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.


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