Richard Hakluyt, regarded as the first professor of modern geography at Oxford, made a point of getting to know the “chiefest Captains at sea, the greatest merchants, and the best Mariners of our nation.” As a boy, he watched ships come to port from distant places, and early lessons in geography made him eager to learn more. Studies at Oxford and a five-year period in Paris increased his resolve to collect and study the scattered records of English maritime discovery. The result of his interest was Hakluyt’s Voyages, an invaluable sourcebook for those who wish to study the age of discovery and to determine the place of England within it. This work is an anthology of accounts of the explorations and travels of British adventurers up to the author’s own time. The accounts are bold and vigorous and usually include only the main events of each journey. Many are written by those who made the voyages.
Published by Hakluyt in refutation of a French accusation that the English were insular and spiritless, the book is of value in several capacities. It faithfully describes many sixteenth century exploratory journeys, it is an index to the temper of Elizabethan England, and it reflects the enthusiasm for travel literature that was so prevalent at the time of its original publication. Hakluyt may have begun his tome as a piece of propaganda, but it soon became more than that. The second edition grew to three volumes issued over as many years. Hakluyt also published translated narratives by Spanish explorers, but Hakluyt’s Voyages remains his memorial, a true “prose epic” of the English people and nation.
The massive work is more than a documentary history of exploration, for in it, alongside tales of adventure, are mingled historical and economic papers intended to establish British sovereignty at sea. The purpose of the huge undertaking was to encourage overseas settlement and foreign trade. (It was asserted that the income of the East India Company was greatly increased through Hakluyt’s Voyages.)
The first section Hakluyt’s Voyages comprises thirty-eight tales of travels and explorations made by Britons from the Middle Ages up to the end of the sixteenth century. The opening narrative recounts a probably mythical voyage by King Arthur of Britain to Iceland and the northernmost parts of Europe in 517. The first ten narratives deal with voyages made before 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest of Britain. They include such journeys as the conquest of the isles of Man and Anglesey by Edwin, king of Northumberland, in 624; the trips of Octher into Norway and Denmark in 890 and 891; the voyage of Wolstan into Danish waters in the tenth century; the voyage of King Edgar, with four thousand ships, about the island of Britain; and the journey of Edmund Ironside from England to Hungary in 1017. Another voyage that took place before the Norman Conquest was that of a man named Erigena, who was sent by Alfred, king of the West Saxons, to Greece. Alfred was one of the most cultured of British kings in premedieval times and was very much interested in classical civilizations. His emissary, Erigena, went as far as Athens in 885, a long voyage for those ancient times.
The first of the post-Norman Conquest tales recounts a marvelous journey made by a company of English noblemen to escort the daughter of King Harold to Russia for her marriage to the duke of Russia in 1067. The next account is of the surprising journey of an unknown Englishman who traveled as far into Asia as Tartaria in the first half of the thirteenth century. One notable tale describes the adventures of Nicolaus de Linna, a Franciscan friar, who traveled to northern Scandinavia. The twenty-second voyage is that of Anthony Jenkinson, who traveled to Russia from England in order to return Osep Napea, the first ambassador from Muscovia to Queen Mary of England, to his own country in 1557. Surprisingly, almost half of the journeys described in this first collection were made to Russia by way of the Arctic Ocean, around northern Scandinavia. It is not ordinarily realized that there was any traffic at all between England and Russia at that time. Both water and land transportation between the two countries were extremely difficult. The final narrative of the first section tells of the greatest event of Elizabethan England, the...
(The entire section is 1784 words.)