In his 2015 exploration of Early Modern Catholics, Royalists, and Cosmopolitans, Brian C. Lockey provides an important contribution to scholarly discussion of contemporary and modern perceptions of Thomas Stukeley and his motives. [Brian C. Lockey, Early Modern Catholics, Royalists, and Cosmopolitans (Farnham and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2015, chapter 4: ‘Traitor or Cosmopolitan? Captain Thomas Stukeley in the Courts of Christendom’, pp. 185-209.]
Setting his analysis in a wider, contemporary framework, Lockey first considers Sir Francis Drake, noting how contemporary pamphleteers set Drake on a semi-heroic stage, equating his actions with nationhood: Henry Roberts’ Most Friendly Farewell to Sir Francis Drake (1585), for example, depicts Drake’s activities as ‘the natural product of English nationalism’ (Lockey, p. 184.) Such writings position the enterprises of Drake and his cohort within ‘an ideology of incipient nationhood’ (ibid.). They do so in order to incorporate their actions as part of a wider narrative about ‘the English’ – their principles, their motivations, and their actions – all of which are justified as godly. Lockey positions Stukeley within these Elizabethan narratives, therefore offering a more detailed portrayal of Stukeley than simply ‘Stukeley the pirate’ or ‘Stukeley the Traitor’. Such epithets, after all, negate any understanding of Stukeley within the complexity of early modern cosmopolitan exchange.
In 1563, Robert Seall produced a tribute to Stukeley entitled ‘A Comendation of the adve[n]terus viage of the worthy Captain M. Thomas Stutely Esquyer and others, towards the land called Terra Florida, in which he praised Stukeley as a seafaring hero. In his lifetime, then, depictions of Stukeley as a loyal servant to Elizabeth were available, even if their veracity remained open to question.
Doubts about Stukeley’s motives were inevitably voiced posthumously, often suggesting that they were ingrained within English circles even during his lifetime. William Camden, for example, insisted that he was known to be ‘a Ruffian, and a ryetous spender, and a notable boaster of himselfe’. [William Camden, The Historie of the Life and Reigne of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princesse Elizabeth, late Queene of England (London, 1630), Book 1, 6-12, cited Lockey, p. 186.] Others saw him as a fallen man, one who repented his trespasses just before his demise. Richard Johnson’s ballad about him being a case in point:
“… thus haye I left my contry deere,
To be so vildly murthered here:
eue in this place wheras I am not known.”
Richard Johnson, The Crown Garland of Golden Roses: Consisted of Ballads and Songs, ed. W. Chappell (London, 1842), 38; cited Lockey, p. 186.
It was after his voyage to Terra Florida that Stukeley defected to Spanish service, invalidating any possibility of a Drakeian narrative being extended to the Captain. Yet, as Lockey notes, both Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar and the anonymous The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Stukeley offer a surprisingly nuanced appraisal of his life and actions.
“Both portrayals refuse Stukeley a settled role within the narrative of emerging English identity, neither presenting him as exclusively English nor as the typical traitor to the English crown who might easily be excluded from any relationship to his native country.” (Lockey, pp. 186-7.)
Instead, Stukeley becomes a node in a network where religious and secular agendas meet, where authority is questioned and identity can be explored. He becomes ‘the product of a dialectical relationship existing between his English identity and the transnational or “cosmopolitan” identity that his Englishness enables.’ (Lockey, p. 187.)
The plays use Stukeleys’ very Englishness as a window by which to view the potentiality of the transnational Christian identity. He is at once both a traditionally-seafaring Englishman and a member of an international community of Christians, one not bound by language, land or shore. As such, he can be acknowledged by and incorporated into a wider Christian community – indeed, a wider English community, be it one dispersed through mercantile or military connections, or through self-imposed or enforced exile. He is hardly a man alone in the world and, as Lockey’s observations attest, he is not perceived as marginalised by movement either.
In The Battle of Alcazar, Stukeley himself acknowledges his cosmopolitan outlook:
“Lord Governor of Lisbon, understand
As we are Englishmen, so are we men,
And I am Stukeley so resolved in all
To follow rule, honour and empery,
Not to be bent so strictly to the place
Wherein at first I blew the fire of life,
But that I may at liberty make choice
Of all the continents that bounds the world.
For why, I make it not so great dessert
To be begot or born in any place,
Sith that’s a thing of pleasure and ease,
That might have been performed elsewhere as well.’ (2.2.26-36)
In the subsequent dialogue, the Irish Bishop claims that ‘We must affect our country as our parents’ (2.2.42), whereby reinforcing link between state and family. Stukeley rebuts his view succinctly: ‘Well said, Bishop, spoken like yourself / The reverent lordly Bishop of Saint Asses.’ (2.2.50-51) Stukeley emphatically denies the traditional political analogy of the state as familial, one where loyalty and deference to the head are mandatory. Stukeley’s voluntary exile may distance him from one unit but enables him to commune with others.
Ultimately, both plays display Stukeley’s actions as a form of defection. Even so, he is no renegado, no Christian turned Turk. He may align himself with Catholic monarchs but his final decision is to support England’s oldest ally, Portugal, is crucial to how we view him. As Peele in particular was at length to emphasise, Portugal rightly demanded the aid of its ally in its hour of need, particularly when the aggressor was Spain. (Peele had, of course, penned a lengthy poem around the same time he was composing The Battle of Alcazar, in which he reiterated such anti-Spanish sentiment: A Farewell Entitled to the famous and fortunate generalls of our English forces: Sir Iohn Norris & Syr Frauncis Drake Knights, and all theyr braue and resolute followers [London, 1589]).
Similarly, the anonymous author of Thomas Stukeley portrays Portugal’s claim for independence from Spain and legitimate. In that play, Dom Antonio appears at Dom Sebastian’s side, and sees his claim as heir to the Portuguese throne corroborated by the ill-fated Sebastian (19.69-70). In both plays, as Lockey identifies, Stukeley is presented as having ‘one foot in Portugal, a realm of his own choice’ while maintaining the ‘tip of his toe in the English polity as well’. (Lockey, p. 202.)
One of the reasons Stukeley remains so intoxicating a figure, therefore, is the ability of his stage incarnations to create such a viable, cosmopolitan identity. This dimension is key to understanding the complexity of his dramatic character, and why he maintains our interest: his previous decision to ally himself with Spain, in such a context, seals his fate; his commitment to the Portuguese, England’s allies, to an extent, redeems him.
Further reading / viewing
Charles Edelman (ed.), The Stukeley Plays: ‘The Battle of Alcazar’ by George Peele and ‘The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005)
Jesús M. Garcia and Cinta Zunino Garrido, ‘”As we are Englishmen, so are we Men:” Patterns of Otherness in George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar’ in Jesús López-Peláez (ed.), Strangers in Early Modern English Texts (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011), pp.75-108
W.W. Greg, Two Elizabethan Stage Abridgements: The Battle of Alcazar & Orlando Furioso: An Essay in Critical Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1923)
Eric Griffin, ‘”SPAIN IS PORTUGAL / AND PORTUGAL IS SPAIN”: Transnational Attraction in The Stukeley Plays and “The Spanish Tragedy”‘ in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10:1 , pp.96-116
Andrew C. Hess, The Forgotten Frontier: A History of the Sixteenth-Century Ibero-African Frontier (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978)
Brian C. Lockey, Early Modern Catholics, Royalists, and Cosmopolitans (Farnham and Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2015)
Hammood Khalid Obaid, Topicality and Representation: Islam and Muslims in Two Renaissance Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chapter 1
David Trim, ‘Early-Modern Colonial Warfare and the Campaign of Alcazarquivir, 1578’ in Small Wars and Insurgencies 8:1 (1997), pp.1-34
Spoken word (extract in English):