Wotton, William

, an English divine of uncommon parts and learning, was the son of Mr. Henry Wotton, rector of Wrentham, in Suffolk, a man of considerable learning also, and well skilled in the Oriental tongues. He was born at Wrentham the 13th of August, 1666, and was educated by his father. He discovered a most extraordinary genius for learning languages; and, though what is related of him upon this head may appear wonderful, yet it is so well attested that we know not how to refuse it credit. Sir Philip Skippon, who lived at Wrentham, in a letter to Mr. John Ray, Sept. Is, 1671, writes thus of him: “I shall somewhat surprise you with what I have seen in a little boy, William Wotton, five years old the last month, the son of Mr. Wotton, minister of this parish, who hath instructed his child within the last three quarters of a year in the reading the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, which he can read almost as well as English; and that tongue he could read at four years and three months old as well as most lads of twice his age. I could send you many particulars about his rendering chapters and psalms out of the three learned languages into English,” &c. Among sir Philip’s papers was found a draught of a longer letter to Mr. Ray, in which these farther particulars are added to the above: “He is not yet able to parse any language, but what he performs in turning the three learned tongues into English is done by strength of memory; so that he is ready to mistake when some words of different signification have near the same sound. His father hath taught him by no rules, but only uses the child’s memory in remembering words: some other children of his age seem to have as good a fancy and as quick apprehension.” He was admitted of Catharine Hall, Cambridge, in April 1676, some months before he was ten years old; and upon his admission Dr. John Eachard, then master of the college, gave him this remarkable testimony: Gulidmns Wottonus infra decem annos nee Ilammondo nee Grotio secundus. His progress in learning was answerable to the expectations conceived of him; and Dr. Duport, the master of Magdalen-college, and dean of Peterborough, has | described it in an elegant copy of verses; “In Gulielmum Wottanum stupendi ingenii et incomparabilis spei puerum vixdum duodecim annorum.” He then goes on to celebrate his skill in the languages, not only in the Greek and Latin, which he understood perfectly, but also in the Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldee; his skill too in arts and sciences, in geography, logic, philosophy, mathematics^ chronology.

In 1679 he took the degree of B. A. when he was but twelve years and five months old; and, the winter following, was invited to London by Dr. Gilbert Burner, then preacher at the Rolls, who introduced him to almost all the learned; and among the rest to Dr. William Llovd, bishopi of St. Asaph, who was so highly pleased with him, that he took him a an assistant in making the catalogue of his library, and carried him the summer following to St. Asaph. Upon his return, Dr. Turner, afterwards bishop of Ely^ procured him by his interest a fellowship in St. John’s colege, where he took his degree of ML A. in 1683, and iri 1691 he commenced bachelor of divinity. The same year bishop Lloyd gave him the sinecure of LlandriUo, in Denbighshire. He was afterwards made chaplain to the earl of Nottingham, then secretary of state, who in 1693 presented him to the rectory of Middleton Keynes, in Buckinghamshire. In 1694- he published “Reflections upon Ancient and modern Learning” and dedicated his book to his patron the earl of Nottingham^ To settle the bounds of all branches of literature, and all arts and sciences, as they have been extended by both ancients and moderns, and thus to make a comparison between each, was a work too vast, one should think, for any one man, even for a whole life spent in study; yet it was executed with very considerable ability by Mr. Wotton at twenty-eight years of age; and if it did involve him somewhat in the controversy between Boyle and Bentley, that was rather owing to his connections with Bentley, whose “Dissertations upon Phalaris,” &c. were printed at the end of the 2d edition of his book in 1697, than to any intermeddling of his own. Boyle himself acknowledged that “Mr. Wotton is modest and decent, speaks generally with respect of those he differs from, and with a due distrust of his own opinion. His book has a vein of learning running through it, where there is no ostentation of it.” This and much more is true of Wotton’s performance yet it must not be dissembled, | that this,as it stands in Boyle’s hook, appears to have been said rather for the sake of reflecting on Bentley than to commend Wotton. Wotton suffered, as is well known, under the satirical pen of Swift; and this induced him to write “A Defence of the Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning, in answer to the objections of sir William Temple and others;” with “Observations upon the Tale of a Tub;” reprinted with a third corrected edition of the “Reflections,” &c. in 1705, 8vo. He says that this “Tale is of a very irreligious nature, and a crude banter upon all that is esteemed as sacred among all sects and religions among men;” and his judgment of that famous piece is confirmed by that of Mr. Moyle, in the following passage: “I have read over the * Tale of a Tub.‘ There is a good deal of wild wit in it, which pleases by its extravagance and uncommonness; but I think it, upon the whole, the profanest piece of ribaldry which has appeared since the days of Rabelais, the great original of banter and ridicule.

His “Reflections” were published, as already noticed, in 1694. In 1695 he published, in the “Philosophical Transactions,” an “Abstract” of Agostino Scilla’s book concerning marine bodies which are found petrified in several places at land; and in 1697, a “Vindication” of that abstract, which was subjoined to Dr. John Arbuthnot’s “Examination of Dr. Woodward’s Account of the Deluge,” &c. In 1701, he published “The History of Rome from the death of Antoninus Pius to the death of Severus Alexander,” in 8vo. He paid great deference to the authority of medals in illustrating this history, and prefixed several tables of them to his book, taken chiefly from the collections of Angeloni, Morell, and Vailiant. This work was undertaken at the direction of bishop Burnet, and intended for the use of his lordship’s royal pupil, the duke of Gloucester, who, however, did not live to see it finished. It was therefore dedicated to the bishop, to whom Wotton had been greatly obliged in his youth, and who afterwards, in 1705, gave him a prebend in the church of Salisbury. This history was esteemed no inconsiderable performance: M. Leibnitz immediately recommended it to George II. his late majesty, then electoral prince of Hanover; and it was the first piece of Roman history which he read in our language.

In 1706 Wotton preached a visitation- sermon, at | Newport-Pagnel in Bucks, against Tindal’s bookof “The Rights of the Christian Church,” and printed it. This was the first answer that was written to that memorable performance; and it was also the first piece which Wotton published as a divine. In 1707, archbishop Tenison presented him with the degree of doctor of divinity. In 1708 he drew up a short view of Dr. Hickes’s “Thesaurus;” but the appendix and notes are Hickes’s own. In 1714 the difficulties he was under in his private fortune, for he had not a grain of ceconomy, obliged him to retire into South Wales, where, though he had much leisure, he had few books. Yet, being too active in his nature to be idle, he drew up, at the request of Browne Willis, esq v who afterwards published them, the “Memoirs of the Cathedral Churqh of St. David/’ in 1717, and of” Landaff“in 1719. Here he also wrote his” Miscellaneous discourses relating to the traditions and usages of the Scribes and Pharisees,“&c. which was printed 1718, in 2 vols. 8vo. Le Clerc tells us that” great advantage may be made by reading the writings of the Rabbins; and that the public is highly obliged to Mr. Selden, for instance, and to Dr. Lightfoot, for the assistances which they have drawn thence, and communicated to those who study the holy scripture. Those who do not read their works, which are not adapted to the capacity of every person, will be greatly obliged to Dr. Wotton for the introduction which he has given them into that kind of learning." In 1719 he published a sermon upon Mark xiii. 32, to prove the divinity of the Son of God from his omniscience.

After his return from Wales he preached a sermon in Welsh before the British Society in 1722; and was, perhaps, the only Englishman who ever attempted to preach in that language. The same year, his account of the life and writings of Mr. Thomas Stanley was published at Eysenach, at the end of Scaevola Sammartbanus’s “Elogia Gallorum.” In 1723 he printed in the “Bibliotheca Literaria” an account of the “Caernarvon Record, 7 ‘ a manuscript in the Harleian library. This manuscript is an account of several ancient Welsh tenures, and had some relation to the Welsh laws, which he was busy in translating. He undertook that laborious work at the instance of Wake, who knew that the trouble of learning a new and very difficult language would be no discouragemen t to Dr. Wotton. It was published in 1730, under this title,” Cysreithjeu Hywel Dda, ac erail; | ceu, Leges Wallicae Ecclesiasticae et Civiles Hoeli Boni, et aliorum Walliae princjpum, quas ex variis Codicibus Manuscriptis eruit, interpretatione Latina, notis et glossario illustravit Gulielmus Wottonus,“in foijo. But this way a posthumous work, for he died at Buxted, in Essex, Feb. 13,1726. He left a daughter, who was the wife of the late Mr. William Clarke, canon-residentiary of Chichester. After his death came out his” Discourse concerning the Confusion of Languages at Babel,“1730, 8vo; as did the same year his” Advice to a young Student, with a method of study. for the four first years.“He was likewise the author of five anonymous pamphlets: 1.A Letter to Eusebia,“1707. 2.” The case of the present Convocation considered,“1711. 3.” Reflections on the present posture of Affairs, 1712. 4. “Observations on the State of the Nation,1713. 5. “A Vindication of the Earl of Nottingham,1714.

What distinguished him from other men chiefly was his memory: his superiority seems to have lain in the strength pf that faculty; for, by never forgetting any thing, he became immensely learned and knowing; and, what is more, his learning (as one expresses it) was all in ready cash, which he was able to produce at sight. When he was very young he remembered the whole of- almost any discourse he had heard, and often surprised a preacher with repeating his sermon to him. This first recommended him to bishop Lloyd, to whom he repeated one of his own sermons, as Dr. Burnet had engaged that he should. But above all, he had great humanity and friendliness of temper. His time and abilities were at the service of any person who was making advances in real learning. The narrowness of a party-spirit never broke in upon any of his friendships; he was as zealous in recommending Dr. Hickes’s great work as if it had been his own-, and assisted Mr. Spinkes in his replies to Mr. Collier in the controversy about the necessity of mixing wine and water in the sacrament, in 1718 and 1719. He was a great lover of etymology; and ’Mr. Thwaites in his Saxon Grammar, takes notice of his skill and acuteness that way, which he was extremely well qualified for, by knowing most of the languages from east to west. Mr. John Chapman, chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury (in “Remarks upon the Letter to Dr. Waterland in relation to the natural account of Languages,” pag. 8, 9.) has done him the honour to | place him in a list of great names after Bochart, Walton, Vossius, Scaliger, Duret, Heinsius, Selclen, &c. all men of letters and tracers of languages. Wotton lived at a time when a man of learning would have been better preferred than he was; but it is supposed that some part of his conduct, which was very exceptionable, prevented it. 1


Gen. Dict. Nichols’s Bowyer. Swift’s Works.