John Weever

John Weever (1576 - 1632), English poet and antiquary was a native of Preston, Lancashire. Little is known of his early life and his parentage is not certain. He may be the son of the John Weever who in 1590 was one of thirteen followers of local landowner Thomas Langton put on trial for murder after a riot which took place at Lea Hall, Lancashire.

He was educated at Queens' College, Cambridge, where he was admitted as a sizar on 30 April 1594. Weever's first tutor at Cambridge was William Covell, himself a native of Lancashire and author of "Polimanteia" (1595) which contains one of the first printed notices of Shakespeare. Another of Weever's tutors was Robert Pearson, whom in later life he mentions with gratitude as a 'reverend, learned divine'. It is possible that Weever considered a career in the church himself but after receiving his degree on 16 April 1598 he appears to have left Cambridge and travelled to London, where he immersed himself in the literary scene. In late 1599 he published "Epigrammes in the Oldest Cut, and Newest Fashion", containing a sonnet on Shakespeare, and epigrams on Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, William Warner and Christopher Middleton, all of which are valuable to the literary historian. The sonnet on Shakespeare is particularly interesting since it follows the typical Shakespearian sonnet form: this may indicate Weever had seen actual examples of Shakespeare's sonnets, which at this date circulated only in manuscript. Many other epigrams however relate to persons Weever knew at Cambridge and presumably were composed while he was still a student there. The book also has commendatory verses by some of Weever's Cambridge friends.

In 1600 Weever published "Faunus and Melliflora", which begins as an erotic poem in the style of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis and after a thousand lines in this vein abruptly veers toward satire, with a description of the mythological origins of the form and translations of satires by classical authors. It concludes with references to contemporary satirists Joseph Hall and John Marston, and also to the 'Bishops' Ban' of 1599 which ordered the calling in and destruction of satirical works by Thomas Nashe and others.

In 1601 an anonymous pamphlet called "The Whippinge of the Satyre" was published, which attacks three figures referred to as the Epigrammatist, the Satirist and the Humorist. These three are taken to refer to the contemporary writers Everard Guilpin, his kinsman John Marston and Ben Jonson. It has been convincingly argued that Weever was the author of this pamphlet, and that as a result he was attacked in his turn and lampooned onstage as the character Asinius Bubo in Thomas Dekker's "Satiromastix", as Simplicius Faber in Marston's "What You Will" and as Shift in Jonson's "Every Man Out Of His Humour". All these three characters are represented as being very small in stature and great lovers of tobacco, two characteristics which Weever himself admits to in his later works.

Perhaps tiring of the stridency of the Poetomachia, in 1601 Weever also published two more serious works of a religious tone, "The Mirror of Martyrs" and "An Agnus Dei". "The Mirror of Martyrs or The Life and Death of ... Sir John Oldcastle" may have been part of a backlash. In his preface Weever calls it the "first trew Oldcastle," perhaps on account of the fact that Shakespeare's character Falstaff first appeared as 'Sir John Oldcastle'. Weever's work is influenced by John Bale's 1544 biography of Oldcastle, which presents him as a proto-Protestant martyr. In the fourth stanza of this long poem, in which Sir John is his own panegyrist, occurs a reminiscence of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" which serves to fix the date of the play. Weever's other work of this year, "An Agnus Dei", is the life of Christ told in verse form. It has little literary merit but went through several editions, perhaps because it was produced as a tiny book less than two inches square.

Sometime after this date Weever appears to have returned to the north as he was in York in 1603 and later apparently in Lancashire. Eventually however he settled in London and married, buying a house in the parish of St. James, Clerkenwell. His wife's first name was Anne, but it is not clear from the surviving records whether she was Anne Edwards, who married a man named John Weaver in St. James' church in 1614; or Anne Panting, who married a John Weaver in the same church in 1617; or neither of these.

As early as his first publication in 1599 Weever had demonstrated an interest in funeral monuments. Developing this, he spent the first three decades of the seventeenth century collecting such inscriptions. He travelled throughout England and to parts of Scotland, France, the Low Countries and Italy. Back in England he made friends among the chief antiquaries of his time, including Sir Robert Cotton and the herald Augustine Vincent. The result of extensive travels in his own country appeared in "Ancient Funeral Monuments" (1631), now valuable on account of the later obliteration of the inscriptions. This folio volume has a portrait of Weever as its frontispiece, and gives his age as 55. The Society of Antiquaries also holds two notebooks in Weever's own hand which contain an early draft of "Ancient Funeral Monuments", as well as other material not published in that work.

Weever died between mid-February and late March of 1632 and was buried at St James, Clerkenwell. His own funeral monument has since been destroyed but a copy of the verses on it survives in the 1633 edition of John Stow's "Survey of London".

The Huth Library contains a unique copy of a thumb-book "Agnus Dei" (1606), containing a history of Christ. "The Mirror of Martyrs" has been reprinted for the Roxburghe Club (1872).


*1911David Kathman, ‘Weever, John (1575/6–1632)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

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