Mini Episode - P.S. Dallam

Thomas Dallam’s journey begins


Hello, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast where I follow travellers through that medieval world, whether they be warriors, wool traders, or wandering friars. And at this time, I would like to thank the newest addition to the Human Circus Patreon family. Thank you, Nicholas!

I would also like to point out that for some nominal monthly amount, the price of a side of bacon at breakfast say, you could also be part of that Patreon and keeping this podcast up on its feet - and by “this podcast” I mean me, it’s creator - and you could be doing so at or by way of my website at That aside, let’s get back to the story, the story of a journey from Constantinople to England.

It’s a story with smaller stakes than those battled over on the Syrian coast in the Salah ad-Din series. It also means that I’m going back a bit events that I covered in the past, in 2017 apparently. You see, a while ago - and I’m recording this in late August, 2019 - I had someone ask me why I hadn’t told the story of Thomas Dallam’s return from his time in Constantinople, a return I referenced in that last episode but didn’t cover in any detail, having felt, back in 2017, that I was very ready to move on to other stories and other characters. So in a kind of Thomas Dallam postscript, I’m doing that now. What I’ll do is leave this here as a new release with the current episodes for a few weeks, and then I’ll bump it back next to the Dallam episodes, so that people listening through to those can hear this as a conclusion. 

For those hearing this after a run of Salah ad-Din episodes, you, like me, could probably use a bit of a recap. After all, it’s been a couple of years. So let’s start with that. Those of you hearing this episode right after the last Thomas Dallam one, bear with us a moment.

Let’s start with the basics. Thomas Dallam was an Elizabethan organ maker and one who had been responsible for a very special organ, a wonder of flair and automation featuring figures that rose to sound their silver trumpets, birds from bushes, and planets to make their movements across the sky. And all of this could be set in motion to music that played with or without a performer at its keys. 

Such an oh so wonderful instrument was no fleeting bit of fancy to brighten up the afternoons of English nobility. It was a diplomatic weapon and an impressive gift, to be transported from Elizabeth’s England to Constantinople by boat in 1599, and Dallam, our Dallam, was to go with it. 

On his journey, he encountered pirates, stumbled over local customs and modes of communication while ashore, and generally saw something of the world that a craftsman from Lancashire could hardly have expected to have seen. He landed in Constantinople, repaired the organ, which had suffered somewhat while at sea, and then presented it to the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed III. And he didn’t just present it; he performed on it before Mehmed. Despite his fears that any moment might be his last if the sultan did not like what he heard, it was a tremendous success.

Thomas Dallam came to Constantinople; he did well for himself there in the city where there was ample appetite for him to stay. And it was not only people pushing him to stay.

One November day, Thomas walked out to the gates of the city that led out towards Adrianople, in other words those pointing towards the northwest, pointing, eventually, if you sprang from those gates in flight and kept on going, to Lancashire. There at the gates, he saw a caravan of camels, so tall, he had never seen such a thing, though I’m not sure what kind of an expert on camel height he could possibly have been. Then he turned back and saw the city of Constantinople as a tourist, taking in the many monuments it contained, its effigies of past and present greatness. So much of the city did he see that day, that though he had put on new shoes that morning, by night they were worn quite out. And maybe he overdid it. Maybe he wore himself quite out as well as his shoes. He fell ill with a fever and feared for his life. 

When the opportunity came to leave Constantinople, Thomas was not at all recovered, drained enough from his sickness that he was still really too weak to travel, “not able to go on foot one mile in a day,” and he was told so too. But he would not stay. There was a promising company readying to depart, and if he did not go then, then when would he have another chance? Against the wishes and advice of those around him, he left that November of 1599, on the day of the 28th, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He went aboard a Turkish ship whose crew and master were, he grumbled most barbarous, its voyage discontented.

December did not begin well for the ship and its passengers. After passing the ruins of Troy, which Thomas had pawed over on his way to the city, strong winds forced them in at the island of Lemnos, almost shipwrecking them. Then, when the weather settled enough for them to leave, they were soon becalmed. 

By the 8th of that month, however, the wind had turned fair, and by the 9th they’d reached the Greek mainland. The next day they took to horses, making their way overland. 

The company Thomas kept now was one of eight mounted men, with four extra horses along for bedding, wine, and food for three days. The way was not restful. Indeed, rest was hardly possible for the fear of having their throats cut in the night, but then there was at least good wine and good sheep.

As the way turned mountainous - Thomas identifies this as the hills of Parnassus - the weather worsened: thunder, lightening, rain, and snow, and bad enough for the organ-maker, surely only slightly exaggerating, to say it was, quote, “so bad as I think never did Christians travel the like.” It was steep and stony, and the margin for error was narrow enough that only a small misstep by one of their steeds would send both horse and rider to their death down below, not the only source of nearby danger as it turned out. There was also the unpleasant business of the “four stout villains” that dogged their tracks, but they wouldn’t find out about them just yet, not until they had spent four more days in crossing the mountainous region, not until they had rested in a little village where, though the country was cold, the women went about bare-footed, not until the 17th when they had reached Lepanto. That was where their guide and interpreter told them what had been happening. 

The guide was an interesting fellow himself. He was in the service of the Ottomans and in religion, Thomas said, “a perfect Turk,” but, like many who made their lives at the centre of Ottoman imperial power, he was not born to that part of the world. By quite a coincidence, he was, like Thomas, originally from Lancashire, the town of Chorley more specifically, and he went by the name Finch.

This Finche - whose Lancashire origins Thomas seems to find perfectly natural - now informed his charges of the danger they had been in. Those “four stout villains” had not only followed them; they had spoken with Finche, and now this was all coming out in the open, Thomas and the others realized they had seen the four doing so, but only ever one at a time. The four had planned to sneak into their camp at night, to cut their throats and rob them, but Finch had put them off: tomorrow, the next day, the one after that. That fourth night, the would-be assassins would not be put off. They didn’t intend to spend day after day on the venture, to watch the sun rise and set over the same ignorant prey. They made it clear that it had to be then, for they would go no further. So Finch communicated to them that the fourth night would do just fine. They could come in and finish the job. But after tucking Thomas and the others in for the night, cautioning them, as he had the previous three, to keep a close watch, he went over to the villains camp, and caused them to drink enough wine to bring first intoxication and then paralyzingly violent sickness. 

Thomas, when he learned of it all, thanked God in his writings, which was, I think, a little unfair, as it was pretty clearly Finche who he owed most immediate thanks to, though for what it’s worth, he does acknowledge Finche as the party’s trusted friend. 

So as I said, this story was being related to Thomas and his friends in the town of Lepanto, “a good haven town, lying close to the sea, in the rising of a hill,” where he reported a population that was the greatest part Jews, with some Turks, and some Greeks. He noted its abundant springs, some of which drove mill wheels; the very pleasant wines, some white, some red; and the production of currants, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, dates, and almonds. 

Otherwise known as Nafpaktos, the town was situated on the mainland Greek coast on the Gulf of Corinth. It had been the site, some thirty years earlier, of the naval Battle of Lepanto between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League, a coalition of forces from present-day Spain and Italy. That battle had been just a tremendous success for the coalition, but it had not in any way led to a rolling back of the Ottoman borders that had stretched north into central Europe. The Greece that Thomas travelled through was still an Ottoman imperial possession.  

From Lepanto, the travellers crossed the water to what he called the Morea, the Pelopponese peninsula, and we get a taste of the violence Jews were vulnerable to. They stayed three nights in the house of one Jewish man, an honest man Thomas said, but then they couldn't see the English consul for he was 40 miles away seeing to the hanging of another. There's no mention of what crime this person may have committed, but a note on the same page, that a member of the company needed to be held back from cutting off the head of a Jew for speaking against Jesus in some fashion, leaves me thinking that it might not have been much, might not have been anything at all.

The party dined on Christmas Eve beside a river, shaded by the trees and watching the swallows flit past above them. Though it was winter, Thomas felt it hotter than an English summer day. That night, the men who kept watch - half the company kept watch while the others slept - reported a ball of fire, specifically a great football of fire, rising in the sky to the east, flaring bright and then falling and fading to the west. There was some regret from those who had slept through it. 

On Christmas morning they all rose at 4 o’clock and travelled through largely uninhabited country, just the occasional shepherd's hut or cluster of poor cottages. As they continued, the herds of swine, sheep, and goat became countless, the shepherds' dogs increasingly threatening to pull them from their horses. Then, out on the plain, the skies opened. The rain was sudden, torrential, violent but unstirred by wind. It lasted less than 15 minutes, but for that time their horses would not move. They stood like statues. Enough water fell that no ground was to be seen all around them, and then, just as suddenly it ceased, and all but disappeared into the earth.

They passed on, the sea and an infinite number of what Thomas called wild swans on their right; he seems to have been easily overwhelmed by quantities of animals,  and often they were numberless or infinite in their presence. They passed on, with mountains and the occasional castle to their left, moving west, until they reached the coast. They said goodbye to Finche, the capable guide and interpreter from Lancashire. He returned to Constantinople, and they bartered their way aboard a swine boat bound for the island of Zante. 

Now you might remember Zante from Thomas’s outbound journey, from his adventurous hilltop climb, the confusing transactions that took place there, his bungled attempt at sexual tourism, and he might well have remembered that too and perhaps planned a return visit to the house on the hill, but he’d be doing no such thing for now.

They were come from Constantinople without a letter of health from a Venetian or other Italian, and as such were to be quarantined on arrival. It was to be ten days of imprisonment and then, if any showed signs of sickness, another ten days. They were given an unusually pleasant place to spend those days, an empty house by the sea, but on the other hand the people of the swine boat that had brought them were housed with them, and they were obliged to provide food for these people, a burden they seem to have really grumbled under. A Paul Pinder among the party petitioned the local health officials to do something about it, which they did. It was agreed that the boat-men needed only to leap from the window into the seawater with their clothes on, and they could go free. But this, they quite reasonably did not want to do. So a Mr Connisbye drew a scimitar and quite a bit less reasonably swore that if they did not do so, he would cut off their legs and then make them jump. They didn’t wait to see if he really would. 

Many other things happened during their imprisonment, but for want of time, he was not going to share them with us. They would spend 46 days on the island waiting for a ship bound for Venice or England, and after 46 days, such a ship finally arrived. By quite a coincidence it was the Hector, the very ship that had brought Thomas and his organ out to Constantinople in the first place. He felt a touch of regret, for he would have liked to have seen Venice, but he was grateful for a safe passage among men he was familiar with. And on the 26th of February, he sailed from Zante.

It was a halting beginning to the voyage that saw them forced to harbour by foul weather, but once they had sheltered in Kefalonia, which should be very familiar to any Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey players among you, and partaken of its excellent, sweet wines, they were on their way again and in the company of seven other ships. 

By the sixth day they were passing the Gulf of Venice and with it Thomas’s last chance to see that city. They were thrown off course by gale winds, but not particularly troubled. Soon, they sighted the “burning mountain of Sicily,” Mount Etna, and also that island’s watch towers lighting up at their presence, each one signalling on to the others the number of unfriendly sails they’d spotted. At times, their ships were close enough to the coast to see bodies of armed men gathered there, though whether it was in response to any threat they posed it’s hard to say.

Life at sea wasn’t always gale force winds and volcano spotting. Days passed with nothing to remark upon or only that the wind had been fair. But then on others, a dash of casual piracy really spiced things up. Near Sicily, some thrills were provided by a Spanish ship bound for Malta. The Hector was the one to take the prize, a little ten-man barque loaded with the wheat of which Sicily produced so much. The wheat and the boat itself were given away, but Thomas, who in the past had been deeply aggrieved by how these things were handled, didn’t grumble much over it. He was simply pleased with the very fine white bread and good cheese they had of it. 

Late March was about passing encounters with other ships, the sea not such a big, empty place as you might think, and about good weather days of progress followed immediately by ones when they were hurled back or becalmed, punishment, some mused, for that prize they had taken. And that sort of superstition was not in isolation. 

On the evening of the first of April, when Thomas dined with some merchants in their great cabin, the cry of a mermaid was heard as if it had hailed the ship, and no, I’ve no idea what exactly that sounded like; he doesn’t tell us. And there was going to be no attempt to investigate the source of the sound - was it an animal, a shipwrecked sailor in need of aid -  for the boatswain wouldn’t allow it. Hopefully, it wasn’t a shipwrecked sailor in need of aid. 

Reaching the Balearic Islands, they put in at Formentera for freshwater and found also a headless body near one of the island’s watchtowers. They otherwise found it inhabited only by exiles Thomas says, a haven for Barbary pirates other sources say. Ibiza brought better things though, a kindly merchant with a boat full of gifts to supplement their unappealing stores: lemons, oranges, herbs, and little onions, green beans, lettuce, leeks, and two goats, a full feast really, and much appreciated.  

There was a shark that followed the ship along the Spanish coast, somewhere near the Cabo de Gata, a creature sufficiently fearsome looking that Thomas was sure that “if a man had come within his length of the water, he would hardly have escaped,”  sufficiently fearsome that when the master gunner made an attempt with a harpoon, the weapon was only blunted against the skin behind its head and left scarcely a mark for it to carry off.

As they travelled, the little fleet was growing in size, picking up ships they met along the way. There was a Yarmouth ship on April 13th and 3 more English vessels along with a Flemish one on the 15th near Gibraltar. They were gathering strength, but there was concern when the weather scattered them for a time, leaving them spread league by league. What if the Spanish were to come upon them then, in their weakness? It was no idle worry. 

They were near Gibraltar, but they were struggling to enter the straight, the winds being against them the one day and then on the 16th leaving them becalmed. But on the 17th, at 10 o’clock, the wind was with them, and by the next morning they were passing Cape Spartel on the Moroccan side. 

One of their company, the fastest one, had gone on ahead of the rest. The Rebecka was going to carry the news of their coming on ahead, but then early in the morning of the 20th, a Sunday, a sail appeared on the horizon. As it grew closer, it became clear that the approaching ship was the Rebecka. Why was it back?

What they didn’t yet know, what they’d soon learn was that the men of the Rebecka had themselves seen two sails. They’d thought them at first to be ships come fresh from the Indies loaded with wealth, but it had soon become clear that they were men-of-war, one 1,200 tons, one 800. The Rebecka had fled before them, coming into the view of the Hector that Sunday morning.

Now the Hector’s master wanted no part of this particular battle. Picking off Maltese grain shipments was more his style maybe, and this certainly promised to be a stiffer test than that 10 man crew had been able to offer; only one other ship, the Great Susan, was near at hand enough to help. But his sailors saw the matter differently. They were absolutely spoiling for the fight. And for whatever reason, the master acquiesced.

In the scenes that followed Thomas describes the men of the Hector readying themselves for the struggle. They went first to prayer, for who could know what was to happen. Then the gunners made ready their ordinance, the “feightes” were hung, the sheets to conceal the men aboard from their enemies, and the crews of the Hector and the Great Susan generally prepared themselves for the clash to come. Everything, every little thing, was in place for one last dramatic peak, one final adventure in the long adventure of Thomas’s trip to Constantinople and back, but then, he lets us down. Or someone, at some time, does. 

As you read along, you get to the build-up toward naval battle and then you read these words, just the cruelest to come across there between brackets, “Here some pages are missing,” and then there below them, the footnote: “These pages, doubtless, relate the battle, which, as the sequel shows, was a victory for the English.” 

So that’s disappointing. And though I honestly don’t remember, I suspect it had something to do with me not covering this section in the first place. But these are the accidents, sometimes happy, sometimes not so happy, on which our understanding of the past is based. Things are found; things are lost. Some reach us, seemingly against all odds, resurfacing unlooked for. Others are cut from our knowledge, including, unfortunately, these pages, this battle.

Thomas survived it of course, and as that footnote helpfully notes, his side was victorious, the Hector and the Great Susan evidently coming out on top. And they took a Spanish captain for a prisoner too. This at least we know, for in the last surviving page, we read that Thomas and three others put ashore at Dover, taking the captive with them, “unto the merchants,” which is interesting. We read that they blew trumpets all the way into town, that they took post horse to Canterbury, and from there to Rochester, and then on to London. 

They were as merry as could be, Thomas said, “being very glad that [they] were once again upon English ground,” and Thomas would not be leaving the home island again. His great adventure as over. He would not have another opportunity to see Venice. And we will not be seeing him again on this podcast, as this is - and I really mean it this time - the end of the road for him.