This is the transcript of my episode on Edward Webbe, Elizabethan merchant, adventurer, master gunner, and, perhaps, liar. You can listen to the episode here or through the usual podcast services.
Welcome to Human Circus. Today, we open a new book, and we begin a new journey. Actually, we’ll end a new journey too. This isn’t going to be a repeat of the Dallam series, with the conclusion getting further and further away, the longer we go. Today, it’s a stand-alone episode.
Let’s start at the title page. There, we read: “The Rare and most wonderful things which Edward Webbe an Englishman borne, hath seen and passed in his troublesome travels, in the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, Bethlehem, and Galilee; and in the lands of Jewry, Egypt, Grecia, Russia, and in the land of Prester John. Wherein is set forth his extreme slavery sustained many years together, in the galleys and in the wars of the great Turk against the lands of Persia, Tartaria, Spain, and Portugal, with the manner of his releasement, and coming into England in May last.” We’ve definitely lost something in the way we describe our books since then.
In the pages that follow, we find a travel narrative, and an adventure with elements of fantasy, but also a justification, a defense, and a pretty long winded personal resume. It’s author, Edward Webbe, was looking for a job.
And we know this because he tells us right up front, in the dedication, quote, “To the most might, my gracious and renowned sovereign, Elizabeth by the grace of God Queen of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith.” He informs his queen, and us his readers, that he might easily have lived in the greatest of comforts had he only sided with her enemies, for he had such opportunities. Now, he writes, “my desire is that I may be employed in such service and affairs, as may be pleasing to God, and found profitable to my prince and country.” And, obviously, to himself. The dedication wraps up with, of all things, an acrostic poem on Elizabeth’s name, “E – Eternal God, who guideth still your grace … L – Lengthen your life, in health and happy days,” and so on. It’s a format I had no idea had such a long history.
There’s one other little piece of preamble before Webbe gets properly started. He addresses us, his “Courteous Reader,” and he asserts the truth of what he is about to tell us; it is, all of it, only that which his own eyes have seen. If you doubt me, he writes, then refer your doubts to the most esteemed travellers and merchants and they will surely support what I have to say. Some details may be missing, for he had suffered greatly and forgotten much, but there is nothing untrue in the tale he tells. So bear all that in mind when one disaster at sea follows another, when he sails with fleets of unlikely size, takes part in heroic stands against impossible odds, or when the unicorns enter the story.
We know little of Webbe’s background save for what he tells us himself: he was born at St Katherine’s by the Tower, in London, and his father, a master gunner “having some affection” for him, sent him into the service of a Captain Jenkinson at the old age of 12, or 14 in some editions. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a little while, you may know this Jenkinson already. This is, in fact, the Anthony Jenkinson we encountered in the first episode of the Thomas Dallam series, the Jenkinson who met with Suleiman the Magnificent and represented English interests to a Russian Tsar and a Safavid Shah. As England sought to maneuver its way into foreign alliances and trading agreements, this Jenkinson was very much at the center of it all in the mid-16th century.
Our Webbe would be joining Jenkinson on one of his voyages to Russia, and Jenkinson wrote of it briefly, very briefly actually; the 1566 journey was his third to Muscovy and the place no longer seems to have held much of a fascination for him.
They left from Gravesend on May the 4th in The Harry of London, arrived in Russia July 10th, and were in Moscow by August 23rd. There’s a kissing of hands, commendations and letters delivered, and then a dinner. That’s it really for Jenkinson’s account of the trip, but in his letter home to Elizabeth’s advisor Lord Burghley, he gets into a little more detail, particularly as to the news of the city. An ambassador had arrived from Sigismund of Poland with proposals for an end to 6 years of warring; the Tsar intended that winter to besiege a possession of the Swedish King; Wallachia had rebelled against the Ottomans and slain their governor and many others; in Constantinople, there had been a conspiracy involving Christians who intended to burn the city, but they had been betrayed and many put to death on stakes. Finally, Jenkinson reported, the Tsar had been particularly cruel to his people, “to his gentlemen and nobility by putting to death, whipping, and banishing above four hundred with confiscation of lands and goods for small offenses.”
This, Webbe remarks on also, the “very sharp laws” of this “tyrannous people,” that debtors were beaten with mallets, on the shins or foreheads, and that offending nobles were dropped through holes made in the ice on the river, followed by their wives, their children, and all their kinfolk, so that none would remain to hold their name or lands, the latter of which the Tsar would redistribute as he saw fit. Webbe really has little else to say of his time there in Moscow, but it seems he was no longer in Jenkinson’s company. By 1570, the Tsar was angrily referring to Jenkinson’s absence in his increasingly irritable, perhaps desperate, letters to Elizabeth. Webbe, meanwhile, writes that he lived in Moscow for 3 years, but the dates of his arrival and the event that will put an end to his stay seem to place it at 5. In 1571, Moscow would be burning, and Webbe would be gone. This was because that was the year when the Crimean Tatars had arrived on one of their countless raids into Muscovy territory, set the city on fire, and turned for home with slaves in tow.
And now we need to rewind a smidgen. Why was Moscow burning? Who, exactly, was running about burning Moscows in the late 16th century? The short answer is that the Crimean Tatars were running about burning Moscow. So, who were they?
We can trace them back to the 13th-century settlement of Seljuk Turks in the Crimean Peninsula, that body of land jutting out of the northern coast of the Black Sea. Initially, they seem to have been occupying the region as part of the Golden Horde, itself a descendant of the Mongol Empire, but as time went on, they separated themselves from the Horde. Their ruler Tas Timur was minting coins in his own name by the end of the 14th century, and in the early to mid 15th century, Haci Giray founded both a dynasty and the independent Crimean Khanate.
By the time they become a pressing concern in Webbe’s story, and ours, they’re solidly established as part of the Ottoman world, and the Ottomans benefited from having this military power that evoked a Jingizid heritage on their Northern borders as it allowed them to focus on the Habsburgs to the West and the Safavids to East. But just as surely as their presence on the northern coast of the Black Sea was good for the Ottomans, it was a constant problem for Muscovy, cutting off trade access to that sea and, through their captive-seizing raids and the threat they posed, having a significant depopulating effect.
1571 was a noteworthy date for those raids. The Tsar himself led out reinforcements to assist in opposing them, but many of his men are said to have deserted to the invading army, citing recent plagues in Moscow, the cruelty of the Tsar, and the fact that little of his army was actually present, the most of it being engaged elsewhere. Those deserters helped guide the raiding army so that they completely circumvented the bulk of the defending forces, and the Tsar, heavily outnumbered, withdrew without a fight. Moscow was left largely unprotected. There were still some troops in the city, but they could do nothing about what happened next.
The first fires were started in the suburbs on the 24th of May. Then they spread with a sudden gale. Church bells rang across the city but then collapsed. There were explosions of powder magazines, wooden buildings disappearing in flames, and everywhere people sought safety. Some took to the cellars, many suffocating there from the smoke, 25 people in the beer cellar of the English house alone if the source is to be believed; others made to escape the city, rushing into the narrow streets and gates and creating nightmarish presses where they climbed over the heads of others and still more crushed them down from above. Humans, animals, food, shelter, and supplies, all were killed or destroyed in vast numbers. After this disaster, the dead were ordered thrown into the river, but this then flooded and overflowed with the excess, causing still more problems.
Webbe wouldn’t be around for those problems however, or to witness the Tsar’s murderous rage at his losses and humiliation. He and 7 other Englishmen were apparently among the slaves taken back from the raid on Moscow, taken back all the way to Caffa, an important port for the trade in human beings on the Black Sea. There, he wiped the hooves of the khan’s horses, fetched water, chopped wood, and “did much other drudgery,” and he was beaten 3 times a week with a horsetail. Also, weirdly, he claims to have observed that the Crimean children did not open their eyes until 9 days and 9 nights after their birth, practically the only thing he cares to record of this time as a slave. Such was the life of Edward Webbe for 5 years, 5 years until he was ransomed and returned to England. And this seems to have been quite the industry. Raiders would enter Muscovy lands taking prisoners, and merchants would follow, making the financial arrangements for their release. Webbe, having passed through this process, found himself back at home.
Back at home, but not for long. He stayed there, “some small time,” he says, and then he was headed back to Russia. Which I find hard to relate to. He’d had nothing to say of the place save for its tyrannical ruler and that was before being taken prisoner. Now, with his freedom, he was returning. Maybe that was where he saw his only opportunities.
This time, he writes that he went in the company of 30 ships. The Harry, which had initially carried Webbe to Russia was among this number, but he wasn’t on it. He was on The Hart and seems to have had some stake in the cargo it carried and in the business it was to do. There was excitement on the way, an encounter with a group of 5 “Rovers or men of war,” and the fleet of 30 set upon them. They burnt the lead ship and drove the others to shore on the Russian coast, where the remaining crew of the 5 met deeply unfortunate ends at the hands of the locals. According to Webbe, they were spitted like pigs on great stakes that had been driven into the ground, and 140 of them died in this way.
That unpleasantness, and the business of unloading, behind them, they were back to sea, but another unfortunate turn was in store for Webbe. The Hart struck a rock and sank. He and the rest of those on board saved themselves, taking to the ship’s boat. Rather surprisingly nobody was drowned, but the cargo most certainly was. Webbe writes that he lost all that he had and that returning to England he was, again, back to square one.
Of course, these hurdles did not dissuade him from once more taking to the sea, but maybe they did nudge him a little away from northern waters. This time he’d be headed to the Mediterranean, to Tuscany. Having, quote, “gathered new stock,” and presumably having taken out some loans if indeed that stock was his own to trade in, he sailed on The Henry to Livorno. There was a bit of shock there when it turned out that the boat itself had been sold and the representatives of its new owners came out to claim it, but this probably didn’t overly bother him, for the next leg voyage would be the first one on which he was master gunner, like his father had been before him. Then, he wrote, “… fortune began to lower on [him] again.”
The Henry had conducted its business in Alexandria, unloaded its burden and then taken on great stores of that city’s commodities. It was making its way back to Livorno when Webbe’s life took another disastrous turn, precipitated by the appearance of 50 Turkish galleys, an unlikely but not impossible number of ships to happen upon. What followed, Webbe tells us, was a heroic battle and a titanic effort on the part of he and his colleagues, a mere 60 men. The wind being calm, there was no way escape, and for 2 days and 2 nights they valiantly struggled against the Turks and, quote, “made great slaughter amongst their men.” However, the weight of numbers took their toll, and 50 of the 60 fell. Finally, forced by faintness, the 10 survivors had to yield.
Remember that we are still reading a job application. Webbe had led an adventurer’s life, and he was going to make the most of it. Besides, whether it had really been 50 Ottoman galleys or only 5, 48 hours of fierce combat, only a 15-minute assessment of the odds, or a quick and brutal finish, it didn’t really matter in the end. The outcome was the same; Webbe, again, had been captured, and he and the others were stripped down and given 100 blows. Life on the galleys awaited them.
It was not easy being a galley slave. In fact, it was pretty terrible. Webbe describes it this way. Quote: “First we were shaven head and face, and then a shirt of cotton and breeches of the same put on us, and our legs and feet left naked, and by one of the feet is each slave chained with a great chain to the galley, and our hands fastened to a pair of manacles. The food which I and others did eat, was very black, far worse than horse-bread, and our drink was stinking water.” If you were too sick or faint to row, you were beaten horribly, and often this beating would result in death for those who had already been too malnourished and exhausted to row, and their bodies were tipped into the sea.
Webbe, of course, was not tipped into the sea in this way. He persevered for, by his own somewhat suspect accounting, 6 years, being, quote, “wonderfully beaten and misused every day.” Then, pressed by lack of food and his desperate situation, he says he revealed himself as not just an average sailor or merchant, but a master gunner. At first, it seems to have done little good; he was looked upon more narrowly, drawing more attention you might say, but also “somewhat better esteemed,” more respected. He was taken seriously.
And soon, how soon is really hard to say based on the vagueness of the text, he was found useful. Hostilities with the Safavid Persians were kicking up again, and men who could operate artillery were needed. Webbe was called out of the gallies and into the war. He places himself as proceeding on foot as one of 700,000 men, with 300 thousand falling to sickness and hunger and 60 thousand more dying in the first offensive, but these numbers are clearly ridiculous. He also situates himself under the command of a Shannon Basha. This, I suspect, was Osman Pasha, a future grand vizier, who did command Ottoman operations against the Safavids in the early 1580s and this was, presumably, what Webbe was part of, assuming he wasn’t making the whole thing up.
In any case, Webbe then makes a sudden turn from the campaign against the Safavids and towards a bit of travel; first, is Damascus, which he primarily notes for its great variety of fruit. Next, he says, we went on to our great city of Cairo, and it’s fascinating how quickly he’s come to use “we” and “our” here, and not just in a moment of camaraderie. This is in retrospect and with an English audience in mind that he’s writing himself into the Ottoman body and in possession of Cairo.
As to Cairo, he writes of its king and his position relative to the Ottoman Sultan, of the movements of the Nile, of the total lack of rain in Egypt, and of 10-12 foot “Pharoah’s fishes” that can pull a man into the river and eat him; presumably crocodiles, Webbe likens these “Pharoah’s fishes” to dolphins, proving, I think, that he didn’t actually see them. Finally, Webbe writes of the seven diamond tipped mountains built to store grain either in the time of the Pharoah Kings or Joseph and the famine, a theory of the pyramids much older than Ben Carson.
As Webbe puts it, “thus having seen a number of rare and most wonderful things,” the tour carries on, on apparently to Portuguese held Goa. He writes himself into a failed Turkish attack on the city, one which resulted in the loss of 20 thousand men, but, while it’s true the Ottomans did contribute to an unsuccessful siege of Goa, and with cannoneers too, that was in 1571, a year when Webbe was already busily being bundled out of a burning Moscow by raiding Crimeans. Either his Indian adventure or his Crimean slavery is then somewhat suspect.
But if that’s somewhat suspect, then the next item on his resume is really glaring, because next, Webbe’s travels take him to the lands of Prester John, the Christian priest-king of legend. And what lands do we mean here? Once, the lands of Prester John would have referred to India, then to the Asian Steppe, but by Webbe’s time they had migrated to Ethiopia, moving by necessity to serve the need for a Christian saviour to rescue Europe from its enemies and in response to the 15th century arrival in Rome of representatives from the Christian Ethiopian Emperor, Zara Yacob. And by the late 16th century, this is late Prester John material. His audience would have been very familiar with this figure and his idyllic kingdom, its just king, its great wealth, and vast armies often featuring bizarre and unassailable creatures in their ranks, and its inclusion in travel narratives.
You should remember here that quite legitimate travel narratives were often interwoven with borrowed elements and sometimes quite fantastical ones. A city’s description is drawn from a previous work or you’ll get something like “I have heard it said” followed by a peculiar story involving some combination of valuable resources, bizarre collection methods, and dangerous -sometimes fictional – animals in a land far away; there are diamonds on this distant mountain but they are guarded by snakes of great size and you must smoke out the predatory birds in the lands below to retrieve them for you. That sort of thing. Using other works seems to have been part of the expected way of fitting one’s experiences into the preexisting body of knowledge and ideas about the world. Where Webbe goes a bit beyond this is in not just saying that he prepared in Damascus for war in the lands of Prester John, but in giving us the guided tour of the can’t miss sites and cultural oddities that he personally witnessed and experienced there.
Webbe claims to have gone to these lands as master gunner in a 500,000 strong Ottoman army, and that initially, things did not go well for the invaders. As an opening move, Prester John let loose some secret waterways, raising dams and drowning 60,000 Ottoman soldiers. The next day, though, matters swung the other way, as his son was surrounded, taken captive, and sent back to Constantinople. Then, Webbe tells us, agreements were arrived at that neither side should owe tribute to the other, Prester John’s son was returned to him, everyone went back to living peacefully, and Webbe got a good look at what he relates next.
At the great court of Prester John, 60 kings in crowns serve the meat, and the first dish is always the same: a man’s skull set on black soil, to remind that one is but earth and to earth will return. There is a wild man chained to a post there, mirrored by another in Constantinople; each is covered in hair and will tear apart and eat any who come close. There is a beast, the shape of a wild cat, the height of a massive dog, and with four heads. There are sweet-fleshed birds with many coloured feathers of great beauty. There are blue swans. There are 77 unicorns and elephants, and Webbe has played with them, quote, “as one would play with young lambs.”
Webbe’s travels continue with “I have been… I have been… I have been…,” to the Red Sea where Moses made his crossing, to the courts of the three great Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs at Cairo, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, to the Sepulchre of Christ and the chapel with its ever-burning lamp.
And after all he had seen, in his travels, and his wars for the Ottomans, Webbe returned to Constantinople; he found the city reeling from “scarcity, sickness, misery, and death,” a city where one was lucky to find bread to eat, and being a Christian, and not currently needed as a master gunner, he was again imprisoned. And he was not alone. He tells us of 2,000 other Christians who he joined in conditions so terrible that he grieved and regretted that he had not simply been ended by the Ottomans’ wars before having to submit to such treatment.
He and 500 others attempted an escape. They softened a wall with strong vinegar and made their way through it in secret. But, as Webbe writes, “what shall be, shall be, and what God will have, shall come to pass and no more.” As the prisoners broke out, they were betrayed by the barking of a dog, seized, and returned to their quarters, where they were rewarded with beatings upon the back and belly.
Of course, all this suffering as a Christian, and among Christians, has a rhetorical purpose, and if his audience had missed it, Webbe heaps it on. I could have lived so comfortably, he tells them, in luxury, with anything I wanted, if only I’d converted. And don’t think I wasn’t pressured to do so. There were the temptations, the offers of a life, quote, “lived in as great felicity as any lord of that country,” and then there was the stick, the, quote, “wild and grievous tortures.” But God, he writes, gave him strength and patience to persevere, and Londoners should be congratulated, should see and be glad of the fruits of their labour; their donations given to the relief of captives did indeed make a wondrous difference in bringing about the release of many English prisoners. He even names a few beneficiaries here in buttering up the citizens of London: Hamand Pan, John Beer, John Band, Andrew Pullins, and Edward Buggins.
Edward Webbe himself was set free for a second time in his life, this time by the intervention of our old friend William Harborne, first English ambassador to the Sultan’s court at Constantinople. But do not assume that because he has been set free, that his troubles are over, or that his bids for sympathy, and employment, have finished. No, the trip home is not going to be perfectly smooth.
First, came trouble in Padua. There, Webbe was accused of heresy and had to speak for himself against the charges of two witnesses who had known him in Ottoman captivity. Clearing his name to the extent that he was required only to make a donation to a local shrine, he moved on to Rome. There, he faced, quote “nineteen days in trouble with the Pope,” but, again, he was released and allowed to go about his business. And his business took him to Naples, where things got worse. He met with a Genoese man, and that man apprehended him and brought him before the viceroy, presenting him as an English spy who possessed great knowledge.
For 16 days then he was kept in a dark dungeon, while his newest captors tried to ascertain what that knowledge might be, who he was, where he had lived, what he had said, and how he had acted, but their inquiries, he says, brought them nothing. Next, were applications of the strappado, a painful procedure you’ve probably seen pictures of, where the victim’s arms are bound down behind their back and they are hoisted in the air by the hands, painfully dislocating their shoulders, and left hanging there. Webbe was also made to drink salt water and had cloth shoved down his throat and ripped roughly out so that it was, quote, “ready to pluck my heart out of my belly.” Finally, 4 horses were prepared to quarter him, to tear him apart, if he would not admit to being an English spy.
But he would not admit it. He writes that for seven months he endured this latest round of captivity and abuse, and for seven months his imprisoners could find no case against him. Eventually, he managed to get a letter to the Viceroy begging for justice, and the Viceroy forwarded the matter on to the King of Spain, the King Philip who featured so heavily in our last series. Philip’s answer brought yet another repetition in Webbe’s troubles: clearly, this man ought to be employed in a gunner’s room.
Webbe was released and promised 35 crowns a month for his service, but as a free man, he was frequently taunted by those who identified him as English. The Spanish Armada had succeeded, he was told, and his queen was even then being dragged toward Rome to do penance; she was made to go through the foulest of places on the way, and where the ground was plain, a trench was dug before her so that she must walk mid-leg in an oozing mire of shame. Much like he’d previously been asked to deny his religion, he was here asked to deny his queen, but this, he says, he would not do, instead putting his trust in God to defend her from her enemies.
When Webbe heard word of three ships departing for England, he, quite understandably, wanted to go home. With the assistance of a Nicholas Nottingham, he did so in secret, arriving in May of 1589.
But wait. There’s more. After having visited with friends from May to November, and one wonders what friends he would have had in England by this point, Webbe then departed for France. There, he was joining the army of Henry of Navarre, King Henry 4th of France, and at first, all went smashingly well for Webbe, his success on the battlefield earning him commendations and honourable rewards. However, he tells us that the jealousy of other gunners was his downfall; unable to bear seeing him as master gunner, they poisoned him, and it was only by the speedy intervention of the king’s physician with a drink made of unicorn horn that he survived. That humble postscript out of the way, the tale of Webbe is complete, and he concludes his book with a quick summary of his trials and travels and a repetition of his fervent desire to find gainful employment in service to his country.
Along the way, he’s managed to hit on a number of high points, all seemingly chosen to elicit sympathy. He’d been enslaved and abused, visited Jerusalem, withstood Ottoman pressures to betray his religion, been persecuted by Catholics, even by the Pope himself, demonstrated his faith in his queen, and finally gone to war for someone who was then seen as a Protestant hero in the figure of Henry of Navarre.
What are we to make of all this? Much of it is unverifiable and some of it, for one reason or another, is highly suspect, but why, you might ask, have I then bothered telling you about Edward Webbe at all. Firstly, it’s a pretty good story which wanders all over the map through one struggle and misfortune after another. And then there’s the point that a fair bit of it is probably true. Consider that Webbe published in 1590, at a time when both Anthony Jenkinson and William Harborne were still very much alive. He didn’t wait until he was an old man and most of his contemporaries were dead, and these two, in particular, were two very respected men who might have easily contradicted pretty substantial parts of his story where those parts strayed from the truth as they knew it, as I suppose could the Pope and King Philip if they cared to, and also, I’m sure, others whose names are less familiar to me.
I have seen it said that Webbe’s apparent disappearance after the publishing of his book indicates that it found no takers at the court of Queen Elizabeth, that he was a failure in this effort and possibly also a fraud. However, we do know that he was made cannonier for life with a per diem attached, and maybe he was happy enough with that. Certainly, many writers would be ecstatic to be made “cannonier for life” and receive a daily allowance, and besides, Edward Webbe, master of gunnery and player with unicorns, had apparently already lived a pretty adventurous life. Perhaps a quiet, paid retirement suited him well.
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