Lord Herbert of Cherbury

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Sir Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648), was an English diplomat, writer and philosopher, known as "the father of English Deism".

He was born 3 March 1581/2, into a wealthy Anglo-Welsh border family, the eldest of seven sons (there were also three daughters). Among his brothers was the poet George Herbert. Educated at Oxford University, he later travelled abroad, to equip himself as a diplomat, and also saw service as a soldier.

In 1619 he was appointed ambassador to France, which ruined his finances, being recalled in 1624. Charles I first gave him an Irish peerage, then made him Baron Herbert of Cherbury. As the English Civil War developed, Herbert, though regarded as a royalist by both sides, took no active part, partly through ill-health, partly through disinclination; but in 1644, when his castle was under siege, he reached an agreement with the parliamentary forces. This alienated him from his royalist sons.

The philosophical works published in his lifetime were written in Latin, De Veritate coming out in 1642, and De Causis Errorum and De Religione Laicum in 1645.

His autobiography, The Life of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury is notable for his naive self-praise and his chivalric view of himself. After his account of how he humiliated a "French Gentleman", he added, "I proceeded in that manner because I thought my selfe obliged thereunto by the oath taken when I was made Knight of the Bath as formerly related." The Life was published after his death, as was De Religione Gentilum.[1] His poetry has been neglected for some time.

He died in 1648. John Aubrey has this story about him: "James Usher, Lord Primate of Ireland, was sent for by him, when in his death-bed, and he would have received the sacrament. He sayd indifferently of it that if there was good in anything 'twas in that or if it did no good 'twould doe no hurt. The Primate refused it, for which many blamed him. He then turned his head to the other side and died very serenely."[2]

His title as the father of English deism has been questioned, it being suggested that he was actually a liberal theologian with an interest in what would now be called comparative religion.[3] The same commentator sees his autobiography as tongue in cheek rather than naive.

  1. Shuttleworth, J M (ed). The Life of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Oxford University Press. 1976. Introduction and text
  2. Aubrey, J. Brief Lives
  3. Pailin, D A. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography