Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Still, John
STILL, JOHN (1543?–1608), bishop of Bath and Wells, and reputed author of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’ was only son of William Still of Grantham, where he was born about 1543. He matriculated as a pensioner of Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1559, graduated B.A. in 1561–2, M.A. in 1565, B.D. in 1570, and D.D. in 1575. From 1562 to 1572 he was fellow of the college, having taken holy orders. He remained an active member of the university for more than thirty years, and at an early period acquired a reputation for learning. He came to know Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser, the former an undergraduate of Christ's (from 1561) and the latter of Pembroke Hall. Harvey credited him with being ‘an excellent philosopher, a reasonable good historian, a learned divine, and a wise man’ (Harvey, Works). Sir John Harington [q. v.] benefited by his instruction, and wrote that Still had given him ‘some helpes, more hopes, all encouragements in my best studies: to whom I never came but I grew more religious, and from whom I never went but I parted better instructed. … His breeding was from his childhood in good literature and partly in musique. … I hold him a rare man for preaching, for arguing, for learning, for lyving: I could only wish that in all these he would make lesse use of logique and more of rhetoricke’ (Nugæ Antiquæ).
Church preferment was Still's ambition, and he was not disappointed. On 20 Oct. 1570, after failing to obtain the rectory of St. Martin Outwich, London, from the Merchant Taylors' Company, he was admitted Margaret preacher in the university, and two months later was nominated Margaret professor of divinity in the place of the puritan Thomas Cartwright. Still had already signed a letter to the chancellor urging that Cartwright's alleged heterodoxy might be dealt with leniently, but he soon proved himself a stalwart supporter of the established church and a relentless foe to nonconformity. Archbishop Parker noticed him favourably, and on 30 July 1571 collated him to the rectory of Hadleigh, Suffolk. There he married a parishioner's daughter, and superintended the education of two youths, John Boys [q. v.] and John Overall [q. v.], who attracted him by their promise. Both became scholars of repute. For Hadleigh he always maintained a great affection, leaving on his death 50l. to buy clothing for the aged poor of the village. On 4 Nov. 1572 Still was appointed joint dean of Bocking with Dr. Thomas Watts, and at the same period became chaplain to the primate. On 18 July 1573 he was nominated vicar of East Markham, Nottinghamshire, and in the same year canon of the seventh stall at Westminster, succeeding, as in the Cambridge professorship, one who had been deprived for nonconformity (Thomas Aldridge). On accepting the Westminster canonry he resigned his professorship at Cambridge. On 15 Nov. following he was recommended to Lord Burghley for the vacant deanery of Norwich, and Archbishop Parker, his patron, then wrote of him by way of testimonial: ‘I took him, although so young [he was thirty], to be more mortified than others of forty or fifty.’
Still was recalled to Cambridge next year to become (fourteenth) master of St. John's College. The election took place on 14 July 1574, after a vote in his favour by a majority of the fellows. He was admitted a week later. His rule was chiefly notable for his refusal to countenance puritan practices and his economical management of the college finances. His skill as ‘a disputer’ on theological topics rose so high that ‘the learned'st were even afraid to dispute with him’ (Harington). He acted as vice-chancellor for the year beginning 4 Nov. 1575, and on 6 March 1576–7 became archdeacon of Sudbury. On 30 May 1577 he was transferred from the mastership of St. John's to that of Trinity College; there he pursued with prudence and integrity the same policy as at St. John's. In 1578, when the contemplated diet at Schmalkald for the discussion of differences between protestants and catholics was under consideration in England, Still was chosen as delegate for Cambridge to uphold the protestant cause (Harington). A few years later he drew up, conjointly with William Fulke [q. v.], answers to the propositions of one Shales, about the authority of the fathers ‘as lately renewed in the writings of the Jesuits’ (Cal. State Papers).
Ecclesiastical affairs compelled him to spend much time out of Cambridge. He preached the Latin sermon before the convocation of the Canterbury province on 5 Feb. 1588–9, and was straightway elected prolocutor. In November 1592 he was chosen vice-chancellor of Cambridge for a second time. Next month officers of the court applied to him as vice-chancellor to provide an English comedy for the queen's amusement, owing to professional players' inability to keep their engagements on account of the plague which prevailed in London. Still replied that it might be possible to provide a Latin play, but ‘Englishe comedies, for that wee never used any, wee presentlie have none; to make or translate one in such shortness of time wee shall not be able’ (Collier, Annals of the Stage, ii. 293). Before his year of office as vice-chancellor ended he was appointed bishop of Bath and Wells. The congé d'élire was dated 16 Jan. 1592–3, and he was consecrated on 11 Feb. He thenceforth resided in his diocese, and confined himself to the discharge of his episcopal functions. In November 1597 he made proposals in convocation for the better keeping of parish registers (Strype, Whitgift, p. 510). He again attended convocation in March 1603–4. He died at the palace at Wells, 26 Feb. 1607–8, and was buried in his cathedral on 4 April. A fine alabaster monument erected by his eldest son, Nathaniel, and containing a recumbent statue of the bishop in canonical attire, now stands in the north aisle. It was engraved by G. Hollis from a drawing by J. Buckler, F.S.A. The Latin inscription was by William Camden. By his will, which was dated 4 Feb. 1607–8, he left, among other charitable bequests, 500l. to Bishop Bubwith's hospital at Wells and one hundred marks for new buildings at Trinity.
Still married, in 1574, his first wife, Anne, daughter of Thomas Alabaster of Hadleigh. By her he had five daughters and four sons. Of the latter, Nathaniel (b. 1579) was fellow of Trinity, and John (b. 1588) graduated M.A. from the same place. His second wife, whom he married after he became bishop, was Jane, daughter of Sir John Horner of Cloford, Somerset. By her he had a son Thomas (b. 1596?)
Portraits of Still are extant in the episcopal palace at Wells, and in the master's lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge. The latter was engraved at George Steevens's expense in 1789 by J. Jones, after a drawing by Silvester Harding. A second engraving was by Henry Meyer (cf. Cat. Third Loan Exhibition at South Kensington, No. 637).
The serious-minded Still has been generally claimed as the author of the boisterously merry comedy ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’ but the evidence in his favour proves on examination to be inconclusive. While Still was in residence at Christ's College the books of the bursar show that a play was performed there ins 1566, when 20s. was paid ‘he carpenters for setting up the scaffold.’ It may be inferred (although there is no positive proof) that the play was identical with the one published in 1575 under the title of ‘A Ryght Pythy, Pleasaunt, and Merie Comedie: Intytuld Gammer Gurton's Nedle: Played on Stage not longe ago in Christes Colledge in Cambridge. Made by Mr. S. Master of Art’ (London, 4to, by Thomas Colwell). It has been argued that the piece was written at an earlier date than 1566, on the ground that a play called ‘Dyccon of Bedlam’ (not now extant) was, according to the ‘Stationers' Register,’ licensed for publication to Thomas Colwell, the publisher of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’ in 1563; and that ‘Diccon the Bedlam’ (a half-witted itinerant beggar) is a leading character in the extant comedy. But the sobriquet was at the period not uncommonly applied to any half-imbecile mendicant, and in itself offers no proof of the two plays' identity. ‘Mr. S. Master of Art,’ the author of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’ was first identified with Still by Isaac Reed in 1782 in his edition of Baker's ‘Biographia Dramatica.’ Reed's main argument was that Still was the only M.A. of Christ's College whose name began with S in 1566, when ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle’ may be assumed to have first been performed . This statement is not accurate, for William Sanderson graduated M.A. from Christ's College in 1566, and was living more than thirty years later, and twelve other masters of arts of the college, all of whose names began with S, proceeded to the degree in or before 1566, and were alive in 1575, when ‘Mr. S. Master of Art’ was put forth as the author of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle’ on the title-page of the first edition. In his lifetime the comedy was not assigned to Still, who is not know to have manifested any interest in the English drama. The only contemporary references to the question of authorship are indeterminate, but they do not point in Still's direction. During the Martin Mar-Prelate controversy of 1588-90 the puritan assailants of the bishops recorded a rumour that ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle’ was from the pen of arch foe John Bridges (d. 1618), then dean of Salisbury [q. v.] ‘Martin Mar-Prelate’ addresses Bridges in his ‘Epistle’ thus: ‘Your first book was a proper Enterlude called ‘‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’’ but I thinke that this trifle, which sheweth the author to have had some witte and invention in him, was none of your doing: because your bookes seeme to proceed from the braynes of a woodcock, as having neither wi nor learning.’ In ‘Martin Mar-Prelate's Epitomes’ (1589) there are two passing references to the play, and to one is appended a marginal note to the effect that Bridges ‘made’ it, ‘as they say.’ These inconclusive statements seem negaticed by the fact that Bridges was a graduate of Pembroke Hall, of which he was fellow from 1566, and that on no pretence could ‘Mr. S.’ do duty for the initials.A study of the play itself throws no light on its authorship, which is now satisfactorily determined. Its wit is coarse, homely, and boisterous. The main theme is the loss of a needle by Gammer Gurton, a village housewife, while she is engaged in mending her husband's breeches. The plot turns on the search for the needle and the suspicion of theft which falls in turn on each of the members of Gammer Gurton's household and of her gossiping neighbours. The dénouement is reached, after much horse-play, when the needle is found by painful experience by Hodge himself in that part of his breeches on which his wife had been exercising her skill. The whole is written in rhyming doggerel, and most of the characters speak in rustic dialect. The only literary feature is a spirited drinking-song, at the opening of the second act, beginning ‘Back and side go bare, go bare;’ it is adapted, with very slight changes, from a popular song of far earlier date (cf. Skelton's Works, ed. Dyce; Bell, Songs from the Dramatists). Historically the piece is of interest as the second extant attempt at comedy in the language—Udall's ‘Ralph Roister Doister’ being the first—and the first extant play known to have been performed in an English university, while it amply illustrates the phase of merriment which most forcibly appealed to sixteenth-century society. The play was reprinted in 1661; in ‘The Ancient British Drama’ (1810), edited by Sir Walter Scott, vol. i. pp. 100–31; and again in Dodsley's ‘Old Plays,’ ed. Hazlitt, iii. 163 seq. (cf. The Authorship of ‘Gammer Gurton's Needle,’ by Charles H. Ross, in Modern Language Notes, vii. No. 6, Baltimore, June 1892). [Cooper's Athenæ Cantabr. ii. 467–9; Pref. to Gammer Gurton's Needle in Dodsley's Old Plays, iii. 165–9; Pigot's Hadleigh; Baker's Hist. of St. John's College, Cambridge, ed. Mayor, i. 168–72; Cussans's Bishops of Bath and Wells; Strype's Works; Harington's Nugæ Antiquæ, i. 135; Warton's English Poetry; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 829; Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 24487, ff. 33–7.]