The Unfortunate Traveller

by Thomas Nashe

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

There are two main characters and a host of minor ones in Thomas Nashe's novel, The Unfortunate Traveller. There's Jack Wilton, the main character, and there's Henry, a nobleman and Jack's sidekick and traveling companion. Then, there's everyone else. The book is funny, in the way that Early Modern art is amusingly quaint. You should read it, and you should check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

Jack Wilton is a page in the English army at the time of Henry VIII. A page is a teenage boy who wants to be a knight, like an apprentice. He's given to a knight, who becomes his master, and the page accompanies him to battle. So, Jack is already well-placed for adventuring when the story begins. After a battle and a series of vignettes, Jack sets off with Henry. In this way, Jack is like Everyman or Candide. He's a narrative device by which the author gives us a history lesson and introduces us to famous and influential people of the late Sixteenth Century.

Henry Howard is the Earl of Surrey and scion of the Howard family, holders of the Dukedom of Norfolk, the oldest peerage in the English realm. He's also related to two of King Henry's wives. In the story, he's the anchor. He provides legitimacy to Jack's adventures, a voice of reason, and the "face of England" in Europe as he and Jack go adventuring. He was a real person, and by writing him into the story, Nashe makes it a serious tale, an instructive one, instead of a comic adventure like The Canterbury Tales.

Those are the two main characters. Everyone else puts in appearances but doesn't affect the narrative. The only other constant is Geraldine, the object of Henry Howard's love. On a quest to prove Howard's worthiness of her affection in a tournament, Jack and Henry meet Erasmus, Thomas More, and Diamante, an Italian noblewoman fallen from grace, who becomes Jack's girlfriend and accompanies them on their adventures. They get into a scrape with a traveling Spanish nobleman called Esdras and Bartol, his servant, which involves the rape and suicide of Heraclide. They get into a different spot of trouble with Zadok, a Jewish merchant and Zachary, the Pope's doctor, only to be saved from death by Juliana, the Pope's mistress.

The rest of the characters are background devices in a narrative which is meant to instruct Sixteenth Century readers in European history and introduce them to contemporary politics.

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