HERBERT, George (1593-1633), of Trinity College, Cambridge; later of Bemerton, Wilts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Family and Education

b. 3 Apr. 1593,1 5th s. of Richard Herbert† (d.1596) of Montgomery Castle, Mont. and Magdalen, da. of Sir Richard Newport† of Eyton, Wroxeter, Salop; bro. of Sir Edward* and Sir Henry*.2 educ. privately; Westminster sch. 1605-9; Trin., Camb. 1609, BA 1613, MA 1616.3 m. 5 Mar. 1629, Jane (d.1653), da. of Charles Danvers of Baynton, Wilts., s.p.4 Ordained deacon 1626, priest 1630.5 bur. 3 Mar. 1633.6 sig. George Herbert.

Offices Held

Fell., Trin. Camb. 1614-27; praelector, rhetoric sch., Camb. univ. 1618, dep. orator 1618, orator 1619-27.7

Prebend, Leighton Ecclesia, Hunts. 1626-d.; rect., Bemerton, Wilts. 1630-d.8


Herbert received his early education at his maternal grandfather’s house at Eyton, Salop and was sent to Westminster School in 1605, whence he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge as a king’s scholar four years later. Both his brother Sir Edward and his early biographer, Izaak Walton, claimed that Herbert was a noted classicist from an early age, and indeed his BA degree was ranked second in the university for his year; thus his fellowship at Trinity seems to have been gained more by merit than birth. His studies were funded by an annuity of 40 marks bequeathed by his father, but this fell into arrears after his mother remarried the notoriously impecunious Sir John Danvers*: Herbert’s earliest surviving letter was an academic’s cri de coeur, a claim that he had to forgo meals in order to buy books. In fact, as a fellow of Trinity, Herbert was not actually dependent on his annuity for subsistence, and a few years later he could afford to ship books from Paris.9

Herbert’s annuity had only been intended to prime his career, and from Michaelmas 1619 it fell to a mere £10 a year. Impelled by this financial incentive he began lobbying to succeed Sir Francis Nethersole* as the university’s public orator, an office to which he was peculiarly suited by his linguistic skills, and which he described to Danvers as

the finest place in the university, though not the gainfullest: yet that will be about £30 per annum. But the commodiousness is beyond the revenue; for the orator writes all the university letters, makes all orations, be it to king, prince or whatever comes to the university; to requite these pains, he takes place next the doctors, is at all their assemblies and meetings ... and such like gaynesses, which will please a young man well.

Following a trial of his abilities at an hour-long oration to the University’s Convocation, Herbert was appointed deputy orator in October 1618, succeeding Nethersole three months later when the latter resigned his post to enter the service of Elizabeth of Bohemia.10

Upon his appointment, Herbert noted Nethersole’s concern that the oratorship ‘may divert me too much from divinity’, a fear which proved to be well founded: the king was a regular visitor to the university on his many hunting trips to Royston and Newmarket, and Herbert increasingly gave over his official duties to a deputy while pursuing favour at Court. James, who delighted in the company of intellectuals, was happy to encourage Herbert, informing his distant relative, lord chamberlain Pembroke, ‘that he found the orator’s learning and wisdom much above his age or wit’. Sir Robert Naunton*, Nethersole’s predecessor as orator, had quickly gone on to become secretary of state, and Walton later claimed that Herbert learned Italian, French and Spanish with an eye to this post if it should become vacant. This was not an entirely fanciful notion, as Naunton and Sir Edward Herbert, then ambassador in Paris, were heavily involved in the promotion of a French bride for Prince Charles, a scheme sponsored by Pembroke and Archbishop Abbot as an antidote to the king’s preference for a Spanish Match. Naunton was suspended from office in January 1621 for exceeding his brief in this matter, and it might have suited Pembroke to have another client available for the post if Naunton were dismissed. Nothing came of this, but the same conjunction of interests doubtless explains why Herbert was tipped to succeed William Beecher* in the less exalted post of clerk to the Privy Council about two years later.11 At Prince Charles’s return from Spain without a bride in October 1623, Herbert was sent to James at Royston to express the university’s gratitude for this deliverance. His Latin oration, which was published by the university, probably reflected Pembroke’s views in advising against a headlong rush into war with Spain.12

Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that Herbert sought election to the Parliament summoned to discuss the breach with Spain in 1624. Returned for Montgomery Boroughs on the interest of his elder brother, he did not pass any recorded comment on matters of state during the session, but was named to two committees relating to university business. One of these concerned a bill to restore the lucrative Covent Garden estate to Magdalene College, which had been pressured into granting its interest to Queen Elizabeth at a fixed annual rent of £15 (9 Mar.), while the other considered various petitions, including one from a fellow of his own college against the master, Dr. Richardson (28 April). He was also named to attend two conferences with the Lords, one about the repeal of the prerogative clause of the Welsh Act of Union (15 Apr.), and the other concerning amendments to the bill for limitation of legal actions (1 May). Returned to Parliament once again in May 1625, Herbert left no trace on its records, unless he was the ‘Mr. Herbert’ named to the committee for the alienations bill; in view of the subject matter, this is more likely to have been his lawyer relative Edward Herbert, MP for Downton, and it is debateable whether Herbert attended the session at all.13

Herbert came to a turning point in his personal life during the next few years, apparently provoked by the deaths of two of Pembroke’s allies, the dukes of Richmond and Hamilton, followed by that of the king. After this, Walton claimed, ‘he presently betook himself to a retreat from London to a friend in Kent’ to contemplate ‘whether he should return to the painted pleasures of a Court life, or betake himself to a study of divinity and enter into sacred orders’. All questions of a clerical vocation aside, alterations in factional alignments during 1624-5 left Herbert’s prospects of a Court career in tatters, as failure to support a breach with Spain in his oration of 1623 is unlikely to have recommended him to the new king, while Buckingham’s ascendancy at Court meant that Pembroke’s patronage could do no good for the foreseeable future.14

Although he turned his back on courtly preferment, Herbert delayed for some time before entering the ministry. In 1626 he was ordained deacon and installed as a prebend at Lincoln by the bishop, John Williams, but his spiritual crisis and the death of his mother in 1627 seem to have undermined his health, and he was laid low for most of the following year by ‘a sharp quotidian ague’, recuperating on the Essex estate of his brother, Sir Henry Herbert. In 1629 he moved to Wiltshire, where he married a relative of his stepfather, and in the spring of 1630 Pembroke persuaded the king to appoint him rector of Bemerton, near Salisbury. After experiencing ‘such spiritual conflicts as none can think, but only those that have endured them’, and a lengthy conversation with Bishop Laud, Herbert accepted the living; with a little dramatic licence, Walton claims that Pembroke (who died a few weeks before Herbert’s appointment) insisted that Herbert was measured for his cassock immediately and installed in the living the following day.15

Pembroke’s instinct proved to be well founded, for Herbert discovered his true vocation in tending to the needs of his flock. Much of his poetry dates from this period, and, the odd disparaging reference to ‘new doctrines’ or the emigration of true religion to the Americas notwithstanding, his writings, particularly the Country Parson, first published in 1652, became key texts of an uniquely Anglican form of pietism. He also achieved a more material fame through the reconstruction of the church which served his prebendal cure at Leighton Bromswold, Huntingdonshire, soliciting donations from Pembroke, the latter’s brother the 1st earl of Montgomery (Philip Herbert*) and the widowed duchess of Richmond, who had been raised in the parish. Herbert may never have visited his prebend, but in his absence the work was overseen by his friend Nicholas Ferrar*, who had founded a spiritual retreat a few miles away at Little Gidding.16

Herbert was buried at Bemerton on 3 Mar. 1632. His will, which concentrated upon providing for two of his wife’s nieces who come to live at Bemerton, was proved only nine days later by Arthur Woodnoth, a London Goldsmith, who was bequeathed £20 on the understanding that £15 of this would be spent on the repair of Leighton church. His widow took his writings with her when she remarried Sir Robert Cooke† of Highnam, Gloucestershire; many were said to have been lost at the destruction of Highnam in March 1643.17

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. I. Walton, Lives of John Donne etc. ed. V. Blackburn, 178.
  • 2. Ped. at end of Herbert Corresp. ed. W.J. Smith (Univ. Wales, Bd. of Celtic Studs., Hist. and Law ser. xxi).
  • 3. Walton, 180; Al. Cant.; G. Herbert, Poetical Works ed. A.B. Grosart, pp. xxii-xxiii.
  • 4. Walton, 199-200.
  • 5. Ibid. 193, 200-1.
  • 6. N and Q (ser. 1), ii. 157.
  • 7. Herbert, Poetical Works, xxii-xxv.
  • 8. Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae ed. D.M. Horn and J.M. Smith, ix. 86; Walton, 201.
  • 9. Walton, 180-1; Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury ed. J.M. Shuttleworth, 8-9; W.P. Griffith, Learning, Law and Religion, 107; C142/247/84; G. Herbert, Eng. Works ed. G.H. Palmer, i. 394-6, 397-8.
  • 10. Eng. Works, i. 399-402; Poetical Works, pp. xxiv-xxv.
  • 11. Eng. Works, i. 401; Walton, 189-90; R.E. Schreiber, Naunton, 68-84; Harl. 1581, f. 278.
  • 12. Oratio ... Principis Caroli Reditum ex Hispanijis (Camb. 1623); Eng. Works, i. 32 (citing S.R. Gardiner); T. Cogswell, Blessed Revolution, 8, 127-131.
  • 13. CJ, i. 680a, 692b, 695a, 767a; ‘Holland 1624’, ii. ff. 55-6; Kyle thesis, 477-8; Procs. 1625, p. 246.
  • 14. Walton, 192; Cogswell, 103-4; C. Russell, PEP, 217-18.
  • 15. J. Hacket, Scrinia Reserata (1693), i. 175; Fasti, ix. 86; Walton, 193, 198-201.
  • 16. Walton, 202-26; Eng. Works, i. 409-12; ii. 375; J. Maltby, Prayer Bk. and People; VCH Hunts. iii. 90; Nicholas Ferrar. Two Lives ed. J.E.B. Mayor, i. 48-52.
  • 17. N and Q (ser. 1), ii. 157; PROB 11/163, f. 204; Walton, 227-8; A. Warmington, Civil War, Interregnum and Restoration in Glos, 46.