ATTERBURY, Francis (1663-1732)

ATTERBURY, Francis (1663–1732)

cons. 5 July 1713 bp. of ROCHESTER; depr. 1 June 1723

First sat 7 July 1713; last sat 6 Mar. 1722

b. 16 Mar. 1663, 2nd s. of Lewis Atterbury (d.1693) rect. of Middleton (Milton Keynes), Bucks. and Elizabeth (d.1668), da. of Francis Giffard. educ. Westminster 1674-80; Christ Church, Oxf. matric. 17 Dec. 1680, BA 1684, MA 1687, DD 1701; ord. deacon 1687, priest 1691. m. 1695, Catherine Osborne (d.1722), 3s. (2 d.v.p.),1 2da. d.v.p. d. 22 Feb. 1732; will 31 Dec. 1725, pr. 10 May 1732.2

Chap. to William III and Mary II by 1691, to Anne 1702.

‘Minister’ to Old Pretender 1724-7.3

Lecturer, St Bride’s, Fleet Street, London 1691-8;4 preacher, Bridewell hospital 1693, Rolls Chapel 1698-1712;5 adn. Totnes 1701-13;6 preb. Exeter 1704; dean, Carlisle 1704-11, Christ Church, Oxf. 1711-13, Westminster 1713-23;7 prolocutor lower house of convoc. of Canterbury 1710-13.8

Commr. 50 new churches 1711;9 gov. Bridewell and Bethlehem hospitals.

Also associated with: various lodgings in London and Mdx. incl. Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea, Mdx.

Likenesses: oils on canvas by Sir G. Kneller, 1718, Christ Church, Oxf.

The Tory firebrand Francis Atterbury was born into a family of Anglican clergymen. His father, Lewis, was a favourite of Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham. As the second son, he did not inherit the family patrimony in Great Houghton, Northamptonshire.10 Nonetheless, he did inherit from his father property in the Newport Pagnell area of Buckinghamshire, along with other land in Hornsey, north London, and in Little Houghton, Northamptonshire.11

Well known for his arrogance, Atterbury could, on occasion, be subject to furious rages and splenetic outbursts. He was, though, thought highly of by his Christ Church peers and high Tory mentor Henry Aldrich. At Oxford he composed verses in honour of Princess Anne, who visited the city in 1688.12 He became noted for his prolific Anglican apologetics and ‘forceful’ conservative sermons and tutored a number of establishment figures including Charles Boyle, 4th earl of Orrery [I] (later Baron Boyle in the British peerage).13 Ambitious for preferment, his career advanced steadily through the 1690s through the patronage of Henry Compton, bishop of London and of Jonathan Trelawny, bishop of Exeter, a close friend and political ally at Oxford. Making his name as a preacher in London at Bridewell, Atterbury reached a more prestigious audience through his sermons at court in the 1690s.

Atterbury’s fondness for dispute was apparent early on when he provided practical support to Trelawny in the latter’s legal case over the visitation of Exeter College (which did not end until Trelawny’s appeal was dismissed by the Lords on 7 Feb. 1695).14 He came to prominence when he set off the ‘Convocation controversy’ over the synod’s constitutional role (contrary to the policy of the government and of Thomas Tenison, archbishop of Canterbury) with his anonymous 1696 pamphlet Letter to a Convocation Man.15 The dispute assumed an increasingly political edge in relation to the position of the Church alongside the government as Atterbury engaged in such heated polemical exchanges with William Wake, the future archbishop of Canterbury, that John Moore, bishop of Norwich, thought it expedient that Convocation cease to meet.16 Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, on the other hand, used Atterbury’s arguments to insist on Convocation being recalled in return for his willingness to join the administration in the winter of 1700. The affair (which rumbled on between 1696 and 1703) helped make Atterbury the acknowledged leader of the high-flying Tory clique within the Church establishment, and on 23 May 1701 he was asked by the Tories Simon Harcourt, later Viscount Harcourt, and William Bromley to preach before the Commons on Restoration Day.17

Although he would not be made a bishop for another 12 years, Atterbury’s extensive contacts in the Commons and his persistent political activism ensured that he was thoroughly immersed in parliamentary business. He contracted a secret agreement with Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford, on 21 Oct. 1702 to challenge Archbishop Tenison’s right to prorogue Convocation and became a key component in Harley’s own political ambitions.18 An alliance between the lower house of Convocation and the Commons during the session beginning in November 1703 was apparent when Atterbury, Aldrich and George Smalridge, later bishop of Bristol, attended Harley (as Speaker) to present their thanks for the Commons’ efforts on behalf of the Church.19 He remained very close to Trelawny and the two frequently exchanged political news and strategies to counter the Whigs.20 In 1704, through the influence of Harley, Sidney Godolphin, Baron Godolphin and John Sharp, archbishop of York, Atterbury was appointed to the deanery of Carlisle to help offset the whiggish appointments promoted by the Junto. According to Harley, when Atterbury kissed hands for his new post he was assured by the queen that this was ‘but a beginning of her favour’. He became embroiled immediately in a dispute with William Nicolson, bishop of Carlisle, with whom he had previously locked horns during the Convocation controversy. The University of Oxford had even refused Nicolson a doctorate at the time of his election as bishop in retaliation for his assault on Atterbury.21 Now the bishop demanded that Atterbury renounce ‘three propositions relating to her majesty’s supremacy’ contained in Atterbury’s volume concerning Convocation before he agreed to Atterbury’s institution. Unsurprisingly, Atterbury refused. After a stand-off Nicolson relented, but the affair helped push the bishop further into the arms of the Whigs. Atterbury was still actively engaged in asserting the legality of his position in the summer of the following year.22

Atterbury’s prominent role in orchestrating the ‘Church in Danger’ campaign of 1705-6 (about which he corresponded with Adam Ottley, later bishop of St Davids, did nothing to ameliorate relations with his diocesan. He continued to engage in quarrelsome behaviour, engaging Nicolson in dispute over the cathedral chapter.23 It was worthy of comment by Nicolson when Atterbury waited on him ‘in a peaceful temper’, and in February 1708 Atterbury was ‘peremptory’ in his refusal to agree to Hugh Todd (one of the Carlisle canons, who had been excommunicated by Nicolson) being required to kneel when seeking absolution from the bishop.24 When Nicolson’s cathedrals bill came before Parliament that spring, Atterbury engineered opposition in both Houses, securing the aid of Henry St John, later Viscount Bolingbroke, in the Commons and of the Tory bishops in the Lords.25 Although Atterbury failed to prevent the bill’s passage, his strategy had further polarized parties in both Houses.26 He continued to use the pulpit to promulgate high Tory political theology: in October 1708 the City of London aldermen refused to print his sermon at the mayoral election because of its theme of passive obedience.27

Atterbury’s identification with the doctrine of non-resistance was again made apparent in the spring of 1710 during the proceedings against Henry Sacheverell. Atterbury was present to hear himself ‘severely reflected on’ by James Stanhope later Earl Stanhope, and he was widely believed to be at least partially responsible for the composition of Henry Sacheverell’s speech of 7 March. He later claimed the credit for causing ‘rejoicings to be made at Farnham’ in response to ‘Sacheverell’s escape’, and when he visited Totnes in May to undertake his visitation there as archdeacon, he was accompanied by Sacheverell.28

Following the removal of Godolphin, Atterbury attempted to mediate between the high Tories and Edward Harley, communicating to the latter the disappointment some felt at the failure thus far to put out more of the Whigs or to dissolve Parliament. The ill-judged intervention was said to have provoked Harley into a rare demonstration of ‘passion’.29 The subsequent Tory election victory of 1710 provided Atterbury with further opportunities to press his high-flying agenda. He constantly lobbied Members of both Houses of Parliament and conducted a polemical campaign in Convocation and in the press. Tenison made no effort to disguise his loathing for Atterbury, refusing him permission to visit him at Lambeth. His dislike was also made apparent when, in December, Atterbury and Smalridge were said to have made ‘excellent speeches’ on Atterbury’s presentation as prolocutor of Convocation; Tenison’s response by contrast ‘had nothing in it but peevishness and bad Latin’.30 By the close of the year it was rumoured that Atterbury was to succeed his old mentor as dean of Christ Church, following Aldrich’s death in mid December. It was a post to which he felt entitled, though Harley was reluctant to allow the appointment to go forward, fearing the influence of the intemperate Atterbury on Oxford’s most influential college. A temporary solution was arrived at with a resolution that the appointment would be delayed until a suitable position could also be found for Smalridge.31

In January 1711 Atterbury produced a draft representation to the Commons from Convocation on ‘the late excessive growth of infidelity, heresy, and profaneness’ and used his friend William Bromley, by now Speaker, to widen the remit of a Commons’ select committee, originally appointed to examine a petition from the parish of Greenwich, to examine the state of London churches.32 His opposition to the Whig bishops (Tenison in particular) in Convocation was planned in meticulous detail.33 He also drafted the queen’s speech to Convocation that year.34 On 28 Feb. Atterbury and Smalridge were again in discussions with Bromley.35

Atterbury’s continuing prominence was no doubt the reason for Nicolson stunning some dining companions in late February 1711 with his prediction that Atterbury would shortly succeed the ailing Compton as bishop of London. In the event Compton rallied, robbing Atterbury of the chance (if it ever existed) of securing so important a see. Disappointed by the relative ‘moderation’ of ecclesiastical policies of the Harley ministry, Atterbury steadily moved into the orbit of St John and Harcourt, though he continued to operate on Harley’s behalf, assuring Nicolson, for one, that Harley posed no danger.36 His eventual appointment as dean of Christ Church late in the summer of 1711, however, was the result of an ultimatum laid down by St John as well as forming part of Harcourt’s campaign to maintain the dominance of high-fliers within the university. If the earl of Oxford (as Harley had become) was unhappy, though, the appointment of Atterbury to Christ Church held some advantages as Oxford’s heir, Edward Harley, styled Lord Harley (later 2nd earl of Oxford), was a student at the college and thus able to keep his father informed of Atterbury’s manoeuvres. Smalridge was compensated with the deanery of Carlisle.37

Atterbury’s association with the militant Tory October Club signalled his continuing role at the ‘hectic’ end of Tory politics.38 He ran quickly into difficulties at Christ Church, where his campaigns to reform the college, to assert the power of the dean and to support Harcourt’s ambitions caused a breach in his old friendship with Smalridge and others (including Francis Gastrell, later bishop of Chester), as well as reverberations throughout Oxford and beyond. Not unusually for one of his obstreperous temperament, Atterbury betrayed signs of a thin skin. He felt clearly the pointed slights of his Whig neighbours keenly and in July 1712 reported to Oxford how John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, had failed to abide by his usual policy of providing venison from Blenheim for all the heads of houses in Oxford, deciding instead to deliver the gifts to the masters of just two colleges and to two other academics, one of them, John Potter, later archbishop of Canterbury, one of the canons of Christ Church. This, Atterbury was convinced, was so that ‘the passing me over might be the more observable’.39

From his bases in Oxford and in Convocation, Atterbury became a vital element in Bolingbroke’s parliamentary ‘confederation’ to outmanoeuvre Oxford in the Lords.40 In early 1713 he drafted a bill (to prevent the too frequent denunciation of excommunication) to revive the power of Church courts, recruiting Heneage Finch, Baron Guernsey (later earl of Aylesford), to introduce the bill in an attempt to bring Tories such as Guernsey’s brother, Nottingham, and Arthur Annesley, 5th earl of Anglesey, into the Bolingbroke camp.41 The bill was introduced on 5 May and managed through the House by William Dawes, of Chester, who reported from a committee of the whole on 19 June.

Already a veteran of parliamentary politics, Atterbury was elevated to the see of Rochester in June 1713 (with which went the deanery of Westminster). His promotion had been urged upon the queen by Harcourt and came with Bolingbroke’s support; it was achieved in spite of Oxford’s extreme disinclination, fierce opposition from Tory grandee William Legge, earl of Dartmouth, and the ‘reluctancy’ of the queen who now acknowledged Atterbury’s ‘meddling and troublesome’ behaviour.42 Playing on the Latin version of his new title, at least one of Atterbury’s opponents subsequently referred to him as ‘Ruffian’. Atterbury made a point of thanking Oxford for the honour, and requested that he might keep his prebend of Exeter as an acknowledgment of Trelawny’s favour to him. It would also offset the loss he would sustain by resigning the deanship of Christ Church, though by that time he was said rarely to be seen in his college, which had descended into acrimonious in-fighting, to a large extent thanks to his abrasive manner of dealing with his colleagues. Lord Harley’s correspondent, Christ Church canon and Atterbury’s antagonist, William Stratford, urged on the patent for appointing Atterbury’s replacement at Christ Church, complaining that the place had ‘suffered enough already’.43

In stark contrast with his time as dean of Christ Church, Atterbury’s tenure of his bishopric is generally assumed to have been both efficient and uncontroversial, but his major focus remained political. On 7 July Atterbury took his seat in the House. He attended each of the remaining nine sittings of the session and made polite overtures to Oxford.44

Atterbury attended the House for the first day of the February 1714 session and was thereafter present for some 45 per cent of sittings and was named to the usual sessional committees. On 20 Mar. he registered his proxy in favour of John Robinson, bishop of London (vacated 27 May); he did not attend at all during April when the House was involved in heated debates and close divisions on the danger to the Protestant succession. On 13 Apr. Atterbury was noted by one source as having voted with the court in the division on the queen’s reply to the address on the danger posed by the Pretender. However, his proxy-holder, Robinson, in common with the majority of the bishops, voted with the opposition, and other sources have assumed that Atterbury’s vote had been cast the same way.45 In May 1714 Atterbury drafted the Schism Bill, another measure intended to embarrass Oxford and flush out ‘moderate’ Tories. Heated debate on 4 June was followed by Dawes’ management of the bill through a committee of the whole; Oxford was dismayed when Atterbury’s speech in the Lords denied that Dissent could ever be a valid part of the English ecclesiastical polity.46 Atterbury was present on 11 June to vote in favour of extending the Schism Bill to Ireland (he had been waited on earlier in the month by Anglesey, to solicit his support for the extension).47 He voted again on 15 June for the passage of the bill. At the end of June William Wake noted ‘Atterbury’s business’ coming before Convocation. The result, according to Wake, was ‘confusion, and heat, and clamour: nothing concluded’. He blamed Atterbury for raising ‘such contentions among us’.48

Early in July the Schism Bill passed Parliament, though Ralph Bridges pointed out another schism remained ‘at the height amongst the great ones at court’, with Atterbury one of a triumvirate believed to be ‘the men chiefly concerned in what they call the new scheme’.49 It was rumoured at the end of July that Atterbury might be offered (together with Robinson) the post of joint lord high treasurer. It had been suggested earlier that he was to be lord privy seal and Robinson first commissioner of the Treasury. The death of the queen, however, effected a sudden change in his political fortunes.50 Aware that the Tories had little alternative but to accept the Hanoverian regime, Atterbury attended on 1 Aug. for the first day of the brief session that met in the wake of the queen’s death. He attended five sittings and used the occasion to attempt personal conciliation with leading Harleians, including Smalridge, begging him to forgive their past disagreements.51 At the close of August Atterbury presided at the queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey.52

Atterbury’s loyalty to the new regime was widely suspected especially after writing an (albeit anonymous) electioneering pamphlet before the 1715 general election which included a personal attack on George I.53 His arrival at the House in the second week of the new spring 1715 Parliament heralded the start of his vociferous parliamentary opposition. On 9 July when articles of impeachment against Oxford were brought up from the Commons his attempt to defend his old ally was greeted by a hostile John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll [S], (earl of Greenwich), with the observation that Atterbury had ‘studied more politics than divinity’.54 On 18 Aug. together with other leading Tories he entered a dissent to the refusal of the House to enquire whether Bolingbroke had been properly summoned to answer the bill of attainder against him. In November 1715 he refused to sign the abhorrence of the Jacobite rebellion (on the grounds that he was shown the document too late at night).55 He constantly challenged government policy, speaking frequently in the Lords and assuming a leading role in the House. He registered his protest or dissent on more than 40 occasions between 1715 and 1722, and he continued to exchange proxies with John Robinson, Smalridge, Trelawny, Gastrell, and Adam Ottley. His parliamentary career after 1715 and trial for Jacobite plotting will be examined in detail in the next part of this work.

Finally betrayed by John Erskine, 22nd earl of Mar [S], Atterbury was committed to the Tower on 24 Aug. 1722 on suspicion of plotting against the government. The Commons’ motion to bring in a bill of pains and penalties (including deprivation and exile) was carried without a division and the bill received the royal assent on 27 May 1723.56 Atterbury went into exile – taking with him £10,000 raised by Allen Bathurst, Baron (later Earl) Bathurst, from Tory sympathizers.57 His position as minister to the Old Pretender proved difficult and unrewarding. Although he maintained as many friendships as possible, the penalties of communicating with Atterbury ensured that he became increasingly isolated. In the autumn of 1728 he quit Paris for Montpellier, driven there in part by a need to retrench but also on account of political pressure.58 Already sick and disillusioned, the death of his only surviving daughter Mary Morice in November 1729 was a blow from which he never recovered. He died on 22 Feb. 1732 in Paris.

The full extent of Atterbury’s personal wealth at the time of his death is difficult to determine. Four years earlier he had complained that he had ‘lost near a third part of my income since I came abroad’ and he was more than aware of the difficulties that faced him in settling his property. Even so, he was insistent that should he outlive his brother, the family estates were his by right.59 Atterbury’s post was rifled as a matter of routine, and suspicions about his involvement in plotting were such that orders were given for the container holding his remains to be searched on its arrival back in England; his son-in-law William Morice was also ordered to be searched and his belongings taken into custody.60 At the insistence of the king, Atterbury’s burial in Westminster Abbey was kept as private as possible.


  • 1 Lysons, Environs of London, ii. 116-61.
  • 2 TNA, PROB 11/651.
  • 3 G.V. Bennett, Tory Crisis in Church and State 1688-1730, pp. 281-94.
  • 4 Mems. and Corresp. of Francis Atterbury ed. F. Williams, i. 56-57, 61.
  • 5 Hearne’s Colls. iii (Oxf. Hist. Soc. vii), 475.
  • 6 TNA, SP 44/150.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 Hearne’s Colls. iv (Oxford Hist. Soc. xiii), 82.
  • 9 Commissions for Building Fifty New Churches, xxxiv-xxxvii.
  • 10 VCH Mdx. vi. 172-82; Nicolson, London Diaries, 215, 258.
  • 11 TNA, PROB 11/418.
  • 12 HMC Portland, vii. 137; Folger Shakespeare Lib. ms V.a.551.
  • 13 HP Commons, 1690-1715, iii. 286.
  • 14 Bennett, 34.
  • 15 Letter to a Convocation-Man (1697); Bennett, 48-49.
  • 16 Rights, Powers, and Privileges, of an English Convocation (1700); Verney ms mic. M636/51, C. Gardiner to Sir J. Verney, 4 Mar. 1701; LPL, ms 934, f. 41.
  • 17 HP Commons, 1690-1715, iv. 208.
  • 18 Bennett, 66-68.
  • 19 CJ, xiv. 356.
  • 20 Atterbury, Epistolary Corresp. iv. 383, 388, 389-90, 391, 395, 406-7, 416, 408, 410, 416, 419, 422, 424, 427, 429, 433, 436-8, 440, 443, 445.
  • 21 Eighteenth Century Oxford, 64-65.
  • 22 HMC Portland, iv. 98, 125, 127-33, 138-9, 184; Hart, Life of John Sharp, 185; Nicolson, London Diaries, 25; Add. 70021, ff. 246, 261-3, 266-9; Add. 70022, ff. 22-23, 170-1.
  • 23 NLW, Ottley Corresp. 217, 222, 233, 234, 247, 1536; Add. 70024, f. 209; Christ Church Lib. Oxf. Wake mss 1, f. 6.
  • 24 Nicolson, London Diaries, 451.
  • 25 HP Commons, 1690-1715, v. 339; Atterbury, Epistolary Corresp. i. 422-3.
  • 26 Nicolson, London Diaries, 466; Bennett, 97.
  • 27 HMC Portland, iv. 507.
  • 28 Add. 72495, f. 1; HMC Portland, iv. 533; G. Holmes, Trial of Dr Sacheverell, 196, 242.
  • 29 HMC Portland, v. 650-1.
  • 30 N. Sykes, Edmund Gibson, 59; Add. 72495, f. 35.
  • 31 Add. 72495, ff. 36-37; Nicolson, London Diaries, 521; Eighteenth Century Oxford, 88-89.
  • 32 Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, pp. ix-xxxiii.
  • 33 NLW, Ottley Corresp. 252, 255, 1534, 1535.
  • 34 Add. 70268, Draft of the Queen’s Speech to Convocation.
  • 35 Chandler, iv. 169-226.
  • 36 Nicolson, London Diaries, 549, 557.
  • 37 HMC Portland, v. 136; Eighteenth Century Oxford, 89, 92; Add. 70027, f. 34; Wake mss 17, f. 283.
  • 38 Bennett, 134.
  • 39 HMC Portland, v. 206.
  • 40 Jones, Party and Management, 139.
  • 41 Bennett, 166-7.
  • 42 Holmes, ‘Great Ministry’, 279, 284; Bennett, 168-9.
  • 43 HMC Portland, v. 296; vii. 137, 142, 198; Eighteenth Century Oxford, 95.
  • 44 Add. 70230, Harcourt to Oxford, 6 Aug. 1713.
  • 45 Cobbett, Parl. Hist. vi. 1343; Add. 47087, f. 68; 72496, ff. 131-2.
  • 46 HMC Portland, v. 458; History of the Mitre and Purse (1714), 71.
  • 47 Nicolson, London Diaries, 612-13; HMC Portland, vii. 186.
  • 48 LPL, ms 1770 (Wake Diary), f. 146.
  • 49 Add. 72496, ff. 147-8.
  • 50 NLS, Pitfirrane mss 6409, no. 70; HMC Portland, v. 475; vii. 189.
  • 51 Bennett, 186-7.
  • 52 Post Boy, 24-26 Aug. 1714.
  • 53 [F. Atterbury], English Advice to the Freeholders of England (1715).
  • 54 Cobbett, vii. 104.
  • 55 Bodl. Add. A 269, pp. 45-46.
  • 56 9 Geo. I. c. 17.
  • 57 Bennett, 274.
  • 58 Westminster Abbey Lib., Atterbury family pprs. 64960, 64961, 64966, 64968.
  • 59 Ibid. 64960, 64966.
  • 60 TNA, SP 36/26/269.