Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phaer, Thomas

PHAER or PHAYER, THOMAS (1510?–1560), lawyer, physician, and translator, is said to have been son of Thomas Phaer of Norwich (Fenton, Tour in Pembrokeshire, 1811, p. 505). The family appears to have been of Flemish origin. Phaer was educated at Oxford and at Lincoln's Inn, and was favourably noticed by William Paulet, first marquis of Winchester [q. v.] ‘As a lawyer he attained,’ says Wood, ‘to a considerable knowledge in the municipal laws,’ and he wrote two legal handbooks. The first Robert Redman published for him in 1535: it was entitled ‘Natura Brevium, newly corrected in Englishe with diuers addicions of statutes, book-cases, plees.’ … In 1543 Edward Whitchurch issued Phaer's ‘Newe Boke of Presidentes in maner of a register, wherein is comprehended the very trade of makyng all maner euydence and instrumentes of Practyse, ryght commodyous and necessary for euery man to knowe.’ He was rewarded for his endeavours to popularise legal methods by the appointment of ‘solicitor’ in the court of the Welsh marches, and settled at a house in Kilgerran or Cilgerran Forest, Pembrokeshire.

With his practice of law Phaer combined a study of medicine, which he began before 1539. In 1544, according to Herbert (although the earliest edition extant in the Bodleian Library is dated 1546), he published with Whitchurch a popular medical treatise, entitled ‘The Regiment of Life,’ a version through the French of ‘Regimen Sanitatis Salerni,’ of which a translation by Thomas Paynell [q. v.] had already been published in 1528 [see Holland, Philemon]. Phaer appended to his rendering ‘A goodly Bryefe Treatise of the Pestylence, with the causes, signs, and cures of the same,’ ‘Declaration of the Veynes of Man's Body, and to what Dyseases and Infirmities the opening of every one of them doe serve,’ and ‘A Book of Children.’ Phaer claims in this volume to have first made medical science intelligible to Englishmen in their own language. An edition, ‘newly corrected and enlarged,’ appeared in 1553 (by John Kingston and Henry Sutton in some copies, and by William How for Abraham Veale in others). Other editions are dated 1560, 1565 (?), 1567, 1570 (?), and 1596. The ‘Treatise of the Plague’ was reprinted in 1772, ‘with a preface by a physician [W. T.],’ and some extracts figured in an appendix to ‘Spiritual Preseruatiues against the Pestilence,’ 1603, by Henry Holland (d. 1604) [q. v.], and in ‘Salomon's Pesthouse, by I. D.,’ 1630.

On 6 Feb. 1558–9 Phaer graduated M.B. at Oxford, with leave to practise, and proceeded M.D. on 21 March. He stated in his supplication for the first degree that he had practised medicine for twenty years, and had made experiments about poisons and antidotes.

Despite his twofold occupation as lawyer and doctor, Phaer found leisure for literary work. In 1544 he contributed a commendatory poem to Philip Betham's ‘Military Precepts.’ He supplied a poetical version of the legend of ‘Howe Owen Glendower, being seduced by false prophecies, toke upon him to be Prince of Wales,’ to the first edition of the ‘Mirror for Magistrates,’ 1559. Warton also says he had seen an old ballad called ‘Gads-hill by Faire.’ A ballad ‘on the robbery at Gaddes-hill’ was entered in the registers of the Stationers' Company in 1558–9. In 1566—after Phaer's death—Thomas Purfoot procured a license to publish ‘Certen Verses of Cupydo, by M. Fayre,’ who is identified with Phaer. The work is not known to be extant.

Meanwhile, on 9 May 1555, he began the translation of Virgil's ‘Æneid’ into English verse, by which he is best known. The first book was completed on 25 May, the third on 10 Oct., the seventh on 7 Dec. 1557. Each book occupied him, on the average, about twenty days. In 1558 there appeared, with a dedication to Queen Mary, ‘The seven first bookes of the Eneidos of Virgill converted into Englishe meter by Thomas Phaer, esquier, sollicitour to the king and quenes maiesties [i.e. Philip and Mary], attending their honorable counsaile in the marchies of Wales, anno 1558, 28 Maij,’ London (by John Kingston), 1558, 4to. At the conclusion of the fifth book (4 May 1556), he noted that he had escaped ‘periculum Karmerdini’—an apparent reference to some accident that he sustained at Carmarthen. He completed two more books (eighth and ninth) by 3 April 1560, and had begun the tenth when he injured his hand.

Phaer died at Kilgerran in August 1560, before resuming his labours on Virgil. His will is dated 12 Aug. He directed that he should be buried in Kilgerran parish church, and requested his friend George Ferrers to write his epitaph. A direction to his wife to apply 5l. of his estate after his death to an unspecified purpose, on which his wife and he had come to an understanding in his lifetime, is believed to refer to the commemorative rites of the Roman catholic church, and is held to prove, in the presence of Phaer's loyal dedication of his ‘Æneid’ to Queen Mary, that he adhered to the old faith. His wife Ann was residuary legatee, and he made provision for three daughters: Eleanor (who had married Gruffyth ap Eynon), Mary, and Elizabeth. A eulogistic ‘epytaphe of maister Thomas Phayre’ appeared in Barnabe Googe's ‘Eglogs,’ 1563.

In 1562 Phaer's nine completed books of his translation of Virgil were edited by William Wightman, ‘receptour of Wales.’ The volume, which was dedicated to Sir Nicholas Bacon, was entitled ‘The nyne fyrst bookes of the Eneidos of Virgil converted into Englishe vearse by Tho. Phaer, doctour of phisike, with so muche of tenthe booke as since his death (1560) coulde be founde in unperfit papers at his house in Kilgaran Forest in Pembrokeshire,’ London (by Rowland Hall for Nicholas England), 1562, 4to.

In 1584 Thomas Twine completed the translation of the ‘Æneid,’ and issued what he called ‘the thirteen bookes of Æneidos,’ with a dedication to Robert Sackville, son of Lord Buckhurst; the thirteenth book was the supplement of Maphæus Vegius.

Phaer's translation is in fourteen-syllable rhyming ballad metre, is often spirited, and fairly faithful. Although Gawin Douglas [q. v.] was the earliest translator of Virgil (1553) in Great Britain, and the Earl of Surrey's translation of two books appeared in 1557, Phaer was the first Englishman to attempt a translation of the whole work. His achievement was long gratefully remembered. Arthur Hall [q. v.], when dedicating his Homer to Sir Thomas Cecil in 1581, laments the inferiority of his efforts to Phaer's ‘Virgilian English.’ Stanihurst's clumsy version of the ‘Æneid’ (1586) was derided by Nash as of small account beside Phaer's efforts (pref. to Greene's Menaphon, 1587). Puttenham, in his ‘English Poesie,’ bestows similar commendation on Phaer.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 316; J. R. Phillips's Hist. of Cilgerran, pp. 98–102; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum, in Addit. MS. 24490, f. 77; Fuller's Worthies; George Owen's History of Pembrokeshire, 1892; Fenton's Tour in Pembrokeshire, 1811; Shakespeare Society's Papers, 1849, iv. 1–5; Hazlitt's Bibliographical Collections.]

S. L.