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Tom Fuller and the worthies of Surrey

1996/3 pp9–10


Tom Fuller and the worthies of Surrey


When reading history I have sometimes come across references to ‘Fuller’s worthies’, and recently I made enquiries about them. The Worthies are in a book, The Worthies of England by Thomas Fuller, published in 1662, a year after his death.


Fuller was born in Northamptonshire in 1608. After an education at Cambridge he took holy orders and made his mark as a preacher and writer, producing a wide range of works, from religious tracts to lengthy histories, such as a Church history published in 1656 that made him one of the most popular authors of the time. In the troubled days of the Civil War he continued his writing, and was sufficiently adroit to avoid giving serious offence to either side, although at one stage his books were confiscated and his sermons banned by the Roundheads. He spent many years collecting material for The Worthies.


To quote from the introduction to an edition of the book published in 1952, ‘Fuller’s reputation, high at his death, had sunk more or less to that of a literary buffoon by the eighteenth century’. Since then interest in Fuller has waxed and waned several times: the Victorians thought he was great. Pepys also had referred to him as ‘the great Tom Fuller’.


Such a comprehensive work deserves to be remembered: it provides fascinating glimpses of the lives of many people who would otherwise be unknown to us, and reveals a great deal of the seventeenth century attitude of mind. Even the selection of worthies to be included and their treatment is instructive. The space devoted to each varies from a few lines to a few pages. The style of writing is remarkably concise.


Something like a thousand worthies are included: some are figures from the remote past, others are men who had died in Fuller’s own lifetime. They are presented under county headings, and I paid particular attention to the section on Surrey, which is prefaced by information on the county. We learn that the important natural commodities are fuller’s earth and a vein of potter’s earth near Nonsuch, from which crucibles are made for the melting of gold. Carshalton is mentioned for its walnuts, and Dorking for box wood.


The most notable buildings are the palaces of Richmond and Nonsuch. Epsom is cited for its medicinal waters. ‘Their convenient distance from London addeth to the reputation of these waters; and no wonder if citizens coming thither, from the worst of smokes into the best of airs, find in themselves a perfective alteration’.


The wonders of Surrey are the swallow holes on the River Mole and the Reigate caves. The Worthies included are: Nicholas de Farnham, a physician; Walter de Merton; William Ockham; Thomas Cranley, one-time Archbishop of Dublin; Nicholas West, Bishop of Ely; Sir Nicholas Carew; William Howard, Lord Admiral under Queen Mary; Charles Howard, Lord Admiral under Queen Elizabeth; John Parkhurst, Bishop of Norwich; Nicholas Saunders, a Doctor of Divinity; Thomas Ravis, Bishop of London; Robert Abbot, Bishop of Salisbury; George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury; Sir Robert Dudley, mathematician and navigator; Elizabeth Jane Weston, scholar; Henry Smith, the philanthropist; Richard Corbet; Henry Hammond, a canon of Christ Church, Oxford; and Henry of Oatlands, son of Charles I.


It is noteworthy that only one woman appears for Surrey, Elizabeth Jane Weston, and of her Fuller says ‘It seems her fame was more known in foreign parts than at home. And I am ashamed that, for the honour of her sex and our nation, I can give no better account of her. However, that her memory may not be harbourless, I have lodged her in this county (where I find an ancient and worshipful family of the Westons flourishing )’. A subsequent comment on Elizabeth Weston goes a long way to explain the absence of women from the Worthies: ‘Here we may see how capable the weaker sex is of learning, if instructed therein. Indeed, when a learned maid was presented to King James for an English rarity because she could write pure Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the King returned, ‘But can she spin?’


A question that came to mind when I started reading Worthies was, what were the sources, where would the seventeenth-century historian go to dig out the necessary biographical details? In fact, the question is answered in Fuller’s general introduction, where he lists ‘printed books, records in public offices, manuscripts in the possession of private gentlemen and instructions received from the nearest relations to those persons whose lives we have presented’. In other words, the same sources to which a modern historian would have recourse, if we omit computer records.


To quote again from John Freeman’s introduction to the 1952 edition, ‘The more the matter is studied, the more surprising it appears that there has been such long neglect of the most lively of antiquaries, who wrote the most readable of all works of collective biography and the brightest of all ecclesiastical histories’.


Charles Abdy

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