Save the cat! (1553)
A pause on a pilgrimage
Like last week, here’s a rough and ready audio version if you prefer to listen!
A few weeks ago I observed that I have rather neglected the 16th century in these articles, and reported on the death of Thomas Cranmer to make amends. This week I thought I’d go back to that era, but find something less forlorn.
Our diarist this time is John Locke (or Lok) – not the 17th century philosopher, nor indeed any of the other notables of that name, but a 16th century traveller – and in fact one of his brothers was great-great-grandfather of the philosopher. His father William was in Henry VIII’s household and became sheriff of London. As a merchant, William also supplied Henry with luxury cloths from Antwerp – and supplied Henry’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell with intelligence, too. William had many children, with John born to his second wife, Katherine Cooke.
John seems to have become a merchant too. He kept a diary from March to December 1553 describing his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In around 11,000 words he describes the voyage, changing ships at Cadiz, joining other pilgrims at Venice, and briefly describes Jerusalem before recounting the journey home via Cyprus. We have this account thanks to the labours of Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616), an Oxford-educated writer and priest who is remembered for his promotion of English colonisation of America and for his collections of early travel writing, which were drawn upon by Shakespeare. John Locke’s account appears in Hakluyt’s vast anthology The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, compiled between 1589 and 1600. Hakluyt himself doesn’t seem to have gone further than Paris, but he made it his mission to collect travel journals and also became acquainted with “the chiefest captaines at sea, the greatest merchants, and the best mariners of our nation”. In later life he was archdeacon of Westminster Abbey.
John Locke tells us that “I imbarked my selfe the 26 of March in the good shippe called the Mathew Gonson, which was bound for Livorno… and Candia [Crete]”.1 We know the ship was originally owned by Leicestershire-based naval administrator William Gonson, whose son Richard had captained it to Crete 20 years beforehand; by 1553, though, William and Richard were dead, but another son, Benjamin Gonson, was high up in the Navy, as was Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Spert, whose cousin Margaret married John Locke.
A year later, we know that John himself was captain of three trading ships which went to Guinea in West Africa, and in fact an account of that journey has also survived, written by the master of one of the ships.2 John appears to have undertaken or at least financed various other trading journeys, but we know nothing of him beyond 1561, other than he is said to have died in France.
I’m only going to give a short extract of John’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, though, as it tells a sweet little tale. By this time he was on board the Italian vessel Fila Cavena, carrying a variety of pilgrims from different countries in Europe. The date is 18th August, 1553; four days earlier they had left Cyprus and were now anchored seven miles off Jaffa, the ancient port now part of Tel Aviv in Israel where many pilgrims landed on their way to the Holy City. (At this point Jaffa was under Ottoman rule.) Locke reports that “This coast all alongst is very lowe, plaine, white, sandie, and desert”. I have modernised the spellings below.
The 18th day we abode still at anchor, looking for a gale to return back, but it was contrary: and the 19th we set sail, but the current having more force than the wind, we were driven back, insomuch that the ship being under sail, we cast the sounding lead, & (notwithstanding the wind) it remained before the ship, there we had muddy ground at fifteen fathoms. The same day about 4 of the clock, we set sail again, and sailed West along the coast with a fresh side-wind. It chanced by fortune that the ship’s Cat leapt into the Sea, which being down, kept her self very valiantly above water, notwithstanding the great waves, still swimming, the which the master knowing, he caused the Skiff with half a dozen men to go towards her and fetch her again, when she was almost half a mile from the ship, and all this while the ship lay on stays. [Locke had earlier noted the ship’s master was one Anthony Rastwold.]
I hardly believe they would have made such haste and means if one of the company had been in the like peril. They made the more haste because it was the patron’s cat. This I have written only to note the estimation that cats are in, among the Italians, for generally they esteem their cats, as in England we esteem a good Spaniel. The same night about ten of the clock the wind calmed, and because none of the ship knew where we were, we let fall an anchor about 6 mile from the place we were at before, and there we had muddy ground at twelve fathoms.
Isn’t that charming? After a couple more days at anchor, Locke and his companions continued their journey into the Holy Land. Ship’s cats, of course, were commonplace, both to keep the numbers of rodents down and, it seems, as a talisman against misfortune. There is evidence that the Vikings took cats with them, and in fact the British Royal Navy only banned cats from ships in 1975.
My title, ‘Save the cat!’, alludes to the whole industry of screen and fiction writing guidance based around the late Blake Snyder’s book of the same name, the idea being that having your protagonist do something like save a cat makes the reader or audience root for them. But as ever, history was there centuries earlier!