Richard Bentley

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Richard Bentley : biography

27 January 1662 – 14 July 1742

After being ordained, Bentley was promoted to a prebendal stall in Worcester Cathedral. In 1693 the curator of the royal library became vacant, and his friends tried to obtain the position for Bentley, but did not have enough influence. The new librarian, a Mr Thynne, resigned in favour of Bentley, on condition that he receive an annuity of £130 for life out of the £200 salary. In 1695 Bentley received a royal chaplaincy and the living of Hartlebury.

That same year, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1696 earned the degree of D.D. (Doctor of Divinity). The scholar Johann Georg Graevius of Utrecht made a dedication to him, prefixed to a dissertation on Albert Rubens (1614-1657), De Vita Fl. Mallii Theodori (1694), which showed Bentley’s work had been recognized on the Continent.

Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris

Bentley had official apartments in St. James’s Palace, and his first care was the royal library. He worked to restore the collection from a dilapidated condition. He persuaded the Earl of Marlborough to ask for additional rooms in the palace for the books. This was granted, but Marlborough kept them for personal use. Bentley enforced the law, ensuring that publishers delivered nearly 1000 volumes which had been purchased but not delivered.

The University of Cambridge commissioned him to obtain Greek and Latin fonts for their classical books; he had these made in Holland. He assisted John Evelyn in his Numismata. Bentley did not settle down to the steady execution of any of the major projects he had started. In 1694, he designed an edition of Philostratus, but abandoned it to Gottfried Olearius (1672–1715), "to the joy," says F. A. Wolf, "of Olearius and of no one else." He supplied Graevius with collations of Cicero, and Joshua Barnes with a warning as to the spuriousness of the Epistles of Euripides. Barnes printed the epistles anyway and declared that no one could doubt their authenticity but a man perfrictae frontis aut judicii imminuti. For Graevius’s Callimachus (1697), Bentley added a collection of the fragments with notes.

He wrote the Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, his major academic work, almost accidentally. In 1697, William Wotton, about to bring out a second edition of his Ancient and Modern Learning, asked Bentley to write out a paper exposing the spuriousness of the Epistles of Phalaris, long a subject of academic controversy. The Christ Church College editor of Phalaris, Charles Boyle, resented Bentley’s paper. He had already quarreled with Bentley in trying to get the manuscript in the royal library collated for his edition (1695). Boyle wrote a response which was accepted by the reading public, although it was much later criticized as showing superficial learning.Dr Alexander Dyce, Bentley’s Works, 1836–1838 The demand for Boyle’s book required a second printing. When Bentley responded, it was with his dissertation. The truth of its conclusions was not immediately recognized but it has a high reputation.

Master of Trinity College

In 1700, the commissioners of ecclesiastical patronage recommended Bentley to the Crown for the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. He arrived an outsider and proceeded to reform the college administration. He started a program of renovations to the buildings, and used his position to promote learning. At the same time, he antagonized the fellows, and the capital programme caused reductions in their incomes, which they resented.

After ten years of stubborn but ineffectual resistance, the fellows appealed to the Visitor, the bishop of Ely (John Moore). Their petition was full of general complaints. Bentley’s reply (The Present State of Trinity College, etc., 1710) is in his most crushing style. The fellows amended their petition and added a charge of Bentley’s having committed 54 breaches of the statutes. Bentley appealed directly to the Crown, and backed his application with a dedication of his Horace to the lord treasurer (Harley).