Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferrers, George

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FERRERS, GEORGE (1500?–1579), poet and politician, was son of Thomas Ferrers of St. Albans, Hertfordshire, where he was born at the beginning of the sixteenth century. He took the degree of bachelor of canon law at Cambridge in 1531, and is said without authority to have studied at Oxford. In 1534 he published an English translation of the Magna Charta and of other important statutes. He became a member of Lincoln's Inn, and his oratory gained him a high reputation at the bar (Leland). Thomas Cromwell favourably noticed him, and obtained for him an office at court. In 1535 he was granted by the crown the manor of Flamstead, Hertfordshire, and in 1542 was elected M.P. for Plymouth. In March of the same year he was arrested on his way to the House of Commons by one White, and sent to the Compter in Bread Street. White had lent a man named Weldon of Salisbury two hundred marks, and Ferrers had become surety for its repayment. When the news of Ferrers's arrest reached the commons, they directed the sergeant-at-arms to demand his release. The sheriffs of London and their officers declined to accede to the sergeant's request. The commons laid the matter before the lords and the judges. The former offered, through the lord chancellor, to issue a writ of privilege for Ferrers's discharge, but the commons refused the offer on the ground that they had adequate authority to deal with the case. Finally, Ferrers was released, and the sheriffs of London, with their officers and White, were sent to the Tower on the charge of committing a breach of the privileges of parliament (28 March). They were released two days later, after making submission and paying 20l. costs (Wriothesley, Chron. i. 135). The king commended the action of the commons, but added, as if to check their confidence, that Ferrers held the office of page of his chamber, and was on that ground privileged from arrest. The story, which is related at length by Holinshed, is quoted as a precedent for parliamentary privilege by writers on constitutional history (Holinshed, Chron. pp. 955–6; Hatsell, Precedents, i. 53; Hallam, Constit. Hist. i. 261–89). Ferrers was re-elected M.P. for Plymouth early in 1545, and for a third time in 1553. In 1547 he negotiated for the purchase of the site and demesnes of the priory of Markgate, Bedfordshire, of the yearly value of 21l. 4s. 8d., with other property of the priory of the yearly value of 6l. 8s. 11½d. The king allowed an abatement of 5l. per annum when the amount of the purchase-money was determined, in consideration of Ferrers's good service. The grant was formally completed in 1549.

Ferrers is said to have served in the wars against Scotland and France. He most probably attended Henry VIII in some civil capacity in his military expeditions. Henry marked his attachment for him by leaving him one hundred marks by will. ‘As a gentleman of my lord protector's, and one of the commissioners of carriages in the army,’ he was in Scotland early in Edward VI's reign with the Duke of Somerset, and the contemporary historian of the expedition charges him with cruelly smothering some Scots who were hiding in a cave near Leith (Patten, Expedicion into Scotlande, 1548, p. 44). The original manuscript of another contemporary account of the war by Le Sieur Berteville (first printed by the Bannatyne Club in 1825) was presented by the author to Edward VI, and by the king to Ferrers. The manuscript, which is extant in Cottonian Library, Cleop. A. xi., is headed ‘Liber Georgii fferrers ex dono Regis Edouardi.’

At Christmas 1551 Ferrers was directed to prepare a series of pageants and pastimes on a very gorgeous scale to distract the young king, who was reported to be sorrowing over the execution of his uncle Somerset (GRAFTON). Instead of the ordinary title of lord of misrule borne by the director of the court festivities, Ferrers was given the superior designation of ‘master of the king's pastimes.’ The performances took place at Greenwich. Sir Thomas Cawarden, master of the revels, was directed to supply Ferrers with large sums of money and much rich apparel. A train of officers and servants was enrolled in his service. Among his eight councillors were Sir Robert Stafford and Sir Thomas Windsor. His ‘fool attendant’ was John Smyth, a player of the king's household. A masque entitled ‘The Triumph of Venus and Mars’ was devised by him, together with masques of apes, of the Greek worthies, and of ‘medyoxes … double-visaged, th' one syde lyke a man, th' other lyke death.’ For twelve days such devices were produced at frequent intervals, and on 18 March the Duke of Northumberland gave Ferrers 50l. with his own hands. While holding his office at court he was entertained with much solemnity by the lord mayor. Ferrers was reinstated in office at Christmas 1552, and William Baldwin [q. v.] assisted him in his preparations (see Baldwin, Beware the Cat, 1561). John Smyth was again his fool and ‘heir-apparent,’ and among his other ‘sons’ was one Elderton, perhaps William Elderton [q. v.] Mr. Windham was his admiral. Sir George Howard was the author of ‘The Triumph of Cupid,’ a masque, produced by Ferrers. In a letter to Cawarden, describing the requirements of his office, Ferrers wrote that he stood in need of ‘a divine, a philosopher, an astronomer, a poet, a phisician, a potecarie, a master of requests, a civilian, a disard, a clown, two gentlemen ushers, besides juglers, tumblers, fools, friars, and such other’ (Loseley MSS. 31–5). Ferrers's extant letters to Cawarden show that he was busily engaged in preparing masques till February, when the first signs of the king's fatal illness put an end to the festivities. At the following Christmas of 1553 Queen Mary retained the services of Ferrers as lord of misrule, and rich raiment was provided for him and his attendants. There can be little doubt that Ferrers himself wrote masques for these entertainments, but none of his own contributions have survived.

Although a protestant, Ferrers was ready to take service under Queen Mary. He assisted in repressing Wyatt's rebellion, and was ordered a reward of 100l. (cf. Underhill, Autobiography in Narratives of the Reformation, pp. 163–6; Chron. of Queen Jane, p. 187). He represented Brackley in the parliaments of 1554 and 1555, and was once fined for absenting himself from the house without leave. Under Elizabeth Ferrers took little open part in politics. He served the office of escheator for the counties of Essex and Hertford in 1567, and was elected M.P. for St. Albans in 1571. But beyond being mentioned as the member of a committee to consider a proposed subsidy, his name does not appear in the ‘Journals.’ There is, however, reason to believe that outside parliament Ferrers was intriguing in behalf of Mary Queen of Scots. He was on friendly terms with Mary's envoy, the Bishop of Ross, and Ross believed that Ferrers was concerned in the authorship of a Latin unpublished work advocating Queen Mary's claim to succeed Elizabeth. The bishop positively declared that throughout the parliament of 1571 Ferrers supplied him with much political information (Murdin, State Papers, 20, 30, 43, 46, 51).

Ferrers died in January 1578–9, and was buried at Flamstead 11 Jan. Administration of his effects was granted by the prerogative court of Canterbury 18 May 1579. He had a wife Jane, by whom he had a son, Julius Ferrers of Markgate, who was buried at Flamstead 30 Sept. 1596.

As early as 1534 Ferrers published ‘The Boke of Magna Carta with divers other Statutes … translated into Englyshe,’ London (by R. Redman). The same publisher reissued the book without date about 1541, and Thomas Petyt produced a new edition in 1542. According to Stow, Ferrers ‘collected the whole history of Queen Mary as the same is set down under the name of Richard Grafton’ (Stow, 1631, p. 632). Grafton denied the statement, but Stow insisted on its truth. At the request of his friend, Thomas Phaer, Ferrers wrote the epitaph on Phaer's tomb in Kilgerran Church, Pembrokeshire (1560) (Shakespeare Soc. Papers, iv. 1–5). But his chief claim to literary distinction lies in the fact that he shared with Baldwin the honour of having invented the series of historical poems entitled ‘Mirror for Magistrates.’ To the earliest volume, issued by Baldwin in 1559, Ferrers contributed the opening poem, on the fall of Robert Tresilian, and two others, dealing respectively with the murder of Thomas of Woodstock and the death of Richard II. Baldwin, in his preface, writes that Ferrers suggested the whole design after studying Lydgate's ‘Fall of Princes.’ In the next volume, issued under Baldwin's editorship in 1563, Baldwin states that Ferrers's official engagements prevented his continuance of the work, and that he had handed over his materials to himself. Ferrers's sole contribution to the 1563 volume is the ‘Tragedye of Edmund, Duke of Somerset.’ The edition of 1578, which combines the contents of the earlier volumes, was, it has been suggested, edited by Ferrers. There first appeared in this edition, besides Ferrers's older contributions, two additional poems by him treating of the punishment of Eleanor Cobham, duchess of Gloucester, and the death of her husband, Duke Humphrey. In George Gascoigne's account of Leicester's entertainment of the queen at Kenilworth in 1575 (‘The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelworth’) verses by Ferrers welcoming Elizabeth are placed in the mouth of ‘the Ladie of the Lake.’

That Ferrers was highly esteemed in his own time is undoubted. But his reputation has somewhat suffered through a mistake of Puttenham and Meres, who, writing of him at the close of the sixteenth century, wrongly designated him Edward Ferrers or Ferris. ‘But the principal man,’ writes Puttenham, in his ‘Arte of English Poesie,’ 1589 (ed. Arber, pp. 74–5), ‘in this profession [i.e. poetry] at the same time [i.e. Edward VI's reign] was Master Edward Ferrys, a man of no less mirth and felicity that way [than Sternhold and Heywood], but of much more magnificence in his metre, and therefore wrote for the most part to the stage in tragedy and sometimes in comedy or interlude, wherewith he gave the king so much good recreation as he had thereby many good rewards.’ Again, Puttenham writes, p. 77: ‘For tragedy the lord of Buckhurst and Master Edward Ferrys, for such doings as I have seen of theirs, do deserve the highest prize.’ There can be no question that in the first passage Puttenham refers to George Ferrers's court masques, and in the second to Ferrers's share in the ‘Mirror for Magistrates.’ Meres, in his ‘Palladis Tamia,’ 1598, enumerates ‘among our best for tragedy’ ‘Master Edward Ferris,’ and this name is immediately followed by the words ‘the author of the “Mirror for Magistrates,”’ positive proof that Meres was writing of George Ferrers. Wood in the first edition of his ‘Athenæ’ depended literally on Puttenham and Meres, and gave brief memoirs of both Edward and George Ferrers, ascribing to the former the share in the ‘Mirror for Magistrates’ which undoubtedly belongs to the latter. He identified his Edward Ferrers with a member of the Baddesley Clinton family of Warwickshire, of whom he knew nothing beyond the name [see Ferrers, Edward]. In the second edition Wood corrected some errors in his accounts of Edward and George Ferrers, but insisted that Puttenham and Meres made it plain that George Ferrers had a contemporary named Edward who excelled as a dramatist. Warton, however, after much hesitation, came to the conclusion that the only author of Edward VI's time bearing the surname of Ferrers was George Ferrers, and that the existence of Edward Ferrers as a dramatic author was due to Puttenham's and Meres's errors. Ritson contested this conclusion, but Joseph Hunter and Philip Bliss support Warton. The only alleged piece of evidence which has come to light since Warton wrote proves very delusive. In 1820 there was printed ‘Masques performed before Queen Elizabeth, from a coeval copy in a volume of MS. Collections by Henry Ferrers, esq., of Baddesley Clinton, in the co. of Warwick, in the possession of William Hamper, esq.’ There are three masques here, only one of which was printed before (in the ‘Phœnix Nest,’ 1593, and in Nichols's ‘Progresses,’ vol. iii.) The ‘British Museum Catalogue’ boldly ascribes them all to George Ferrers. But Henry Ferrers, to whose library the manuscripts are said to have belonged, was son of that Edward Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton upon whom Wood foists the designation of dramatist, and hence it might appear that William Hamper's volume supplies masques that may be attributable to the disputed Edward Ferrers. Internal evidence shows, however, that the three masques were written about 1591. George Ferrers had then been dead twelve years, and Edward Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton twenty-seven years. The authorship of the masques cannot therefore be assigned to either of them. There is better reason for assigning them to Henry Ferrers himself [q. v.], who is credited by Wood with poetical proclivities in youth.

[Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. i. 386, 566; Literary Remains of Edw. VI (Roxburghe Club), clxxii–vi. 218, 382–3; Biog. Brit.; Collier's Annals of the Stage; Machyn's Diary (Camd. Soc.), pp. 327–8; Hall's Chronicle; Grafton's Chronicle; Mirror of Magistrates, ed. Haslewood, 1815; Returns of Members of Parliament, pt. i. Appendix xxx. xxxiii.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, i. 443; Chronicle of Queen Jane and Queen Mary, (Camden Soc.), pp. 135, 188; Collier's Hist. English Dramatic Poetry, i. 146, 149; Warton's Hist. English Poetry (1871), iv. 164 et seq., 195, 214, 218; Ritson's English Poets; Hunter's Manuscript Chorus Vatum in Addit. MS. 24491, f. 377.]

S. L. L.