The Fraternity of Sirenaic Gentlemen, William Stansby and the settlement of Virginia

Little is known about the mysterious drinking club, the Sirenaic Gentlemen, who met in the Mermaid Tavern on the corner of Bread Street and Friday Street in the City of London in the early years of the seventeenth century. Supposedly named after the Mermaid or Siren herself, the club is said to have attracted the leading poets and playwrights of the day including Ben Jonson, John Donne, Beaumont and Fletcher as well as travellers, Thomas Coryate and William Strachey and the cosmographer Samuel Purchas. The greatest of all English bibliophiles, Sir Robert Cotton, to whom we owe the preservation of the sole copy of Beowulf, is also counted a member.  Some of these claims have been disputed, one line of argument being that the Sirenaics did not in fact include the truly great names of English literature. A scholarly autopsy of the evidence for the membership of the Sirenaic fraternity (I.A Shapiro:  The Mermaid Club: The Modern Language Review January 1950) challenges the romantic notions that the Sirenaics included characters as socially diverse as Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson and the printer bookseller William Stansby. Shapiro’s study nevertheless notes that the evidence points towards Jonson, Inigo Jones and Donne being members of the society.


It has been suggested that the engraving above – the frontispiece to Richard Braithwaite’s Laws of Drinking (London 1617) - represents the Mermaid and the drinking club in session.  The tavern sign (top right) shows the phrase ‘Poets impaled [crowned] by laurel coronets’ surrounding something that could, with plenty of imagination, hint at a Mermaid. (Or perhaps it’s just a fish.) However, References in the picture to various Greek mythological places and a philosopher put it pretty well beyond doubt that this was indeed an attempt to represent the Mermaid and the Sirenaic Club in session.

At the top left of the engraving we see the word Hellicon, a reference to the mountain in Greece which, in mythology, was the location of two springs, Aganippe (referenced in the centre of the engraving) and Hippocrene (shown to the left of Aganippe).  The two springs were held to be sources of inspiration for poets, fitting with the motto surrounding the ‘mermaid ‘in the tavern sign.

To the left of the engraving ‘nectar ut ingenium’ would appear to be a jokey inversion of ‘Ut Nectar Ingenium’ – Genius is like Nectar, a Latin tag which appeared on the title page of Christopher Marlowe’s Poem Hero and Leander. Was the engraver, William Marshal, encouraged to come up with something that would read ‘Nectar is like Genius ‘, hinting at the bibulous habits of this talented group?

Most telling of all, however, is the image and name (found at top right) of Aristippus, a philosopher of the 5th-4th century BC, a pupil of Socrates. Aristippus, was born and died in Cyrene, North Africa and founded the Cyrenaic school of hedonistic philosophy. Not only do the general principles of the Cyrenaic school chime with the indulgence of these literary Jacobean boozers, but a reference to the founder of the Cyrenaics could hardly be a more obvious rebus. Cyrenaics = Sirenaics. The reference to Aristippus is confirmation that the engraving by Marshal is indeed a representation of the Mermaid Tavern and the Fraternity of Sirenaic Gentlemen.

William Stansby – Master Printer – and Sirenaic Gentleman?

It has been suggested that the Printer and bookseller William Stansby, who was linked to many of the supposed Sirenaic luminaries, was a member. The attribution is tentative and rests on little more than the fact that Stansby printed works for John Donne, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Coryate, Ben Jonson (whose first folio Stansby produced) and Samuel Purchas, all of whom have been held to be members of the club. Also cited as evidence is a letter from the eccentric Jacobean traveller Thomas Coryate sending greetings to members of the Sirenaic fraternity with whom he had dined before setting off on his travels.  In that letter Coryate sent greetings to figures who probably were members of the fraternity. But he also sent greetings to some who almost certainly were not (as explained by Shapiro). Amongst those who were not necessarily members of the Fraternity, Coryate sent his greeting to his printer, Stansby and it is the latter’s inclusion in the letter that has led to the tenuous conclusion on the part of some commentators that he was a member of the fraternity.

One additional and interesting point might link Stansby to the William Marshal engraving of the Sirenaic fraternity and therefore to the Fraternity itself. This focuses on the Latin tag ‘nectar ut ingenium’ on the  Marshal engraving. The probable original of this phrase, ’Ut Nectar, Ingenium’ appears on the title page of the first and subsequent printed editions of Hero and Leander, written largely by Christopher Marlowe and finished by George Chapman. Amongst his many publications of plays and poetry, Stansby printed the 1613 edition of the Marlowe/Chapman work, four years before the publication of Braithwaite’s work containing Marshal’s engraving. Did Stansby suggest to Marshal the inclusion of a variant of the tag?

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Whether Stansby was a Sirenaic or not, his record as a printer and bookseller was exceptional. Among the works he is known to have printed were John Donne’s ‘an anatomy of the World’, works by Thomas Dekker , later editions of Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’, Ben Jonson’s ‘Epiocoene’, and Jonson’s collected works in Folio of 1616, Francis Bacon’s ‘ History of Henry VII’, the first English edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Walter Raleigh’s ‘History of the World’, the fourth Quartos of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1623) and Hamlet ( 1625) , works by the cosmographer Samuel Purchas  and Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels .

In February 1626 Stansby acquired the rights to publication of a large number of works, including some classics, from the Widow of the printer and stationer Thomas Snodham. These works included Sir Thomas Elliot’s ‘The Boke of the Governor’, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and a share of the publication rights of music by Bird, Dowland and Morley. This transfer (purchase) of publication rights also included Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and Everyone in his Humour by Ben Jonson. In 1635 he followed this up by acquiring the rights to publish Sejanus, the Alchemist and others of Jonson’s plays.

High literary works were not Stansby’s sole output, however.  In 1610 he printed ‘A True declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia’ for the Virginia Council, an attempt to allay fears and boost London’s confidence in the fledgling colony in the wake of the so-called ‘starving time’ of 1609-10. And in 1612, Stansby produced the first printed set of laws for the new English colony of Virginia: in effect the first set of written laws for what would become the United States of America. In 1630, he printed the Earl of Stirling’s ‘Map and Description of New England’.

Stansby was by no means the most important printer/publisher in London of works relating to the English colonisation of America. The remarkable story of London’s Stationers – printers, publishers and booksellers – and their vital role in the English settlement of North America is the subject of my monograph ‘Pilgrims, Profit and Print: The Stationers of London and the English Settlement of North America’ which – appropriately enough – is only available from the Stationers' Company website.



Written in the Stars

Some recent research has led me down one of the odd byways of linguistic study in the 16th and 17th centuries. In that era, European scholars had begun the study of Hebrew and Arabic, investigated ancient languages with biblical significance such as Syriac and Ge’ez and made the first tentative steps to understand Japanese and Chinese. Jesuit colleges in Rome promoted the printing of texts in Arabic for the Christian communities in the Middle East and the Jesuit college in Macau taught Chinese. On the other side of the earth, a Jesuit compiled the first Grammar of the Guarani language of Paraguay.

In amongst all the well-grounded scholarship and first- hand study based on field work, there was also room for imagination and belief. Perhaps the most striking example was the inclusion by some reputable scholars of ‘occult alphabets’ in their compilations of foreign and ancient scripts. Of these, one, the so – called ‘celestial alphabet ‘, was reproduced in books by leading scholars over the coming 150 years at least.  The first printed example I have been able to find was included in the ‘Three Books of Occult Philosophy ‘of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1533, Cologne). Agrippa, a soldier, diplomat and polymath in the service of the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and subsequently Charles V, held views on women and their rights that were unorthodox at the time. He was also open about his interest in Jewish thought and in the kabbalah, views which led him into trouble and which he subsequently recanted. On more than one occasion he was accused of heresy.


Cornelius Agrippa: The Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Celestial alphabet

The small circles at the extremities of these ‘letters’ provide the clue: they are the stars which form the letters of the celestial alphabet.  Agrippa’s work set out the idea that by tracing these letters between the stars, the heavens could be read.  His book was translated into English by James Freake and published in London in 1651.

Agrippa’s celestial alphabet was reproduced numerous times in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is reproduced ,for example, in ‘Thresor de Histoire de Langues’ (1613) by Claude Duret Bourbonnois , a judge, botanist and linguist. It also appears as the ‘Supercelestial’ alphabet in the ‘The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ (1616) ,a compilation of alphabets by the Scot, James Bonaventure Hepburn, a member of the Catholic Order of Minims and Keeper of Oriental Books and Manuscripts at the Vatican. In 1622 it was included in the ‘Specimen Litterarum et Linguarum’ (1622) of Jean Baptiste Gramaye, a jurist and professor at Leuven University.

Gramaye had established a reputation as a historian of the low countries. Sent on a diplomatic mission to Morocco, he was captured by barbary pirates and during a 5 -month captivity in North Africa he turned his attention to the languages and culture of Africa and the east. Gramaye’s alphabets, reproduced in woodcut, served as the acknowledged source for identical images published in ‘Purchas, His Pilgrims’ (1625) by the English Protestant clergyman Samuel Purchas, a chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and committed anti-Catholic. Thus, the celestial alphabet, first published by a Christian Cabbalist was promoted by both ardent Catholics and zealous protestants.

A celestial map showing the letters in their star formations and describing them as the Celestial Hebrew Alphabet was printed in 1629 for inclusion in ‘Curiositez Inovyes ‘by Jacques Gaffarel, theologian and Librarian to Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal’s patronage helped to save Gaffarel from the same sort of suspicions of heresy which had dogged Agrippa.

Gaffarel‘s book, translated into English as ‘Unheard of Curiosities’ by Edmund Chilmead and published in London in 1650, explained the operation of the celestial alphabet, which enabled skilled individuals to read what is ‘written in the stars’. Gaffarel cites Rabbi Eliahu Chomer as an authority for the interpretation of the celestial language which is in this interpretation an early form of Hebrew.

It is also described by James Howell in his ‘Survey of the Signorie of Venice’ (1651), again, citing the authority of Rabbi Chomer. Howell uses the celestial alphabet to read in the stars the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, then threatening Venice, in 1655. It is interesting to note that Howell’s book, Freake’s English translation of the religiously tolerant Agrippa and  Gaffarel’s book in its English translation were all published in 1650-1651 ,at a time of heightened interest in  Hebraism, in ancient Jewish legal and political history and indeed in the Kabbalah. It was also in 1651 that the leading English Jurist and scholar John Selden started to publish his three- part work on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish system of judicial tribunals. These works, which show a marked respect for Jewish traditions and learning would have helped to shape a tolerant and indeed appreciative approach to Judaism leading to the re-admittance of Jews to England under Cromwell a few years later.

A quarter of a century later, leading European scholars were still showing an interest in the celestial alphabet. Athanasius Kircher, a pre-eminent polymath and, again, a Jesuit, has been described as the last renaissance man due to the extraordinary range of his studies and publications. Kircher’s book, ‘Turris Babel’ (The Tower of Babel), presents the celestial alphabet as the Ur-language of Hebrew, consistent with the ideas of Gaffarel.

The discovery of new countries and new languages around the world,  investigations into the ancient biblical languages such as Aramaic and Chaldean and an interest in the occult and the kabbalah in some quarters opened minds in the 16th and 17th centuries to ideas such as the celestial alphabet. We may now find these ideas incredible, but in the intellectual – and religious - ferment of the time it is hardly surprising that some ideas might gain currency which would not survive the more rigorous  and sceptical thinking of the enlightenment.

August 2020


Gaffarel’s Celestial Alphabet and Map


Kircher presents the celestial alphabet (2nd Column) as the origin of Hebrew.

Sir Thomas Fairfax’s Copy of Froissart’s Chronicles

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Lord General of the parliamentary armies during the civil war in England, was an extraordinary character.  A professional soldier who, prior to the Civil War was knighted by Charles I for his role in the First Bishops’ War against the Scots, Fairfax and his father, Ferdinando, second Lord Fairfax of Cameron, declared for Parliament at the start of the civil war. The Fairfaxes, father and son, emerged as leading parliamentary commanders in Yorkshire and the son went on to rise to the highest command in the parliamentary army, playing key roles at the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby as well as at the siege of Colchester, all three engagements proving major points in Parliament’s progress towards eventual success.

Fairfax’s dedication to the parliamentary cause and courage on the battlefield was outstanding and evidenced by the extraordinary number of wounds he received. Amongst religious zealots in the parliamentary army Fairfax became known as the ‘Rider of the White Horse’, a biblical reference from the book of Revelations to a white horse and “he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war". At the same time, the defeated King acknowledged Fairfax as a man of honour. As a member of the minor aristocracy, Fairfax was not a proponent of a complete overthrow of the social order and, along with other army grandees, took steps to suppress the leveller movement which had grown in the ranks of the army.

Fairfax' Froissart - Ownership Inscripti

Image 1 - Ownership Inscription

When Fairfax refused to sign the King’s death warrant and retired from public office on the execution of the King, some parliamentary supporters felt he had compromised his commitment to the cause. Indeed, when General Monk marched south from Scotland to impose the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Fairfax supported his march through Yorkshire, confirming for many parliamentarians their suspicions that he was a trimmer. And yet many Royalists believed he could have done more to save the executed King. By treading his own path between the more zealous parliamentary views and the most loyal royalists, Fairfax managed to damage his reputation in both camps.

However, it is the marginalia that points towards this book having been used by ‘Black Tom’ very much as a retrospective justification of his own actions and beliefs which had been so controversial. On page 254 of the first volume, (image 2) we see the marginal note ‘A commendation of Sir John Chandos, Regent in France for the King of England’. This is the only instance amongst the marginalia in which Fairfax singles out an individual for his qualities. The original French text describes Chandos, thought to be the mastermind behind key victories at Crecy and Poitiers, as ‘chivalrous, courteous, liberal, gracious, generous, valiant, wise, faithful in all cases’. In singling out Chandos in this way, Fairfax was patently trying to draw a parallel with his own military successes and presumably identifying with Chandos’ chivalric reputation. Later marginal comments refer to the capture of Calais by Edward III (image 3) and to the Jacquerie uprising, events which he would have seen as paralleling his own siege of Colchester and suppression of Levellers.

I am inclined to conclude that in retirement Black Tom looked back at 

the events of Edward III’s campaigns in France and sought to draw parallels with his own career and conduct.  Other books which once belonged to Fairfax may similarly contain marginalia giving clues to his own perception of himself.


Fairfax – also known as ‘Black Tom’ - was a lover of books and took steps to protect libraries in Oxford and York from looting. He inherited a substantial library from his father and bequeathed 28 manuscripts to the Bodleian. In retirement he wrote verse and hired the poet Andrew Marvell as tutor to his daughter. Among the books which belonged to him is a copy of Froissart’s Chronicles, now bound in two volumes, printed at Lyon in 1559 and 1560 by Jean De Tournes, the printer to the King of France. Reproduced here (Image 1) is the ownership inscription of ‘Sir Thomas Fairfax of Denton, Knight’. It has been suggested that this book may originally have belonged to Black Tom’s grandfather who died in 1640 or indeed his great grandfather who died in 1598/99, both named Thomas. However, the ownership inscription here suggests to me a later hand than that which the Great grandfather would have had.  It could certainly be the ownership inscription of the grandfather, but if it is, it would have been inscribed late in his life judging by the style of writing. Indeed, it would suggest that late in life he had adopted a style of writing different from that which he would have learnt in his youth. Overall, the ownership inscription seems to me to be most probably that of Black Tom.


Image 2 - A commendation of Sir John Chandos


Image 3 - Siege of Calais

December 2020