A historian’s pilgrimage to Somers’s worlds (Part Two): Whither the rest of Sir George?

It is easy to misplace a heart—lovesick teenagers do it all the time. Composed of soft tissue, actual hearts quickly decompose in the ground and leave no physical traces for archaeologists to find. I hoped that the rest of Sir George’s body could be more easily and decisively located, and I knew exactly where to look: Whitchurch Canonicorum, near his hometown of Lyme Regis in Dorset. Luckily, my wife’s parents live only 30 miles away in Sherborne, and we planned to spend several weeks in August 2009 visiting them. Perhaps seeing Somers’s home and last resting place would help me figure out whether he was Smith’s saint or Butler’s conniver.

On an overcast morning in August, I set out with my father-in-law, Mike, and my two daughters to go see “George,” as Charlotte and Katie took to calling him. My unsentimental wife declined to come, seeing no point in traipsing around the countryside in miserable weather to see “a dead knight.” We decided to visit Lyme Regis first to see where Sir George was born and raised and then end the trip at his grave site. Lyme’s beach was also a hook to lure my girls along. Mike drove. He knew the roads between Sherborne and Lyme Regis fairly well, and he perhaps worried for the car’s safety: the one time I had borrowed it I had hit a curb and burst a tire! Fifteen minutes later, we were bombing down tiny country lanes at speeds faster than are legally allowed on many U.S. interstates and traveling three times faster than Bermuda’s speed limit. High hedgerows lining the road made it feel like we were rushing through a canyon. It reminded me of the end of the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker’s X-wing was trying to blow up the Death Star—but Luke never had to slam on the brakes when a hay-laden tractor suddenly rounded a corner! Then we crested a hill and descended toward Lyme Regis, its beach glittering in the sun. The weather break seemed a good omen.

After exploring the beach (for the girls’ benefit), we went into Lyme Regis’s Philpot Museum to learn more about Sir George’s life and times. Unfortunately, few buildings from his era survive—fires in 1803 and 1844 devastated the town—but Lyme’s irregular medieval street plan is still in place. While my daughters looked at Jurassic fossils, I read up on Lyme Regis’s history and gleaned some interesting facts about Somers. He was born in a house on Broad Street in 1554, the fourth of five sons. His father was a middling merchant. Walter Raleigh, two years George’s senior, was a neighbour and boyhood friend. George apparently went to sea as a boy in the early 1560s and soon became a competent mariner. He seems to have spent his early maritime career trading rather than raiding, since his name does not appear in contemporary privateering accounts. Lyme was conveniently situated for trade with France and Spain, boasting a unique artificial breakwater called The Cobb to shelter local shipping.

Somers’s career really took off in 1582 after he married Joan Heywood. He was 28. She was just 19 but brought ownership of three houses in Lyme into the marriage as her dowry. Rental income and his continued commercial success enabled the couple to buy Berne Manor, a 200-acre estate near Whitchurch Canonicorum, and Orchard House, another 100-acre farm nearby, for the substantial sum of £600. In 1588, Somers coordinated Lyme Regis’s defenses as the enormous Spanish Armada approached England’s coast. He sent out three ships to join the epic sea battle that raged off the coast from his town and watched with relief as the English side prevailed.

Perhaps it was the threat of this Spanish invasion, or perhaps it was some other unrecorded abuse during an earlier sea voyage, that made Somers detest Spain. After 1588, his maritime career took a decidedly martial turn. He joined Sir Francis Drake’s unsuccessful invasion of Portugal in 1589 and took many prizes while cruising in Azorean waters. He used his share of the £8,000 in prize money to purchase Waybay House, a 1,000-acre manor near Weymouth. After both his father and brother died in 1590, Somers became head of the family shipping business and the guardian of his two nephews, Nicholas and Matthew. In 1595, he and Amyas Preston led a six-vessel privateer fleet that systematically pillaged much of the Spanish Caribbean. They raided Margarita Island’s pearl fishery and sacked Cumana, Caracas and Coche before “a most furious tempest” drove Somers off the Venezuela coast. (This was probably his first encounter with a hurricane.) He then called at Hispaniola, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and western Cuba before returning home via Newfoundland. The six-month expedition was financially disappointing in the slight plunder it yielded but provided a wealth of information about America. In 1597, he was part of another privateer expedition to the Azores, when his ship nearly sank in a storm—notice a trend? Somers then shifted his service from privateering to the Royal Navy in 1600, commanding several of Her Majesty’s warships. He played a vital role in stopping a Spanish army from landing in Kinsale, Ireland, in 1601 and netted more prize money from two cruises to the Azores.

In 1603, Somers abruptly retired from the sea and plunged into civic affairs. He was knighted the day before James I’s coronation, an honour bestowed more for his sizeable estates than for his military service to England. He was elected a Member of Parliament seven months later and became mayor of Lyme Regis in 1604. As an MP, his vigorous anti-Iberian streak put him at odds with James I’s conciliatory policies toward Spain. (Somers was among those who would have been blown up had Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot succeeded, which no doubt deepened his strident anti-Spanish views.) He found many like-minded men in London who, like his friend Walter Raleigh, denied Spain’s claim to America and sought to plant English colonies there. In 1606, Somers became a charter member of a new Virginia Company. Within a year, it had dispatched colonists to Jamestown.

Sir George was not very active in the Virginia Company before 1609, however. He was much more committed to domestic politics and business, dividing his time between London, Lyme Regis and his Berne Manor household. George and Joan were unable to have children, but they apparently raised their nephews Nicholas and Matthew as if they were their own. (Matthew proved a difficult teen: at 14, he was convicted and fined for drawing blood during a public brawl.) Taking stock of Sir George Somers in 1608, we find a mature businessman-politician in his fifties. His landed estates and continued overseas trading provided him with ample income. His home life seemed happy, although his wife may have resented his long absences in London. He was, in short, a financially comfortable, well-respected member of the lesser gentry, with little to gain and much to lose by embarking on some Atlantic boondoggle.

So why did he go? I puzzled over this as we wandered Lyme Regis’s streets after leaving the museum. Broad Street was festooned with colourful banners strung between cafes, tearooms, bookstores and shops selling fossils. Although the house where Sir George was born had been lost to fire, it was fitting that businesses still dominated this street, the modern-day descendants of merchants like the Somers family. Lyme Regis was a lovely place.

In early 1609, by contrast, Jamestown was far less so: it already had a bad reputation as a place where men quickly sickened and died and American Indians ambushed the unwary. Neither gold nor rich Indian empires had been found. And Spain was loudly protesting against the struggling colony and promising to destroy it. Perhaps this threat was how the Virginia Company persuaded Somers to venture to Virginia—and why Somers’s presence was so desperately needed. In the spring of 1609, the company was readying a massive fleet with 500 settlers to jump-start Virginia and set it on a more secure footing. Even though England and Spain were at peace, there was a very good chance that Spanish forces might attack this fleet en route. The company already employed one veteran privateer, Christopher Newport, but for a fleet this size it would be best to have several experienced mariners. Somers had commanded several successful multivessel expeditions and so had skills that the Virginia Company needed. Better yet, he was already a member-investor with a stake in Virginia’s success. Creating and offering the honourific title of Admiral to Somers perhaps was the sweetener that tipped the balance. Sir George left Berne Manor for one last voyage—how prophetic a phrase—and the rest is history.

A few miles outside Lyme Regis, we left the A35 for country lanes that would take us to Whitchurch Canonicorum and Somers’s grave. As we approached the village, Charlotte spotted a sign reading Berne Farm and we hit the brakes. Through the trees, we saw a stone, Georgian hip-roofed house surrounded by farm buildings too new to be Sir George’s. I went to the house but found no one home. I subsequently learned that the original Berne Manor burnt down in 1926, and that the part of the original house dating to Somers’s day lay behind the present-day structure. Wrong house, but right site.

We continued until we found the village church, dedicated to St. Candida and Holy Cross. John Smith relates that Sir George’s body was brought ashore at Lyme Regis and processed to this church, “where he was honourably buried, with many vollies of shot and the rites of a soldier.” Smith even gives the Latin inscription carved on Somers’s tomb, which in English read:

Alas Virginia’s Summer so soon past

Autumn succeeds and stormy Winters blast

Yet England’s joyful Spring with joyful showers

O Florida, shall bring thy sweetest flowers

Lyme Regis records state that Somers’s body arrived there on June 1, 1611. This raises a troubling question: what happened during the seven-month interval between Sir George’s death in Bermuda and his arrival in England? Did Matthew Somers and the crew of the Patience stay on in Bermuda into the spring of 1611? A typical passage from Bermuda to Dorset, after all, took less than a month. Or did they spend the spring venturing in Caribbean or North Atlantic waters, with Somers’s body lying in the hold all the while? (Some popular accounts of Somers’s death I’ve heard in Bermudian bars relate that his body was pickled in rum, a la Admiral Nelson; this colourful version is wrong, in that rum had not yet been invented in 1610.) The records are silent on the matter, but the gap is intriguing.

Framed by green fields and white clouds that day, the Church of St. Candida was postcard-perfect. We wandered through a graveyard that reminded me a lot of St. Peter’s in Bermuda and heard organ music coming from inside the church. I learned from a sign that the church dated back to 890 AD and was a pilgrimage site that housed the relics of St. Wita, a martyr killed by invading Vikings. (The name Whitchurch now suddenly made sense.) The church was clearly old and boasted many ancient statues and carvings.

With a sense of mounting excitement, we stepped inside. The music grew louder. Charlotte and Katie rushed up the aisle to the altar, next to which there was a large ornate tomb and effigy of a man. “Daddy, we found him! We found George!” The tomb was grand enough to befit our hero, but in fact belonged to another local knight, Sir John Jeffrey, who was interred just a few months before Sir George in 1611. We then spotted a plaque on the opposite wall commemorating Somers (dating to 1908), which noted that he was buried under the floor of the vestry (which in 1611 was a chapel). It was locked. We talked to the organist about gaining access, only to learn that even if we did there would be nothing to see. The tombstone that Smith describes was apparently lost or removed during a major Victorian renovation to the church in 1848–1849. We went outside and peeked through a window into the vestry from outside but saw nothing resembling a tomb. What a disappointment!

As we headed back to Sherborne, it struck me that my experience at St. Candida was not unlike my afternoon in Somers Garden: I had gotten close to, but could not pinpoint, the location of Sir George’s remains. Both his body and his heart have gone astray over the years. Part of him lay under a major road, the rest beneath an ecclesiastical office/broom closet. In a material sense, nothing much has survived from Sir George’s world. His birthplace and the Lyme Regis he knew were lost to fires, as was his Berne Manor home. The Patience has long since gone to some unknown watery grave. The sites of the Sea Venture castaways’ base camp and Somers’s smaller outpost on the main island have yet to be found. A painting long thought to be of Sir George Somers has too many anachronistic elements to be authentic. We can thus get close to—but never quite grasp—Somers’s England and Bermuda. But then this is so often the case with history.

Although I had not found Sir George’s grave, I gained some important insights into his character and could now better choose between the very different men that John Smith and Nathaniel Butler present us with. Butler’s claim that Somers wanted to take Bermuda for himself and develop it privately no longer seemed plausible. He had wealth enough in England—three manors and three townhouses—and had commitments domestic and political to return to: he was still mayor of Lyme Regis at the time of his voyage. The Dorset countryside is captivating: who would want to trade this for close quarters and bad food for months on end aboard ship? Planting colonies is hard work, best left to the young and fit; Somers was pushing 60. We can never know with any certainty, but I’d wager that all Sir George wanted to do was dump his Bermudian food in Virginia, head home and perhaps bask in his celebrity status as the Sea Venture’s saviour.

There is one loose thread left to tie up in Sir George’s story: Matthew Somers, troubled teen and protégé, who carted his uncle’s body back to England to prove he was dead and thus claim his inheritance. Somers’s will left most of his property to Matthew, but a 1612 document reveals that Matthew’s older brother, Nicholas, was then in possession of most of the estate: apparently, doubts had cropped up about the authenticity of the will that Matthew had produced. Eight years later, a still-propertyless Matthew Somers approached the Virginia Company court, claiming that his uncle had invested £1,100 in Virginia and asking for it back. A quick check of the company accounts revealed that the actual figure was £470; the company gave no refunds, but Matthew could obtain a dividend of land in Virginia instead. Four months later, Somers promised to transport 100 settlers to Virginia, but asked for £200 in advance “in regard to the personal worth and merit of Sir George Somers.” This attempt to bank on his late uncle’s fame drew a refusal and aroused suspicion. The Virginia Company thereafter referred to Matthew as Sir George’s “pretended” heir.

Having obtained no money from the Virginia Company, Somers next petitioned King James in 1622. (Writing from a jail cell, it would appear that he was then heavily in debt.) The Virginia Company’s “injustice and oppression” had forced Matthew to seek compensation for his uncle’s “discovery” of Bermuda from the crown. By casting Carter, Waters and Chard as his uncle’s agents, his petition asked King James to grant him (as Sir George’s heir) a share of the enormous lump of ambergris the men had discovered, which he claimed was worth £12,000. The cash-strapped Virginia Company rebutted each of Matthew’s points. Sir George, they stated, was a company employee in 1609; anything he discovered belonged to the investors who employed him. Nathaniel Butler apparently took Matthew Somers’s self-serving spin on the relationship between Sir George, Carter, Waters and Chard at face value, though, and allowed it to shape how he portrayed Somers as he wrote his history. We last hear of Matthew in February 1624 when, still in jail, he asked for his half of the £470 that the Virginia Company admitted Sir George had invested. The company told him that the investment belonged to Nicholas Somers, the “right heir”; Nicholas was two years Matthew’s senior, and primogeniture in intestate cases bestowed all of Sir George’s assets upon him. In the end, Matthew got nothing. From beyond the grave (or rather, graves), Sir George no doubt approved.