Open main menu

SPENSER, JOHN (1559–1614), president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, son of John Spenser, gent., was a native of Suffolk, and was born in 1559. His sister married William Cole, D.D. [q. v.], president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He must apparently be distinguished from the John Spenser (presumably a younger brother of the poet, Edmund Spenser) who was admitted a scholar of Merchant Taylors' school, 3 Aug. 1571. The future president first joined Corpus Christi College, Oxford, according to Dr. John Rainolds [q. v.], as a ‘famulus collegii.’ He was doubtless one of the two ‘famuli præsidis,’ of whom one seems usually to have acted as a kind of private secretary. After graduating B.A., 29 Oct. 1577, he was appointed Greek reader in the college, but owing to an appeal to the visitor against his appointment he was not admitted to the fellowship, which he held in virtue of that office, till 7 May 1579, when the appeal had been decided in his favour. The opposition may have been partly owing to the unpopularity of the president, who was Spenser's brother-in-law. He proceeded M.A. 16 March 1580–1, B.D. 21 March 1589–90, D.D. 20 April 1602. Spenser resigned the Greek readership, after holding the office for the accustomed ten years, in 1588, but, for a while, retained his fellowship. Leaving Oxford, he held successively the livings of Alveley, Essex, 1589–92, Ardleigh, Essex, 1592–4, Faversham, Kent, 1594–9, and St. Sepulchre's, Newgate, from 1599 to his death, besides being presented to Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, in 1592. He was elected to the presidency of Corpus Christi College on 9 June 1607. At the time he must have been resident on his cure of St. Sepulchre's, London, as, on taking the oaths, he is described as ‘diocesis Londinensis.’ He held the presidency during an uneventful period in the college history until his death, 3 April 1614. He was also one of the fellows of Chelsea College, and was chaplain to James I. In 1612 he was appointed prebendary of St. Paul's. A sermon by him on ‘God's Love to his Vineyard,’ preached at Paul's Cross, was published posthumously in 1615.

Spenser was associated with two literary undertakings of great moment—the translation of the authorised version of the Bible and the completing of the publication of the works of his friend, Richard Hooker [q. v.] He was on the New Testament committee, his special department being the Epistles, while his predecessor, Rainolds, was on that of the Old Testament. The fact appears to be symbolised in their respective monuments opposite each other in the Corpus Chapel, where Rainolds is represented as holding in his hand a closed book, Spenser an open one.

The first posthumous edition of any part of Hooker's ‘Ecclesiastical Polity’ was brought out by Spenser, who in 1604 published an edition of the first five books ‘without any addition or diminution whatsoever,’ with a brief but graceful and pregnant address ‘To the Reader.’ He also took great pains to recover, in a form fit for publication, the remaining three books, in which effort, so far as regards the eighth book, he seems to have been largely successful, no doubt owing to the co-operation of Henry Jackson, a scholar and afterwards fellow of Corpus. Jackson was also employed in collecting and editing, under Spenser's guidance, various sermons by Hooker, including the celebrated sermon on justification [see art. Hooker, Richard, and Hooker's Works, preface, 1888].

Spenser, no doubt, took great pains in superintending the editing of Hooker's various works. But it has sometimes been further said that he took a considerable share in the composition of them. This statement, which has obtained currency through its repetition in Wood's ‘Athenæ Oxonienses’ (sub ‘John Spenser’), was originally due to one Hamlett Marshall, who seems to have been Spenser's curate, and in 1615 published a sermon by him, dedicated to John King, then bishop of London. In the dedication to this sermon he makes this statement: ‘This of mine own knowledge I dare affirm, that such was his humility and modesty in that kind’ (namely, in withholding his works from publication), ‘that, when he had taken extraordinary pains, together with a most judicious and complete divine in our church, about the compiling of a learned and profitable work now extant, yet would he not be moved to put his hand to it, though he had a special hand in it, and therefore it fell out that tulit alter honores.’ That Spenser would often communicate with Hooker on the work on ‘Ecclesiastical Polity,’ which the latter writer was preparing, possibly make suggestions, or have special points of difficulty referred to him for advice or information, is very probable, but that he made any substantial contribution to the composition of the book, without receiving due acknowledgment from the author, is a supposition as wholly repugnant to the character of Hooker as it is contradictory of the entire tone and spirit of the address in which Spenser introduces his friend's work (Fowler, Hist. of Corpus Christi College, p. 173).

Spenser married a sister of George Cranmer [q. v.], one of Hooker's favourite pupils. According to Wood, Spenser's portrait was painted ‘on the wall in the school gallery’ at Oxford (Athenæ, ed. Bliss, ii. 190).

[Fowler's Hist. of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, pp. 143–4, 170–5; Wood's Athenæ Oxon.; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Burnet's Hist. of the Reformation, Clarendon Press edition of 1816, vol. ii. pt. ii. pp. 504–5; Hooker's Works, Clarendon Press edition of 1888, editor's preface. No mention of Spenser's matriculation or admission into Corpus Christi College is extant in the university or college registers.]

T. F.