Bonnell, James (1653–99), government official and exemplar of the pious life, was born 14 November 1653 in Genoa, Italy, only son and one of two children of Samuel Bonnell, merchant, and his wife Rebecca, daughter of Thomas Sayer of Norwich, England. Samuel's grandfather had settled in Norwich, having fled his native Flanders during the duke of Alva's persecution of protestants. Samuel, a successful merchant based at Leghorn in Italy and said to be worth £10,000 a year by 1649, lost a great part of his wealth through shipwrecks and, more especially, through his generosity to the exiled Stuarts in the 1650s. After the restoration of the monarchy he was rewarded for his services to the royal family by being made accountant-general of Ireland (December 1662) and having his nine-year old son James included in the patent. By the time Samuel died (1664), the Bonnells were living in Dublin. James was sent to a school in Trim, Co. Meath, where he was taught by Richard Tenison (qv), later bishop of Meath, who was an early influence in the development of his piety, particularly his devotion to the sacrament of communion. Aged 14, Bonnell was sent to a private philosophy school in Oxford, where he remained for two and a half years. He was deeply unhappy in an institution in which ‘were all the dangers and vices of the university, without the advantages’ (Life and character, 12), as he later explained. But things looked up when he moved to St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where his tutor was Benjamin Calamy, a conforming member of the predominantly non-conforming Calamy family and, like Tenison in Trim, a strong influence on the undergraduate Bonnell. At Cambridge he resumed his practice of frequent reception of the sacrament, began to observe fast days, and found congenially pious friends in college. He graduated BA in 1673 and MA three years later. After Cambridge he was employed as tutor to the eldest son of Ralph Freeman of Aspeden Hall in Hertfordshire, a post that provided opportunity for travel. In 1678 he accompanied his pupil to the Netherlands where they stayed for a year with the family of the diplomat Sir Leoline Jenkins, who was stationed at the congress of Nymegen. Five years later he visited Lyons and other parts of France with his by now former charge.
Bonnell returned to Ireland in 1684 to take up his position as accountant-general, which he had effectively inherited from his father and which had been ‘manag'd by others’ (Life and character, 35) since 1664. In fact the post had been reestablished and retitled as ‘comptroller and accountant-general’ and he shared it briefly with Robert Wood, a former Cromwellian administrator who died in April 1685. By 1688 Bonnell thought he had found someone suitable to replace him as comptroller and accountant-general, which would allow him, as his biographer put it, to ‘but take care of his own soul, and do good to the souls of others’ (ibid., 36); he was clearly considering ordination. But the arrangement collapsed in the political crisis of late 1688. When rumours of a likely massacre of protestants circulated in December, Bonnell contemplated fleeing Ireland, as many of his co-religionists were doing, but decided to remain in Dublin, where he served the government of James II (qv) till June 1690 and that of William III (qv) after the battle of the Boyne.
Like Bishop Anthony Dopping (qv) and other protestants who had remained in Dublin under James II, Bonnell became a harsh critic of the government's policy towards the defeated Jacobites, most especially of the generous terms agreed in the articles of Limerick (3 October 1691). The heart of his complaint was that the ‘Irish’ at the end of the war had been left in a position where their fortunes might revive, and that they might again threaten protestant security and ultimately the security of England, as they had done in the past at intervals of forty years. All of this he expressed in a letter of 3 November 1691 to Robert Harley, a rising politician at Westminster who had a whiggish and opportunistic concern for the interests of Irish protestants. The core of Bonnell's thesis was that ‘the Irish are in much better condition then [sic] we hoped they would be in the end of this war and by consequence the condition of the prot[estant]s so much worse’ (HMC, Portland MSS, 476–81). Had the Irish lost all their estates, Ireland would have been regarded as ‘a secure place and many would have flocked hither’ from England, but current policy made it more likely that the English in Ireland would leave the country. He feared that the Irish, ‘who have been a worming people and have found the blind side of the courtiers’, clearly a reference to Charles II's Whitehall, would do so again, this time through the advocacy of foreign ambassadors accredited to William III; a prescient point vindicated by events, at least up to 1697. But the analysis offered to Harley went beyond the catholic threat to look at the dangers inherent in the constitutional relationship between England and protestant Ireland. He was strongly opposed to the revival of the Irish parliament, ‘for it looks like this kingdom setting up for itself and having a different interest from England’, a forecast which events later in the decade seemed to justify. Instead of a parliament he suggested two possible solutions. The first was a parliamentary union, ‘as it was in Cromwell's time’. This would ‘take this kingdom out of the hands of the Irish‘, and remove suspicion of Ireland which would come to be seen by the English as much ‘part of themselves as Wales’. His second solution, a permanent standing committee of the English parliament with agents from Ireland in attendance, would, he admitted, be ‘a great lowering’ of the kingdom of Ireland, but again it would serve the interests and security both of England and of Irish protestants better than an Irish parliament.
With the war at an end, Bonnell again sought to be replaced as comptroller and accountant-general, and this time successfully, with George Tollet (qv) replacing him in January 1692. He did, however, later accept the secretaryship of the forfeitures commission (March 1695) and the following year he became registrar of forfeitures for the revenue commission. Freed from his administrative duties in 1693, Bonnell joined the Dublin Philosophical Society and at the same time became deeply involved in the activities of the emerging religious societies, whose members he advised and defended, even if some of their religious views might not have been compatible with his own. He was particularly associated with the Dublin societies for the reformation of manners, dedicated as they were to suppressing profaneness and vice. When he came to marry in late 1693, it was to a woman who shared his pious interests and with whom he had become friendly some years before; this was Jane Conyngham, daughter of the Williamite Col. Albert Conyngham (qv) and younger sister of Katherine Conolly (qv), who married the MP William Conolly (qv). The Bonnells had three children, two sons (who predeceased their father) and a daughter who died young. James Bonnell, who did not enjoy robust health, died of ‘a malignant fever’ on 28 April 1699.
In his sermon at Bonnell's funeral, later published as Of the intermediate state of blessed souls (1703), Bishop Edward Wetenhall (qv) of Kilmore and Ardagh remarked that ‘in the best age of the church on earth, had he lived therein, he would have passed for a saint, and a very exemplary person’. And certainly in the years following his death his virtuous life and manifest holiness were held up as shining examples to be emulated. A biography appeared in 1703, written by William Hamilton (qv) with a view to recommending him ‘as a pattern worthy our imitation, in all the duties of the Christian life’ (Life and character, ). The choice of biographer was made by Bonnell's widow Jane, who was keen that the sale price of the biography should not ‘be above the common people's purchase’ (quoted in Barnard, Irish protestant ascents and descents 1641–1770, 157). Initially published in Dublin and London as the Life and character of James Bonnell, in most subsequent editions it appeared as the Exemplary life and character . . . . Reissued on three occasions between 1704 and 1718, it enjoyed renewed interest in the nineteenth century and was reissued in at least six editions between 1807 and 1852. Based on Bonnell's prayers and meditations found among his papers and correspondence, Hamilton's life showed the intense nature of Bonnell's piety, with its emphasis on private prayer, the liturgy, weekly communion, and sabbath observance. Hamilton listed Bonnell's reading, which included the Greek fathers of the church, the sixteenth-century English theologian Richard Hooker, and Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ. Surprisingly the list also included St Francis de Sales's Introduction to the devout life, one of the most influential works in catholic counter-reformation spirituality, which Bonnell translated into English but never published. His only publication appeared posthumously, The harmony of the holy gospels digested into one history (1705), which was a ‘reformed and improved’ edition of Devotions in the antient way of offices (1668 and subsequent editions), the work of the English Roman catholic layman John Austin (d. 1669). Bonnell's letters to his cousin John Strype, the historian and biographer, are in the collections of Strype correspondence in the BL and Cambridge University Library.