John Aubrey: chronicler of the 17th century

John Aubrey chronicled one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Ruth Scurr reveals what his writings tell us about episodes such as the Civil War, Great Plague and Restoration, and the remarkable characters that shaped them...

A portrait of the writer and antiquarian John Aubrey

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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He was a pioneering antiquarian, a fellow of the Royal Society and witnessed the Civil War, the Restoration and the Great Fire of London. But above all John Aubrey was a writer at a time print culture was blossoming. He investigated the past, he recorded the world in which he lived, and in his acclaimed Brief Lives wrote biographies of eminent people that he knew. The result is a unique record of his time.

Aubrey, born a gentleman in Wiltshire on 12 March 1626, lived through key events of the 17th century. The Civil War began while he was a student at Oxford and he was 22 when Charles I was executed in 1649. He saw Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power as lord protector of the Commonwealth, experienced the restoration of Charles II and witnessed the Glorious Revolution that brought William of Orange to the throne.

From an early age Aubrey was drawn to antiquities. As a child he loved the stories of older people, whom he saw as “living histories”, and he was pained to see old manuscripts used to cover schoolbooks. Later he took Charles II to see the megaliths at Avebury and campaigned to stop locals using the stones for building. He worked out that Stonehenge was neither Roman nor Danish – as was then thought – and he offered as a ‘probability’ his theory that Druids erected it. It is now known to pre-date the Druids by thousands of years, but in his time he was closer to the truth than anyone else.

Aubrey became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1663. He participated in the search for scientific knowledge alongside such luminaries as Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, and was conscious of living through a revolution in print culture, bookselling and journalism. Most books then were sold in London at booksellers’ shops or stalls clustered around St Paul’s churchyard, and so the Great Fire of London of 1666 – which Aubrey chronicled – was a catastrophe for the booming book trade.

Aubrey undertook surveys of Wiltshire and Surrey. He collected notes on architecture, handwriting, clothing, old place names and folklore. Most importantly of all, he collected notes on his contemporaries and deposited his Brief Lives manuscripts in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford before he died in 1697. Much of what we know of the lives of the most eminent men of the 17th century – philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, doctors, astrologers, soldiers, sailors, lawyers, dignitaries of the state and the Church of England – we owe to Aubrey. As the following examples prove, through him we see the 17th century vividly and intimately…


John Aubrey reports on…

Oxford in the civil war

John Aubrey was in Oxford in 1643, when Charles I, after the battle of Edgehill (the first pitched battle of the Civil War) entered the city “like Apollo” and took up residence in Christ Church College. Queen Henrietta Maria moved into Merton College, and a special path was laid through the grounds of Corpus Christi College for them to visit each other. Crammed full of court followers, soldiers and horses, Oxford was soon disease-ridden, and Aubrey saw people hungry and dying in the streets. He caught smallpox at this time, but recovered.

Dr William Harvey

Harvey was the king’s physician and was one of the court followers who came to Oxford with Charles I. Aubrey records that Harvey used to visit a fellow scientist, Ralph Bathurst, in Trinity College to conduct experiments on hens’ eggs. Harvey was hoping to understand how chicks were generated.

Aubrey says that after De Motu Cordis, Harvey’s book on the circulation of the blood, came out in 1628, his medical practice declined mightily, since “the vulgar believed that he was crack-brained” and all the physicians were against him and envied him.

Thomas Hobbes

Aubrey first met philosopher Hobbes in 1634 when he was eight – Hobbes had returned to Malmesbury, where he was born, to visit his old school teacher, who was then teaching Aubrey. Hobbes fled to France before the Civil War – fearing he might be called to account for his argument that sovereignty must be absolute.

Aubrey records that when the bookseller Mr Crooke at the Green Dragon in St Paul’s churchyard printed Hobbes’s Leviathan in 1651, “it flew forth, passionately attacking those who failed to see that the monarch – not the parliament under him – was the absolute representative of his people”.

The death of Oliver Cromwell

Cromwell died of quartan ague on 3 September 1658. Aubrey noted that a short while before, Cromwell was “troubled” by a whale that came into the river Thames and was killed at Greenwich.

Aubrey recorded that there is a maxim of astrology that a person who has a satellitium, or grouping of several planets, in his ascendant becomes more eminent in his life than other people. He noted that Oliver Cromwell had this, and so did Hobbes.

Leading republicans

Aubrey was ‘an auditor’, or listener, at James Harrington’s Rota Club, a coffee club that met in the Turk’s Head, New Palace Yard. The meetings were a forum for republican views – Aubrey said the discourses were “the most ingenious and smart that ever I heard, or expect to hear”.

In December 1661, Harrington was arrested, and held in the Tower of London, although later released.

The execution of Charles I

In June 1647, Cromwell’s New Model Army took Charles I prisoner. Aubrey believed his mother had seen a portent of this news when she observed the sun caught between two rainbows in the sky. Aubrey’s kinsman Sir John Danvers served on the committee that tried the king and was one of those who signed the death warrant.

Aubrey records that James Harrington and Thomas Herbert, who were appointed to the King’s Bedchamber by parliament, were with Charles at his execution and that, before he died, the king gave them watches.

John Milton

The republican polemicist Milton was, recorded Aubrey, a man, “of middling stature, scarcely as tall as I am”. He says that when Milton’s The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth was printed in 1660, the people had already turned strongly against republicanism.

Under the Restoration, Milton was arrested and his books were burned.

The Great Plague

In June 1665 the Royal Society suspended its weekly Wednesday meetings because so many of its members had left London fearful of the plague. Aubrey commented that: “In Mr Camden’s Britannia there is a remarkable astrological observation, namely that, when Saturn is in Capricornus, a great plague is a certainty in London. Mr Camden, who died in 1623, observed this in his own time, as had others before him. This year, 1665, Saturn is so positioned, as it was during the London plague of 1625.”

Aubrey combined his belief in astrology with an interest in science. He noted that: “It is said that the party who is first infected in a family with smallpox has the disease most mildly. Those that are infected by that person have it more malignly by degrees, and so the more who are infected, the more pestilent the disease becomes, until at last it is a plague.”

The Fire of London

The Great Fire of 1666 made thousands homeless, but boosted the study of antiquities. Aubrey records that he “visited the apothecary and collector John Conyers, who has premises in Shoe Lane. After the Great Conflagration he collected a world of antique curiosities during the excavations of the ruins of London. There are many Roman antiquities in his collection.” He also noted that, since the fire, many of the inscriptions in the city’s churches were not legible any more. A year after the fire he found that “all the ruins in London are overgrown with herbs, especially one with a yellow flower. On the south side of St Paul’s church it grew as thick as could be, even on the very top of the tower. The herbalists call it Ericolevis Neapolitana, small bank cresses of Naples.”

Charles II’s restoration

Aubrey wrote of the joy with which the people greeted Charles II’s restoration in 1660: “As the morning grows lighter and lighter and more glorious until it is perfect day, so now does the joy of the people.

“Maypoles, which were banned in hypocritical times, have been set up again at crossroads. At the Strand… the tallest maypole ever seen was erected with help from seamen.”

The Popish Plot

On 20 June 1679 the Jesuit William Barrow (known as Father Harcourt) and four others accused of the ‘Popish Plot’ were executed for conspiring to kill Charles II and subvert the Protestant religion. Aubrey recorded the story that when Father Harcourt’s entrails were tossed into the brazier (a container for burning coals) by the hangman, “a butcher’s boy resolved to have a piece of his kidney, which was broiling in the fire, so burnt his fingers snatching it from the flames”. After the plot, severe penal laws were introduced against Roman Catholics who would not receive the Sacrament according to the Church of England in their parish churches.

Monmouth’s rebellion

Charles II died on 6 February 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James II (and VII). On 11 June 1685, Aubrey was visiting a friend at Chedzoy, Bridgewater, on the night that the Duke of Monmouth, (Charles II’s Protestant bastard son), landed at Lyme Regis to begin his rebellion. Monmouth’s soldiers broke into the house Aubrey was staying in and entered his chamber as he lay in bed. They took away horses and arms.

The Duke of Monmouth was proclaimed king at Taunton but his plan to capture Bristol was thwarted. He was captured on Shag Heath, and executed on 15 July 1685.

The Glorious Revolution

In November 1688, William Prince of Orange landed at Torbay. A few weeks later, James II fled England. In London, Aubrey recorded that the rabble “demolished popish chapels and the houses of several popish lords, including Wild House, the residence of the Spanish ambassador”. Aubrey was afraid the unrest would spread to Oxford and his papers would be destroyed. Fortunately this did not happen. The papers were deposited in the Ashmolean Museum before he died and transferred to the Bodleian Library, where they are still.

The majesty of Avebury

Aubrey thought that: “Avebury excels Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church.” He first came across it when hunting in 1648. He took Charles II to see the stones in 1663 and the king issued a Royal Command that Stonehenge and Avebury be investigated.

Aubrey says that as they were leaving Avebury, the king cast his eye on Silbury Hill, about a mile away, and asked to see it. Aubrey climbed to the top with him and showed the king his kingdom from a new prospect.

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Dr Ruth Scurr is a historian at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007).