An Encomium on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I by George Etheridge — British Library Royal MS 16 C X

The Author

George Etheridge was a classical scholar and physician in Tudor Oxford, whose fortunes ebbed and flowed with the tides of the English Reformation. His Catholic convictions left him without regular employment and under governmental pressure in the reign of Elizabeth I, leading him to compose this encomium addressed to the Queen in the hope of improving his condition.

Born in Thame in Oxfordshire in 1519, at the age of fifteen he was admitted to Corpus Christi College in the University of Oxford, where he studied under the conservative scholar John Shepreve. Having received his BA in 1539 he was appointed a probationary Fellow, a position which was made permanent two years later.[1] Already in 1538 religious controversy had impinged on his career, in a manner which is rather surprising in the light of his later conduct. A number of junior members of Corpus Christi denounced their seniors to the royal authorities for resisting the removal of acknowledgements of the Pope from the ritual observances of the college. Such changes had been required following Henry VIII’s abolition of papal authority over England and establishment of royal control of the Church in 1534. It has been argued that the accusers were motivated by the desire to advance their own careers by establishing their credentials as supporters of the new orthodoxy and displacing those who stood above them in the college hierarchy.[2] Whether his involvement is regarded in these terms or as the product of sincere support for the institution of the Royal Supremacy, the episode is rather incongruous with Etheridge’s later life. He must in any case have sworn to uphold the Royal Supremacy to secure his university posts, but in this he would have been typical of other scholars who were willing to compromise with Henry’s break with Rome but hardened their position as Protestant reform took hold in the new national Church. Such men would refuse to countenance the later return of the Royal Supremacy under Elizabeth, to the severe detriment of their careers, and Etheridge would be among them.[3]

For the time being, however, he flourished. Having graduated MA in 1543 he was appointed as a lecturer in Greek. While teaching the subject he was also pursuing further studies in one of his other great interests, medicine.[4] These led to his graduation as a BM in 1545, at which point he was licensed to practice as a physician and resigned his Greek lectureship. However, within two years he had returned to the subject, as he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek, a post endowed by Henry in 1546.[5] He also became a Fellow of Christ Church College, which Henry had refounded and charged with paying the salaries of the new Regius Professors.[6] By his own account Etheridge had had personal dealings with the King, who had welcomed poems and other brief writings presented to him.[7] This acquaintance had evidently favourably impressed Henry and helped Etheridge to secure his post.

However, this preferment came at the very end of Henry’s life, and Etheridge’s fortunes took a turn for the worse with the advent of systematic Protestant reform in the reign of the young Edward VI. He retained his position under the regime of the Duke of Somerset, who governed as Lord Protector for Edward until 1549, but after a royal visitation of the university in 1550 Etheridge was expelled from his post by the government of Somerset’s successor the Duke of Northumberland. It was probably his religious views that had made him unpalatable to a Protestant regime, along with other academics removed from their positions at the same time.[8] Whatever his early inclinations towards reform, or willingness to go along with it for reasons of self-interest, by this time he had presumably taken up the position of forthright adherence to Catholicism that would dictate the course of his future career. Such attitudes were commonplace in Oxford, which throughout the period remained on balance more conservative than Cambridge, the university which supplied the intellectual backbone of English Protestantism.[9] Etheridge’s views were apparently shared by members of his family: his home parish in Thame was particularly persistent in resisting the removal of the altar from its church, and when it finally succumbed the altar was purchased, presumably for safe-keeping, by one William Etheridge.[10]

When Catholic rule was restored with the accession of Mary in 1552 Etheridge was promptly reinstated as Professor of Greek.[11] His delight at this reversal, and his view of the outgoing Protestant ascendancy, can be seen in the preface to his Greek translation of the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, a work published in 1553 and dedicated to Oxford’s new Chancellor, Richard Mason. Here he exulted in the restoration of correct doctrine and the rout of the Protestants in the university, an event he likened to the cleansing of the Augean stables.[12] Oxford became the scene for the most notorious episode of the ensuing persecution of Protestants, the condemnation and execution in 1555 of the Protestant prelates Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, all Cambridge men. Etheridge took part in the trial and was mentioned in Foxe’s Acts and Monuments as recommending that Ridley be gagged to silence his protests during the ceremony expelling him from the priesthood.[13]

The accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 brought another turn of the wheel, and Etheridge’s refusal to swear to uphold the Royal Supremacy in the Church, compounded by his role in the repression of Protestants in Mary’s reign, led to his removal from office the following year, along with about a hundred other Oxford Fellows.[14] His replacement was Giles Lawrence, who had previously been installed in his place during Edward's reign and then supplanted by him under Mary.[15] Deprived of his university position, he again supported himself by practicing in Oxford as a physician. He also provided private tuition to the sons of Catholic gentlemen, and his home in Catte Street is said to have become a haven for young Catholic scholars. These students included William Giffard, the future Bishop of Reims, whom he instructed in grammar, logic and music. His religious stance is said to have led to repeated imprisonment in Oxford and London during the course of Elizabeth’s reign.[16] Specifically, he is known to have been arrested and questioned in 1561.[17] It was under these difficult circumstances, deprived of his former status and regular income and apparently subject to sustained governmental harassment, that Etheridge was moved to compose this encomium on the occasion of Elizabeth’s visit to Oxford in 1566, in an attempt to win her favour. There is no evidence as to whether he gained any relief as a result, but in any event he did not regain office in the university.

Etheridge’s accomplishments stretched beyond the talents in Greek and medicine which were the foundation of his career. He mastered the three ancient languages central to humanist scholarship, and as well translating the second book of the Aeneid from Latin into Greek he translated in the opposite direction the works of the Church Father Justin Martyr and a devotional text on Saint Demetrius, as well as composing Hebrew poems based on the Psalms. These works reflected a love of poetry and music that was also expressed in other compositions, now lost, presumably including the verses which he mentions presenting to Henry VIII.[18] Before his encomium for Elizabeth, he had used his skills to produce another literary work perhaps aimed at winning royal favour, though one surely more to his own taste, a poem in Greek hexameters on Thomas Wyatt’s thwarted Protestant conspiracy and revolt against Mary I.[19] He was also said to be a gifted singer and player of stringed instruments, and capable in mathematics.[20] Towards the end of his life he published, in 1588, the work most fully encapsulating his abilities and interests, a Latin medical textbook based on the ancient Greek works of Paul of Aegina. This was accompanied by prefatory verses in Latin and Greek and an introduction in Greek. Here he recalled the kindness shown to him by the physicians of Oxford when he began to study medicine, praising their grasp of Greek learning, and expressed his desire to emulate the help he had been given by passing on the benefit of what he had learned to others.[21]

Christopher Wright

  1. Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses: an exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the University of Oxford, from the fifteenth year of King Henry the Seventh, Dom. 1500, to the end of the year 1690 (London 1691), p. 191; Alfred B. Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford, A.D. 1501 to 1540 (Oxford 1974), p. 194.
  2. J. S. Brewer, James Gairdner and R. H. Brodie (eds.), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII: preserved in the Public Record Office, the British Museum, and elsewhere in England, 22 vols. (London 1862-1932), vol. 13/2, pp. 218-9 (no. 561); Joseph G. Milne, The Early History of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (Oxford 1946), pp. 29-33.
  3. James Kelsey McConica, English Humanists and Reformation Politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (Oxford 1965), pp. 265-70.
  4. George Etheridge, In libros aliquot Pauli Aeginetae, hypomnemata quaedam, seu observations medicamentorum, quae hac aetate in usu sunt per Georgium Edrychum medicum pro iuvenum studiis ad praxim medicam, collecta (London 1588), p. vii.
  5. Emden, op. cit., p. 194.
  6. Maria Dowling, Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII (Beckenham 1986), p. 106.
  7. Encomium, f. 37r.
  8. Emden, op. cit., p. 194.
  9. Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: religion, politics and society under the Tudors (Oxford 1993), pp. 175, 188, 253-4, 270.
  10. Haigh, op. cit., p. 177; Frederick George Lee, The History, Description and Antiquities of the Prebendal Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Thame, in the County and Diocese of Oxford (London 1883), col. 527.
  11. John Roche Dasent (ed.), Acts of the Privy Council of England, new series: 1542-1631, 46 vols. (London 1890-1964), vol. 4, p. 333.
  12. George Etheridge, Publii Vergili Maronis Aeneidos liber secundus Graecis versibus redditus (London 1553), ff. ivr-vr.
  13. John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments of John Foxe, ed. Stephen Reed Cattley, 8 vols. (London 1837-41), vol. 7, p. 544.
  14. J. M. Rigg (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs: preserved principally at Rome in the Vatican archives and library, 2 vols. (London 1916-26), vol. 1, p. 68, no. 3; Wood, op. cit., pp. 191-2; Thomas Fowler, The History of Corpus Christi College, with lists of its members (Oxford 1893), p. 104; Haigh, op. cit., pp. 253-4.
  15. G. D. Duncan, ‘Public lectures and professorial chairs’, The History of the University of Oxford, Vol. 3: The Collegiate University, ed. James McConica (Oxford 1986), pp. 335-61 at p. 355.
  16. John Pits, Relationum historicarum de rebus Anglicis, ed. William Bishop (Farnborough 1969), pp. 784-5; Wood, op. cit., p. 192.
  17. Robert Lemon (ed.), Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, of the reigns of Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, 1547-1580 (London 1856), p. 171, no. 14.
  18. Pits, op. cit., p. 785.
  19. Montague Rhodes James, Catalogue of the MSS in the Library of Eton College (Cambridge 1895), p. 80.
  20. Pits, op. cit., pp. 784-5.
  21. Etheridge, In libros Pauli Aeginetae, pp. vii-xv.