Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Coryate, Thomas

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CORYATE, THOMAS (1577?–1617), traveller, son of the Rev. George Coryate [q. v.], rector of Odcombe, Somersetshire, by Gertrude his wife, was born in the parsonage house at Odcombe, about 1577, and entered at Gloucester Hall in the university of Oxford in 1596. He left the university without taking a degree, and appears to have led an aimless life for a few years, till, on the accession of James I, he became a hanger-on of the court, picking up a precarious livelihood as a kind of privileged buffoon. Gifted with an extraordinary memory, and being no contemptible scholar, with what Fuller calls ‘an admirable fluency in the Greek tongue,’ and a certain sort of ability which occasionally showed itself in very pungent repartee, and an appearance which must have been indescribably comic, he soon attracted notice, ‘indeed was the courtiers' anvil to try their wits upon; and sometimes this anvil returned the hammers as hard knocks as it received, his bluntness repaying their abusiveness. He carried folly,’ says Fuller ‘(which the charitable called merriment), in his very face. The shape of his head had no promising form, being like a sugar-loaf inverted, with the little end before, as composed of fancy and memory, without any common sense.’ When a separate establishment was set up for the household of Prince Henry and his sister, the Princess Elizabeth, Coryate obtained some post of small emolument which brought him into familiar relations with all the eminent men of the time, who appear to have amused themselves greatly at his expense. Prince Henry had a certain regard for him, and allowed him a pension. Always provided that they made it worth his while, Coryate had no objection even to the courtiers playing practical jokes upon him. On one occasion they shut him up in a trunk, and introduced him in a masque at court, much to the delight of the spectators (Nichols, Progresses of James I, ii. 400). The incident is alluded to by Ben Jonson and other writers of the time. It is probable that he inherited some little property on the death of his father, for within a year of that event he had determined to start on his travels. He sailed from Dover on 14 May 1608, and availing himself of the ordinary means of transit, sometimes going in a cart, sometimes in a boat, and sometimes on horseback, he passed through Paris, Lyons, and other French towns, crossed the Mont Cenis in a chaise à porteurs on 9 June, and, after visiting Turin, Milan, and Padua, arrived at Venice on the 24th. Here he stayed till 8 Aug., when he commenced his homeward journey on foot. He crossed the Splugen, passed through Coire, Zurich, and Basle, and thence sailed down the Rhine, stopping at Strasburg and other places, and reached London at last on 3 Oct., having travelled, according to his own reckoning, 1,975 miles, the greater part of which distance he had covered on foot, and having visited in the space of five months forty-five cities, ‘whereof in France five, in Savoy one, in Italy thirteen, in Rhœtia one, in Helvetia three, in some parts of High Germany fifteen, in the Netherlands seven.’ Notwithstanding the novelty of this strange expedition and the very large amount of valuable information which he had gathered in his travels, Coryate found it hard to get a bookseller who would undertake the publication of his journal; and as late as November 1610 it seemed doubtful whether it would be printed at all. But Coryate was not the man to be discouraged or to be easily turned from his purpose. He applied to every person of eminence whom he knew, and many whom he can scarcely have known at all, to write commendatory verses upon himself, his book, and his travels, and by his unwearied pertinacity and unblushing importunity contrived to get together the most extraordinary collection of testimonials which have ever been gathered in a single sheaf. More than sixty of the most brilliant and illustrious litterati of the time were among the contributors to this strange farrago, the wits vying with one another in their attempts to produce mock heroic verses, turning Coryate to solemn ridicule. Ben Jonson undertook to edit these amusing panegyrics, which actually fill 108 quarto pages. Prince Henry was applied to to further the printing of the book, and the volume was published in quarto by W. S[tansby?] in 1611. With the commendatory verses and the posthumous poems of the author's father, George Coryate, it contained nearly eight hundred pages. The title ran: ‘Coryats Crudities. Hastily gobled up in Five Moneths Travells in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhetia comonly called the Grisons country, Helvetia alias Switzerland, &c., &c.,’ together with ‘a most elegant Oration, first written in the Latine tongue by H. Kirchnerus … now distilled into English spirit through the Odcombian Limbecke;’ and ‘Another, also composed by the Author of the former, in praise of travell in Germanie in particular.’ It was illustrated by engravings on copper and steel, which have now become extraordinarily valuable. The folded frontispiece and the large and careful copperplate of Strasburg Cathedral are especially rare. The book seems to have had a large sale. In fact it was the first, and for long remained the only, handbook for continental travel; and though the grotesque collection of commendatory verses went far to get for the work a character which it did not deserve of being only a piece of buffoonery from beginning to end, it is quite plain that there were those who soon got to see its value. Perhaps of no book in the English language of the same size and of the same age is it possible to say that there are not two perfect copies in existence. At the end of one of the British Museum copies is an autograph letter from Coryat to Sir Michael Hickes, dated ‘from my chamber in Bowelane this 15th November 1610,’ which was printed in Brydges's ‘Censura Literaria.’ Two appendices to the ‘Crudities,’ also issued in 1611, are equally rare. They are: ‘Coryats Crambe, or his Colwort twise sodden and now served in with other Macaronicke dishes as the second course to his Crudities,’ Lond. W. Stansby, 4to; and ‘The Odcombian Banquet, dished foorth by T. the Coriat and served in by a number of Noble Wits in prayse of his Crudities and Crambe too. Imprinted for T. Thorp,’ Lond. 4to.

In 1612 Coryate started again on his travels. Before doing so he repaired to his native place, and there delivered a valedictory oration at the market cross, announcing his intention of being absent for ten years, and formally hanging up in the church at Odcombe the shoes in which he had walked from Venice. These shoes had already become celebrated, and appear in a droll woodcut, in which they are drawn bound together by a laurel wreath. They serve as an illustration of some humorous verses by Henry Peacham, author of the ‘Complete Gentleman,’ among the ‘Panegyricke Verses’ prefixed to the ‘Crudities.’ The shoes were still hanging up in Odcombe Church at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Coryate sailed first to Constantinople; visited Greece and Asia Minor; got a passage from Smyrna to Alexandria; went up the Nile as far as Cairo, returned to Alexandria; proceeded thence to the Holy Land, which he traversed from the Dead Sea to the Lebanon; joined a caravan that was on its way to Mesopotamia; stood upon the mounds of Nimroud; thence made his way through Persia to Candahar; managed to reach Lahore; and arrived safely at Agra, where he was well received by the English merchants who had a ‘factory’ there. He reached Agra in October 1616. During the four years that he had been in the East, Coryate had learned Persian, Turkish, and Hindustani. On one occasion falling in with Sir Thomas Roe, who was the English ambassador at the court of the Great Mogul, Coryate obtained an audience of the mighty potentate, and delivered an oration in Persian. He sent home letters to his friends from time to time as opportunity occurred. One set of them was published in 1616, entitled ‘Letters from Asmere, the Court of the Great Mogul, to several Persons of Quality in England,’ in which, in a rather well drawn and well executed woodcut which serves as a frontispiece, he appears riding on an elephant. His last letter (‘Mr. Thomas Coriat to his Friends in England sendeth greeting, from Agra .... the last of October 1616’) was printed in 1618. There are some other pieces of his in ‘Purchas his Pilgrimes,’ published in 1625. He lived about a year after reaching Agra, but his constitution, naturally a very strong one, gave way under the hospitalities which were shown him when he came among his own countrymen once more in the Indian frontiers, and after receiving one or two serious warnings he died of ‘a flux’ at Surat in December 1617. A humble tumulus marking the place of his burial was shown half a century afterwards. It is described in Sir Thomas Herbert's ‘Travels’ (1634). The fame of Tom Coryate produced at least one imitator, even in his lifetime, in the person of William Lithgow [q. v.] Considering how faithful and instructive an account of the chief cities of Europe during the seventeenth century is to be found in his narrative, and how simple and lucid his style is when he is not intentionally fooling, it is strange that Coryate's ‘Crudities’ should not have been more continuously popular, and that the book should not have been reprinted in our own day.

[The fullest account of Coryate's life is to be found in Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), ii. 208. Fuller gives a notice of him in his Worthies of Somersetshire. See too Nichols's Progresses of James I, ii. 400 n, and the references there given. There is a pretty full list of his printed works in the Catalogue of English books printed before 1640 in the library of the British Museum, issued in 1884, and a careful description of the Crudities in W. C. Hazlitt's Handbook of Early English Literature, 1867. One copy of the Crudities now in the British Museum was a presentation copy from the author to Prince Henry. The copy in the Chetham Library is said to be the only perfect copy of the book in existence.]

A. J.