Oxford, Richard Hakluyt and the Hakluyt Society

Professor Jim Bennett, current President of the Hakluyt Society, shares some enlightening thoughts on the connections between Oxford, Richard Hakluyt and the Hakluyt Society. From 16th-century ‘clubbing’ to Charles Darwin and beyond, we learn about some of the influences that informed the life and works of Richard Hakluyt and the ideas (and people) that shaped the establishment of the Hakluyt Society and the culture of the society today. This post was originally written for the Oxford University Pensioners’ Association Newsletter, which explains its focus on Oxford, and is reproduced from the current issue with permission.


Academics today are encouraged to strive for ‘impact’: they are told they should communicate with a broader public than their specialist communities and demonstrate the value of their research to society at large. Richard Hakluyt was an Oxford scholar of the Elizabethan era, who made it his business to carry his scholarship into the wider world of literature, publication, commerce and politics. He worked hard all his life in pursuit of a very particular (and, as it turned out, prescient) thesis that he believed would transform the role of England in the world. He was passionately convinced that his countrymen could rival the Spanish and Portuguese in maritime exploration and that England could be the centre of a new seaborne empire. This was a moral vision as well as a commercial imperative: the trading empire would also carry the reformed faith across the globe. Where was scholarship in this plan? The largest of Hakluyt’s many publications was The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation of 1589, with a much expanded second edition in three volumes published in 1598-1600. Hakluyt worked as collector, translator and editor of first-hand accounts of these voyages. His case for the future of English navigation was that it already had a distinguished past.

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Title-page to the first edition of Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, 1589.

Even before entering Oxford, Hakluyt was linking his academic ambition with his public vocation for geography. A brief introduction to the subject as a boy by his cousin, ‘… took in me so deepe an impression, that I constantly resolved, if ever I were preferred to the University, where better time and more convenient place might be ministered for these studies, I would by Gods assistance prosecute that knowledge and kinde of literature’. Hakluyt achieved his goal – ‘the doores’, as he put it, ‘were so happily opened before me’ – when he entered Christ Church as a Queen’s Scholar, taking his BA in 1574 and MA in 1577, and staying there as a scholar (meaning a fellow) until 1586.

During this period he gave university lectures in geography. It is characteristic of Hakluyt that his lectures were offered ‘in the common schooles’, this is, to the University rather than in his college, and so in the most public forum available to him. These were the first lectures in geography given to the University. This was long before students were invited to record their satisfaction with their lecturers but Hakluyt himself reported that his lectures were delivered ‘to the singular pleasure, and generall contentment of my auditory’.

After Oxford, Hakluyt pursued a modest career as a clergyman, while devoting his energies to his publications, which included over 25 travel books. He was almost exclusively a traveller of the ‘armchair’ variety, his only period abroad being as chaplain to the English ambassador in Paris, 1583-8. His interests, however, were global and he searched for sources as widely and energetically as he could. His records of voyages ranged from the 4th century to the adventures of Elizabethan seamen such as Drake and Cavendish. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1616, while his Principal Navigations have reappeared in a variety of editions down the years. Certainly the most ambitious of these is the 14-volume critical edition currently in preparation for Oxford University Press. At a much more modest level, an abridged version appeared in Penguin Classics in 1972 and is still in print.

Like Richard Hakluyt himself, the society founded in his name in 1846 has had strong Oxford connections. It is named after Hakluyt, not because it is devoted to his life and work, but because it follows his example by publishing original accounts of voyages and travels. It too publishes in English, translated where necessary, but an important difference from Hakluyt is that its texts are not confined to English travellers; instead it sees it as a virtue that its sources are completely international. The founding meeting at the London Library resolved on a society ‘for the purpose of printing, for distribution among its Members, the most rare and valuable Voyages, Travels, and Geographical Records’. For an annual subscription of one guinea, members would receive ‘without further charge, a Copy of every Work produced by the Society within the Year subscribed for.’ The model has not altered in its essentials, in spite of all the changes in publication and printing since then. The original emblem, a representation of Magellan’s ship, Victoria, has also been maintained.

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The Hakluyt Society logo, Magellan’s ship Victoria.

One change is the subscription, but at £60, as currently, it is just over half today’s equivalent of the original guinea.

The Society’s output has become more academic over the years, with the scholarship vested in the editorial work becoming more rigorous, while the production quality of the volumes has been upheld. The profile of the ‘provisional’ Council appointed in 1846 was also less academically oriented, with a greater proportion of what were known as ‘men of affairs’ – a concept that survives in living memory on Council, even though it has long disappeared from word and deed in the operation of the Society, where women outnumber men among the officers.

Thus the provisional Council contained military officers, including a Rear-Admiral and a Major General, along with merchants, travellers and scientists. The first President was the famous geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, who went from school to military college and on to service in the army. Distinguished Oxonians were the historian Henry Hart Milman, author of a memorable winning entry for the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, who later became dean of St Paul’s, and Sir Henry Ellis, who began his career at the Bodleian and rose to be Principal Librarian at the British Museum. Charles Darwin (no Oxonian he) was also on the Council but apparently never attended, while an early member of the Society was Charles Dickens (nor he), who maintained his subscription for many years.

The second President was the lawyer and politician Sir David Dundas, who had gone to Christ Church and been elected a student there in 1820. With J.N.L. Baker (generally referred to by his initials), President 1955-60, we can bring the City of Oxford into the story. He spent the great bulk of his working life in Oxford, interrupted by war, when he was wounded at the Somme and in WW2 worked in intelligence. His institutional affiliations were with the Department of Geography and with Jesus College (where a prize in Geography is still awarded in his name), but he also became an alderman of the city and in 1964 the first University member of the City Council to become Lord Mayor of Oxford.

Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, the distinguished civil servant and diplomat, had come from school in Ireland to a scholarship and then a fellowship at Trinity College. He presided over the Society from 1964 to 69. One of more memorable presidents was certainly the editor and bibliophile Esmond Samuel de Beer. Born in New Zealand and benefitting from the wealth of the family clothing business, he read history at New College from 1914, his studies also being interrupted by war service. He worked as an editor for the Clarendon Press and many scholars have consulted his multi-volume editions of the diary of John Evelyn and of the correspondence of Thomas Hobbes. The Library of the University of Otago in New Zealand mounted an exhibition in 2017 of Hakluyt Society volumes presented by de Beer. The online version, Intrepid Journeys, is an excellent introduction to the Society.

A story about de Beer survives in the Hakluyt Society today. One of the responsibilities of the president is to receive an advance copy of each volume, a sample from the entire print-run waiting in the warehouse for his or her approval, which will trigger distribution to members throughout the world. It is a daunting moment. The story is that during de Beer’s presidency, his standards were so exacting that no volume was ever published. In preparing this article, I checked the relevant period, 1972-78, and there was indeed a significant gap, which the Society had to resolve by distributing the volumes once he had retired.

So, if we look only at the presidents of the Society (I will spare readers an analysis of the other officers) it is clear already that Oxford has made a major contribution to the story of the Hakluyt Society. For a three-in-a-row hat trick, however, we have to come up to the present. Professor Will Ryan, the distinguished Russianist of the Warburg Institute, was an undergraduate and D.Phil student at Oriel and also served as Assistant Curator at the Museum of the History of Science. He was Hakluyt Society President, 2008-11, to be followed by Captain Michael Barritt RN, former Hydrographer of the Navy, who was President until 2016, when I took over from him. Captain Barritt had read Modern History at Pembroke.

The year 2016 was a significant one for quite different reasons. It was the 400th anniversary of the death of Richard Hakluyt and the occasion was marked mainly, and appropriately, in Oxford. There were two exhibitions – at Christ Church and at the Bodleian – as well as seminars, public lectures and a two-day international conference. A small book based on some of these events, Hakluyt & Oxford, was edited by Anthony Payne and published by the Society.

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Cover of Hakluyt & Oxford, 2017.

Another way to encounter Oxonians – historical examples – in the orbit of the Hakluyt Society is to consult the published volumes, now numbering some 370. Here we find the lives and records of Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Robert Dudley, Robert Harcourt, Edmond Halley, the merchant Robert Bargrave, Sir Thomas Roe, Sir Joseph Banks, James Rochfort Maguire and doubtless others I have failed to note.

We might not expect to find Oxford itself figuring in any of the voyages and travels, but the diary of Richard Madox, Fellow of All Souls (published by the Hakluyt Society ‘for 1974’, presumably having been delayed by de Beer’s scruples) is an account of a voyage that begins with his winding up his affairs in Oxford, where he had become University Proctor. Recommended for the task by the Chancellor of the University, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Madox was to sail as chaplain on Edward Fenton’s expedition headed for the Moluccas in 1582. This attempt to establish a spice trade would fail and Madox himself would not return.

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Cover of the Hakluyt Society edition of the diary of Richard Madox.

The diary opens on Monday 1 January 1582 with Madox in Wolverhampton, where his niece is born at 3 a.m. and he christens her ‘Katherin’ at evensong the same day. By Friday he has ridden to Oxford, where he begins a round of dining and supping with friends at different colleges and hostelries, and where he marks Epiphany on 6th with wassailing (carol singing) after supper. On the following evening he is having supper with friends at Lincoln College and they decide to go ‘clubbing’ on Monday 8th.

What took place was clearly well understood by those involved, but it seems that Madox’s diary is the only surviving record of this lively tradition: ‘we went a clubbyng owt of al howses in the town, some, abowt 400, with drome, bagpipe and other melody.’ This was followed at night by a torchlit assembly at University College and the exchange of orations and garlands, and a march to Carfax, where a representative of Baliol gave an oration with the exchange of ‘clubs’ of holly and ivy. Then on to the gate of Trinity and further exchanges of orations, followed by supper in the President’s lodge and a performance of Ariosto’s play I Suppositi in hall – ‘indifferently’, thought Madox. The following day he was again dining and supping at Lincoln. The account surely reads as oddly to today’s Hakluyt Society members as would some ceremony Madox might have witnessed in the Moluccas, had he made it there.

There followed a fortnight in London and business in preparation for the voyage. He stayed with some friends at the Crown in Uxbridge on the way back – ‘We wer myrry together’ – and in Oxford took up his convivial habits of eating at different colleges for a few more weeks, interspersed with other treats: ‘I went to Tytimans and eat fresh sprats and muskels’ … ‘Slater, Davis and I walked to Wolvercot and had cyder at Besse Jenyns.’ There was even some more clubbing one Sunday: ‘We had musycians and went up with them and 20 clubs to Carfox’. Such, we may surmise, are the obligations of the University Proctor.

We may end with a moment from that fortnight in London. Madox was interviewed by Sir Francis Drake and by Alderman Barne, Governor of the Muscovy Company, who wanted to know how much he would expect to be paid for his services on the expedition: ‘my Lord demaunded what I wold aske.’ I believe such negotiations can happen nowadays with Oxford appointments, though no such question was asked of me. The response from Madox was delightful:

I answered that I sowght not gayn but was glad to serve my cuntrey or ther hororable howse or my Lord and therfor wold refer my self to them which knew better than my self what was fit for me.

Potential appointees to positions in Oxford today might care to note that this went down very well with the panel and they made him an exceptionally generous allowance.


Professor Jim Bennett is President of the Hakluyt Society and former Director of the History of Science Museum, University of Oxford, a position which he held for 18 years.