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Izaak Walton: The Compleat Anglican

"Study to be quiet" 1 Thessalonians IV, xi

Visitors to St. Mary's are instantly greeted by Izaak Walton. In 1878 a public subscription raised funds for a bust in the former North Door of the Nave overlooking the font where he was baptised on September 21st, 1593.

Izaak is best known today as the author of The Compleat Angler, a book which defies accurate description but which is usually regarded as an elaborate fishing manual. In truth, Izaak had a much more profound message to convey.

The message, hidden because of the turbulent times in which he lived, is all the more moving if one knows something of his life story. Annoyingly, the founding father of English biography left us scant details of his own life. They have to be gleaned from indirect sources.

A humble upbringing

Izaak Walton's date of birth is not recorded. Tradition places it on August 9th, 1593 but this is due to a misreading of his will, which he began on that day in 1683.

Another doubtful tradition says he was born in a house in Eastgate Street, where the police station now stands. But that lay west of Cope Street, the easternmost boundary of the tiny parish served by St. Chad's church, where one would have expected him to have been baptised.

His father, Jervis, was an alehouse keeper who died in February 1597, when Izaak was three. Eighteen months later, his mother Anne married another alehouse keeper who took over the Swan Inn in 1610.

We know nothing of Izaak's education, except that he must have had one. Possibly, he attended the grammar school then held in St Bertelin's Chapel, the foundations of which survive outside St. Mary's.

By 1611, the year he turned eighteen, Izaak was apprenticed as a draper to his brother-in-law, Thomas Grinsell, in London. Linen drapery was a luxury trade and the business he opened in 1624 near the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane made Izaak a prosperous man.

Life in London

In November 1618, he joined the Ironmongers' Company, one of the twelve major livery companies of the City, and later became a senior member. This is why he is sometimes wrongly described as an ironmonger by trade.

Fleet Street lay in the parish of St. Dunstan's-in-the-West where the vicar was the poet Dr. John Donne, also Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Izaak served as both verger and church-warden and the two men became close friends. Donne was the subject of Izaak's first biography, published in 1640.

Izaak was twice married. In 1626 he married Rachel Floud, great-great-niece of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, martyr and author of the Book of Common Prayer. They had seven children all of whom died in infancy and Rachel herself died in 1640.

By 1644 Izaak, now a widower, retired from business and moved to Clerkenwell just north of the City, until about 1655. In 1647, at the age of 53, Izaak married Anne Ken, half-sister of Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, author of several popular hymns.

Anne bore him three more children, of whom a son, Isaac, became a canon of Salisbury Cathedral. Their daughter, Anne, married Dr. William Hawkins, a prebendary canon of Winchester Cathedral and their son, John Hawkins, married Anne Wettenhall, grand-daughter of the owner of the High House in Stafford when King Charles I stayed there in 1642. This may be the origin of the unfounded nineteenth century tradition that Izaak "resided many years under its roof".

The Civil War and Commonwealth

As a devout Anglican trusted by Royalists, the Civil War and Commonwealth were uncongenial times for Izaak. Charles I was beheaded in January 1649 and Parliament banned the Book of Common Prayer Izaak loved.

Charles II failed to regain the throne at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 and fled the country. The King hid the Lesser George, a gold and diamond jewel of the Order of the Garter at a farm in Staffordshire to avoid being identified by it while trying to escape. Izaak secretly delivered it to a prisoner in the Tower of London, who escaped and returned it to the exiled King. Had he been discovered, this adventure could easily have cost Izaak his life.

The Contemplative Man's Recreation

Izaak spent much of the Commonwealth period staying with friends in Staffordshire at country houses including Hilcote Hall, ancestral home of the Noel family close to Shallowford, where he bought Halfhead Farm from Walter Noel in 1655.

A fishing companion Izaak named in The Compleat Angler, Robert Roe, lived at nearby Worston and signed the mortgage on the farm. In a poem The Angler's Wish, Izaak refers to fishing in Shawford, or Shallowford Brook, now known as the River Meece.

It was at this time that he wrote The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. Revised three times during his lifetime, The Compleat Angler was sub-titled "a discourse on rivers, fishponds, fish and fishing". It is really a plea for tolerance and moderation in matters of conscience - virtues which were in short supply. Such a book could never have been openly published at the time, hence the fishing manual disguise.

Later Life

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 greatly improved Izaak's fortunes. His friend Dr. George Morley was appointed Bishop of Worcester and made Izaak his business agent or steward.

When Morley was translated to Winchester in 1662, the Book of Common Prayer was reinstated, Izaak went with him, his second wife having died in Worcester where she was buried in the cathedral.

It was now that Izaak wrote his Lives of notable clergymen, the works for which he was best known during his lifetime. The life of the theologian Richard Hooker appeared in 1665, followed by those of the priest and poet George Herbert in 1670 and Bishop Robert Sanderson of Lincoln in 1678.

Izaak died aged 90 on December 15th, 1683, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral. He had lived through the reigns of four monarchs and a republic - through the Gunpowder Plot, the beheading of Archbishop William Laud, Oliver Cromwell's dictatorship and Charles II's attempt at religious toleration for Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholic recusants.

In his will, he left Halfhead Farm, at Shallowford, to the Corporation of Stafford as a charitable bequest to the town of his birth. A cottage there is now his museum. He also left us one of the world's most popular works of literature. He would be humbled to know The Compleat Angler has been published in over 450 editions - second only to the Holy Bible.

Neil Thomas