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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Lord Keeper Coventry

  • [Thomas Coventry, born in Worcestershire, England, 1578; educated at Oxford; attorney-general, 1621; lord-keeper of the Great Seal, 1625; Baron Coventry, 1628; died 1639.]
  • The wooden walls of England.

  • In a speech to the judges, June 17, 1635, before they left London for the summer assizes, in which, defending “ship-money,” he spoke of the claim of Charles I. to the sovereignty of the sea as a purely defensive measure, the Lord Keeper said, “The dominion of the sea, as it is an ancient and undoubted right of the crown of England, so is it the best security of the land. The wooden walls are the best walls of this kingdom.”—GARDINER: History of England, viii. 79. In this he, perhaps unconsciously, followed John Huyghen van Linschoten, or rather the English translator of the Dutch traveller’s “Voyage to the East Indies.” In the preface of the first volume of this work, published in 1598, and reprinted by the Hakluyt Society in 1885, the translator (probably William Phillip), addressing his English readers, hopes that the translation “may work an increase of English honor, as it hath hitherto mightily advanced the Credit of the Realme by defending the same with our Wodden Walles (as Themistocles called the Ships of Athens).” The reference is to the oracle which Themistocles, according to Plutarch, often urged upon the Athenians, bidding them trust to their walls of wood, and telling them that “walls of wood” could signify nothing but ships. The words of the oracle were as follows: “While all things else are taken within the boundary of Cecrops, and the covert of divine Cithæron, Zeus grants to Athena that the wall of wood alone shall remain uncaptured; that shall keep thee and thy children.”—Life of Themistocles, note.
  • In his “Preface to the Reader,” van Linschoten tells the story of Anacharsis, who, asked whether the number of the dead was greater than that of the living, asked, “In which number do you reckon those that travel on the seas?” referring to the danger of death incurred by them; and Bias said that sailors upon the sea were always “within two inches of their death.” When Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I., was crossing the North Sea from Holland to Yorkshire, February, 1642, and the ship lay tossing on the waves during a nine-days’ storm, she comforted her attendants by assuring them that “Queens of England are never drowned.” But William Rufus said nearly the same thing in 1099, when about to cross from Southampton to Normandy, and the sailors entreated him not to put to sea “in an old crazy ship, when the wind was contrary, and the waves high: ‘I never heard of a king being drowned,’ cried Rufus: ‘make haste, loose your cables; you will see the elements join to obey me.’”—FREEMAN: Life of William Rufus, ii. 284, and note.