John Wilkins

Aubrey's Brief Lives

Obituaries Index

John Wilkins, Lord Bishop of Chester: his father was a goldsmith in Oxford. Mr Francis Potter knew him very well, and was wont to say that he was a very ingenious man and had a very mechanical head. He was much for the trying of experiments, and his head ran much upon the perpetual motion. He married a daughter of Mr John Dod (who wrote on the commandments), at whose house, in Northamptonshire, she lay in with her son John, of whom we are now to speak. He had a brother (Timothy), esquire-beadle in Oxford, and a uterine brother, Walter Pope, MD.

He had his grammar learning in Oxford (I think from Mr Sylvester). He was admitted of Magdalen Hall in Oxford. His tutor there was the learned Mr John Tombs (chorus-leader of the Anabaptists). He read to pupils here (among others, Walter CharIton, MD, was his pupil).

He has said oftentimes that the first rise, or hint of his rising, was from going accidentally a-coursing of a hare: where an ingenious gentleman, of good quality falling into discourse with him, and finding him to have a very good wit, told him that he would never get any considerable preferment by continuing in the university; and that his best way was to betake himself to some lord's or great person's house, that had good benefices to confer. Said Mr J. Wilkins, 'I am not known in the world: I know not to whom to address myself upon such a design.' The gentleman replied, 'I will recommend you myself,' and did so, to (as I think) lord Viscount Say and Sele (query), where he stayed with very good liking till the late Civil Wars, and then he was chaplain to his highness the Prince Elector Palatine of the Rhine, with whom he went (after the peace concluded in Germany was made), and was well preferred there by his highness.

After the visitation at Oxford by the parliament, he got to be Warden of Wadham College. He married the widow of Dr French, canon of Christchurch, Oxford, and sister to Oliver, [then] Lord Protector, who made him in 1659 Master of Trinity College in Cambridge, (in which place he revived learning by strict examinations at elections of fellows: he was much honoured there, and heartily loved by all:) where he continued till 1660, (the restoration of his majesty). Then he was minister of Saint Laurence Jewry church in London; and was Dean of Ripon in Yorkshire. His friend, Seth Ward, DD, being made Bishop of Exeter, he was made there dean, and in 1668 by the favour of George, Duke of Buckingham, was made Bishop of Chester; and was extremely well beloved in his diocese. In 1672 he died of the stone. He left a legacy of £400 (query) to the Royal Society, and had he been able would have given more. He was no greatly read man; but one of much and deep thinking, and of a working head; and a prudent man as well as ingenious. He was one of Seth, Lord Bishop of Salisbury's most intimate friends. He was a lusty, strong grown, well set, broad shouldered person, cheerful, and hospitable.

He was the principal reviver of experimental philosophy (in the spirit of Lord Bacon) at Oxford, where he had weekly an experimental philosophical [scientific] club, which began 1649, and was the cradle of the Royal Society. When he came to London, they met at the Bull-head tavern in Cheapside (e.g. 1658, 1659, and after), till it grew too big for a club, and so they came to Gresham College parlour.

Bishop J. Wilkins: the little picture in octavo is most like him
From John Aubrey's Brief Lives. (Edited by R Barber, Boydell Press, 1982)