The Curious Life of Roger Trosse (1651-1709)

Trosse, Roger (1651-1709), theological scholar and poet, was baptised 14 June 1651 at Saint Mary Major, Exeter, Devon, the third son and seventh child of Thomas Trosse of Woodbury, Devon, and Elizabeth Webb, daughter of John Webb of Exeter, gentleman.  The Presbyterian minister George Trosse (1631-1713) was an uncle.  After attending Blundell’s School, where he was taught by the headmaster, Henry Batten, he matriculated as a fellow-commoner at Balliol College, Oxford, on 2 April 1667.

Trosse graduated BA in 1671 and was made a fellow of Lincoln College in the following year.  This was probably due in part to the influence of the philologist Thomas Marshall, who had recently been appointed rector of Lincoln.  Trosse’s letters from this period indicate his easy familiarity with the circle of scholars surrounding Marshall, including the Anglo-Saxonist George Hickes, and it was also at this time that John Fell commissioned him to produce an edition of Polyaenus as one of the series of “New Years Books” published by the university press (1673). 

The Polyaenus was Trosse’s first foray into the field of Greek scholarship and was swiftly followed by an edition of the thirteenth-century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates’ Thesaurus Orthodoxae Fidei (1674) and one of the twelfth-century monk Euthymius Zigabenus’ Panoplia Dogmatica (1675), the latter edited from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library.  In both works of heresiography Trosse’s critical notes emphasised the parallels between medieval Byzantine heresies and contemporary dissenting sects.  These works won him recognition in ecclesiastical circles and in 1676 he was briefly considered as a possible assistant to Robert Huntington, then chaplain of the Levant Company in Aleppo, before being presented to the living of Rose Ash, Devon, in the same year.

We know from his correspondence and surviving manuscripts that his time at Rose Ash saw the first flowering of his poetic abilities.  The autograph manuscript of his Latin epic the Caroleid, a 1,500 line retelling of Charles II’s escape from England while Prince of Wales in smooth but ultimately derivative hexameters, is dated 1679 and much of his already polished elegiac verse, eventually published in the Poemata of 1708, is believed to have been composed during this period.  While at Rose Ash he also married Dorothy Risdon, daughter of Giles Risdon of Bableigh, near Barnstaple, who was related by marriage to Trosse’s friend the orientalist Thomas Hyde.  She is the “Dorothea” of his poems and was evidently unusually well-educated; in a letter of 1681 to George Hickes Trosse remarks that she was proof-reading the sheets of his edition of Gemistus Plethon’s Nomoi, which was finally published by the university press in 1682.

Although initially encouraged by John Fell and other members of the university establishment, it soon became evident that the Nomoi was too heterodox a text to safely attach one’s name to in Restoration England and, according to Anthony Wood, Trosse “lost a fatt living in Berkshire for his paines – the college men said it wold never stande to have such Atheisme printed by the University” (Athenae Oxonienses, ii. 282).  It is thus all the more surprising to find him throwing in his lot with the nonjurors after the 1688 revolution in government.  He was deprived of his living for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to William and Mary in March 1690, but although David Finch was appointed in his place in November of that year he seems to have still been resident at the rectory in Rose Ash as late as early 1691.

By this time Trosse was in dire financial straits and increasing ill-health.  While living with his brother-in-law Giles Risdon he published several pamphlets in support of the non-juring cause, most notably the Discovery of the True Origin of Episcopacy (1692) and the King no Prelate (1693), but after the death of his wife in 1696 he largely dissociated himself from the ongoing controversy and lived in semi-retirement at Shottesbrooke, the country home of the nonjuror and antiquary Francis Cherry.  There he was an active part of the circle of nonjuring scholars supported by Cherry, including his old friend George Hickes, and wrote his Pindaric ode on the risen Christ, generally regarded as his most accomplished poetic work, as well as other shorter poems and notes on classical and medieval texts.

The last years of his life were marred by continued ill-health, probably epilepsy, which ultimately resulted in a fall while riding that left him paralysed from the neck down.  Starting in 1706 he made moves towards the publication of his poems, which had previously only been circulated amongst his close friends, and with the help of his only surviving child, Dorothy Trosse (1682-1754), who he had taught Latin and Greek at an early age, he eventually saw the Poemata (1708) through the press.  This included almost all of his major works except for the Caroleid and a host of occasional verse and was referred to by Johnson in his Lives of the Poets as “perhaps the most elegant collection of verse in an ancient tongue to be published in this country”.  Shortly afterwards his health declined further and he died at Shottesbrooke on 6 July 1709.  He chose his own epitaph, later imitated by his patron Cherry: “Hic jacet peccatorum maximus”.  His manuscripts passed to his daughter and most were ultimately bequeathed to the Bodleian by her stepson, Sir George Martyn, in 1772.

C. E. J. Cornew

Sources   R. Trosse, Poemata (1708) · A More Holy Light: The Correspondence of Roger Trosse, ed. C. E. J. Cornew (2002) ·L. Bradner, Musae Anglicanae: a history of Anglo-Latin poetry, 1500–1925 (1940) · J. C. Findon, ‘The nonjurors and the Church of England, 1689–1716’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1978 · D. C. Douglas, English scholars, 1660–1730, 2nd edn (1951) · Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 11 vols., OHS, 2, 7, 13, 34, 42–3, 48, 50, 65, 67, 72 (1885–1921) ·  Wood, Ath. Oxon. · The life and times of Anthony Wood, ed. A. Clark, 5 vols., OHS, 19, 21, 26, 30, 40 (1891–1900) 

Archives   Bodl. Oxf., corresp., notebooks · BL, manuscript of the Caroleid · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with George Hickes

Likenesses  portrait, Bodl. Oxf. 

Wealth at death  see will, TNA: PRO, PROB 4/467

Disclaimer: The above biography is not (despite appearances) part of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and is entirely fictional save for certain incidental characters and events. The portrait which heads this post is of the chemist Ambrose Godfrey-Hanckwitz (1660-1741), ‘Trosse’s’ near contemporary.

(c) 2021 Kelsey Jackson Williams

One response to “The Curious Life of Roger Trosse (1651-1709)”

  1. […] readers of my blog will have noticed that last week’s post on the Restoration scholar and poet Roger Trosse is a fraud; no such man existed and the […]

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