Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/North, John (1645-1683)

NORTH, JOHN, D.D. (1645–1683), professor of Greek and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, fifth son of Dudley, fourth baron North [q. v.], by Anne, his wife, daughter of Sir Charles Montagu [q. v.], was born in London on 4 Sept. 1646, and educated at the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds under Dr. Stevens, a staunch royalist, who is said to have shown a strong partiality for his promising pupil. In 1661 he entered at Jesus College, Cambridge, of which college John Pearson [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Chester, had been appointed master at the Restoration. He was a diligent student from his boyhood, and, after proceeding to the usual degrees, he was made fellow of his college in September 1666, and began to get together a huge library, which he continued to add to during all his life. ‘Greek,’ says his brother Roger, ‘became almost vernacular to him.’ But his studies appear to have ranged over a large surface, and he was a personal friend of Sir Isaac Newton, who had entered at Trinity at the same time that North matriculated at Jesus. He did not get on well with the fellows of his college, and seldom attended the common room, preferring to associate with those who were students like himself, or with the young men of birth and social position, with whom he felt more at ease (Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii. 519). When Charles II was at Newmarket in the summer of 1668, North was appointed to preach before the king, probably out of compliment to his father, who had succeeded to the barony of North and the estate of Kirtling, near Newmarket, during the previous year. The sermon was printed in 1671, and the preacher received more than the usual compliments for his performance. About this time Archbishop Sheldon [q. v.] gave the young man the sinecure living of Llandinam in Montgomeryshire, which necessitated his vacating his fellowship, and he thereupon migrated to Trinity College, attracted thither chiefly by his friendship with Isaac Barrow, who shortly afterwards became master of the college. Newton, too, was then in residence at Trinity, having succeeded Barrow as Lucasian professor of mathematics. In 1672 Thomas Gale (1635?–1705) [q. v.] resigned the professorship of Greek in the university, and North was thereupon appointed his successor in the chair; and on his brother, Sir Francis North [q. v.], becoming attorney-general, he was made clerk of the closet, and in January 1673 was preferred to a stall in Westminster. The road to high preferment was now opening to him, and he was fortunate enough to be taken into favour by the Duke of Lauderdale, who entertained great admiration for his abilities. On 30 March 1676 he preached before the king on the last occasion when the Duke of York attended the Chapel Royal; and Evelyn, who was present, seems to have been impressed by the manner and appearance of such a ‘very young but learned and excellent person.’ That same summer the Duke of Lauderdale was entertained by the university of Cambridge, and on this occasion North, in compliment to his patron, was made doctor of divinity. Little more than a year after this (4 May 1677) Barrow died suddenly in London, and North succeeded him as master of Trinity. His mastership of the college does not appear to have been a source of much happiness to him. The fellows exhibited no great cordiality towards him, and disagreements occurred, which Roger North passes over very lightly, as if the less said about them the better.

North inherited from his predecessor the task of providing for the construction of the new library which Barrow had begun. This appears to have been roofed in during North's mastership, but was not completed till several years later. North's health began to break down soon after he became master of Trinity, and for the last four years of his life his condition became more and more deplorable. Mind and body gave way together, and after suffering from paralysis and epileptic fits, which obscured and enfeebled his intellect, he succumbed at last to apoplexy at Cambridge in April 1683, and was buried in the college chapel, where a small tablet with his initials, ‘J. N.,’ serves as his only monument. There can be no doubt that North read himself to death, and overtaxed powers which appear to have been of a high order. The result was that he left nothing behind him, and he was wise in ordering all his manuscripts to be destroyed. When Thomas Gale published his ‘Opuscula Mythologica Ethica et Physica’ in 1671, North contributed a Latin translation of the fragment of ‘Pythagoras,’ and added some illustrative notes; and in 1673 he issued from the Cambridge press an octavo entitled ‘Platonis Dialogi Selecti,’ which is said to be a very worthless production. These are all that remain as the fruits of his omnivorous learning. It must be remembered, however, that he was only twenty-eight when he became professor of Greek in the university, and that he died in his thirty-eighth year, with his faculties impaired. There is a picture of him at Rougham Hall in Norfolk, painted when he was a boy by Blemwell, a friend of Sir Peter Lely; it was the only portrait that he ever allowed to be executed. Roger North has handed down his name to posterity in a biography that must be accepted as a literary curiosity.

[Lives of the Norths, vol. ii.; Evelyn's Diary, sub anno, 1676; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iii. 528; Roger North's Autobiography; Le Neve's Fasti; Willis and Clark's Architectural History of the University of Cambridge ii. 532, et seq.]

A. J.