History, People You've Never Heard Of

Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre, physician to King Henry VIII; a man of Greek and Latin and yet very learned in the field of medicine. He restored the aged and the sick, and even the lost soul. He translated many of the Latin works of Galen with a unique elegance. Shortly before his death, at the request of his friends, he revised the structure of the Latin speech. He was twice the public lecturer of medicine at Oxford and once Cambridge, perpetually established. He formed the Medical College of London and was elected president of it. He despised fakes, was faithful to his friends. He was a star of the brightest order. He was made a priest three years before his death. Full of years, he departed this life and is missed by many. AD 1524, 20 October. Virtue lives after funerals.

(Translation of the Latin Epitaph for Thomas Linacre at St. Paul’s Cathedral)

You have probably heard of Henry VIII, the King of England who broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 so he could divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. He was the father of Queen Elizabeth I and in many ways, he was the founder of the modern English monarchy.

You may have also heard of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch thinker and linguist who not only wrote letters in opposition to Martin Luther and the Protestants but also produced the first printed Greek New Testament and therein (ironically) aided the Protestant Reformation.

If you are a student of history, you may have also heard the name of the Medici family which ruled Florence during the 15th century and into the 16th. They commissioned many of the great works of Renaissance Art, and their scion, Giovanni de Medici, ruled as Pope Leo X – the pope who opposed Luther’s Reformation.

But you have probably never heard of the physician and thinker who was friends with all three – Thomas Linacre. He is one of the little-remembered men of the Renaissance and Reformation, but he was possibly one of the most influential men of his day.

Linacre studied the “new learning” of humanism in Florence, side-by-side with Giovanni de Medici, who would continue to write friendly letters to Linacre until his death. When he returned to England around 1490, he formed a close knit circle of humanist friends, and it was Thomas Linacre who served as tutor to Henry VIII and his older brother Arthur, as well as Henry’s daughter Princess Mary. Henry VIII admired him so much that he named Linacre the king’s physician, a post he held until his death in 1524.

And when his old classmate Giovanni de Medici became pope and wanted a new text of the Latin Bible to rival that which was being produced in Madrid under the aged Spanish cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, Giovanni turned to Thomas Linacre and his circle of friends. They pointed the pope to Erasmus, who worked feverishly with the Swiss printer Johann Froben and produced a new Latin text, with corresponding Greek, in the spring of 1516.

Beside all of this, Linacre was personally involved in the translation of a number of Greek and Latin texts into English for the first time. Erasmus considered him a master of Latin, a critical genius whom he praised with the statement, vir non exacti tantum sed sever judicii (there is no man with such exacting judgment).

Thomas Linacre was the epitome of a Renaissance man – educated and capable. He held positions of influence in multiple spheres and helped usher in the modern age.

Linacre is not completely forgotten, but outside of Oxford he is nearly so. Linacre College is a venerable institution in Oxford, the first college to be composed solely of graduate students and the first to offer courses to both men and women. Other than that legacy, you will find no contemporary chronicles of his life. As near as I can tell, the last biography written about him was published in 1835.

Fortune may favor the bold, but history favors the published.


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