The unusual life of the writer John Aubrey

The Oxford Times: The unusual life of the writer John Aubrey The unusual life of the writer John Aubrey

What an adorable old dilettante was John Aubrey (1626-1697); and how wonderful that he has managed to achieve lasting fame despite having only published one short (bad) book in his life.

He was ‘a successful failure’; born into a prosperous Wiltshire family, he had the bad luck to come up to Trinity College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner in the very year that the world as he knew it convulsed itself into civil war — with Puritans destroying not only the ideas he had grown up with, but also, physically, many of the ‘antiquities’ (churches, wall paintings, statues: what I suppose we now call ‘heritage’) that most interested him as an antiquarian.

As a boy, he had led a peaceful but lonely sort of life — poking around hill forts and the like at the end of one of the longest periods of peace England had known; suddenly, it was goodbye to all that.

He wrote: “The first brush occurred between the Earl of Northampton and Lord Brooke, near Banbury, which was the latter end of July 1642. But now Bellona thundered, and as a a clear sky is sometimes suddenly overstretched with a dismal cloud and thunder, so was this serene peace by the civil wars through the factions of those times.”

Typically, on arrival at Oxford aged 18, one of his first acts was to explore the ruins of Osney Abbey which, until the dissolution a century before, had been one of the largest monasteries in Europe. He wrote of it later: “I got Mr Hesketh, Mr Dobson’s man, to draw the ruins of Osney two or three ways before it was pulled down. Now the very foundation is digged up [sic].”

Part of that destruction was caused by the Royalists using the place as a powder storehouse which, sadly, blew up, killing a man in 1643. Trust Mr Aubrey to get someone else to do the drawing, even though he was a competent artist himself. In fact, despite being an original thinker, genius even, he was lazy and disorganised.

Thanks to the war he had to leave Oxford after a few months, called back to his ancestral home at Easton Piers, Wiltshire, for safety’s sake. But he was back in 1643. He wrote: “With much ado I got my father to let me to beloved Oxon again, then a garrison pro Rege,” that is a very different place from the one he had left. According to historian Anthony Wood, indeed, the courtiers were “very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner”.

As the war drew to its close Mr Aubrey went home again to look after his father in his final illness. When he eventually took over the family estates he earnestly asked himself what on earth to do with his life. He answered: “Truly nothing: only Umbrages.” But all the same he “began to enter into pocket books, philosophical antiquarian remarks” — which was all very well but cost money rather than earned it.

In time, he discovered that he had mismanaged his property to such an extent that he had lost it all. From then on he existed as a long-term guest in the houses of well-heeled friends (including Lord Abingdon at Boarstall). In these houses he used to get up early, as often as not with a hangover, and write portraits of contemporaries and near-contemporaries, thereby sowing the seeds of what became his famous Brief Lives.

The breakthrough in his life came when he offered his services as a biographer to Anthony Wood, then writing his Athenae Oxoniensis, commissioned by Oxford University to record all the writers and bishops educated there between 1500-1690, a project that gave Brief Lives a focus. But his approach was simultaneously scatterbrained and scientific. At Oxford he was a member of the Experimental Philosophy Club, which developed into the Royal Society (of which he became a fellow); but his notes — ultimately given to Elias Ashmole for his new museum — were totally chaotic. Only something called Miscellanies — about supernatural phenomena — was published during his life. He died suddenly while passing through his beloved Oxford and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen. Various editions of Brief Lives, based on the 426 biographies now in the Bodleian, have appeared since his death, with more still in the pipeline.

Next week I shall look at some of his Oxfordshire Brief Lives.

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