1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Rymer, Thomas
RYMER, THOMAS (1641–1713), English historiographer royal, was the younger son of Ralph Rymer, lord of the manor of Brafferton in Yorkshire, described by Clarendon as “possessed of a good estate,” and executed for his share in the “Presbyterian rising” of 1663. Thomas was probably born at Yafforth Hall early in 1641, and was educated at a private school kept at Danby-Wiske by Thomas Smelt, a noted Royalist, with whom Rymer was “a great favourite,” and “well known for his great critical skill in human learning, especially in poetry and history.”
He was admitted as pensionarius minor at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on April 29, 1658, but left the university without taking a degree. On May 2, 1666, he became a member of Gray’s Inn, and was called to the bar on June 16, 1673. . His first appearance in print was as translator of Cicero’s Prince (1668), from the Latin treatise (1608) drawn up for Prince Henry. He also translated Rapin’s Reflections on Aristotle’s Treatise of Poesie (1674), with a preface in defence of the classical rules for unity in the drama, and followed the principles there set forth in a tragedy in verse, licensed September 13, 1677, called Edgar, or the English Monarch, which was a failure. The printed editions of 1678, 1691 and 1693 belong to the same issue, with new title-pages. Rymer’s views on the drama were again given to the world in the shape of a printed letter to Fleetwood Shepheard, the friend of Prior, under the title of The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider’d (1678, 2nd ed. 1692). To Ovid’s Epistles Translated by Several Hands (1680), with preface by Dryden, “Penelope to Ulysses” was contributed by Rymer, who was also one of the “ hands ” who “ Englished ” the Plutarch of 1683–86. The life of Nicias fell to his share. He furnished a preface to Whitelocke’s Memorials of English Affairs (1682), and wrote in 1681 A General Draught and Prospect of the Government of Europe, reprinted in 1689 and 1714 as Of the Antiquity, Power, and Decay of Parliaments, where, ignorant of his future dignity, the critic had the misfortune to observe, “You are not to expect truth from an historiographer royal.” He contributed three pieces to the collection of Poems to the Memory of Edmund Waller (1688), afterwards reprinted in Dryden’s Miscellany Poems, and is said to have written the Latin inscription on Waller’s monument in Beaconsfield churchyard. The preface to the posthumous Historia Ecclesiastica (1688) of Thomas Hobbes is said to have been by Rymer, but the Life of Hobbes (1681) sometimes ascribed to him was written by Richard Blackburne. He produced a congratulatory poem upon the arrival of Queen Mary in 1689. His next piece of authorship was to translate the sixth elegy of the third book of Ovid’s Tristia for Dryden’s Miscellany Poems (1692, p. 148). On the death of Thomas Shadwell in 1692 Rymer received the appointment of historiographer royal, at a yearly salary of £200. Immediately afterwards appeared his much discussed Short View of Tragedy (1693), criticizing Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, which produced The Imperial Critick (1693) of Dennis, the epigram of Dryden, and the judgment of Macaulay that Rymer was “ the worst critic that ever lived.” John Dunton (Life and Letters, p. 354), however, considered him “orthodox and modest,” and Pope “one of the best critics we ever had” (Spence’s Anecdotes). Rymer contended that although Shakespeare possessed humour he had no genius for tragedy, Othello being merely “a bloody farce without salt or savour.”
Within eight months of his official appointment Rymer was directed (August 26, 1693) to carry out that great national undertaking with which his name will always be honourably connected, and of which there is reason to believe that Lords Somers and Halifax were the original promoters. The Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus (1693) of Leibnitz was taken by the editor as the model of the Foedera. The plan was to publish all records of alliances and other transactions in which England was concerned with foreign powers from 1101 to the time of publication, limiting the collection to original documents in the royal archives and the great national libraries. Unfortunately, this was not uniformly carried out, and the work contains some extracts from printed chronicles. From 1694 he corresponded with Leibnitz, by whom he, Was greatly influenced with respect to the plan and formation of the Foedera. While collecting materials, Rymer unwisely engraved a spurious charter of King Malcolm, acknowledging that Scotland was held in homage from Edward the Confessor. When this came to be known the Scottish antiquaries were extremely indignant. G. Redpath published a MS. on the independence of the Scottish crown, by Sir T. Craig, entitled Scotland’s Sovereignty Asserted (1695), and the subject was referred to by Bishop Nicolson in his Scottish Historical Library (1702). This led Rymer to address three Letters to the Bishop of Carlisle (1702–1706) explaining his action, and discussing other antiquarian matters. Sir Robert Sibbald answered the second letter (1704). The first and second letters are usually found together; the third is extremely rare. Rymer had now been for some years working with great industry, but was constantly obliged to petition the crown for money to carry on the undertaking. Up to August 1698 he had expended £1253, and had only received £500 on account.
At last, on November 20, 1704, was issued the first folio volume of the Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae et cujuscunque generis Acta Publica inter reges Angliae et alios quosvis imperatores, reges, &c., ab. A.D. 1101 ad nostra usque tempora habita aut tractata. The publication proceeded with great rapidity, and fifteen volumes were brought out by Rymer in nine years. Two hundred and fifty copies were printed; but, as nearly all of them were presented to persons of distinction, the work soon became so scarce that it was priced by booksellers at one hundred guineas. A hundred and twenty sheets of the fifteenth volume and the copy for the remainder were burnt at a fire at William Bowyer’s, the printer, on January 30, 1712–13. Rymer died shortly after the appearance of this volume, but he had prepared materials for carrying the work down to the end of the reign of James I. These were placed in the hands of Robert Sanderson, his assistant.
For the greater part of his life Rymer derived his chief subsistence from a mortgage assigned to him by his father. His miscellaneous literary work could not have been very profitable. At one time he was reduced to offer his MSS. for a new edition for sale to the earl of Oxford. About 1703 his affairs became more settled, and he afterwards regularly received his salary as historiographer, besides an additional £200 a year as editor of the Foedera. Twenty-five copies of each volume were also allotted to him. He died at Arundel Street, Strand, December 14, 1713, and was buried in the church of St Clement Danes. His will was dated July 10, 1713. Tonson issued an edition of Rochester’s Works (1714), with a short preface by the late historiographer. Another posthumous publication was in a miscellaneous collection called Curious Amusements, by M. B. (1714), which included “some translations from Greek, Latin and Italian poets, by T. Rymer.” Some of his poetical pieces were also inserted in J. Nichols’s Select Collection (1780–86, 8 vols.), and two are reproduced in A. H. Bullen’s Musa Proterva (1895).
Two more volumes of the Foedera were issued by Sanderson in 1715 and 1717, and the last three volumes (xviii., xix. and xx.) by the same editor, but upon a slightly different plan, in 1726–35. The latter volumes were published by Tonson, all the former by Churchill. Under Rymer it was carried down to 1586, and continued by Sanderson to 1654. The rarity and importance of the work induced Tonson to obtain a licence for a second edition, and George Holmes, deputy keeper of the Tower records, was appointed editor. The new edition appeared between 1727 and 1735. The last three volumes are the same in both issues. There are some corrections, enumerated in a volume, The Emendations in the New Edition of Mr Rymer’s Foedera, printed by Tonson in 1730, and on the whole the second is an improvement upon the first edition. A third edition, embodying Holmes’s collation, was commenced at the Hague in 1737 and finished in 1745. It is in smaller type than the others, and is compressed within ten folio volumes. The arrangement is rather more convenient; there is some additional matter; the index is better; the type is not so good, but it is to be preferred to either of the previous editions. When the volumes of the Foedera first appeared they were analysed by Leclerc and Rapin in the Bibliothèque choisie and Bibliothèque ancienne et moderne. Rapin’s articles were collected together and appended, under the title of Abregé historique des actes publiques de l’Angleterre, to the Hague edition. A translation, called Acta Regia, was published by Stephen Whatley, (1726–27), 4 vols. 8vo, reprinted both in 8vo and folio, the latter edition containing an analysis of the cancelled sheets, relating to the journals of the first parliament of Charles l., of the 18th volume of the Foedera.
In 1810 the Record Commissioners authorized Dr Adam Clarke to prepare a new and improved edition of the Foedera. Six parts, large folio, edited by Clarke, Caley and Holbrooke, were published between 1816 and 1830. Considerable additions were made, but the editing was performed in so unsatisfactory a manner that the publication was suspended in the middle of printing a seventh part. The latter portion, bringing the work down to 1383, was ultimately issued in 1869. A general introduction to the Foedera was issued by the Record Commission in 1817, 4to.
The wide learning and untiring labours of Rymer have received the warmest praise from historians. His industry was raised by Hearne (Collections, ii. 296). Sir T. D. Hardy styles the Foedera “a work of which this nation has every reason to be proud, for with all its blemishes—and what work is faultless?—it has no rival in its class” (Syllabus, vol. ii. xxxvi.), and Mr J. B. Mullinger calls it “a collection of the highest value and authority” (Gardiner and Mullinger’s Introduction to English History, p. 224).
The best account of Rymer is to be found in the prefaces to Sir T. D. Hardy’s Syllabus (1869–85, 3 vols. 8vo). There is an unpublished life by Des Maizeaux (Brit. Mus. Add. MS. No. 4223), and a few memoranda in Bishop Kennet’s collections (Lansd. MS. No. 987). See also Dict. of Nat. Biogr. vol. 1. In Caulfield’s Portraits, &c. (1819), i. 50, may be seen an engraving of Rymer, with a description of a satirical print of him as “a garreteer poet.” Rymer’s two critical works on the drama are discussed by Sir T. N. Talfourd in the Retrospective Review (1820), vol. i. pp. 1–15.
Sir T. D. Hardy’s Syllabus gives in English a condensed notice of each instrument in the several editions of the Foedera, arranged in chronological order. The third volume contains a complete index of names and places, with a catalogue of the volumes of transcripts collected for the Record edition of the Foedera. In 1869 the Record Office printed, for private distribution, Appendices A to E “to a report on the Foedera intended to have been submitted by C. Purton Cooper to the late Commissioners of Public Records,” 3 vols. 8vo (including accounts of MSS. in foreign archives relating to Great Britain, with facsimiles). In the British Museum is preserved (Add. MS. 24699) a folio volume of reports and papers relating to the Record edition. Rymer left extensive materials for a new edition of the Foedera, bound in 59 vols. folio, and embracing the period from 1115 to 1698. This was the collection offered to the earl of Oxford. It was purchased by the Treasury for £215 from a Mrs Anna Parnell, to whom Rymer left all his property, and is now in the British Museum (Add. MSS. Nos. 4573 to 4630, and 18911). A catalogue and index may be consulted in the 17th volume of Tonson’s edition of the Foedera. The Public Record Office possesses a MS. volume, compiled by Robert Lemon about 1800, containing instruments in the Patent Rolls omitted by Rymer. In the same place may be seen a volume of reports, orders, &c., on the Foedera, 1808–11, and the transcripts collected for the new and unfinished edition. (H. R. T.)
- See Hickes, Memoirs of John Kettlewell (1718), pp. 10–14.
- “The corruption of a poet is the generation of a critic ” (Ded. of the Third Miscellany, in Works (1821), xii. p. 49), which is much more pointed than Beaconsfield’s reference to critics as “men who have failed in literature and art” (Lothair, chap. xxxv.) or Balzac’s sly hit at Mérimée in similar terms. The poet’s remarks on the Tragedies of the Last Age have been reprinted in his Works (1821), xv. pp. 383–396, and in Johnson’s Life of Dryden. See also Dryden’s Works, i. 377, vi. 251, xi. 60, xiii. 20. “I never came across a worse critic than Thomas Rymer,” says Prof. George Saintsbury, who discusses his theories at length in History of Criticism (1902), pp. 191–397. See also A. Hofherr, T. Rymers dramatische Kritik (1008).