Lives of Devotion: The Correspondence of Isaac Basire and Frances Corbett, 1635-1660
Paul G. Stanwood
University of British Columbia

Stanwood, Paul G.  "Lives of Devotion: The Correspondence of Isaac Basire and Frances Corbett: 1635-1660." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 1.1-19 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/stanlive.html>.

  1. Isaac Basire de Preaumont--to give his full name--is styled a "divine and traveller" by J. H. Overton in the Dictionary of National Biography. This conjunction of clerical vocation and much journeying proved a fruitful though fortuitous meeting; for Basire delighted in his priestly office, and especially in unashamedly proselytizing for the English Church, even in its most difficult time during the civil wars and interregnum. After many years of travel thoughout Europe and the Near East, he would write that "The church of England is the most apostolical and purest of all Christian churches. . . . I have surveyed most Christian churches, both western and eastern; and I dare pronounce the church of England what David said of Goliath's sword, 'There is none like it,' both for primitive doctrine, worship, discipline, and government".[1]

  2. Born in 1607, probably at Rouen (though Anthony à Wood wrongly claims Jersey), he followed his father's protestant faith. He was sent to the university at Rotterdam in 1623, and then in 1625 removed to Leyden. Some three years later, he settled in England, and in 1629 received holy orders from Thomas Morton, then bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. Bishop Morton made Basire his chaplain shortly after his ordination, and he accompanied Morton when he was translated to the see of Durham in 1632.

  3. While domestic chaplain to Bishop Morton, Basire made the acquaintance of Frances Corbett, a member of an old Shropshire family who lived at Adderley in that county. Born in 1612, she was the daughter of Peter Corbett of Edgmond and of Elizabeth (née) Pigott. Basire was married in Adderley in 1636, the same year in which by royal mandate the University of Cambridge conferred on him the degree of Bachelor of Divinity, while Bishop Morton bestowed on Basire the rectory of Egglescliffe, near Yarm, in County Durham, where the Basires were to live for the next nine or ten years. Seven children were born to them during these years, five sons and two daughters, though one son and one daughter died in infancy--leaving four sons (Isaac, Charles, John, and Peter) and a daughter (Mary), about all of whom I shall have more to say later.

  4. Subsequently, in 1643 Bishop Morton appointed Basire to the seventh prebendary stall in Durham Cathedral, and in 1644 to the archdeaconry of Northumberland with the rectory of Howick annexed. But these preferments were only nominal because of the troubled times and Basire's own deep commitment to the King's cause. After 1640, when he was made a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University, and in 1641 a chaplain extraordinary to Charles, Basire's fortunes followed that of other Royalists, for he was, as Wood remarks, "an equal sharer in afflictions with other Loyalists". Basire was in Carlisle during the siege of that city in 1645, and he was in Oxford in 1646, where he preached before the King; early in the next year he left England, returning to his place of birth in Rouen, where he hoped to claim some portion of a patrimony left to him by his father. He was not to see his wife or children again for fourteen years.

  5. Finding himself quite dispossessed of family and fortune, Basire's first aim was to look for subsistence. Some help came from an old friend, Dr. Busby, headmaster of Westminster School, some from the so-called "fifths" of his living at Egglescliffe, and some from three pupils who followed him to Rouen, two of whom were the sons of diminished aristocrats, Lambton and Ashburnham. But Basire's nobler object--much greater than financial steadiness--was to disseminate the faith in accordance with the English church. He was utterly convinced that anyone who understood the true position of Anglicanism was sure to be convinced by its rightness and want to adopt it. He thus determined to translate the church catechism into various languages and to leave it with as many persons of whatever persuasion that he met. His travels began modestly; and with his three pupils, he proceeded toward Paris, where he met Queen Henrietta Maria, who provided him with a recommendation to Sir Kenelm Digby, the English legate at Rome. Now he turned his travels toward Italy, his pupils gradually falling away as he continued into more and more exotic places. Anthony à Wood provides a good summary of Basire's rather confusing movements during these years. Wood writes that Basire was purposed "to propagate the Doctrine established in the British Church,"
  6. amongst the Greeks, Arabians, &c. as to the Island of Zante near Pelopenesus, thence to Morea, where the Metropolitan of Achaia prevailed with him to preach twice in Greek, at a meeting of some of the Bishops and Clergy. From thence, after he had travelled thorow Apulia, Naples and Sicily . . . he imbarked for Syria, where, at Aleppo he continued some months, and had frequent Conversation with the Patriarch of Antioch. From Aleppo he went to Jerusalem, and so travell'd all over Palestina. At Jerusalem he received much honor, both from the Greeks and Latins: from the last he procured an entrance into the Temple of the Sepulcher, at the rate of a Priest. Afterwards returning to Aleppo, he passed over Euphrates, and went to Mesopotamia. Thence to Aleppo again, and at length to Constantinople in 1653; in which year he designed to pass into Egypt, to survey the Churches of the Cophties [that is, Copts] there, and to confer with the Patriarch of Alexandria, as he had done with three Patriarchs besides, partly to acquire the knowledge of those Churches, and partly to publish ours, quantum fert status. Afterwards he went into Transylvania, and was entertained by Prince George Rogoczi (or Rakoczy) the second, Prince of that Country, by whom he was entrusted with the Chair in the Divinity School.[2]
  7. The divinity chair was in the university of Alba Julia, a not very secure situation in the face of a Turkish invasion in 1660. In the fierce battle of Gyalu, Basire's patron Prince Rakoczy died amidst much confusion and destruction. But now the church and monarchy of England was restored, and Basire determined to return home. Finally, by way of Hamburg he reached Hull in the summer of 1661, where his wife and children met him. The family was at last reunited. Basire returned to Durham, where John Cosin was now bishop. Cosin reinstated Basire in his former offices as rector of Egglescliffe, prebendary of Durham, and archdeacon of Northumberland. Moreover, Cosin installed Basire into Stanhope, and also made him one of his chaplains. And acting in this last position, Basire preached the splendid sermon at the funeral of Bishop Cosin on 29 April 1672, on Hebrews 11:4, "The Dead Man's Real Speech".[3]

  8. These few details about the life and times of Isaac Basire give only a glimpse of an extraordinary personality whose devotion to the Church of England remains a powerful testimony of faithfulness and belief. Shortly after Basire's return, John Evelyn wrote what many others must also have felt. In his Diary for 10 October 1661, he recorded: "In the afternoon, preached at the Abbey Dr. Basire, that great traveller, or rather French Apostle, who had been planting the Church of England in divers parts of the Levant and Asia. He showed that the Church of England was, for purity of doctrine, substance, decency, and beauty, the most perfect under Heaven; that England was the very land of Goshen".[4]

  9. But I want to focus especially on another kind of faithfulness that Basire's life reveals, one which he shared with his wife Frances. The correspondence that passed between them during the long years of their forced separation tells of domestic commitment, concern, and affection.

  10. Although Basire published very little, his life is well documented by the huge number of letters and records that found their way into the Library of the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral. The Hunter manuscripts contain much of interest, including some of the letters that passed between Isaac and Frances Basire. The surviving letters begin in 1635, when Isaac Basire writes affectionately to Frances Corbett, his future wife. We may follow Basire's travels over the next dozen years, from 1647 onwards, to France and Italy, Aleppo and the Near East, and finally Transylvania from where in a letter of 1660 he tells of his intention to return to England. There are seventeen letters of special interest, eleven from Isaac, six from Frances, in which they exchange comments of mutual affection, domestic news, and reflect on the events around them. Many letters must have been lost or destroyed, either at the time or in later years. Yet those letters that survive provide a fascinating and unique record of a relationship that endured throughout the dislocations and calamities of the mid-seventeenth century.

  11. The correspondence opens with four letters from Isaac to Frances, two written late in 1635 and two more in March and August of the following year, just before their marriage. On 5 August 1635, Isaac writes from Auckland Castle. Their intention to marry seems already clear: "I strictly keepe the Covenant I have made with you, daily to present your name to My Lord and Master Christ Jesus, and that so much the more, as it is for his Scribe, you say, you love his Servaunt: Doe so still, for Iff your affection be thus syncerely tempered, and mixed, nay perfumed, and refined, Iff I may so say, with such religious respects, and spirituall considerations, no doubt but sooner or later, one way or other, god will reward it with a comfortable successe". He concludes portentously: "Let our love be pure without lust, for this as it doth Infect and bestincke, iff I may so say, the best affections, so it will weare away with age and time, when love, true, cordiall and Christian love will outlast, will outlive even Death it selfe". He is eager for the consent of Frances's father: "Remember your tye, for so I do mine, no creature can undoe it, Iff you can obtaine his consent, in whose power you are. Touching competency of fortune, the lesse our expectation is, the greater our Joy will be, Iff it succeed: I will be carefull to serve God, and to use the meanes that may wreste my preferment: To conclude, Love, thou art sure of an honest, a faithfull, and a well-meaning man: who desires neither thee nor any thing in the world, but for the glory of his Master". In a postscript, he adds: "Love, write unto mee plainly of all occurrences, touching the hope of your Fathers inclination, or so, expect the like plainenesse from mee" (letter 21; please see Figures 1, 2, and 3 for a full facsimile of this letter).[5]

  12. Within a month, Isaac Basire writes again to Frances Corbett, reassuringly: "I feele no lacke but of an opportunity to approve my syncere intentions to you-ward: yet farre be it from mee or you to limitt god and tye him to a time: Rather strive in your Prayers with mee for an holy submission to his gracious Providence, about the Manner, Meanes, time, place, in a word, all the Circumstances of our Preferment". He commends Psalm 37 (as he will do again much later); and he ends with the postscript, "I would I durst present my humble service to your Noble Father" (22). The following March, he writes in terms that seem to conceal some external resistance to the marriage, praying for "the Edification of both our Familyes meane while to indue us both with much patience and true mortification", but otherwise giving up "our Hearts to an humble submission" to God's will (23). By August, however, Isaac is writing cheerfully and confidently as he sends several "choice" books to Frances Corbett, which include, amongst others, François de Sâles's Introduction to a Devout Life, with the advice that the book is free from "Popery", though "made by a French bishop", he himself having read it beforehand and marked passages that might be mistaken: "else all is safe". Another book is The marrow of the oracles of God, a popular devotional work by Nicholas Byfield (1579-1622); all of the books are "full off good Inspiration", and they require repeated reading (24).

  13. Isaac and Frances were married late in 1636, and evidently they were living at Egglescliffe after Bishop Morton had instituted him in the rectory there in October. Basire had no occasion to write again to Frances until he left England some ten years or so later. He next writes to her on 10 November 1647 from Paris, where he will pass the winter, and then go to Italy in the spring. He is resigned to the possibility of a long separation from Frances, for "the Affaires of England are still to much troubled for mee or honest men to fish in it and catch". Let us not murmur, he says, even if we "live and dye asunder" (57). The next extant letter is dated 5 March 1648 (old style), from Paris, his journey to Italy now imminent. He refers to several small gifts that he has sent to his wife and children: black gloves "for your owne Sweet hands", a dress for Mary, a silver-hook and clasp for Peter's hat, four rings of gold for his other sons, with one also for his wife. Basire refers to several letters that have passed between him and Frances in his next letter from Rome, dated 14 March 1649 (old style). He is troubled that he has received so little or no payment from his pupils--a subject to which he returns in subsequent letters. "Touching the state of Affaires in England", he writes, "God is very angry against the whole Nation, and I do feare a Decree, however let us prepare to meet our god: and never trust in the Arme of flesh, for all men are Scots. Your wants, and losses cannot but make mee sad, and the more, because at this Distance, it cannot be in my power or providence to helpe you much at present" (66). He writes of "the Desolate Church and bleeding Countrey", and commends here and in the next letter of 19 June, written from Padua, the reading of the book of Lamentations. "As for hopes of Peace, I am verily persuaded, No King, No Peace, and no Bishop no King" (67).

  14. Many letters must have disappeared because of the troubled times and the uncertainty of communicating over long distances--and of course, Isaac Basire seems never to have remained long in one place. In the first of her surviving letters, of 19 February 1651, Frances Basire refers to Isaac's last letter of the previous November. She writes of their daughter Mary, "at hom with me . . . a good relegas chld & serues abelie to me . . . I found her all her close & paid Mr Browne for teching her on the verginalls & shall haue a care of all the rest as much as in me lais" (69). Their son Isaac would like to join his father; John is learning "fast to red a chapter in the bibel agens Easter that he may haue breches & then he would faine see his Father as I should be If it ples God to send us a good oppertunity". Frances, who remained always in Egglescliffe, is anxious about paying the accounts, for so little money has reached her from her husband. This is a persistent theme in her other letters, as the next one of 8 February 1653 shows: "I prais god for your wallfare but I found it something heauie for me to beare your being so far from me"--now he is in Jerusalem--"& being a hole year but tow dais afore I hard from you wich is your letter 22 of July I haue & your in may to me & your frends with your tokens are mescaried as all mine to you are". She continues resignedly: "I thanke you very kindly for all your gret & constan. loue to me thoue so far of & so long as all mos seuen years, I do ashoure you mine is the sam to you / for Isaak I haue ret to my frend Busbe but haue had no anser / . . . I haue them all with me I shall God willing bring them up as wall as I can / our doter mary is very seruesabel to me when I ham not wall / I haue ben very sore troubeled with the stone in the kidney & a weknes in the bake /. . . john very much desirs to see his father for he sais he is gon so far as he thinke he knos not the way bak or else he wants a hors / I pray god send us all a happy meeting" (letter 70; please see Figures 4, 5, and 6 for a full facsimile of this letter).

  15. The letters complain primarily about the chronic pain of physical discomfort, or of material want, or of the difficulty of being in touch over so great a distance during an absence of many years. But the letters continue, with Isaac Basire now writing from Aleppo. He is much troubled by his wife's need for the money that he can scarcely provide, and also full of the news of his own travels. He writes that he has gone to Jerusalem

    to view the whole Land of Canaan, the better to understand the Scriptures, so, without Superstition, to worship my Saviour in the very Places where he did live, and dye for us miserable Sinners: And I pray god that I may retaine those Impressions of Devotion occasioned by the Sight of those Places, wherein, you may be sure, that as well your selfe, as yours, together with our chiefe frends were fervently remembred: To morrow, god willing, I am going to Antioch (two dayes Journey from hence) where the Disciples were first called Christians, as you may reade Acts xi. 26. and about a moneth hence I do purpose to leave this place, and to travell towards Constantinople, some five hundred miles by Land, for thither I am invited, and there I may better expect a good opportunity to passe throu Germany, and so approach neere unto you: These Jorneys by Land are as toylesome, as expensive, but, as contrary fleetes are now abroad, tis far more dangerous by Sea: As for my good successe remember who brought mee hither safe, and still trust in him for as safe a Returne, no way dismayed tho you heare not from mee. (71)

    Another letter followed this one, but it is missing from the collection; for Frances refers to "yours of the 27 of February 1654 . . . received on 14 May, there being nothing since the letter of 20 February 1653. Times are so bad, she says, that an old enemy threatened to stay her "fifth part" until she could prove that Isaac indeed was living.

  16. So years might pass between letters; but we know from one of Isaac's letters that he has reached Transylvania by 1653 or 1654, having achieved his marvelous journey of at least 500 miles across land. Now Frances alludes to his wish that he might send for her to come to him, a prospect that both terrifies and delights her. By September 1655, Basire has asked Frances to join him, and he has begun to arrange money for her travel through his present good fortune in being attached to the Prince of Transylvania. On 24 January 1656, Frances writes:

    I haue receued your three letters sens your safe Arriuall to the prince of Transyluania's court and the fiue and fifty pounds sterling / I and our children do dayly pray for your prince and his princess sophia and the young prince Francis / I will throue God helpe as soune as you sent to my unkle pigot the hundred pounds and that I can order my afares heare to make my self & oure thre children redy wich I intend to take with me / mary must be one that I must bring with me / she is so seruisable to mee . . . & I not knowing of any maid or companan or man as yet set to com with me / peter & charls I intend God wiling to bring with me & John to leue at Eglesclif with oure frends & Isaac with Mr Busby / I know I shall haue all thos olld detters about me when they know I ham to go but I must with the best aduis & wisdom I can get to quiet them & to peart with sum at to them that stands in the most ned / I shall haue . . . with the aduis of my best frends abut your delit to bring saf with me & shuch of my best housold stuf as is fet about June or july / I shall god willing obay you & your princes desirse in leueing my one natif contry kindred & frends in coming to you / you must neds thinke it will be some grif to me at the present but I trust in God and you wich will be abel to soplay the want of all. (letter 83; please see Figures 7, 8, and 9 for a full facsimile of this letter)

  17. But Frances Basire was not, after all, to leave Egglescliffe, for strife was soon to overwhelm Transylvania, and the Prince himself would die. Basire's final letter remarks on this "sea of sorrows"; but his grief on the one hand is counterbalanced by his joy in the restoration of Charles II, on the other. He will not remain in Transylvania any longer than he must in order to discharge his duties to the late Prince's widow and the young prince:

    My heart is soe fixed next to God upon the Old Church of England the lawfull King and you my dearest togeither with our beloved Pawnes, That nothing, but Gods owne glory, which I am bound every where to advance, what I may or Gods Providence otherwise disposing of mee (who am his clay), shall hinder mee from flying over to England as soone as I have done the last honours to my late dear Master and seene him in his grave, If God bridle the Turks who are round about us and permitt that last office. (95)

  18. Isaac Basire finally returned to England and to the wife and children he had left years before. The domestic correspondence now ceases, and it is replaced by ceaseless ecclesiastical and diocesan business. Frances Basire predeceased Isaac by only a few months; she died on 26 July 1676, and was buried in Durham Cathedral; Basire died on 12 October in the same year, and he lies in the cemetery belonging to the Cathedral, according to his own wish.

  19. Isaac Basire lived out his two principal passions, devotion to his wife and family, and devotion to the English church. Basire, who shared most of John Cosin's theological views, would have agreed with Cosin that the Church of England, of all the reformed churches, is "both for doctrine and discipline, the most eminent, and the most pure, the most agreeable to Scripture and antiquity of all others".[6]

  20. Yet Basire promoted the Church of England, indeed, above any other church, reformed or Orthodox--he seems to have taken little interest in the Church of Rome. While this effort occupied much of his strength, I have wished especially to say more about his private commitment to his domestic world, and of his wife's affectionate but also independent and brave response to it. Isaac and Frances together illustrate kinds of dedication in response to an "esteem enlivened by desire".[7] Although a challenging undertaking surrounded by the harsh demands of external warfare, theirs was surely a companionate marriage, the grand act of life.
1. I have followed the DNB in most particulars; but I am also generally indebted to the Reverend Dr. Colin Brennen who has written valuably on Isaac Basire in his Durham doctoral thesis: "The Life and Times of Isaac Basire" (1987). Earlier notices and studies of Basire are by Wood, Athenae Oxoniensis, 1:402-3, and Darnell.
2. See Wood, Fasti Oxonienses, 1:903-4.
3. "By it, he, being dead, yet speaketh". Basire's sermon was reprinted in Cosin, 1:xl-li.
4.  See Bray, 1:357.
5. All quotations from the Basire correspondence occur in Hunter MS 9, in the Durham Chapter Library. The number of the letter is cited in brackets in my text.  Illustrations are reproduced by the kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral.
6. See Cosin, "On Confirmation", in Works, 5:526.
7. The expression recalls Jean Hagstrum's splendid study, Esteem Enlivened by Desire: The Couple from Homer to Shakespeare. The experience of Isaac and Frances Basire provides an illustration of "companionate marriage", one overarching subject of Hagstrum's book. Perhaps it is also a real life instance of the separation Donne writes of in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning".
Works Cited
Bray, William, ed. Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn. 4 vols. London, 1854.
Brennen, Colin. "The Life and Times of Isaac Basire." Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Durham University, 1987.
Cosin, John. The Works of…John Cosin, 5 vols. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1843.
Darnell, W.N. The Correspondence of Isaac Basire…with a memoir of his life. London: John Murray, 1831.
Hagstrum, Jean. Esteem Enlivened by Desire: The Couple from Homer to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Wood, Anthony à. Athenae Oxonienses. Oxford, 1691.
---. Fasti Oxonienses. Oxford, 1691.

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