Thomas Dallam 5 – Transcript

This is the transcript of episode 5 of my podcast series on, and leading up to, Thomas Dallam, the Elizabethan organ builder who sailed to Constantinople with a gift for the Sultan. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.

Welcome back to Human Circus, and welcome back to my series on the life and times of Thomas Dallam, with the emphasis thus far squarely on the times and the life aspect rather lacking. Today, in exciting news, Dallam has arrived. At last, he will leave London for the court of the sultan, Mehmed III, and we’ll be talking about it. If this is your first time listening to the podcast, you won’t know why this is so exciting for me, but you see, I initially picked out Dallam’s story as an interesting one to cover back when I was talking about Schiltberger and Timur. I thought this would make a nice one or two parter, a man sails to Constantinople with an organ, quick and easy. Further reading on the subject led to what was basically a six episode prequel, on Elizabethan engagement with the Islamic world and on how those worlds were not so distinct as we might imagine, a story within the story of 16th-century globalization you could say. But now it’s Dallam time; there’ll be sailing and piracy and the sight of new lands. First though, let’s recap.

And let’s not be exhaustive about it. Let’s just keep in mind that in Constantinople Mehmed is sultan, though some portion of the real power was said to have rested with his mother Safiye and even with Safiye’s financial agent Esperanza Malchi, at this time not yet murdered by the palace cavalry. The English ambassador Edward Barton has died, and his successor Henry Lello is waiting anxiously for the appropriate gifts to be sent from England, the gifts without which he will not be able to present himself to the Sultan and be recognized as an ambassador for Queen Elizabeth. And the gifts were late, embarrassingly, appallingly, late, not just because they were needed so that Lello could have his audience with the sultan but also because some material acknowledgment was really required that Mehmed had become the sultan. A congratulations card of sorts was in order, and it was long, long, overdue. Edward Barton had literally died waiting for it. Mehmed had become sultan in early 1595 and Dallam leaves in 1599. It’s a bit of a gap.

And Lello, holding it all together in Constantinople was, though apparently a well-educated man, not the energetic and charming fellow who’d come before him. His nickname was actually “Fog” on account of his melancholic character and he seems to have inspired a certain amount of dislike, scorn really, for his awkward and anxious manner. You can see it descriptions of him speaking to the Ottomans, how he stood, quote, “like a modest housewife, and began a trembling speech in English… Sounding like the squeaking of a goose divided into semiquavers.” Personality aside, Lello lacked the great depth of on the job in the Ottoman Empire experience that Barton had started with, and now, the English commercial agreements having lapsed with Murad’s death, he was the one who’d need to renegotiate them. Something needed to be done, but how did Dallam come into this?

Sadly, a lot of the details are missing here. Maybe Barton’s suggestion, a rooster shaped clock from Elizabeth’s palace, inspired the idea of something clock related? Whatever the thinking behind it, we do know that the Levant Company commissioned the item, and this is interesting in itself. It was undoubtedly important to both crown and company to smooth things over with the Ottomans, but, as had happened before, Elizabeth and her counselors were in no way going to be persuaded to foot the bill. So, again, that was left up to the company.

The company’s contract was with a man named Randolph Bull, a London goldsmith, and he must have been responsible for the elaborate casing and the decorative elements, while Dallam took charge of the workings of the device. The results sound spectacular.

It was an organ and a clock, 5.5 feet wide, 4.5 deep, and 12-16 high, with a 4-foot disparity between the initial specifications and Dallam’s accounting. There was to be a keyboard at which an organist could play, and 4 times a day it would play itself. There would be a 24 hour clock face and a 16 bell chime; upon the corners part way up, two figures should be crafted to raise silver trumpets to their lips and blow; higher, a holly bush of birds which would sing and shake their wings; somewhere about the machine were to go the representations of 7 planets, each to appear at their time and present their symbol; the base was to be made of oak and raised above the ground by 5 bronze lions. All about were to be decorative friezes, pillars, and turrets.

And there was more! A bejeweled Queen Elizabeth was to be surrounded by 8 men and a pair of angel trumpeters to flank her. Above that was to be a human head topped by a rooster, something I’ve seen and been confused by on a building in Prague, with crescent marked pyramids to either side. And the list of clockwork movements that should be produced starts to get absurd: the true movement of the moon, armed men striking a great bell at noon, the 8 figures around the queen bowing toward her in turn and being acknowledged by a movement of her sceptre, an angel turning an hour glass, and so on, and on and on. But we don’t know how much of this made the final design. Dallam does mention birds, silver trumpeters, planets, and “diverse other motions,” so it’s up to us to imagine, but you should imagine something pretty impressive.

In November of 1598, the organ made its first grand performance at the London Banqueting Hall. It was a canvas topped pavilion, but we should not think of the kind of thing you might now rent for an outdoor event. This was painted, garlanded, featured exotic fruits of all kinds, tiered flooring, and 292 glass lights, and it apparently took 3 weeks for 375 men to build. The temporary structure stood from 1581 until the 4th year of King James’ reign. It would have been a grand setting for the organ’s performance, but the performance too we will have to imagine.

Before an audience composed of the queen, her court, and her merchants, perhaps others, the machine proved its worth as the kind of prestige present that they wanted to impress the sultan with. And Dallam, it’s presumably proud creator, said basically nothing of it, at least not in the portion of his writings that we know of. He will allude to the event, remarking here or there that having performed for the queen he has nothing to worry about in later challenges, but that’s all he has to say about what must have been a pretty special moment in his life. Who was this Thomas Dallam?

Unfortunately, Dallam’s background is difficult to trace in any great detail. We know what he went on to become in terms of his great success in the business of organ building, notably an organ for King’s College of Cambridge and for Worchester Cathedral, and we can see that success transmitted down through his sons’ and grandson’s accomplishments in the same field, but of his past, there is less. I have seen it suggested in one source that his family may have been recusant Catholics of noble lineage, but I have not seen that claim repeated.

We do know that he was from Lancashire, born around 1575, and that he moved to London where he entered the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths as an apprentice and became a liveryman, a free man with rights to wear that guild’s uniform or insignia. Surely he must have thrived, must have achieved successes of some kind to have drawn the Levant Company merchants’ attention when they came to commission the all-important gift. Or perhaps his inclusion on the project was always an afterthought. The original contract was after all not with him, but with the goldsmith; maybe Dallam’s addition came later.

At some point, it must have been decided that he should actually accompany his creation. It doesn’t seem to have been in the initial plans, or at least Dallam did not know of those initial plans -he writes of having to make his preparations in a rush and without the benefit of advice – but his making the journey made sense. The organ was a fairly delicate instrument complete with a multitude of moving parts, and it was going to be dismantled and carried to Constantinople by sea. Of course its maker ought to go with it, and he would not go alone. He would take his mate John Harvey, responsible for the clockwork elements, Rowland Buckett, a painter and son of a London shoemaker, and Michael Watson, a joiner who I’ve seen described as a timid and fearful fellow. Whatever their other shortcomings the small crew would be responsible for making the present look appropriately presentable at the end of its ocean voyage.

If our picture of his early years is incomplete, his hurried arrangements for departure are pretty clear to us thanks entirely to Dallam’s wonderfully scrupulous accounting. It’s how the text of his travels begins. In pounds, shillings, and pence, he records an itemized list of expenses, so we know for example that he got one hatband for 4 shillings, 2 pence, but spent much less on the second one, only 1 shilling. We know that he spent quite a bit on clothing actually: 1 pound 2 shillings on a suit of sackcloth to wear at sea and 1 pound 18 on a presumably nicer one; 3 shirts reads one entry and then 6 shirts more another; there are items for a dozen handkerchiefs, a pair of garters, and 2 pairs of stockings, not many for a lengthy sea voyage one might think, but on the other hand he has 3 pairs of shoes which total up to the cost of his single hat. He also lists a chest to put everything in.

One of Dallam’s more expensive items is a pair of virginals, something like a small harpsichord, that he perhaps brought along for entertainment but which will come to bear on his story. He takes along an arming sword, a one-handed weapon, and a number of knives, though the latter he seems to use as gifts on his travels. There are bars of tin, perhaps to be used in potential repairs on the organ or perhaps in currency or trade. Finally, there is food. There is oatmeal, 10 pence worth, but there are also spices and seasonings: sugar, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and pepper, along with oil and vinegar and prunes and raisins. Dallam evidently planned to augment his diet while aboard the ship, at least in flavour and fiber if not much in nutrition, and of course most of these foodstuffs which he was now carrying from England would have had to have been shipped there. I find this a really interesting detail actually, that already, in the 16th century, a London craftsmen might be so attached to the use of imported spices like mace and nutmeg as to not leave them behind when traveling.

Dallam’s final items on the list are for lodgings: at Graves End, at Deale Castell, at Dartmouth, at Plymouth, and then one at Argeare in Barbarie, Algiers in fact, but there we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little. Dallam hasn’t left England yet. But he’s about to.

He leaves London on the ninth of February, a Friday he tells us, and joins the Hector, his ship, at Graves End. He loads his chest aboard and then passes some days in town, waiting for the Hector and its cabins to be made ready for passengers. By the afternoon of the 13th, all is ready, and they sail along the coast to Deal, north of Dover, and wait there 4 days for a wind to take them, an immediate reminder of how dependent they are upon nature. And the wait is too much for some. When the wind came it was nighttime and Dallam tells us that some of the company had taken to drinking too merrily in the town. A man was dispatched to gather them up, but one of the Hector’s five trumpeters was past the point of reason, or maybe he’d just come to his senses regarding the relative merits of life on the waters. He locked the door of his chamber, and when the man from the ship called up to him from beneath his window he called down a series of insults in response, much, I imagine, like the French soldier in Quest for the Holy Grail. This was one trumpeter who would not be going to sea. For the rest, “the wind serving well, [they] sailed merrily by Dover, and so along the Sleve,” the ship’s remaining musicians playing their farewells. Yes, dear listener, Thomas Dallam has left England.

He will not have to wait for foreign lands to find adventure. Roughly 30 leagues to sea, he writes that a contrary wind came up and stormed marvelously for 8 and 40 hours. They were not far from home but already they had lost the Lanerett, the vessel which was to accompany them as far as the Adriatic, and soon in a stormy night and a foggy day in which they could not see the sun, they had lost themselves. As the sky eventually cleared, they recognized their position, all but upon the rocks, rocks which Dallam misleadingly identified as lying between England and Ireland. In imminent danger, his description here is quite wonderful:

“Then our mariners did labour to get into the main ocean again, but the storm not altogether ceasing, but the fog more increasing, we were the next day at a non plus again, not knowing where we were, but being under sail, and the fog very thick. Upon a sudden we saw the sea break against the shore, the which was very great rocks, and we were so near the shore that it was not possible to cast about in time to save ourselves from shipwreck, but it pleased almighty God so to defend us from harm that were just before the harbour at Dartmouth, a very strait entry betwixt great rocks that are on both sides of that entry. Then we are all very joyful, and entered in there very willingly.” – Thomas Dallam, February

We won’t often hear Dallam thank God or attribute much of anything to his doing, but here on the brink of disaster in home waters, he does. Perhaps it being near his home made it easier and more natural to see the actions of God in a recognizable world. Maybe, as we’ll come to see, Dallam’s world was, simply put, less permeated by God than Schiltberger’s had been, just 200 years before. But we’ll get to that.

At Dartmouth they sent out riders up and down the coast and they heard news of the Lanerret. Apparently, it had lost its topmast in the storm, been chased by privateers known as Dunkirkers, and had run aground in efforts to evade them. Word had been sent that it would make its way to Plymouth, and there indeed they found it, but they also found further signs of trouble, and yes, they still hadn’t really, finally, completely left England. In the Plymouth sound was a little caravel, and as the Hector made its way out on March 16th, the caravel’s occupants recognized the larger ship and sounded a trumpet to request a parley. Two sailors came across and boarded the Hector. Their information was not encouraging.

It seemed that they had previously been on a much larger ship than the caravel, a man of war from Plymouth named the Plough, but the Plough had been taken by 7 ships of Dunkirkers, the same who had chased the Lanerett, and these Dunkirkers knew of the Hector. They had demanded information on its whereabouts from the Plough’s crew, killing some to loosen the tongues of the others. “Where was the Hector? Had it departed yet?” they demanded to know, questions the unfortunate sailors of the Plough could hardly answer. Many of those sailors were now missing, and to just 6 the Dunkirkers had given the caravel and sent them on their way – one wonders why actually, what the 6 had done to earn this odd bit generosity. The two survivors on board the Hector concluded their story by urgently warning the Hector’s master not to go to sea, not without a great company at least, and it seems sound advice. Perhaps, to ask of it by name, the pirates knew something of the Hector’s purpose, or maybe they needed only to know of it as a ship which traded in far off Ottoman lands to guess that it would yield a rich cargo. Either way, the Hector was now hunted by pirates, 7 sails worth, and well before it reached the anticipated dangers of corsairs or Spanish privateers on the Mediterranean.

So, naturally, the ship’s captain proclaimed that he “would not stay one hour for any more company than God had already sent him,” and, ignoring all warnings, the Hector sailed forth with the Lanneret quickly falling well behind it. By the 8 the next morning, 3 sails were spotted, and soon after, another 4. Evasion was likely possible but the captain deemed it best not to show themselves as cowards; the wind could always turn against them and then the Dunkirkers would only be encouraged in their attack. Instead, they prepared for contact: the gunners made ready their ordinances, the cloths known as fightes were hung about the middle of the ship to conceal the men, and muskets and bandoliers were handed out to all. Then they turned to confront their would-be pursuers.

It was not an inexperienced man in charge. He’s never mentioned by name in Dallam’s text, but the master of the Hector was Captain Richard Parsons. Dallam will grow to despise him, but he seems to have been considered very capable, and he’d sailed this way before, carrying William Harborne, England’s first ambassador, to Constantinople in fact. And the ship he commanded was no easy pickings for pirates. As I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, there was less than you’d think separating a merchant vessel of this type from a man of war, and the great bulk of the ships which faced the Spanish Armada had been armed merchantmen. The Hector, at 300 tons, was of the largest class of these merchantmen, their construction subsidized by a government that knew well their value in national defense. It carried 27 guns, around half the larger 9-pounders and the rest a mix of smaller pieces.

As the two sides closed, the captain had the Hector swing about so that the Dunkirkers should see for the first time its full length and complement of gun ports. As he’d hoped, the pirates, thinking they’d accidentally confronted one of the queen’s ships, turned and fled, with the Hector in pursuit. But the Hector was big and fast, and within a half hour had brought them into the range of its guns. Three warning shots were given without effect, so the master gunner was ordered shoot his next through the admiral’s mainsail. This did have an effect, and the 7 ships were ordered in alongside the Hector under threat of sinking and herded reluctantly along, all the while their crews largely keeping out of sight below decks.

If Captain Parsons had thus far acquitted himself admirably in fending off threats both natural and otherwise, it was right here, in the aftermath of the Dunkirkers event, that Dallam’s opinion of him permanently soured. When 3 of the Dunkirkers’ captains came aboard, a member of Dallam’s crew saw that one carried beneath his arm “a good long money bag full of something,” and as the 3 went with Parsons into this cabin, the muttering amongst the men would have been deafening. Meanwhile, the Dunkirkers who’d brought the 3 captains aboard were standing about the deck, presumably idly smoking and trying not to look nervous or something similar, and one of the Hector’s sailors steps forward and says “[I know this man! He’s an Englishman.]” And the pirate denies this, denies everything, denies being able to speak or even understand English, and of course he does all of this in perfectly good English.

Now curiosity is spreading, and a mate and a few others have taken some sailors for a look round 3 or 4 of the ships, so just as Captain Parsons comes out from his quarters to declare the ships to be carrying wine for the King of France, this exploration party returns to report that the ships contain nothing but soldiers and a wide variety of weapons. Parsons is rather perturbed by this contradiction, angered and embarrassed. He sends the Dunkirkers on their way and reserves his irritation for his officers, and Dallam is not alone in his bitterness. In his view, and that of many on the ship I’m sure, they’d had a fantastic opportunity to bring into England a prize, in the 7 ships, like no other merchantman had managed, and the glory of its taking which would have been shared all round. What they’d got instead was that long money bag for the captain. Parsons had essentially taxed the pirates’ plunder.

In a kind of postscript to these events, Dallam writes that those 7 ships, which they could so easily, and profitably, have brought in, were well known to have then robbed or taken 60 ships of England and other countries. Piracy was alive and well not only off the Spanish and Barbary coasts. Henceforth, Dallam’s account of Parsons would be coloured by disdain, and this would not prove to be an isolated incident of the captain putting his own interests first. For now, though, he had steered them to safety through both natural and unnatural threats.

“The 24th there came an infinite body of porpoises about our ship, the which did leap and run marvellously. The 25th we saw 2 or 3 great monstrous fishes or whales, the which did spout water up into the air, like as smoke does ascend out of a chimney. Sometimes we might see a great part of their body above the water. The calm did yet continue.” – Thomas Dallam, March

After the pirate incident, things seem to have settled down a little. Stanley Mayes in his book on Dallam reports that he passed the time playing songs on his virginals, songs like “Watkin’s Ale,” “Malt’s Come Down,” “The Carman’s Whistle,” and “Whoop! Do Me No Harm, Good Man.” The ship made progress, and Dallam was able to notice and enjoy things like infinite bodies of porpoises.

On the 27th of March a very fair wind brought them into the Mediterranean. Dallam noted the narrowness of the straight, the fairness of Tarifa on the Spanish side and the high rocks of Ape Hill on the Moroccan, or as he terms it, Barbaric coast. He points out Gibralter, strong and fair to the view, and the many galleys and men of war that lie there, and like all English travelers to the Spanish coast, he marveled at the weather. In Plymouth, he writes, only 11 days before, there had been no sign of greenery on tree or hedge, but now, here, it was exceedingly hot, and the trees on both sides were very green and the trees full blown. Dallam wondered at the difference in such a short time.

During the following days, he named more towns and cities as he passed them, Marvels and Malligan, or Marbella and Malaga, admiring the soil and climate nearly 400 years before his fellow English would flock to and overrun the same stretch of coast. On the 30th of March, the Hector entered the harbour of Algiers. Nominally under the control of the Ottoman Sultan, Algiers had, and would long have, a fearsome reputation for piracy, ship taking, and enslavement. English merchants had sought to exploit it as a trading center but found it hard going. Dallam described Algiers in some detail, his first chance to set foot on foreign soil and our first chance to read Dallam the travel writer.

It made a very fair show, he wrote, fair, you may now be realizing, being his descriptive of choice. It lay close to the sea, strongly walled upon a very upright hill and looking very much like a top sail. Its buildings were made of stone and lyme, and most of them covered with plaster of paris. The streets were tight and not easy to pass through, so narrow that a man on top of one flat roof might be able to cross most of the town from rooftop to rooftop, an image evoking hundreds of movie chase scenes in the minds of Dallam’s future readers.

At the request of the ship’s surgeon and physician, the delightfully named Mr. Chancie – who wouldn’t want a Dr. Chancie? – Dallam and 3 or 4 others accompanied Chancie inland to gather roots and herbs. On the foraging expedition, he again marveled at the weather and what it had produced, the corn, wheat, and barley, and the young oranges and apples, and he saw this and more brought into the town’s markets by the “Moores and other people” driving asses. He writes of their shouts in warning to the people ahead on the road, calls of “Balocke! Balocke!” to his ears at least. He notes great numbers of Jews and larger numbers of Turks, but he does not bother describing them. He does on the other hand write of the “Moores,” their clothing, and the weapons they carried, their darts and bows.

Dallam also writes of the plentiful bath houses, the cook houses for the dressing of meat, which he speaks highly of, and the prices in the markets, which he views very favourably, particularly for partridge and quail. Continuing with the bird theme, he refers to the local method of artificial hatching chickens, a method he says “[he] cannot plainly describe, but hereafter [he] may, if God permit.” But God never does permit. It’s one of Dallam’s maddening habits, that he often puts a topic aside for later, promising further description down the road, further description which never materializes at least in the document that has come down to us.

At this early stage of the journey, Dallam is already over-confident in making generalizations about the people he encounters. The Turks, he says, drink nothing but water. The Turkish and Moorish women go about always with their faces covered and it is said they are believed not to have souls. The men are very religious in their own fashion and their mosques very fine. They are however, quote, “all in general very covetous, and use all the policy they can to get from the Christians, lawfully or unlawfully, as much as they may.” But if they were greedy, the real menace, he tells us, was the renegade Christian, a villainous figure who prowled the coasts in search of Christians he might sell into slavery. Dallam makes no mention of having met one of these, so we can assume he’s here relaying the stories he’s been hearing aboard the Hector. He’s had little to do after all, except play music, and soak up naval jargon as well as the tales of more experienced travelers and the rumours and hearsay traded among his fellow first-timers.

There’s a bit of excitement in Algiers before the Hector leaves town. The local ruler sends for the Hector’s captain and its gift for the sultan, is embittered when only the former shows up, and promptly imprisons Captain Parsons, sending next for Dallam himself. However, when Dallam repeats Parsons’ story, that assembling the organ would be a lengthy and difficult process, they are both released and sent along with 2 bulls and 3 sheep, all of which Dallem deems to be excessively lean, leading him to ponder that the Turks think their worst things too good for Christian consumption. His interview with the perturbed ruler must have been a tense affair; I doubt he would have minded all that much if Parsons had been stuck in Algiers for a time, but I’m sure that’s not what he had in mind for himself and the Hector. There’s no hint of worry though in his terse description of the meeting. Maybe his arrogance at having performed for the Queen of England, arrogance which will later be very much in evidence, sustained his nerves there in Algiers. Maybe the whole thing was so unpleasant that he simply didn’t want to dwell on it in writing.

On April 4th, the Hector departed unmolested from Algiers. The 7th brought the eve of Easter and, Dallam writes, “we saw very strange lightning in the sky, or in the air. It was very wonderful and strange, for we might see the air open and a fire like a very hot iron taken out of a smith’s forge, sometimes in likeness of a roning worm, another time like a horseshoe, and again like a leg and foot.” The city seems to have awakened a taste in Dallam for further adventure and, as he watched the lightning storm from the ship’s deck, he was determined to roam further at his next opportunity.     

For us, that next opportunity will be next episode. The Hector’s voyage is going to continue on towards Constantinople; Dallam will wander a little further afield from its safety and he’ll succumb to the apparently irresistible desire of tourists in all eras and steal himself a little piece of antiquity; there’ll be more piracy, most of committed by the Hector; and there’ll be a string of interesting little intercultural encounters as Dallam navigates the new wide world with more boldness than knowledge. Until then.

Thank you for listening. If you have questions, comments, childhood memories, or a topic you’d like to hear me cover, you can find me through twitter @circus_human or by email at If you’re enjoying the podcast, and not just downloading it for use as a sleeping aid, I’m asking you to help me out in one or more of the following ways. One: tell a friend, tell a coworker, tell your boss; making this podcast is more fun when more people are listening. Two: please rate and review Human Circus on iTunes or other platforms where applicable. It takes very, very, little time and again helps get more people listening. Three: if experiencing the podcast brings more pleasure than a sub-par coffee, you can, I would even say should, donate that coffee money instead to help keep the podcast going, that’s helping cover hosting costs, pay library overdue fees, and keep your host happy and healthy. And you can find the donation link here. Finally, and always helpful, you can keep listening.


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