The undeserving poor

It’s almost a hundred years since George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was first produced. But given the alarming extent to which the idea of the undeserving poor has returned to public debate in the wake of the government’s programme of expenditure cuts, I thought it worth posting the speech that Shaw gives the shiftless Alfred Doolittle on the subject.

Doolittle is addressing Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering.

What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’

But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving.

What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth.

Sir Walter Ralegh’s letter to his wife, the night before execution

Ralegh's wife, Bess

To mark the anniversary of Ralegh’s execution in 1618, I thought it worth posting a letter he wrote to his wife from his prison cell in Winchester in December 1603. He had been sentenced to death for treason on 17 November, and wrote this letter, most likely on 8 December, expecting to die imminently, perhaps the following day.

Like most things Ralegh wrote, it is brilliant – by turns, bitter, practical, tender and devotional. For a few brief unmediated moments, we are in Ralegh’s company, beside him as he writes, chasing the twists and turns of his thoughts, as the skittering energy of his mind draws us with it, leaping like fire from one idea or emotion to the next. It was said he never slept more than four hours a night; reading this, it is clear why.
Continue reading

Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy?

Thank God. Someone (Dispositio, here, hat-tip Dainty Ballerina) is writing something sensible on the Shakespeare Authorship issue. The whole blog is worth reading, and the basic argument – more needs to be done to counter the conspiracy theorists – is surely right.

But I was particularly pleased to see someone say this: “the entire authorship controversy is Bardolatry’s evil twin”. I couldn’t agree more. In many respects, the Shakespeare industry deserves the plague of Oxfordians currently, well, plaguing it.

The fundamental flaw in the arguments of those who want to claim the plays for someone who wasn’t William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the contempt for anything approaching the norms of historical evidence. That is, contemporary sources within either the subject’s life-time, or within the life-time of those who knew him or her personally. (We do not, for example, ignore things said about Elizabeth I by those who knew her merely because they were written down after her death.)

By that unremarkable standard, there is no evidence that the works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were: fourteen of the plays were attributed to him in print in his lifetime, with the Folio – compiled by two former colleagues with the formidable authority of Shakespeare’s greatest competitor, Ben Jonson, behind them – attributing the other 24 seven years later. And that is not to mention the poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, again all publicly attributed in his lifetime. There is no counter evidence of similar weight. Ergo, there is a reason no-one questioned those attributions for some three hundred years: there is no historical basis for doing so.

But Shakespearean authorities are careless about such matters too, when it suits them. There has been far too much willingness – no, eagerness – among Shakespeareans over the last 150 years or so to assert as true things that are merely speculation: the overwhelming desire to flesh out our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life compresses possibilities into probabilities, and probabilities into facts.

In his book, Shakespeare’s Lives, which I can’t recommend highly enough, one of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography which illuminates this process. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realize that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.

Dispositio mentions the dating of the plays in this context – the presentation of literary guesswork as fact – but there are many other examples derived from the text of the plays: the nod to Marlowe’s death in As You Like It (“it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”), say, or the recollection of Leicester’s Kenilworth entertainments (written by George Gascoigne) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From recollection, Greenblatt’s Will in the World, is particularly flawed in this regard.

These “facts” share the same fault as those that form the basis of the anti-Shakespearean position: they are not facts. They are not evidence of anything; they are merely possible readings of the play-text, and readings, moreover, which are built out of a worldview in which all literature is reducible to – and rendered more explicable by – its sources. That is, they reflect the idea that there are hidden meanings and references woven – consciously or otherwise – into the texts which relate to external people, documents and events and which an appropriate depth of thought and expertise can elucidate. As a literary approach it is almost gnostic; as a historical approach it is nonsense.

To go back to my examples, tired though they may be: if Jonson, say, had mentioned Shakespeare’s elegaic nod to Marlowe in As You Like It, it might be different; but there is nothing approaching historical evidence that a) Shakespeare was intentionally referring to his dead rival, or, failing that, that b) contemporaries considered him to have done so. (To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced we can be sure Shakespeare would have known much of the circumstances of Marlowe’s death, but perhaps I’ll let that point pass for the moment.)

A particular bugbear of mine is the genuine historical facts get distorted by the pressure Shakespeareans put on them. We know, for example, that Shakespeare dedicated his two early poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton. Southampton was, therefore, a patron of his in the early-to-mid 1590s. There is no evidence that such patronage extended any further. It is inadmissable therefore to refer to Southampton as Shakespeare’s patron without offering some kind of qualification on date.

Cobbe portrait c.1610

This may sound petty, but what I am leading up to is the claim, put forward by Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust a couple of years ago, to much ballyhoo in the media, that the Cobbe portrait is a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare. This is Wells on the subject:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming. I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.

Circumstantial is a polite word. The evidence is shaky, to say the least. One of the central planks of the argument is the suggestion that the painting may have belonged to Southampton (two hundred years before it came into the possession of the Cobbe family, that is).

Well, so what? Everyone accepts, I think, that the painting dates to c.1610. On the evidence we have, that is 16 years after there was any link between Shakespeare and Southampton. How likely is it that the fourth earl would have commissioned a portrait of someone with little more status than a servant, who last served him 16 years previously? Not at all, I would suggest. (Even if Shakespeare were still in his service in 1610, I think the idea borders on the ridiculous, but that’s beside the point.) Is there any evidence that he did? No.

Another key argument, as I understand it, is that the Cobbe portrait is clearly related to the Janssen portrait, which used to be considered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare until it was restored in the 1960s and everyone realised it had been doctored to look like the genuine portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio. Mmmm.

So desperate are professional Shakespeareans like Wells for something as definitive as a portrait of their man, that they will happily ride roughshod over the proper cautions a historian – or anyone without a dog in the fight – would employ. It isn’t good enough. We know far more about Shakespeare than we do about any contemporary playwright with the exception of Ben Jonson, who was both a relentless self-publicist and an inveterate trouble-maker, and therefore in regular contact with the authorities over one scandal or another. That should be enough.

New facts may come from new documents; they will not come from over-thinking the documents we already have. That way hokum lies. And what hope have Shakespeareans have of retaining the intellectual high ground if they continue to chase after it?

UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on the authorship controversy – and the use of sources – here

Thomas Cobham: a life of recklessness and reprieve

IMG_0213I didn’t know a great deal about Thomas Cobham when I came across his name in the Middlesex Session Rolls, where he is recorded as one of two men standing surety for a young Walter Ralegh on December 19, 1577, after the latter’s servants had been arrested for a drunken assault on the nightwatch in Shoreditch.

The name seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. It took me a while to retrace my steps and find him again, causing trouble in the background to the Ridolfi Plot, the first catholic attempt to unseat Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary Stuart. I hadn’t paid him much attention before, but now I started to take a keener interest – something he repaid handsomely.

Cobham’s career, although obscure now, was extraordinary: not many men survive close involvement in two treason plots, but Cobham did. Nor do many escape one death sentence, never mind two. That one of those treason plots was protestant and the other catholic tells you much about Cobham: the taste for disorder, the reckless ambition, the slippery mind.

Despite being well-born, Cobham was a younger son, cursed with expectations and status he had no meaningful income to support. In an earlier generation, he might perhaps have made a good career in the church. Perhaps. But now, he had only his wits – and his connections – to fall back on. As such, he is an ambivalent figure, close to the heart of power but never close enough; perhaps he consciously thrived in the margins, where his busy conspiratorial intelligence could blur the edges of morality and law into nothingness.

The legal record could hardly be drier, but it placed Ralegh in dangerous company:

Recongnizances, taken before Jasper Fyssher esq. JP of Thomas Cobham of Goldinge Lane co. Midd, esq and John Rigges of Davis Inne London gentleman, in the sum of forty pounds each, and of Richard Paunsford yeoman, servant to Walter Rawley esq. Of the Court (de curia) in the sum of one hundred marks; for the appearance of the said Richard at the next Session of the Peace co Midd., to answer such matters as may be objected against him.

Thomas Cobham was a well-known London figure – in some ways a figure on the national stage – but for all the wrong reasons. He stalks the pages of the state papers for two decades, a mischievous and malevolent shadow the regime seemed incapable of dispelling. Yet his life has the archetypal arc of a certain kind of courtier, great youthful hopes trending always down, horizons shrinking, options closing. When report of Cobham’s death came to Burghley on 22 October 1578, there seems to be a sense of eagerness and relief in his brief note of it: “There is news that Thomas Cobham is dead in Flanders”.

Golding Lane, in the parish of St Giles without the walls at Cripplegate, was not a good address: “of  no great account either for buildings or inhabitants”, sniffed Stow.  The road ran north to Old Street from the Barbican – straight over from Red Cross Street – as it still does today, marginally renamed as Golden Lane; if the Middlesex sessions records are anything to go by, it was a frequent locus for trouble of one kind or another, notably theft or assault, although where its residents appear in the Elizabethan state papers the context is usually recusancy. Thomas Cobham, it seems, had fallen far.

Born in 1533, Cobham was a younger son in the most powerful family in Kent, that of George Brooke, ninth Baron Cobham. His elder brother William, who inherited the family title on their father’s death in September 1558, was lord warden of the cinque ports, constable of Dover Castle, and both lord lieutenant and vice-admiral of Kent. Unusually, the family used the title Cobham as a surname; hence “Thomas Brook alias Cobham”, as the House of Commons styled him in a bill of March 1563. In the records, he is almost exclusively referred to as Thomas Cobham. (He was also, as Ralegh knew, a relation, albeit an obscure one, separated by four generations; Ralegh would describe Cobham’s niece, Elizabeth, as a “kinswoman” in a letter to her husband Sir Robert Cecil.)

The Cobham family, like most, could field members on both sides of any dispute; as with many of the great families of the realm, the network of kinship brought them into many apparently conflicting loyalties. Cobham’s extended family contained reformers like the Cecils and Bacons, as well as confirmed Catholics like Southwells and Shelleys. Such networks served them well, allowing them to ride the tides of favour and disfavour with something approaching equanimity. Indeed, to see the loyalties as in conflict is in some sense to miss the point. The first point of loyalty was to family; beyond that, things became more fluid and negotiable.That Thomas Cobham strained that familial loyalty beyond breaking point says much for his behaviour, a rare judgement in a culture that reified and privileged familial bonds above all others, “all kingdoms being but the connection of families”, as Ralegh later wrote.

Along with several family members, Thomas Cobham was active in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Kentish rebellion of 1554 against the catholic queen Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain. Actually, the rising was something of a family affair: Wyatt was Cobham’s first cousin. In fact, Holinshed identifies Cobham as one of the ring-leaders; he was still just 20 years old. Cobham was therefore one of those taken with its leader on Wednesday February 7 as they retreated with their dwindling force of men – some 400-strong – back along Fleet Street from the Belle Sauvage inn at Ludgate, where they had a last desperate hope of support, towards the Temple Bar, in front of which the Earl of Pembroke waited with three squadrons of cavalry.

On surrender, Cobham and his fellow rebels were taken downriver to the Tower. People came to watch, to sneer. Someone took note of his fine clothes: a mailshirt covering a velvet cassock, trimmed with yellow lace, from which hung the windlass of his pistol; a fair velvet hat sporting broad bone-work lace. “Alas Master Cobham,” he was asked as he entered the Tower’s gates, “what wind headed you to work such treason?” His answer was pitiful in its regret: “Oh sir, I was seduced.” The youthful refusal to acknowledge his own recklessness, to admit that he was the leading agent in his self-destruction, is something he would never lose.

Hundreds died in the government’s reprisals, but Cobham, sentenced to a traitor’s death, was not one of them. Mary commuted his sentence after his father pleaded with her. Her forgiveness astounded Simon Renard, the imperial ambassador and her closest adviser, who thought it imprudent, even potentially suicidal, to issue pardons before any evidence had been presented in court: “She might have waited until it came out in the trials whether these men had been of the plot or no,” he complained to Philip II, “for if they had been, she was only adding to her own enemies and to the Lady Elizabeth’s partisans by sparing their lives”. It wouldn’t be the last time that a foreign ambassador would be appalled by the leniency Thomas Cobham received.

Cobham was, at least, confined to the Tower for several years; his deep-etched graffiti, ‘Thomas Cobham, 1555’, can still be seen carved into a window frame overlooking Tower Green. Two of his books still survive in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford – bequeathed to it by Ralegh’s future brother-in-law Arthur Throckmorton. Both volumes carry Cobham’s own scratched verses bemoaning the actions of fortune; pitying himself, his sorrows; hoping for “the happy day” ahead.  Released in early 1557, Cobham quickly showed how little he was capable of mastering himself: compulsive, careless, changeable, he would always be a sail for every wind. By the end of the summer, he was back in the Tower, having stabbed a catholic in a fight in Fleet Street and, on another occasion, led a gang of thieves into the house of an uncle in Blackfriars and stolen 200 marks.

In September 1565, in fact, it was the turn of the Spanish ambassador, Guzman de Silva to be disgusted at Cobham’s continued liberty. At the end of July 1563, Cobham had entered a bond of £500 for one of Elizabeth’s privateering commissions, a business model England had borrowed from its Hugenot allies across the Channel. The nominal target for such activity was French catholic shipping. But Cobham, in common with most other holders of both English and Hugenot letters of marque, was none too picky about which ships he attacked.

On November 2 he attacked two Spanish ships in the Bay of Biscay returning from Flanders and carrying cargoes of wine and tapestries valued variously at 50,000 and 80,000 ducats, together with 40 galley slaves. The Spanish clearly put up more resistance than he expected and the assault became a vicious and prolonged gunfight, leaving more than 40 English dead. It wasn’t until Martin Frobisher, sailing nearby in the Anne Appleyard, came to his rescue – believing, Frobisher claimed, the Spanish to be the aggressor – that Cobham prevailed over one of the ships, the St Katherine, under its captain Martin Saenz de Chaves.

Cobham killed de Chaves brother on boarding the ship. The other vessel, despite the deaths of its owner and master, limped back to the Spanish coast. Cobham, for his part, took his hard-won prize to the Irish port of Baltimore, the preferred choice of English pirates wanting to fence stolen goods. The voyage took seven days, during which the Spanish crew were kept below hatches with the galley slaves, so pressed together that several of them suffocated.

It was unfortunate for Cobham that the goods on board the St Katherine were destined for Philip II. It was too high profile a catch to ignore. By February, Elizabeth had received two formal complaints from the merchants at Antwerp and the Spanish government in the Netherlands. Both identified Cobham by name. Action was promised; none was forthcoming. Elizabeth was equivocal: when De Silva complained to her about piracy she told him that many of those operating in the Channel “were Scotsman who spoke English”. A Flemish embassy, returning from London in May, was particularly disheartened to see Cobham strolling through the streets of Dover. However, after further lobbying, Frobisher and his brother were eventually arrested and sent to Launceston gaol on July 15.

On July 21 Elizabeth took the unusual step of issuing a proclamation specifically targetted at Cobham, demanding that “all persons, of what condition soever they be, to do their uttermost to apprehend by sea or by land the said Thomas or any of his accomplices”. Even so, Cobham remained free, such was his status. It wasn’t until the following March that he was arrested, but De Silva was still unsure that justice would be forthcoming. “I pressed [the queen] very much for the punishment of Thomas Cobham,” he wrote to Philip II, “whom they were trying to get off through the intrigues of his relatives.” A criminal trial resulted in Cobham’s acquital; De Silva pushed harder.

The Queen having learnt what had taken place – and I took care that she was well informed on the subject – ordered her Council to summon the twelve men who had judged the case, and had them charged with a false judgment. They asked for time to answer the charge, and after they had made their excuses they were condemned by public vote to fines of 20l. each… or six months’ imprisonment, and were put in the pillory with papers stuck on them like a cuirass.

A few days later Cobham went before the admiralty court charged with piracy. He was clearly well briefed because he refused to plead. The punishment in such circumstances was extraordinarily brutal. De Silva again:

He was… sentenced to be taken back to the Tower, stripped entirely naked, his head shaved, and the soles of his feet beaten, and then, with his arms and legs stretched, his back resting on a sharp stone, a piece of artillery is to be placed on his stomach too heavy for him to bear but not heavy enough to kill him outright. In this torment he is to be fed on three grains weight of barley and the filthiest water in the prison until he die.

Not unreasonably, De Silva suspected that Cobham’s status would come to his rescue. “His relatives are making great efforts to procure a postponement of the execution of the sentence,” he worried.

But De Silva didn’t realise that the trick had already been pulled. Cobham claimed benefit of clergy, an already anachronistic medieval right that enabled clerics to escape civil justice if they could prove their literacy by reading psalm 51, the miserere, commonly known as the ‘neck verse’, irrespective of any actual affiliation to the church. Many judges would not hear such claims, but Cobham’s judges did, despite the fact that piracy was one of the few crimes to which it wasn’t applicable; by refusing to offer a plea and avoiding a guilty verdict he had cheated death again. It would hardly be surprising if Cobham believed himself to have a charmed life, floating free from the ordinary restraints of justice. “Thomas Cobham reprieved; 15 pirates hanged” reads one terse Privy Council record. It would ever be thus.

If piractical shadows like these were all that dogged Cobham, we might shrug our shoulders at Ralegh’s connection with him: Ralegh’s own record in this regard was hardly unblemished. But it is Cobham’s involvement in more dangerous, political deceits at the close of the 1560s which makes their apparent friendship of more than passing interest, opening up a thread of activity and associations in Ralegh’s own young career which has never been adequately mined.

Cobham disappears from view after 1565. When he resurfaces in October 1569 he is a prisoner in the Tower again. But for all the continuity such a state of affairs implies, many things had changed: Mary Stuart was in England. I have written about the Ridolfi Plot, and Cobham’s role in it, here.

For all that Cobham’s maritime activities spilled over into outright piracy – or were certainly regarded as having done so by the Elizabethan authorities – they are still on a continuum with those of his more reputable peers, different in quality perhaps but not in kind. He belongs more clearly to the hazardous morality of the aspiring courtiers, putting the creation of personal wealth above all else. In this sense, his kinship with Ralegh – as with Gascoigne, Noel, et al – is apparent.

As for his brushes with treason, it was by no means obvious, in the wake of the northern rebellion, that Elizabeth’s government would survive. Cobham was merely riding the odds, trying to ensure he had a claim to favour whoever had the upper hand. He was hardly alone in that.

Cobham stayed in the Tower until April 1574, around the time that Ralegh must have arrived in London. The offences with which he is associated become increasingly small beer. There was a longstanding dispute over his dealings with the freebooters in the Channel, which dated back to the weeks after his arrest in 1571, when an inquiry was launched “without respect of favour towards him of whom we hear so many complaints for his misbehavior as we cannot pass the same over.” If he was to some extent disowned by his family now – or at least kept at arm’s length – there is no indication that the seafaring community felt the same.

On 27 August 1575, he is rumoured to have colluded with Hawkins, Frobisher, and two other unnamed captains, to lead five warships out from the Thames to attack Spanish shipping, notionally on behalf of the Hugenots. He seems to have been involved in the aftermath – and perhaps the planning – of a raid on a ship called the Argosy moored in the Thames, being suspected of dealing in the stolen goods.

And then there is this brief, unnoticed glimpse of him with Ralegh’s company before he disappears again into the shadows.

NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Thomas Cobham from my book, The Favourite.

For more on Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth, see my posts on George Gifford and the psychology of treason.

The desperate Dr Fox

The peculiar choices of Dr Liam Fox, our beleaguered secretary of state for defence, have come in for much scrutiny of late.

But in the last 24 hours or so, he has plumbed new depths. First there were briefings by *cough* “friends” of Dr Fox that Adam Werritty – Fox’s best man, business colleague, sometime co-habitee and apparently self-stlyed adviser to Dr Fox – was essentially a Walter Mitty figure, delusional about his contacts and importance.

Well, maybe. But why then did Fox entertain him so frequently – forty times on the record (not counting purely social encounters, for a start), and almost half of those abroad – and why did he introduce him to people like General John Allen, now in charge of Nato’s forces in Afghanistan?

Either Fox is a fool who was happy to introduce a naive fantasist to senior defence contacts – people, let’s not forget, who are vital to the security of our nation. Which would surely be taking the concept of the nanny state too far. Or he is someone who is now betraying a friend – who had hitherto demonstrably been of great importance to him – because that friend has suddenly become an embarrassment, an impediment to Fox’s career. Either way, it is Fox who is in the wrong, not Werritty. It is not Werritty’s responsibility to ensure that our secretary of state for defence acts with propriety, or puts the defence of the realm ahead of more personal priorities.

But Fox has also been busy briefing… Sorry, my mistake, friends of Fox have also been busy briefing against the prime minister, David Cameron. In what sounds remarkably like the sort of thing most of left behind in the playground – primary school, that is – someone has told the Daily Telegraph on Fox’s behalf that Cameron would be weak if he caved in to media pressure and sacked him. All I can hear in that is one sad little boy saying to another, ‘If you tell on me to teacher, I’m going to tell everyone you’re a wuss.’ Dear God. Whatever happened to the dignity of office?

This is a man who promised that defence cuts would not hit those on the front line, but who nevertheless has made 10,000 men and women in the armed forces redundant, some of whom received their notice while on active service.

If I were a Thatcherite Tory, I would want someone with more personal credibility and integrity to be my flagbearer. Wasn’t responsibility at the heart of her ethos?

I know politicians bemoan the contempt in which they are held be the electorate. They are right to do so; it is corrosive to democracy. But it would help if that contempt were not reciprocated so blatantly.

The unstable sea and its secret sources: an 11th-century voyage of discovery

A few years ago I wrote a book called Impossible Journeys, which was a collection of travellers tales about journeys to places which do not exist. Some of those places are relatively well known; indeed El Dorado has passed into the language as the very definition of a chimeric destination. Others, such as Norumbega and Saguenay in the newly discovered Americas, or the Atlantic island of Buss, have been forgotten.

The idea came to me as I took my son on his umpteenth visit to the dinosaur rooms at the Natural History Museum. Wandering among the remains of these evolutionary cul de sacs, I idly began to wonder about other kinds of scientific dead ends, and started trying to conceive of what a map of the world would look like if it were wiped clean, with all the known points erased and replaced with the many speculative locations from the beginnings of cartography. It sounded like an interesting world to explore. I even coined a term for the exercise: counter-factual geography. (It has yet to catch on.)

Adam of Bremen

It’s a subject that continues to fascinate me, and one that I continue to research. One of the the things that makes it such a compelling subject is the courage and character of those people who were willing to travel into the blank spaces on the map, to risk their lives on hearsay and rumour. I came across this passage the other day, from the 11th-century writer Adam of Bremen. I think it captures very well the perilous idea of travel into what he calls ‘the misty darkness’ of uncharted seas. But more than that, it makes me wonder again about the risk-friendly worldview of men who might have read such an account, and think the dangers worthwhile. Was it really all about the money?
Continue reading

The Grotian moment: Hugo Grotius and the invention of international law

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

A lawyer serving a life sentence escapes from prison hidden in a bookcase: as a plot point it would have the sort of ironic neatness that gives novelists and screenwriters a bad name. In this instance, however, it is true.

It happened on 22 March 1621. The prison was the 14th Century castle of Loevestein, which stands at the meeting of the Meuse and Waal rivers in the Dutch United Provinces. And the lawyer in question was Huigh de Groot (better known then and now as Hugo Grotius). The charge? We shall come to that later.

But to describe Grotius as merely a lawyer is to do him scant justice. In an age when polymaths were less rare he was considered exceptional. He was a philosopher, a diplomat, a historian and a poet (in Latin and in Dutch); he was hailed as ‘the miracle of Holland’ when just 15 by Henri IV of France; Milton met him and admired his dramatic poem Adamus Exul (‘Adam in Exile’); Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus carried his writings with him wherever he went.

And yet it is on his work as a legal theorist that his reputation now rests. He is, simply, the father of international law. To this day, whenever international lawyers discuss great leaps forward in their field, they describe them as Grotian moments. The establishment of the UN at the end of World War II was one such moment; the abolition of slavery another.

At the time of his incarceration, however, all this is beside the point. In 1621, his greatest work was ahead of him. Had he remained in Loevestein for the rest of his life, it is debatable what he would have achieved – and what, if anything, he would be remembered for.
Continue reading