Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harington, John (1561-1612)
HARINGTON, Sir JOHN (1561–1612), miscellaneous writer, was descended from a good family, which traced its name to Haverington in Cumberland, and in the fifteenth century had lands at Exton. It suffered, however, in the Wars of the Roses, and in the reign of Henry VIII its representative, John Harrington (fl. 1550), lived at Stepney, and filled the post of treasurer to the king's camps and buildings. While holding that office Harington employed John Bradford the martyr [q. v.] as his clerk, and it is said by Bradford's biographers that he compelled Harington about 1549 to make a restitution to the crown of a sum of money which Harington had misappropriated. Strype (Memorials, vol. iii. pt. i. p. 366), however, represents that Bradford was himself guilty of misappropriating public moneys, which Harington made good to shield his clerk from punishment (cf. Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. i. 125-6). Harington seems to have been a confidential servant of Henry VIII, and revived the fortunes of his house by marrying a natural daughter of the king, Etheldreda, daughter of Joanna Dyngley or Dobson, who was brought up by the king's tailor, John Malte, as a natural daughter of his own. Henry granted her the monastic forfeitures of Kelston, Batheaston, and Katharine in Somerset, and on his marriage in 1546 Harington settled at Kelston, near Bath, on his wife's estate (Collinson, History of Somersetshire, i. 128). Etheldreda soon died without issue, leaving her lands to her husband, who showed his gratitude to his benefactor by devoting himself to the service of the Princess Elizabeth. Harington was a cultivated man and a poet, who in his visits to Elizabeth at Hatfield turned his muse to the praises of her six gentlewomen, but soon singled out among them Isabella Markham, daughter of Sir John Markham of Gotham (Nugae Antiquae, ed. 1804, ii. 324-7, 390). He married her early in 1554, for in that year he and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower with the Princess Elizabeth. In 1561 their son John was born, and Elizabeth, who had now ascended the throne, repaid their loyalty by acting as his godmother. Harington was educated at Eton, and the queen showed her interest in her godson by sending him a copy of her speech to parliament in 1575, with a note bidding him to 'ponder these poor words in thy hours of leisure, and play with them till they enter thine understanding.' From Eton Harington went in 1578 to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he had for his tutor John Still, afterwards bishop of Bath and Wells, 'to whom,' he says, 'I never came but I grew more religious, from whom I never went but I parted better instructed.' He was already well known to Burghley, who wrote him a letter of good advice about his undergraduate career (ib. i. 131). In spite of these exhortations he ran into debt, and had to ask an old family friend to intercede for him with his father (Tanner MS. 169, f. 62). After leaving Cambridge Harington studied law at Lincoln's Inn, but not to much purpose, for his reputation as a wit and a man of the world was soon established, and he looked to court favour rather than the exercise of a profession. About 1584 he married Mary, daughter of Sir George Rogers of Cannington in Somerset, but marriage does not seem to have sobered his exuberant spirits. His epigrams began to pass current, and he enlivened the court by his sallies, which were not always adapted to a fastidious taste. Among other things, he translated for the amusement of the ladies of the court the story of Giocondo, from the twenty-eighth book of Ariosto's 'Orlando Furioso,' and his translation was handed about in manuscript till it fell into the hands of the queen. She reprimanded Harington for corrupting the morals of her ladies by translating the least seemly part of Ariosto's work, and ordered him as a punishment to leave the court for his country house till he had made a translation of the whole. To this we owe the translation of the 'Orlando Furioso' which was first published in folio in 1591, and reissued in 1607 and 1634. It is written in the same stanza as the original, and is easy and flowing, but without much distinction. It is rather a paraphrase than a translation, and bears signs of being hastily produced. As a preface to it Harington wrote 'An Apologie of Poetrie,' an essay in criticism which resembles Sir Philip Sidney's treatise of the same name. The most remarkable part of it is that concerned with his use of metre, especially his defence of two-syllabled and three-syllabled rhymes. In 1592 Elizabeth, on her visit to Bath, was the guest of Harington at Kelston, which he spent a good deal of money in restoring and decorating in honour of the queen (Nichols, Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, ed. 1823, iii. 250). In the same year he was high sheriff of Somerset, and the rules for the management of his household may be read in 'Nugæ Antiquæ,' i. 105, &c. In 1596 he was again at court, where he published (under the pseudonym of Misacmos) a Rabelaisian satire entitled 'A New Discourse of a Stale subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax,' which was rapidly succeeded by three similar tracts, 'Ulysses upon Ajax' (under the pseudonym of Misodiaboles); 'An Anatomie of the Metamorphosed Ajax' (under the pseudonym of 'T. C. Traveller'), and 'An Apologie: 1. Or rather a Retractation; 2. Or rather a Recantation; 3. Or rather a Recapitulation ...; 12. Or rather none of them' (anon.) It is enough to say that 'Ajax' is a euphemism for 'a jakes,' and that Harington throughout the series resembles Sterne at his worst no less in his curious and varied learning than in his indecency. It was not the indecency of the books but a suspected innuendo about the Earl of Leicester which drew on Harington the queen's anger (Nugæ, i. 240). He was ordered to leave the court 'till he had grown sober,' and there was even a talk of summoning him before the Star-chamber. Ultimately a license was refused for printing the books, but not till the earliest volume had run through three editions in the year (Steevens, Shakespeare, ed. 1793, v. 354). In 1598 Harington was forgiven by Elizabeth, and was one of those who were chosen to accompany Robert Devereux, earl of Essex (1567-1601) [q.v.], on his ill-fated expedition to Ireland, where he served as commander of horse under the Earl of Southampton. A letter of his cousin, Robert Markham, giving him good advice before his departure, throws a lurid light upon the intrigues of Elizabeth's court. Harington is told 'that damnable uncovered honesty of yours will mar your fortunes,' and is advised to 'obey the Lord Deputy in all things, but give not your opinion: it may be heard in England' (Nugæ, i. 240-3). In Ireland Harington was knighted by Essex, a stretch of authority which greatly angered the queen. He took part in the expedition to Connaught, where he accompanied his cousin, Sir Griffin Markham. He afterwards, went with Essex on his expedition against Tyrone, and was chosen by Essex to go with him to London on his rapid journey, whereby he hoped to appease the queen's anger. When Harington entered the queen's chamber she said, 'What, did the fool bring you too? Go back to your business.' When he knelt before her she caught his girdle and swore 'By God's Son I am no queen: this man is above me.' Then she sternly bade Harington go home, and he went, he tells us, as if all the Irish rebels had been at his heels (ib. p. 356). Harington wrote a journal of Essex's proceedings in Ireland, perhaps a precautionary measure recommended by his friends. At all events he seems to have made his peace with the queen by putting it into her hands, with the result of inflaming her rage against Essex. 'She swore we were all idle knaves, and the Lord Deputy worse for wasting our time and her commands in such wise as my journal doth write of.' This Irish journal is printed in 'Nugæ Antiquæ,' i. 247-301. After thus saving himself he thought it wise to avoid any risk of 'shipwreck on the Essex coast.' 'Thank heaven,' he says, 'I am safe at home, and if I go into such troubles again I deserve the gallows for a meddling fool.'
In his retirement at Kelston Harington found an occupation in legacy-hunting. His wife's mother, Lady Rogers of Carrington, was old and infirm, and he was very anxious that she should disinherit her son in favour of her daughter. He had long pestered her with letters and epigrams for that purpose, and when she lay dying in January 1602, he went to the house at Carrington, broke open her chests, and endeavoured to take possession. After her death he refused possession to her son, Edward Rogers, and his outrageous conduct gave rise to a Star-chamber suit (Talbot Papers in Heralds' College, vol. M. 249), and Harington ran a risk of imprisonment. However, in December 1602 he was again at court, where he wrote an interesting account of the last days of Elizabeth. In preparation for this event he set himself to gain the favour of her probable successor, by sending the Scottish king a new-year's gift of a lantern, curiously constructed as a symbol of the waning light of Elizabeth and the full splendour that was to come. It bore a representation of the crucifixion, for the sake of the motto of the penitent thief, 'Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.' At the same time he employed his pen in writing a 'Tract on the Succession to the Crown,' with the object of advocating James's claim. It argues in turn with protestants, puritans, and papists, and makes good the writer's case by appeals to authorities whom each class will recognise as above suspicion. Then it turns to a refutation of the plea advanced by Dolman (a pseudonym of Parsons) in favour of the Infanta Isabella. But its interest lies not so much in its main argument as in the survey which it takes of the religious question in England from the point of view of a shrewd man of the world, and it also contains many curious particulars about Elizabeth, which show that it was not intended for publication during her lifetime. Probably Harington wrote it to be in readiness in case of emergency, but the ease of James's accession rendered its publication unnecessary. The manuscript found its way into the hands of Toby Matthew, archbishop of York, and lay unnoticed in the chapter library of York till it was edited by Mr. Clements Markham for the Roxburghe Club in 1880.
In spite of his efforts and good intentions Harington obtained nothing from James I, and he returned disconsolately to Kelston, whence he wrote imploring letters to his friends at court to bespeak their kind offices with the king. He was a man of extravagant habits, and had probably spent a good deal of money in Ireland. In 1604 he was involved in a lawsuit with Sir John Skinner, which led him to part with one of his estates, and even brought him for a time into prison (Nugae Antiquae, i. 346). The state of his fortunes and his ill-success at court seem to have suggested to him the idea that he might begin a new career in Ireland. By the death of Archbishop Loftus in 1605 the office of chancellor of Ireland was vacant, and Harington wrote to Cecil not only asking for that post, but also offering himself as a successor to Loftus in the archbishopric. This amazing proposal was defended by historical examples, by arguments about the desirability of combining the spiritual and temporal power, and also by a statement of his own views about the condition of Irish affairs. Of course no heed was paid to the application, and Harington's memoir lay neglected till it was published from a Bodleian manuscript by the Rev. W. D. Macray, under the title of 'A View of the State of Ireland in 1605' (Oxford, 1879). Here, as in his other notices of Ireland, Harington shows that he took a more generous and larger-minded view of the Irish people than did most of his contemporaries. He says with some truth: 'I think my very genius doth in a sort lead me to that country,' and he sketches with a good deal of shrewdness the outlines of a conciliatory policy. He still stayed on at court, dissatisfied with the new order of things, and mourning over the lack of order since the death of Elizabeth. A letter of his is the stock quotation for the intemperance of the court of James I (ib. i. 348-52). He managed, however, at last to commend himself to the king as a man of learning, and undertook some part of the education of Prince Henry. By way of instructing the young prince in his future duties, and counteracting the influence of the puritans on his mind, Harington recommended to him the work of Bishop Godwin, 'De Praesulibus Angliae,' which had been published in 1601; and to make it more interesting he appended to it some remarks of his own upon the characters of the Elizabethan bishops. This document is full of gossip, and contains many good stories and much shrewd observation. It was written for the private use of the prince, but was published by a grandson of Harington, John Chetwind, in the interest of the puritans in 1653, under the title 'A briefe View of the Church of England as it stood in Q. Elizabeth's and King James his Reigne.' For the remainder of his life Harington seems to have been on friendly terms with Prince Henry, and to have been a person of some consideration at court. His health, however, began to give way, and he died at Kelston on 20 Nov. 1612, aged 51. His wife survived him till 1634. He had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. The estate of Kelston remained in the hands of his descendants till 1776; Henry Harington [q. v.] and Edward Charles Harington [q. v.] were descendants. A portrait of Sir John Harington, from a miniature in the possession of the Duke of Buccleuch, is engraved in Markham's 'Tract on the Succession.' An engraved portrait is prefixed to the 1591 edition of Harington's 'Orlando Furioso.'
Besides the works mentioned above Harington published in 1609 'The Englishman's Doctor, or the Schoole of Salerne,' a treatise upon health, chiefly founded upon the precepts of Cardan. After his death a few of his 'Epigrams ' were appended to 'Alcilia,' a poem by J. C. issued in 1613. A volume containing 116 of them appeared in 1615. This collection formed the fourth book of the complete edition of Harington's 'Epigrams' issued in 1618 and reprinted in 1625, 1633, and again with his 'Orlando Furioso,' 1634. But the writings which Harington himself committed to the press and the epigrams on which his reputation as a wit was founded were soon forgotten, and copies of them are now very rare. The 'Apologie for Poetrie' has been reprinted in Haslewood's 'Ancient Critical Essays,' ii. 119, &c. It is by his letters and his miscellaneous writings that Harington is remembered. These were first published in 1769 by a descendant, the Rev. Henry Harington, D.D. [q. v.], under the title of 'Nugae Antiquae, being a Miscellaneous Collection of Original Papers in Prose and Verse, by Sir John Harington, Knight, and others who lived in those times.' This passed through three editions, 1779, 1792, and was re-edited by Thomas Park with additions and notes in 1804. Harington's letters owe their value to the character of their author, which strongly resembles that of an Italian humorist attached to a court. Harington considered himself a privileged person who might jest at will. He had a quick power of observation, and was entirely destitute of restraint. Though desirous of pushing his fortunes, he had none of the qualities necessary for success; Elizabeth spoke of him as 'that saucy poet, my godson,' and he was generally regarded as an amusing gossip. He wrote easily, and certainly was not a hero to himself. The most intimate facts of his domestic life afforded him materials for an epigram, and his frankness was entire. Hence he gives a living picture of life and society in his times, and abounds in incidental stories which throw great light upon many prominent persons. A detailed life of Harington would present an interesting sketch of Elizabethan times. As a poet he has received scanty justice from posterity. His translation of the 'Orlando Furioso' has been superseded, and his epigrams, disfigured by coarseness, are forgotten.[The writings of Harington are the sources of information about his life. In addition to those mentioned above there is in the Cambridge University Library (Addit. MS. 337) a copy of the first edition of the Orlando Furioso presented by Harington to Lady Rogers, at the end of which is a collection in his own handwriting of all his poems on domestic occasions. In Notes and Queries, 7th ser. ix. 382, there are printed some extracts from Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 27632, a collection of notes, &c. made by Sir John Harington. The extracts give a long list of plays apparently belonging to Harington, besides some information collected by him on literary topics. There are brief accounts of him in Fuller's Worthies of Somerset, ed. 1840, iii. 103; Wood's Athenae Oxon. i. 497; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. 1854, i. 25.27. A fuller memoir by Mr. Markham is in the preface to the Tract on the Succession (Roxb. Club), 1880.]