Much Noise No Nuts, Part 2

Banner - Quixote discusses arms over letters

23 April 2022
· Shake-Speare’s connection to Cervantes via Sicily, or not ·

nuts and nutcrackers in bowlPart 1’s elaboration of my non-collaboration in anything to do with Cardenio was mucho ruido y pocas nueces. I did say so. Part 2 now follows in Part 1’s noisy, nutless footsteps.

It’s a tale of movement through space as well as time, of a journey almost as unlikely as Willy’s to La Mancha, ending up elsewhere than might be expected. But it’s a good story.

The Challenge. It’s not unheard of to read that during my Italian travels in the summer of 1575 I visited the island of Sicily, where I later set Much Ado About Nothing and most of The Winter’s Tale. To read that while I was in Palermo I issued a quixotic challenge to defend Elizabeth and England by contest of knightly arms against any opponent. To read that no one was brave enough to take up my gauntlet.

Nor is it unheard of to read that Miguel de Cervantes was nearby in Naples at this time, or even nearer in Sicily itself. He was not yet a published writer but an unemployed veteran with a disabled arm, hard up, trying to obtain a government job or military pension. Spanish Phil held the crowns of the kingdoms of Naples (southern Italy) and Sicily. The region swarmed with Spanish soldiers and bureaucrats.

Extrapolations follow from this suppositious juxtaposition. Cervantes and I would never have met (we ran in different circles), but he could easily have heard of the eccentric English nobleman who made a public display of anachronistic chivalry. Who’s to say that he didn’t file it away for use when it came time to create his own chivalric throwback, Don Quixote de la Mancha. It’s a good story, so good that I’ve been tempted to use it myself once or twice. It’s almost irresistible.

There’s only one problem.

The problem. While there’s a partial paper trail for my stops along the west coast (follow the money credit), there are no contemporary records that put me in Sicilia. Only a single source lies at the root of every word written about my Palermo challenge, rather like that hot air business with John Aubrey.

Once again it’s a tale first published well after the event described, in a 1590 travelogue.Title pg 1590 Webbe's Travails

Rare and most vvon-
derfull things which Edvv.
VVebbe an Englishman borne, hath
seene and passed in his troublesome
travailes, in the Cities of Jerusalem,
Damasko, Bethlehem and Galely :
and in the landes of Jewrie,
Egypt, Grecia, Russia,
and Prester John.

VVherein is set forth his ex-
treame slavery sustained many yeeres to-
gether in the Gallies and vvarres of the great
Turke, against the landes of Persia, Tarta-
ria, Spaine, and Portugale, with the maner
of his releasement and comming
into England May last.

Newly enlarged and corrected by the Author.

Printed for William Wright.
1 5 9 0.

The Story. Here is Webbe’s report. It’s another meme origin similar to the one John Stow wrote about Bess’s perfumed gloves, and it’s every bit as difficult to read.

Original source for Palermo challenge

Many things I have omitted to speak of, which I have seen and noted in the time of my troublesome travel. One thing did greatly comfort me which I saw long since in Sicilia, in the city of Palermo, a thing worthy of memory, where the right honourable the Earl of Oxenford a famous man for Chivalry, at what time he travelled into foreign countries, being then personally present, made there a challenge against all manner of persons whatsoever, and at all manner of weapons, as Tournaments, Barriers with horse and armour, to fight and combat with any whatsoever, in the defence of his Prince and country: for which he was very highly commended, and yet no man durst be so hardy to encounter with him, so that all Italy over, he is acknowledged ever since for the same, the only Chevalier and Noble man of England. This title they give unto him as worthily deserved.

What’s to be made of this? How to reconcile Webbe’s first-person anecdote with the absence of any corroboration? Is he to be trusted?

The best way to answer that is to read the travelogue. I’ve made a new transcription from the original at Most Wonderful: Webbe’s Travels, or see other options in Sources. At twenty-eight quarto pages it’s more a pamphlet than a book, but does it belong on a shelf with Baedeker, or Swift? Some have come to doubt Webbe’s truthfulness, or even his existence. The man he claimed as his father –a master gunner named Richard Webb– was real enough, but he himself was a cipher outside of his pages. Edward Webbe is his own Authorship Question.

Keeping the Faith. Webbe devoted much space in his Travels to affirmations of loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and the (Protestant) Christian religion. This was a common enough thing to do in print at the time, but Webbe laid it on with a trowel. He assured his most gracious and dread Sovereign and less exalted readers that he was proof against all pressure to convert to Islam or Papistry, steadfast through years of chained slavery and imprisonment by Turks and Tartars, and when accused of heresy by Catholics. He endured physical punishments including seuen hundreth blowes with a bulls pissellreference vpon the naked skinne, and the strappado administered three times over fifteen days in a Genovese dungeon when he was accused of espionage against Spain. One wonders how he survived these ordeals and tortures without permanent injuries and PTSD.

Strappado, Hans Speiss, 1513The strappado

Many readers swallowed Webbe whole in 1590, and some still do, or nearly so. This essay from late 2014The posted essay is undated but I found a précis from December, and the Wayback Machine’s earliest capture is March 2015. Close enough. was penned by an instructor at an Irish university who writes and lectures about orthodox Shakespeare. (I can’t make this stuff up.) Without doubt as to Webbe’s identity or itinerary she takes him at his word, though conceding that a few of his tales might be on the tall side. The kingdom of Prester John, perhaps.

Nor have Oxfordians been immune, at least to the lure of the Palermo story. As I said, it’s a tough one to resist. The senior Ogburns, in their 1952 biography of me, cited Ward’s 1928 biography for their use of Webbe’s anecdote [see my library page for book details]. Ward quoted Webbe as gospel, adding his own character reference: “Edward Webbe was a Master Gunner. This appointment was one of importance, as its holder was a senior officer in the Army, and consequently a man of standing and repute.” Who supplied the job title? The Master Gunner himself, no one else. To be fair, Captain Ward spent his career in the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, and may have been constitutionally unable to believe that a fellow Army officer would lie about being one.

After its initial lifespan of three quick print runs, the Travailes fell into a long period of dormancy. Out of sight, out of mind. This is how a work’s subtext disappears, like the double meaning in Much Ado’s title. Slang changes, topical humour isn’t topical any more, private jokes lose their in-the-know audience, parody goes off when what’s being skewered no longer exists to be recognised. Time passes and all that remains is what’s on the surface, unless the reader has a sharp understanding of the past.

In the later 1800s a facsimile edition [Ashbee] and reissues in modern type [Arber, Goldsmid] brought Webbe to a Victorian audience, of the sort who were happy to get their dose of culture from Garrick’s gutted Shakespeares because they got home from the theatre earlier. The 1885-1900 edition of the DNB (freely available) has a straight entry for Webbe which relied on Webbe for its facts and Arber’s annotations (which relied on Webbe) for its bona fides. The current 2004 ODNB entry (not freely available) made no significant changes. I’m not surprised.

Gunner v Gunner. Not all were so credulous. In 1915 Henry W L Hime, indisputably a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Artillery, took aim at the Master Gunner in The English Historical Review. There he called out Webbe’s tactical gaffes and chronological impossibilities, such as witnessing my Sicilian challenge in 1575 after being captured by Tartars when they burned Moscow in 1571, and spending the next five years as a royal slave in the Crimea. So much for the anecdote.

lit fuse British mortar circa 1740

Hime demolished the plausibility of much of Webbe’s account, but he never questioned that his target was a man named Edward Webbe. “There is not a sentence in the book that might not have been written, with the help of Mandeville and similar books, by a man who spent his whole life in London.” Hime took Webbe seriously enough to reduce his 326-year-old travelogue to rubble, shot by shot. A master gunner himself, Hime was offended by the apparent poseur.

Webbe, in his Epistle to the Reader, claimed there is nothing mentioned or expressed but that which is of truth, while later in the same paragraph my memorie faileth me, by meanes of my great and greevous troubles. I was highly amused by this in 1590. I still am.

So Close But No Cigar. Jonathan Sell, a professor of English Literature at the Universidad de Alcalá near Madrid, is a more recent smeller of something rotten. In Rhetoric and Wonder in English Travel Writing 1560-1613 (2006), he sees Webbe fibbing his trunk-hose off, schmoozing Elizabeth, hoping for royal favour and royal military employment. Questioning this approach, Sell asks: Would a writer seeking self-promotion knowingly lie to his Queen? If so, either Webbe was a foolhardy writer or Elizabeth a foreseeably gullible audience, in contrast to whom sceptical modern readers are commendably wise. (Talk about schmoozing.)

And Sell hadn’t finished his first paragraph before he’d connected Webbe’s travel-tale wooing of Elizabeth to Othello’s of Desdemona [I.iii.479-491]. What’s the saying? If it was a snake it woulda bit ’im.

Travelogue update. The universidad in Alcalá de Henares is a leisurely five-minute walk from the Miguel de Cervantes Birthplace Museum.

Put On Your Sunglasses. The tale of Webbe’s Travailes isn’t entirely troublesome. Connie Beane, unlike her Florida neighbour Theo Redux, has put the local sunshine to good use. In the 2018 edition (#20) of the SOF journal The Oxfordian, Ms Beane’s article The True Story of Edward Webbe and Troublesome Travailes illuminates Webbe and his travelogue with a brightness I’ve yet to see anywhere else. Her arch title signals that she’s a fellow travailer.

She gets itSOF

I’ll refrain from going through the article step by step. Some of what you’ve been reading is my own view of the same scenery. Moreover, you can click on the image to open or download the PDF from the SOF’s archive of past Oxfordian issues, and take your own walk.

Travaile yourself, from Webbe’s travelogue to Connie’s True Story. It’s quite a trip.

You Still Need To Ask? Who was Edvv. VVebbe? From vvhence did he come, and vvhither did he go? In between, what on earth was he up to with that pamphlet? Along with babies whose eyes open nine days after birth, blue swans and hairy cannibals, was my challenge just one more invention, an in-joke that time transformed into a well-travelled trope?

well-known tourist postcardEvery word in this post doth almost tell my game, but sending you picture postcards about Webbe or anyone else doesn’t get you out of your Authorship armchair. What matters are the sights you see with your own eyes. Read, listen. Ask lots of questions. Be commendably wise and sceptical about popular tourist traps destinations. Many of the stories in the guidebooks they sell are as made-up as Webbe’s.

Find your own answers. Travel your own road. That’s how you really get somewhere, even if it isn’t Sicily with Cervantes, or the royal court of Prester John.


• Lolofernes held up the completion of these posts, but his interruption enabled me to invent discover the hidden code proving that I’m Don Quixote after all. Hostage to Catalonia, posted 21 February 2021.

• Another tale from my Italian travels, about the gloves I bought in Florence to give to Elizabeth. Smell the Gloves, Part 1 posted 12 March 2017, and Part 2 posted 18 March.

• Something I bought for myself in Venice turned up (literally) not long ago. Lost and Found, posted 7 October 2021.SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL READING

  • • Banner: Don Quixote, Cardenio story
  • · Quixote declaims on the superior value of arms over letters
  • · Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1880-81 edition
  • • Illustration: Strappado in use to extract a confession, 1513
  • · cc-public-domain Wikimedia Commons
  • VVebbe’s Travailes []
  • · Begins on page 127 of Occasional Fac-simile Reprints of Rare and Curious Tracts of the 16th and 17th Centuries, by Edmund Ashbee, 1868. Here is the megrim-inducing blackletter text.
  • VVebbe’s Travailes []
  • · From Edward Arber’s “carefully edited” series of English Reprints, 1868. Modern type but original orthography. Arber begins with a reverse-engineered chronology of Webbe’s life and travels, headed by this admission: “Webbe, apparently an unlettered man, goes confusedly backward and forward in his narration, so as to render any chronology of his life little better than guesswork.”
  • VVebbe’s Travailes []
  • · Part of another set of reissues, Bibliotheca Curiosa, privately printed by Edmund Goldsmid in Edinburgh, 1885. No annotations to speak of, modern type, no ſs.
  • The Travels of Edward Webbe []
  • · by H W L Hime
  • · The English Historical Review
  • · Vol 31 No 123, July 1916, pgs 464-470
  • · DOI: 10.1093/ehr/xxxi.cxxiii.464
  • Research Profile: Edel Semple, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies
  • · English Department, University College Cork, Ireland

Tilting at windmills, illust by Walter Crane

illustration by Walter Crane, 1919 · [source]