Richard Haklyut (?1552-1616)

In my last post on Bristol Cathedral, I realised how many amazing and largely forgotten people are associated with it, perhaps most of all the strangely named Elizabethan prebend of the cathedral. His memorial is almost obscured by the altar which suitably marks the seamen’s chapel.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this man is that he was a near contemporary of John Dee (1527-1608) and they served complimentary roles in the expansion of English navigation and exploration, and both seem to be of Welsh descent. But Haklyut was not an astronomer or alchemist, so perhaps his life was too safe to become famous or infamous.

He is most famous for his book Principal Investigations, Voyages, Traffiques (sic) and discoveries of he English nation made by sea or over – and, to the most remote and fartherest distant quarters of the earth. It included the first publications of many original documents dating from the 14th century to the most recent travels of Drake and Cavendish. It was published in 1589 then an expanded version 1598-1600.

His lifelong interest in travel was inspired by Psalm 107 : “When I read that they which go down to the sea in ships, and occupy one of the great waters, they see the works of the Lord, and his woonders (sic) in the deepe, &c.”

At Oxford university, he devoured literature of travellers and explorers, in Greek, Latin Italian, Spanish, Portugese, and English, and his research brought him into personal contact with the great explorers Drake, Gilbert, Raleigh and others.

In 1584 he gave the queen his Discourse on Western Planting, ie on colonial settlement, written at Raleigh’s direction, on various ambitious colonial projects. It was intended to stimulate discussion at court and encourage support for potential settlers. Though he planned to follow Gilbert to America, he went no further than Paris where he learnt much from the exiled Dom Antonio, heir to the Portugese throne.   Whilst there, he collected information for his patron Walsingham, and on his death, for Sir Robert Cecil.

Early in the 17th century he provided advice fro the East India company and invested in the Virginia Company, as did the poet cleric John Donne, and several books on exploration were dedicated to him, a mark of his importance and respect.

In 1606 he was given permission to travel to Virginia but failed to do so. He praised the work of Spain’s Peter the Martyr for chronicling the nation’s overseas activities, which inspired him to emulation, in English. The second edition was expanded to include naval activities, due to the significant degree of overlap in the lives of Drake etc, whose career ranged from pirate to naval hero. Though his writing concentrated on the English, he had extensive continental contacts.  Hundreds of copies of his works survive, suggesting they were published in large quantities, which in turn means they were popular. They still provide invaluable source of original material. In 1846 the Haklyut Society was founded to continue to promote exploration and navigation.

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