BERNERS, JOHN BOURCHIER, 2nd Baron (1469–1533), English translator, was born probably at Tharfield, Hertfordshire, about 1469. His father was killed at Barnet in 1471, and he inherited his title in 1474 from his grandfather, John Bourchier, who was a descendant of Edward III. It is supposed that he was educated at Oxford, perhaps at Balliol. His political life began early, for in 1484 he was implicated in a premature attempt to place Henry, duke of Richmond (afterwards Henry VII.), on the throne, and fled in consequence to Brittany. In 1497 he helped to put down an insurrection in Cornwall and Devonshire, raised by Michael Joseph, a blacksmith, and from this time was in high favour at court. He accompanied Henry VIII. to Calais in 1513, and was a captain of pioneers at the siege of Therouanne. In the next year he was again sent to France as chamberlain to the king’s sister Mary on her marriage with Louis XII., but he soon returned to England. He had been given the reversion of the office of lord chancellor, and in 1516 he received the actual appointment. In 1518 he was sent to Madrid to negotiate an alliance with Charles of Spain. He sent letters to Henry chronicling the bull-fights and other doings of the Spanish court, and to Wolsey complaining of the expense to which he was put in his position as ambassador. In the next year he returned to England, and with his wife Catherine Howard, daughter of the duke of Norfolk, was present in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. But his affairs were greatly embarrassed. He was harassed by lawsuits about his Hertfordshire property and owed the king sums he was unable to repay. Perhaps in the hope of repairing his fortune, he accepted the office of deputy of Calais, where he spent the rest of his life in comparative leisure, though still harassed by his debts, and died on the 16th of March 1533.
His translation of Syr Johan Froyssart of the Cronycles of England, France, Spayne, Portyngale, Scotland, Bretayne, Flaunders: and other places adjoynynge, was undertaken at the request of Henry VIII., and was printed by Richard Pynson in two volumes dated 1523 and 1525. It was the most considerable historical work that had yet appeared in English, and exercised great influence on 16th-century chroniclers. Berners tells us in his prefaces of his own love of histories of all kinds, and in the introduction to his story of Arthur of Little Britain he excuses its “fayned mater” and “many unpossybylytees” on the ground that other well reputed histories are equally incredible. He goes on to excuse his deficiencies by saying that he knew himself to be unskilled in the “facundyous arte of retoryke,” and that he was but a “lerner of the language of Frensshe.” The want of rhetoric is not to be deplored. The style of his translation is clear and simple, and he rarely introduces French words or idioms. Two romances from the French followed: The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux (printed 1534? by Wynkyn de Worde), and The Hystory of the Moost noble and valyaunt knight Arthur of lytell brytayne. His other two translations, The Castell of Love (printed 1540), from the Carcel de Amor of Diego de San Pedro, and The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius (completed six days before his death, printed 1534), from a French version of Antonio Guevara’s book, are in a different manner. The Golden Boke gives Berners a claim to be a pioneer of Euphuism, although Lyly was probably acquainted with Guevara not through his version, but through Sir Thomas North’s Dial of Princes. Berners is also credited with a book on the duties of the inhabitants of Calais, which Mr Sidney Lee thinks may be identical with the ordinance for watch and ward of Calais preserved in the Cotton MSS. and with a lost comedy, Ite in vineam meam, which used to be acted at Calais after vespers.
A biographical account of Berners is to be found in Mr Sidney Lee’s introduction to Huon of Bourdeaux (Early English Text Society 1882–1883). Among the many editions of his translation of Froissart may be mentioned that in the “Tudor Translations” (1901), with an introductory critical note by Professor W. P. Ker.