Untold lives blog

67 posts categorized "Rare books"

30 June 2020

Remembering the Vere Street Coterie: a story of gay community, a police raid and library censorship

During Pride Month especially, it is vital that we remember the injustices and hardships faced by the British gay community over the centuries.  On 8 July 1810, the lives of a group of gay men in London were turned upside down.

The Bow Street Runners, an early version of the police force, launched a surprise raid on the White Swan in Vere Street, a molly house.  Many were arrested, six were convicted of sodomy and two others were later hanged.  This has become known as one of, if not the most, brutal public punishments of gay men in British history.

In 1813 a lawyer called Robert Holloway tells the story, somewhat disapprovingly, in a book called The Phoenix of Sodom, or the Vere Street Coterie. The British Library has two copies of this book, and both were secreted away in the Private Case, a collection of forbidden books, as soon as they arrived.  

The Phoenix of SodomThe Phoenix of Sodom, or, The Vere Street Coterie. Sold by J. Cook, at and to be had of all the booksellers, 1813.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Homosexual activity was illegal and heavily prosecuted during the 19th century.  Gay men were treated with derision and disgust, and their punishment often involved public humiliation.  Molly houses were meeting places for gay men.  They were taverns, public houses, coffee houses and brothels where men could meet, socialise and find sexual partners.  Gay couples could even get married.  Even though same-sex marriage was not legalised in the United Kingdom until 2014, unofficial ceremonies were conducted at the White Swan by a minister called John Church, arguably the first openly gay ordained Christian minister in England.  Needless to say, visiting these places was risky.

On 8 July 1810, amidst the chaos and panic, the Bow Street Runners arrested many men at the White Swan.  Six were charged with sodomy: William Amos, whose alias was Sally Fox, Philip Kett, William Thomson, Richard Francis, James Done and Robert Aspinall.  They were sentenced to an hour in the pillory and some were also sentenced to imprisonment.

On 27 September, the streets surrounding the Old Bailey were crammed with angry, self-righteous and moralistic people waiting with bated breath for the prisoners to appear.  The mob was armed with mud, the corpses of cats and dogs, rotten fish, spoiled eggs, dung and whatever else they could get their hands on.  Soon the men were bleeding and beaten insensible.

But the authorities didn’t stop there.  Two men who had visited the White Chapel in the past were betrayed by an informer and were sentenced to death.  They were Thomas White, a 16-year-old drummer of the Guards and John Newbolt Hepburn, a 42-year-old ensign in a West India regiment.  They were hanged at Newgate prison on 7 March 1811.

The terrible fate of these men, who became known as the Vere Street Coterie, terrorised the gay community in London.  Meanwhile, the mainstream press revelled in it, denouncing the men as “monsters” before the trial had even begun.  Raids like this were unfortunately all too common and were part of a general crackdown on immoral behaviour in the first half of the 19th century.

The British Museum Library was part of this; the Private Case collection was created in response to the Obscene Publications Act, which made the spread of obscene material illegal.  Library staff decided that The Phoenix of Sodom was obscene, obviously because it was about homosexuality, and locked both copies away.  Since then, they’ve been removed from the Private Case and restored to the general collection, where anybody can call them up and examine their account of a disturbing piece of our history.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections


11 June 2020

Strange News for Strange Times

We might feel like we’re living through a surreal period of strange news at the moment, but that’s nothing compared to some of the stories reported in news pamphlets of the early 17th century.  During this period reports of freak weather, unearthly sightings of ghosts, monstrous births and more were frequent.  The question is, did people living in the 17th century think these reports were as strange as we do today?

In 1616, news broke of three dead bodies rising from their graves in a town in Germany.  In the aftermath of a ‘tempest’, the townspeople believed they saw three corpses rising from the graveyard to preach a terrible warning about God’s wrath.  Rumours of this spread, pamphlets were printed across Europe and news of it eventually reached Edward Allde in London, where he printed this account.

Cover of Miraculous Newes featuring three skeletonsMiraculous newes, from the cittie of Holdt, in the Lord-ship of Munster (in Germany) the twentieth of September last past, 1616. Where there were plainly beheld three dead bodyes rise out of their graves, admonishing the people of judgements to come. London: Printed [by E. Allde] for John Barnyes, 1616. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As you can see, 'Miraculous Newes' is splashed across the half-title page, just as any sensational headline would be today, and a fantastic woodcut of the three skeletons is emblazoned below.  This incident may seem surreal to us today but then it would have been only too believable.  People in the early modern period were accustomed to interpreting strange sightings and weird phenomena as signs of divine judgement or wrath.  This was the only way they could interpret them.

So did people always believe these strange news reports?  Well, in 1620, Nathaniel Butter published a news report translated out of Italian about a vision seen over the Prophet Mohammad’s tomb in ‘Arabia’ and an account of the skies raining blood in Rome.

Cover of Good Newes to Christendome showing skies raining bloodCortano, Ludovico. Good newes to Christendome. Sent to a Venetian in Ligorne, from a merchant in Alexandria, Discovering a wonderfull and strange apparition, visibly seene for many dayes…with many other notable accidents. London: Printed for Nathaniel Butter, 1620. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the preface, the translator writes that he found it hard to believe this account.  After all, other recent strange reports, such as the 'Sussex Serpent, the German Ghosts' (a reference to the pamphlet described above?) and a great army marching in the sky, all 'came out of the shop of invention'.  But he apparently realised his mistake and is now convinced that this vision isn’t fake news. This one is definitely true, and if it’s true, then it has to be a sign from God.

It wasn’t just ghosts and visions that were divine interventions either.  Extreme weather was also a likely sign from God.  This pamphlet is a 'true relation' of a storm and severe flooding in Barcelona and the surrounding area in November 1617.  The woodcut depicts people drowning in the floods.  It was only with much prayer and dipping of the Holy Cross into the water that the storm eventually abated.  The pamphlet ends with a reminder of God’s 'chastisements and warnings' and a warning to serve him with 'more truth and sinceritie'.

Cover of Newes from Spain showing people drowning in the floods

Rejaule, V. A true relation of the lamentable accidents, caused by the inundation and rising of Ebro, Lobregat, Cinca, and Segre, rivers of Spaine. Together with a narration of a fearefull storme, which happened the third of November, in the yeare 1617. In the haven and port of Barcelona. London: printed for William Blackwall, 1618.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These strange news reports that today we would brush off as fake news were in fact serious matters in the early modern period.  Whilst people may not have believed every incredible story, they were wary enough of divine judgement to certainly believe some.  Strange news reports like these became more prevalent in times of upheaval, anxiety and uncertainty, such as in the build-up to the English Civil War, as people didn’t know what to believe.  Surreal times generated surreal headlines, and we can certainly empathise with that.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

28 May 2020

The mysterious Captain Gladstone, RN - a bookbinding James Bond?

Beautifully tooled bookbindings signed with the initials C.E.G. appear on printed books dating from the early 20th century.  These are the initials of Charles Elsden Gladstone (1855-1919) of the Royal Navy. 

Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone The National Archives ADM 196-19-266Extract from record of service for Charles Elsden Gladstone - image courtesy of  The National Archives, ADM 196/19/266 ©Crown Copyright

The National Archives chart his somewhat unusual career.  Like his later fictional counterpart James Bond, he attained the rank of commander.  Also like Bond, he used cutting edge tech.  There is even a suggestion of covert intelligence gathering activities!  Admiralty service papers refer to an early specialism in torpedos, submarine weaponry and skill in photography which aided research on the subject of armaments.  He saw action in 1873 when he was landed with the Naval Brigade in the Ashanti War, while serving on the corvette H.M.S. Druid.

Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880Photograph of starboard side of H.M.S Druid, a corvette at sea with sails down, 1880 - image courtesy of Royal Collection Trust 

As for hobbies, Gladstone’s name is included in the annals of specialist societies relating to microscopy and optical magic lanterns, interests which suggest he had a keen eye and feeling for accuracy.  His family house was based in Thanet where he lived with his wife, a son, a governess and enough domestic help to make his situation comfortable.  Gladstone’s life, therefore, is quite well documented, but, annoyingly for the fans of bookbinding, not his connection to the craft!

Apparently Gladstone family lore confirms that Gladstone bound books but what does this mean?  Traditionally, binding was a two stage process, making the structure (called ‘forwarding’) and applying the decoration (‘finishing’).  Practitioners did not usually teach themselves.  Apprentices spent seven years training with an accredited bookbinder.  Did Gladstone master both techniques and who taught him?  I have found no evidence either way.

People outside the craft did learn to bind but were usually guided by professionals in some way.  A contemporary of Gladstone’s, Irish barrister Sir Edward Sullivan (1852-1928), ‘finished’ ready-bound books to a high standard.  Today, these bindings fetch high prices, as do Captain Gladstone’s though to a lesser extent.  Was this a pastime for Gladstone or the means of raising income?  The latter seems unlikely as his navy salary was good and his retirement pay (from 1904) was £400 a year.  In 1919, the Liverpool Probate Registry listed the gross value of his estate as £27030 2s 5d.

Gladstone’s well bound colourful goatskin book covers, displaying a range of finishing skills, are attractive additions to sales catalogues.  Antiquarian book sellers have included images on their websites, notably David Brass Rare Books, Temple Rare Books (see Temple Rare Books online Book of the Month January 2014), and Nudelman Rare Books.  The bindings usually (though not exclusively) include all-over designs comprising small flower and leaf motifs, have smooth spines and elaborately decorated turn-ins.  Here is the British Library’s example, Alfred de Musset's On ne badine pas avec l’amour.

Gladstone's binding of Alfred de Musset's 'On ne badine pas avec l’amour' with small flower and leaf motifs Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


 Tooling on the turn in of Gladstone's binding showing the initials C.E.G.

Tooling on the turn in showing the initials C.E.G.  - Alfred de Musset, On ne badine pas avec l’amour (Paris, 1904) British Library shelf mark C.188.114 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For a naval officer Gladstone was a quite remarkable bookbinder!

P.J.M. Marks
Curator, Bookbindings

Further Reading:
The National Archives Admiralty records ADM 196/19/266; ADM 196/38/621; ADM 196/40/207
Dreadnought Project
Commander Charles Elsden Gladstone


14 May 2020

The most noted girls of the town: A newly discovered edition of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is a notorious publication that detailed the names and ‘specialities’ of prostitutes working in Covent Garden and the West End during the late 18th century.  When the first edition appeared in 1760, it was immediately derided as pretending 'to give some account of the most noted Girls of the Town; but it has all the air of a lying Catch-penny Jobb' (Monthly Review, June 1760).  A contributor to the London Magazine claimed that the sex workers were 'frightful, and smell strongly of paints, pills, bolus’s, and every venereal slop' (April 1760).  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its scandalous content Harris’s List amassed a large enough readership to be published yearly until 1794.

Frontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesFrontispiece and title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for H. Ranger, 1773 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It was doing so well that, by 1791, a rival Harris’s List had appeared.  An indignant but anonymous newspaper notice was printed, claiming the rival edition was 'a compilation of falsehood and imposition' and urging discerning readers to keep their eye out for the so-called authentic version of the directory.  No copies of this 1791 rival Harris’s List survive today.  In fact, the only extant edition of this rival publication was, until recently, thought to be the one from 1794 – suggesting that it ran for at least four years.

However, we have recently acquired a copy of the rival Harris’s List from 1793.  It was printed for John Sudbury in Southwark rather than the pseudonymous ‘H. Ranger’ who occupies the imprint in the official Lists.   John Sudbury was a bookseller and occasional publisher who was active between 1786 and 1795, dealing in cheap bawdy material.

Title page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, LondonTitle page of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even though it has the same title, this edition describes different sex workers to those featured in the official Harris’s List for 1793.  However, the descriptions are similar in that the line between authenticity and titillation is somewhat blurred in both editions, probably containing only kernels of truth.  In the rival Harris’s List, Miss Patty S—n—rs, for example, is described as the daughter of a bricklayer’s labourer and was one of 'numerous offspring'.  She worked in 'Lissen-green, near Paddington'.  Miss Betty Fr-el, is said to have lost both her parents and, as her stepfather would not support her, joined a 'Strolling Company' and became an actress.  The 'principal hero got the better of her chastity' and, in the words of the List, she 'was soon initiated into the misteries of the Cyprian Deity'.  Another woman, Mrs Stam-er at No.7, Charles-court, Strand, is a widow and nearly forty years old. Having said that, however, she still had 'very fine teeth'. 

Pages from Harris’s List of Covent Garden LadiesPage 42 and 43 of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, London: printed for J. S. [John Sudbury], 1793 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies provides insight into the underworld of Georgian London and is invaluable for the studies of censorship, erotica and the treatment of women in the late 18th century.  Although the male gaze and its haze of titillation prevents us from getting anything other than a glimpse of these unfortunate women, this is far better than them being lost to history altogether.  While this new acquisition is important from a bibliographic perspective, adding to a precious and limited canon of this notorious publication, it is the stories of these women that are the most significant part of this discovery.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading:
The majority of the British Library’s copies of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies are part of the Private Case collection

The bibliographical history of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies is explored here:
Freeman, Janet Ing. Jack Harris and ‘Honest Ranger’: The Publication and Prosecution of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1760-95.

For more research on the women described in Harris’s Lists:
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden ladies : pimp General Jack & the extraordinary story of Harris's List, 2005.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies: the Extraordinary Story of Harris’s List. Penguin, 2012.


14 April 2020

Easter Holidays - Domestic conversations designed for the instruction and amusement of young people

In 1797 a book by Althea Fanshawe was published: Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People.  Miss Fanshawe said that she was writing for children aged between twelve and fourteen years, particularly boys.  She would feel amply rewarded ‘Should one single Youth be amended of any the most trifling error, by perusing the following sheets; should one Parent honour my opinions with approbation, and think any benefit has been derived, from reading the Conversations of the Melmoth Family’.

Title page of Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young PeopleTitle page of Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Mrs Melmoth, the widow of a General, lives in a village on the Thames near Oxford.  She has four children: George, Lucy, Charlotte and Edward.  The story centres on the Easter holidays when George comes home from public school with his friend James Dudley.  Moral questions arise and are discussed by the Melmoths and their guest throughout the fortnight’s activities.

First page of the Melmoth storiesFirst page of the Melmoth stories Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Another book by Althea Fanshawe was published in 1805: Thoughts on Affectation addressed chiefly to Young People.  This dealt with virtues and vice; amiable qualifications and disagreeable habits; and accidental circumstances in life such as beauty/ugliness, family/low birth, riches/poverty.

Contents page from Thoughts on AffectationContents page from Thoughts on Affectation Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All the examples in the book were said to be based on real occurences.  Miss Fanshawe aimed to see amendment in some of her young friends and to guard others against follies which she had committed in the past: ‘Whether I shall have succeeded in serving or amusing any one of my readers, I know not; but I have amused and so far served myself, that I have employed many a lonely hour in the chamber of sickness, which might have been gloomy, had it not been filled by writing the trifle, which I now submit to a less partial judgment than that of its author’.

Althea Fanshawe was baptised in Westminster in 1759.  Her father Simon served as an MP and the family seats were Dengie Hall in Essex and Fanshawe Gate in Derbyshire.   Althea had a elder brother Henry and a younger sister Frances.  She never married and died in 1824 in Bath.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Both of Miss Fanshawe’s books are available to read in full online -
Easter Holidays or Domestic Conversations designed for the Instruction and Amusement of Young People (Bath, 1797)
Thoughts on Affectation addressed chiefly to Young People (Bath, 1805)

17 March 2020

Mr. Coryate’s shoes

I have come across an intriguing 17th-century book titled Coryats Crudities, written by Thomas Coryate (1577?-1617), and illustrated with satirical prints.  Coryate (also spelt as Coryat) was an entertainer to Henry, Prince of Wales, eldest son of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland).  In 1608 he undertook a five-month journey in continental Europe, and this book, published in 1611 and dedicated to the Prince, gives a detailed account of his travels.

Frontispiece engraving from Coryats CruditiesThomas Coryate, Coryats Crudities, printed by William Stansby for the author, London, 1611, shelfmark 152.f.19; frontispiece, engraving Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The text on the frontispiece illustration informs the reader that Coryate visited France, the Duchy of Savoy, Italy, Switzerland, Rhaetia (the canton of Graubünden, now in Switzerland), Germany and the Netherlands.  It features the author’s portrait at the age of 35, engraved by William Hole, flanked by eleven amusing images of his adventures.  These included being sick on board of a ship (top left), being carried in a chair on poles upon the shoulders of two men in the French mountains (centre left), and a Venetian courtesan hurling eggs at him from a window as he passes by in a gondola (centre right).

Woodcut of shoes from Coryats CruditiesThomas Coryate, Coryats Crudities, printed by William Stansby for the author, London, 1611, shelfmark 152.f.19; Coryate’s shoes, woodcut, leaf k 4 recto Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Even more unexpected is the second illustration: a pair of shoes, encircled by a laurel wreath.  Printed above and below are prose and a verse in Latin by Henry Peacham, commemorating Coryate and the iconic shoes he wore while walking for 900 miles of his 1,975-mile journey across Europe.  This type of ‘lachet’ shoe had two leather tongues with holes in them for shoelaces.  Coryat’s shoes were strengthened with pieces of horn, and he tells us in the book that he had them mended only once - in Zurich.  Humorous verses, printed at the start of the volume and written by numerous authors in response to Coryate’s request, mention his shoes 32 times!

After returning to his beloved home village, Odcombe in Somerset, Coryate asked for permission to display his shoes inside the local Church of St Peter and St Paul, as a sort of thanksgiving for his safe trip.  They hung there until 1702, went lost in the 1860s, but have been replaced by a replica pair, carved in stone.

The book was popular with contemporary readers, and the British Library holds four copies, with shelfmarks C.152.e.5., C.32.e.9., 152.f.19 and G.6750.  This last copy was presented by Coryate himself to Henry, Prince of Wales.

The ‘Odcombian Legge-stretcher’ (as he referred to himself) embarked on further travels in 1612, spending time in Turkey and the Holy Land.  In 1615 he travelled from Aleppo in Syria to India, walking over 3000 miles.  He kept recording his experiences during these journeys, periodically sending back manuscript notes to England.  He died of dysentery in Surat, Gujarat, India, in December 1617.  His surviving notes were published, providing a unique insight into the lives of people in these countries through the eyes of an early English traveller.

Marianne Yule
Curator of Prints & Drawings
British Library Western Heritage Collections

Further reading
Frederic George Stephens, Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Division I. Political and Personal Satires. Vol. I. The Trustees, 1870, Satires No.75 and 77, pp. 39-42; shelfmark 1572/628
Biographical entry for Coryate, Thomas (1577?-1617), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Farah Karim-Cooper, Strangers in the city: the cosmopolitan nature of 16th-century Venice, 2016
Description of the Jewish Ghetto and the courtesans of Venice in Coryate's Crudities, 1611


03 March 2020

A ‘Full House’ of Brut English Chronicles

Libraries are renowned for being quiet places but you should have heard the excited cries of 'Housey Housey!' when we recently acquired a copy of the Saint Albans Chronicle printed in London by Wykyn de Worde in 1520.  Its acquisition means the British Library can now, uniquely, provide access to the complete sequence of printed editions of this English Chronicle.

The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande bound before his 1520 edition of The English Chronicle.
British Library shelfmark: C.194.b.430. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Originally Anglo-Norman, the ‘Brut chronicle’ refers to a collection of medieval works on the history of England that incorporate the mythological founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy. It became the most popular vernacular historical chronicle and its wide circulation in manuscript made it an obvious contender for the early printing press.  It saw thirteen editions between 1480 and 1528, the first by William Caxton, and the last by Wynkyn de Worde.

'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition.'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition of The Chronicle. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Just as its many scribal forms were embellished and supplemented, the English Chronicle’s printed versions were treated to additions also.  In just the two years between Caxton’s first and second editions the vocabulary of the text was modernized and punctuation increased.  Spacing was improved and the breaking of words was avoided (i.e. gen- | till became Gentille; des ||| turbaunce became dysturbbauce).  Caxton introduced additions using ‘many dyverse paunflettis and bookys’ he had at his disposal and so the Brut was brought up to the times of Edward IV.  Caxton also responded to the growing interest in geography amongst ordinary readers by printing a Description of Britain but his information was lifted from Ralph Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century text badly in need of updating.  The Chronicle and the Description became frequently bound together or printed together in later editions.

Caxton’s second edition (1482) with 35 cuts inserted from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles This copy of Caxton’s second edition (1482) has a lovely feature of intervention by a past reader; 35 cuts from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles have been inserted in the margins at an early date. British Library shelfmark C.10.b.4. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1486 the work was edited and expanded by the so-called ‘Schoolmaster of St Albans’.  It was given a new prologue, a summary of the lives of the Popes (pre-Reformation of course and destined, as with the newly acquired copy to have occurrences of the word ‘Pope’ censored and scored through) and was generally made more readable.  It also saw the introduction of woodcut illustrations; Biblical and topographical: Tower of Babel, Rome and London.  In 1497 the St Albans text was selected by Wynkyn de Worde for a new edition.  Using more popular illustrations like battle scenes, Kings, and mythological curiosities such as the fabled wrestling match between the giants Gogmagog and Coryn, de Worde published five editions of the Chronicle.  Another London printer, Julian Notary, introduced eye-catching illustrations of Adam and Eve, Noah, and Abraham in his 1504 and 1515 editions.  These illustrate developments in how books were becoming tailored for a wider, more popular audience.  Yet no more than a dozen copies of this 1520 edition survive.  The copy acquired comes with noteworthy English provenance having been in the Library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire since the 17th century.

Battle between Coryn and Gogmagog 'How Brute arryued at Totnesse in the yle of Albyon / And of the / bataylle that was bitwene Coryn / and Gogmagog.'  This battle is believed to have took place on Plymouth Hoe (where commemorative figures of the two giants were cut into the turf up to medieval times). Coryn defeated Gogmagog by tossing him upon the rocks below. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For library workers it is an especial pleasure to be able to provide readers with examples of the entire printed representation of a particular work - all in one place under one roof – a ‘Full House’ so to speak in Library Bingo lingo!

Woodcut illustration depicting violence and shipsA glorious woodcut illustration depicting violence and ships, both of which feature prominently in the English Chronicle!  Printed by Julian Notary, in 1504. British Library shelfmark: G.5994 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Table of thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle 'Eyes down for a full house!' All thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle held at the British Library. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections


28 January 2020

Sir Francis Drake: the deluded history of an English Hero

The anniversary of Drake’s death on 28 January 1596 seems an appropriate time to share news of an interesting heritage acquisition, a 16th-century Italian 'avviso' (newsbook), New and Latest Report from Portugal concerning the success of the English Armada led by Dom Antonio and Drake

This newly discovered account of the calamitous English Armada of 1589, co-commanded by Drake and Sir John Norris, is likely the unique surviving example of the report.  It appears to be entirely unknown to bibliography and scholarship.

Pages from 'New and Latest Report from Portugal'Nuovo et ultimo avviso di Portogallo, per il quale s’intende il successo dell’ Armata d’Inghilterra, condotta da D. Antonio, & dal Drago in quei paesi. Con altri particolari d’importanza. ['New and Latest Report from Portugal concerning the success of the English Armada led by Dom Antonio and Drake in those countries. With other important particulars']. Ferrara: per il Baldini, 1589.  British Library shelfmark C.194.a.1452. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

'Avvisi' news media circulated by letter or in print have a reputation for being factual, concise and reliable.  They did not seek to exaggerate, impress, or sensationalise for effect.  This avviso is an eyewitness account from a Spaniard in Lisbon with the English at its gates.  It describes the frustrating wait for Spanish or Portuguese reinforcements and the losses suffered by their enemy.

The objectives of the English Armada were to hammer home the advantages gained from the failure of the Spanish Armada the year before.  Elizabeth sought to facilitate Dom Antonio’s claim to the Portuguese throne and so undermine the Spanish Monarchy and its Empire.  The largest English expeditionary force ever assembled - 25,000 men - would finish off the weakened Spanish navy left in port.

The ragtag English forces, largely made up of jail birds and beggars were more interested in pillaging than military glory.  They lacked proper funding (as usual), organisation and discipline.  With no baggage train or cavalry, Norris needlessly marched an army across country instead of sailing up the Tagus to take Lisbon.  Sickness and starvation began to deplete their vast numbers.  Frustrated by the absence of a Portuguese rising in favour of Dom Antonio, the English waited for Drake to sail up the Tagus; but Drake’s ships did not turn up instead busying themselves taking rich prizes from ships in the Roads off Lisbon.  The approach of Spanish reinforcements led the English to retreat.  Sick, starved and dying of wounds, no more than 5,000 returned to England.

The Queen was furious; it was clear that Drake’s and Norris’s thousands had failed.  Disgruntled demobbed survivors brought only plague back and the recently emboldened reputation of the Tudor State was in peril across Europe.  Drake’s reputation eclipsed with accusations of cowardice added to his well-known avarice.

The main contemporary English source describing the expedition was written by a participant, Captain Anthony Wingfield, immediately upon the survivors’ return to England.  It is an expert piece of spin and propaganda.  Written in a heroic literary style, it played down the heavy losses and amplified the ‘glory’ of taking the fight to 'offend' the King of Spain 'in his neerer territories'.

Page from A True Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spaine and Portingale Wingfield’s apology spent much time condemning “false prophets gone before us”, “telling strange tales” and “sectaries against noted truth”.  Page from A True Coppie of a Discourse written by a Gentleman, employed in the late Voyage of Spaine and Portingale [under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris]: sent to his particular friend, and by him published, for the better satisfaction of all such, as, hauing been seduced by particular report, haue entred into conceipts tending to the discredit of the enterprise, and Actors of the same. British Library shelfmark 292.e.7. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Illustration from a 1590 Frankfurt edition of Ephemeris Wingfield’s account in English (for influencing opinion at home) formed the basis for Latin translations printed in Frankfurt and Nuremberg designed to affect informed opinion further afield on the continent.  Illustration from a 1590 Frankfurt edition of Ephemeris (based on Wingfield’s True Coppie of a Discourse) Brevis et fida Narratio, et continuatio rerum omnium a Drako et Norreysio (post felicem ex Occidentalibus insulis reditum) in sua expeditione Portugallensi singulis diebus gestarum. British Library shelfmark G.6516 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is significant that Wingfield’s account has prevailed. Drake’s posthumous reputation steadily revived.  The self-congratulatory, self-exonerating poltroonery of Wingfield’s ‘true’ copie makes for a deluded national history.  The existence and discovery of this Italian newsbook shows the importance of paying attention to wider sources.  Its acquisition adds a new source from a traditionally reliable genre - the avvisi - a counterbalance to facts concealed from English historiography and perpetuated national mythologizing of the Drake Legend.

Illustration from The English Hero; or, Sir Francis Drake, reviv'dThe English Hero; or, Sir Francis Drake, reviv'd. was first published in 1681 by Nathaniel Crouch, updating The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake (Drake’s nephew) written in 1625 in an attempt to revive his reputation and status.  Published in many editions, a 1750 edition can be seen online.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

We are very grateful for the contribution made by the British Library Collections Trust towards the cost of acquiring the avviso.

Thanks to Stephen Parkin for providing a translation of the Italian newsbook.

Further reading:
One of the best accounts of the 1589 English Armada can be read online The year after the Armada, and other historical studies by Martin Hume (1896)

A reliable English language biography of Sir Francis Drake is Sir Francis Drake: the Queen's pirate by Harry Kelsey (1998)

A stimulating examination of the English treatment and understanding of the events is given by Luis Gorrochategui Santos in The English Armada: the greatest naval disaster in English history (2018)


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