John Toland, the Irish-born philosopher whose writings had an important influence on the early Enlightenment period of European history, was born on this day (30 November) in 1670. He was also a contemporary of Sophia of Hanover but, the two had much more in common than that. In fact, despite their vastly different backgrounds, their lives intertwined in more ways than one, as recounted in the following article from 2010, that is re-published from the official website of J.N. Duggan, author of biographies of both Sophia and Toland.
The Heretic and the Heiress
|John Toland (1670-1722),
via Wikimedia Commons
Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714) was daughter of Frederick and Elisabeth of the Palatinate, known as the Winter King and Queen of Bohemia. Irish readers may be interested to know that she was a 20x great grand-daughter of Brian Boru and counted Strongbow and Aoife among her ancestors.
She is best remembered, in the English-speaking world, as the connection between the Houses of Stuart and Hanover but, in the opinion of her biographer, she deserves to be remembered, in her own right, as a gifted writer and chronicler of her times (1630-1714).
She has left us an enormous legacy of writings in the form of her memoirs, (which she wrote at the age of 50), and the many letters which she wrote to her family and friends over the course of her long and eventful life. Her writings are remarkable both for the light that they throw on the politics and personalities of the 17th Century – she was related by blood or marriage to all the great families of Europe – but also, for the insiders view that she gives us of life in the princely courts of Europe.Because of her privileged position and ringside seat at the cockpit of European politics, she was able to report to Leibniz on 4 November 1688:
The Prince of Orange left last Saturday with 50 vessels. He had no manifesto except a memoir that the English Protestants sent him listing all their grievances against their King and the reasons that made them doubt that the Prince of Wales is the Queen’s child. However, the King of England [James II] has done me the honour of writing to me in his own hand on this subject, where he says that he would have to be the wickedest man on earth to do such a thing, but it seems that those who believe in such an imposture judge him by their own standards. H.M. writes to me also that he had not been able to believe for a long time that his son-in-law and nephew would be willing to invade his country and that was why he had delayed so long in making preparations, but that if the wind remained contrary for another few days he would be in a state to receive him. Therefore we are all impatient to learn how matters went in England. On all the Prince of Orange’s banners there is 'For Religion and Liberty'.J.N. Duggan is the author of Sophia of Hanover: from Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain 1630-1714, recently published by Peter Owen Publishers of London. The circumstances in which her book on Sophia of Hanover was completed, led directly to her second book, John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic. The author explains that she had never heard of John Toland (1670-1722) until coming across his name while researching for her biography of Sophia:
Searching through other people’s bibliographies, I realised that he was the recognised source of information on the Courts of Hanover and Berlin in the first decade of the Eighteenth Century, and Chambers Biographical Dictionary informed me that he was an Irishman.In fact, John Toland was born and raised on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co. Donegal, in 1670. He was a prolific writer on important political and religious issues of the day. He was the first person to be called a freethinker (by Bishop Berkeley); a radical republican who challenged the divine right of kings; the first to advocate full citizenship and equal rights for Jewish people in Great Britain and Ireland, among other notable achievements.
Toland left Ireland soon after his first book, Christianity Not Mysterious, was publicly burned in Dublin, having been denounced in both the Irish and English parliaments. He moved to London, where he resided till his death in 1722 but, was also a frequent visitor to the continent. At the behest of some leading Whig lords, he wrote a book (Anglia Libera) in support of Sophia of Hanover's claim to the throne. He was able to present her with a copy in person, when he travelled with Lord Macclesfield's delegation that delivered the Act of Settlement to her.
That Toland and Sophia would take an instant liking to each other is not surprising, according to the author of these two volumes. It was noted that that during daily walks, Sophia and the Irishman would distance themselves from the attendant courtiers so that they could talk in private.
They were both very forward-looking but also, very practical people. He loved an audience and she loved to be entertained. Throughout her life, Sophia kept in touch with the thinking of the foremost philosophers of her day. Gottfried Leibniz was not only librarian to the court of Hanover but, he was Sophia’s best friend and confidante. The two of them, together with the Catholic bishop of Neustadt, Christof Rojas de Spinola, attempted to reunite the Catholic and Protestant churches.
Toland, for his part, was in turn a member of each of the major religious sects – Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian – but, he abandoned them all and was denounced by each as a dangerous heretic. Outside of academic circles, he is barely known in his native Ireland but, where he is remembered, he is celebrated for the important role that he played in laying the groundwork for the 18th century Enlightenment.
- Sophia of Hanover: from Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain, 1630-1714 is published by Peter Owen Publishers.
- John Toland: Ireland's Forgotten Philosopher, Scholar ... and Heretic is published by The Manuscript Publisher.