savoy conference, but seems to have taken little part, if any: Richard Baxter noted that he ‘never came’ (Reliquiae Baxterianae, 3.364). The suggestion that, together with Gilbert Sheldon and George Morley, Earle formed a committee to vet ecclesiastical appointments and so shape the restored Church of England is no longer given credence by historians. Despite his initial refusal of the office, on 30 November 1662 he was consecrated bishop of Worcester in succession to John Gauden, and on 28 September 1663, on the promotion of Humphrey Henchman to the see of London, he was translated to Salisbury.

Earle was described by his contemporaries as a gentle individual: his friend Clarendon asserted that he was without enemies; another ‘deare friend’, John Evelyn claimed that Bishop Earle was ‘universaly beloved for his gentle & sweet disposition’, and that he was ‘a most humble, meeke, but cherefull man, an excellent schol[a]r & rare preacher’ (Evelyn, 3.265, 345–6). Others concurred. Richard Baxter called him ‘a mild and quiet man’ (Reliquiae Baxterianae, 2.381). Yet, as with so many churchmen of a similar temperament, a reputation for leniency and moderation towards dissent has been foisted on Earle by subsequent writers with very little evidence. In June 1662 Earle wrote a conciliatory letter to Richard Baxter after Baxter explained why he had abruptly refused to wear a tippet when preaching before Charles II on 22 July 1660. Earle wrote that while he could not agree with Baxter ‘in some particulars, yett I cannot but esteem [you] for your personal worth & abilityes’ and, perhaps taken with the politeness, Baxter seems to have written in the margin ‘O that they were all such!’ (Keeble and Nuttall, letters 702, 703, and 625 n. 1). Other than this, there is little evidence of his attitude: White Kennett claimed that Bishop Earle followed Henchman's example and did not trouble Salisbury's nonconformists; Earle probably had a part in a 1663 government inspired attempt to ease the scruples of the nonconformist clergy about conforming while simultaneously closing loopholes in the Act of Uniformity. There seems no ground for the sweeping claims of Gilbert Burnet, who was not in England at the time, and others that Earle was opposed to the first Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act. These assertions seem to have originated in the partisan tracts of Edward Pearse in the 1680s and to have been further amplified by Edmund Calamy.

Whatever his views on nonconformity Earle probably had little opportunity to act upon them since his health was already failing: he sought help from the waters of Bath and Barnet, and wrote in 1663 to Clarendon that ‘though your Lordship I trust may live many summers yet, I that am now in my 65th yeare and under all these infirmityes look upon every month as a yeare and every yeare as an age’ (Ollard, 252). But the end, when it came, seems to have been swift. In October 1665 parliament met at Oxford to escape the plague then in London. Earle had rooms in University College and here he took to his bed. On 15 November, in the presence of Bishop Henchman of London, Earle indicated that his wife was to have all his property.

The bishop died between 7 and 8 p.m. on 17 November 1665, and was buried with much state on 25 November. The cortège gathered in the Convocation House where Dr South, the university orator, spoke, then processed to St Mary's where John Dolben preached on ‘being dead he yet speaketh’, and thence proceeded to Merton College chapel for anthems, prayers, a speech, and the interment. Earle's grave was near the high altar, and in the north-east corner of the chapel a monument was erected to him with a highly laudatory Latin inscription.

John Spurr


Walker rev., 372 · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn · Wood, Ath. Oxon.: Fasti, new edn · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · The life and times of Anthony Wood, ed. A. Clark, 5 vols., OHS, 19, 21, 26, 30, 40 (1891–1900) · Calendar of the correspondence of Richard Baxter, ed. N. H. Keeble and G. F. Nuttall, 2 vols. (1991) · E. Hyde, earl of Clarendon, Selections from ‘The history of the rebellion’ and ‘The life by himself’, new edn, ed. G. Huehns (1978) · R. S. Bosher, The making of the Restoration settlement: the influence of the Laudians, 1649–1662 (1951) · W. Kennett, A register and chronicle ecclesiastical and civil (1728) · Fasti Angl. (Hardy) · Evelyn, Diary · P. Barwick, The life of … Dr John Barwick, ed. and trans. H. Bedford (1724) · Reliquiae Baxterianae, or, Mr Richard Baxter's narrative of the most memorable passages of his life and times, ed. M. Sylvester, 1 vol. in 3 pts (1696) · Burnet’s History of my own time, ed. O. Airy, new edn, 2 vols. (1897–1900) · I. M. Green, The re-establishment of the Church of England, 1660–1663 (1978) · P. Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the reconstruction of the old regime, 1661–1667 (1988) · R. Ollard, Clarendon and his friends (1987) · Calendar of the Clarendon state papers preserved in the Bodleian Library, 4: 1657–1660, ed. F. J. Routledge (1932) · E. Cardwell, A history of conferences and other proceedings connected with the revision of the Book of Common Prayer (1840) · T. Fowler, ‘Earle's Microcosmographie from the Hunter MSS in Durham Cathedral’, N&Q, 4th ser., 8 (1871), 363, 411, 475, 508; 9 (1872), 33 · J. Earle, The autograph manuscript of ‘Microcosmographie’ (1966) · E. Calamy, ed., An abridgement of Mr. Baxter's history of his life and times, with an account of the ministers, &c., who were ejected after the Restauration of King Charles II, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1713), vol.1, p. 174 · [E. Pearse], The conformists plea for the nonconformist, 2nd edn (1681), 35, 61 · Reg. Oxf., 2/1–4 · J. Aubrey, The natural history and antiquities of the county of Surrey, 5 vols. (1718–19) · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/318, fol. 406r · Thurloe, State papers, 2.427 · Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 48, fol. 46; MS Add. C. 302, fol. 234 · DNB · IGI


oils, c.1660, NPG [see illus.]