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Poet of London

Thou hast howled away twelve winters.

—Prospero, The Tempest

Few read the markings of William Strachey’s quill. The thirty-two-year-old from the English countryside had spent more than a decade in London trying to become a writer, but few beyond his immediate circle knew his name. That his initials were the same as the most successful literary man of his time, William Shakespeare, was an ironic coincidence. In many ways the two were similar—both came from modest stock, both were educated in classical literature, and both of them had wives and children living in distant villages—but in the most important respect they could not be more different. Few had ever heard of William Strachey, whereas William Shakespeare was renowned throughout the kingdom.

Now in 1604 the unknown William S. had an opportunity to be noticed. The playwright Ben Jonson had invited Strachey to contribute one of eight introductory sonnets to a new publication of his drama Sejanus: His Fall. The plays of Jonson were second in popularity only to those of Shakespeare, so the invitation was a true opportunity. Strachey’s sonnet would circulate among the literary elite of the city. This was a major advance in his quest to become a writer, and he worked hard to make the verse his best work.

The family of William Strachey had not always been wealthy enough for the eldest son to lead a literary life in London. That only became possible when William’s grandfather raised enough sheep and finished enough wool to become the richest man in his ancestral town of Saffron Walden. The new affluence had allowed William’s father to go to school fifty miles away in London and to meet and marry the daughter of a city merchant. William the sonnet writer had spent a childhood divided between country and city, growing up in the household of a father whose goal was to attain a higher place in life. A month after grandfather William had died in 1587, father William had been granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds, the first act of a newly liberated yeoman who longed to live the life of a gentleman. William the writer would emulate his father rather than his grandfather, maintaining minimal ties to the countryseat and pursuing a life in the city that his ancestors would have considered irresponsible.

Strachey the aspiring writer had attended Emmanuel College in Cambridge and Gray’s Inn in London without earning a degree from either institution. At twenty-three he had married Frances Forster, the daughter of a prosperous Surrey family with political connections. Frances resided at her father’s estate at Crowhurst while Strachey lived in London. Two children had been born over the previous decade—William Jr., delivered nine months after the marriage, and Edmund, still an infant. Strachey’s wife and children were all in Crowhurst while he labored in London to produce the sonnet for Jonson’s book, the work he was sure would be the first of many publications in his name.

The sonnet Strachey produced was a meditation on the life of the Roman soldier protagonist of Jonson’s play. The metaphor he chose to illuminate Sejanus’s rise and fall was a storm of thunder and lightning that produces fury but passes with little effect. The theme of “On Sejanus” was laid out in the final line—“nothing violent lasts.” Strachey wrote of “swift lightning” and “ruinous blasts” of thunder. He then added a second metaphor, comparing both the lightning and Sejanus to a vaunt-courier, or a soldier in an advance guard who delivers an impressive first strike but ultimately falls to the enemy.

Upon publication of the book Strachey’s theme proved disappointingly prophetic, as the work itself produced a momentary flash that soon faded. Friends complimented him, but the notice did little to change his prospects. As usual the only thing that seemed to advance his goal of gaining literary friends was spending money, and the money he spent was generally on the theater. While Strachey hoped to publish sonnets and travel narratives rather than plays, he loved the work of playwrights and the culture of London theaters. One of his strategic purchases was a share in the Children of the Revels, a troupe of children that performed in a converted room in the former Blackfriars monastery. Owning an interest in a theater company gave him credibility, but it also proved to be an expensive proposition. While he was entitled to a share of the profits, the investment ended up costing him money because he had to pay for food for the boy actors and theater repairs. Strachey had money, but it was growing short. As the eldest son among seven full siblings and five half-sisters, he had assumed control of the family holdings when his father died in 1598, selling much of the property immediately to distribute legacies to his brothers and sisters. Now six years later the inheritance was running thin.

Strachey had made many friends during his time in London, though he always wondered whether it was due to his generous spending habits. Poet John Donne was his closest companion. They were the same age and shared a love of verse and a thinly veiled anxiety about money, though Donne was more adept at both writing and cultivating patrons. There were others, too. At Gray’s Inn, Strachey had associated with writer Thomas Campion, who would later call him “my old companion Strachey.” Ben Jonson also professed himself a loyal friend. Strachey was also acquainted with Shakespeare, but the two were hardly close. Frankly it was not a very ample return on a dozen years and an inheritance spent in pursuit of literary success. Strachey was almost out of money, so something would have to change soon.

A break came two years after the publication of Sejanus, in 1606, when a cousin recommended Strachey for the position of secretary to the new ambassador to Turkey. Thomas Glover would soon depart for Constantinople and needed a reliable scribe. In August, Strachey departed with Glover’s party aboard the Royal Exchange. After a stop in Algiers, the ship reached Constantinople in December. The Turkey assignment started well but would ultimately end badly. Glover was the former secretary of outgoing ambassador Henry Lello and had acquired the job by convincing officials to assign him the post even while Lello labored in Turkey. The two would-be ambassadors met in Constantinople, and during an ensuing power struggle Strachey sided with Lello and was abruptly fired. Cast in the streets of a foreign land without an income, the former secretary eventually returned to England with the deposed ambassador. When Strachey arrived back in London in June 1608, his first act was to borrow thirty pounds from Dutch moneylender Jasper Tien. He was home again, but poorer than ever and embittered by his overseas adventure. A friend told Glover in December that “one Strachey is making a book against you, which if it should be so, it peradventure may cost him both ears.” Strachey never published his diatribe or suffered the punishment for libel, but he told everyone he knew that Glover was a scoundrel.

Upon his return from Turkey, Strachey was surprised by one development in literary London. He was amused to find that William Shakespeare had been impressed enough with his sonnet “On Sejanus” to use a version of one of its lines in his new play King Lear. Strachey discovered Lear himself comparing lightning to a vaunt-courier—the very term he had used in his sonnet. Strachey may have noticed, too, that three lines earlier Lear used a new word that voyagers had brought back from the West Indies. The word was “ hurricano,” a term derived from the name of a Caribbean deity with a stormy disposition. Shakespeare, it seems, was as partial to storm imagery as the man from whom he borrowed the lightning line. Strachey was flattered to have even an uncredited line in a play by London’s leading dramatist, but he realized that few in the audience would ever be aware of the debt. Strachey’s unheralded debut on the London stage only made him long more keenly to write something in his own name that all England would want to read.

The Turkey debacle had not reduced Strachey’s taste for adventure. For a while, though, he would content himself with reading travel narratives. He loved the chronicles of New World explorers that appeared regularly in London bookshops. Richard Willes’s classic History of Travayle in the West and East Indies was a favorite. One narrative Strachey may have read was an account by Antonio Pigafetta, a member of Ferdinand Magellan’s crew and one of the few who survived the famous circumnavigation of the globe a century earlier. At the southern tip of Patagonia some people were lured aboard ship and captured, Pigafetta said, and “in time when they saw how they were deceived, they roared like bulls and cried upon their great devil Setebos to help them.” The story was exotic and poignant at the same time.

Another popular travel book was Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Among the stories in its pages was an incredible tale by an Englishman named Job Hartop, who had crossed the Atlantic on a Spanish ship. “When we came in the height of Bermuda,” Hartop wrote, “we discovered a monster in the sea, who showed himself three times unto us from the middle upwards, in which parts he was proportioned like a man of the complexion of a mulatto or tawny Indian.” What a peculiar story indeed—a monster with attributes of a fish and a New World man seen about an island far at sea.

Despite remaining in London, Strachey had an opportunity to see living individuals from the New World. Several indigenous people had been captured by early explorers and forced to come to the Old World, but a man named Namontack of Tsenacomoco was the first to cross the ocean from Virginia to England as an emissary of a New World nation. He had come in 1608 as a representative of Wahunsenacawh, known as “Powhatan” to the English, the leader of the people of Tsenacomoco who were collectively called Powhatans by the colonists. Wahunsenacawh ruled a confederation of thirty villages with a population of fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people that surrounded the place the English had occupied in 1607 and renamed Jamestown. John Smith, the most famous colonist of all, who at the time was already in Virginia, described Namontack as Wahunsenacawh’s “trusty servant and one of a shrewd, subtle capacity.” The Powhatan envoy had come into the English colony a few months earlier when colonial official Christopher Newport and Wahunsenacawh exchanged a pair of young men for the purpose of developing language interpreters. Thirteen-year-old Thomas Savage had been sent to live with the Powhatans, while Namontack had come to live with the English. Wahunsenacawh then agreed to allow his representative to travel to England with Newport, a visit the colonists hoped would generate interest and investment in the Jamestown enterprise.

Namontack became a celebrity during his time in London, in part because his English chaperones declared him to be Wahunsenacawh’s son. The people who encountered the Powhatan envoy treated him as part diplomat and part sideshow marvel. Spanish ambassador Pedro de Zúñiga was perhaps unhappy that the man from Tsenacomoco was given diplomatic status. “This Newport brought a lad who they say is the son of an emperor of those lands,” Zúñiga wrote in a dispatch home, “and they have coached him that when he sees the king he is not to take off his hat, and other things of this sort, so that I have been amused by the way they honor him, for I hold it for surer that he must be a very ordinary person.”

When Strachey first saw Namontack, the physical appearance of the New World visitor was striking. Jamestown colonist Gabriel Archer noted that the traditional hairstyle of Powhatan men was a prominent feature. Hair was grown long on one side and knotted at the bottom. On the other side it was shaved close with sharpened shells to allow the unimpeded use of bowstrings. “Some have chains of long linked copper about their necks, and some chains of pearl,” Archer said. “I found not a gray eye among them all. Their skin is tawny, not so born but with dyeing and painting themselves, in which they delight greatly.” The Powhatan envoy may have worn a mix of English and Powhatan attire. Reverend William Crashaw was probably referring to Namontack when he spoke of a Virginian visitor who “had gone naked all his life till our men persuaded him to be clothed.” Even obscured by English garb, the Powhatan elements of grooming and dress would have been visible to William Strachey.

Soon after Newport left London in July 1608 to return with Namontack to Tsenacomoco, the black plague began a sustained assault on London. Strachey had been home from Turkey for a month and was looking forward to resuming his life in London, money permitting, but he soon left the city for the countryside. The bulbous swellings of the lymph glands, the feverish sweats, the sores, and the involuntary spasms known as the danse macabre were familiar to all Londoners. A sure sign of the onset of a new epidemic were the beaked masks of the plague doctors. Anyone with enough money to leave the city fled to escape the contagion. Among them was William Strachey, who joined his family in Crowhurst.

Deprived of the theater and London friends during the plague winter of 1608 to 1609, Strachey read his travel books by the fireside while his sons played about him. Strachey also wrote letters to friends, including John Donne, a reliable companion who had tried to help him find a new position after he lost the Turkey post. In a letter to an influential acquaintance, Donne had called Strachey “my good friend” and blamed Glover for the unpleasant episode. “I dare boldly say that the greatest folly he ever committed was to submit himself and parts to so mean a master.” No job had come of the referral, but Strachey appreciated the effort nevertheless.

Both Strachey and Donne were attempting to support their families on their writing alone. Donne had lately grown close to a patron known for her love of literature. The Countess of Bedford had been born Lucy Harrington, but gained a noble title when she married the third Earl of Bedford at the age of thirteen. The countess was extremely well situated in the court of King James as one of Queen Anna’s Ladies of the Bedchamber. She regularly entertained poets and playwrights in her home and selected a few to receive regular stipends. Donne was her current favorite, so much so that she served as godmother to one of his children. In letters Donne called the countess “my Lady Bedford” and “the best lady.” Strachey had joined his friend on some of his visits with the countess. Privately he entertained the idea that she might extend her patronage to him, though no offer had yet been made.

Also during the winter of 1608 to 1609, both Strachey and Donne observed the recruiting efforts of the Virginia Company of London as it prepared to launch the largest expedition ever sent to Jamestown. Indeed, because of the great amount of publicity material produced by the Virginia Company, it would be difficult not to be aware of its progress. A massive supply convoy was planned for the spring, and the company wanted hundreds of new settlers to sign on to join the two-year-old colony. The prospect of such a voyage was enticing to fortune hunters, rich and poor alike. For years Spanish ships had brought back treasure from the New World, and now for the first time England had established a permanent colony across the Atlantic. Here was a chance to join in what the pamphlets and printed announcements of the Virginia Company promised would be a lucrative venture. Spanish ambassador Zúñiga confirmed the success of the drive for money and recruits: “They have collected in twenty days an amount of money for this voyage that frightens me.”

In the early months of 1609 the plague continued to kill with alarming rapidity. The epidemic had an equally devastating effect on the English economy. To anyone with an appetite for adventure, the Jamestown expedition offered both escape and economic promise. John Donne was the first of the two friends to make inquiries. He had been on voyages to Spain and the Azores in 1595 and 1597, and the idea of a new journey intrigued him. “News here is none at all but that John Dun seeks to be preferred to be secretary of Virginia,” an official wrote in a letter to another on February 14, 1609. Donne turned out to have a fleeting enthusiasm for the venture. The secretary position was assigned to a man who was already in Jamestown, and the poet soon abandoned the idea of joining the expedition.

Strachey would prove more tenacious. As the winter went on, he became convinced that the Virginia voyage was an opportunity not to be missed. The promise of riches would answer his looming need for money. The financial security that awaited him across the ocean would be a great relief. Beyond that there was the chance to become a chronicler of England’s explorations of the New World. An eager public read the Jamestown narratives that had been published to date. Travel accounts were something he could write easily and well if he were in Virginia, and here was an opportunity to go there. He would cross the ocean to a wild land and become a chronicler of the New World.

The post of secretary being filled, Strachey signed on as a planter. In that role he would be fed and clothed for the duration of the expedition in exchange for working on behalf of the colony. Simply agreeing to join yielded Strachey a share of stock in the Virginia Company valued at £12.10 (the equivalent of about $2,900 today). His status as an educated man of merit, in the judgment of company officials, was worth a second share. In return for his pledge to venture abroad he received a decorated stock certificate. No dividends were to be paid for seven years, at which time he was to receive two shares of all profits made during the period and two shares of all Virginia land under company control—expected to total five hundred acres per share. The immediate value of the expedition, however, would be exciting experiences to write about rather than money.

Strachey was delighted when he learned he would ride with the leaders of the expedition aboard the Sea Venture, the flagship of the fleet of nine vessels. The captain of the ship would be Christopher Newport, the man who had recently brought Namontack to England for a second time. The Powhatan emissary had returned to Tsenacomoco the first time with stories of “the kind reception and treatment he received in England.” An intrigued Wahunsenacawh had sent him back across the sea again, this time accompanied by a companion named Machumps. Now, after a second London visit again chaperoned by Newport, the Powhatan visitors were preparing to return home on the Sea Venture. Strachey was pleased, since he would have many weeks aboard ship to learn to communicate with the Powhatans and begin to gather material for his chronicle.

Through the late winter and early spring of 1609, Strachey prepared to voyage to the New World. The departure date was delayed several times, but in early May it was clear the fleet would depart by the end of the month. A couple of weeks in advance Strachey began to pack his trunk at his father-in-law’s estate in Crowhurst, where his family would live during his absence. The articles he packed probably included the recommended supplies of a Jamestown settler: linen and silk shirts and breeches, silk hose and gloves, leather and cloth jerkins to wear over his shirts, silk gowns, cloaks, leather shoes, Castile soap, combs, orrisroot and alum for deodorant, and a linen pouch of powdered rosemary wood for a toothbrush. Strachey also carried clay pipes and tobacco and a sewing kit of pins, needles, thread, thimbles, and scissors. Wool blankets and a mattress bag stuffed with wool would serve as his bed.

An earlier colonist advised anyone planning a Virginia venture to pack one more thing: “For the comfort of their souls let them bring Bibles and other good books.” Strachey did not need to be persuaded to follow that advice. Along with paper, ink horn, quills, penknife, and sealing wax, Strachey placed at least two books in his trunk. He would bring Richard Willes’s History of Travayle in the West and East Indies, complete with its tale of the Bermuda sea monster. José de Acosta’s Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies also went in his trunk. Those were the best books available on the New World, and Strachey wanted to consult them when he encountered strange people, plants, and animals. On the title page of History of Travayle, Strachey wrote his name and the date, May 2, 1609, to identify it as his copy.

The wife and sons whom Strachey would leave behind helped gather belongings from the chests and cupboards of the family’s rooms. His wife, Frances, and sons William, now thirteen, and Edmund, five, had become used to his being away in London for months at a time and had centered their lives at Crowhurst. They presumed that Strachey would not return for years, but since he had been with them only occasionally in recent times, the difference would be a matter of degree. During the plague Strachey had been with his family for an extended period and it had been good for all of them. The opportunity to join the Virginia venture was a critical one, however, and Strachey felt he needed to go. Frances and the children would be fine.

The persistence of the plague confirmed Strachey’s conviction that he had made the right decision. There was little prospect of earning money by writing while the epidemic continued. In May 1609, as the Jamestown fleet prepared to sail, the disease showed no signs of abating. “You all know God is angry,” Reverend Daniel Price proclaimed in a London sermon that month. “Wrath is come out, the plague is begun, yea continued from year to year, rideth progress from country to country, executeth judgment upon high and low, and keepeth court at this time within this city.” If the Virginia ships managed to leave the city without carrying the disease, all aboard would at least be free of that worry. “The sickness increases,” a Londoner wrote to a friend on May 1. “The Virginians go forward the next week.”

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