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29 May 2015

How the spy John Peyton put Poland on the map (to keep King James on the throne)

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Scholarship will always be indebted to George II, one of Britain’s least scholarly kings. In 1757 George boosted the reputation of the fledgling British Museum by donating some of the most precious books owned by his predecessors – 2,000 manuscripts and some 9,000 printed books. This donation, known as the Old Royal Library, has since passed to the British Library, where the manuscript portion is now known as the Royal Collection.

Among these manuscripts is an inconspicuous paper volume, written in a beautiful  late 16th-century Secretary hand. It contains the (then) only known, yet unfinished copy of the elaborately titled A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Provinces United with that Crowne, Anno 1598, familiar to historians as the most detailed English account of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Peyton MS_18_B_I-002The title-page of A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Provinces United with that Crowne, British Library Royal MS 18 B. i.

Because 16th-century Poland-Lithuania stretched into what is now Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Estonia, A Relation of the State of Polonia has become an important source for many Central and Eastern European historians. But  the work  also marks a milestone in the history of English travel writing: it is a highly sophisticated account of Poland-Lithuania’s politics, law, administration, culture, and diplomatic relations, together with risk assessment – not unlike the country profiles contained in the CIA’s World Factbook.

Poland-Lithuania 10660i6(2)
Poland-Lithuania in the late 16th century, from Giovanni Botero, Eynkommen, Reichthumb, vnd Schätz aller Keyser, Könige, vnd vornembster Fürsten der gantzer weiten Welt ... (Cologne, 1599) 10660.i.6.(2.)

Such a wealth of knowledge called for a well-connected author, and scholars were quick to suggest George Carew, a career diplomat who was sent in 1598 to negotiate with Poland’s Sigismund III Vasa. Others put forward the Scot William Bruce (c.1560–after 1613), a professor of the civil law at the Zamojski Academy. Whereas Bruce’s authorship can be firmly excluded on the grounds of language and religion, Carew’s involvement is largely speculative.

In 2013 I decided to re-examine  the British Library manuscript, in the hope of finding evidence – any evidence – that would point towards the work’s author. It turned out that the text and the notes in the margin were written at different times: the events mentioned took place in 1598, but the marginal notes were added between 1602 and 1603. I also discovered that the paper came from Poland: I traced the watermark to the Olkusz paper-mill near Cracow, and it appears in two books printed in 1596 and 1597 by the court printer Jan Januszowski. With these new clues, I started to look for an Englishman who was in Poland between spring and autumn 1598, passed through Cracow, and had reason to update the text between 1602 and 1603.

That’s when I found John Peyton (1579–1635), son of Sir John Peyton (1544–1630), Lieutenant of the Tower. Peyton was in Cracow in the spring of 1598, and wrote a letter to his father detailing troop movements (I have since been able to prove that the younger Peyton was a spy in the employ of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Robert Cecil. Peyton’s trail led to a manuscript (Kk v. 2) in Cambridge University Library. This gathers Peyton’s travel accounts, including one on Bohemia with an eerily familiar title: A Relation of Bohemia and the United Provinces of That Crowne. Anno 1598. What’s more, the collection contains the copy of a letter, sent to King James’s secretary, in which Peyton explains that his ‘discourse of Polonia’ is missing because he had ‘presented [it] to the king at his Majestyes first comming to London’ (fol. 6r.). I realised that the British Library manuscript must have been presented to James I during his coronation in the summer of 1603.

The discovery of Peyton’s authorship of this important text meant that the existing entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  needed radical expanding: at this time, John Peyton only figured as a paragraph in the entry for his more prominent father. The Dictionary’s editors responded enthusiastically to this find, and invited me to prepare a new, standalone entry for the younger John Peyton,  for publication in one of the ODNB’s regular online updates.

I started looking for other copies of the text, trawling through countless 18th- and 19th-century auction catalogues. The quest proved rewarding: a copy entitled A Relation of the Kingdom of Polonia, and the United Provinces of the Crowne, by Sir John Peyton changed hands at least five times between 1751 and 1898, when the trail went cold after a Sotheby’s action. Anthony Payne,  a former Director of Bernard Quaritch booksellers, located an annotated copy of the 1898 catalogue, which revealed that the book had been acquired by one of the Munich-based Rosenthal brothers – I later discovered that the buyer was Jacques Rosenthal. The ‘lost’ manuscript has since been acquired from an anonymous seller from Prague by St Andrews University Library  (I discuss this new manuscript, ms 38902, in the journal The Library).

But why would Peyton go through the expense of producing a lavishly written and gilded copy, which is then left unfinished? I found out that Peyton was among those waiting at Elizabeth’s deathbed in March 1603, on his father’s orders. When the queen died, Peyton raced to Edinburgh to break the news to James VI. He arrived second, but the king bestowed estates on Peyton and knighted him, publicly referring to Peyton as his ‘first knight’. The British Library copy was a well-timed coronation gift for James, its completion was interrupted by Elizabeth’s death. But the marginal notes and the change in the title from ‘Kingdom’ to ‘State’ (as an afterthought as is visible in the image), reveal that Peyton’s marginal notes furnished James with details about the then 200-year-old union of Poland and Lithuania – the only existing parliamentary union at the time. Unsurprisingly, James kept bringing up this type of union between England and Scotland over the next few years, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was frequently discussed in British constitutional debates.  

Sebastian Sobecki, Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture, University of Groningen

This post is based on the author’s research on medieval and early modern travel writing and on his identification of John Peyton’s authorship, first published as ‘John Peyton’s A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Accession of King James I, 1598–1603’ in the English Historical Review.   

27 May 2015

Looking back at European Literature Night

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In out last post marking European Literature Night 2015, Slovenian author Evald Flisar, who took part in this year’s event, looks back at the evening. 

I had been chosen (apparently there were 55 nominees) to appear at the widely publicised event European Literature Night at the British Library on 13 May as one of the six best European writers. I felt honoured, of course, as well as mildly surprised and modestly pleased. It just wouldn’t be right to jump up and down, shouting,  “Look at me, look at me!” Certainly not at the age of 70, when one is supposed to have put away childish things. Besides (let’s indulge in a little arithmetic), in the next ten years 60 more  “best European writers” will appear at this grand event (presuming that authors cannot be recalled for a repeat performance). And so, with the passing of years, the importance of my attendance will gradually be diluted to the point of astonishment at the fact that the continent of Europe, however small, can boast such a great number of “best writers”.

That may well be true, and we (inside and outside EU) may be unforgivably ignorant of the quality   Front-my-fathers-dreams-3_53fc653aca024_250x800r
of our neighbours’ writing (publishers please note!), but surely ... the best? Well, never mind. Perhaps this year’s  “six of the best” are justified in believing that their writing warrants the inclusion in this exclusive club (after all, 49 authors among the 55 nominees didn’t make it), and most certainly I should be grateful for the invitation to attend the event that has brought one of my books to the attention of many (generating, among other things, a glowing review in The Irish Times). 

Evald Flisar’s novel My Father's Dreams, published in the author’s own translation by Istros books and presented at European Literature Night 2015

I am grateful, of course. Not only grateful but also glad that the event is over and that (by some miracle) I have avoided making a fool of myself. I have even (not intentionally, of course) succeeded in amusing the audience. All in all, my impressions (of the event and even, to a lesser degree, my performance) are considerably better than good, and I am delighted to have been invited (delighted in spite of 144 translations into 36 languages, or the fact that I have so far attended over 50 similar events round the world). I have read from my work in Washington, New York, Milwaukee, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paolo, Frankfurt, Prague, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Wrocław, Brno, Cairo, Alexandria Library, New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Tokyo, Taipei ... that’ll do, the line between facts and self-praise is perilously blurred.

Rosie Goldsmith and Evald Flisar (ELN2015)
ELN host Rosie Goldsmith interviewing Ewald Flisar at European Literature Night 2015. (Photo © Metaphoto. 
There are other photos - and drawings - of the event at:

However, not one of these guest appearances (with the possible exception of Mumbai’s Literature Live Festival)  can compare with the faultless organisation of the European Literature Night in London. Not to mention the publicity it has generated. It may well be that I am slightly biased. Having lived in London for almost 20 years, being (even after a 20-year absence) still English at heart (not to say in the mind), I may be tempted to give any literary event in London some extra (subjective) points. But that is not so. Appearing at the British Library really was one of the highlights of my long literary career. And all thanks to my publishers, the ambitious Istros Books, for whom quality, far from being a mere promotional phrase, is in fact their raison d'être. Long may they prosper!

Evald Flisar

24 May 2015

The War Poet who wasn’t: Simon Gregorčič and the Soča Front

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May 24th marks the centenary of Italy’s entry into the Great War. In previous blog entries related to this event, I have focussed on the Isonzo/Soča Front, which bore the brunt of the first Italian military operations.  For today’s entry, I return there again, to write about a character who played a significant role in that action, but who had died almost a decade before war broke out.

Simon Gregorcic (X989-6888)Portrait of Simon Gregorčič from Anton Burgar, Simon Gregorčič: življenjepis (Ljubljana, 1907) British Library X.989/6888.

Simon Gregorčič is one of Slovenia’s best-loved poets, and a significant figure in the 19th-century struggle for national rights. He was born in 1844 in the village of Vrsno, nestling beneath Mount Krn very close to the then Austro-Italian border, and the local landscape and lifestyle imprinted itself profoundly on his work. His family were peasant farmers who raised sheep in the pastures of the Soča valley, but young Simon had been born at a time of fast-rising literacy. He went to the grammar school in the regional capital Görz/Gorica (now Gorizia, in Italy), and then studied to become a priest; yet, apart from a brief period at the University of Vienna, he never really went far from his beloved Valley.

He worked as a chaplain in Kobarid, not far from his birthplace, where he had a formative love affair with a young teacher and promoted the cultural life of the little town. During subsequent appointments, Gregorčič began to publish poetry, each of his four books called “Poezije”, with its number. For these, which he promoted in public readings, he became a local celebrity in his own lifetime. His style was profoundly musical, full of feeling and even sensuality – for this Catholic priest had quite a number of intense relationships with women.  He wrote about social injustice, Slovene rights, the landscape that surrounded him. Among his best-known poems – and one of the few which have been translated into English - was  ‘Ash Wednesday Eve’, in which he warned the rich and proud among his congregation of their mortality while inviting the poor and dispossessed, including his relatives, to take their place in the Church and celebrate “Resurrection morn.” Its theme may sound gloomy and didactic, but the poem is so beautifully written that it evokes the twilight falling over his native Valley, its little churches lit up amid the dark peaks, spilling smells of incense into the night air as the people hurry in from near and far.

Gregorčič’s most famous poem of all is ‘Soči’ – ‘To the Soča’- describing the river’s progress from its mountain source to the plains of Trieste. At the beginning the turquoise water (it really is!) is fast and vigorous, “like the walk of the highland girls”, and its refrain runs, “You are splendid, daughter of the heights!” (“Krasnà si, hči planin!”). But when the river reaches the exposed plain it grows sluggish, sensing its vulnerability. Gregorčič foresaw a day when it would be filled with blood, surrounded by a “hail of lead”, and would need to burst its own banks to “draw the foreigners ravenous for lands to the bottom of your foaming waves.”  

SocaPostcard, reproduced in Mihael Glavan, Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti (Nova Gorica, 2012) YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič suffered lifelong ill-health (probably tuberculosis) and died in Gorizia in 1906. His funeral procession from the city to his grave in the village Smast was a huge public event. Nine years later, Gorizia, along with Trieste and the whole Soča Valley, would be among Italy’s chief targets in its attack on the Austrian Empire. Simon Gregorčič  was summoned from the grave to spur on the Slovene troops in defence of their homeland: he was shown on postcards greeting the Emperors Franz Joseph or Karl when they visited the battle-torn region, or looking protectively down upon the river with the military commanders Archduke Eugen or Svetozar Boroević von Bojna alongside him in the sky (pictures above). Sadly prophetic, the words of ‘Soči’ featured widely, particularly the verse urging the river to drown the foreign invader.


Funeral of  Simon Gregorčič un 1906 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Austria’s one major victory in the awful stalemate was 1917’s infamous Caporetto (the Italian name for Kobarid). The town which lay so close to the poet’s heart was symbolically the site of a total rout of the Italian invaders. A bust of his friend, the composer Hraboslav Volarić, symbolically watched from a corner of the square.

They would, however, return victorious a year later, and Kobarid stayed under Italian rule until 1945. Volarić’s bust, along with other symbols of Slovene culture, was badly damaged by fascists, but in 1945 the town became part of Yugoslavia. The bust was replaced, and a full-length statue to Gregorčič  erected in 1959 on the opposite side of the main square.

Naturally, Simon Gregorčič’s birthplace is now a tourist site, and hikers can follow his route and inspiration through the villages and meadows around.

With particular thanks to Jože Šerbec of the Kobarid Museum.


Mihail Glavan. Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti. (Nova Gorica , 2012). YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič. Poezije. (Ljubljana, 1885-1908). 11530.a.26

W.A. Morison (translator). “Ash Wednesday Eve”, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 23, No. 62 (Jan., 1945), pp. 23-25, Ac.2669.e.  (also available online via  JSTOR).  

Translation of Soči by an unknown author at

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager