Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Somner, William

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SOMNER, WILLIAM (1598–1669), Anglo-Saxon scholar, was baptised in the church of St. Margaret, Canterbury, on 5 Nov. 1598, although, in accordance with the statement of his widow and surviving relatives, the date of his birth is usually given as 30 March 1606. His father held the office of registrary of the court of Canterbury, under Sir Nathaniel Brent [q. v.], commissary. After passing through the free school at Canterbury, he became clerk to his father, and Archbishop Laud soon advanced him to be registrar of the ecclesiastical courts of the diocese. The archbishop demanded of him a yearly report on the conduct of the clergy in the diocese, but this Somner failed to supply (Laud, Works, vii. 268-9). Somner devoted his leisure to studying law and antiquities, and shooting with the long bow. He was a zealous loyalist, and suffered pecuniary loss in consequence of his attachment to the king's cause. After the execution of Charles I he wrote a passionate elegy, entitled 'The Insecuritie of Princes, considered in an occasional Meditation upon the King's late Sufferings and Death,' London, 1648, 4to, Subsequently he published another loyalist poem, to which was prefixed the portrait of Charles I, before his Eἰκὼν Bασιλική, and this title: 'The Frontispiece of the King's book opened with a Poem annexed, The Insecurity of Princes, &c.' He was imprisoned for some time in Deal Castle for endeavouring to obtain subscriptions to a petition for a free parliament in 1659. At the Restoration he was preferred to the mastership of St. John's Hospital in the suburbs of Canterbury, and he was appointed auditor of Christ Church, Canterbury, by the dean and chapter. He died on 30 March 1669, and was buried in the church of St. Margaret, Canterbury. He was thrice married, and left several children.

His printed books and manuscripts were purchased by the dean and chapter of Canterbury, and are preserved in the cathedral archives (cf. Kennett, Life of Somner, 1726, p. 137; Biographia Britannica).

His portrait, drawn and engraved by M. Burghers, is prefixed to the 'Treatise of the Roman Ports and Forts,' 1693.

Somner's earliest work was 'The Antiquities of Canterbury; or a Survey of that ancient Citie, with the Suburbs and Cathedral,'London, 1640, 4to, dedicated to Archbishop Laud (reissued 1662; 2nd edit, by Nicholas Batteley [q. v.], London, 1703, fol.) After having, at the suggestion of Dr. Meric Casaubon [q. v.], acquired a competent knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, he wrote 'Observations on the Laws of King Henry I,' published by Sir Roger Twysden [q. v.] in 1644, with a new glossary. He made collections for a history of Kent, but, 'being overtaken by that impetuous storm of civil war,' he abandoned this undertaking. A portion of the work was published at Oxford in 1693 by the Rev. James Brome, under the title of 'A Treatise of the Roman Ports and Forts in Kent,' with notes by Edmund Gibson [q. v.], afterwards bishop of London, and a life of the author by White Kennett [q. v.]

Somner completed in 1647 'A Treatise of Gavelkind, both Name and Thing,' published in London, 1660, 4to; 2nd edit. 1726, with the memoir by Kennett, 'revised and much enlarged.' He also made, but never published, an English translation of 'The Ancient Saxon Laws,' which had been published in Latin by William Lambard [q. v.] in 1568. He next composed, in reply to Jean Jacques Chifflet, a dissertation on Portus Iccius, the place where Julius Caesar embarked in his expeditions to Britain, and fixed it at Gessoriacum, now Boulogne-sur-Mer. This was first published in a Latin translation ('Ad Chiffletii librum responsio') by Gibson in the latter's 'Julii Caesaris Portus Iccius Illustratus,' Oxford, 1694. Somner also drew up 'Ad verba vetera Germanica à V. Cl. Justo Lipsio Epist. Cent. iii. ad Belgas Epist. XLIV collecta, Notae,' published in the appendix to Meric Casaubon's 'De quatuor Linguis Commentatio,'1650. To the 'Historiae Anglicanae Scriptores Decem,' edited in 1652 by Sir Roger Twysden, he contributed a valuable glossary of obscure and antiquated words. Somner thus acquired great reputation as an antiquary, and he numbered among his friends and correspondents Archbishops Laud and Ussher, Sir Robert Cotton, Sir W. Dugdale, Roger Dodsworth, Sir Symonds D'Ewes, Sir E. Bysshe, Dr. Thomas Fuller, and Elias Ashmole. To Dudgale and Dodsworth's 'Monasticon Anglicanum' he contributed materials relating to Canterbury and the religious houses in Kent, and he translated into Latin all the Anglo-Saxon documents, and many English records for the same work. In 1657 John Spelman, at the suggestion of Archbishop Ussher, bestowed on Somner the annual stipend of the Anglo-Saxon lecture founded by his father, Sir Henry Spelman [q. v.], at Cambridge. This enabled him to complete his principal work, the 'Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, voces, phrasesque praecipuas Anglo-Saxonicas . . . cum Latina et Anglica vocum interpretatione complectens . . . Aecesserunt Aelfrici Abbatis Grammatica Latino-Saxonica cum glossario suo ejusdem generis,' 2 pts, Oxford, 1659, fol.; 2nd edit, with additions by Thomas Benson, 1701, 8vo, His last antiquarian production was 'Chartham News; or a brief relation of some Strange Bones there lately digged up, in some grounds of Mr. John Somner's.' This was edited by his brother John, London, 1680, 4to, and is reprinted at the end of the first part of the second edition of his 'Antiquities of Canterbury.'

[Life by Kennett; Biogr. Brit. vi. 3757; Gough's British Topography, i. 451, 452, 472; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix, 420; Upton's English Topography, i. 388.]

T. C.