John Prince (biographer)
John Prince (1643–1723) was a biographer, and vicar of Totnes and Berry Pomeroy in Devon, England. He is best known for his Worthies of Devon, a series of biographies of Devon-born notables covering the period before the Norman Conquest to his own era. He became the subject of a sexual scandal, the court records of which were made into a book in 2001 and a play in 2005.
John Prince was born in Axminster, Devon in 1643, in a farmhouse on the site of an abbey—nowadays called Prince's Abbey. He was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and became curate of Bideford. He then became minister of St. Martin's Church in Exeter.
He was vicar of Totnes from 1675 until 1681, when, at the invitation of the Duke of Somerset, he was made vicar of Berry Pomeroy, a post he held for over forty years. Here he seems to have authorised much building work, as the church and vicarage have several period features.
The Worthies of Devon
While at Berry Pomeroy, Prince worked on his magnum opus: a biography of his home county's many notable figures, which he probably finished in 1697. The book ran to 600 pages, with woodcuts to illustrate the 191 biographies, and he struggled to get it published because most publishers able to handle such a large book were based in London or Oxbridge. Funding was also a problem, as a scandal (see below) had temporarily deprived him of his living. The printer was forced to advertise for subscribers, while the book languished for four years. It was first published in 1701 under the title (no doubt inspired by the Worthies of England (1662) by Thomas Fuller (1608–1661)):
Danmonii Orientales Illustres: or, the Worthies of Devon. A work, wherein the lives and fortunes of the most famous divines, statesmen, swordsmen, physicians, writers, and other eminent persons, natives of that most noble province from before the Norman Conquest, down to the present age, are memorized, in an alphabetical order out of the most approved authors, both in print and manuscript. In which an account is given, not only of divers very deserving persons, (many of which were never hitherto made publick) but of several antient and noble families; their seats and habitations; the distance they bear to the next great towns; their coats of arms fairly cut; with other things, no less profitable, than pleasant and delightful.
The Dumnonii, Danmonii or Dumnones were a British Celtic tribe which inhabited Dumnonia, the peninsula now containing in its west the county of Cornwall and in its east Devon. Prince's Latin title signifies "Illustrious Eastern Dumnonii".
It is evident that Prince was over-ambitious in his work. The alphabetical entries from A to H fill half the book, while L to Z are squeezed into the final quarter, as money problems took their toll on his inclusions. A second volume, detailing 115 entries chosen by Prince to redress the balance, was never published, though a manuscript exists in the Devon Record Office. This manuscript was discussed, and its biographies listed, by J. Brooking-Rowe in an article in the 1900 volume of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association.
A further edition was published in 1810 by Edward Upham, Exeter and Longman and Hurst, Rees and Orme, London, printed for Rees and Curtis, Plymouth. It was inscribed to "The Right Hon. Hugh, Earl Fortescue, Viscount Ebrington and Baron Fortescue of Castle Hill, Lord-Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of the County of Devon", whose "ancestors claim a distinguished place" in the work. It was funded by subscription, with a list of subscribers included after the list of contents.
It was while serving as vicar of Berry Pomeroy that a scandal occurred. In April 1699, Prince arranged a meeting with a local woman, Mary Southcote, in the back room of an inn. Their dalliance was witnessed through a broken window, they were interrupted, and a court case followed later that year. However, despite many statements against him, Prince was allowed to keep his post (from which he had been suspended), as the main witnesses were deemed to be unreliable. He returned to Berry Pomeroy and lived out his years as vicar.
A plaque in St Mary's Church in Totnes states that he was well connected, and it is possible that the trial was set up by his enemies.
Revival of interest
In 2001 Todd Gray published the court depositions of Prince's church trial as The Curious Sexual Adventure of the Reverend John Prince, which awakened interest in Prince. The records had gone unpublished, partly due to the coarse language used by some of the witnesses; it was not until the modern decade that such language became less shocking and could be included in a popular work.
In 2005 the book was adapted as a play, The Tale of John Prince, which was performed by the South Devon Players theatre company in 2006, at two venues relevant to the story: The Seven Sisters Hotel in Totnes (next door to the former site of Angel's inn); and also in Berry Pomeroy Church.
- Title page to 1810 edition
- Maxted, Ian; Brayshay, Mark (1996). "Aid to research: A list of historical works on the topography of south-west counties". In Brayshay, Mark. Topographical Writers in South-West England. University of Exeter Press. pp. 150–151. ISBN 0-85989-424-X.
- Brooking-Rowe, J. (1900), "The Second Volume of John Prince's "Worthies of Devon"", Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, XXXII: 301–308
- Gray, Todd (2001) The Curious Sexual Adventure of the Reverend John Prince. Exeter: Mint Press
- "Previous projects". The South Devon Players Community Theatre Company Brixham. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
- Prince, John (1701) Danmonii orientales illustres: or, the Worthies of Devon; A work, wherein the lives and fortunes of the most famous divines, statesmen, ... and other eminent persons, natives of that most noble province, ... are memoriz'd, ... In which an account is given not only of divers very deserving persons, ... but of several antient and noble families; ... with other things, no less profitable, ... . , 600 p.; illustrated. Exeter: printed by Sam. Farley, for Awnsham and John Churchill, London; and Charles Yeo and Philip Bishop in Exon.
- ---do.---New edition, with notes. xxxvii, , 785,  p; plates. London: Printed for Rees and Curtis, Plymouth; Edward Upham, Exeter; and Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London, 1810
- How The Worthies of Devon was published at the Wayback Machine (archived March 4, 2006)
- Early life in Axminster
- "Prince, John (1643-1723)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Full text of Danmonii Orientales Illustres, 1810 edition