Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Billingsley, Henry

BILLINGSLEY, Sir HENRY (d. 1606), lord mayor of London, and first translator of Euclid into English, was the son of Roger Billingsley of Canterbury. He was admitted a Lady Margaret scholar of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1551. He is said to have also studied for several years at Oxford, although he never took a degree at either university. At Oxford he developed, according to Wood, a taste for mathematics under the tuition of 'an eminent mathematician called Whytehead,' at one time 'a fryar of the order of St. Augustine.' Billingsley was afterwards apprenticed to a London haberdasher, and rapidly became a wealthy merchant. He was chosen sheriff of London in 1584, and alderman of Tower ward on 10 Nov. 1585. He removed to Candlewick ward in 1592, and on 31 Dec. 1596 was elected lord mayor on the death, during his year of office, of Sir Thomas Skinner. He was apparently knighted during 1597. In 1594 he had been appointed president of St. Thomas's Hospital, and was from 1589 one of the queen's four 'customers,' or farmers of the customs, at the port of London. He sat as member for London in the parliament that met on 19 March 1603-4. He died 22 Nov. 1606, and was buried in the church of St. Catharine Coleman. To the poor of that parish he bequeathed 200l. In 1591 he had already founded three scholarships at St. John's College, Cambridge, for poor students, and had given to the college for their maintenance two messuages and tenements in Tower Street and in Mark Lane, Allhallows Barking (Baker, St. John's College, ed. Mayor, i. 434).

Billingsley published in 1570 the first translation of Euclid's 'Elements of Geometry' that had appeared in English. His original was the Latin version attributed to Campanus, which had been first printed in 1482, and again in 1509. A lengthy essay on mathematical science from the pen of Dr. John Dee prefaced the volume, and De Morgan has suggested that Dee, and not Billingsley, was the actual author of the translation. Dee, however, in his autobiographical tracts, distinctly states that, besides the introduction, he only contributed 'divers and many Annotations and Inventions Mathematicall added in sundry places of the foresaid English Euclide after the tenth booke of the same' (Miscellanies of Chetham Soc. i. 73). Wood asserts that Whytehead, Billingsley's Oxford tutor, who lived during his old age in Billingsley's house, bequeathed to his old pupil a valuable collection of manuscripts, which Billingsley utilised in his 'Elements of Geometrie.' In his prefatory address Billingsley makes no mention of assistance, but promises to translate, if his first effort is well received, 'other good authors both pertaining to religion (as partly I have already done), and also pertaining to Mathematicall Artes.' But this promise was never fulfilled. Two letters from Billingsley to Lord Burghley on matters connected with the London customs are among the Lansdowne MSS. (62 No. 19, 67 No. 88), and several documents at the Record Office dealing with his official duties between 1590 and the date of his death bear his signature. One of these papers, dated 11 Nov. 1604, consists of observations on the danger of decay in shipping, and in the exportation of English cloth (Cal. State Papers, 1603-10, p. 166). Billingsley was a member was a member of the Society of Antiquaries founded by Archbishop Parker in 1572 (Archæologia, i. 20).

Billingsley was twice married, (1) in 1572 to Elizabeth Boome, 'who died in 1577, aged 35, and (2) to Bridget, second daughter of Sir Christopher Draper, who was lord mayor in 1566. By his first wife he had a large family. His eldest son, Henry, was knighted by James I on 28 June 1603, and entertained Queen Anne in 1613 at his house at Liston, Gloucestershire, which his father had purchased in 1698 (Nichols, Progresses of James I, i. 192, ii. 647, 666).

[Cooper's Athenæ Cantab, ii. 442; Wood's Oxon., ed. Bliss, i. 762; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Cal. Dom. State Papers from 1690 to 1606.]

S. L. L.