Fenton, Sir Geoffrey (1539–1608), secretary of state for Ireland, was the son of Henry Fenton of Fenton, Nottinghamshire, England, and his wife Cecily, daughter of John Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire, and may have been related to both the Dudleys and the Cecils. Until 1580 he pursued literary interests, concerning himself particularly with translating. He published his first work, Certaine tragicall discourses, a translation of thirteen tales by Bandello, in 1567 while living in Paris and dedicated it to Lady Mary Sidney, one of Elizabeth's personal servants and wife of Sir Henry Sidney (qv), lord deputy of Ireland. It was followed by five further translations of French works of a religious, historical and topical nature, published between 1569 and 1578. In 1579 his final and most ambitious work appeared, an English translation of Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.
In 1580 he left his literary career to take up the office of joint secretary of state for Ireland on the appointment of Sir Arthur Grey (qv), Baron Grey de Wilton as lord deputy in July. He was recommended by the lord justice, Sir William Pelham (qv), who was dissatisfied with the performance of the incumbent, John Chaloner (qv), but he owed his appointment in particular to Elizabeth's chief minister and secretary of state, Lord Burghley, who was displeased by Chaloner’s failure to keep him informed of Irish affairs. Fenton was careful to assure Burghley that he understood the part he was to play as ‘an intelligencer’ of all ‘things . . . concerning the state of the wars and policies of this realme' (PRO, SPI, 63/74/60). Equally important was his role as a conduit through which Burghley could transmit policy decisions to the Irish council without the need to rely wholly on the cooperation of a powerful and independent governor.
The secretaryship, which was confirmed to Fenton alone on 14 November 1581, after Chaloner's death, conferred membership of the privy council and Fenton played an active part in its proceedings. The ambivalence of his position created difficulties when Sir John Perrot (qv) came as deputy in 1584 and Fenton found himself obliged to oppose his policies because they conflicted with Burghley's plans for the Munster plantation. In January 1587, on a charge relating to a small debt, Perrot had Fenton publicly arrested and imprisoned in the Marshalsea in Dublin. He was quickly released, on the queen's instructions, and recovered his influence and received a knighthood after Perrot was replaced by Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv) in February 1588. In 1590, when Burghley joined Fitzwilliam in a conspiracy to discredit Perrot, Fenton was the chief investigator. His contribution to the indictment of Perrot was rewarded by his appointment to the additional office of surveyor-general for Ireland (10 August 1591).
However, his involvement with Burghley increasingly compromised his independent role as secretary of state. Because he was aware that Fitzwilliam had a special relationship with Burghley, he postponed offering well-grounded criticism of his government until it was too late to be useful. Fenton believed that the appropriate approach to the onset of rebellion in the 1590s was one of peaceful negotiation rather than war: under the belligerent administrations of Sir William Russell (qv) and the earl of Essex (qv), his advice was ignored. His position briefly improved when Lord Mountjoy (qv) became lord deputy in January 1600 because they were united in their determination to reform the army, but Fenton's desire to bring about peace as quickly as possible was at odds with the wholeheartedly aggressive approach in Dublin Castle and Whitehall. After the accession of James I, on 25 October 1603, he was required, on grounds of his infirmity, to share his office with Sir Richard Cooke (qv). In compensation, he then held the office for life rather than during pleasure.
Fenton continued to serve actively under Sir Arthur Chichester (qv) and continued to regard the status of his office as entitling him to express his disagreement with official policy. Though he shared the received view that recusancy represented a danger to the state, he believed that persuasion would be more effective in the long term and did not fully support the coercive measures introduced in 1605. In the last year of his life he took issue with Chichester's plans for the plantation in Ulster. Chichester proposed to redistribute the bulk of the confiscated land among the existing inhabitants and confer the rest on a small number of settler grantees. Fenton believed that this was to ignore the lessons of the plantation in Munster and insisted that the object should be to ensure dense settlement of most of the land and that this should be achieved by making many more grants of much smaller amounts of land than had been the case in Munster. In the event, the plantation arrangements adopted in 1609 reflected the views of Fenton (and Sir John Davies (qv)) rather than those of Chichester.
Fenton, however, had died on 19 October 1608 in Dublin, where he was buried in St Patrick's in the same tomb as his father-in-law, Dr Robert Weston (qv), formerly lord chancellor of Ireland, whose daughter Alice he had married after the death of her first husband, Dr Hugh Brady (qv), bishop of Meath, in 1584. They had one son, Sir William Fenton, and one daughter, Catherine (qv, under ‘Boyle’), who married Richard Boyle (qv), afterwards 1st earl of Cork. Fenton had two brothers, both of whom served in the army in Ireland: one, Edward, sailed in charge of the Gabriel in Sir Martin Frobisher's second voyage for the discovery of the north-west passage to Cathay, and was second-in-command in Frobisher's third voyage of discovery.