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bound to Basel

Portrait of Johann Jacob Frey
Johann Jacob Frey. Late-17th-century copy of a portrait probably painted in Holland in 1631.

The classicist Johann Jacob Frey, born in Basel in 1606, fell in love with Britain in his early twenties and at age 29 he wrote: the very secrets of my heart […] are so deeply engaged for England that I hope one day to end my life in it.

Brought up as the only son of a loving, early widowed mother, Frey displayed brilliant intellectual gifts early on. Having graduated MA from Basel at age 21, he went to study in Geneva, Lyons and finally Oxford, where he signed the Bodleian Library’s user book and became a member of Christ Church College in 1629. He was also ordained in the Anglican Church in May 1630. This means that at age 24, he must have spoken English well enough to preach, and indeed he also corresponded in excellent English with women (who did not usually know Latin) and with scholars who normally used Latin for written communication.

From January 1629, Frey was tutor to Richard, Viscount Dungarvan, the oldest son of the powerful Earl of Cork. In 1632-33, he toured France with young Dungarvan and then stayed in London and Lismore, doing research for the scholarly Irish archbishop James Ussher.

In the summer of 1635, after Dungarvan’s marriage, Frey returned home as Professor of Greek, although he felt "bound to Basel against my will". The books he brought back include sermons and theology, but also poetry, plays, Ralegh's History of the world, and a Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works. These volumes are the basis of the "Anglica" in the Frey-Grynaeum library in Basel, a building and collection established by the theology professor Johann Ludwig Frey, a great-grandson (1682-1759).

Back in Basel, Frey turned down a pressing offer to tutor the young sons of the Duke of Buckingham; the boys were then brought up at the court of Charles I. Frey’s wish to return to Britain for good came close to fulfilment when he was offered the Deanery of Armagh in Northern Ireland. He was planning to move there in the spring of 1637 but died of the plague in August 1636, just 30 years old, on the very day when the "Rat" of Basel had decided to let him go.

Frey was intensely mourned by Swiss and English friends as a brilliantly gifted and lovable man. As late as 1653, Archbishop James Ussher fondly remembered the exchanges he enjoyed when our Frey was among the living. The few hundred letters of his English correspondence are a unique corpus among the ca. 50’000 17th- and 18th-century letters which are kept in the Unversity Library of Basel, and bear witness to an intense personal and intellectual connection.

Regula Hohl Trillini