SPRAT, Thomas (1635-1713)

SPRAT, Thomas (1635–1713)

cons. 2 Nov. 1684 bp. of ROCHESTER

First sat 19 May 1685; last sat 13 June 1712

bap. 20 Sept. 1635, s. of Thomas Sprat and [?] Strode of Parham, Devon. educ. Tallaton sch., Devon; Wadham, Oxf. BA 1654, MA 1657, fell. 1657–70, BD and DD 1669; incorp. Cambridge 1671. m. Oct. 1676, Helen (1647–1726), da. of Col. Devereux Wolseley of Ravenstone, Staffs. and Elizabeth Zouche; 2s. (1 d.v.p.). d. 20 May 1713; will 28 Nov. 1711, pr. 20 June 1713.1

Royal chap. 1676; clerk of the closet 1685.

Catechist, Wadham, Oxf. 1659; ord. deacon 28 July 1659, priest 9 Mar. 16612 prebend, Westminster Abbey 1669–83; rect. Uffington, Lincs. 1670–84; cur. and lecturer, St Margaret, Westminster 1679–83; canon, chapel royal, Windsor 1681–4; dean, Westminster Abbey 1683–d.

Commr. ecclesiastical affairs 1686–8, 1689; commr. SPG in America 1701–d.; commr. palatine refugees dwelling in London 1709–d., building 50 new churches in London, 1711–d.

FRS 1663; mbr. SPG 1701-d.

Likenesses: oil on canvas by J. Riley, c.1690, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; oil on canvas (double portrait with his son Thomas), by M. Dahl, 1712, Bodl. Oxf.; oil on canvas by G. Kneller, Christ Church, Oxf.

Early life

Much about Thomas Sprat’s early life and family background is obscure. In his will he referred to his mother and siblings as poor relations in need of occasional relief and assistance. He also marvelled that God had brought him from ‘an obscure birth and education in a far distant country where I was the son of a private minister … to stand before princes and raised me to so eminent a station in the Church’.3 His father, also named Thomas Sprat, is believed to have been in holy orders and to have been curate at Beaminster in Dorset from 1631 to 1641, where the future bishop was baptized in 1635. The elder Sprat may have been related to the graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, who was ordained by John Bridges, bishop of Oxford, in 1607.4 He must have had parliamentarian sympathies for he was intruded as minister of Tallaton, Devon, in 1646. Several of the younger Sprat’s sisters were still living in Devon in 1724.5

The choice of Wadham, then under the mastership of John Wilkins, the future bishop of Chester, also suggests parliamentarian sympathies, especially as one of Sprat’s earliest publications was a panegyric on Oliver Cromwell. Wadham provided Sprat with the opportunity of forging acquaintanceship if not friendship with men who would later play significant roles in Church and state. The bursar at the college was his Dorset neighbour and friend Gilbert Ironside, later bishop of Hereford, while Samuel Parker, the future bishop of Oxford, and several future Members of the Commons were students during the period of Sprat’s fellowship. It was probably also at Oxford that Sprat got to know the poet Abraham Cowley, for whom he later acted as literary executor. It seems to have been Cowley, a former parliamentarian turned royalist, who introduced Sprat to George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham.

By the time of the Restoration Sprat had embarked on something of a literary career, publishing his first poem in 1657. Even at this early stage his conscience was sufficiently flexible to permit him to pursue seemingly contradictory political goals for in 1659, the same year that he published his tribute to Cromwell, he also produced a translation of The Plague of Athens, which some interpreted as an allegory for the English revolution and its concomitants: disobedience and irreligion. Sprat was ordained deacon in 1659 by the indefatigable Thomas Fulwar or Fuller, then bishop of Ardfert, and ordained priest in March 1661. He acted as chaplain to Buckingham in the early 1660s. Sprat’s association with Wilkins resulted in his election as a fellow of the Royal Society; this was then followed by a commission to write the history of the society, in which he attempted to justify scientific experimentation as a form of religious exercise and thus a natural ally of rational religion.

Although his writings provoked much criticism, including the suggestion that the Royal Society’s emphasis on materialist philosophy encouraged the growth of atheism, Sprat’s relationship with Buckingham (and, through Buckingham, with the king) secured his position. Royal patronage ensured his nomination to a prebend in Westminster Abbey in 1669 and doubts over Buckingham’s right to present Sprat to the rectory of Uffington were resolved by securing the king’s presentation instead. Sprat was so close to Buckingham that in 1675, together with Sir Robert Clayton and John Wildman, he was appointed as a trustee for Buckingham’s debt trust. Since the size of Buckingham’s debts vastly exceeded his means, this meant that Sprat subsequently became involved in a large number of suits brought in chancery by Buckingham’s despairing creditors. Sprat’s relationship with the Buckingham circle was probably cemented by his marriage to Helen Wolseley, who was almost certainly a cousin of Sir Charles Wolseley, a close friend of Buckingham’s acolyte, Sir Robert Howard.

By January 1677 Sir Ralph Verney was able to refer to Sprat as ‘a famous man’.6 His many preferments, resulting from continuing royal favour, make it clear that he was regarded as one of the leading propagandists for the rights of the crown. In December 1680 members of the Commons took umbrage at his sermon to them because he ‘spent much of his powder against fanatics’.7 His sermon to the Artillery Company in 1682 made his sentiments still more clear. Christians, he declared, had a duty of submission to their monarch; there could never be any moral justification for resistance to the will of the crown.8 In 1683 he was appointed to the lucrative and prestigious deanery of Westminster, though he was disappointed to learn that in order to accept it he would have to divest himself of almost all of his other benefices, thus (according to his own somewhat unbelievable account) leaving him so poor as to be unable ‘to maintain any tolerable reputation, or even to avoid contempt’. Further reward followed with his nomination as bishop of Rochester and agreement that he keep the deanery of Westminster in commendam.9

Sprat’s value as a loyal propagandist was further demonstrated with the publication of his vituperative narrative of the Rye House Plot, A True Account and Declaration of the Horrid Conspiracy, in the spring of 1685. Originally commissioned by Charles II, the order for printing was actually given by James II, who personally ‘corrected’ the manuscript, as had Charles II before him; more corrections were made by Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester, and Francis North, Baron Guilford. It is perhaps an interesting commentary on Sprat’s need for approval from his colleagues in the Church that he also sent copies for comment to William Lloyd, then bishop of St Asaph (later bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, and of Worcester), and to William Sancroft, archbishop of Canterbury.10

Bishop of Rochester, 1684–1713

As bishop of Rochester Sprat seems to have had very little direct electoral influence; nevertheless he clearly played a role, however minor, in assisting James II to pack Parliament. For the most part his influence resulted from his moral authority as a leading clergyman and was conveyed through his sermons, but it also took other forms. As dean of Westminster he had considerable power over the nomination of local government officers, including magistrates. In November 1685, for example, Sprat forwarded the names of two loyal Westminster residents for inclusion in the local commission of the peace; it is unlikely that this was a unique occurrence.11 One of his few surviving pieces of correspondence is a letter written in February 1685 to the retiring member for Yorkshire, Henry Fairfax, 4th Lord Fairfax [S], suggesting that he encourage his son to stand in his place as knight of the shire. Sprat assured Fairfax that the king had a good opinion of his son; significantly, he also found it necessary to remind Fairfax (a Presbyterian exclusionist) of the new king’s promise to maintain the government ‘as it is by law established in church and state’.12 In the event, Thomas Fairfax (later 5th Lord Fairfax [S]) was returned as an anti-exclusionist for the Yorkshire borough of Malton.

Sprat took his seat at the opening of the 1685 Parliament and was present on over 80 per cent of sitting days. He was named to all three sessional committees as well as to two select committees, for preventing the clandestine marriages of minors and for a naturalization bill, but otherwise there is very little information about his activities. In December 1685, after the prorogation of Parliament, he asked Sancroft to support the candidature of his friend Gilbert Ironside for the deanery of Bristol, and in the same month he profited from the king’s dislike of the militant Anglicanism of Henry Compton, bishop of London, when he replaced Compton as clerk of the closet. The extent to which Sprat had exerted himself on Ironside’s behalf may have been questionable for, according to William Lloyd of St Asaph, preferment of this kind was a matter of royal rather than archiepiscopal favour and he, in his turn, urged Sancroft to seek Sprat’s support for Ironside on the grounds that ‘He has the ear of them that can best speak to his Majesty, and I believe would engage one of them in this cause, if your Grace would be pleased to encourage him in it’.13

In the course of 1686 Sprat’s continuing good standing with both the crown and the Church hierarchy was demonstrated by his appointment as one of the visitors to Salisbury cathedral and to the new commission for ecclesiastical affairs. It was even rumoured that he would be translated to York.14 He was also close to George Jeffreys, later Baron Jeffreys, and supported the candidacy of Jeffreys’ brother for the bishopric of Chester.15 So involved was Sprat with the court that it was whispered that he had turned Catholic.16 When Compton challenged the authority of the ecclesiastical commission in the summer of 1686 it was noted that Sprat remained silent. It was also reported that he was reluctant to convict Compton and that his role in ensuring that he be suspended rather than deprived had brought him under the king’s displeasure. Sprat himself later insisted that he did not know the terms of the commission until it was opened in Whitehall and (since proceedings against Compton were already mooted) that it was his moral duty to join the commission to protect Compton.17

If the king was displeased with Sprat over the Compton affair, his displeasure was short-lived, for in November 1686 Sprat was appointed one of the three commissioners to administer the diocese of London during Compton’s suspension and he assisted at the degradation of Samuel Johnson. Sprat was later to declare that his part in the administration of Compton’s diocese was undertaken carefully and with ‘the greatest respect’ to Compton’s interest.18 In January 1687 he was firmly identified as a supporter of the repeal of the Test Acts, yet, as the aims of James II’s policies became clearer, his commitment waned. When pressed to sign an address to the king congratulating him on the second Declaration of Indulgence, Sprat initially tried to excuse himself, and a list drawn up in May 1687 seems to indicate that his support for James II’s policies was now regarded as doubtful. By August 1687 it was feared that he wanted to ‘slip out’ of the ecclesiastical commission and in December he voted against further punishments for the dismissed fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford.19 Nevertheless he did support the Declaration of Indulgence and instructed his clergy to read it, he drew up the form of prayer to be used as part of the public thanksgiving for the birth of the prince of Wales; and when others celebrated the release of the seven bishops he ordered the bells of Westminster church to be silenced.20

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sprat’s increasing equivocation seems to have gone largely unnoticed. In June 1688 Thomas Smith, bishop of Carlisle, who opposed the Declaration, was still convinced that Sprat was a man to ‘despair of’, but in August Sprat, clearly under enormous pressure from his fellow bishops, resigned from the ecclesiastical commission, declaring that he could not punish those whose consciences did not permit them to read the Declaration, while at the same time proclaiming his own loyalty and his readiness ‘to sacrifice whatsoever I have … but my conscience and my religion’ to the service of the king. The survival of multiple copies of his letter suggests that he took considerable care to circulate it as widely as possible. Early in November he was studiously avoiding contact with James II’s devoted acolytes Thomas Cartwright, bishop of Chester, and Thomas Watson, bishop of St Davids, and a few days later, alongside Sancroft, Compton, and Thomas White, bishop of Peterborough, he refused to issue an abhorrence of the invasion of the Prince of Orange.21 He also signed the petition for a free Parliament.

During the crisis month of December 1688, when ‘Most of the persons that sat in the ecclesiastical commission are gone aside or skulk’, Sprat sat with the peers at Guildhall and helped draw up a draft statement aimed at bringing ‘the king home again with honour and safety’. He sat regularly with the provisional government, and was one of four bishops who headed what Morrice called ‘a powerful faction that labours to narrow and enervate the Prince’s designs’ and who attempted to negotiate with James on his return to London. However, he was also prepared to join a delegation of bishops who waited on William of Orange at St James’s to thank him for his intervention and to help write the prayer of thanksgiving for the deliverance of the church from popish superstition.22

Sprat was present on the first day of the first session of the Convention Parliament and attended for nearly 47 per cent of sitting days. He was named to the committees for privileges and petitions. As might be expected, his attendance was highest during the early months of the session when constitutional issues were under discussion, although even then there were a number of unexplained week-long absences and he was away for almost the whole of March. During the crucial votes of late January and early February Sprat adopted a consistently loyalist approach, voting for a regency, against declaring William and Mary to be king and queen, and against agreeing with the Commons that James had abdicated. He was named as one of the managers of the four conferences to discuss the use of the word ‘abdication’ and to draw up reasons for the Lords’ continued refusal to agree with the Commons thereon. Yet he was also responsible, together with Thomas Ken, bishop of Bath and Wells, for drawing up the form of a service of thanksgiving which was held in St Margaret’s, Westminster.23

Sprat attended the House on 19 Feb. and then absented himself. His absence may have been devoted to wrestling with his conscience over whether to accept the Revolution. If so, the bout did not last long. He returned to the House on 4 Mar., presumably for the explicit purpose of taking the oaths because he then absented himself again until 19 March. It was perhaps during these absences that he composed his two letters to Charles Sackville, 6th earl of Dorset, in which he attempted to vindicate his membership of the ecclesiastical commission and his account of the Rye House Plot. Despite any residual loyalty he may have felt for James II, he was prepared to assist at the coronation of William and Mary.24 He was again absent for much of May but he was present on 31 May to vote against reversing the judgments of perjury against Titus Oates. In July he voted to adhere to the Lords’ amendments to the same bill. Earlier that month, on 2 July, he had protested against the decision to proceed with the impeachment of Sir Adam Blair and his co-defendants. During the session he was also named to four select committees.

In September 1689 Sprat was appointed to the new ecclesiastical commission.25 He was present at the opening of the second session of the Convention Parliament but then absented himself until 2 November. A letter written during this period mentions ‘some indisposition of body and some domestic business’ but his time was probably taken up with the work of the ecclesiastical commissioners.26 He was certainly sufficiently well to cause ‘very great heats’ at one of their meetings when he opposed alterations to the marriage service proposed by Thomas Tenison, later bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of Canterbury. Tenison was not yet a bishop and Sprat made no secret of his resentment at being ‘bearded’ by an inferior. Unfortunately for Sprat, he was left in no doubt that his fellow commissioners sided with Tenison. He resigned from the commission the following month, causing considerable amusement by questioning its legality. His actions were interpreted by his enemies as a lack of political direction: Roger Morrice reported that Sprat behaved himself ‘very perversely and petulantly in all points’.27 During this parliamentary session he was named to just four select committees, although his overall attendance was much higher than before: he was present on nearly 74 per cent of sitting days. He held the proxy of Jonathan Trelawny, bishop of Exeter, from 17 Dec. until the end of the session. Thomas Osborne, marquess of Carmarthen (and later duke of Leeds) classed him as an opponent of the court on a list prepared between October 1689 and February 1690.

During the elections of 1690, Sprat as dean of Westminster did his best to advance the Tory cause in Westminster.28 For the first session of the 1690 Parliament his attendance fell back slightly to just over 62 per cent. He was named to the committees for privileges and petitions and to five other committees. His attendance recovered to 70 per cent during the second session, during which it became clear that his apparent political isolation was somewhat exaggerated for he was not only named, as would be expected, to the committees for privileges and petitions but to 20 select committees covering subjects ranging from the disposition of estates (including those of his Tory allies Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury (later 3rd earl of Clarendon), James Cecil, 4th earl of Salisbury, and Thomas Bruce, 2nd earl of Ailesbury) to the reform of abuses in the court of chancery, the prevention of false musters at sea, and the organization of the militia. On 6 Oct., however, he voted against the discharge of Salisbury and Henry Mordaunt, 2nd earl of Peterborough from their imprisonment in the Tower. On 30 Oct. he entered a protest against the passage of the bill establishing a commission of the admiralty, largely because it would have an adverse effect on the forthcoming trial of Arthur Herbert, earl of Torrington. He held Trelawny’s proxy from the beginning of the second session until 27 Oct. 1690 and Watson’s from 8 Oct. until 9 November.

During the 1691–2 session Sprat was again appointed to all three sessional committees, to 22 select committees, and to a committee to manage the conference on regulating the East India Company. He was once again entrusted with Trelawny’s proxy, which he held from 27 Oct. until his own proxy was registered on 21 Jan. 1692 in favour of Compton. He registered a dissent on 12 Jan. 1692 at the resolution to receive the divorce bill of Henry Howard, 7th duke of Norfolk. His attendance was high until 20 Jan.; he was absent the following day, when he was given leave to go into the country. He returned to the House on 16 Feb. and was again present on 17 Feb. but then absented himself for the remainder of the session. These absences meant that overall his attendance dipped to just below 45 per cent.

In May 1692 Sprat was implicated in a Jacobite plot and was questioned by the Privy Council. A report that he was actually imprisoned in the Tower of London appears to be incorrect since his name is not listed among either the commitments or the warrants for commitment.29 He was cleared in June and his accuser (Robert Young) was convicted of perjury and subornation of perjury the following spring.30 Sprat returned to Parliament for the beginning of the fourth session in November 1692. He was appointed, as usual, to the committees for privileges and petitions and to five select committees. On 31 Dec. 1692 he was one of only four bishops to vote in favour of the place bill; he entered a dissent on 3 Jan. 1693 when the bill failed. He also opposed the bills for the duke of Norfolk’s divorce and for the prevention of dangers from disaffected persons.31 He attended for 50 per cent of the sitting days until 27 Jan. 1693 and then absented himself for the remainder of the session, registering his proxy in favour of Trelawny on 17 February. He remained on good terms with Sancroft, despite his role in creating the non-juring schism, and it seems to have been at Sancroft’s instigation that during the year Sprat published one of his sermons.32

Sprat was present when Parliament reconvened on 7 Nov. 1693. He was again appointed to the committees for privileges and for the Journal and was present on just over 50 per cent of the sitting days. Although present for at least part of the morning when the triennial bill was debated on 4 Dec. 1693, he was one of a small group of members who left the House early.33 He was named to only two select committees. On 17 Feb. 1694 he voted against reversing the verdict in the case of Ralph Montagu, earl of Montagu, against John Granville, earl of Bath. On 24 Apr. he entered a protest against the incorporation of the Bank of England. He held Trelawny’s proxy from 31 Mar. 1694 until the end of the session.

Sprat appears to have been actively involved in attempts to improve relationships between the earl of Rochester and Robert Spencer, 2nd earl of Sunderland, in August 1694.34 During the final session of the 1690 Parliament his attendance was again patchy, averaging just under 40 per cent; it was particularly poor during the spring of 1695. He was, predictably, appointed to the committees for privileges and for the Journal but was named to only five other committees, two of which (for considering the nature of the procession of the queen’s funeral and for the production of Sir Paul Pindar) seem to have included everyone present in the House. In January he entered two dissents to the bill to regulate treason trials.

Despite the decline in his parliamentary attendance, Sprat was actively involved in the elections of 1695. In October, together with Compton, he canvassed at Oxford on behalf of Sir William Trumbull and may have played a role in identifying a seat for him.35 Compton was also visibly active in Westminster and it is unlikely that he was acting without Sprat’s knowledge and approval. Sprat was present at the opening of the new Parliament on 22 Nov. 1695 and was appointed to the committees for privileges and the Journal but he was named to no other committees during the session, probably because his attendance was so poor. He attended only a further three days that year; his last attendance of 1695 was on 3 Dec. and he did not return until 13 Feb. 1696. His attendance improved slightly thereafter, perhaps because of the furore over revelations of the assassination plot and plans for an Association, but his overall attendance for this session was only just over 30 per cent. He was present in the House on 27 Feb. 1696 when the overwhelming majority of members of the House signed the Association. Sprat’s refusal to do so came as no surprise to his contemporaries but it brought about renewed suspicions of his loyalty.36 Robert Young revived his accusations against Sprat and it was noted that Sprat’s nephew Richard Knipe, high bailiff of Westminster (and son of the headmaster of Westminster School), had also refused to sign the Association.37 In April these suspicions were mitigated to some extent by Sprat’s willingness to sign the repugnance at the absolution of the would-be assassins Sir William Parkyns and Sir John Friend by non-jurors at their execution.38 It is also possible that Sprat attempted to redeem himself in the eyes of the court by signing the Association roll kept at the Middlesex Sessions in order to avoid publicity about his change of mind.39

Despite his poor attendance over the session, Sprat attended the three prorogation days between the adjournment of 27 Apr. 1696 and the opening of the second session. He was absent on the first day of the session and so was not named to the sessional committees. Once again his attendance was patchy, averaging just over 50 per cent of sitting days. However, it was particular high in late November and December 1696 when the impeachment of Sir John Fenwick was under consideration. He entered two dissents during the impeachment proceedings, defied both king and archbishop by voting in Fenwick’s favour, and protested at Fenwick’s conviction. On 23 Jan. 1697 he protested against the failure to read the bill to regulate parliamentary elections. He held Trelawny’s proxy from 17 Mar. 1697 but since Sprat himself was absent for all but four of the remaining days of the session he had little opportunity to exercise it. In November 1697, during the prorogation, he underlined his loyalty to the new regime by composing an address congratulating the king on his safe return.40

Sprat was absent when the new session opened on 3 Dec. 1697 and did not arrive at the House until 23 Feb. 1698, when the divorce of Charles Gerard, 2nd earl of Macclesfield, was under discussion. It does not seem to have been the question of the divorce that attracted him that day for he missed some of the hearings before his next attendance on 28 February. He returned on 4 Mar., clearly determined to play his part in defending Charles Duncombe. On that day he entered a protest against the second reading of the bill against Duncombe and on 15 Mar. he voted for its rejection. On 1 July he entered a dissent to the second reading of the bill to settle the East India trade on the grounds that it was harmful to the East India Company. During his limited attendance (he was present on only 15 per cent of sitting days) he was named to eight committees, three of which consisted of everyone present that day, and he held the proxy of Gilbert Ironside, by now bishop of Hereford, from 4 June until the end of the session.

Sprat attended on the third day of the 1698 Parliament, 13 Dec., but his total attendance for the session was a mere 12 days. Under the circumstances it is perhaps surprising that he was named to as many as two committees. On 8 Feb. he voted against permitting the king to keep the Dutch guards and when the resolution passed he entered his protest against it. Throughout the summer of 1699 he was involved, as one of the assessors sitting with Thomas Tenison, now archbishop of Canterbury, in hearing evidence in the controversial and politically motivated case against Thomas Watson. When the verdict was announced in August, Sprat was conspicuously absent.41 According to Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, Sprat withdrew from the court because he did not accept the archbishop’s right to pronounce a sentence of deprivation.42 Others even less charitable than Burnet might reasonably conclude that this was yet another example of Sprat’s preference for comfort over conscience.

Watson’s attempt to renew his claim to privilege may have influenced Sprat to attend the opening of the new session on 16 Nov. 1699, when he was appointed to the committees for privileges and for the Journal. His next appearances in the House (on 29 Nov. and 4 and 6 Dec. 1699) were on days when business was dominated by discussions of Watson’s case and he was named to the committee to consider whether the attorney general could be heard by the House. Whether Sprat actually voted in Watson’s favour is unclear.43 Other contentious issues also attracted him to the House in the early months of 1700: the Darien scheme, the bill for continuing the East India Company as a corporation, and the duke of Norfolk’s divorce. Sprat supported the bill for the East India Company and predictably opposed the duke of Norfolk’s attempts to divorce his Tory wife. His attendance over the whole session averaged some 45 per cent of sitting days and in addition to the committee on Watson’s case he was named to three others. Shortly after the prorogation in April, Sprat’s old enemy Robert Young was hanged. His gallows speech vindicated Sprat of involvement in the plot of 1692 and may have helped to improve the bishop’s standing with the court.44 During the interval between Parliaments (and probably earlier), Sprat was clearly involved, even if only peripherally, in the negotiations for a Tory ministry and a new Parliament that centred on Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford. In September 1700 he was reported to have entertained Henry Guy and Sidney Godolphin, Baron (later earl of) Godolphin at a dinner at which all three toasted Harley’s health ‘most heartily’.45

The revival of Tory fortunes kept Sprat’s renewed interest in party politics alive. In January 1701 he followed the lead set by Francis Atterbury, the future bishop of Rochester, and Compton by summoning the lower clergy under the praemunientes clause.46 His attendance during the short-lived 1701 Parliament remained steady at just under 45 per cent. He was appointed to the committees for privileges and for the Journal and during the course of the session was appointed to 13 other committees, including the committee to enquire into the state of the fleet and four committees to consider the procedures to be adopted concerning the impeachment of the Junto peers. He also entered nine protests. Two were entered on 15 Mar. at the passage of the resolutions to reject the second and third heads of the report relating to the Treaty of Partition. On 20 Mar. he protested at the failure of the House to communicate the address on the Treaty of Partition to the Commons for their concurrence. On 11 June he protested at the failure of the House to consult the Commons before resolving that no impeached lord should be without the bar and on 14 June (on an issue also related to the impeachments) he protested at the decision to grant the Commons a second conference before the matter of the first had been determined. On 17 June he protested against the resolution to proceed with the trial of Lord Somers in Westminster Hall and, having voted to convict Somers, protested against his acquittal.

With the failure of the first 1701 Parliament, Sprat once again lost interest in attending. The second 1701 Parliament sat for 100 days; Sprat was present on just 10 of them. On 24 Feb. 1702 he protested against the passage of the bill for the better securing of his majesty’s person on the grounds that the new oaths infringed the right of peers to sit in the House, were so ambiguous as to be ‘a snare to men’s consciences’, and devalued the solemnity of oath-taking. He was named to two committees although in both cases this seems to have been a formality, as the committee nominations match the presence list. Some of his attendances can be matched to issues in which he might have taken a personal interest, such as bills promoted by fellow bishops, but for the most part it seems to have been the contentious issues that attracted his attention. He was in the House to hear debates on the bill for better securing the king’s person, for the censure of the publishers William Fuller and John Nutt, for the announcement of William III’s death and the succession of Anne, and for discussions on a union with Scotland.

During the first session of the 1702 Parliament Sprat’s attendance improved somewhat, averaging some 40 per cent. His attendance in December and early January was closely linked to his support for the occasional conformity bill. In January 1703 he voted against the Whigs in the procedural discussions over the bill for Prince George, of Denmark and duke of Cumberland and on 22 Jan. he protested against the dismission of the petition of Robert Squire and John Thompson.47 He was named to the committee to draw an address congratulating the queen on the recovery of her husband and to the committee to prepare an address to the queen on augmenting troops in the Low Countries, as well as to seven select committees on legislation and the committee to consider what further proceedings should be had in the dispute with the Commons over the commissioners’ accounts. It was probably his continuing involvement in the affairs of convocation that led to the ‘cabinet-council’ meeting with the earl of Rochester and the dean of Christ Church that was observed early on 14 Feb. by William Nicolson, of Carlisle.48

Sprat was present on just 17 days during the 1703–4 session of Parliament and was appointed to the committees for privileges and for the Journal. Not surprisingly Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland expected him to vote for the occasional conformity bill and on 14 Dec. 1703 he not only did so but also entered two protests against its failure. Further attendances in December and January may have been connected with the place bill, and the need to defend the right of the House to examine conspirators; they were also prompted by the case of Ashby v White, in which Sprat entered a dissent to the resolution to reverse the judgment.

During the 1704–5 session Sprat attended on 33 sitting days. He was present on the first day of the session, when he was named to the committees for privileges and for the Journal and to the committee to draw up an address to the crown. Thereafter the issues that appear to have attracted his attendance seem to have been Thomas Watson’s attempt to have his case reheard by writ of error, the case of Falkland v Cheney, and the question of union with Scotland. He held the proxy of Peter Mews, bishop of Winchester, from 27 Nov. 1704 until the end of the session. Although he attended on only three days in February, on 27 Feb. he was named to the committee to draw up heads of a conference with the Commons over Ashby v White.

During the first session of the 1705 Parliament Sprat attended 27 times. He was excused attendance on 12 Nov. 1705 but appeared in the House three days later when the topic of the day was the invitation to Princess Sophia and the Protestant succession. Continuing debates on the Protestant succession meant that he continued to attend the House throughout November. His only attendance the following month was on 6 Dec., when the House debated the resolution that the Church of England was in no danger. He was also in the House for debates on the Protestant succession in January and February and for the debates on the prevention of popery on 4 and 5 Mar. 1706.

Sprat’s 20 attendances in the 1706–7 session were all concentrated in the period between 7 Jan. and 1 Mar. 1707, when the major issues of the day were the security of the Church and union with Scotland. On 3 Feb. he voted in favour of including the Test Act as part of the union and entered a protest when the resolution failed. On 15 Feb. he voted in favour of postponing consideration of the first article of union.49 He did not attend the brief session in April 1707 at all.

During the first Parliament of Great Britain Sprat attended just 14 times. He was present at the opening of Parliament on 23 Oct. and again on 19 Nov. when he was named to two committees. Thereafter he attended on a number of days in December 1707 and in January and February 1708 when the main issues for discussion were the state of the fleet and war with Spain. His attendance in February was also linked to the passage of the Church statutes or cathedrals bill. Atterbury had rallied Sprat and the other Tory bishops to oppose the bill but it received the royal assent on 20 Mar. 1708.50

Sprat’s attendance followed a similar pattern during the first session of the 1708 Parliament, when he was present on just 16 occasions. His attendance on 16 Dec. may have been prompted by the disputes over the election of Scots representative peers. His attendances in January 1709 also coincided with debates over those elections and on 21 Jan. he voted in favour of the right of a Scots peer with a British title to vote in the election of Scottish representative peers. Some (but not all) of his attendances in March and April 1709 can be linked to the debates over the bill to improve the union with Scotland, which aimed to bring Scots treason law into alignment with that of England. On 25 Mar. Sprat voted against resuming the House during discussions of the bill in a committee of the whole and on 14 Apr. he voted in favour of the proposal by Charles Montagu, Baron Halifax that the Commons’ amendments to the bill be postponed. He was also interested in the general naturalization bill and voted in favour of replacing the words ‘some Protestant reformed congregation’ with ‘parochial church’ during a division in a committee of the whole.51

Sprat missed the beginning of the 1709–10 session of Parliament, attending for the first time on 25 Feb. 1710 when the main business of the day was the trial of Dr Sacheverell. He then attended virtually every day until the trial was over (20 days in all), during which time he made at least one speech (on 16 Mar. arguing that Sacheverell in speaking nonsense should not be convicted on high crimes and misdemeanours) and entered seven protests and/or dissents against various aspects of the conduct of the trial, culminating in a vote of not guilty on 20 Mar. and a further dissent on 21 Mar. 1710 condemning the decision of the House to censure Sacheverell.52

Harley’s analysis of members of the Lords in October 1710 listed Sprat as likely to support the ministry during the 1710 Parliament but Sprat’s poor attendance record meant that his support was of little practical value: he was in Parliament on just 17 occasions during the 1710–11 session. Most of his attendances were concentrated in January and February, when the state of the war in Spain and the defeat at Almanza were the major topics for debate. Not surprisingly he was listed as one of the ‘Tory’ patriots during the session. He was sufficiently disappointed by the failure of an attempt to repeal the General Naturalization Act on 5 Feb. to enter a formal protest. Other subjects that appear to have attracted his attention included Jermyn’s divorce bill, Greenshields’ case, and an appeal by the inhabitants of London against a decree in favour of Compton as bishop of London. His last attendance of the session was on 1 Mar. but that did not stop him from approaching Harley the following month to seek his assistance in a project to petition Parliament for money to repair Westminster Abbey.53

The 1711–12 session proved to be Sprat’s final Parliament. For once his reputation attracted favourable (if barbed) comment. In September 1711, in what appears to be a reference to his support for the new ministry, it was remarked that ‘It is a sure indication that his lordship thinks it is set in for fair weather.’54 He was canvassed before the opening of the session on the ‘no peace without Spain’ motion and possibly as a consequence attended the opening on 7 December. He was also present the following day, when he was named to the committee for privileges, but there is no record of his voting intentions in the abandoned division on the ‘no peace without Spain’ motion. He did not attend again until 17 Dec. when the business of the day was the bill to preserve the Protestant religion. He was also present on 18 and 20 Dec. when the bill to preserve the Protestant religion was joined by the question of the validity of the patent creating James Hamilton, duke of Hamilton [S], duke of Brandon in the British peerage. Sprat supported Hamilton’s case.

Further attendances in January and February 1712 may have been associated with the question of the peace treaty but probably also with the Scots peers and more specific issues such as the continuing litigation between Compton and the inhabitants of Hammersmith, attempts to repeal the General Naturalization Act, and the question of granting toleration for Episcopalians in Scotland: the episcopal communion (Scotland) bill. Sprat voted in favour of the episcopal communion bill as amended by the Commons on 26 February.55 On 29 Feb. he registered his proxy in favour of Compton. The proxy was vacated by his return to the House on 6 June when the queen addressed the House on the question of peace. He was present the following day when the speech was considered and attended for the last time a week later on 13 June, when the twin issues of the queen’s speech and the Lords’ right to protest were debated. The chance survival of a letter from Sprat to William Legge, earl of Dartmouth, reveals that Sprat had been reluctant to attend Parliament on that day because he celebrated 13 June ‘as a day of thanksgiving for his deliverance from the villainous plot of Robert Young’. Over and above the insight that the letter provides into Sprat’s personal life, it also suggests that his attendances at times of heightened Tory awareness were linked to the existence of an early whipping mechanism.56

In February 1713, Oxford listed Sprat as one of the members of the House to be canvassed before the forthcoming session but the bishop was probably already in his final illness; that same month Atterbury described him as ‘much decayed’ in his understanding and having ‘lost all spirit and firmness of mind’.57 Sprat died on 20 May, some three weeks after the opening of the session, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 25 May. His will, drawn up in 1711, left all his property to his widow and surviving son, who were both named as executors. It also contained so many statements designed to protect his reputation for posterity that one suspects he intended it for publication. He explained the smallness of his estate by reference to his family’s ‘generosity and liberal way of living’ and his own propensity for private charity, including some £2,000 given over the years to his mother and siblings. He insisted that his ‘poor store’ had been accumulated ‘only by means honest fair and honourable’ and that his elevation to the episcopate had come ‘without my seeking and even contrary almost to my endeavours’, and he was thankful ‘that in an age of so great corruptions, temptations and prevarications I have still kept my integrity’. His personal papers were bequeathed by his widow to Richard Knipe and after Knipe’s death to his brother Thomas Knipe, with the injunction ‘never to let any of them to be seen’. Their present whereabouts – if they survive – is unknown.


  • 1 TNA, PROB 11/534.
  • 2 CCED.
  • 3 PROB 11/534.
  • 4 CCED.
  • 5 PROB 11/609.
  • 6 Verney ms mic. M636/30, Sir R. to E. Verney, 15 Jan. 1677.
  • 7 HMC 3rd Rep. 269.
  • 8 T. Sprat, A Sermon Preached before the Artillery Company of London (1682), 5.
  • 9 Bodl. Tanner 34, f. 119; Tanner 147, f. 15.
  • 10 Tanner 31, f. 22.
  • 11 Cent. Bucks. Studs. D 135/B1/1/3.
  • 12 Add. 4274, f. 215.
  • 13 Tanner 31, f. 233; Tanner 30, f. 14.
  • 14 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iii. 108; Verney ms mic. M636/40, J. Verney to Sir R. Verney, 21 Apr. 1686.
  • 15 Tanner 30, f. 90.
  • 16 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iii. 144.
  • 17 Verney ms mic. M636/41, C. Gardiner to Sir R. Verney, 11 Aug. 1686; Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iii. 246–8; A Letter from the Bishop of Rochester (1688), 4.
  • 18 The Bishop of Rochester’s Second Letter (1689), 13.
  • 19 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iii. 345–6; iv. 31–32; HMC 7th Rep. 504; Add 34510, f. 69.
  • 20 HMC Le Fleming, 210; Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iv. 269; Longleat, Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 43, f. 126; Add 34510, ff. 131–4.
  • 21 Clarendon Corresp. ii. 200; Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iv. 330–1; Add. 28053, f. 351.
  • 22 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, iv. 330–1, 421; Kingdom without a King, 39, 55, 70; London Gazette, 13 Dec. 1688.
  • 23 E. Carpenter, Protestant Bishop, 144–5.
  • 24 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, v. 85.
  • 25 Lathbury, Hist. Convocation, 321.
  • 26 Tanner 27, f. 13; LJ, xiv. 316–18.
  • 27 Morrice, Ent’ring Bk, v. 203–4, 220, 301–2.
  • 28 HP Commons, 1690–1715, ii. 397.
  • 29 Wood, Life and Times, iii. 389–90; TNA, WO 94/7, 94/8.
  • 30 HMC Finch, v. 34–35.
  • 31 DWL, Stillingfleet trans. ms 201.38, f. 37.
  • 32 Tanner 27, f. 209; T. Sprat, A Sermon Preach’d to the Natives of the County of Dorset, Residing in and about … London and Westminster (1693).
  • 33 HMC Hastings, ii. 232–3.
  • 34 HMC Portland, iii. 552.
  • 35 HMC Downshire, i. 455–6, 561.
  • 36 HMC Lords, ii. 206–8; Add. 17677 QQ, ff. 297–9.
  • 37 HMC Downshire, i. 653, 655, 657, 695.
  • 38 State Trials, xiii. 413.
  • 39 HMC Hastings, ii. 286.
  • 40 London Gazette, 29 Nov. 1697.
  • 41 Bodl. Rawl. B 380, f. 211; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 334.
  • 42 Burnet, ii. 226–7.
  • 43 Rawl. B 380, f. 224.
  • 44 Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 636.
  • 45 HMC Portland, iii. 627.
  • 46 Carpenter, Protestant Bishop, 189.
  • 47 Nicolson, London Diaries, 166, 179, 183–5.
  • 48 Ibid. 205.
  • 49 Ibid. 394, 415.
  • 50 Nicolson, London Diaries, 432–3.
  • 51 Ibid. 474, 485–6, 489.
  • 52 State Trial of Sacheverell ed. Cowan, 202
  • 53 HMC Portland, iii. 671.
  • 54 Ibid. vii. 53.
  • 55 Bodl. Ballard 36, f. 122.
  • 56 HMC Dartmouth, i. 310.
  • 57 Atterbury, Epist. Corresp. iii. 317–18.