It Takes a Village to Raise a Crooke

Today I spent some time reading and revisiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for all the people I could find related to Helkiah Crooke’s early life. There are entries for:

  • Thomas Crooke, Helkiah’s father
  • Samuel Crooke, Helkiah’s older brother
  • Stephen Egerton, Helkiah’s brother-in-law
  • John Bois, Helkiah’s tutor at Cambridge

In addition to a few amusing anecdotes, I was able to piece together some interesting information about the Crooke family. One thing I hadn’t previously realized is that there were nine siblings in all! From eldest to youngest, the four older children were Sara, Thomas, Samuel, and Helkiah. The five younger were two boys and three girls—John, Richard, Rachel, Anne, and Elizabeth—who were all still minors at the time of their father’s death in 1598.

I looked to the entry for Helkiah’s father, Thomas Crooke, hoping to find the name of Helkiah’s mother. In her husband’s will, she is identified as “Samuell my wief.” Apparently Helkiah’s older brother Samuel had the rare distinction of being named after his mother. I haven’t yet come across any other women named Samuel in the early modern period (or any other), but I’m keeping an eye out.

Interestingly (if not particularly usefully), I also discovered that, by marriage, twice-removed, Helkiah has a distant connection to John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts. Helkiah’s older sister, Sara, married Stephen Egerton; Egerton’s younger sister Anne had a daughter, Margaret, who married Winthrop in 1618.

Helkiah’s relationship to Egerton, a puritan preacher, is far more consequential for other reasons, however. Egerton and his associate Robert Dexter gave Helkiah his first chance to appear in print. The two men were undertaking a collected edition of the works of Richard Greenham (he has his own ODNB entry), a beloved puritan clergyman who had recently died. Helkiah apparently helped with the volume’s editing and wrote an introduction and some verses that appear in its opening pages. The book, Paramthion: Two Treatises of the Comforting of an Afflicted Conscience, was published in 1598 and can be found on EEBO, complete with the portions Crooke authored.

It was not only Helkiah’s brother-in-law and father who were clergymen, however. His older brother Samuel also entered the church. Although the two men lived very different lives, I can see parallels between them. The brothers were born only a year apart, and I find it hard not to believe that they would have been close growing up. Both brothers attended Cambridge. Like his younger brother Helkiah, who at times struggled with his governing professional body (the College of Physicians), Samuel encountered complaints from the church courts. The records of both institutions show that the brothers were equally vociferous defendants of their own actions. Both men, in the course of their careers, became published authors of some fame. Ultimately, however, time was kinder to the memory of Samuel Crooke, who passed away one year after his younger brother. Although Helkiah died relatively poor and friendless, Samuel’s funeral was attended by “many hundreds,” far more than the church could hold.

On a lighter note, the entry on Helkiah’s tutor John Bois provides an amusing anecdote. Bois was a Greek scholar who is now best remembered for his work on the King James Bible, which he helped translate and annotate. Crooke initially studied with Bois for his BA degree at Cambridge, but after a brief stint at the University of Leiden, Crooke returned to England to earn his MD. Back at Cambridge, Crooke resumed his study of medicine with Bois, who had originally “thought of studying medicine but, imagining he had every disease of which he read, gave it up” in favor of Greek; Bois’s biographer amusingly describes the scholar’s attitude toward his own health as “a fetish” (David Norton, ODNB). Surely, if nothing else, Crooke’s early medical training was fastidious.

Together, along with many others we’ve lost to history, these people shaped and influenced the young physician who would become the author of Mikrokosmographia. I am grateful to have the invaluable resource of the ODNB available to shed light on some of the lesser-known connections that played important roles in Crooke’s early life.