Humanist and author of the first "modern" history of England; b. Urbino, Italy, c. 1470; d. Urbino, April 18, 1555. Vergil was educated at Padua, and by 1496 he had been ordained. Presumably, he spent some time in papal service. Under the patronage of Adriano Castelli, papal collector and cardinal, Vergil was sent to England as deputy collector in 1502.
He was already an author of note, having published a collection of adages, the Prouerbiorum libellus (1498) and a book on the originators of human institutions and activities, the De rerum inuentoribus (1499). Both books became best sellers and their reputation led Henry VII to invite Vergil to write a history of England. Vergil began writing this history around 1505, and a draft exists completed to 1513. He was rewarded with canonries in Lincoln, Hereford, and St. Paul's, and the archdeaconry of Wells (1508). Under henry viii, Vergil enjoyed less favor at court and endured brief imprisonment in the Tower for intriguing against wolsey (1515). He later revenged himself in the Anglica historia.
This work first appeared at Basle in 1534 in 26 books that followed English history to the end of Henry VII's
reign (1509). A revised version was published in 1546, and in 1555 the work appeared with an additional book continuing the history to 1537. A popular and important work, it was used as groundwork by later English historians, and thus influenced the picture of the English past found referenced in later works, such as Shakespeare's plays.
Besides his history of England, Vergil continued to publish revised and enlarged editions of his Prouerbiorum libellus. The even more successful De rerum inuentoribus was translated into English and other vernaculars. Originally, it had consisted of three books, to which Vergil, in 1521, added five more about the origins of ecclesiastical institutions and practices; it figures in early editions of the Index of Prohibited Books, and an expurgated version was published in Rome in 1576. Other works by Vergil are a brief commentary on the Lord's Prayer, a dialogue on prodigies, and other dialogues on patience, the perfect life, truth and falsehood.
Vergil played little part in the exciting ecclesiastical upheavels of the 1530s. Although he signed the renunciation of papal supremacy (1536) and the declaration for Communion under both species (1547), he made no secret of his sympathy for catherine of aragon and the old order, published in the last book of his history when he was safely out of England for the last time. He was bitterly attacked by chauvinist historians like Leland for his skeptical attitude to such British legends as Arthur; in defense of his position Vergil published (1525) an edition of gildas, the earliest British medieval text to be printed as such by a Renaissance scholar. As a stylist, Vergil is plain; as a scholar, he is methodical and reliable. His writings had considerable influence—more, perhaps, on the Continent than in England.
Bibliography: p. vergil, Three Books of Polydore Vergil's English History, ed. h. ellis (Camden Ser. 29; London 1844), the Tudor translation; Anglica Historia, ed. and tr. d. hay (Camden 3d Ser. 74; London 1950), the early draft for 1485 to 1513 and the printed text thence to 1537. d. hay, Polydore Vergil: Renaissance Historian and Man of Letters (Oxford 1952).