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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Henry Savile – Savoir-faire extraordinaire.

Sir Henry Savile was born 1549 in Yorkshire, in a family of poor gentry, and died 1622. We know the name "Savile" through his family connection to the London tailors "Savile Row." His family owned the land outside London, where Savile Row was later built. He was an English scholar, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he matriculated aged [no, not 21 but] 12!

Both Arts and Science

He early established a reputation as a Greek scholar, and as a mathematician too. He was unusual in believing Oxford was backward in pursuing scientific studies. He became known for expounding the Text of Ptolemy, the Almagest in such a way as to somewhat anticipate what Copernicus would later set forth. This work described the complex motions of the stars and planetary paths of an earth-centred world of astronomy and geometry. He said, "the undergraduates at Oxford did not understand the importance of mathematics, let alone astronomy, mechanics, optics or trigonometry. They had no teachers who could guide them in this way. . . . The study of mathematics, Savile argued, turned a man into an educated, civilised human being." (1) In 1578, Savile was sent - along with a small party of other brilliant young intellectual and aristocratic Elizabethans - on royal commission to the continent of Europe, to collect manuscripts and books to stock Oxford's libraries. Along the way he made some Italian and German pen-friends, a few of whom later wrote Latin accolades to him, celebrating time well spent together. Says A.N.(1):

Any idea that the culture from which the King James Version emerged was parochial or insular, the great statement of an embattled nation cut off from the corrupt and worldly currents of a degenerate continent, could not be further from the truth. A river of European influences run through it, and through no more open a conduit than Henry Savile.
Ptolemy's Almagest (

McClure explains the educational importance of tasting new cultures: At age 29, "he travelled in France and elsewhere, to perfect himself in literature; and returned highly accomplished in learning, languages, and knowledge of the world and men." Four years had passed.

The lure of languages

In 1582 Savile was chosen by Queen Elizabeth 1 to be her private tutor in Greek and mathematics. She was 49 years old. Had we nothing else to go on, sheer logic would demand – from what we know of Elizabeth - that she would only have chosen the very best. Thirty four years earlier, her tutor Roger Ascham, had said of the “shockingly clever” 15 year old girl:

She talks French and Italian as well as she does English and has often talked to me readily and well in Latin, moderately in Greek. When she writes in Greek and Latin nothing is more beautiful than her handwriting.(2)

Says McClure: "It is to her highest honour, that when she had been more than twenty years upon the throne, she still kept up her habits of study, as appears by this appointment." Three years later Queen Elizabeth made Savile Warden of Merton College, Oxford. He then sought and obtained the coveted position of Provost, that is, "Chairman of the Governors" of Eton College, even though he was not an ordained clergyman, a qualification normally required. Savile was evidently a man who used his brilliant mind, handsome looks and wide interests to the full, in achieving his personal goals.

A Latin Translator

Savile translated the twelve books of the Histories of Cornelius Tacitus from Latin, adding his own notes. Tacitus was a Roman historian who wrote in a satirical way to expose the all-too-human motives at work in the hearts of Roman emperors who lived in the first (New Testament) century. He wrote forcefully in a condensed and rapid style, and in the highest tone. The second century was “the silver age” of Latin, where “there is excellent writing; but often there are also artificialities and conceits, a striving for effects and a passion for epigrams.” (3) Only a scholar of the very first rank would attempt to do justice to such difficult material.

Savile also published, from the manuscripts, the writings of Bradwardin Against Pelagius in Latin. He also translated other learned works in English and Latin.
In love with John Chrysostom?

Savile edited the complete works of Chrysostom, the fourth century bishop of Constantinople, whose Greek writings were favoured - only second to Augustine, by the Reformers. They were admired for their straightforward integrity and vital preaching of godly Christian conduct. The eight volumes, published in 1610–1613, cost Savile £8000 out of his own pocket [Add a few noughts, for today’s inflated values]. It has been called ‘the one great work of Renaissance scholarship carried out in England.” (1) A little before the publication of the eight massive volumes, Sir Henry lay sick through overwork. Lady Savile said, that if her husband died, she would burn the volumes for killing her husband. To this, John Bois, who had done much of the translation work from the Greek meekly replied, that “so to do were great pity.” His wife's response was, “Why, who was Chrysostom?” “One of the sweetest preachers since the apostles’ times,” answered the enthusiastic Bois. Whereupon the lady was much appeased, and said, “she would not burn him for all the world.”

Savile also translated from Greek The Prelections on the Elements of Euclid.

Do greatness and goodness go together?

As an educator, Savile was not viewed with affection by his students - neither the younger ones at Eton nor the young adults at Merton - for more obvious reasons. McClure explains Savile was no admirer of geniuses, but preferred diligence to wit, when he said:

Merton College (

“Give me the plodding student. If I would look for wits, I would go to Newgate; --there be the wits!

As might be expected, he was somewhat unpopular with his scholars, who saw him as too severe when urging them on to greater diligence. Newgate was the notorious London prison [made famous in Dicken’s novels] where the accused were sent for being too ‘clever’ by far.

Early bereaved of his only son, Savile devoted most of his wealth to the promotion of learning. He founded the first chairs in geometry and astronomy at Oxford. But, we might ask whether he was also a good man? His wife - Margaret, daughter of George Dacrews - had an insider’s answer! Her husband was so totally immersed in book-learning, so constantly in his study, that she felt neglected as to her personal needs. “Sir Henry,” she said, “I would that I were a book, and then you would a little more respect me.” On a wider front, he offered academic support to those who felt justified in organising armed rebellion against Elizabeth's reign. He was not in fact convicted of part responsibility for the conspiracy of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex failed in his attempt to remove the ageing Queen from the throne. But, was Savile really suggesting it was necessary to redeem Elizabeth's Queendom from tyranny and bondage?! (4) Whichever, his fellows at Merton thought he was not good, when they accused him of accepting bribes for College leases, which he then turned to his own private use. (4) All this was passed over by his fellow Etonians at his funeral, when Savile was styled, “that magazine of learning, whose memory shall be honorable among the learned and the righteous for ever.” As to be expected, Nicolson pulls no punches, saying of Savile that although he was brilliant, he was self-serving and vain-spirited. (4) KJV Isaiah 2:22 Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?

The work of Bible translation

Savile was a member of the Second Oxford Company of eight men. These scholars were responsible for translating the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation. He was a highly accomplished Latin scholar, and with no slight knowledge of Greek. But, when it came to choosing between alternative text renderings in the NT manuscripts, Savile would probably not have been looked to for guidance in his company. For this they would have relied on John Harmer (more of him later), who was admirably well-read in ‘the Fathers.’ Knowledge of how the early Christian writers read the Text in the first three centuries is important, where manuscripts disagree in any way from the Text used by Erasmus. It was called “the Received Text” (TR) because it was accepted as having been reliably handed down to them from the Apostolic age.

McClure has the last word again: “Sir Henry Savile was one of the most profound, exact, and critical scholars of his age and meet and ripe to take a part in the preparation of our incomparable version.”

(1) Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. p. 164, 167,
(2) Schama, Simon (2000), A History of Britain, At the Edge of the World, Lon: BBC Worldwide. p. 334.
(3) Warrington, John (1969) Everymans Classical Dictionary. Lon: Dent.
(4) Nicolson, pp. 170 -172, 166-168.

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