The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 9. Sir William Monson

The literary remains of Sir William Monson—his Naval Tracts—enable us to appreciate the outlook of an officer who was a contemporary of Drake, but who lived until after the outbreak of the civil war. Monson was a sea officer of some distinction and strong character, and also a critic of naval affairs. His literary memorials and tracts, originally brought to notice in the Churchill collection of voyages, 1732, are now being made known both to history and to literature in the publications of the Navy Records Society. Monson became a student at Balliol college in 1581, and ran away to sea. He rose rapidly, was Essex’s flag captain at Cadiz and accompanied him in the Islands voyage of 1597. He was not concerned in any great events, but was imprisoned in the Tower in relation to the Overbury case. His writings are divided into six books, and he states that it is his purpose to describe the acts and enterprises of Englishmen at sea, in the first two books; to deal with the office of lord high admiral and other officers, and the duties of seamen, in the third; to touch upon the voyages and conquests of the Spaniards and Portuguese, in the fourth; to handle certain projects, in the fifth; and to discover the benefits of fishing on the coasts, in the sixth. He borrowed largely from Hakluyt and Purchas, but had no intention of dealing with history or narrative. His object was to apply lessons to be learned from certain facts in the past as warnings for the future, and he appears to have been the first English seaman to make a critical examination of the work of seamen afloat in his own time, as well as of that of some of his predecessors and successors at sea. As a strategical writer, he cannot rank with Ralegh or Essex, but his opinions have value as embodying the views of a vigilant, sagacious and thinking officer; and, in the dedication of two books to his two sons, he seems, almost, to anticipate Chesterfield. There was nothing in him of high imagination, little of generous sympathy or enthusiasm and, apparently, not much of the hard, fighting quality. The old writer who introduces Monson in a preface states that, with respect to the roughness which characterises his language, it should be remembered that Monson had “spent most of his time at sea,” and that his language had been formed, as it were, in Elizabeth’s day, and not in the refinement “of our time,” i.e. of the Stewarts. In the dedication of the first book to his eldest son, the young man is counselled to seek the ways of peace and not to be deceived by the glamour of the soldier’s glory. Wars by land and sea, says Monson, are always accompanied by everlasting danger and disasters, and are seldom times rewarded.

  • For one soldier that liveth to enjoy that preferment which becomes his right by antiquity of service, ten thousand fall by the sword or other casualties; and if you compare that computation with any other calling or profession, you will find much difference and the danger not so great.
  • Moreover, though arms have always been esteemed, they have in part been subject to jealousies and envy.
  • Compare the estate and advancement of soldiers of our time but with the mean and mercenary lawyer, and you shall find so great a difference that I had rather you should become prentice to the one than make profession of the other.
  • There is also an epistle dedicatory to the gentlemen who were the author’s intimate friends, and a farewell to the same. In the latter, Monson again utters a warning “that you beware of adventuring yourself and estates upon sea journeys.” They might perceive by his observations what peril such journeys brought without profit, and what pains without preferment:
  • For there are few, if you will enter into particulars, whose employment has gained them advantage; as to the contrary many are brought to want and misery by them.… The miserable gentlemen that undertook such enterprises for gain, to recover their spent and consumed estates, were Cavendish, Chidley, Manby, Cocke, with many others I could name, whose funerals were all made in the bottomless sea, and their lands turned into the element of water.
  • These, perhaps, were Monson’s later reflections, or not, at least, his general and customary ideas. Certainly, elsewhere, he glories in our conquests and victories, both on sea and on land.