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John Hookham Frere (1769-1846)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1889

John Hookham Frere, a diplomatist and author, was the eldest son of John Frere of Roydon Hall, near Diss, Norfolk, by his wife Jane, only child of John Hookham of Beddington, Surrey, a rich London merchant, was born in London on 21 May 1769, and in 1785 went from a preparatory school at Putney to Eton, where he formed his lifelong friendship with Canning. In the following year the two friends joined with ‘Bobus’ Smith and some other schoolfellows in starting the ‘Microcosm,’ the first number of which appeared on 6 November 1786, and the last on 30 July 1787. It ran through forty numbers, which were subsequently published in a collected form, with a dedication to Dr. Davies, the head-master. Frere contributed five papers to this periodical.

From Eton he went to Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1792 and M.A. in 1795. At college he gained several prizes for classical composition, but was prevented by illness from going in for honours. He was fellow of Caius from 1793 to 1816, and in 1792 obtained the members' prize for the Latin essay; the subject was ‘Whether it be allowable to hope for the improvement of morals and for the cultivation of virtue in the rising state of Botany Bay’!

On leaving the university Frere entered the foreign office and at a bye-election in November 1796 was returned for the pocket borough of West Looe in Cornwall, which he continued to represent until the dissolution in June 1802; but no speeches of his are reported in the volumes of Parliamentary History for that period. In 1797 he joined with Canning in the publication of the Anti-Jacobin, or Weekly Examiner, the first number of which appeared on 20 November in that year. Gifford was the editor, and many of the pieces were written in concert by Canning, Ellis, and Frere. Jenkinson, afterwards the Earl of Liverpool, Lord Mornington, Chief-baron Macdonald, and Pitt were also among the contributors. Frere's contributions are collected in his Works.. Besides other pieces, he wrote the greater part of the Loves of the Triangles, an amusing parody of Dr. Darwin's Loves of the Plants, and shared with Canning the authorship of The Friend of Humanity and the Knifegrinder, and with Canning and Ellis that of the Rovers, or the Double Arrangement.

After a brilliant career of eight months the ‘Anti-Jacobin’ was brought to a close on 9 July 1798. On 1 April 1799 Frere succeeded his friend Canning as under-secretary of state in the foreign office. In October 1800 he was appointed envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary at Lisbon, and in September 1802 was transferred to Madrid, where he remained for nearly two years. In August 1804 Frere was recalled ‘in consequence of circumstances having occurred that made it impossible for him any longer to communicate personally with the Prince of Peace’. The ministry, however, signified their approval of his conduct by granting him a pension of £1,700 a year, and on 14 January 1805 he was sworn a member of the privy council.

In June 1807 the Duke of Portland appointed him envoy and minister plenipotentiary at Berlin, but owing to the treaty of Tilsit the mission had to be abandoned. On 4 October 1808 Frere was sent out to Spain as minister plenipotentiary to the Central Junta. Affairs on the Peninsula were then in a very critical state, and his position as the British minister was one of heavy responsibility. In November Napoleon commenced his march upon Madrid. Sir John Moore, the commander of the British forces in the north of Spain, was inclined to retreat through Portugal. Frere, however, confident that Napoleon might be anticipated, urged Moore to advance upon Madrid, or, if retreat was inevitable, to retire through Gallicia. Moore yielded, and, after the disastrous retreat to Corunna, Frere was greatly blamed for the advice he had given.

Though Ponsonby's motion in the House of Commons, on 24 February 1809, for an inquiry ‘into the causes, conduct, and events of the late campaign in Spain,’ was defeated by 220 to 127, the government determined to recall Frere, and on 29 April 1809 the Marquis of Wellesley was appointed ambassador to the court of Spain. Frere left in August, having been created ‘Marquez de la Union’ by the Central Junta, ‘as a mark of their acknowledgment of the zeal with which he had laboured to promote the friendly union and common interest of the two countries.’

With his second mission to Spain Frere's public career ceased. He afterwards declined the post of ambassador at St. Petersburg, and twice refused the offer of a peerage. On the death of his father in 1807 Frere succeeded to Roydon Hall and the other family estates in the eastern counties.

On 12 September 1816 he married Elizabeth Jemima, dowager countess of Erroll, the widow of George, fourteenth earl of Erroll, and a daughter of Joseph Blake of Ardfry, county Galway. In 1818 his wife became ill. After trying many changes of climate for the benefit of her health they went to Malta, where they took up their permanent residence. Here he amused himself with literary work, translating Aristophanes and Theognis, and learning Hebrew and Maltese. In August 1827 Canning died. Talking over the loss of his friend to his niece two years afterwards, Frere said: ‘I think twenty years ago Canning's death would have caused mine; as it is, the time seems so short, I do not feel it as I otherwise should’. His wife died in January 1831, and in November of that year Sir Walter Scott paid him a visit. Frere still continued to reside at Malta. He died at the Pietà Valetta on 7 January 1846, in the seventy-seventh year of his age, and was buried beside his wife in the English burial-ground overlooking the Quarantine Harbour.

As a diplomatist Frere is now almost forgotten, and it is only by the few that he is remembered as a brilliant wit and a sparkling writer of humorous poetry. His translations of Aristophanes cannot fail to be the most lasting memorials of his genius, and the manner in which he has successfully caught the spirit of the original comedies places him in an almost unique place as a translator. His metrical version of the ‘Ode on Æthelstan's Victory’ appeared in the second edition of Ellis's ‘Specimens of Early English Poets’. It was written by Frere when at Eton, and is a remarkable example of the skilful adoption of the language and style of another period. Mackintosh, in his ‘History of England,’ says that it ‘is a double imitation, unmatched, perhaps, in literary history, in which the writer gave an earnest of that faculty of catching the peculiar genius and preserving the characteristic manner of his original which, though the specimens of it be too few, places him alone among English translators’. Scott, too, declares, in his ‘Essay on Imitations of the Ancient Ballad,’ that it was the only poem he had met with ‘which, if it had been produced as ancient, could not have been detected on internal evidence’. Three of Frere's translations from the ‘Poem of the Cid’ were printed as an appendix to Southey's ‘Chronicle of the Cid'.

In 1819 Frere formed one of Byron's ‘cursed puritanical committee’ which decided against the publication of the first canto of ‘Don Juan.’ Though one of the original projectors of the Quarterly Review Frere's only contribution to it was an article on ‘Mitchell's Translations of Aristophanes,’ which appeared in the number for July 1820 (pp. 474-505). It is signed ‘W,’ for Whistlecraft, and is a very early instance of a reviewer signing his contribution. Indolent, and unambitious for literary fame, Frere cared only for the appreciation of cultivated judges. Several of his productions were privately printed, and have become exceedingly rare.

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