The Correspondence of Richard Thomson

Primary Contributors:

Paul Botley

Title page of Richard Thomson’s Diatriba de amissione et intercisione gratiae et iustificationis (Leiden, 1616). (Source of image: SLUB Dresden [CC-BY-SA 4.0])

Richard Thomson (c. 1569–1613)

Richard Thomson was born around 1569 in Antwerp to a Dutch mother and an English merchant father. Thomson spent his early years in Antwerp, where he studied under Bonaventura Vulcanius. In 1583, as the forces of the Spanish Habsburgs closed in on his native city, he was sent to study at the University of Cambridge. When he graduated from Cambridge in 1587, he returned to his father’s house in Stade in Germany and in the same year he published a short work of theological controversy with his fellow student Christoph Stendal. From Germany he moved to continue his studies at the University of Leiden where he was in contact with Dominicus Baudius, Jan Gruter, James Ramsay, Vulcanius and, probably, Janus Dousa junior and Johannes Drusius senior. In 1591 he returned to England and graduated MA from Cambridge. At this date his acquaintances in England included William Alabaster, William Camden, Conrad Dekker, Andrew Downes, William Whitaker, and John Overall.

In 1592 Thomson returned to his father’s house in Stade before travelling on to the University of Heidelberg. There he lodged with the Hebraist Jacob Christmann for six months and studied in the Palatine Library. In 1593 he moved to Geneva, staying in the house of Isaac Casaubon for the summer months, and making the acquaintance of Henry Wotton. In the autumn he visited the Frankfurt book fair, then his father in Stade, before taking ship for Franeker and Leiden. In Leiden he grew to be on familiar terms with Joseph Scaliger, who was himself newly arrived in the city. Thomson visited the Frankfurt book fair again in the spring of 1594, travelled on to Stade, and by the summer he was back in Cambridge once more. While in England, he was considered as a candidate for an academic post at Leiden, but instead became a secretary to a member of the Killigrew family. In May 1596 William Killigrew procured for Thomson letters of denization in England, in July Thomson was incorporated at Oxford, and a few weeks later he set out on a tour of Europe as tutor to the young Robert Killigrew.

On the continent, Thomson and Robert first attended the marriage in Stade of Thomson’s sister Abigail to Henry Billingsley, a member of a prosperous English merchant family. Thomson and Robert visited Casaubon in Geneva soon after the wedding, and by 1597 they were both in Italy. Thomson spent time in Venice where he bought books, in Padua where he dined with Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, and in Florence where he settled for a period. In Florence, Thomson spent a great deal of time in the libraries of the city, and worked with another English visitor, Henry Cuffe. Thomson and Killigrew returned from Italy in 1599 via Paris and Augsburg, reaching England before the end of the year.

In England Thomson once again took up his fellowship in Cambridge at Clare Hall. As a fellow, he was promptly enlisted on the losing side in a battle over the mastership of the college, alienating the successful candidate William Smith. In Cambridge he was also a regular point of contact for continental scholars visiting England. His learning was highly regarded and he was appointed one of the translators of the King James Bible. He played a key role in bringing Isaac Casaubon to England in 1610. In 1611 he published a contribution to the controversy on the Oath of Allegiance, defending the earlier work of Lancelot Andrewes on the subject.

On returning to England, Thomson had begun work on a theological treatise which would shape his posthumous reputation, the Diatriba de amissione et intercisione gratiae et iustificationis. This work was not published during his lifetime, but its known Arminianism involved him in difficulties in 1611, and as a result he was denied the position of Senior Proctor at Cambridge. The intervention of Andrewes defused the immediate controversy, but Thomson’s long-standing friendship with Casaubon seems to have suffered. Thomson died in Cambridge in 1613 and is buried in St Edward’s church. He was survived by his sister Abigail and his younger brother Emanuel. Emanuel, himself a translator, was subsequently tortured and executed in the Dutch East Indies in 1623, a victim of the notorious ‘Amboyna massacre’. Thomson’s Arminian treatise circulated in manuscript in England and The Netherlands in the years immediately after his death, and was first printed in Leiden in 1616.

Thomson’s letters reveal a man of learning, enthusiasm and industry, and one who lived with an unspoken assumption that his labours were to be spent freely in the service of his fellow scholars. Among religious commentators in the seventeenth century, Thomson would acquire an reputation as a drunkard and hypocrite, but among those who knew him he was well liked, and his editor has found him to be excellent company.

Paul Botley
16 June 2016

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for this calendar was collated by Paul Botley in the course of research for his publication Richard ‘Dutch’ Thomson, c. 1569-1613. The Life and Letters of a Renaissance Scholar which was published by Brill in February 2016.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Paul Botley, Richard ‘Dutch’ Thomson, c. 1569–1613. The Life and Letters of a Renaissance Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2014).


Richard Thomson’s surviving correspondence consists of seventy-eight letters. Of these letters, thirteen were printed in the edition of the correspondence of Joseph Scaliger (ed. Botley and Van Miert, Geneva, Droz, 2012, 8 vols). Botley’s edition of Thomson’s correspondence prints forty-three letters for the first time, and it is the first critical edition of the remaining twenty-two letters.

Thomson is known to have corresponded with the following men. For some of these figures, however, no letters are extant.

Aubry, Jean
Baudius, Dominicus
Camden, William
Casaubon, Isaac
Cecil, Robert
Christmann, Jacob
Dousa, Janus, junior
Drusius, Johannes, senior
Gruter, Jan
Jermyn, Thomas
Laet, Johannes de
Perrot, Denis
Raphelengius, Franciscus, senior
Scaliger, Joseph
Scriverius, Petrus
Simler, Rudolf
Stendal, Christoph
Tomkis, Thomas
Vulcanius, Bonaventura

The largest group of extant letters is from the correspondence between Thomson and Isaac Casaubon. There are eleven letters from Casaubon to Thomson: seven of these were first printed in 1638, while four were not printed until the third and final edition of Casaubon’s letters in 1709. There are twenty-two letters from Thomson to Casaubon, twenty-one of which were first printed in Botley’s edition in 2016.

The second largest group of letters is from Joseph Scaliger. Eleven letters from Scaliger to Thomson were first printed by Daniel Heinsius in 1627, and a single surviving letter from Thomson to Scaliger has come to light in recent years. All twelve letters were printed in the edition of Scaliger’s correspondence in 2012. Since the publication of that edition a new manuscript has enabled the text of two of these letters to be significantly improved for the edition of 2016.

Botley’s edition prints eight letters from Thomson to Denis Perrot, seven letters to Bonventura Vulcanius, two to Petrus Scriverius and a draft of a letter from Scriverius to Thomson. The edition includes a letter from Thomson to Janus Dousa junior, a letter to Johannes de Laet, one to William Camden, one to Dominicus Baudius, and one from Baudius to Thomson. A letter in English from the playwright Thomas Tomkis and probably addressed to Thomson was also first published in the edition of 2016.

All of Thomson’s surviving letters are in Latin. In Botley’s edition, each letter is provided with an English synopsis of its contents. Greek passages which appear in the text of the letters are supplied with English translations in the footnotes.

Scope of Catalogue

Please send details of further discoveries to Paul Botley: paul.botley[at]

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