Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vergil, Polydore

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VERGIL, POLYDORE (1470?–1555?), historian, born at Urbino in Italy about 1470, was son of George Vergil. His great-grandfather, Antony Vergil, had been doctor of physic and philosophy and reader in the university of Paris; one of his brothers, John Matthew Vergil, professor of philosophy at Pavia, died young; another, Jerome Vergil, was a merchant who lived for some time in London. From an account of himself which he gave in 1509 to James IV of Scotland, it appears that he studied at Padua, but before that he seems to have been at Bologna. At some uncertain time he became secretary to the Duke of Urbino, his patron in literature. He certainly remained for some time at Padua, and there his earliest known work, an epistle prefixed to the Venetian edition of the ‘Cornucopie’ of Nicolaus Perottus, published in 1496, was composed. This work he is said to have collated with a manuscript in the ducal library at Urbino. It was at Padua, too, according to his own statement, that he wrote the two books by which he became widely known, the ‘Proverbiorum Libellus’ or ‘Adagia,’ and the ‘De Inventoribus Rerum.’ The ‘Proverbiorum Libellus’ was printed at Venice in 1498 (cf. Duplessis, Bibl. Parémiologique, p. 80), and dedicated to the Duke of Urbino; it was the first collection of the kind (Ferguson), and its popularity may be gauged by the rapid succession of the editions which appeared (Venice 1500, Strasburg 1511, Basel 1521, 1525, 1550). Its publication led to a slight dispute with Erasmus, who claimed that his ‘Adagia’ appeared first. Polydore Vergil pointed out the true state of the case in the preface to the ‘De Inventoribus Rerum’ in 1499, and then Erasmus explained that he had not heard of Polydore Vergil's work when he published his own. On this Polydore Vergil was mollified, and the relations between the two, though occasionally strained, were thenceforth friendly. Still Polydore Vergil thought it well to discuss the question of priority in the epistle to Richard Pace which is found in the 1521 edition of the ‘Adagia’ (Ferguson).

But the ‘De Inventoribus Rerum’ was far more popular. It was written at the request of the Duke of Urbino, and, according to Vergil's own account, was composed in nine months. It was published at Venice from the press of De Pensis in 1499, and in all somewhere about a hundred and ten editions have appeared. About thirty of these consist of translations or abridgments into Italian, Spanish, French, German, and English. At first the work consisted of three books. Five more were added, probably first in the Basel edition of 1521 (Ferguson, who doubts the existence of the supposed 1517 edition). The Latin text took final shape not later than 1544, possibly earlier; the first English abridgment appeared in 1546 (see Ferguson for much curious information as to the English editions). Polydore Vergil in many parts of his writings shows a tendency to rationalism, and various statements in the ‘De Inventoribus Rerum’ offended the clergy. It was, therefore, put on the ‘Index,’ and later, in 1576, an expurgated edition was printed at Rome and others forbidden.

Polydore Vergil became chamberlain to Alexander VI, whose papacy lasted from 1492 to 1503. His relative, Adrian de Castello [q. v.], had been made collector of Peter's pence in England about 1489, but had been resident at Rome as Henry VII's representative since 1492. Probably by his influence Polydore Vergil was appointed sub-collector, and came to England in 1501 or possibly (cf. Busch, p. 396) in the early part of 1502. His first clerical preferment in this country was the rectory of Church Langton, Leicestershire, to which he was presented by Sir Nicholas Griffin on 6 Nov. 1503. That he was intimate with Henry VII his history affords abundant evidence, and it was Henry himself who in 1505 asked him to write a history of England. From this time accordingly much of his leisure was occupied by that work. Adrian de Castello, though not in England, had been made bishop of Hereford in 1502, and when, in 1504, he was translated to Bath and Wells, Polydore Vergil acted as his proxy at the enthronement. About 1507 he was made prebendary of Nonnington in the cathedral of Hereford, and on 6 Feb. 1507–8 archdeacon of Wells and prebendary of Brent. He cannot have been much at Wells. He lived a literary life in London, corresponding with his friends in Italy (cf. Gairdner, Letters and Papers of Richard III and Henry VII, i. 246, ii. 168) and occupied in writing books; once he is mentioned as buying horses for the Duke of Mantua. He presented hangings for the choir of Wells cathedral which Leland saw with Polydore Vergil's arms, a laurel tree vert on ground argent supported by two crocodiles proper, worked in them; they were there, says Burton, in his day, 1636. On 16 April 1507 Polydore Vergil was collated to the prebend of Scamlesby in the cathedral of Lincoln.

Wood states, what other authorities confirm, that Polydore enjoyed the friendship of the learned, in particular of Fox, More, Pace, Linacre, Tunstall, and Latimer. In his history he speaks kindly of Lily and Colet; one of Lily's sons was called Polydore, probably after him. In all his historical work he gives evidence of zealous personal investigation. The interesting letter which is extant from him to James IV of Scotland (printed in Polydore Vergil's History, ed. Ellis, vol. i. p. xii), besides containing some biographical particulars, asks for the names and deeds of the Scottish kings. He had in vain, he says, sought for this information from James's chaplain. James did not comply with the request, Ruddiman suggests because he thought that Scottish history could be best written by Scotchmen; and thus Hector Boethius came to take these matters in hand. Gawin Douglas [q. v.], bishop of Dunkeld, however, just before his death, about 1522, gave the required information, which Polydore Vergil gratefully acknowledged.

On 22 Oct. 1510 Polydore Vergil was naturalised without paying the usual fees, and, owing doubtless to the favour of the king, he was in 1513 excused from paying extra subsidy due from him as a foreigner. On 11 June of the same year he was collated to the prebend of Oxgate in St. Paul's Cathedral. In 1514 he decided to go to Rome, and on 26 Feb. in that year Henry wrote to Leo X commending him and saying that he wished to revisit his native land after twelve years' absence (printed in History, ed. Ellis, vol. i. p. xi).

The events which follow are obscure. In February Vergil returned from his visit to Rome, during which Wolsey apparently expected his aid in obtaining a cardinal's hat; but a letter dated 3 March, in which he made indiscreet references to Wolsey's ambition, was intercepted, and on 11 April 1515 Andrew Ammonius [q. v.] brought definite charges against Vergil of vilifying Wolsey and of forging dispensations. Vergil was thus seriously compromised, and he was put in prison. Henry VIII wrote to Leo on 22 May 1515 explaining the cause of this step, and asking that Ammonius should be appointed in his stead. Sir Henry Ellis cannot be right in saying that Ammonius was formally made sub-collector on 26 March 1515, unless the appointment was antedated.

Vergil's imprisonment occasioned great excitement. Leo X, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, and the university of Oxford petitioned the king for his release. In September 1515 Polydore Vergil addressed himself to Wolsey in terms which show, as does his subsequent letter to Mary, how thoroughly pagan he was (printed in History, ed. Ellis, vol. i. p. xv). It appears that Vergil was released before 24 Dec. 1515. Although he lost his subcollectorship, he managed to retain his benefices. His imprisonment made him a determined enemy of Wolsey, and his view of Wolsey, as recorded in his history of England and copied by writer after writer, held the field until recent years.

On 12 March 1516 the pope wrote that he required Vergil at Rome at once. He was in England again in 1517. In 1521 Erasmus, writing to Pace, mentioned that Frobenius was printing some of Polydore Vergil's works, a reference doubtless to the edition of the ‘De Rerum Inventoribus’ which then appeared. In 1522 he was so far restored to favour that he was again treated as a native in respect of the clerical subsidy.

In 1523 he wrote offering Erasmus help and money. On his side Erasmus was grateful for his liberality, and helped Vergil with regard to the printing of his books. While passing an autumn vacation in the country in 1524 (Ferguson), Vergil composed a commentary on the Lord's Prayer with an epistle to Fisher prefixed. It seems to have appeared for the first time (ib.) in the edition of the ‘Proverbs and Inventions’ published in 1525. It was afterwards often printed with the ‘Inventions,’ and, with that book, appeared in Italian in 1543. Professor Ferguson cannot confirm Ellis's surmise that it was printed separately about 1554.

In the course of his studies for his history of England he edited in 1525 the work of Gildas for the first time. Tunstall lent him one manuscript, which he collated with one in his own possession.

On 6 June 1533 Polydore Vergil had license to go beyond the sea on business, with six horses and six servants. He probably went a little later, as we know from the dedication to his history that he was in London in August 1533. This work, upon which he had been engaged for twenty-eight years, was now ready for publication. It was dedicated to Henry VIII, and printed at Basel by Bebelius, 1534, fol. The title of the first edition runs ‘Polydori Vergilii Urbinatis Anglicæ Historiæ Libri xxvi.’ A second edition was published at Basel in 1546. In both these the history is brought down to 1509. The third edition, Basel, 1555, fol., comprised twenty-seven books, and brought the history down to 1538. Later editions were: Basel, 1557, fol.; Ghent, 1556–7, 2 vols. sm. 8vo; Basel, 1570, fol.; Leyden, 1651, 8vo. Thysius, who edited the last, overlooked the reign of Henry VIII while the book was passing through the press, and ultimately inserted it at the beginning. Sir Henry Ellis edited for the Camden Society in 1844 the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, and in 1846 the first eight books, comprising the period prior to the Norman conquest, from a manuscript translation of the Tudor period, Royal MS. 18, C. viii. and ix. in the British Museum.

Vergil was an Italian, a Roman catholic, a despiser of Brute, of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and of Arthur, a contemner of Wyclif and the lollards. Many passages wounded national or religious prejudices. The most notable of his antagonists were Leland, whose ‘Codrus sive Laus et Defensio Gallofridi Arturii Monumetensis contra Polydorum Vergilium’ is contained in the fifth volume of his ‘Collectanea;’ and Sir John Price [q. v.], whose posthumous ‘Historiæ Brytannicæ Defensio’ was directed against Vergil. More serious are the charges, somewhat inconsistent, of burning the records that he had used, or of shipping them off to Rome. Burton needlessly, but ably, defended him against the former charge (Nichols, Leicestershire, III. i. 538). According to Gale, a shipload of documents sailed from Rochester Bridge (see upon the whole question Sir Henry Ellis, History, pp. xx, &c.).

Vergil's historical method was far in advance of anything that England had then known. Unlike preceding chroniclers, he wrote a history on modern lines, attempted to weigh authorities, and told a connected story. As an authority he is invaluable for the reign of Henry VII, with whose aims and character he thoroughly sympathised, and he realised fully the changes which marked the passing away of the middle ages (cf. Busch, England under the Tudors, transl., p. 397; Gairdner, Early Chroniclers, p. 306; Ellis, passim; for another view, Markham in Engl. Hist. Rev. vi. 254). When he comes to the time of Henry VIII he is not so trustworthy, owing to his bias against Wolsey. The substance of his history became, through the medium of Hall and later writers, common property. It is curious to note that, having served as a source for Hall's chronicle, Polydore used Hall himself in his last part.

Polydore Vergil seems to have caught the contemporary spirit of religious indifferentism. There is no record of his having, as archdeacon of Wells, taken the supremacy oath, but he signed the articles of 1536; in this year he acted as proctor for Cardinal Campeggio, and as proctor in convocation for the cathedral chapter. He is supposed to have visited Italy between 1536 and 1547 (Ferguson), but he cannot have stayed there long. His health now, it would appear, began to fail (Historia, ed. 1557, p. 619). On 29 Sept. 1539 he was four and a half years in arrears with the rent of his house (4l. 13s. 4d. per annum), but on 9 July 1540 he was one of those present at the process as to Anne of Cleves and signed the judgment of convocation. He was in London in 1543.

In 1547 he signed the declaration in favour of communion in both kinds. He was now very old and ill, and probably anxious about the rate at which religious matters were moving (‘turbata Anglia in patriam rediit’), and so he decided to return to Urbino. On 2 June 1550 he obtained a warrant enabling him to depart, and at the same time to continue to hold Nonnington and his archdeaconry. The warrant spoke of him in very honourable terms, referring to his ‘long, painful, and acceptable service.’ On 13 Oct. 1551 he received a hundred marks, and on 1 Nov. three hundred crowns of the royal bounty, apparently for his travelling expenses. It seems that he sold the archdeacon's house at Wells, and it remained in private hands until a few years ago, when it was bought for the theological college.

From Urbino he wrote a letter to Queen Mary on her accession, dated 5 Aug. 1553. The date of his death at Urbino is doubtful. Ugolini (Storia dei Conti e Duchi d'Urbino, ii. 343) says that he died in 1555. His successor in the archdeaconry was collated in 1554 during his lifetime. Oxgate was given to John Brabant on 19 Dec. 1555, owing, it is stated, to the death of Polydore Vergil. But he is recorded as presenting to South Brent as patron on 13 Jan. 1557. His successor at Nonnington was admitted on 21 May 1558. According to Peter a Sancto Romualdo in the continuation of Ademar's ‘Chronicle,’ he died in 1562. Andrew Thevet in his ‘Virorum Illustrium Historia’ gives the same date. The balance of evidence seems in favour of 1555. He was buried in the Duomo.

In addition to the works already mentioned, Polydore Vergil published:

  1. ‘De Prodigiis,’ the preface to which is addressed to the Duke of Urbino and dated 1526. Ferguson thinks that the British Museum copy (Basel, 1531) is the first edition; another edition appeared in 1533. It was reprinted with the ‘De Inventoribus Rerum,’ Basel 1544 (Fabricius says 1545), Leyden 1644, Amsterdam 1671. An Italian translation by Baldelli, with Polydore Vergil's other dialogues, appeared, Venice 1550. With the works of Julius Obsequeus and Camerarius it was printed in Latin at Basel 1552, and Lyons 1553. An Italian translation of the three writers by Damiano Maraffi (Lyons, 1554) is perhaps the most interesting edition on account of the woodcuts; an illustrated French translation of the three appeared at Lyons in 1555, and a Latin one, poorer but also illustrated, Lyons, 1589.
  2. ‘Divi Joannis Chrysostomi de perfecto Monacho Principe Libellus.’ The dedication to Erasmus is dated 1528; it was at Erasmus's request that the translation of the fragment from Greek was undertaken. It was first published at Basel in 1533 (Ferguson), 8vo. Later it was reprinted with the ‘Proverbs,’ Basel, 1550, 8vo.
  3. ‘De Patientia et ejus fructu libri duo,’ ‘De Vita Perfecta,’ and ‘De Veritate et Mendacio.’ These three dialogues were written apparently in 1543; the epistle to the Duke of Urbino prefixed to that on patience is so dated. The edition (mentioned by Bale) of Basel, 8vo, 1545, in which they were printed together with the ‘De Prodigiis,’ is probably the first. They appeared in Italian by Baldelli, Venice, 1550 (see above).

Polydore Vergil contributed a preface to the treatise on ‘Matrimony’ by William Harrington [q. v.] which appeared without date before 1528. He also wrote notes on Horace which were included in Höniger's edition, Basel, 1580.

Bale vaguely mentions one or two other works which cannot be identified. There seem to have been one or two manuscripts which have perished; one, the ‘Cronica Polydori,’ was in the Royal Library in the days of Henry VIII (cf. Fabricius, vi. 308). A most interesting letter from Richard Mulcaster to Abraham Ortelius contains a reference to Polydore Vergil's works, which, like a similar reference in a letter from Janus Jacobus Boissardus to Ortelius, suggests that he published other volumes than those that are now extant.

[The most important sources of information are Professor Ferguson's pamphlets and article in Archæologia, LI. i. 107, on the bibliography of the De Inventoribus Rerum; Ellis's prefaces to the 2 vols. of the History of Engl. published by the Camden Society; Nichols's Leicestershire, III. i. 538; Tiraboschi's Storia della Letteratura Italiana, VII. iii. 1014; the Calendared Letters and Papers Henry VIII, first five vols.; Bale's Scriptores, fol. 223, and the prefaces to Polydore Vergil's own works. See also Dennistoun's Lives of the Dukes of Urbino, ii. 110–12, 446; Sanuto's Diarii, ed. Stefani, v. 233, 238, 240; Beckmann's Beyträge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen, iii. 571–8; Reusch's Der Index, i. 154–5, 469; Gairdner's Early Chroniclers; Jortin's Erasmus, i. 11, 54, &c., ii. 344, 345, 717; Knight's Erasmus, pp. 169–70; Erasmus's Epistolæ (ed. Lond. 1642), pp. 669, &c.; Rawdon Brown's Four Years at the Court of Henry VIII, i. 88, ii. 66, 320; Le Neve's Fasti Eccles. Angl. i. 161, 518, ii. 204; Brewer's Henry VIII, i. 28, 31, &c.; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 13, 24, 190, iii. 435, Fasti Oxon. i. 8, 31, 117; Stevenson's ed. of Gildas, pref. pp. xvii, &c; Foxe's Acts and Mon. i. 322, ii. 69, &c. v. 279, 742; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iv. 67, 3rd ser. i. 55, iv. 487, 5th ser. i. 308, 338; Leland's Itin., ed. Hearne, iii. 107; Proc. of Somerset Arch. and Nat. Hist. Soc. xxxiii. 108; Reynolds's Wells Cathedral, p. 224; Wells Cath. MSS. (Hist. MSS. Comm.), p. 223; Weaver's Somerset Incumbents, pp. 25, 35, 107; Cal. of State Papers, Venetian, (1202–1509) p. 936, (1509–19) p. 129, (1527–33) p. 794; Hessels's Eccl. Lond. Bat. Ex. Arch. i. 250, 469; Cassan's Bishops of Bath and Wells, p. 332. For a detailed criticism of his history during the reign of Henry VII, see Busch in England under the Tudors, vol. i.; several references to its importance for the reign of Henry VIII will be found in Brewer's Henry VIII, e.g. i. 21. There are many references, mostly expressing disapproval, in Strype's Works, and in the publications of the Parker Society; see the general indexes. Notes very kindly furnished by Professor Busch and Professor Ferguson. Information most kindly obtained at Wells by Mr. Walter Hobhouse, the Rt. Rev. Bishop Hobhouse, Mr. T. S. Holmes, and Canon Church.]

W. A. J. A.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.270
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
250 ii 19 f.e. Vergil, Polydore: for 1498 read 1503
253 ii 33 after 3rd ser. insert i. 55,