Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/North, Thomas (1535?-1601?)
NORTH, Sir THOMAS (1535?–1601?), translator, born about 1535, was second and youngest son of Edward, first baron North [q. v.], by his first wife Alice, daughter of Oliver Squyer. Roger, second baron North [q. v.], was his eldest brother. It is believed he was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1557 he was entered a student of Lincoln's Inn, and appears soon afterwards to have turned his attention to literature. Notwithstanding the provision made for North by his father's will (20 March 1563), and the generous help of his brother Roger, lord North, he was always in need. He seems, however, to have maintained some position in Cambridgeshire, and in 1568 was presented with the freedom of the city of Cambridge. In 1574 Thomas accompanied his brother Roger when sent as ambassador-extraordinary to the court of Henri III of France. Two years later his brother made him a present of ‘a lease of a house and household stuff.’ Soon after the publication of his famous translation of ‘Plutarch’ in 1579, Leicester, in a letter to Burghley, asked his favour for the book. ‘He [North] is a very honest gentleman,’ wrote Leicester, ‘and hath many good things in him which are drowned only by poverty.’ His great-nephew Dudley, fourth baron North [q. v.], wrote of him as ‘a man of courage;’ and in the days of the Armada he took command, as captain, of three hundred men of Ely. About 1591 he was knighted, and must therefore have then possessed the qualification necessary in those days for a knight-bachelor—land to the value of 40l. a year.
Among the Additional MSS. in the British Museum is a paper by North, entitled ‘Exceptions against the Suit of [the] Surveyor of Gaugers of Beer and Ale,’ dated 9 Jan. 1591. In 1592 he was placed on the commission of the peace for the county of Cambridge, and his name (‘Thomas North, miles’) is again found on the roll of justices for 1597. In 1598 he received a grant of 20l. from the town of Cambridge, and in 1601 a pension of 40l. a year from the queen, ‘in consideration of the good and faithful service done unto us.’ He was then nearly seventy years of age, and doubtless died soon afterwards, although no record of his death is accessible. North was married: first, to Elizabeth, daughter of Mr. Colville of London, and widow of Robert Rich; and, secondly, to Judith, daughter of Henry Vesey of Isleham, Cambridgeshire, and widow of Robert Bridgwater. This lady was a third time married, to John Courthope, second son of John Courthope of Whiligh, Sussex. By his first wife he was father of Edward, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Wren of Haddenham, Isle of Ely; and Elizabeth, married in June 1579 to Thomas Stuteville of Brinkley, Cambridgeshire. Cooper mentions a third child, Roger, but the boy's name is absent from the family records; and if he ever existed, it is probable that he died in infancy.
North's literary work consisted of translations; but he exerted a powerful influence on Elizabethan writers, and has been described as the first great master of English prose. In December 1557 he published in London, with a dedication to Queen Mary, his first book, which was translated from Guevara's ‘Libro Aureo,’ a Spanish adaptation of the ‘Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.’ North's book was entitled ‘The Diall of Princes, compiled by the reuerende Father in God, Don Anthony Gueuara, Byshop of Guadix, Preacher and Chronicler to Charles the Fift, late of that name Emperour. Englysshed oute of the Frenche by Thomas North, seconde sonne of the Lord North. Right necessarie and pleasaunt to all gentylmen and others whiche are louers of vertue.’ North's translation, although professedly from the French, was in fact made in large measure from the Spanish original. A briefer version by Guevara of the same work had already appeared in English as the ‘Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius,’ in 1534, from the pen of John Bourchier, lord Berners, the translator of Froissart. Berners's work had reached its fifth edition by 1557. Recent critics have detected in Guevara's Spanish style a close resemblance to the euphuism which John Lyly [q. v.] rendered popular in Elizabeth's reign. Lyly was doubtless acquainted with the version of Guevara's ‘Marcus Aurelius’ by Berners and North respectively, and probably borrowed some of his sentiments from one or other of them. But it is very unlikely that he derived the peculiarities of his style from either work. ‘Euphuistic’ passages occur rarely in North's version, and the endeavours to fix either on him or on Berners the parentage of English euphuism have not at present proved successful. North's work was, nevertheless, highly popular in his day. In 1568 appeared a second edition, ‘now newly reuised and corrected by hym, refourmed of faultes escaped in the first edition; with an amplification also of a fourth booke annexed to the same, entituled the Fauored Courtier, neuer heretofore imprinted in our vulgar tongue. Right necessarie and pleasaunt to all noble and vertuous persones (by Richard Tottill and Thomas Marshe, Anno Domino 1568).’ A third edition appeared in 1582, and a fourth in 1619.
In 1570 he brought out his second work, entitled ‘The Morall Philosophie of Doni: Drawne out of the auncient writers. A worke first compiled in the Indian tongue, and afterwards reduced into diuers other languages: and now lastly Englished out of Italian by Thomas North, brother to the Right Honourable Sir Roger North, knight, Lorde North of Kyrtheling.’ A second edition is dated 1601. A reprint, edited by Mr. J. Jacobs, appeared in 1891. The book consists of a collection of ancient oriental fables, rendered with rare wit and vigour from the Italian of Antonio Francesco Doni.
In 1579 North published the work by which he will be best remembered—his translation of Plutarch's ‘Lives,’ which he rendered from the French of Amyot. It was entitled ‘The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, compared together by that graue learned Philosopher and Historiographer, Plutarke of Chæronea: Translated out of Greeke into French by James Amyot, Abbot of Bellozane, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the King's Priuy Counsel, and Great Amner of Fraunce; and out of French into Englishe by Thomas North. Imprinted at London by Thomas Vautrouiller and John Wight, 1579,’ fol. A new title-page introduces ‘the Lives of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, translated out of Latine into French by Charles de l'Escluse, and out of French into English by Thomas North.’ A second edition appeared in 1595, fol. (‘R. Field for B. Norton’). In 1603 to a new edition were ‘added the Lives of Epaminondas, of Philip of Macedon, of Dionysius the elder, tyrant of Sicilia, of Augustus Cæsar, of Pluturke, and of Seneca: with the liues of nine other excellent Chieftaines of Warre: collected out of Emylius Probus by S. G. S., and Englished by the aforesaid Translator.’ A later edition was in two parts, dated respectively 1610 and 1612. Other issues are dated 1631, 1657—in which, according to Wood, Selden had a hand—and 1676 (Cambridge, fol.). This was the last complete edition. North's translation was supplanted in popular reading by one which appeared in 1683–6, with a preface by Dryden, and subsequently by the well-known edition of John and William Langhorne, which was issued in 1770.
North dedicated the book to Queen Elizabeth, and it was one of the most popular of her day. It is written throughout in admirably vivid and robust prose. But it is as Shakespeare's storehouse of classical learning that it presents itself in its most interesting aspect. To it (it is not too much to say) we owe the existence of the plays of ‘Julius Cæsar,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ while ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream,’ ‘Pericles,’ and ‘Timon of Athens’ are all indebted to it. In ‘Coriolanus’ whole speeches have been transferred bodily from North, but it is in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ that North's diction has been most closely followed. Collier is of opinion that Shakespeare used the third edition, and Mr. Allan Park Paton has written a learned but unconvincing pamphlet to prove that a copy of that edition, now in the Greenock Library, was the poet's property, and the very book from which he worked. In 1875, ‘Shakespeare's Plutarch, being a selection from the Lives in North's Plutarch which illustrate Shakespeare's Plays,’ was edited by the Rev. W. W. Skeat, who says that, although North fell into some mistakes which Amyot had avoided, his English is especially good, racy, and well expressed. ‘He had the advantage of writing at a period when nervous idiomatic English was well understood and commonly written; so that he constantly uses expressions which illustrate in a very interesting manner the language of our Authorised Version of the Bible.’ ‘Four Chapters of North's Plutarch,’ containing the lives of Coriolanus, Cæsar, Antonius, and Brutus, were edited by F. A. Leo, 1878, 4to; and numerous single lives have appeared in Cassell's ‘Universal Library.’