Samuel Purchas, and his glorious collection of 17th century travel tales


In Xaindu did Cublai Can build a stately pallace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are sertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be remoued from place to place. Here he doth abide in the monethes of Iune, Iuly, and August, on the eight and twentith day where of, he departeth thence to another place to doe sacrifice on this maner. Hee hath a Herd or Droue of Horses and Mares, about ten thousand, as white as snow: Of the Milke where∣of none may taste, except he be of the bloud of Cingis Can.

(Extract from Purchas his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered from the Creation unto this Present)

This citation is of course hugely familiar…and yet, isn’t it quite different from how you recall it? That’s because it isn’t the beginning of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan but is an extract from a collection of travel writings (the Xaindu tale based on earlier reports by explorer Marco Polo) written and edited by one rather generous and creative soul called Samuel Purchas.

PURCHAS ONEColeridge famously recorded in the preface to his collection of poetry Sybilline Leaves (1816) that he had been reading Purchas’s exotic text and had fallen asleep with the words and images still casting vivid scenarios in his mind. He had also read another of Purchas’s collections, this one called Hakluyt’s Posthumus; or, Purchas, his Pilgrimes, in which a detailed description of the same Xanadu, the famous summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China, features:

A marvellous and artificial Palace of Marble and other stones… He included sixteen miles within the circuit of the wall… In this inclosure or Parke are goodly Meadowes, springs, rivers, red and fallow Deere, Fawnes carried thither for the Hawkes… In the middest in a faire Wood hee hath built a royall House on pillars gilded and varnished, on every of which is a Dragon all gilt, which windeth his tayle about the pillar, with his head bearing up the loft, as also with his wings displayed on both sides; the cover also is of Reeds gilt and varnished… The house itself may be sundred, and taken downe like a Tent and erected again. For it is sustained, when it is set up, with two hundred silken cords. 

So in 1797, in “a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton” in the West Country called Ash Farm, and after reading Purchas’s descriptions of Xaindu Coleridge then fell into an opium-induced deep three hour sleep “during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines” of a full poem appearing to him during the course of the psychedelic dream. He set to it immediately. Tragically, after only managing to transcribe a mere few lines he was jarringly interrupted by a sudden knock at the door.

This episode has become perhaps the most famous scriptus interruptus in all of literature; the moment when that now infamous “person of Porlock” (claimed by Richard Holmes, Coleridge’s biographer, to probably have been a physician bearing more of the opium the poet was known to have become accustomed to taking by this point) appeared at the door of Ash Farm, and this punctured the flow of the poet’s frantic transcriptions of his vivid Purchas-inspired dream poem. After spending about an hour with this “person of Porlock” Coleridge returned to his desk only to find that memory of the rest of the lines of the dream poem had significantly faded. Oh what could have been!

So who was the Samuel Purchas of this great inspiring exotica anyway? He was in fact the son of George and Ann Purchas, and was actually born right here in Thaxted. He was even baptised at the church on the 20th November, in the year of 1577. His father George was a yeoman, and both he and Ann were apparently upstanding parents since two of their children (including Samuel himself) were encouraged enough in their studies to graduate Cambridge. We also know they owned some land hereabouts, and that Samuel himself married a local woman called Jane, who outlived him.

purchas twoAfter graduating Cambridge Samuel Purchas was presented, in 1604, by James I, as Vicar at St. Laurence and All Saints, Eastwood, where he remained until 1614, at which point he was inducted Rector of St. Martin’s Ludgate. But it was, most significantly, during his time at Eastwood that his now famous work was done. Eastwood was then just two miles from Leigh On Sea, which was at the time a famously thriving British port already sending off many merchants engaging in foreign trade and, according to William Camden the antiquarian and topographer, the town was known to be “well stocked with lusty seamen”. For very good reasons, this was absolute manna for Samuel Purchas, whose clerical work was to form only a minor part of his creative life while based there.

The Leigh seafaring merchants were by now trading to all sorts of blossoming maritime centres including the big European stops in France, Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean, and also what was known then as the Barbary Coast (basically Mediterranean North Africa – Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and the Canaries), as well as in the East and West Indies.

In Eastwood then Purchas had the brilliant opportunity to meet several colourful master-mariners and travellers, many of whom were returning from voyages full of great stories and the exotica of far flung adventure, and only too ready and willing to have it all recorded for posterity. To the young Purchas these tales were simply irresistible and not surprisingly filled his mind with a wonder and inspiration that drove him to become the great recorder of 17th century travel that he is now recognised as. It really was incredible fortune that he was invited to Eastwood at that moment in time. All sorts of famous seafaring characters became his friends. John Vassall, for example, who had been to North Africa, was one such friend and neighbour, and his reports appear in Purchas’s work. His works were also, importantly, filled with many maps and beautiful illustrations of foreign flora and fauna.

Purchas’s first collection of tales from these early English navigators and explorers was Purchas, his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered from the Creation unto this Present which first appeared in 4 parts in 1613. This work took an Anglican world-view, and achieved great success soon after it was published, appearing in four more editions between the years of 1613 and 1626.

His next major work Microcosmus, or the Historie of Man. Relating the Wonders of his Generation, Vanities in his Degeneration, Necessities of his Regenerations, was published in 1619.

Purchas was very well read. “I have been indebted”, he recorded, “to above 2,000 authors of one or other kind, in I know not how many hundreds of their Treatises, Epistles, Relations and Histories of divers subjects and languages borrows by myselfe…” On top of this, he had been bequeathed a vast assortment of unedited texts pertaining to foreign travels given him by the English writer Richard Hakluyt upon the latter’s death. These texts formed the basis for Purchas’s third major work, Hakluyt’s Posthumus; or, Purchas, his Pilgrimes, which appeared in five volumes in 1625.

Despite being the brains behind these extraordinary works of travel reportage, Purchas himself never travelled “200 miles from Thaxted in Essex where I was borne.” Which is extraordinary. What a brilliant imagination he must have had nonetheless, inspired by the tale upon tale delivered him in alehouses in Leigh. One of the original armchair travellers?

purchas threeInterestingly, it seems that when his books went out of print, at some point in the early 17th century, they stayed that way until the Glasgow reissue of the Pilgrimes in 1905–1907. In the Introduction to a 1930 publication called Narratives to Purchas His Pilgrimes, H. G. Rawlinson, then a Professor of English Literature based at The Deccan College, Poona wrote how after Hakluyt’s death in 1616, Purchas spent many a day,

“Sitting there on an alehouse bench amid ‘the black wharves and the slips, And the sea-tides tossing free,’ he took down from their own lips the strange stories of adventures of the bearded seaman lately returned from the Spanish Main, or from the fabled Spice Islands, or maybe from imprisonment among the Barbary Pirates. To these personal narratives he added the vast pile of unsorted manuscripts which Master Hakluyt bequeathed to him.”

Rawlinson added that Purchas was nearly always broke due to the extravagant amount of work he put into his encyclopaedic research, book collecting and not to mention the selfless sacrifice of time devoted to the actual writing, collation and preparation of map and illustrations and editing. There were benefactors, including his son Samuel, also a writer. Alongside all of this great travel recording he was still of course a cleric, and in 1615 he was incorporated at Oxford with his Cambridge Bachelor of Divinity degree. Furthermore, when his brother-in-law, William Predimore died in 1618 Purchas from there on took care of his widow (his own sister) as well as the four destitute orphans left by his own dying brother, Daniel Purchas, in the same year. All of this took a great toll on his finances, but he ploughed on, month after month on the texts.

But the work was more than worth the amount of time dedicated to it. The Pilgrimes, according to Rawlinson,

“fills twenty of nearly six hundred pages apiece in the Glasgow edition, while the original edition of the Pilgrimes and Pilgrimage together in 5 volumes comprises over 5000 closely printed folio pages. The expenses of his encyclopedic undertaking at one time nearly ruined him. He was even in danger, had he not, ‘lived in great part upon Exhibition of charitable friends, and on extraordinary labours of lecturers,’ of ending his days in a debtor’s prison.”

purchas fourWhen his friend and patron Dr King, Bishop of London gave Purchas the Rectory of St. Martin’s, Ludgate and he was made Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, his impecunity was finally abated and according to Rawlinson, he was “delivered from a sickly Habitation, and being in London, had extended opportunities for research.”

Purchas died in the Autumn of 1626 leaving a son Samuel, himself a writer – he went on to publish A Theatre of Political Flying-Insects, – and indeed a cleric (he became Rector of Sutton); and a daughter, Martha. In his will he bequeathed (local historians take note. This is full of great detail!):

“five pounds to be given to the poore people of Thaxted where I first receaved light, I will give will and bequeath to my sonne Samuell all that my messuage and tenement in the Parish of Thaxted which I lately bought of Absolon Onion with the lands, mill and other appurtenances now in the occupation of the said Absolon or his heiress contayninge about tenn acres more or lesse. To have and to hold to him and his heiress forever. Item I will give and bequeath one other portion of land of ten acres or thereabouts lying near to the former which I lately bought of my brother William Purchas, by him purchased of one Kentals Reynolds who formerly had bought of Absolon Onion, unto Martha my daughter and her heirs. Moreover I bequeath unto the said Martha all these lands in fower crofts or closes near to a Hamlet called Beyton end (which lately were belonging to my father George Purchas of pious memory) in the parish of Thaxted aforesaid now in the tenure of my brother William …”
(Extract from the Will of Samuel Purchas, reprinted in full in the recent digital edition of the Cambridge University Press edition of Hakluytus Posthumus, or, Purchas his Pilgrimes, volume 1)

Elsewhere in the will he requested that his contributions to the church at Christmas were to be distributed to the poor, and a piece of land at Monk Street in his authority was to be given to his daughter.

Purchas’s works are of course a stunning and enchanting contribution to 17th century literature, and along the timeline of great ethnographic works and travel writing provide a very valuable insight into the world-view and mores of merchant seaman and travellers of the time as well as of those peoples they encountered. In this respect the works will remain priceless examples of exotic tales and anthropological anecdotage of a time gone by. And those times were indeed a very different age in publishing!

purchas fiveAs an editor Purchas could be known to take textual liberties and indeed to include some careless entries at times. But of course he would have had very little of the kind of editorial help available to a writer of his genres today. The net result of his endeavours still remains a body of unique work that contains valuable insight and information about key moments impacting the future of seafaring and maritime discovery. The basic difference between Purchas and his predecessor Hakluyt is seen to be that Purchas was mostly interested in presenting to the reader an understanding of foreign culture and morality, whereas Hakluyt was driven to inspire further travel and exploration, and both motives certainly have their place in decent travel writing.

My partner (also a writer) and I live in one of the Grade II cottages that once formed part of the original County Library in the historic quarter (to this day we have it crammed with books, in keeping with tradition). Every time a famous scribe or artist – and I have written about several of them over the years for the Bulletin – is discovered by us to have resided in the area we can’t help but fantasise, over candles and a glass of sherry in the evening, that we could travel temporarily back in time and see them flit past the gaslit leaded windows, deep in thought and inspiration. Then we can just as quickly imagine how Coleridge’s most famous deep sleep, permeated by the dream of Purchas’s description of Marco Polo’s journey to Xaindu inspired the words that form such an important part of the great British poetry canon:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree;
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
(Extract from Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1797)



For a small medieval town to have produced a Bulletin of such quality for fifty years uninterrupted is quite simply remarkable and splendid. I take great joy in sending many congratulations to those past and present who have worked and contributed to this laudable milestone of the one hundredth edition of the Thaxted Bulletin. —Stephen Fry

Article by HD, also available in print in the new (100th issue) edition of the Thaxted Bulletin.