Johann Jacob Frey 1606-1636

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Johann Jacob FREY 1606-1636

A copy of P. Du Moulin, Iconomachus, 1635, with Frey's inscription and his note of presentation of the book to James Ussher (Trinity College, Dublin, shelf mark

Biographical Note

Born in Basel, Switzerland, son of a notable local family. Studied at the University of Basel, where he graduated MA in 1625. He then went to study in Geneva, Lyon and Oxford. From January 1629 he was tutor to Richard, Viscount Dungarvan, the oldest son of the Earl of Cork, possibly recommended by Sir Henry Wotton. Frey was incorporated MA of Oxford as a member of Christ Church on 4 July 1629, and ordained as Anglican Deacon at Westminster in May 1630. He was in Basel as pastor at St. Margrethen for a few months and briefly matriculated for theology in Leyden. In 1632-33, he toured France with young Dungarvan, then stayed in London and Lismore, doing research for James Ussher. In the summer of 1635, after Dungarvan’s marriage, Frey returned to Basel as Professor of Greek. In the following months, he turned down a pressing offer to tutor the young semi-orphaned sons of the Duke of Buckingham and instead accepted the Deanery of Armagh, which the Earl of Strafford offered on Ussher’s behest. Frey was planning to move to Ireland in the spring of 1637 when he died of the plague in August 1636, just 30 years old.

Frey was intensely mourned by Swiss and English friends as a brilliantly gifted and lovable man. In 1653, James Ussher fondly remembered the intellectual exchanges he enjoyed when “our Frey” was among the living (“commercium literarum, dum Freius noster in vivis versaretur”). Frey’s correspondence (University Library of Basel and Chatsworth House) shows that his linguistic skills included - beyond the usual theologian’s tools of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac and possibly Arabic – fluent and idiomatic French, Italian and English. Ordained at age 23, he must have spoken English well enough to preach even then, and he corresponded in English with scholars such as Ussher and John Gregory (who usually carried on international exchanges in Latin) as well as with aristocratic lords and ladies such as Frances Clifford and her daughter Elizabeth Boyle.


When Frey returned home in 1635, where he felt “bound to Basel against my will”, he brought back a library of nearly 200 books published in England, which are held at the University of Basel and are currently being investigated as part of the SwissBritNet [[1]] project. They include sermons and theology, but also poetry, plays, Ralegh's History of the world, and a Second Folio of Shakespeare’s works. The books formed one of the foundations for the Frey-Grynaeum library in Basel, a building and collection established by the theology professor Johann Ludwig Frey, a great-grandson (1682-1759). Johann Ludwig also had contacts with England and acquired numerous English books.

Characteristic Markings

Most of Frey’s books are bound in gilt-tooled leather and carry a small printed book label (probably added after his death). They show little signs of use; in September 1635, he wrote to a friend that "My books (which I have bought in England) are yet at Cologne and in the Low Countries, from whence I cannot expect any, until we have peace along the Rhine". Even if the books did arrive soon after, Frey had little time for reading in his final year, in which he started lecturing on Greek, married, did research, corresponded with friends and negotiated his future prospects in Britain. However, about 30 volumes carry his signature and some notes. These volumes include a Bible in Hebrew and Greek but also some quite surprising items for a Protestant minister: Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, the early Latin epigrams of Richard Crashaw, John Selden's Marmora Arundelliana, the works of the Hellenist satirist Lucian in two volumes and Plato’s Menexenos with four pages of notes. During his final illness, Frey asked to be read "certain sermons" in English.


  • De Roche, Suzanne, Die Anglica der Frey-Grynaeischen Bibliothek. Im Spannungsfeld von Gott und Welt. Beiträge zu Geschichte und Gegenwart des Frey-Grynaeischen Instituts in Basel 1747-1997, ed. Andreas Urs Sommer. Basel: Schwabe, 1997. 225-242.
  • Hohl Trillini, Regula and Alessandro Lattanzi. "Three 17th-century letters clarify the textual history of Scipio Lentulus' History of the Waldensians." Notes and Queries 69:2 (June 2022): 118-121.
  • Schlueter, June and Markus Dubischar. "Traces of Henry Wotton In Continental Alba Amicorum." Renaissance Studies 30:5 (2015): 666-683. DOI: 10.1111/rest.12168
  • Staehelin, Ernst. "[Untitled notes on Johann Jacob Frey's correspondence with Oliver Fleming]." Jahresbericht des Frey-Grynaeischen Institutes in Basel für das Jahr 1965. 3-8.
  • Staehelin, Ernst. "[Untitled notes on Johann Jacob Frey's life]." Jahresbericht des Frey-Grynaeischen Institutes in Basel für das Jahr 1964. 3-12.
  • Staehelin, Ernst. "Kirchlich-menschliche Beziehungen im Zeitalter der Orthodoxie und des beginnenden Pietismus nach den Stammbüchern des Frey-Grynaeischen Institutes in Basel." Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 37 (1940) 289-305; 38 (1941) 133-150.
  • Correspondence as kept in Basel on
  • Gernler, Johann. Ein Christliche Leich-predig, von des verstorbenen Jünglings zu Nain Aufferweckung von den Todten [...] bey der volckreichen Bestattung des Ehrwürdigen und hochgelehrten Herren Johann Jacob Freyen. Basel: Georg Decker, 1636.
  • Grosart, Alexander B., ed. The Lismore papers, Autobiographical notes, remembrances and diaries of Sir Richard Boyle, first and 'great' Earl of Cork […..] In Five Volumes. [London?]: Printed for Private Circulation Only, 1886.
  • Information from Regula Hohl Trillini.