Savile, Sir Henry

(1549-1622), mathematician and classical scholar

by R. D. Goulding

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Savile, Sir Henry (1549-1622), mathematician and classical scholar, was born on 30 November 1549 in Over Bradley, West Riding of Yorkshire, one of eight children and the middle of three sons of Henry Savile (d. 1566) of Over Bradley and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Ramsden of Yorkshire and his wife, Elizabeth. John Savile (1546-1607) was his elder brother and Thomas Savile (d. 1593) was his younger brother. His father studied civil and canon law at Oxford University and was a moderately prosperous landowner. The family valued learning highly and Henry Savile the elder made provision in his will for the division of his library between his sons, leaving money specifically for the purchase of books.

Early years and education, 1549-1570
John Savile left an account of the many tutors he had as a boy--relations and local churchmen, in the main--from whom he received a solid classical education: the four years before he went up to Oxford in 1561 were spent reading Terence, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, and Cicero. This style of education may have been a consequence of turmoil in the grammar school system in the wake of disruptive legislation during Edward VI's reign. It is most likely that Henry Savile, only three years younger than his brother, received similar early education and probably under the same tutors.

The Savile clan was large, and other branches of the family--notably the Saviles of Thornhill, Derbyshire--were among the wealthiest landowners in the region. Some were also known for their puritanism and founded schools which were supervised by puritan clergy. The Saviles of Over Bradley have left no such explicit evidence of their confessional inclination. They were, however, very clearly protestant: John Savile records that one of his first reading books, set to him at the age of eight, was the Dialogi sacri by the freethinker Sebastian Châteillon. Thomas Savile, moreover, mentioned in a letter to William Camden that one of his childhood tutors had been rejected from a university post by a 'fanatical gang of Catholics' on the grounds that he was a puritan (W. Camden, Gulielmi Camdeni, et illustrium virorum ad G. Camdenum epistolae, 1691, 14-15). While later in Europe, Henry Savile befriended both Roman Catholic and protestant humanists, but his closest association was with the former Catholic Andreas Dudith, bishop of Cinq-églises, in Wroclaw, Poland, whose drift away from his original confession carried him through Calvinism to Arianism and unitarianism.

The Savile brothers attended Oxford University. Henry Savile, like his father, matriculated at Brasenose College in 1561, aged twelve. He excelled in mathematics and astronomy, but his interests also embraced classical scholarship, English history, patristic theology, and much else besides. His protégé Richard Montague famously described him--not without bias, perhaps, but certainly with justice--as the 'Magasin of learning' (R. Montague, Diatribae upon the First Part of the Late History of Tithes, 1621, 126). In 1565 (a year before he graduated BA on 14 January 1566), he was elected to a fellowship at Merton College. He subsequently held a series of college offices: second dean in 1574-5, principal postmaster in 1575-6, and third bursar from 1576 to 1578. In 1575 he was also elected proctor with John Underhill, a protégé of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. At Leicester's insistence, both men had their offices extended to a second year.

Savile's intellectual interests during his student years are very well documented by his own manuscript writings and annotations in printed books. Although he is best known today as the translator of Tacitus and editor of John Chrysostom, the last work he published before he died was a set of lectures on Euclid, delivered at the inauguration of the Savilian professorships. His interest in mathematics was not a late development: the sciences were, in fact, his first interest as a youth, and took second place to theology only in his middle age. While studying for his MA, and perhaps even earlier, Savile immersed himself in astronomy and geometry, both ancient and modern. After proceeding MA on 30 May 1570, he was chosen as one of the regent masters in astronomy for the year 1570-71. This office entailed delivering the 'ordinary lectures' in that subject--the only form of teaching that the university provided for undergraduates.

Early work, 1570-1578
The text of the lectures survives in three manuscript volumes in the Bodleian Library (Savile MSS 29, 31, 32). In these lectures Savile describes something of the programme of study he pursued at the beginning of his scientific career. His earliest interest, he tells us, was in philosophy; a friend recognized, however, that his talents lay elsewhere, and advised him to turn his attention to mathematics. He began his studies with Euclid's Elements, perhaps as part of the university's compulsory geometry curriculum. He worked systematically through it, book by book, and recalls that he found the subject so enthralling--especially the fifth and sixth books on the theory of proportion, a subject that remained a lifelong interest--that he would forget to eat or sleep. By the middle of the notoriously difficult tenth book (on irrational quantities), however, he found himself mentally exhausted, and decided to abandon geometry for astronomy. Typically, he began not with one of the simplified handbooks on the subject, but with Ptolemy's Almagest itself, which he read in the original Greek assisted by an assortment of translations. The difficulty of the mathematics, however, defeated him, and eventually he returned to geometry, completing his reading of the Elements. On the advice, he says, of his elders, he then broadened his mathematical education by studying the works of Archimedes and perhaps learning some algebra, before finally turning back to Ptolemy.

With this thorough grounding in geometry, Savile found the Almagest much more accessible on the second reading. He now realized, in fact, that the existing translations, both medieval and Renaissance, were entirely unsatisfactory, and often mathematically flawed. In 1568 he therefore embarked on his first scientific project: a new translation of the Almagest; this survives in manuscript in the Bodleian Library (Savile MSS 26-28). His translation covers approximately half of the Greek original, the text taken from the editio princeps by Simon Grynaeus of 1538--Savile's annotated copy of this edition is also extant (Bodl. Oxf., MS Savile W. 14). He also translated the commentaries of Theon, Pappus, and Cabasilas which Grynaeus printed alongside the ancient text. Savile's translation is technically very accurate and is written in an elegant and clear Latin style. The mathematical competence derives largely from his study of the works of the great fifteenth-century reformer of astronomy, Johannes Regiomontanus, whose interpretations and additions Savile wrote carefully into the margin of his printed Almagest.

While he was translating the Almagest, Savile began to lay the ground for his next project. At the back of one of the notebooks, he made a list of all astronomers and mathematicians, ancient and modern, whom he had encountered in his reading, together with brief biographies and bibliographical details: what works they wrote, whether they had been published, and where manuscripts of their unprinted works could be found. The list, which Savile entitled 'Auctores mathematici', contained some 700 entries. This was the raw material for a history of the sciences; while in the midst of translating Ptolemy, Savile even settled on a title for the projected work: 'Compendium historiae mathematicae'. The work was never published, but formed a large section of his ordinary lectures, occupying much of the first volume of the manuscript. It is a remarkably comprehensive and historically detailed survey of ancient science, organized biographically, beginning with the legendary foundations of the sciences by the Hebrew patriarchs and ending with Ptolemy. In the Praelectiones he delivered fifty years later, Savile drew attention especially to his demonstration in the life of Euclid that the author of the Elements was not the same person as Euclid of Megara, the philosopher and contemporary of Plato, as was almost universally believed at the time (by, for instance, Henry Billingsley, whose translation of the Elements was published in 1570, the same year as Savile's lectures).

The lectures following Savile's history of the sciences contain the most advanced treatment of astronomy in sixteenth-century England, with the possible exception of the papers of Thomas Harriot. The range of sources known to Savile, and the depth of his understanding of them, is astonishing, particularly given the young age at which he delivered these lectures. He showed a mastery of astronomers from Ptolemy, through the Arabs, to Regiomontanus and Copernicus. His analysis of the astronomical hypotheses of various astronomers through history is comparable in its technical skill to that of contemporary continental astronomers, such as Erasmus Reinhold. Savile's teaching far surpassed the usual instruction in astronomy at Oxford, which rarely went beyond the basics of the sphere and sometimes concerned itself only with judicial astrology (which he expressly rejected in his lectures and continued to condemn throughout his life).

Savile appears to have been the first to teach the new astronomy of Copernicus at an English university. He did not, however, subscribe to the heliocentric world-view. In his lectures he presented the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems side by side, and made no comment on the fact that the two systems contradicted each other, although elsewhere in the same lectures he made it clear that he believed the earth to be fixed in place in the centre of the universe. His attitude is typical for most astronomers of the period: they revered Copernicus, whom they considered to have matched or surpassed Ptolemy in skill, but were little interested in heliocentrism per se. Savile's pragmatic approach to the problem of the two world-systems is well illustrated by an anecdote (from later in his life) related by his contemporary, Nathanael Carpenter. When he was once having dinner with Savile, Carpenter relates in his Geography, the conversation turned to astronomy, and he asked whether, in Savile's view, the earth really travelled around the sun (as Copernicus had it) or was in fact stationary at the centre of the universe, as Ptolemy maintained. Savile answered that he was entirely indifferent as to the truth of either hypothesis so long as (in the ancient formula) the appearances were saved--and on this criterion either hypothesis 'would indifferently serve an Astronomer'. He illustrated this with a homely simile: 'is it not all one ... sitting at Dinner, whether my Table be brought to me, or I go to my Table, so I eat my meat?' (N. Carpenter, Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes, 2 pts, 1625, pt 1, p. 143).

Most unusually for a scientific writer in England of this period, Savile's lectures on mathematics and astronomy concentrated entirely on theoretical issues. He emphasized to his students that both sciences had been part of--in fact, central to--the ancient liberal-arts curriculum; he also maintained that the true scholar should waste no time mastering practical applications in either field. His prejudice was partly personal: his own intellectual interests lay wholly within the theoretical sphere and he repeatedly identified himself as a Platonist, stating at one point that his avoidance of practical arts was the consequence of his 'disgust for external things'. He also hoped to improve the institutional standing of the sciences at Oxford: most well-bred Oxford students neglected mathematics and astronomy, some because they seemed difficult and obscure arts to master, a great many more because of the widespread assumption that they were the province of vulgar merchants and sailors. To combat these prejudices, Savile made humanism central to the model of the sciences he presented in his lectures, not only in order to win the interest of students who had come to Oxford to study the humanities, but also because he believed that the humanist could make a real contribution to mathematics--as he himself had done in his historical researches into the lives of ancient mathematicians.

Savile's understanding of the sciences was largely formed by his study of contemporary continental publications. He frequently compared the poor state of the sciences at Oxford with the great esteem they enjoyed at European universities. There, he declared, scholars were as familiar with Ptolemy's Almagest as students at Oxford were with Greek grammar. If Oxford were to make up the gap in the sciences, it would not be through studying handbooks or popular, practical expositions but by absorbing the original sources of ancient science. Savile also contrasted the poor state of the sciences in late sixteenth-century Oxford with the achievements of medieval Oxford mathematicians and natural philosophers, especially those of his own college (now known as the Merton school). This was a theme to which he frequently returned, most notably during Elizabeth I's visit to Oxford of 1592, when he gave a speech in his role as adjudicator of a debate held for her entertainment. He chided the scholars of Oxford for their squeamishness, unable to bring themselves to read the works of these scientists because of the barbarous Latin they employed. In the same speech (which was published posthumously and subsequently reprinted by Charles Plummer) he decided in favour of the proposition 'Should astrologers be banished from the state?'.

Savile's lectures of 1570 were disrupted by outbreaks of the plague in Oxford and were rescheduled several times. Despite these obstacles, the remarkable nature of these lectures firmly established his scholarly reputation--as Anthony Wood said, he became 'famous for his learning, especially for the Greek tongue and mathematics'. In part, his success can be attributed not only to the content of the lectures, but to their lively style and careful pacing and explanation of the difficult material--Savile was a gifted teacher as well as a fine scholar. The Praelectiones of 1620 (unfortunately, the only other lectures of his to survive) exhibit the same qualities, and an anecdote from a few years previously shows that Savile remained an inspiring teacher. Henry Gellibrand, who went up to Trinity College, Oxford, in 1615, was an indifferent student until he stumbled into one of Savile's lectures by accident--or rather, to avoid the fine that would have been levied if he did not attend. He soon became so absorbed by it that he 'immediately fell to the study of that noble science'--and eventually became Gresham professor of astronomy (J. Ward, The Lives of the Professors of Gresham College, 1740, 81). As well as confirming Savile's expertise as a lecturer, this story suggests that he at times delivered the compulsory or ordinary lectures in mathematics, a task he perhaps assumed in the absence of any recent graduates capable of teaching the sciences to his standard. No doubt it was this circumstance which led him to found the Savilian professorships, thereby providing a permanent replacement for the teaching of mathematics through the regency system.

Savile continued to value the theoretical branches of the sciences more highly than the practical. The scientific books which he annotated later in his life are, with very few exceptions, theoretical; in books where both types of science appear, such as astronomical books, the annotations concentrated in areas such as planetary theory and neglected subjects like the construction of instruments. In his Savilian professorships, however, he did attempt to strike a balance.

European tour, 1578-1585
Savile's most notable contemporary at Merton was Thomas Bodley. Their relationship at first seems to have been uneasy. In 1566-7, soon after his arrival at Merton, Savile became embroiled in factionalism at the college. Bodley, then dean, headed the conservative grouping; Savile--for perhaps the only time in his life--was one of the 'rebel hotblades' (Martin and Highfield, 159), putting his name to a letter questioning Bodley's authority. A close friendship between the two men developed despite this incident. In 1576 Bodley embarked on a European tour, and left his rooms at Merton to be occupied by Savile. In 1578, supported by a small allowance from Merton, Savile himself left for the continent, travelling first to Paris, where Bodley was then residing.

Savile remained abroad for four years, travelling as far east as Wroclaw in Poland, and as far south as Rome. His travelling companions included George Carew, Henry Neville, and Philip Sidney's younger brother Robert. The latter, like so many travelling Englishmen of the time, was on tour primarily to meet important political figures and to acquire a cosmopolitan 'polish' and smattering of foreign languages, all of which were considered useful for a gentleman, especially a courtier. No doubt Savile shared these goals, but his notes and the letters that document his tour reveal in addition an altogether more serious purpose. He was on tour primarily to further his mathematical and humanistic education, and much of his time was spent in the great libraries of Europe; the manuscripts he copied out were later to form the core of the Savilian professors' collection, and are now in the Bodleian Library. He also established friendships with many important scholars. In Altdorf (near Nuremberg) he was the guest of the professor of mathematics Johannes Praetorius, who remained in correspondence with Savile for many years afterwards. Praetorius sent him on to his friend Tadeas˙ Hájek (Thaddaeus Hagecius), the imperial physician in Prague, who was also a fine astronomer. Hájek in turn sent him to Dudith in Wroclaw, where he stayed for six months. While there he worked extensively with Paul Wittich, an astronomer who had, until a couple of months before, been a colleague and confidant of Tycho Brahe; he and Savile were preoccupied in particular with the problem of reconciling Ptolemy and Copernicus, one of the central problems of European astronomy in this period. In Padua he passed his time in the library of Gian Vicenzo Pinelli--one of the greatest in Europe--and then spent several weeks in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, where he hunted out mathematical manuscripts for himself and theological and rhetorical works for Pinelli. Savile returned to England late in 1582 and, according to Wood, was appointed tutor in Greek to Elizabeth shortly thereafter--the start of his career as a courtier which was to lead rapidly on to higher academic office.

Warden of Merton and provost of Eton, 1585-1595
In 1585, Savile became warden of Merton by rather unorthodox means. The warden was, according to the college's own statutes, elected by the fellows. Despite--or perhaps because of--his long association with the college and familiarity with the fellows, Savile invested no faith in this democratic process and obtained the post instead through his influence with the queen. In a letter to the college of 1586, William Cecil, first Lord Burghley, lord treasurer, and Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary, recognized that the fellows had, by tradition, the freedom to choose their own warden, but trusted that they would 'concur with Her Majesty's wishes' (Martin and Highfield, 169-70). They of course did, but clearly this imposition from above rankled with some of the fellows. William Aubrey recorded that one fellow complained until his dying day that Savile's closeness to the queen made it impossible to deal with him in a normal manner. The same fellow asserted that Savile was 'too much inflated with his learning and riches', and 'did oppresse the fellows grievously'. After his appointment, it seems, Savile made little effort to restore normal relations with his colleagues. The college register (as might be expected) contains no complaint against him, but a set of letters now in the Merton archives reveals that the fellows' displeasure was expressed very forcefully more than a decade after his appointment (ibid., 173-7).

Savile was said to be tall and extremely handsome. He married Margaret (d. in or after 1622), daughter of George Dacres of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and his wife, Elizabeth, and widow of George Gerrard of Dorney, Buckinghamshire, in either 1591 or 1592. She had two daughters from her first marriage, including Anne (1585/6-1627), who married Sir Dudley Carleton. Savile and his wife had two children, Henry (d. 1604) and Elizabeth (b. c.1595, d. after 1651), known as Bess, who married Sir John Sedley, second baronet. After he secured the provostship of Eton College in 1595 Savile was rarely in residence at Oxford--and even before then, his constant attendance at court (in part to lobby for the provostship, in part because of his office of Greek tutor) meant he was in college only infrequently. As early as 1587 he nominated a sub-warden, Thomas Master, to run the affairs of the college during his absence. Savile's appointment to Eton made it obvious that this arrangement was to be permanent, and two years later, when Master took a living which disqualified him from holding his position in the college, the fellows seized the opportunity and lobbied the visitor, John Whitgift, archbishop of Canterbury, to have the sub-warden removed. The fellows also complained to Thomas Ravis, vice-chancellor, about Savile's irregular behaviour, accusing him of holding more offices than he was permitted to and ruling Merton as an absentee warden, as well as favouritism and corruption in his administration of college properties. The matter was settled by Elizabeth's intervention and the summary dismissal of several fellows. The chancellor of the university, Sir Thomas Sackville, however, felt obliged to write to Savile condemning in general terms the absence of heads of colleges and, when they were present, their habitation with their wives in college--another rule that Savile had flouted since his marriage. The chancellor implicitly demanded Savile's resignation; Savile wrote a letter to Whitgift defending himself. He admitted that he stayed in Merton only six or seven times a year, but previous wardens, he argued, had not always resided in college--and his absences saved the college money in food and heating bills. He went on in his letter to describe some of the substantial improvements he had made at Merton (including, ironically, greatly increasing the number of fellows); and although some of his colleagues may not have agreed at the time, there is no doubt the college benefited from Savile's wardenship. He enlarged the library (more than tripling its holdings of printed books) and introduced continental-style bookstacks, in which the books were stored standing up, rather than lying flat as was the usual practice in England. These stacks can still be seen in the college library. He also had built, between 1608 and 1610, the fellows' quad and the handsome façade looking out onto Christ Church meadow, employing Yorkshire builders who had worked on his family's properties. As well as appointing many new fellows to enhance the college's intellectual reputation, he made the first two Savilian professors, Henry Briggs and John Bainbridge, fellows of Merton--perhaps hoping that his college would regain the leading role in the sciences it had enjoyed in the fourteenth century.

Savile was one of the first donors to the Bodleian Library. In 1599 Merton, at his instigation, delivered £40-£50 worth of books to the new library. Bodley was to call on his assistance many times in the early days of the library--a reflection not only of their long friendship, but of Savile's experience in improving the libraries of Merton and Eton. In 1598 Bodley and Savile together made sketches for the design of the arts end, and the actual building was done by the same Yorkshire masons who had worked on the Savile family estates and whom Savile had contracted for the construction of the fellows' quad. The design of the 'tower of the five orders' in the schools quadrangle is almost certainly due to Savile, since these masons had only recently built one of the few other examples in England of superimposed classical orders, at a property in Yorkshire belonging to Savile's older brother John Savile. Moreover, the idea for the tower probably comes from an illustration in Daniele Barbaro's edition of Vitruvius's De architectura (Venice, 1567), a book that Savile owned and had studied. He was also involved in the selection of worthies for the frieze in what is now the upper reading room. After Bodley's death in 1613, Savile was largely responsible for the completion of the library.

Savile campaigned long for the provostship of Eton and, in 1595, finally obtained his wish. His appointment was, once again, rather irregular, not least because the provost was supposed to be in orders. In a letter of April 1595 to Sir Robert Cecil, Savile urged him to ask his father to use his influence with Elizabeth to secure the provostship: 'one commendation [from him] in cold blood, and seeming to proceed of judgement, shall more prevail with the Queen then all the affectionate speech that my lord of Essex can use'. He promised Cecil a sum of 300 angels in return for his help (Salisbury MSS, 5.188-9). The queen informed the fellows on 14 January 1596, through Cecil, that they were to delay their election until she made her pleasure known to them. On 18 May the fellows received a letter from her informing them that 'we have made choise of our trustie and wellbeloved servant Henry Savill as of one, whom for his knowledge and judgement and integritie ... we do thinke to be most meet and worthie thereof'. Recognizing that the provost was customarily chosen by an election of the fellows, she instructed them to elect Savile. As for the fact that 'he is no Preste', she ordered him to be appointed 'notwithstanding anie such defecte of qualitie by Statute required' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. B. 268, fol. 38r). Again, as with the Merton appointment, he was indebted to Burghley.

Aubrey relates that at Eton, Savile was:

a very severe Governour, the scholars hated him for his austerity. He could not abide Witts: when a young scholar was recommended to him for a good Witt, 'Out upon him, I'le have nothing to doe with him; give me the ploding student. If I would look for witts, I would go to Newgate: there be the Witts.' (Brief Lives, 267)
He may not have been loved but, as at Merton, he did much to improve the college, expanding the holdings of the library and surrounding himself with fellows who, if not 'Witts', were certainly to be numbered among the best classical scholars in the country. The number of pupils and faculty members increased during his tenure and extensions were made to the college: the building Savile erected to house his printing press later became the headmaster's residence.

Essex and Tacitus, 1595-1601
Although, in his letter to Cecil petitioning for the provostship, Savile professed little faith in Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, two months later, on 27 July (no doubt at Savile's request), the earl himself wrote to Cecil urging him to ensure Savile's 'advancement' (Salisbury MSS, 5.291). Savile's friendship with Essex dated back to at least 1591. In that year he published his translation of Tacitus's Histories and Agricola under, it seems, Essex's patronage. Immediately after his prefatory dedication of the book to the queen, there is an address to the reader by a writer who identifies himself only as 'A. B.'. According to Ben Jonson and to Edmund Bolton, the author of this preface was Essex himself. John Florio seems to refer obliquely to the earl's authorship in his Worlde of Wordes (1598). In the Apollogie which Essex wrote to Anthony Bacon, he cited his friendship with 'that most learned and trulie honest Mr Savile' as evidence for his love of scholarship (Bodl. Oxf., MS e Museo 55, fol. 73r). Savile was a friend of Henry Cuffe, whom he made a tutor at Merton in 1586, and it was perhaps through Cuffe--later to be the earl's secretary and according to some (including Essex himself) the cause of his downfall--that Savile was drawn into his circle of intellectuals.

English interest in Tacitus originated in the 1580s within a small group of correspondents which included Cuffe and Savile's younger brother Thomas Savile, as well as Camden and Jean Hotman. It was probably Cuffe who encouraged the application of the Tacitean critique of power to contemporary politics. The most notorious instance of such an interpretation was Sir John Hayward's play Henry IV (1599). Hayward was another member of Essex's circle. This study of the seizure of regal power--and the legitimacy of such power obtained through force of arms--could not but suggest uncomfortable contemporary parallels. Asked by Elizabeth whether the play was treasonable or not, Francis Bacon quipped that the author's crime was not treason but theft, having stolen so much from Tacitus. Whatever Hayward's intention, the play was used in evidence against Essex and his co-conspirators to demonstrate that their attempted coup had been long premeditated. Savile, in his work on Tacitus, appears to imply similar comparisons between imperial Rome and Elizabethan England, although he avoids Hayward's extremes.

In his translations, Savile attempted--with mixed success--to convey Tacitus's style as well as his meaning in English prose, in particular his use of aphorism and irony. His commentaries are exhaustive and learned, particularly his lengthy excursus on Roman warfare, which was later translated into Latin (without his permission) for the benefit of continental scholars. More remarkable than the translations and scholarly commentary, however, was the original composition placed first in the volume, entitled The Ende of Nero and Beginning of Galba, a work covering events at Rome in the years 68 to 69 AD--between, that is, the end of the period covered in the Annals and the beginning of that covered by the Histories. This is written in the spirit, as well as the style, of the ancient historian. As Savile remarked in his notes, Tacitus set 'us downe a theoreme of history ... that an historiographer is to give knowledge of counsailes and causes', and The Ende of Nero, with its focus on power and factions, has been identified as the first example of English 'politic history' (A. T. Bradford, 'Stuart absolutism and the utility of Tacitus', Huntington Library Quarterly, 46, 1983, 133). In common with many continental Taciteans, Savile was also profoundly influenced by Niccolo Machiavelli, particularly in his explanation of Nero's fall from power. In Savile's account Nero is not a moral monster whose pitiful end was a fitting punishment for his wicked life (as some contemporary English writers portrayed him), but a weak ruler who was neither loved by his subjects nor able to instill sufficient fear in them to maintain his virtue (that is, the virtù of The Prince). In his praise of Julius Vindex, a conspirator against Nero, he implicitly supports the view that it is permissible for a military commander, at least, to rebel against a bad monarch--quite against the political orthodoxy of his time, and certainly significant in the light of his association with Essex. The translation of Tacitus and the Ende of Nero were much admired at the time. Henry Peacham recommended Tacitus as the 'prince of historians', difficult in Latin but now speaking 'the most pure and excellent English' (H. Peacham, Complete Gentleman, 1622, 47). Bolton and Jonson exalted Savile as a reincarnation of Tacitus, and wished that he would now produce a Tacitean history of England. His Tacitean writings were his most successful publication and went through six editions by 1640, and a further edition in 1698. From the second edition of 1598, Savile's work was accompanied by Richard Grenewey's much inferior translation of the Annals and Germania. In 1649 Savile's notes on Tacitus and his Ende of Nero were translated into Latin and published in Amsterdam by Isaac Gruter.

Meagre evidence survives for Savile's relationship with Essex after 1591. In 1594 he stayed with the earl, and may have travelled with him to Oxford; and in 1597 he leased Merton College lands to him for a rent well below the market rate, a favour that the latter perhaps repaid with a gift of cash to Savile. The fellows of Merton included this corrupt deal in their catalogue of complaints against the warden. After the failure of Essex's rebellion in 1601, Savile was arrested and briefly imprisoned and all papers relating to the earl and his circle were seized from his study at Eton. The authorities were particularly interested in his relationship with Cuffe, questioning a member of Savile's household about the two men's recent meetings. He was released unpunished, and it is unlikely that he had taken any part in the conspiracy. He was certainly even less involved than Neville, his travelling companion in Europe and lifelong friend, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London and fined heavily, it seems, for having been aware of the plot. Immediately after the arrest of Essex the earl's son and heir, Robert Devereux (later third earl of Essex, then a pupil at Eton), was placed in Savile's care. He was subsequently an undergraduate at Merton, and lived in the warden's lodgings. When James VI and I came to the throne two years later, Savile, like many of Essex's former associates, found the new king to be very well disposed towards him; Savile was knighted by the king on his visit to Eton on 21 September 1604 after a banquet there.

Savile, Scaliger, and Casaubon, 1595-1600
In 1579, on his arrival in Paris, Savile made the acquaintance of the great humanist scholar Joseph Scaliger. In the spring of 1595 Savile, in common with many other mathematicians throughout Europe, received a letter from Scaliger seeking public endorsement for his most recent publication, Cyclometrica (Leiden, 1594). This beautifully and expensively printed book purported to square the circle and trisect the angle. Modern mathematics has demonstrated that these ancient problems cannot be solved using the Euclidean tools of compasses and straight-edge (as Scaliger claimed to have done). In 1595, however, it was not known that any attempt at solution was bound to fail--and most mathematicians believed the problems could be solved even if no solution had ever in fact been discovered. Scaliger cannot be faulted, then, for attempting a solution; unfortunately, it was painfully evident that the great philologist had not mastered elementary geometry, and the book was crammed with woeful misunderstandings of basic concepts and errors in simple mathematical reasoning. He never wavered in his belief that his solutions were correct, and in his letter to Savile he asked him, for the sake of their long-standing friendship, to defend the Cyclometrica against the spiteful and groundless attacks that were being prepared against it. Unknown to him, however, Savile himself had read the Cyclometrica with a sharply critical eye and had filled the margins of his copy (extant in the Bodleian Library) with a comprehensive and frequently sarcastic refutation. Apart from the mathematical errors, Savile found particularly galling Scaliger's intemperate attacks on Archimedes, whom he had castigated for using reductiones ad absurdum--a form of argument which, Scaliger insisted, had no validity in mathematics. In his Praelectiones tresdecim in principium elementorum Euclidis (1621) Savile quoted at length the reply he sent to Scaliger, 'a better philologist than logician', in which he argued that any logically valid argument (such as a reductio) was also mathematically valid (pp. 231-2). Scaliger's reaction to Savile's rebuttal is not recorded.

Savile had a long interest in the quadrature of the circle. In his lectures of 1570, he told his students that a solution was possible and would surely be discovered one day. Scattered through his papers, however, are refutations of several purported quadratures, some of much greater sophistication than Scaliger's; his examination of these failures seems to have led him to a less sanguine view of the problem, and by the time Scaliger wrote to him, he put more faith in the approximate methods first used by Archimedes (that is, in finding a more accurate, but not exact, value for π). His interest in the problem also extended to its history. In the margins of his printed copy of Simplicius's commentary on Aristotle's Physics, for instance, he reconstructed from the very corrupt text the several 'quadratures of lunes' discovered by the pre-Euclidean geometer Hippocrates of Chios; he was apparently the first modern scholar to do so. He was thus also well qualified to comment on Scaliger's own history of quadrature which appeared in the Cyclometrica. His friend Johannes Praetorius recognized Savile's aptitude for the task and urged him by letter to refute Scaliger on every front. Extant in Savile's papers are fragmentary drafts for a book which, if he had completed it, would have provided a complete history of the problem and refuted several quadratures, including Scaliger's. Several European mathematicians, however, soon published works against Scaliger, and Savile seems to have abandoned the entire project, despite the historical perspective he had to contribute. This was, unfortunately, a recurrent pattern in his mathematical work: his papers contain several unfinished projects to which he had clearly devoted much effort (such as his insightful work on the theory of proportion in the Elements) and others which did not get beyond a promising outline (such as his plans to write a history of the homocentric hypothesis in astronomy).

Long after the Cyclometrica episode Savile came to know Scaliger's closest friend, Isaac Casaubon, who emigrated from France to England in 1610. Savile's brother Thomas Savile first wrote to him in 1590 while in Germany, submitting some notes on the ancient geographer Strabo for the elder scholar's appraisal. In 1596 Casaubon contacted Henry Savile and Camden to ask their assistance with his work on Polybius--he had been informed by Richard Thomson that the two men were the most learned students of Greek in England. Subsequently, Casaubon helped Savile extensively in obtaining manuscripts from French libraries for the Chrysostom project. Savile's letters to Casaubon concerning their scholarly projects are businesslike--even, at times, rather imperious--and evince no great warmth towards his correspondent. In a letter of December 1611 Savile upbraided him for having dared to question his attacks on Scaliger's mathematical abilities--which Casaubon had only done, no doubt, out of loyalty to his friend, who had died two years before. The criticisms of Scaliger's mathematics which Savile rehearsed to Casaubon are correct enough, but the letter is written in an unpleasant, triumphalist tone, quite inappropriate in the circumstances: 'I cannot marvel enough that so insignificant a man is valued so highly by so fine a man as yourself', he concludes one paragraph (BL, Burney MS 366, fol. 68r). In the same letter Savile also mocks Casaubon for having referred to François Viète as 'great'. Most modern historians would rank him as the finest late sixteenth-century mathematician; Savile, however, had met him in Paris and was underwhelmed by his abilities.

Savile's self-confidence, not to say arrogance, could not be more in contrast to Casaubon's gentle and affable character, and on at least one occasion the latter remarked on Savile's conviction of his superiority to all other scholars. However, the antipathy between the two men has been exaggerated. Casaubon visited Savile at Eton in April 1611 and his son Meric went to stay with him there on at least one occasion (November 1611). Casaubon mentions once in his diary that he stayed with Savile when attending the court at Windsor, which may have been his regular practice. In May 1613 he travelled to Eton and then, with Savile, journeyed on to Oxford. Savile spent three days with him at Merton before returning to Eton; Casaubon stayed on another fortnight, but seems to have regretted that he was no longer Savile's guest, but was now in the care of William Goodwin, dean of Christ Church. By Casaubon's account, Savile seems to have been an exemplary host; nor, despite the evident differences between the two men, does he ever give any hint of dislike for him.

Chrysostom, 1600-1613
In the preface to his eight-volume edition of the works of Chrysostom, Savile explained that he had been 'consumed with love' for the church father since his earliest youth, and that he decided about 1600 to publish a complete concursus of his works, appalled that his writings should be scattered piecemeal in mouldering manuscripts and partial editions (Savile, preface, 1, sig.
4r). The work was published by the London bookseller, John Norton, using a press set up at Eton by the London printer Melchisidec Bradwood between 1610 and 1612. Though no evidence remains for his early interest in this author, Savile may have been introduced to patristic literature while on his European tour, where some of his new acquaintances (most notably Luca Pinelli and his humanistic circle) were students of Eastern theology. Savile's correspondence on Chrysostom with Casaubon, Jacques du Thou, and others begins about the turn of the century.

Savile was assisted in his enterprise by classical scholars such as John Bois, Thomas Allen, and Andrew Downes, all of whom contributed critical notes to the edition, as well as John Hales, a fellow of Merton, and Richard Montague. In the preface of the edition he thanked many librarians and scholars in France, Germany, Austria, and Italy who contributed manuscripts and information to the project--correspondence with some of these men is still extant. Samuel Slade, a fellow of Merton, journeyed extensively through the East in search of manuscripts of Chrysostom. The printer's copy of the work is in the Bodleian Library, and it sheds valuable light on editorial practice in the early modern period. As well as manuscript copies of ancient tracts, the large bound volumes contain earlier printed versions of Chrysostom's works; both manuscript and printed texts are marked up with emendations by Savile and his collaborators, and with Savile's instructions for layout to the printer.

The edition was not a financial success. The sales may have been affected by the appearance in 1614 of a six-volume collection of Chrysostom's works accompanied by Latin translations, and other similar bilingual editions in the following few years--Savile's edition contained only the Greek text. Wood states that Savile's text was stolen by Fronto Ducaeus (Fronton du Duc) for the 1614 edition. Du Duc's edition was certainly close to Savile's, but at least some of the labour in establishing the text may have been borne by du Duc himself, whom Savile in his edition named as one of his foreign collaborators. In any case, by printing a text that is still admired to this day Savile made it possible for these more accessible editions to be published. The cost of the edition of 1000 copies was, according to Wood, £8000, an enormous sum largely met from Savile's own resources. The price was initially fixed at £9 for the set, but soon was dropped to £8 (after Savile's death, Eton was selling copies for £3 per set). In his will Savile left fifty copies of the work to Merton and the same number to Eton; he accounts for yet another fifty in the hands of the printer, as well as several others in his possession and that of his son-in-law, Carleton. Carleton assisted him for a year in the preparation of the edition and, after the publication, attempted--with little success--to sell copies of the work in Venice, where he was resident ambassador.

Other scholarly works, 1598-1613
In 1598 Savile published a collection of chronicles and histories of England under the title Rerum Anglicarum scriptores. Even at the time the work was considered to be poorly executed. It does, however, uniquely preserve the text of ®thelweard's Chronicle, of which the only manuscript was almost entirely destroyed in the Cotton Library fire of 1731. In 1604 Savile wrote a tract on the question of union between England and Scotland entitled 'Historical collections'; it exists in several manuscripts (one of which is dedicated to James VI and I). He largely restricted himself to considering the relationship through history between the two kingdoms without committing himself to an answer on the question of union. He might have been expected to ingratiate himself with the new king but showed considerable independence of thought by opposing in this tract several of James's expressed intentions.

Also in 1604 Savile was enlisted into the 'fifth company' of translators for the Authorized Version of the Bible. He seems to have headed this group, which was responsible for the gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and Revelation and met in the warden's lodgings at Merton. Among the distinguished Oxford scholars who convened in Savile's rooms was the Calvinist divine and master of University College, George Abbot. In 1618 he commissioned from Savile an edition of Thomas Bradwardine's De causa Dei. Savile himself found the 'geometrical' style of this anti-Pelagian treatise of the greatest interest, and indeed in the preface to the volume he identified his fellow Mertonian Bradwardine--whose scientific works were well represented in his library--as the finest mathematician of his age.

The Eton press not only published the work on Chrysostom. Savile himself edited for the press Xenophon's Cyropaedia (1613)--clearly meant for use as a textbook in the college. Montague edited Gregory Nazianzen's In Julianum invectivae duae and other works from a manuscript in Savile's library (1610); and in the same year Matthew Bust edited the Versus iambici of Johannes Euchaitensis--both men praised Savile extravagantly in their prefaces. The press also published Theophilus Cangiserus's paraphrases of the Psalms (1613) and, In usum scholae Etonensis ('as used at Eton') , the Oikumene of Dionysius Periegetes (1613?). Savile was also the prime mover behind the edition of Barlaam's Logistica (Paris, 1600) by his old friend John Chamber; the manuscript of the work was obtained by him on his European tour and he urged Chamber to publish it.

Professorships and Praelectiones, 1620-1621
Perhaps Savile's most important contribution to the sciences was his foundation in 1620 of two professorships at Oxford in geometry and astronomy, which--as he recommended in the statutes for the chairs--replaced the old regency system of ordinary lectures. He laid down very precise instructions both for the selection of the professors and for their duties. The two men were to be of good character, drawn from any Christian nation, and should 'have imbibed the purer philosophy from the springs of Aristotle and Plato' before thoroughly learning the sciences--just, in fact, as Savile himself had done as a young man (S. Gibson, ed., Statuta Antiqua universitatis Oxoniensis, 1931, 528-40). The curriculum was to be centred on the study of the ancients: geometry would be based on Euclid's Elements, Apollonius's Conics, and all the works of Archimedes, and astronomy on Ptolemy's Almagest. The astronomy professor was also required to supplement his teaching with the discoveries of Copernicus and the Arab astronomers. The two professors were to share the teaching of trigonometry, which should be based on the ancient treatises on spherical trigonometry by Theodosius and Menelaus.

This curriculum--with its concentration on the study of ancient science at its most advanced--is remarkably similar to Savile's ideas on proper mathematical education first expressed in his lectures of 1570. Half a century on, however, there are some new elements which reflect, perhaps, a more sophisticated view of the sciences than the naive Platonism of his youth with its lofty dismissal of the practical. It certainly embodies a more realistic pedagogy, no doubt formed by half a century's experience of teaching undergraduates who had little or no prior mathematical training. Although the goal was still to teach students the best science of antiquity, Savile allowed his professors to start slowly with simple ancient handbooks and, for those students who needed them, to provide classes in the vernacular on basic arithmetic. All of the practical mathematical arts--optics, music, mechanics, geography, navigation, and so on--also fell within the professors' provinces, although any kind of astrological divination or the constructing of horoscopes was completely forbidden. The geometry professor was even enjoined to demonstrate occasionally the art of surveying 'in the fields or other places near the University'. Finally, the professors were to be researchers as well as teachers. The professor of astronomy 'in imitation of Ptolemy and Copernicus' was to make nightly observations of the skies; the records of his discoveries were to be added to the Savilian library (which already included, of course, Savile's own notes on the sciences). This accretion of knowledge, he maintained, was 'the only way to confirm or correct the astronomy of the ancients'. Both were also to deposit in the library their 'notes and observations' on the set books (ibid.). Although the later Savilian professors (who included John Wallis, Edmond Halley, and Sir Christopher Wren) may not have strictly adhered to Savile's prescriptions for textbooks and pedagogical practice, his library remained an essential part of the professorship and manuscripts in his collection formed the basis for many editions of ancient texts by Savilian professors for the next century. Savile inaugurated his professorships on 12 July 1620 by delivering a series of lectures on the first book of Euclid's Elements. These were published the following year as his Praelectiones. He discussed the definitions, axioms, postulates, and the theorems as far as the eighth proposition of book 1, whereupon he handed over the task of expounding Euclid to Briggs, the first professor of geometry. Savile's lectures are very accomplished and are still of scholarly worth.

Aubrey records that Savile's first choice for the geometry professorship was Edmund Gunter, an Oxford graduate and from 1619 the professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. The interview did not go well:

[Gunter] came and brought with him his Sector and Quadrant, and fell to resolving of Triangles and doeing a great many fine things. Said the grave knight, 'Doe you call this reading of Geometrie? This is shewing of tricks, man!' and so dismisst him with scorne, and sent for Henry Briggs, from Cambridge. (Brief Lives, 268)
Clearly, Savile's interest in practical mathematics still did not run very deep. Briggs (a Yorkshireman) was at that time also a professor of geometry at Gresham and celebrated in particular for his Logarithmorum chilias prima of 1617. The professorship of astronomy went to John Bainbridge, whose description of the comet of 1618 had impressed Savile.

Savile died at Eton on 19 February 1622 and, probably in late March, was buried in Eton College chapel next to his son Henry. He was 'buried by torchlight to save expense, though he left £200 for his funeral' (CSP dom., 1619-23, 371). His grave is marked by a simple tombstone in the chapel. A magnificent monument was placed by his widow in Merton chapel (now in the ante-chapel), on which Savile's bust is flanked by life-size statues of Ptolemy, Euclid, Tacitus, and Chrysostom.


H. Savile, preface, in St John Chrysostom, Ta heuriskomena, ed. H. Savile, 8 vols. (1610-12)
M. Aubineau, Codices Chrysostomici Graeci, I: Britannia et Hibernia, Documents, études et Répertoires publiés par l'Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes, 13 (Paris, 1968)
M. Aubineau, 'Textes hagiographiques dans les dossiers de Sir Henry Savile', Analecta Bollandiana, 86 (1968), 83-5
M. R. A. Bullard, 'Talking heads: the Bodleian Library frieze, its inspiration, sources, designer and significance', Bodleian Library Record, 14 (1994), 461-500
J. W. Clay and J. Lister, 'Autobiography of Sir John Savile of Methley, knight, baron of the exchequer, 1547-1607', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 15 (1900), 420-27
P. Costil, André Dudith, humaniste hongrois, 1533-1589: sa vie, son Ďuvre et ses manuscrits grecs (Paris, 1935)
M. Feingold, The mathematicians' apprenticeship: science, universities and society in England, 1560-1640 (Cambridge and New York, NY, 1984), 47-8, 124-30
R. D. Goulding, 'Henry Savile and the Tychonic world system', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 58 (1995), 152-79
R. D. Goulding, 'Testimonia humanitatis: the early lectures of Sir Henry Savile', Sir Thomas Gresham and Gresham College: studies in the intellectual history of London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ed. F. Ames-Lewis (1999), 125-45
R. D. Goulding, 'Studies on the mathematical and astronomical papers of Sir Henry Savile', PhD diss., U. Lond., Warburg Institute, 1999
S. L. Greenslade, 'The printer's copy for the Eton Chrysostom, 1610-13', Studia Patristica, 7 (1966), 60-64
J. R. L. Highfield, 'An autograph commonplace book of Sir Henry Savile', Bodleian Library Record, 7 (1963), 73-83
M. F. Iovine, 'Henry Savile lettore di Bernardino Telesio: l'esemplare di 537.C.6 del De rerum natura, 1570', Nouvelles de la République de Lettres, 18 (1998), 51-84
J. Lister, 'Bradley Hall: the home of a distinguished family', Papers, Reports etc. read before the Halifax Antiquarian Society, 16 (1919), 1-28
C. Maccagni and G. Derenzini, 'Libri Apollonii qui ... desiderantur', Scienza e filosofia: saggi in onore di Ludovico Geymonat, ed. C. Mangione (Milan, 1985), 678-96
G. H. Martin and J. R. L. Highfield, A history of Merton College, Oxford (1997)
D. B. Quinn and N. M. Cheshire, The new found land of Stephen Parmenius (Toronto, 1972)
R. B. Todd, 'Henry and Thomas Savile in Italy', Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 58 (1996), 439-44
Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949); pbk edn (1992)
D. Womersley, 'Sir Henry Savile's translation of Tacitus and the political interpretation of Elizabethan texts', Review of English Studies, new ser., 42 (1991), 313-42
Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 2.310-17
will, PRO, PROB 11/139, fols. 345v-347r
CSP dom., 1619-23
The manuscripts of the Right Honourable F. J. Savile Foljambe, of Osberton, HMC, 41 (1897)
Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 5, HMC (1894)

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
LPL, corresp.

M. Gheeraerts the younger, oils, 1621, Bodl. Oxf. [see illus.]
M. Gheeraerts the younger, oils, second version, Eton
portrait (after M. Gheeraerts), MHS Oxf.
portrait (after M. Gheeraerts), Merton Oxf.

Wealth at death  
moderately wealthy: will, 27 Sept 1621, PRO, PROB 11/139, fols. 345v-347r

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


GO TO THE OUP ARTICLE (Sign-in required)