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The Elizabethans And America
“To push back the consciousness of American beginnings, beyond Jamestown, beyond the Pilgrims, to the highwater mark of the Elizabethan Age” -- Part One of a New Series.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
In the discussions that resulted in granting Sir Humphrey Gilbert the patent under which the first English colonies in America were planted, Dee was drawn in to advise about the Queen’s title to North America. A Celt, he was not content to go back to Cabot; he went back to King Arthur. Dee held that the Friseland of the medieval Zeni brothers (apparently a deformation of Iceland), Greenland, and Estotiland (Labrador) to the west had been colonized by King Arthur and hence were rightful appanages of the British monarchy. Dee also added the Welsh tradition of the discoveries of the Atlantic coast by Prince Madoc in the twelfth century; and this he imparted to the historian and propagandist for English discoveries, Richard Hakluyt, who duly incorporated it in his work—on the Elizabethan principle: never throw away an argument.
We read in Dee’s diary that he spoke with the Queen herself as to her title in audiences at Windsor toward the end of November, 1577. He also spoke with her secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Christopher Hatton, two leaders of the expansionist school in her council, patrons of the seamen and colonizers. Dee had further conference with the Queen at Richmond in October, 1578. Two years later he was dealing with Gilbert for a share in his grant for American discovery, and “September 10th, Sir Humphrey Gilbert granted me my request to him, for the royalties to the North above the parallel of the 50th degree of latitude.”
This, as so often in Dee’s life, was a purely notional acquisition, a chimerical gain. However, there were the consolations of the Queen’s favor. A week later we have a vivid close-up of her:
September 17th, the Queen came from Richmond in her coach, the higher way of Mortlake field, and when she came right against the church she turned down toward my house. And when she was against my garden in the field she stood there a good while, and then came into the street at the great gate of the field, where she espied me at my door making obeisance to her Majesty. She beckoned her hand for me; I came to her coach-side, she very speedily pulled off her glove and gave me her hand to kiss; and, to be short, asked me to resort to her Court, and to give her to weet [know] when I came there.
A fortnight later, October 3,
at eleven of the clock before noon, I delivered my two rolls of the Queen’s Majesty’s title unto herself in the garden at Richmond, who appointed after dinner to hear further of the matter. Therefore between one and two in the afternoon, I was sent for into her Highness’ Privy Chamber, where the Lord Treasurer also was, who, having the matter slightly then in consultation, did seem to doubt much that I had or could make the argument probable for her Highness’s title so as I pretended. Whereupon I was to declare to his honour more plainly, and at his leisure, what I had said and could say therein; which I did on Tuesday and Wednesday following at his chamber, where he used me very honourably on his behalf. …
But, “Oct. 7th, on Friday I came to my Lord Treasurer, and he being told of my being without, and also I standing before him at his coming forth, did not or would not speak to me, I doubt not of some new grief conceived.” Lord Burghley’s disapproval gave Dee bad dreams, which he noted, full of persecution mania. It took all the Queen’s graciousness to console Dee for his treatment at Lord Burghley’s hands. She came over to Mortlake to comfort him, called on horseback at his door, “and withall told me that the Lord Treasurer had greatly commended my doings for her title, which he had to examine, which title in two rolls he had brought home two hours before.” And so on, all very consoling to the wounded pride of a Welshman. More to the point, on All Souls’ Day, the Lord Treasurer sent him a haunch of venison. However, even astrologers can hardly live by venison alone.
No terrestrial preferment, nothing to live by, came Dee’s way, though the Queen was willing enough and made various suggestions; it seems the Lord Treasurer stood in the way. At last, Dee accepted better prospects from the Continent and went off to raise the spirits with Edward Kelly in Prague. When he returned, the Queen did find a berth for him after all: she made him warden of Manchester College, so that he spent his last years in security, if not exactly in the odor of sanctity.
These discussions and consultations in the 1570s had their practical issue in Martin Frobisher’s three voyages to the northwest in 1576, 1577, and 1578. As is well known, their promise of further geographical discovery in that region was deflected into the search for gold-bearing ore. These voyages were set forth by a combination of the forward school in the court circle with a body of merchants in the city. The leading figures among the Queen’s intimates in these activities were Sir Francis Walsingham and her favorite, the Earl of Leicester—followed by the young poet Philip Sidney and his friend Sir Edward Dyer.