During his lifetime, Izaak Walton was best known as the biographer of leading Anglican clergymen and writers. His main profession was as a linen draper and his favorite pastime was angling.
But there was another, secretive and adventurous side to his character, about which he seems never to have written a word – at least none that has survived.
As a devout member of the Church of England, baptised at St Mary’s, Stafford, he sided during the Civil War with King Charles I. Royalists were not all fanatical supporters of everything the King had done. Many thought he had made serious mistakes – although they remained loyal, fearing that the alternative to royal authority was far worse.
After the king had been beheaded in January 1649 by sentence of a court which had no legal authority, Royalists regarded his eldest son as King Charles II by hereditary right. In practice, Charles II would not rule as king for more than eleven years.
Charles landed in Scotland in 1651 and, having been crowned King of Scots at Scone, led a Scottish army into England to reclaim his throne. He was defeated at the Battle of Worcester on September 3rd of that year and fled to the Continent.
The fugitive monarch found refuge in several parts of southern Staffordshire. Most famously, he hid from the Parliamentarian troops searching for him in an oak tree in the ground of Boscobel House on the border with Shropshire.
Disguised as a manservant to a Miss Jane Lane, of Bentley, near Wolverhampton, he made his way to Bristol. But first je had to rid himself of a magnificent jewel of the Order of the Garter, the premier English order of chivalry to this day.
The Lesser George, as this medallion is still known, is now worn from the kingfisher blue ribbon of the Garter which passes over the left shoulder of Knights or Ladies of the Garter, with the medallion hanging at the right hip.
King Charles II himself introduced this style of wearing the insignia after his Restoration in 1660. But at the time of his escape from the Parliamentarians, it more usually hung from a smaller ribbon on the breast.
Today, the Lesser George is usually a plain medallion of gold embossed with the figure of St George, the patron of the Order, on horseback and slaying the legendary dragon. But previously, Knights of the Garter had been allowed to wear much more elaborate versions of the jewel.
The antiquarian Elias Ashmole, Windsor Herald and founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, was a friend of Walton. This is how he describes what happened to King Charles II’s Lesser George in his History of the Order of the Garter, first published in 1672:
“The George King Charles I had at his martyrdom was curiously engraved on an onyx and set about with 21 large table diamonds in the fashion of a Garter/ On the reverse of the said George was the picture of the Queen set in a case of gold.
“…that of King Charles II (was) also set with fair diamonds and after the defeat of the Scotch forces at Worcester was strangely preserved by Colonel Blague, one of the king’s dispersed attendants, who resigned it for safety to the wife of Mr George Barlow of Blore Pipe House in Staffordshire. Robert Milward Esquire received it and gave it into the hands of Mr Isaac Walton (all loyalists). It came again into the possession of Colonel Blague, then a prisoner in the Tower, who making his escape, then restored it to King Charles II.”
Dr Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire, published in 1686 after Walton’s death, gives a slightly different version of the tale:
“The Duke of Buckingham, Lord Leviston, Colonel Blague, Mr Marmaduke Darcy and Mr Hugh May likewise found great fidelity in Blore Park whither they betook themselves by a by-way after they had quitted their horses and received refreshment at an obscure house of Mr George Barlow’s…only Colonel Blague remained at Mr Barlow’s house at Blore Pipe where with Mr Barlow’s privity and advice he hid His Majesty’s George under a heap of dust and chips, whence it was conveyed through the trust hands of Mr Robert Milward of Stafford who conveyed it to Mr Isaac Walton who conveyed it to London to Colonel Blague then in the Tower; whence escaping not long after, he carried it with him overseas and restored it to His Majesty’s own hands.”
Elias Ashmole was a friend of Walton and is mentioned in The Compleat Angler. Robert Milward was a lawyer who witnessed several of Walton’s property transactions and was rewarded with judicial office after the Restoration.
What we learn from these versions of the story, which do not conflict in any material point, is how far Royalists were prepared to risk their own lives to help the fugitive King Charles II. The so-called Parliament had put a bounty of £1,000 ( a huge sum at the time) on the King’s head. Anyone caught supporting him in even an indirect way could expect to be punished with imprisonment if not death.
One can only speculate what modern readers would make of a tale of part of the Crown Jewels being hidden in a remote Staffordshire farmyard under a pile of sawdust. https://assets.tumblr.com/assets/html/like_iframe.html?_v=66c22ab5319d742bca5762b8d18f9d06#name=isaakwalton&post_id=138985910962&color=black&rk=UekM8c4n
Izaak Walton (1593-1683) is best known today as the author of The Compleat Angler, a book which defies accurate description but is usually regarded as a fishing manual. In truth, Walton had a much more profound message to convey.
This message, hidden because of the turbulent times in which he lived, is all the more moving if one knows something of his life story. Annoyingly, the founding father of English biography left us scant details of his own life. They have to be gleaned from other sources.
Walton’s date of birth is not recorded. Traditionally, it is celebrated with a dignified little wreath-laying ceremony at the Collegiate Church of St Mary on the Sunday nearest to August 9th, the day on which he began writing his will in 1683 (“in the ninetieth year of my age”).
Read correctly, this phrase from the opening clause of his will means that he had not yet reached his 90th birthday. But the parish register of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Stafford, records that he was baptised on September 21st, 1683.
So he must have been born during the six weeks between these two dates.
His place of birth is a complete mystery. Tradition says he was born in a house in Eastgate Street where the police station now stands, bearing a bronze black to commemorate him. However, no documentary evidence exists to support this tradition and other birthplaces (even more spurious) were being advanced by the late 19th century.
His father, Jervis, was a “tippler” – an upmarket alehouse keeper. The parish register of St Mary’s records that Jervis died in February 1597, when Izaak was three years old, and that his mother, Anne, married Henry Bourne, another innkeeper who took over the Swan Inn in 1610.
Nor do we know anything about young Izaak’s education, except that he must have had one. Possibly he attended the grammar school which was then held in St Bertelin’s Chapel, west of St Mary’s Church. Again, no written record survives.
By 1511, Walton was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Thomas Grinsell as a linen-draper in London. This he was learning a luxury trade and the independent business he opened in 1624 on the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane made him a modestly prosperous man.
In 1518, Walton was admitted as a member of the Ironmongers’ Company, one of the twelve major livery companies of London, and he later became a senior member and office-holder. This explains why he has sometimes been erroneously described as an ironmonger by trade.
Fleet Street lay in the parish of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West, where the vicar was John Donne, poet and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Walton served as verger and churchwarden of St Dunstan’s and the two men became close friends. Done was to be the subject of Walton’s first biography, published in 1640.
In 1626, Walton married Rachel Floud, great-great-niece of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the Book of Common Prayer, who was burned at the stake under Queen Mary I. They had seven children, all of whom died in infancy, and Rachel herself died in 1640
By 1644, Walton had retired from business and moved to Clerkenwell, just north of the City, until about 1655. In 1647, he married Anne Ken, whose half-brother later became Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, the author of several still popular hymns.
Anne bore him three more children, of whom a son, Isaac, became a canon of Salisbury Cathedral. His daughter, Anne, married Dr William Hawkins, a prebendary canon of Winchester Cathedral and their son, John, married Anne Wettenhall.
She was the granddaughter of Captain Richard Sneyd, the owner of the High House in Stafford who entertained King Charles I when he visited Stafford in September 1642, early in the Civil War. This may be the origin of the otherwise groundless 19th century tradition that Izaak “resided many years” in the High House. Another son died in childhood.
As a devout Anglican, the Civil War and Commonwealth were uncongenial years for Walton. King Charles I was beheaded in January 1649 and Parliament banned the Prayer Book Walton loved.
King Charles II failed to defeat the Parliamentarian army at the Battle of Worcester in 1643 and fled the country. His supporters had hidden the King’s Lesser George, a golden and diamond jewel of the Order of the Garter, at a farm in Blore Pipe on the banks of the River Sow beyond Eccleshall, in order to prevent its fugitive owner being identified.
Walton secretly received the jewel from its hiding place and delivered it to a Royalist prisoner in the Tower of London. The prisoner duly escaped and returned it to the King in exile on the Continent.
Had Walton been discovered taking part in this adventure, he could easily have been imprisoned or put to death.
Walton spent much of the Commonwealth period staying with friends at country houses in Staffordshire, including Hilcote Hall, outside Eccleshall. This was the home of Walter Noel, from whom he bought Halfhead Farm, near Shallowford, in 1655.
A fishing companion Walton mentioned in The Compleat Angler, Robert Roe, lived at nearby Worston and lent him the money to buy this property. The mortgage deeds are now in the Staffordshire Record Office.
Shallowford, Halfhead and Worston all lie on the Meece Brook, a tributary of the River Sow, which was then known as Shawford Brook, Shawford being an alternative spelling of Shallowford.
In a poem called The Angler’s Wish, first published in the third edition of The Compleat Angler in 1661, Walton refers to spending “long days by Shawford Brook” with his fishing rod. It seems likely that he actually did this.
No evidence exists that Walton actually lived at Halfhead Farm. He seems to have regarded the farm, one of several tenanted properties he owned, as an investment. The theory that he was born there can be dismissed as nonsense, as can the equally far-fetched idea that he was born at the High House.
It was during the early years of the Commonwealth that Walton wrote The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. Revised five times during his lifetime, it was subtitled “a discourse on rivers, fishponds, fish and fishing.”
It was really a plea for tolerance and moderation in matters of conscience – virtues which were in short supply at the time. Such a book could never have been published openly under the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell – hence the fishing manual disguise.
The Restoration of the monarchy in May 1660 greatly improved Walton’s fortunes. His friend Dr George Morley was appointed Bishop of Worcester and he appointed Walton as his steward or business agent. Walton moved to Worcester with his second wife who died there and was buried in the cathedral in 1662.
Also in that year, Morley was translated to Winchester, the fifth most senior bishopric in the Church of England, and the Book of Common Prayer was reinstated with minor amendments.
It was now that Walton wrote his Lives of distinguished clergymen, the works for which he was best known during his lifetime. The biography of Richard Hooker, the earliest exponent of a distinctive Anglican theology, appeared in 1665. That of the poet George Herbert appeared in 1670 and that of Bishop Robert Sanderson of Lincoln in 1678.
The Lives of John Donne and Sir Henry Wootton, provost of Eton College, had already been published in 1640 and 1651 respectively. A collected book of Lives, without that of Bishop Sanderson, appeared in 1675.
Walton was one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, biographers in the English language. Previously, biographies had been reserved for kings and saints.
Izaak Walton died aged 90 on December 15th, 1683, at his daughter’s home in Winchester, during the Great Frost, probably the harshest winter in English recorded history. He was buried in Prior Silkstead’s crypt chapel beneath Winchester Cathedral.
He had lived through the reigns of four monarchs and a republic, the Gunpowder Plot, the beheadings of Archbishop William Laud and King Charles I, the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell and the restored King Charles II’s failed attempt to allow religious tolerance for Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters.
In his will, he left Halfhead Farm as a charitable bequest to the Corporation of Stafford, the town of his birth. A cottage there is now an angling museum.
He also left us one of the world’s most popular works of literature. He would be humbled to know that The Compleat Angler has been published in over 450 editions and many languages, second only to The Holy Bible.