Fenton, Geoffrey (DNB00)

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FENTON, Sir GEOFFREY (1539?–1608), translator and statesman, was son of Henry Fenton of Fenton in Nottinghamshire, and of Cecily, daughter of John Beaumont of Coleorton in Leicestershire. The details of his early life are unknown, but he must have received a very good education, obtaining a good mastery of the French and Latin languages, probably also of the Italian and Spanish. He also seems to have been connected in some way with the families of Lord Burghley and the Earl of Leicester. In 1567 he was residing in Paris, whence he dedicates to Lady Mary Sydney a collection of novels translated from Boaisteau and Belleforest's ‘Histoires Tragiques, extraictes des œuvres Italiennes de Bandel,’ and published by Fenton under the title of ‘Certaine Tragicall Discourses written oute of Frenche and Latine by Geffraie Fenton no lesse profitable than pleasaunt, and of like necessitye to al degrees that take pleasure in antiquityes or forraine reportes.’ This seems to have been his earliest work, and was a noteworthy contribution to the literature of the day. Warton styled it ‘perhaps the most capital miscellany of this kind.’ A reissue, edited by R. Langton Douglas, came out in 1898. Other translations from the French followed, viz. ‘A Discourse of the Civile Warres and late Troubles in France,’ 1570; ‘Actes of Conference in Religion, or Disputations holden at Paris betweene two Papistes of Sorbon and two godly Ministers of the Church,’ 1571; ‘Monophylo, a Philosophical Discourse and Division of Love,’ 1572; ‘A Forme of Christian Pollicie, gathered out of French,’ 1574; ‘Golden Epistles, gathered as well out of the Remaynder of Guevaraes workes as other authours, Latine, Frenche, and Italian,’ 1575, a kind of supplement to Hellowes' translation into English of the ‘Epistles of Guevara,’ already published in 1574; ‘An Epistle or Godly Admonition, sent to the Pastors of the Flemish Church in Antwerp, exhorting them to concord with other ministers, written by Antony de Carro,’ 1578. In 1579 he published his last and most monumental work in the translation from the French of Guicciardini's ‘History of the Wars of Italy.’ This was an undertaking of immense labour, and had great vogue in its time. It is probably the work alluded to by Gabriel Harvey, Spenser's friend, in one of his letters, where he says, ‘Even Guicciardine's silver Historie and Ariosto's golden Cantes growe out of request’ (Warton, loc. cit.) This work Fenton dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.

In 1580 Fenton quitted the sphere of literature for that of politics, and followed his elder brother, Edward Fenton [q. v.], a captain in Sir William Pelham's campaign in Munster, into Ireland. It is possible that he also served under Pelham, as the latter writes to Walsingham on 16 Feb. 1580–1 to recommend Fenton as secretary to the new lord deputy, Arthur, lord Grey de Wilton, and on 22 July Fenton writes from Limerick to Burghley that he has been sworn her majesty's secretary in Ireland, chiefly upon the latter's recommendation. Grey arrived in Dublin on 12 Aug., bringing in his train a man more illustrious in literature, and apparently holding a similar office to Fenton, Edmond Spenser, with whom no doubt Fenton was already acquainted, as they had friends in common, such as George Turberville, and enjoyed the same patronage. From this time to his death Fenton took an active and important share in the administration of public affairs in Ireland. In December 1580 he was sent over by the lord deputy with a message to the queen, and probably on that occasion inspired her with the confidence and trust which she subsequently placed in him. He remained in Ireland as principal secretary of state through a succession of lord deputies, and made useful reports to the queen. He was member for Carlow county in the Irish parliament in 1585–6. He does not seem to have been popular in Ireland, and under one lord deputy, Sir John Perrot [q. v.], the dissensions between the secretary and his master seem to have reached a crisis. In June 1585 Perrot sent Fenton over to England to obtain the queen's consent to his new scheme for the diversion of the revenues of St. Patrick's in Dublin to the new college, afterwards Trinity College, in that city. Fenton remained some months in attendance upon the queen, and eventually returned in March 1586, bringing with him a whole schedule of charges to be met with immediate answer by the lord deputy and those employed under him. Perrot after this seems to have lost no opportunity of annoying and harassing Fenton, and finally, on the excuse of an insignificant debt of money to himself, had Fenton arrested in public, and thrown into the common debtors' prison at Dublin. From this he was released by peremptory command of the queen. In 1589, under Sir William Fitzwilliam, Fenton was rewarded for his services by knighthood, and in 1590–1 spent a year and a half in London as commissioner in the impeachment of Sir John Perrot. On the death of Elizabeth he ran some chance of losing his place, but was eventually confirmed in it for life, though he was compelled to share it with Sir Richard Coke. Besides the office of secretary, he held other posts, such as surveyor-general. He naturally did not escape the accusation of having enriched himself inordinately at the country's expense, but he seems to have had little difficulty in dispelling this charge. He was regarded as best knowing the disposition of the Irish in all parts of the kingdom, and appears to have been an honest, straightforward servant of the queen. He was a consistent supporter of English interests in Ireland. He did not shrink from advocating the assassination of the Earl of Desmond as the best way of ending the rebellion in Munster, and as a devoted protestant probably felt no compunction at assisting to administer torture to the unfortunate Dr. Hurley. He was a spectator at Sligo of the final destruction of the Spanish Armada on the west coast of Ireland. He was of great use in defeating the insurrection of the Earl of Tyrone in Ulster, and in quelling other rebellions, and generally reducing to submission the greater part of Ireland, as his influence with the queen was sufficient to obtain the money and the troops necessary for the purpose, and so niggardly supplied. In June 1585 he married Alice, daughter of Dr. Robert Weston, formerly lord chancellor of Ireland, and widow of Dr. Hugh Brady, bishop of Meath. By her he had one son, Sir William Fenton, and one daughter, Catherine, married on 25 July 1603 to Richard Boyle [q. v.], afterwards first earl of Cork. Fenton died at Dublin on 19 Oct. 1608, and was buried in St. Patrick's in the same tomb as his father-in-law, Dr. Weston.

[Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Biographia Britannica; Lloyd's State Worthies; Calendar of State Papers (Ireland), 1580–1608; Lowndes's Bibl. Man.; Visitation of Nottinghamshire (Harleian Soc. publications, vol. iv.); Life of Hon. Robert Boyle (Works of the same, vol. i.).]

L. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.121
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
323 ii 4f.e. Fenton, Sir Geoffrey: for 1580 read 1580-1
324 i 22  after Walsingham. insert He was M.P. for co. Carlow in the Irish House of Commons 1585-6.
ii 21  for Brodie read Brady