Early daysJohn Layfield was born in 1562/3 was the son of Edward Layfield, a prebendary of St Paul's Cathedral. Layfield was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood before proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA in 1582 and became a Fellow in 1583. He proceeded MA in 1585 and BTh in 1592. He was also lector in Greek in 1593 and examiner in grammar in 1599. He later married Elizabeth in 1603 at St Mary, Whitechapel, and had two sons and a daughter. (1)
In 1598 Layfield accompanied George Clifford, third earl of Cumberland as his chaplain and chronicler, during a violent and dangerous expedition to the West Indies, when hundreds died (2). Clifford wanted to see Reformed truth spread across the globe. Layfield wrote a long account of the voyage to Puerto Rico in ‘Purchas his Pilgrimes.’ Cumberland's biographer says Layfield's ‘detailed description of the whole voyage is the most reliable as well as the most complete of the extant accounts’ (Spence, 144).
Nicolson says of the writer’s value to the expedition:
John Layfield . . . was an explorer and prose writer of real distinction, who left one of the most civil-minded and generous accounts ever written of the English arrival in the New World. . . . What Layfield brought to this exciting subject . . . was an unabashed manliness of style, a smart brisk way of telling a story in which piety or an adopted moralism had no part. . . . Even before they leave Portsmouth, Layfield displays his gift for clear and dramatic narrative, for instant characterisation, for a scene brought utterly alert. . . . Layfield’s chronicle is as bright-colored as anything by Robert Louis Stevenson . . . . Nothing about Layfield is cynical or even prejudiced. (2)
Translator of the KJV
In 1606 he was one of the Greek and Hebrew scholars appointed by James I to produce what became the Authorized Version of the Bible. Layfield was one of ten who met at Westminster to work on the Old Testament, Genesis to 2 Kings inclusive. It was said that "being skilled in architecture, his judgment was much relied on for the fabric of the tabernacle and temple" as described in the book of Leviticus.
Paine quotes a lengthy passage from Layfield’s Carribean chronicle, describing the island of Dominica, and notes his exact and charming vocabulary:
Though we can prove nothing by mere diction, there are many words in this passage that are found in the King James Bible: apparel, attired, discovered, nakedness, boring ears, covered, profitable. The rhythms of Layfield also may remind us of those in the books on which he laboured. (3)
Nicolson quotes as an example from the opening chapters of Genesis:
9And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow euery tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and euil. 10And a river went out of Eden to water the garden;
[Layfield] had a hand in writing this . . . . As he did so he would have had in mind those incomparable forests of Dominica, where ‘the trees doe continually maintaine themselves, in a greene-good liking’ - extraordinary phrase - ‘partly of many fine Rivers, which to requite the shadow and coolenesse they receive from the Trees, give them back again a continuall refresshing of very sweete and tastie water.‘ The seventeenth century English idea of Paradise, a vision of enveloping lushness, was formed by the seduction of an almost untouched Caribbean. (2)
No doubt Lancelot Andrewes chose him as a member of his Westminster group, more for his ability with English style, than in understanding Hebrew - Layfield was more the Greek scholar than Oriental.
Layfield was Rector of Aldwincle St Peter's, Northamptonshire from 1598 to 1602, and then became rector of St Clement Danes, London, resigning his fellowship at Trinity in 1603.
Layfield was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1606. Four years later, he became one of the first fellows of Chelsea College, newly founded to resist a return to Papal authority, by the production of an anti-Catholic polemic.
In 1613 he contributed laudatory verses to the preface of Sir William Leighton's Tears or Lamentations of a Sorrowful Soul. He died, probably in his London rectory, in 1617. In his will, he left land in Old Cleeve, Somerset, and Royston, Hertfordshire, to his wife for her lifetime, with remainder to their eldest son, Edward.
(1) Bayne, Ronald (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
(2) Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. pp. 102-103
(3) Paine, Gustavus, (1959/1977)The men behind the King James version, MI: Baker p. 36.
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