The Outlaw Antiquarian Richard Verstegan's Transformation of the English Origin Story

Who was Richard Verstegan?

Verstegan, a Renaissance-era antiquarian, was the first person to make an extensive case for separating English history from Trojan mythology and acknowledging Anglo-Saxon heritage instead.

Richard Rowlands Verstegan was born a cooper’s son in London around 1550. He was educated at Oxford but didn’t receive a degree, likely because as a Catholic, he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. In fact, Verstegan’s Catholic faith was to shape much of his life going forward.

He returned to London and apprenticed as a goldsmith, during which time he developed a talent for engraving. He was living and working during the reign of a Protestant monarch, Elizabeth I, and Verstegan had no shortage of trouble, even landing himself in prison for a religious offense at one point. For a short time, he ran an underground printing press and published Thomas Alfield's A True Report of the Death and Martyrdom of M. Campion, Jesuite and Prieste. English authorities were not impressed. As they closed in on his illegal activities, Verstegan was compelled to leave the country. He fled to Paris.

In France, Verstegan’s skill as an engraver came to good use as he immediately became involved in the production of Catholic tracts. The English ambassador obtained some of these treatises and worked with French authorities to have Verstegan arrested. With the assistance of the papal nuncio, Girolamo Ragazzoni, Verstegan was freed again.

By 1584, he was in Rome, where he remained there for two years. During this time, Verstegan may have met papal physician Michele Mercati and viewed specimens in the papal geology collections, including fossil “tongue stones”—now known as shark’s teeth. After his return from Rome, Verstegan finally settled in Antwerp, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In 1605, Verstegan released his most well-known treatise, A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities. Half narrative, half glossary of English words, the book features twelve delightful illustrations, all drawn and engraved by Verstegan himself.

His main argument in this work is that the English people are descended from an ancient and noble Germanic tribe, the Anglo-Saxons.

Verstegan's Natural History

Verstegan uses an entire chapter to address the geology and natural history of England, a topic that clearly holds particular interest for him. His biggest claim is announced right in the chapter's title: “Of the Ile of Albion, Afterward Called Britaine, and now England, Scotland and Wales. And how it is shewed to have beene continent or firme land with Gallia, now named France, since the floud of Noah.”

In other words, the British Isles were at one time connected by a land bridge to the France and the rest of continental Europe. (For context, it should be noted here that Verstegan, like most people in his day, accepted biblical stories as historical truth. That's why he takes the biblical flood story for granted here. But don't worry, it doesn't affect what we can learn from him.)

Verstegen does not claim to be the originator of this idea—far from it. He lists several other people who have suggested it, including Sir Thomas More, John Twine, and Richard White. Where he claims to differ from them is in the presenting of evidence.

“These authors following the opinion the one of the other, are rather content to thinke it sometime so to have bin, than to labour to finde out by sundry pregnant reasons that so it was indeed.”

Verstegan sought to provide solid evidence for his proposition that England and France were once joined. He contends that the Cliffs of Dover (pictured here) at England's southern edge look nearly identical the ones on the northern coast of France at Cap Blanc-Nez.

He writes that both the Cliffs of Dover and the cliffs at Cap Blanc-Nez (pictured here) are made of chalk and flint, “appearing to be broken off from some more of the same stuffe or matter, that it hath sometime by nature beene fastned unto.”

Plus, they are situated only about 24 miles apart.

According to Verstegan, the land bridge at the English Channel was still in place after the flood of Noah. One reason for this is that in the biblical story, Noah let the animals of the ark disperse themselves around the world. There are foxes in England and wolves in Scotland, and Verstegan reasons that no human in their right mind would have ever put a live wolf on a boat and transported it to an island, so the animals necessarily must have crossed the land bridge.

Verstegan’s insistence that France and England were still connected after the flood implies that he believed there could be significant non-Biblical geological events and changes to the world’s geographical makeup. He speculates that the two lands could have been separated by an earthquake, or perhaps by erosion—or as he puts it, “the sea first breaking thorow, might afterward by little & little enlarge her passage.” Uncharacteristically, he does not decide one way or another after listing these possibilities.

In any case, Verstegan obviously had a fairly sophisticated sense about the changeable nature of physical terrain. Anticipating the objections of readers regarding the notion that a peninsula could become an island, or vice versa, he endeavors to provide evidence for his conclusion. The Netherlands, he argues, were once covered by sea. It is low-lying, flat land, and its soil is sandy, which Verstegen suspects could only have been caused by sea deposition.

Furthermore, after speaking with well-diggers in the Netherlands, he notes that it is exceedingly common for “innumerable shelles of sea fish” to be found in the ground, well under the surface. To emphasize the point, he includes an engraving of some of these fish parts (below). It is one of the earliest print depictions of fossil remains in which the author correctly identifies them as being of organic origin. Among them is a “tongue stone,” with which Verstegen may have already been acquainted, having possibly seen Mercati’s collection in Rome. He is somewhat unique in that, unlike Conrad Gesner and others who had written about fossils, he takes the name “tongue stone” literally, assuming they are the petrified tongues of ancient fish.

Fossils drawn by Verstegan

Having established that England was once connected to mainland Europe, Verstegen takes his leave of natural history and moves on to England’s people, although he will return to the land bridge at later points in the book, as we shall see.

The Anglo-Saxons

The most significant aspect of Verstegan’s scholarly life, and the one most commonly known, is the fact that he was one of the first people to offer a revision of the English origin story that disconnected the history of the English people from Trojan mythology, connecting it instead to the Anglo-Saxons. As Samuel Kliger puts it, “he is by no means the first to identify the English people as descendants of a Germanic stock, but he is the first to devote an entire book to a discussion of the historical, cultural, and linguistic proofs of his theory.” In the introductory “Epistle to our Nation” in A Restitution, Verstegan laments that the proud German ancestry is not well known:

“We not only finde Englishmen (and those no Idiots neyther) that cannot directly tell from whench the Englishmen are descended, and chancing to speak of the Saxons, doe rather seeme to understand them for a kind of forraine people . . . how ridiculous it must seem unto the posterity of the Brittaines, for Englishmen to borrow honour from them, not needing to borrow it of any in the world.”

The traditional English origin story was that Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, traveled over sea with a group of Trojans and discovered an island, which they took over, killed the native inhabitants, and named after their leader. Britain’s population represented the descendants of these early Trojan people. Brutus himself supposedly founded the city of London and had three sons, who split the land amongst themselves into what is now England, Scotland, and Wales.

This story was still being told by Protestant antiquarians who were keen to establish the link between the current monarchs and an ancient authority. Verstegan thought Brutus was probably a real person, but that he was not from Troy, a piece of information was probably born out of a “deliberate desire to emulate Roman origins.” Instead, he posits that Brutus was probably a celtic king from Gaul who somehow came to rule over Albion, giving his name to the island. Brutus and his people, Verstegan insists, walked over the land bridge as the wolves did, prior to its disappearance.

A Restitution represents a significant departure from the standard narrative, which had been encouraged by the Tudors. The tradition, especially since the reign of Henry VII, was to associate the lineage of the royal family with Cadwaller, the last king of the line that began with Brutus. Verstegan, however, is puzzled over those Englishmen who have been so fond of finding their origins in what he calls the “poore miserable fugitives of a destroyed city.” Why look to Troy, he questions, when there is such honor in the truth—that the English were in fact descendants of the invincible, courageous, Germans?

Because he knew the Anglo-Saxons to be the ancestors of the English, Verstegan wished to explore their ancient lifestyle and religion. He describes them in flattering detail, including physical descriptions (“they were ordinarily tall of body, very faire of complexion, free, liberall, & cheerfull of mind, and in deportment, of a comely, and seemely carriage”) and accounts of their character (“they were a people very active, and industrious, utterly detesting idlenes, and sloth”). He describes the ancient government of Saxony as having twelve elected leaders chosen for their “worthinesse and sufficiency” and seems particularly fascinated by the tradition of Trial by Ordeal, which he explains in some detail.

In addition to describing the ancient Germanic government and lifestyle, Verstegan was also the first Englishman to extensively draw attention to the Anglo-Saxon pagan religion. In A Restitution, Verstegan presents seven idols from the Germanic pantheon.

The rather charming portraits of each idol eventually became the most long-lived part of the book, as they were copied and re-copied for other books.

Pictured: The Idol of the Sun

Still, in creating these depictions at all, Verstegan disregarded the idea from Tacitus, his main source, that the ancient Germans in fact did not think it was appropriate to portray their gods with human likeness.

Pictured: The Idol of the Moon

To round out his description of the gods, Verstegen also included information about how they influenced later England.

Pictured: The Idol Tuisco

For instance, Woden’s name remained in use in “sundry places where in great likely-hood he was adored,” such as “Wodnesborough in Kent, Wodnesfeild in Stafford shire,” and others.

Pictured: The Idol Woden

According to one historian, the use of onomastics (the study of the history of proper names) to recover the significance of Anglo-Saxon sites was “certainly a novelty around 1600.”

Pictured: The Idol Thor

Verstegan felt these linkages established a substantiated etymological connection between the ancient Germans and the modern English.

Pictured: The Idol Friga

To that end, he chose to depict the idols for which he believed the seven English days of the week were named: The Idol of the Sun, The Idol of the Moon, Tuisco, Woden, Thor, Friga, and Seater.

Pictured: The Idol Seater

Having described the Anglo-Saxon ancient way of life, Verstegan is sure to call special attention to their life in England. He highlights two momentous events with beautiful engravings: the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England and their conversion to Christianity.

In the former, three boats are seen arriving on the coast of Kent in 429 CE. The gentlemen stepping off the boat are dressed in what appears to be sixteenth-century attire, although Verstegan makes a point to write that he intends to “shew the manner of the Apparell which they wore; the Weapons which they used, and the Banner or Ensigne first by them there spread in the field.” The banner to which he refers is a clear depiction of the flag of Kent.

Arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Kent

The other image portrays St. Augustine introducing Christianity to King Ethelbert in 597 AD. Verstegen seized this opportunity to depict the prominent role of Catholic monks at this pivotal moment in English history, although he makes no direct mention in praise of Catholicism, merely noting that after their conversion, the Saxons set about building churches, monasteries, and schools.

Introduction of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons
The English Language

Verstegan’s evidence for the idea that the English are Anglo-Saxons is extremely varied, but it is clear he thinks his best proof lies in the English language. Verstegan was an English language traditionalist, believing that English should retain as many Saxon qualities as possible. While he represents a school of ‘purists,’ there were also ‘neologizers,’ who thought the elasticity of the English language was in fact its strength. Both schools were hoping to slowly make English into a more respected language, but they had differing opinions about how to get there.

In A Restitution, Verstegan extolls the inherent merits of English, holding that the language is “discredited by our language borrowing” to the point that English speakers would be left with “no language at all, but the scum of many languages.” His view of language is seen by many historians, including Massimiliano Morini, as an extension of his racial philosophy: “terms like ‘pure,’ ‘true,’ and ‘unmixed’ are used to define Verstegan’s idea of good English and to praise the nobility of Germanic blood.”

This idea of nobility in blood and language had interesting effects on Verstegan’s view about the Danish and Norman invasions. He did not mind the "blood-mixing" that occurred in these instances. He is careful to establish that both of these groups were of Germanic origins as well. He was, however, very opposed to the language-mixing that resulted from the Norman invasion—the Normans had forsaken their Germanic tongue, adopting the French language instead. Eventually, the Normans were “taught” to have a higher opinion of English, and Verstegen was proud of one thing: “The Normans could not conquer the English language as they did the land.”

Verstegan briefly considers whether German was the original language of the earth, “yea the same that Adam spake in Paradice.” He appears to have gotten this idea from Dutch linguist Joannes Goropius Becanus. Verstegan consulted his friend Abraham Ortelius, creator of the first world atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Ortelius was known for having an extensive network of intellectuals all over Europe and had known Becanus personally, and Verstegan wanted to know if Becanus actually believed what he said about German language. Ortelius said that yes, he thought Becanus did believe it, and added that while some may laugh at the idea, they would have a hard time disproving it.

Still, Verstegan decided against it, concluding that Becanus’s “opinion exceeded his proofs.” Instead, he posits that German was one of the initial languages born in the confusion after the fall of the biblical Tower of Babel. Verstegan’s engraving of the Babel scene—featured on the title page of A Restitution—is strangely orderly and peaceful, in contrast to the medieval tradition, when men “made use of the Tower of Babel as a symbol for representing the misfortune of linguistic diversity . . . an image of terror and catastrophe.” Verstegan’s serene image underscores a satisfaction with the idea of languages separating neatly, going their separate ways, not to mingle again.

Tower of Babel

The linguistic aspects of A Restitution have historically been perceived as the strongest part of the book. Philip H. Goepp examined Verstegen’s glossary of old English words in 1949 and concluded that it is 90% accurate. He commented that A Restitution “tends to correct our notions of the linguistic naivete of the pre-scientific area.”

It should be noted, however, that other scholars have tempered this praise. For example, D.R. Woolf indicated the only area in which Verstegen surpassed William Camden (another, ultimately more well known, antiquarian who had begun to write about the Anglo-Saxon influences in England around the same time as Verstegen) is that “he went further than Camden in writing a book not simply on language, but on cultural change.”

Verstegan's Legacy

For the most part, prior to the late 1990s, historians looked at the contributions Verstegan made to the study of Anglo-Saxon antiquities as politically neutral. It seems clear, though, that advocating one theory about national origins over another was bound to have religio-political undertones in Renaissance England. For this reason, more recent historians have begun to acknowledge that just like the protestant antiquarians, Verstegan’s religion likely played a role in his antiquarian discourse. After all, he was a known agent of counter-reformation ideology and “the single most important English Catholic agent in the Low Countries.”

Anyone familiar with his complete works would notice right away that A Restitution is an uncharacteristic deviation from his usual religious efforts. However, being overt and antagonistic with his Catholic publications had gotten Verstegan thrown into prison and chased out of the country, and he may have wanted to return home to England, so I believe he felt it was time to take a less heavy-handed approach. A Restitution marks the only time in Verstegan’s career that he allowed his Catholicism to take a back seat and his antiquarianism to take the wheel.

There is some evidence to support the conclusion that his antiquarian work was to some extent a vehicle for religious activism. In A Restitution, Verstegan depicts Catholicism in a positive light, as one of the entities that helped shape England, although admittedly, it is exceptionally subtle.

More convincingly, in 1613, Verstegan produced a new treatise called Dutch Antiquities that reproduced large sections of A Restitution with two key differences: it examined the German heritage of the Dutch instead of the English, and it was decidedly more obvious in its anti-Protestant motivations. It was favorably received in the southern (and Catholic) part of the Netherlands. Furthermore, Verstegan seems to have been contemplating taking a more understated approach as early as 1593:

“Me thinckes I could oute of sundry our late Englishe hereticall books (for I have license to read them as also others) drawe foorthe very espectiall matter to move any indifferent Protestant to become doubtfull of the truthe in either the Puritane or Protestant religion.”

Finally, when the new English king, James I, came to the throne in 1603, Catholics like Verstegan probably had some hope that there might be a reconciliation which would allow them to return to their homeland. James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was seen as something of a Catholic martyr. Perhaps Verstegan felt that a softening could occur with his flattering antiquarian work that proved a Catholic could also be a faithful Englishman.

If he indeed hoped to bring about a reunion between England and her exiled Catholics, it was unfortunate for Verstegan that he released A Restitution in the spring of 1605. In November of that same year, the famous Gunpowder Plot unfolded. English Catholic extremist Robert Catesby recruited a number of men to carry out an assassination attempt against James I by setting off explosives in the House of Lords. The plot failed when Guy Fawkes, one of Catesby’s accomplices, was discovered with 20 barrels of gunpowder in the palace cellar. By 1606, all of the conspirators were executed and Protestant-Catholic relations worsened considerably.

The plot could not have happened at a worse time for Verstegan, who was of course not invited back to England, in spite of his book. He lived to around 90 but spent the rest of his life in Antwerp—he married a Dutch woman, published mostly in Dutch, and does not appear to have ever attempted to go back to London. According to at least one scholar, the Gunpowder Plot virtually ensured that Verstegan’s work would remain a piece of antiquarian literature with no apparent political motivations.

Although Verstegan’s name has faded from most history books, he is consequential, both for his Catholic antagonism as well as his antiquarianism.

He does not tend to get credit for it, but the success of Verstegan's book helped to direct English antiquarian studies away from the Trojan myth—a legacy of the Renaissance emphasis on the classical world—and towards what would become the more dominant theme in the seventeenth century: Anglo-Saxon studies.

Verstegan was the first scholar to devote a book to bucking the Trojan trend and celebrating the German heritage of England. He is known in linguistic circles for having been the first to develop a glossary of Old English, and in literary circles for giving the first English account of the Pied Piper in a printed book—all future English iterations of the story appear to be based upon his. He made modest but fascinating contributions to the history of geology and paleontology, noting how the earth can change dramatically over time and publishing images of tongue stones and other fossils, acknowledging their organic origin.

Right after the release of A Restitution, other antiquaries praised Verstegan and used him as a source. Soon, however, he became overshadowed and obsolete in England, no doubt in part because of his religious leanings. His struggles can shine a light for historians on the time period and culture in which he lived. When he is placed in the context of the religious and political controversies of his day, his work gains some interest as an illustration of the difficulties faced by English Catholic scholars.

In some ways a very modern man, Verstegan had an investigative and empirical spirit, and he was also the sort of man who stood up for what he believed, for better or worse. This left him destined to be not just an outlaw in his own country, but of history as well.

Note: This article was originally written as an assignment for a Scientific Revolution class with Dr. Bill Ashworth in my graduate history program at the University of Missouri Kansas City. The pictures from Verstegan's book were taken in the Rare Book Room at Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, MO.


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Created By
Emma Priesendorf


Book photos: Emma Priesendorf at the Rare Book Room, Linda Hall Library | White Cliffs of Dover: Wikipedia | Cap Blanc-Nez: Robby G. C.

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