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Burnet, Alexanderlocked

  • David George Mullan

Burnet, Alexander (1615–1684), archbishop of St Andrews, was baptized in Edinburgh on 6 August 1615, the younger of two sons of James Burnet, minister of Lauder from 1615, and his wife, Christian, daughter of George Dundas of that ilk, and kin to the Traquair family. His grandfather William Burnet of Barns in the parish of Manor in Tweeddale, known as the Hoolet o' Barns, was a notorious border raider; ironically several of his sons rose to eminence in Scottish legal circles. Burnet studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating MA on 22 June 1633. Instead of assuming a parochial charge he entered the family of John Stewart, first earl of Traquair, as chaplain and tutor. Charles I presented him to Coldingham on 10 January 1639, but this was after the national covenant and the Glasgow general assembly and nothing could come of this for an episcopalian sympathizer. Burnet's father, who had become minister of Jedburgh in 1635, was deposed in April 1639 for the same opinions. It may have been about this time that Burnet married Elizabeth Fleming, daughter of George Fleming of Kilconquhar, Fife. They had a son and two daughters.

On 15 April 1641 Alexander entered the living of Burmarsh, Kent, one of a number of Scottish episcopal refugees to find work in the English church, and received ordination there. His royalism led to his ejection in 1650, though an A. Burnett is found as minister of Tenham, Kent, on 22 January 1657. He went to the continent and acted as a courier for Charles II. Following the Restoration, Burnet became rector of Ivychurch, Kent, and chaplain to his father's cousin General Andrew Rutherford, governor of Dunkirk. Burnet's duties in Dunkirk, where his elder brother, Robert, was a physician, included ministry to the English congregation, hence his title in one source, 'Dean of the City of Dunkirk'. He desired to build 'a handsome and convenient chappell' (Sheldon MSS, first letter, 20 Nov 1661) for the congregation, imploring English aid through Bishop Gilbert Sheldon. He is reported to have preached to parliament on 16 June 1663 on 2 Chronicles 19: 6, 'And [King Jehoshaphat] said to the judges, “Take heed what ye do: for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord”'.

In 1663 Burnet returned to Scotland after an absence of nearly twenty-five years, and on 18 September was consecrated bishop of Aberdeen by the archbishop of St Andrews, James Sharp, and some others. He quickly succeeded Andrew Fairfoul in the archiepiscopal see of Glasgow on 18 January 1664, and was installed on 11 April; Gilbert Burnet (no relation) alleged the influence in both appointments of General Rutherford (from 2 February 1663 earl of Teviot). Burnet was sworn of the privy council on 26 April 1664 and became an extraordinary lord of session in November; that year he preached at the earl of Glencairn's funeral.

In Glasgow this convinced episcopalian had to wrestle with the deteriorating situation in the west of the country of radical presbyterians refusing to attend regular parochial services and resorting to conventicles. Burnet had no patience for this behaviour, and it was reported that he said 'that the only way to deal with a fanatic was to starve him' (R. Wodrow, History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland, 1.429). He was inclined to take the worst view of affairs and behaved provocatively, quickly ordaining, according to Robert Wodrow, five or six curates using 'the English pontifical' (ibid., 2.8). He was vigorous in proceeding against nonconforming ministers whom his predecessor had left alone, to the extent that even some of his co-religionists were provoked. Burnet was a leader in acting against the rebels of the Pentland rising in 1666, and in a letter to Archbishop Sheldon on 17 November he urged that 'all persons of interest in this kingdom be forthwith requyred to sign the declaration appointed by Act of Parliament concerning the covenant' (Airy, 36, appx 39).

However, with the failure of repression came toleration for those nonconforming ministers who would behave peaceably, beginning with the indulgence of 7 June 1669 which permitted the restoration of forty-two presbyterian clergy to their parishes. This represented a rejection of Burnet's policy, but of more immediate impact in effecting his downfall was the culmination of his agitation against the conduct of the earl of Lauderdale and other nobles who he believed were sabotaging royal policy in Scotland. Beginning in 1667 he had reported to the king about his concerns; in October 1668 a synod held at Peebles, which he attended, proposed to address the king directly, circumventing council, about 'the griwancis of the chirch through the increas of popery & qwakerisme, the frequency of conventticles, & the not putting the laws in wigorous executione agains disorderly persons' (Airy, 38.121), and in mid-September 1669 he endorsed the remonstrance of the synod of Glasgow. This document complained about the new policy of leniency, which, it alleged, encouraged nonconformity and eroded the position of the episcopal party, 'so that being placed without the reach of our censures they value not any thing that is our Interest as a constituted Church' (ibid., 36, appx 65). Sir Robert Moray thought 'that this damned paper shewes Bishops & Episcopall people are as bad on this chapter as the most arrant Presbyterian or Remonstrator' (ibid., 36.139). The king was not prepared to suffer this public assertiveness, which undermined his determination to keep Scotland quiet, and thus he acted to force the archbishop out. The privy council learned on 6 January 1670 that Burnet had resigned on 24 December 1669, telling Archbishop Sheldon that '[I] am so legally divested of a very weighty and comfortlesse charge … Now I am laid aside as ane uselesse and unprofitable person' (ibid., 2, appx 68).

Burnet retired to England, reserving a pension of £300 from the diocesan revenues. He was replaced by Robert Leighton of Dunblane first as commendator and then formally as archbishop in 1671, though Burnet believed that Leighton 'was never legally translated … as the Canons require' (Historical Notices, 1.165); but after several years Leighton had had enough and on 17 December 1674 he too resigned and went to England. Burnet had already been reappointed by Charles on 16 September 1674 and then by the privy council on 29 September. Wodrow believed that simony was behind the restoration, but John Lamb wrote that it was political: Lauderdale was now reverting to more rigorous methods, and his move was seconded by those who upheld the episcopal government of the church. Though Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall wrote that after his dismissal and return to Glasgow 'he was a man of much moderation and temper' (Lauder, Historical Observes, 1840, 136), rather like Gilbert Burnet would write, Archbishop Burnet was soon once again on the attack, petitioning Lauderdale in February 1676 about the audacity of the indulged and the conventiclers. Burnet reported to the king on 25 April 1678, and returned the next year to London. He succeeded James Sharp in the see of St Andrews on 13 August 1679. He wrote to the Aberdeen magistrates to vacate the charges of those clergy who refused the test.

Burnet took sick the same night he assisted in the consecration of Alexander Cairncross as bishop of Brechin, 10 August 1684, and died at St Andrews on 22 August 1684. He was buried there on 2 September in St Salvator's Chapel 'besyde Bischop Kennedy' (James Kennedy, c.1408–1465), but there is no longer any sign of his burial. The sermon was preached by Bishop John Paterson of Edinburgh. His son was already dead; his daughter Anne had married first, on 10 September 1667, Alexander Elphinstone, seventh Lord Elphinstone (d. 1669), and second, on 20 August 1674, Patrick Murray, third Lord Elibank; his daughter Margaret had married, on 28 April 1674, Roderick Mackenzie of Prestonhall. Burnet's estate was valued at £41,470 Scots, including two coaches worth £300, silver plate worth £923, and books worth £1050. His beneficiaries included a nephew, Robert Burnet, and Joan Fleming, who was the widow of James Smith, minister of Eddleston, presumably the archbishop's sister-in-law. He also made provision for the poor of his archiepiscopal see, namely a plot of land worth an annual rental of £5 10s., called the Bishop's Rig or Bishop Burnet's Acre. In 1668 he had inherited one half of the estate of Woodhouse in Manor; the value of its rental in 1649 was £164 18s., and upon his death was shared by his daughters.

There is no surviving portrait of Burnet: the Lauderdale correspondence refers to him as Longifacies and Long Nez. In the dedication to his only published work, The Blessedness of the Dead (1673), his funeral sermons for the second marquess of Montrose, and for the marchioness, he wrote of 'this age which looks upon me with more prejudice than impartial Posterity will (I hope) think I have deserved', and indeed Gilbert Burnet thought that while he was a good and sincere man, he was 'much in the power of others' and 'not cut out for a Court, or for the Ministry' (Bishop Burnet's History, ed. Burnet and Burnet, 1.160). On the final letter sent to him by Burnet, Archbishop William Sancroft wrote with words borrowed from Horace: 'Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit: Nulli flebilior quam tibi, Scotia' ('Many lament his passing, but none more than thee, Scotland').


  • J. A. Lamb, ‘Archbishop Alexander Burnet, 1614–84’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 11 (1951–3), 133–48
  • J. Buckroyd, Church and state in Scotland, 1660–1681 (1980)
  • J. Buckroyd, ‘The dismissal of Archbishop Alexander Burnet, 1669’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 18 (1972–4), 149–55
  • I. B. Cowan, The Scottish covenanters, 1660–1688 (1976)
  • Fasti Scot., new edn, 7.327–8
  • Bodl. Oxf., Sheldon MSS, MS Add. c. 306
  • J. Lauder, Historical observes of memorable occurrents in church and state, from October 1680 to April 1686, ed. A. Urquhart and D. Laing, Bannatyne Club, 66 (1840)
  • Historical notices of Scotish affairs, selected from the manuscripts of Sir John Lauder of Fountainhall, ed. D. Laing, 2 vols., Bannatyne Club, 87 (1848)


  • U. Edin., corresp.
  • BL, letters to duke of Lauderdale, Charles II, etc., Add. MSS 23122–23138, 23242–23247
  • Bodl. Oxf., Sheldon MSS, letters to Sheldon, MS. Add. C. 306
  • NL Scot., letters to duke of Lauderdale
  • priv. coll., corresp. with duke of Lauderdale
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Camden Society
H. Scott, , 3 vols. in 6 (1871); new edn [11 vols.] (1915–)
Bodleian Library, Oxford