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A Description of Elizabethan England.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XI

Of Sundry Minerals and Metals

[1577, Book III., Chapters 16 and 18; 1587, Book III., Chapters 10 and 11.]

WITH how great benefits this island of ours hath been endued from the beginning I hope there is no godly man but will readily confess, and yield unto the Lord God his due honour for the same. For we are blessed every way, and there is no temporal commodity necessary to be had or craved by any nation at God’s hand that he hath not in most abundant manner bestowed upon us Englishmen, if we could see to use it, and be thankful for the same. But alas! (as I said in the chapter precedent) we love to enrich them that care not for us, but for our great commodities: and one trifling toy not worth the carriage, coming (as the proverb saith) in three ships from beyond the sea, is more worth with us than a right good jewel easy to be had at home. They have also the cast to teach us to neglect our own things; for, if they see that we begin to make any account of our commodities (if it be so that they have also the like in their own countries) they will suddenly abase the same to so low a price that our gain not being worthy our travel, and the same commodity with less cost ready to be had at home from other countries (though but for a while), it causeth us to give over our endeavours and as it were by-and-by to forget the matter whereabout we went before, to obtain them at their hands. And this is the only cause wherefore our commodities are oft so little esteemed of. Some of them can say, without any teacher, that they will buy the case of a fox of an Englishman for a groat, and make him afterwards give twelve pence for the tail. Would to God we might once wax wiser, and each one endeavour that the commonwealth of England may flourish again in her old rate, and that our commodities may be fully wrought at home (as cloth if you will for an example) and not carried out to be shorn and dressed abroad, while our clothworkers here do starve and beg their bread, and for lack of daily practice utterly neglect to be skilful in this science! But to my purpose.

We have in England great plenty of quicksilver, antimony, sulphur, black lead, and orpiment red and yellow. We have also the finest alum (wherein the diligence of one of the greatest favourers of the commonwealth of England of a subject hath been of late egregriousl abused, and even almost with barbarous incivility) and of no less force against fire, if it were used in our parietings, than that of Lipari, which only was in use sometime amongst the Asians and Romans and whereof Sylla had such trial that when he meant to have burned a tower of wood erected by Archelaus, the lieutenant of Mithridates, he could by no means set it on fire in a long time, because it was washed over with alum, as were also the gates of the temple of Jerusalem with like effect, and perceived when Titus commanded fire to be put unto the same. Besides this, we have also the natural cinnabarum or vermillion, the sulphurous glebe called bitumen in old time, for mortar, and yet burned in lamps where oil is scant and geson; the chrysocolla, copperas, and mineral stone, whereof petrolium is made, and that which is most strange, the mineral pearl, which as they are for greatness and colour most excellent of all other, so are they digged out of the main land and in sundry places far distant from the shore. Certes the western part of the land hath in times past greatly abounded with these and many other rare and excellent commodities, but now they are washed away by the violence of the sea, which hath devoured the greatest part of Cornwall and Devonshire on either side; and it doth appear yet by good record that, whereas now there is a great distance between the Scilly Isles and the point of the Land’s End, there was of late years to speak of scarcely a brook or drain of one fathom water between them, if so much, as by those evidences appeareth, and are yet to be seen in the hands of the lord and chief owner of those isles. But to proceed.

Of coal-mines we have such plenty in the north and western parts of our island as may suffice for all the realm of England; and so must they do hereafter indeed, if wood be not better cherished than it is at this present. And so say the truth, notwithstanding that very many of them are carried into other countries of the main, yet their greatest trade beginneth now to grow from the forge into the kitchen and hall, as may appear already in most cities and towns that lie about the coast, where they have but little other fuel except it be turf and hassock. I marvel not a little that there is no trade of these into Sussex and Southamptonshire, for want thereof the smiths do work their iron with charcoal. I think that far carriage be the only cause, which is but a slender excuse to enforce us to carry them into the main from hence.

Besides our coal-mines, we have pits in like sort of white plaster, and of fat and white and other coloured marble, wherewith in many places the inhabitors do compest their soil, and which doth benefit their land in ample manner for many years to come. We have sallpetre for our ordinance and salt soda for our glass, and thereto in one place a kind of earth (in Southery; as I ween, hard by Codington, and sometime in the tenure of one Croxton of London) which is so fine to make moulds for goldsmiths and casters of metal, that a load of it was worth five shillings thirty years ago; none such again they say in England. But whether there be or not, let us not be unthankful to God, for these and other his benefits bestowed upon us, whereby he sheweth himself a loving and merciful father unto us, which contrariwise return unto him in lieu of humility and obedience nothing but wickedness, avarice, mere contempt of his will, pride, excess, atheism, and no less than Jewish ingratitude.

All metals receive their beginning of quicksilver and sulphur, which are as mother and father to them. And such is the purpose of nature in their generations that she tendeth always to the procreation of gold; nevertheless she seldom reacheth unto that her end, because of the unequal mixture and proportion of these two in the substance engendered, whereby impediment and corruption is induced, which as it is more or less doth shew itself in the metal that is produced.…

And albeit that we have no such abundance of these (as some other countries do yield), yet have my rich countrymen store enough of both in their purses, where in time past they were wont to have least, because the garnishing of our churches, tabernacles, images, shrines, and apparel of the priests consumed the greatest part, as experience hath confirmed.

Of late my countrymen have found out I wot not what voyage into the West Indies, from whence they have brought some gold, whereby our country is enriched; but of all that ever adventured into those parts, none have sped better than Sir Francis Drake, whose success (1582) hath far passed even his own expectation. One John Frobisher in like manner, attempting to seek out a shorter cut by the northerly regions into the peaceable sea and kingdom of Cathay, happened (1577) upon certain islands by the way, wherein great plenty of much gold appeared, and so much that some letted not to give out for certainty that Solomon had his gold from thence, wherewith he builded the temple. This golden shew made him so desirous also of like success that he left off his former voyage and returned home to bring news of such things as he had seen. But, when after another voyage it was found to be but dross, he gave over both the enterprises, and now keepeth home without any desire at all to seek into far countries. In truth, such was the plenty of ore there seen and to be had that, if it had holden perfect, might have furnished all the world with abundance of that metal; the journey also was short and performed in four or five months, which was a notable encouragement. But to proceed.

Tin and lead, metals which Strabo noteth in his time to be carried unto Marsilis from hence, as Diodorus also confirmeth, are very plentiful with us, the one in cornwall, Devonshire, and elsewhere in the north, the other in Derbyshire, Weredale, and sundry places of this island; whereby my countrymen do reap no small commodity, but especially our pewterers, who in times past employed the use of pewter only upon dishes, pots, and a few other trifles for service here at home, whereas now they are grown unto such exquisite cunning that they can in manner imitate by infusion any form or fashion of cup, dish, salt bowl, or goblet, which is made by goldsmiths’ craft, though they be never so curious, exquisite, and artificially forged. Such furniture of household of this metal as we commonly call by the name of vessel is sold usually by the garnish, which doth contain twelve platters, twelve dishes, twelve saucers, and those are either of silver fashion or else with broad or narrow brims, and bought by the pound, which is now valued at six or seven pence, or peradventure at eight pence. Of porringers, pots, and other like, I speak not, albeit that in the making of all these things there is such exquisite diligence used, I mean for the mixture of the metal and true making of this commodity (by reason of sharp laws provided in that behalf), as the like is not to be found in any other trade. I have been also informed that it consisteth of a composition which hath thirty pounds of kettle brass to a thousand pounds of tin, whereunto they add three or four pounds of tin-glass; but as too much of this doth make the stuff brickle, so the more the brass be, the better is the pewter, and more profitable unto him that doth buy and purchase the same. But to proceed.

In some places beyond the sea a garnish of good flat English pewter of an ordinary making (I say flat, because dishes and platters in my time begin to be made deep like basins, and are indeed more convenient both for sauce, broth, and keeping the mest warm) is esteemed almost so precious as the like number of vessels that are made of fine silver, and in manner no less desired amongst the great estates, whose workmen are nothing so skilful in that trade as ours, neither their metal so good, nor plenty so great, as we have here in England. The Romans made excellent looking-glasses of our English tin, howbeit our workmen were not then so exquisite in that feat as the Brundusians, wherefore the wrought metal was carried over unto them by way of merchandise, and very highly were those glasses esteemed of till silver came generally in place, which in the end brought the tin into such contempt that in manner every dishwasher refused to look in other than silver glasses for the attiring of her head. Howbeit the making of silver glasses had been in use before Britain was known unto the Romans, for I read that one Praxiteles devised them in the young time of Pompey, which was before the coming of Cæsar into this island.

There were mines of lead sometimes also in Wales, which endured so long till the people had consumed all their wood by melting of the same (as they did also at Comeriswith, six miles from Stradfleur), and I supposed that in Plinly’s time the abundance of lead (whereof he speaketh) was to be found in those parts, in the seventeenth of his thirty-fourth book; also he affirmeth that it lay in the very sward of the earth, and daily gotten in such plenty that the Romans made a restraint of the carriage thereof to Rome, limiting how much should yearly be wrought and transported over the sea.

Iron is found in many places, as in Sussex, Kent, Weredale, Mendip, Walshall, as also in Shropshire, but chiefly in the woods betwixt Belvos and Willock (or Wicberry) near Manchester, and elsewhere in Wales. Of which mines divers do bring forth so fine and good stuff as any that cometh from beyond the sea, beside the infinite gains to the owners, if we would so accept it, or bestow a little more cost in the refining of it. It is also of such toughness, that it yieldeth to the making of claricord wire in some places of the realm. Nevertheless, it was better cheap with us when strangers only brought it hither; for it is our quality when we get any commodity to use it with extremity towards our own nation, after we have once found the means to shut out foreigners flom the bringing in of the like. It breedeth in like manner great expense and waste of wood, as doth the making of our pots and table vessels of glass, wherein is much loss, sith it is so quickly broken; and yet (as I think) easy to be made tougher, if our alchemists could once find the true birth or production of the red man, whose mixture would induce a metallic toughness unto it, whereby it should abide the hammer.

Copper is lately not found, but rather restored again to light. For I have read of copper to have been heretofore gotten in our island; howbeit as strangers have most commonly the governance of our mines, so they hitherto make small gains of this in hand in the north parts; for (as I am informed) the profit doth very hardly countervail the charges, whereat wise men do not a little marvel, considering the abundance which that mine doth seem to offer, and, as it were, at hand. Leland, our countryman, noteth sundry great likelihoods of natural copper mines to be eastwards, as between Dudman and Trewardth, in the sea cliffs, beside other places, whereof divers are noted here and there in sundry places of this book already, and therefore it shall be but in vain to repeat them here again. As for that which is gotten out of the marchasite, I speak not of it, sith it is not incident to my purpose. In Dorsetshire also a copper mine lately found is brought to good perfection.

As for our stoel, it is not so good for edge-tools as that of Cologne, and yet the one is often sold for the other, and like tale used in both, that is to say, thirty gads to the sheaf, and twelve sheaves to the burden.

Our alchemy is artificial, and thereof our spoons and some salts are commonly made and preferred before our pewter with some, albeit in truth it be much subject to corruption, putrefaction, more heavy and foul to handle than our pewter; yet some ignorant persons affirm it to be a metal more natural, and the very same which Encelius calleth plumbum cinereum, the Germans wisemute, mithan, and counterfeie, adding that where it groweth silver cannot be far off. Nevertheless it is known to be a mixture of brass, lead, and tin (of which this latter occupieth the one-half), but after another proportion than is used in pewter. But alas, I am persuaded that neither the old Arabians nor new alchemists of our time did ever hear of it, albeit that the name thereof do seem to come out of their forge. For the common sort indeed do call it alchemy, an unwholesome metal (God wot) and worthy to be banished and driven out of the land. And thus I conclude with this discourse, as having no more to say of the metals of my country, except I should talk of brass, bell metal, and such as are brought over for merchandise from other countries; and yet I cannot but say that there is some brass found also in England, but so small is the quantity that it is not greatly to be esteemed or accounted for.