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Welcome to Episode 208 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

John Taylor is a poet contemporary to Shakespeare, but with a decidedly unique approach to the writing profession. John Taylor trained professionally as a waterman, or a river worker who taxied passengers to and from city destinations on the rivers like the River Thames in London. John Taylor used his occupation as a waterman to talk with the various playwrights, actors, and patrons while they were on the boat with him between destinations. Over the years, John Taylor used what he learned from these conversations to craft himself into a poet with the purpose of re-inventing the unglamorous and ridiculed 16th century opinion of the profession of waterman into a more glorified occupation by naming himself The Water Poet. Taylor’s work did manage to earn him a position of leadership in a waterman’s guild, and he would write elegies for not only James I, but John Taylor was the first person to write about the death of William Shakespeare, when he wrote a poem mentioning the bard in 1620. Here today to tell us about the life and exploits of this unique character from the life of William Shakespeare is our guest, Bernard Capp.

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Bernard Capp was born 1943 at Leicester, England, and educated at Oxford 1962-8. Capp taught in the History Dept of the University of Warwick for 52 years, 1968-2020 and is now Emeritus Professor of History there. He is also a Fellow of the British Academy and has published seven books on early modern English history, mainly with OUP, with an 8th coming out next year on ‘British Slaves and Barbary Corsairs‘, along with numerous articles and essays. He wrote a biography of John Taylor available from Oxford University Press.

I'll be asking Bernard Capp About:

  • What was a waterman’s station in society? Were they considered high class individuals? Was this job held in high esteem, let’s say?
  • How did John Taylor come to be on an expedition with the Earl of Essex? 
  • We know John Taylor held a leadership position with the King’s Watermen under James I, but what was the purpose of the King having his own watermen and did his involvement in this company mean that John Taylor had direct access to the King?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Bernard Capp recommends:

From Bernard Capp directly:

The most important [resources] are my monograph on John Taylor, and the entry I did on him in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Only your college viewers are likely to be able to access these, but Wikipedia has a reasonable entry on him, mainly drawn from my book. John Chandler, ed., John Taylor: Travels and Travelling 1616-1653 (2020) reprints many of his travel pamphlets.

Note from Cassidy: The most extensive (and perhaps only?) biography on John Taylor is Bernard's work, John Taylor the Water Poet, which you can find on amazon or several places online. Digital copies are restricted to university logins, but you can get a copy to borrow and read from your local library.

Other resources Cassidy thought you might like to see:

Laurie Ellinghausen talks about John Taylor in Chapter 4 of Labor and writing in early modern England, 1567-1667

Emmanuel Sampath Nelson talks about John Taylor in The Age of MiltonAn Encyclopedia of Major 17th-century British and American Authors

John Foxe and His World By Christopher Highley, John N. King · 2017

Literature and Class From the Peasants’ Revolt to the French Revolution By Andrew Hadfield · 2021 | Note: Andrew Hadfield has written numerous books on Shakespeare's history. Check out his author's list on Google Books here

The Country and the City Revisited England and the Politics of Culture, 1550-1850,1999, by Donna Landry, Gerald MacLean, Joseph P. Ward, Raymond Williams


“Light boats sail swift, though greater hulks draw deep.”

— Agamemnon, Troilus and Cressida (II.3)

The Doggett's Coat and Badge, the oldest rowing race in the world, sees apprentice watermen competing on the River Thames. Above painting by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827). | Public Domain | Source

Becoming a Waterman

John Taylor's parents aren't known because the records of his birth were destroyed during the English Civil War. However, we do know that he did not finish school, apparently due to a distaste (or perhaps lack of skill?) with Latin. (Source: Capp, Bernard (1994). The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578–1653. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780191675959.)

After he dropped out of school, he went to London to apprentice as a waterman. Watermen are basically the early modern equivalent of a taxi driver, except on the water. While the profession did have its' own guild and the King himself employed his own set of waterman, nevertheless, the profession was considered low-brow. As Bernard explains:

…it was quite a low station occupation. They were notorious for being loud, quarrelsome, rough/ready and sometimes drunk. They had strong opinions and were opinionated and would hold forth to their passengers that opinion. The equivalent today would be like taxi drivers of cab drivers today, with a similar culture of being independent. 


“Come, down into the boat.”

— Pompey, Antony and Cleopatra (II.7)

English troops storm the Spanish positions at the Capture of Cádiz. | From p. 57 of the 1873 book British Battles on Land and Sea, volume 1. Uploaded by the British library to Flickr here. Cropped. | This file is from the Mechanical Curator collection, a set of over 1 million images scanned from out-of-copyright books and released to Flickr Commons by the British Library. | Public Domain | Source

John Taylor, the Water Poet

It's a curious dichotomy, to my mind, that a man who apprentices as a waterman decides to go into poetry. I have to guess that he wanted to advance his station, without (it seems) giving up his career as a waterman to pursue poetry. He self-styled himself as The Water Poet, and according to Bernard, used his exposure to the nobility that travelled on his boat as inspiration (and perhaps a captive audience) for his literary work:

He did have much education, left school at 11-12, moved to London at that point. He knew that poetry was not really a profession that brought in much in the way of money, so it was hard to make a career as a professional poet. You could only hope to do it if you were under the patronage of the King or the nobility. There was not much chance for him given his status and background. He could have done ballads but he wanted ot be taken as a serious poet. When he was on his row boat, he'd met writers and actors and people going to the playhouses, and he always liked reading, he tells us that he suddenly got an itch to try writing himself. Discovered he had a natural talent and it took off from there. The novelty of the waterman writing poetry that helped launch him. His first piece was called the Skuller, (another word for rower or oarsman) and he writes about how is making that transition from boatman to poet. 


“That when the sea was calm all boats alike Show'd mastership in floating; fortune's blows,When most struck home, being gentle wounded, craves, A noble cunning:”

— Coriolanus, Coriolanus (IV.3)

Portrait engraved by Thomas Cockson of John Taylor, the Water Poet, from the frontispiece of his 1630 poetry anthology | All the Workes of John Taylor the Water Poet frontispiece | 1630, Public Domain | Source

Serving the King

As a waterman, John Taylor part of the Waterman’s Company. Throughout the 1590s, England was at war with Spain (remember the Spanish Armada invasion of 1588?) and most of the war was fought at sea. As a waterman, specifically, John Taylor was first in line when the King went looking for crew to help serve on the naval ships. Bernard explains:

When the King set out naval expedition against Spain, they would draft or dragoon, literally hundreds of waterman to help crew the naval warships. It was on that basis that he was drafted into the navy for a couple of expeditions, 1596 against Cadiz in Spain and another on the following years in the Azores. It was before he was writing, so we don’t know much in the way of his adventures in war. 


“Launce, away, away, aboard! thy master is shipped and thou art to post after with oars. What's the matter? why weepest thou, man? Away, ass! You'll lose the tide, if you tarry any longer.”

— Panthino Two Gentlemen of Verona (II.3)

Bremen in the 16th century. (1564, the year Shakespeare was born) Oldest preserved view of the city of Bremen. Woodcut by Hans Weigel (Nuremberg) from the year 1564, based on a drawing by Meister M. W. (master M. W.). | Shows a waterman on a row boat at the bottom center-right | Rudolf Stein: Das vergangene Bremen – Der Stadtplan und die Stadtansicht im Wechsel der Jahrhunderte. Verlag Hauschild, Bremen 1961 | Public Domain | Source

Leader in the King's Waterman

John Taylor held a leadership position with the King’s Watermen under James I, but despite serving as transportation for the King and his court, this position did not afford John Taylor the clout he may have desired. Particularly when it came to proposing objections against the London playing companies that wanted to relocate their theaters in 1613.

The king and royal family do sometimes travel on the water and on the Thames, they had a royal barge. They would need a dozen or so, or 20 oarsman to row the barge. The watermen were a rough breed so the King would want rowers that were respectable and reliable, not drunk, and Taylor was considered one of these. He was recognized by his passengers (fringe courtiers and so forth) relatively polite and clearly very intelligent which got him recommended as one of the King’s watermen. It wasn’t futile, as the King wasn’t always traveling by barge. There was an annual fee, and you got a royal uniform, and you were called up when the King needed to travel. 


“The pleasant'st angling is to see the fish, Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,”

— Ursula, Much Ado About Nothing (III.1)

Screenshot of the title page of John Taylor's contestation against the relocating of players to the Northbank of London. This move meant that the watermen had substantially less business, with Londoners no longer needing to get across the Thames to see a play. | You can read the entire petition online at Google Books. It is included in a collection of John Taylor's works, but if you search for “True Case” it will navigate you to the right place. | Source

Contesting the Playhouses

In 1612, the playhouses moved from the Southbank to the Northbank of the Thames in London. The watermen, spearheaded by John Taylor, vehemently opposed the move as a direct affront to their way of life:

It was a huge blow to all the watermen. The playhouses were in Southwark, attracting thousands of customers that travelled there by water. When the playhouses moved to North London, all of that business disappeared. They weren’t totally ruined because there were up and down destinations (Whitehall and Westminster, etc) but even so, it was a big blow to their trade. The South bank did live on as a popular center, the theaters had gone, but there were things like bear baiting episodes, fencing matches, and the red light district was on the Southbank because it was outside the authority of the Lord Mayor of London, which meant it was more free and easy. The London population was growing at a huge rate at this period, which doubled in size, so even if people were not going to the theaters there, just routine of people crossing over to the banks was growing and helped compensate for the change with the loss of theaters.

Large Sailing Vessel and Rowing Boat, print, Reinier Nooms, called Zeeman (MET, 26.72.192) | You can see men manning the oars of a row boat in the bottom right. | 17th Century, This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy | Public Domain | Source

Walk to Scotland

John Taylor's life is marked by rampant attempts to advance his own reputation, often by undertaking elaborate stunts (and then writing about them) to bring notoriety to his name. One such attempt was made when he decided he would walk to Scotland, without any provisions, and rely only on the good nature of people along the way for his food and housing. (Neither of which did he intend to ask for, but only to wait on it to be offered.)

John Taylor applied something of an early modern Patreon approach to his journies, because he sought crowdfunding to finance them. In the case of his journey to Scotland, he sought contributions for his journey, promising to supporters that if they backed him, he would write about his travel and give them a copy. For the walk to Scotland, he secured over 1600 contributors who wanted to see if this waterman from London really could make it to Scotland, and back, alive, under these conditions.

Bernard explains,

He took a walk to Scotland the same year as Ben Jonson. The King had gone, Jonson went, and Taylor went as a kind of stunt. He walked to Scotland, and he didn’t take any money and he didn’t ask anyone for food or accommodation on the way. The gamble was that he was such a sociable and outgoing person that people he met on the road would get into conversation and end up giving him food or accommodation without him having to ask. If he survived and came back again he would write up the story of his adventures on the road and he persuaded a couple thousand people (courtiers and all sorts of people) to buy a copy of this work above the average price so he would make a profit.  

It appears that John Taylor was every bit as entrepreneurial as our friend, William Shakespeare, despite being at odds with playing companies of the time period.

The Battle of White Mountain by Peter Snayers (1592–1667) | The painting depicts the death of Geert Abramsz. van Houwelingen called “Lekkerbeetje” and the Battle of Flemish soliders against French at Vuchterheide near Hertogenbosch on 5th February 1600. | Public Domain | Source

Journalist to Prague

John Taylor, the Water Poet, is considered one of the first ever war correspondents because he travelled to Bohemia to report back to England what precisely was happening there. Again, this journey was considered dangerous and even outlandish, but by being willing to take such risks John Taylor was adding to his reputation.

The Thirty Years War broke out in 1618 and was fought over the throne of Bohemia. Bernard explains,

…a man called Frederick had just been elected King, and it was a strange elected monarchy, and while he was a good Protestant, he was married to King James’ daughter. The english volunteers went out to fight for Bohemia’s cause, and people are wondering what’s happening there. So Taylor decides to go all the way to Prague in Bohemia to find out what’s happening. It was quite a bold journey, as he didn’t speak foreign language or have easy means of transport. At one point his guide refuses to stay with him, and Taylor ends up pushing his belongings in a wheel barrow over a mountain pass. He met the King, Queen and Prince Rupert (who would go on to be important in the English Civil War). He makes it back to London and Taylor would be met by people wanting him to tell his stories. 

Useful links you might enjoy:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/90018453

https://www.google.com/books/edition/Works_of_John_Taylor_the_Water_Poet/7n5KAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=The%20True%20Cause%20of%20the%20Watermen's%20Suit%20taylor&pg=RA11-PA4&printsec=frontcover