Rymer, Thomas (DNB00)
RYMER, THOMAS (1641–1713), author and archæologist, son of Ralph Rymer, lord of the manor of Brafferton, Yorkshire, was born at ‘The Hall’ at Yafforth in 1641 (Ingledew, Hist. of Northallerton, p. 288). The father, ‘possessed of a good estate,’ was, according to Clarendon, ‘of the quality of the better sort of grand jury men, who was esteemed a wise man, and was known to be trusted by the greatest men who had been in rebellion’ (Continuation of Life, 1759, p. 461). An ardent roundhead, he was made treasurer of his district during the Commonwealth, and he was granted the estate at Yafforth and Wickmore, Yorkshire, which he had previously rented at 200l. a year of the royalist owner, Sir Edward Osborne. At the Restoration Sir Edward's son, Thomas, compelled him to surrender these lands. Ralph Rymer, resenting this treatment, joined ‘the presbyterian rising’ in the autumn of 1663. He was arrested on 12 Oct., was condemned to death for high treason on 7 Jan., and was hanged at York. A son Ralph, who also engaged in the conspiracy, was detained in prison till 16 July 1666.
Thomas was educated at the school kept by Thomas Smelt, a loyalist, at Danby-Wiske. George Hickes [q. v.] was a schoolfellow. He was admitted a ‘pensionarius minor’ at Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge, on 29 April 1658, at the age of seventeen. On quitting the university without a degree, he became a member of Gray's Inn on 2 May 1666, and was called to the bar on 16 June 1673 (cf. Foster, Reg. p. 300).
But literature rather than law occupied most of his attention. In 1668 he first appeared as an author by publishing a translation of a Latin anthology from Cicero's works called ‘Cicero's Prince;’ this he dedicated to the Duke of Monmouth. The special study of his early life was, however, dramatic literature, and he reached the conviction that neglect of the classical rules of unity had seriously injured the dramatic efforts of English writers. In 1674 he published, with an elaborate preface in support of such views, an English translation of R. Rapin's ‘Reflections on Aristotle's Treatise of Poesie.’ In 1677 he not only prepared an essay critically examining some typical English dramas in the light of his theories, but also wrote a play in which he endeavoured to illustrate practically the value of the laws of the classical drama. The play, which was not acted, was licensed for publication on 13 Sept. 1677, and was published next year (in 4to) under the title ‘Edgar, or the English Monarch: an Heroick Tragedy.’ It was in rhymed verse. The action takes place between noonday and ten at night. The plot was mainly drawn from William of Malmesbury. Abounding in strong royalist sentiments, the volume was dedicated to the king (other editions are dated 1691 and 1692). The only service that the piece rendered to art was to show how a play might faithfully observe all the classical laws without betraying any dramatic quality. Addison referred to it in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 692) as a typical failure.
Meanwhile Rymer's critical treatise was licensed for the press on 17 July 1677. It was entitled ‘The Tragedies of the Last Age consider'd and examin'd by the Practice of the Ancients, and by the Common Sense of all Ages, in a letter to Fleetwood Shepheard, esq.,’ 1678, sm. 8vo. Here Rymer promised to examine in detail six plays, viz. Fletcher's ‘Rollo,’ ‘King or no King,’ and ‘Maid's Tragedy,’ Shakespeare's ‘Othello’ and ‘Julius Cæsar,’ and Ben Jonson's ‘Catiline,’ as well as to criticise Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’ ‘which some are pleased to call a poem.’ But he confined his attention for the present to the first three of the plays only. He is uniformly hostile to the works criticised. Most of his remarks are captious, but he displayed wide reading in the classics and occasionally exposed a genuine defect. The tract was republished, with ‘Part I’ on the title-page, in 1692. He returned to the attack on ‘Othello’ in ‘A Short View of Tragedy: its Original Excellency and Corruption; with some Reflections on Shakespeare and other Practitioners for the Stage.’ This was published late in 1692, but bears the date 1693. In Rymer's eyes ‘Othello’ was ‘a bloody farce without salt or savour.’ He denies that Shakespeare showed any capacity in tragedy, although he allows him comic genius and humour. Both works attracted attention. Dryden wrote on the first volume some appreciative notes, which Dr. Johnson first published in his ‘Life of Dryden.’ The second volume was reviewed by Motteux in the ‘Gentleman's Journal’ for December 1692, and by John Dunton in the ‘Compleat Library,’ December 1692 (ii. 58). Dunton in his ‘Life and Errors’ (1818, p. 354) calls Rymer ‘orthodox and modest.’ Pope described him as ‘a learned and strict critic,’ and ‘on the whole one of the best critics we ever had … He is generally right, though rather too severe in his opinion of the particular plays he speaks of’ (Spence, Anecdotes). Comparing Rymer's critical efforts with Dryden's ‘Essay on Dramatic Poetry’ (1668), Dr. Johnson wrote that Dryden's criticism had the majesty of a queen, Rymer's the ferocity of a tyrant (Johnson, Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, i. 341). Macaulay judged him to be the worst critic that ever lived. It is fairer to regard him as a learned fanatic, from whose extravagances any levelheaded student of the drama may derive much amusement and some profit.
In ‘Martin Scriblerus’ Pope classed Rymer with Dennis as one of those ‘who, beginning with criticism, became afterwards such poets as no age hath parallel'd’ (cf. Pope, Works, ed. Courthope and Elwin, iv. 82, v. 48). Rymer wrote three poems to the memory of Edmund Waller, which were published in a volume of elegies in 1688, as well as in Dryden's ‘Miscellany Poems;’ and he is said to have written the Latin inscription for Waller's tomb at Beaconsfield. In 1689 he published a poem on Queen Mary's arrival, and in 1692 a translation of one elegy in Ovid's ‘Tristia’ (bk. iii. elegy 6; reissued in Dryden's ‘Miscellanies,’ 2nd edit. p. 148). Further specimens of his verse, which was on occasion sportively amorous, appear in Nichols's ‘Select Poems,’ 1780, and two pieces figure in Mr. A. H. Bullen's ‘Musa Proterva’ (1895, pp. 125–7). A contemporary caricature scornfully designates him ‘a garreteer poet’ (Caulfield, Portraits, 1819, i. 50). Other contributions by Rymer to literature consisted of a translation of Plutarch's ‘Life of Nicias’ in the collection of Plutaroh's ‘Lives’ (1683–1686), and he is supposed to be author of the preface to Thomas Hobbes's posthumous ‘Historia Ecclesiastica carmine elegiaco concinnata’ (1688). ‘A Life of Thomas Hobbes’ (1681), sometimes attributed to Rymer, is almost certainly by Richard Blackburne [q. v.] ‘An Essay concerning Critical and Curious Learning, in which are contained some short Reflections on the Controversie betwixt Sir William Temple and Mr. Wotton, and that betwixt Dr. Bentley and Mr. Boyl, by T. R., Esqr.,’ 1698—a ‘very poor and mean performance’—is attributed to Rymer by Hearne (Collections, ii. 256–7).
In the meantime Rymer's interests had been diverted to history. In 1684 he published a learned tract ‘of the antiquity, power, and decay of parliaments’ (other editions in 1704 and 1714). In 1692 he received the appointment of historiographer to the king, in succession to Shadwell, at a salary of 200l. a year (Luttrell, ii. 623).
Shortly afterwards the government of William III determined, mainly at the suggestion of Lord Somers, to print by authority the public conventions of Great Britain with other powers. On 26 Aug. 1693 a warrant was issued to Rymer appointing him editor of the publication, which was to be entitled ‘Fœdera,’ and authorising him to search all public repositories for leagues, treaties, alliances, capitulations, confederacies, which had at any time been made between the crown of England and other kingdoms. Rymer took as his model Leibnitz's recently published ‘Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus’ (Hanover, 1693), and founded his work on an Elizabethan manuscript ‘Book of Abbreviations of Leagues’ by Arthur Agard [q. v.] He corresponded with Leibnitz and with Bishop Nicolson, and benefited by their suggestions. The warrant enabling him to continue his researches was renewed to Rymer on 12 April 1694. His expenses were large, and he was inadequately remunerated by the government. On 23 April 1694 he was granted, on his petition, a sum of 200l., ‘seized at Leicester on the conviction of a Romish priest,’ Gervas Cartwright. But up to August 1698 he had expended 1,253l. in transcription and the like, and only received 500l. From May 1703 a salary of 200l. was paid him for his editorial labours, but he suffered extreme poverty until his death. Many importunate petitions, which Lord Halifax supported with his influence, were needed before any money was set aside by the government for printing his work. The first volume was at length published on 20 Nov. 1704, with a turgid dedication in Latin to the queen. It opens with a convention between Henry I and Robert, earl of Flanders, dated 17 May 1101. Only two hundred and fifty copies were printed. The second volume appeared in 1705, and the third in 1706. In 1707, when the fourth volume was issued, Robert Sanderson [q. v.] was appointed Rymer's assistant, and the warrant empowering searches was renewed on 3 May. The fifth and sixth volumes followed in 1708; the seventh, eighth, and ninth in 1709, the tenth and eleventh in 1710, the twelfth in 1711, the thirteenth and fourteenth in 1712, and the fifteenth, bringing the documents down to July 1586, in 1713, the year of Rymer's death. The sixteenth volume, which appeared in 1715, was prepared by Sanderson, ‘ex schedis Thomæ Rymeri potissimum.’ By a warrant dated 15 Feb. 1717 Sanderson was constituted the sole editor of the undertaking, and he completed the original scheme by issuing the seventeenth volume in 1717 (‘accurante Roberto Sanderson, generoso’). Here the latest treaty printed was dated 1625. There were appended an index and a ‘Syllabus seu Index Actorum MSS. quæ lix voluminibus compacta (præter xviii tomos typis vulgatos) collegit ac descripsit Thomas Rymer.’ The syllabus consists of a list of all the manuscripts Rymer had transcribed during the progress of the undertaking. These papers, which dealt with the period between 1115 and 1698, are now among the Additional MSS. at the British Museum (Nos. 4573–4630 and No. 18911). Of the two hundred and fifty copies printed of each of the seventeen volumes, two hundred only were for sale at 2l. each. The cost of printing the seventeen volumes amounted to 10,615l. 12s. 6d. Three supplemental volumes by Sanderson brought the total number to twenty, of which the last appeared in 1735. The latest document included was dated 1654.
As the successive volumes issued from the press, the great design attracted appreciative attention, both at home and abroad. Each volume was, on its publication, abridged by Rapin in French in Le Clerc's ‘Bibliothèque Choisie,’ and a translation of this abridgment was published in English as ‘Acta Regia’ by Stephen Whatley in 1731 in 4 vols. 8vo (originally issued in twenty-five monthly parts). Hearne highly commended Rymer's industry, and welcomed every instalment with enthusiasm (cf. Collections, ii. 296). Swift, who obtained the volumes for the library of Dublin University, wrote in his ‘Journal to Stella’ on 22 Feb. 1712: ‘Came home early, and have been amusing myself with looking into one of the volumes of Rymer's records.’ Though defective at some points, and defaced by errors of date and by many misprints, Rymer's ‘Fœdera’ remains a collection of high value and authority for almost all periods of the middle ages and for the sixteenth century. For the period of the Commonwealth the work is meagre, and Dumont's ‘Corps Universel Diplomatique’ (8 vols. 1726) is for that epoch an indispensable supplement.
A corrected reprint, issued by Jacob Tonson at the expense of government, under the direction of George Holmes (1662–1749) [q. v.], of the first seventeen volumes, appeared between 1727 and 1730, and was sold at 50l. a set; this was limited to two hundred copies (Reliquiæ Hearnianæ, ed. Bliss, iii. 23). A new edition in ten volumes, published by John Neaulme at The Hague, 1737–45, is of greatly superior typographical accuracy, and supplies some new documents. A third edition of the ‘Fœdera’ was undertaken in 1806 by the Record Commission. Dr. Adam Clarke [q. v.] was appointed editor, and he was subsequently replaced by John Caley [q. v.] and Frederick Holbrooke; but after 30,388l. 18s. 4½d. had been spent, between 1816 and 1830, on producing five hundred copies of parts i.–vi. (forming vols. i.–iii. and bringing the work to 1383), the publication was finally suspended in 1830. A valuable syllabus of the ‘Fœdera,’ containing many corrections, was prepared by Sir Thomas Hardy, and was issued in three volumes (vol. i. appearing in 1869, 4to, vol. ii. in 1873, and vol iii. in 1885).
While engaged on the ‘Fœdera’ Rymer found time to deal with some controverted historical problems. In 1702 he published a first letter to Bishop Nicolson ‘on his Scotch Library,’ in which he endeavours to free Robert III of Scotland from the imputation of bastardy. A second letter to Bishop Nicolson contained ‘an historical deduction of the alliances between France and Scotland, whereby the pretended old league with Charlemagne is disproved and the true old league is ascertained.’ Sir Robert Sibbald [q. v.], in a published reply, disputed Rymer's accuracy. Rymer, in a third letter to Nicolson (1706), vindicated the character of Edward III.
Rymer died in poor circumstances at his house in Arundel Street, Strand, on 14 Dec. 1713, and was buried in the parish church of St. Clement Danes. He left all his property to Mrs. Anna Parnell, spinster; she sold his ‘Collectanea’ to the treasury for 215l. He seems to have been unmarried. After his death was published, in a volume called ‘Curious Amusements, by a Gentleman of Pembroke-hall in Cambridge’ (1714, 12mo), ‘Some Translations [attributed to Rymer] from Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets, with other Verses and Songs never before printed.’
[An unfinished life of Rymer, by Des Maizeaux, is among Thomas Birch's manuscripts (Add. MS. 4423, f. 161). This and all other accessible sources of information have been utilised by Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy in the elaborate memoir which he prefixed to vol. i. of his Syllabus of Rymer's Fœdera (1869). See also Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Rymer's Works; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xi. 490; Diary of Ralph Thoresby, ed. Hunter; Gardiner's and Mullinger's Introduction to English History.]