John North


John North, Master, by Miss North1645-1683.

Master; Regius Professor of Greek; Clerk of the Closet. Early student of Descartes.

North was born in London, the fifth of the seven sons of Dudley North, fourth Baron North , and his wife, Anne, daughter of Sir Charles Montagu. Along with his brothers Francis, Dudley, Montagu and Roger, he attended King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds. The headmaster, Thomas Stephens, was a defiant royalist, and paraded his boarders in scarlet cloaks as worn by the cavaliers. A portrait of John North in this outfit was commissioned by Stephens from the Bury artist Blemwell.

North was a sickly child, and retained a frail physique and soft complexion together with a mop of blond hair; he was consequently not without admirers. His poor health and studious disposition marked him out for a clerical career. After leaving Bury he spent some time at home in further study. In 1661 he matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a fellow-commoner (advancing to the status of nobleman when his father inherited the barony of North in 1666). He graduated BA in 1664 and proceeded MA in 1666. By royal mandate of 28 September 1666 he was nominated to a fellowship at Jesus, with dispensation from ineligibility because the place vacant was reserved for a northerner. By this time North was already accumulating a substantial library; in this he was helped by the London bookseller Robert Scot, whose sister was in service with North's family.

North never cared much for social recreation. An early enthusiasm for playing the organ came to an end when his efforts upset a neighbour, who retaliated with a cacophony of pots and pans. Thereafter North's only real interests were cerebration and arachnophilia. By way of preparing for the ministry he gave sermons in churches around Cambridge which lay in his College's gift, deputizing for ordained fellows who had the duty of preaching there. In 1668, while still a layman, he preached before Charles II at Newmarket, and was said to have made a good impression. He was made deacon in 1669. In July 1670 he told his father he had no immediate intention of proceeding to the priesthood, and indeed had been advised by his own bishop and Henry Compton, later bishop of London, to bide his time until a suitable benefice came along. Despite his rehearsals, he felt that preaching was ‘not [his] best course’ (Trinity College MS 0.11a.3/36). However, by October Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon had promised him a sinecure worth £500 a year; this was the rectory of Llandinam, Montgomeryshire. North was duly ordained priest on 30 October 1670.

Having accepted preferment, North was obliged to vacate his fellowship at Jesus. Instead he moved to Trinity, where for the present he lived as a resident MA, without College stipend. His chief study was in Greek, and in 1671 he contributed to a collection of texts put out by the Regius Professor, Thomas Gale. On Gale's retirement in 1672 North succeeded him, holding the chair for two years. In 1673 he published extracts from Plato as Dialogi selecti, of which no copy survives. On 9 January 1673 he was appointed by the king to a canonry of Westminster, which he held to his death. In 1674 it was said that he was to be made clerk of the closet, and perhaps also bishop of Bristol. The mitre he never had, and although there are subsequent references to his clerkship (including in the memoir by his brother Roger), there is no mention of him in the formal records of that office. He was, however, a royal chaplain and regular court preacher; John Evelyn heard him on Easter eve 1676 and judged him ‘a very young, but learned, & excellent person’ (Evelyn, 4.87). In the following summer he was made DD at Cambridge on the occasion of a visit by the duke of Lauderdale, whose patronage North enjoyed.

On 5 May North was nominated Master of Trinity in succession to his friend Isaac Barrow. It proved to be an unwelcome honour. North's preferences had always been for the company of younger men of good family (and the more ancient the family the better) or older men of superior learning. For the generality of academic society he had no liking, and the feeling was reciprocated. Recent masters of Trinity had allowed the direction of affairs to pass to a clique of eight seniors, and North's determination to assert his authority (especially over fellowship elections) generated much bitterness. The most satisfactory aspect of his mastership was the progress in building the Wren Library, which had been begun in 1676. In North's time the ceiling and plumbing works were completed, and carvings were executed by Gabriel Cibber. In July 1677 the College issued an appeal for funds, envisaging the extension of Nevile's court to achieve ‘a decent and beautiful space’ (J. North, over North's signature).

North's health, which had never improved, was enfeebled by inadequate diet and excess of study - the latter to no lasting purpose, since he had no capacity for sustained composition. He died on 14 April 1683. By his will he directed that no escutcheon or other ceremony should accompany his funeral service, and that all his literary manuscripts should be destroyed. His grave is marked by a simple slab in the paving of the Ante-Chapel at Trinity, immediately behind Roubiliac's towering statue of Isaac Newton, who had been North's closest friend in life at the College.

‘Being near his end, he ordered that he should be buried in the outward chapel, that the fellows might trample upon him dead as they had done living.’ The Lives of the Norths by Roger North, John’s brother.



Tombstone inscription Translation


APRIL 14. 1683
John North, Master of the College, died on 14th April 1683.

John North North tomb.  Click for enlarged view

Buried in the Ante-Chapel.



Moore Meredith


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