Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury

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Edward Herbert, by William Larkin, c.1609–10.

Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury (or Chirbury) KB (3 March 1583 – 20 August 1648) was an Anglo-Welsh soldier, diplomat, historian, poet and religious philosopher of the Kingdom of England.


Early life

Edward Herbert was the eldest son of Richard Herbert of Montgomery Castle (a member of a collateral branch of the family of the Earls of Pembroke) and of Magdalen, daughter of Sir Richard Newport, and brother of the poet George Herbert. He was born within England at Eyton-on-Severn near Wroxeter, Shropshire. After private tuition, he matriculated at University College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, in May 1596. On 28 February 1599, at the age of 15, he married his cousin Mary, then aged 21, ('notwithstanding the disparity of years betwixt us'[1]), who was daughter and heiress of Sir William Herbert (d. 1593). He returned to Oxford with his wife and mother, continued his studies, and learned French, Italian and Spanish, as well as music, riding and fencing. During this period, before he was 21, he started a family.

Herbert entered Parliament as knight of the shire for Montgomeryshire in 1601. On the accession of King James I he presented himself at court and was created a Knight of the Bath on 24 July 1603. From 1604 to 1611 he was Member of Parliament for Merioneth.[2] From 1605 he was magistrate and appointed sheriff in Montgomeryshire for 1605.[3]


Edward Herbert, portrait by Isaac Oliver (1560–1617).

In 1608, Edward Herbert he went to Paris, with Aurelian Townshend, enjoying the friendship and hospitality of the old Constable de Montmorency at Merlou and meeting King Henry IV; he lodged for many months with Isaac Casaubon.[4] On his return, as he wrote of himself, he was "in great esteem both in court and city, many of the greatest desiring my company." At this period he was close to both Ben Jonson and John Donne, and in Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman Herbert is probably alluded to.[5] Both Donne and Jonson honoured him in poetry.[6]

In 1610, Herbert served as a volunteer in the Low Countries under the Prince of Orange, whose intimate friend he became, and distinguished himself at the capture of Juliers from the emperor. He offered to decide the war by engaging in single combat with a champion chosen from among the enemy, but his challenge was declined. During an interval in the fighting he paid a visit to Spinola, in the Spanish camp near Wezel, and afterwards to the elector palatine at Heidelberg, subsequently travelling in Italy. At the instance of the Duke of Savoy he led an expedition of 4,000 Huguenots from Languedoc into Piedmont to help the Savoyards against Spain, but after nearly losing his life in the journey to Lyon he was imprisoned on his arrival there, and the enterprise came to nothing. Thence he returned to the Netherlands and the Prince of Orange, arriving in England in 1617.


In 1619, Herbert was made ambassador to Paris, taking in his entourage Thomas Carew.[7] A quarrel with de Luynes and a challenge sent by him to the latter occasioned his recall in 1621. After the death of de Luynes, Herbert resumed his post in February 1622.

Edward Herbert was very popular at the French court and showed considerable diplomatic ability. His chief objects were to accomplish the marriage between Charles, Prince of Wales and Henrietta Maria, and to secure the assistance of Louis XIII for Frederick V, Elector Palatine. He failed in the latter, and was dismissed in April 1624.

Herbert returned home greatly in debt and received little reward for his services beyond the Irish peerage of Castle Island on 31 May 1624 and the English barony of Cherbury, or Chirbury, on 7 May 1629.

Later life

In 1632, Herbert was appointed a member of the council of war. He attended the king at York in 1639, and in May 1642 was imprisoned by the parliament for urging the addition of the words "without cause" to the resolution that the king violated his oath by making war on parliament. He determined after this to take no further part in the struggle, retired to Montgomery Castle, and declined the king's summons, pleading ill-health.

On 5 September 1644 he surrendered the castle, by negotiation, to the Parliamentary forces led by Sir Thomas Myddelton.[8] He returned to London, submitted, and was granted a pension of £20 a week. In 1647. he paid a visit to Pierre Gassendi at Paris, and died in London the following summer, being buried in the church of St Giles's in the Fields.


Lord Herbert left two sons, Richard (c. 1600–1655), who succeeded him as 2nd Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and Edward. Richard's sons, Edward Herbert (d.1678) and Henry Herbert (d.1691), each succeeded to the title, after which it became extinct. It was revived in 1694 when Henry Herbert (1654–1709), son of Sir Henry Herbert (1595–1673), brother of the 1st Lord Herbert, was created Lord Herbert of Cherbury. Lord Herbert's cousin and namesake, Sir Edward Herbert, was also a prominent figure in the English Civil War.

De Veritate

Herbert's major work is the De Veritate, prout distinguitur a revelatione, a verisimili, a possibili, et a falso (On Truth, as It Is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False)[9] He published it on the advice of Grotius.[10]

In the De veritate, Herbert produced the first purely metaphysical treatise, written by an Englishman. Herbert's real claim to fame is as "the father of English Deism".[11] The common notions of religion are the famous five articles, which became the charter of the English deists.[12][13] Charles Blount, in particular, acted as a publicist for Herbert's idea.

It is on the index of forbidden books of the Catholic Church.

Other works

Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

The De religione gentilium[14] was a posthumous work, influenced by the De theologia gentili of Gerardus Vossius, and seen into print by Isaac Vossius. It is an early work on comparative religion, and gives, in David Hume's words, "a natural history of religion." It is also to some extent dependent on the De dis Syris of John Selden, and the Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim of Marin Mersenne.[15] By examining pagan religions Herbert finds the universality of his five great articles, and that these are clearly recognisable. The same vein is maintained in the tracts De causis errorum, an unfinished work on logical fallacies, Religio laici, and Ad sacerdotes de religione laici (1645).

The work is on index.

Herbert's first historical work was the Expedition Buckinghami ducis,[16] a defence of the Duke of Buckingham's conduct on the La Rochelle expedition of 1627. The Life and Raigne of King Henry VIII (1649) is considered good for its period, but hampered by limited sources.[17]

His poems, published in 1665 (reprinted and edited by John Churton Collins in 1881), show him in general a faithful disciple of Donne. His satires are poor, but a few of his lyrical verses show power of reflection and true inspiration, while his use of the metre afterwards employed by Tennyson in his "In Memoriam" is particularly happy and effective. His Neo-Latin poems are evidence of his scholarship. Three of these had appeared together with the De causis errorum in 1645.

To these works must be added A Dialogue between a Tutor and a Pupil,[18] which is of disputed authenticity;[19] and a treatise on the king's supremacy in the Church (manuscript in the Record Office and at the Queen's College, Oxford). His well-known autobiography, first published by Horace Walpole in 1764, a naïve and amusing narrative, is much occupied with his duels and amorous adventures, and breaks off in 1624. Missing from it are his friendships and the diplomatic side of his embassy in France, in relation to which he described only the splendour of his retinue and his social triumphs.

He was a lutenist, and Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Lute-Book survives in manuscript.[20]

Herbert of Cherbury's views of prayer

Joseph Waligore, in his article “The Piety of the English Deists"[21] has shown that Herbert of Cherbury was one of the most pious of the deists, as Herbert fervently prayed to God and believed God gave signs in answer to our prayers. Herbert was so sure God answered our prayers that he said prayer was an idea God put into every human. He said that:

every religion believes that the Deity can hear and answer prayers; and we are bound to assume a special Providence —to omit other sources of proof—from the universal testimony of the sense of divine assistance in times of distress.[22]

For Herbert, this universal testimony of God answering our prayers meant that it was a common notion or something engraved into our heart by God.

Herbert was speaking from experience. In his autobiography, Herbert said he once prayed for and received a divine sign. He had written the book De Veritate and was wondering whether he should publish it. So he got down on his knees and prayed fervently to God for a sign instructing him what to do. Even though it was a clear, sunny day with no wind, Herbert said he heard a gentle noise in the clear sky that so comforted him that he decided it was a sign from God that he should publish his book. Herbert wrote:

Being thus doubtful in my Chamber, one fair day in the Summer, my Casement being opened towards the South, the Sun shining clear and no Wind stirring, I took my book, De Veritate, in my hand, and, kneeling on my Knees, devoutly said these words: ‘O Thou Eternal God, Author of the Light which now shines upon me, and Giver of all inward Illuminations, I do beseech Thee, of Thy infinite Goodness, to pardon a greater Request than a Sinner ought to make; I am not satisfied enough whether I shall publish this Book, De Veritate; if it be for Thy glory, I beseech Thee give me some Sign from Heaven, if not, I shall suppress it.’ I had no sooner spoken these words, but a loud ‘tho yet gentle Noise came from the Heavens (for it was like nothing on Earth) which did so comfort and cheer me, that I took my Petition as granted, and that I had the Sign I demanded, whereupon also I resolved to print my Book.[23]

Strange as it may seem to people who assume deists had an inactive deity, Herbert was attacked by orthodox Protestant ministers of the eighteenth century as a religious enthusiast. One minister, John Brown, said Herbert’s claim to have received a sign from God was “enthusiastic.”[24] Another minister, John Leland, said even asking for such a sign was improper, as God does not become involved like that in people’s lives. Leland said that Herbert’s claim “passed for a high fit of enthusiasm. . . . I think it maybe justly doubted, whether an address of such a particular kind, as that made by his Lordship, was proper or regular. It does not seem to me, that we are well-founded to apply for or to expect an extraordinary sign from heaven.”[25] Clearly these two eighteenth-century Christian commentators did not see Herbert’s god as distant and uninvolved. Rather, Herbert was attacked for believing in an overly-involved deity who had an overly-intimate relationship with people.

Modern scholars of deism often have difficulty fitting Herbert’s religious views into their scheme of what deists believed. For example, Peter Gay said that Herbert – who lived in the early-seventeenth century – was atypical of the later deists because Herbert thought he had received a divine sign.[26] But Joseph Waligore, in his article on deist piety, says that instead of saying Herbert was not a deist, we should change our notions about the deists and their relationship to God through prayer.[27]

Besides believing in prayers and divine signs, Herbert of Cherbury also believed in miracles, revelation, and direct divine inspiration. Herbert was so sure God performed miracles that he thought this doctrine, and the related notion that God answered our prayers, was an idea God put into every human.[28] Herbert of Cherbury said his emphasis on natural religion did not mean revelation was superfluous. He said he thought the Bible was a surer source of consolation and support than any other book and reading it stirred the whole inner man to life.[29] Herbert of Cherbury thought that divine inspiration generally happened through the medium of spirits . . . variously called angels, demons, intelligences and geniuses.[30] He said that we could be sure we had divine inspiration if we prepared ourselves for it and it met certain conditions. To begin with, said Herbert, we must employ prayers, vows, faith and every faculty which can be used to invoke the divine. Then the breath of the Divine Spirit must be immediately felt and the recommended course of action must be good. When these conditions were met and we feel the Divine guidance in our activities, we must recognize with reverence the good will of God.[31]

Editions and translations

  • Hauptwerke (Main Works): anastatic reprint edited in three volumes by Günter Gawlick, Stuttgart / Bad Cannstatt: Frommann-Holzboog, 1966–1971.
  • 1. De veritate (Editio tertia), De causis errorum, De religione laici, Parerga. (London 1645).
  • 2. De religione gentilium errorumque apud eos causis. (Amsterdam 1663).
  • 3. A dialogue between a tutor and his pupil. (Amsterdam 1768).
  • De Veritate English translation by Meyrick H. Carré (University of Bristol, 1937); facsimile reprint: Thoemmes Continuum (1999) ISBN 1-85506-126-0.


  • The autobiography edited by Sidney Lee with correspondence (1886); biographical article in the Dictionary of National Biography by the same writer and the list of authorities there collated
  • Lord Herbert de Cherbury, by Charles de Rémusat (1874)
  • Eduard, Lord Herbert von Cherbury, by C. Guttler (a criticism of his philosophy; 1897)
  • Collections Historical and Archaeological relating to Montgomeryshire, vols. vii., xi., xx
  • Rebecca Warner's Epistolary Curiosities, i. ser.
  • Reid's works, edited by Sir William Hamilton
  • National Review, xxxv. 661 (Leslie Stephen)
  • John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding
  • Anthony Wood, Ath. Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 239
  • Gentleman's Magazine (1816), i. 201 (print of remains of his birthplace)
  • Lord Herbert's Poems, edited by J. Churton Collins (1881)
  • Aubrey's Lives of Eminent Men.
  • R. D. Bedford (1979), The Defence of Truth: Herbert of Cherbury and the Seventeenth Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • M. M. Rossi (1947), La vita, le opere, i tempi di Edoardo Herbert of Cherbury, Firenze: Sansoni, 3 voll.


  1. Autobiography
  2. Bedford, p. 2.
  3. Welsh Biography Online
  4. Bedford, p. 2.
  5. Richard Dutton (editor), Epicene, Or, The Silent Woman: By Ben Jonson (2003), p. 10.
  6. Bedford, pp. 10–11.
  7. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=81305
  8. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=37605
  9. On Truth, as it is Distinguished from Revelation, the Probable, the Possible, and the False) (Paris, 1624; London, 1633; translated into French in 1639 and into English in 1937.
  10. http://www.iep.utm.edu/h/herbert.htm
  11. http://www.covenantseminary.edu/worldwide/en/CC310/CC310_T_24.html
  12. http://www.iep.utm.edu/d/deismeng.htm
  13. http://www.sullivan-county.com/nf0/
  14. Completed 1645, published Amsterdam, 1663, translated into English by William Lewis, London, 1705.
  15. Bedford, p. 179.
  16. Published in a Latin translation in 1656 and in the original English by the Earl of Powis for the Philobiblon Society in 1860.
  17. http://historymedren.about.com/od/hentries/a/11_henryviii_4.htm
  18. 1768; a treatise on education, manuscript in the Bodleian Library.
  19. Upheld by Günter Gawlick in his 1971 facsimile edition, after this had been cast in doubt by Rossi.
  20. http://www.cs.dartmouth.edu/~wbc/julia/ch7/7a.htm
  21. Waligore, Joseph (July 2012). "The Piety of the English Deists". Intellectual History Review 22 (2): 181–197. doi:10.1080/17496977.2012.693742. Retrieved 9 July 2012
  22. Herbert, De Veritate , 292-94, as cited in Waligore p. 189.
  23. Herbert, The Life of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury (Dublin, 1771), 244–245, as cited in Waligore p. 189.
  24. John Brown, A General History of the Christian Church, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1771), 2: 278.
  25. John Leland, A View of the Principal Deistical Writers, 3rd ed., 3 vols. (1757; reprint, New York: Garland, 1978), 1:25.
  26. Peter Gay, Deism: An Anthology (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1968), 30, 53.
  27. Waligore, Joseph (July 2012). "The Piety of the English Deists". Intellectual History Review 22(2):181–197. doi:10.1080/17496977.2012.693742. Retrieved 9 July 2012
  28. Herbert, De Veritate, 292–294, as cited in Waligore p. 189.
  29. Herbert, De Veritate, 316, as cited in Waligore, p. 196.
  30. Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, trans. Meyrick H. Carre (Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1937), 308–309.
  31. Herbert of Cherbury, De Veritate, 308-9, as cited in Waligore p. 186.


External links

Peerage of Ireland
Preceded by
New Creation
Baron Herbert of Castle Island
Succeeded by
Richard Herbert
Peerage of England
Preceded by
New Creation
Baron Herbert of Chirbury
Succeeded by
Richard Herbert