Today is the birthday (1572) of William Strachey, an English writer whose works are among the primary sources for the early history of the English colonization of North America. He is best remembered today as the eye-witness reporter of the 1609 shipwreck on the uninhabited island of Bermuda of the colonial ship Sea Venture, which was caught in a hurricane while sailing to Virginia.
Strachey was born in Saffron Walden, Essex, the grandson of William Strachey (died 1587), and the eldest son of William Strachey (died 1598) and Mary Cooke (died 1587), the daughter of Henry Cooke, Merchant Taylor of London. Strachey was brought up on an estate purchased by his grandfather in the 1560s. In 1588, at the age of 16, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. In 1605 he was at Gray’s Inn, but there is no evidence that he made the law his profession. In 1602 he inherited his father’s estate following a legal dispute with Elizabeth Brocket, his stepmother.
Strachey wrote a sonnet, “Upon Sejanus”, which was published in the 1605 edition of the 1603 play Sejanus His Fall by Ben Jonson. Strachey also kept a residence in London, where he regularly attended plays. He was a shareholder in the Children of the Revels, a troupe of boy actors who performed ‘in a converted room in the former Blackfriars monastery’, as evidenced by his deposition in a lawsuit in 1606. Strachey became friends with the city’s poets and playwrights, including Thomas Campion, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Hugh Holland, John Marston, George Chapman, and Matthew Roydon, many of them members of the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen” who met at the Mermaid Tavern.
By 1605 Strachey was in precarious financial circumstances from which he spent the rest of his life trying to recover. In 1606 he used a family connection to obtain the position of secretary to Thomas Glover, the English ambassador to Turkey. He traveled to Constantinople, but quarreled with the ambassador and was dismissed in March 1607 and returned to England in June 1608. He then decided to mend his fortunes in the New World, and in 1609 purchased two shares in the Virginia Company and sailed to Virginia on the Sea Venture with Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers in the summer of that year.
The ship was blown off course by a hurricane. Leaking, and with its foundering imminent, the ship was run aground off the coast of Bermuda, accidentally beginning England’s colonization of the archipelago. The group was stranded on the island for almost a year, during which they constructed two small boats in which they eventually completed the voyage to Virginia.
Strachey wrote an eloquent letter dated 15 July 1610, to an unnamed “Excellent Lady” in England about the Sea Venture disaster, including an account of the precarious state of the Jamestown colony. Being critical of the management of the colony, it was suppressed by the Virginia Company. After the dissolution of the company it was published in 1625 by Samuel Purchas as “A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir THOMAS GATES Knight”. It is generally thought to be one of the sources for Shakespeare’s The Tempest because of certain verbal, plot and thematic similarities. Strachey’s writings are among the few first-hand descriptions of Virginia in the period. His glossary of words of Powhatan is one of only two records of the language (the other being Captain John Smith’s)
Strachey remained at Jamestown for less than a year, but during that time he became the Secretary of the Colony after the drowning death of Matthew Scrivener in 1609. He returned to England probably in late 1611 and published a compilation of the colonial laws put in place by the governors. He then produced an extended manuscript about the Virginia colony, The Historie of Travaile Into Virginia Britannia, dedicating the first version to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, in 1612. The manuscript included his eyewitness account of life in early Virginia, but borrowed heavily from the earlier work of Richard Willes, James Rosier, John Smith, and others. Strachey produced two more versions during the next six years, dedicating one to Francis Bacon and the other to Sir Allen Apsley. It too was critical of the Virginia Company management of the colony, and Strachey failed to find a patron to publish his work, which was finally first published in 1849 by the Hakluyt Society.
Strachey died of unknown causes in June 1621. The parish register of St. Giles, Camberwell, in Southwark records his burial on 21st June 1621. He died in poverty, leaving this verse:
Hark! Twas the trump of death that blew
My hour has come. False world adieu
Thy pleasures have betrayed me so
That I to death untimely go.
In 1996, Strachey’s signet ring was discovered in the ruins of Jamestown, identified by the family seal, an eagle.
Because Strachey was born in Saffron Walden, a recipe involving saffron is called for. Saffron Walden used to be called simply Walden, then Chepyng (i.e. Market) Walden when a market was moved there in the 13th century. It became Saffron Walden in the 16th century when it became the center for growing saffron crocuses, and saffron became a favored ingredient in many dishes – rivaling spices from the East.
Saffron is one of my favorite spices and I use it a lot when it is easy to get. Right now it isn’t, but when I lived in Italy it was really abundant and not dreadfully expensive, so I always had plenty to hand. For a celebration of the day I recommend you use saffron in your favorite way. Meanwhile here is a period recipe from The English Huswife: Containing the inward and outward Vertues which ought to be in a Compleat Woman… by G. Markham (1615). I do not recommend the recipe, partly because of the sheer quantity, partly because I am not a fan of bread pudding, although it might be all right because it seems more like a classic suet pudding (i.e. boiled) rather than a baked dish like modern bread pudding.
To make bread Puddings
Take the Yelks and Whites of a dozen or fourteen Eggs, and having beat them very well, put unto them the fine powder of Cloves, Mace, Nutmegs, Sugar, Cinnamon, Saffron, and Salt; then take the quantity of two loaves of white grated Bread, Dates very small shred, and great store of Currants, with good plenty either of Sheeps, Hogs or Beef suet beaten and cut small: then when all is mixt, and stirred well together, and hath stood a while to settle, then fill it into the Farms, as hath been before shewed, and in like manner boyl them, cook them, and serve them to the Table.