Special Feature:
Sidelights and Reflections...

on William Samuel's The Arte of Angling (1577)
By Frederick Buller

Printed in 1577, The Arte of Angling is the second earliest book on angling in the English language. Remarkably, only one copy has survived, but it is incomplete: its first three (or more) leaves, presumably including a title page, had been cut out. In 1953, the late Edgar Chalmers Hallam, a dealer in angling and other books on field sports, bought this imperfect copy from Ted Lowe, of the Birmingham (England) bookdealers Lowe Brothers. According to Lowe, it had come from a minor house sale somewhere in the West Midlands.

Figure 1. This is a view of the twelfth-century church of St. Mary's in Godmanchester where the author of The Arte of Angling preached. The river Ouse runs within sixty yards of the church boundary - very handy for a vicar who was also an angler. No list of vicars is on view at St. Mary's, as there often is in old English churches, but one was printed in Philip Dickinson's A Little History of St. Mary's Church, Godmanchester (1942). In his list, some eighty vicars are named from the year 1220 to the most recent appointment in 1992. Photograph by Frederick Buller.

The next year, Hallam took the book to the British Museum Library (now the British Library) where D.E. Rhodes, deputy keeper in humanities and social sciences, established its authenticity before writing a bibliographical note about it that was published in the museum’s journal, The Library, in 1955.[1] The identity of the author of The Arte of Angling was not evident from this copy, and it was not known whether it was given in the missing preliminary leaves. However, at the end of the text it was stated that the book was “Imprinted at London in Fleetestreate at the Sign of the Faulcon by Henry Middleton… Anno 1577.”

The story of how this little book found its way to America by way of its purchaser Carl Otto von Keinbusch, and finally to its home in Princeton University Library, is a fascinating one that has been well told in the three facsimile reprint editions (1956 and 1958 by the Princeton University Library, and March 2000 by the Flyfisher’s Classic Library; these “reprints” are editions, really, because the preliminaries are different). This last reprint edition includes an extremely informative and detailed preface by R.J.W. Coleby, an antiquarian book dealer.

Figure 2. St. Mary's Church, Eynesbury. Photograph by Frederick Buller.

Coleby’s preface retells the remarkable story of how, after years of speculation, the name of the author was eventually discovered. It is a story of serendipity – of a trained historian discovering something of great importance to angling while he was researching other matters. The mystery was solved by Thomas P. Harrison of the University of Texas who, while he was reading a copy of Edward Topsell’s book, on The Historie of Serpents, spotted a comment on a “a little booke about angling,” which named the author, but not the title of the book.[2] Subsequently Harrison, with consummate skill, was able to argue convincingly the case for William Samuel as author of The Arte of Angling.

The full details of Professor Harrison’s exciting discovery were published in the October 1960 issue of the academic journal Notes and Queries, but anglers seemingly knew nothing of this discovery until 1975 when the late Arnold Gingrich, one of the most sensitive and informed of modern angling writers, revealed the “new evidence” in a piece that he wrote for the spring issue of The American Fly Fisher (vol. 2, no. 2).

Samuel and His Church

William Samuel was a man of many parts. Beside being an author, he was the vicar of St. Mary’s in Godmanchester (figure 1), an ancient church that stands within a hundred yards of the right bank of the river Ouse in Huntingdonshire. He was the incumbent of St. Mary’s from 1549 to 1554, at which date he was probably ejected by Queen Mary[3] for defending beliefs that were irreconcilable with the new queen’s unrelenting Catholic imperative.[4] Mary returned the benefice of the church to the Benedictines, who had held it before Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.[5] There is evidence that Samuel (and his wife) moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1577,[6] where he joined John Knox’s congregation and became a self-exile during Mary’s reign.

Samuel returned to England some time after the death of Queen Mary in 1558 and was reinstated as vicar of St. Mary’s in 1559. In 1560, the succeeding queen, Elizabeth I, changed the patronage of the church back to the Protestant cause when she reinstated the benefice to Westminster Abbey.[7] One suspects that Elizabeth or one of her servants must have had a high opinion of Samuel because she used the device of her letters patent to commit “the management of the town’s Grammar School [subsequently known as Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School] to William Samwell [Samuel], vicar of Godmanchester, and to fourteen other named inhabitants.”[8]

Samuel’s public service didn’t end with the extracurricular activity described above. It is likely that he was an outspoken individual who made his views and beliefs known to all. From Fox’s The History of Godmanchester, we learn that Samuel was given the Freedom of Godmanchester.[9] Doubtless it was his sincerity, his enthusiasm, his humility, and his energy that got him further preferment, for in 1559, besides regaining his living at Godmanchester, he became the rector of St. Mary’s Church at Eynesbury (some ten miles further upstream) and remained so until his death in 1580 (see figures 2 and 3).

von Keinbusch, Bentley, and Coleby

All three reprint editions of The Arte of Angling have an introduction written by the one-time owner of the book, von Keinbusch, who has done a fine job setting the scene in the context of other early English books on fishing. He tells us that although dialogue is one of the earliest literary forms, the author of The Arte of Angling was the first to use it in an angling context. This statement is not strictly true, because Aelfric the Abbot used the device in his Colloquy, the oldest treatise on fishing, which he wrote at the end of the tenth century – although it has to be said that the dialogue is about fishing for a living rather than angling for sport. Gerald Eades Bentley, professor of English literature at Princeton University, edited all three reprint editions, and his profiling of the unknown author for the second reprint edition is considered by Coleby “to be nothing short of astonishing in its accuracy.”

My interest in The Arte of Angling started when, in the early 1960s, my friend, the late Richard Walker loaned me his copy of the first reprint edition. Because both of us had spent much of our time fishing the river Ouse and exploring its environs, we were initially hopeful that we might discover the name of its author. I remember us marvelling at the accuracy of all the fishing information that the book contained, and we were conscious that in this respect it was so much better than the Compleat Angler – indeed the only bit of misinformation that we could find was in Samuel’s reference to perch having “throat teeth” or pharyngeal teeth (page 26 in all three reprint editions), like members of the carp family, which is quite wrong.

In the third reprint edition of The Arte of Angling, published this year, all the main contributions to the understanding and authorship of the book are included and held together by Coleby’s splendid preface. However, the scholars who have added so much to our knowledge of Samuel and his little book have taken little notice of its illustrations. It is my intention to redress that neglect.

The Art in the Arte

There are only two illustrations in Samuel’s book. One of these – a pen-and-ink drawing – depicts a float rig (float, line and hooks; figure 4). The body of the float has been made by joining two sections of swan quill so that the top half fits tightly over the bottom half. A horsehair line is pushed through the two float rings fashioned from thick slices of swan quill before these are slid over opposite ends of the float so as to grip the line (the angler having first set the distance needed between hook and float). The hooks illustrated are extremely small and delicate (probably roach hooks), possibly size 16 or 18. The fineness of the hooks contrasts with the crudeness of those illustrated in The Treatyse (1496), but this may reflect the advances made in the printer’s art during the interim.

Figure 4. The quill float. Courtesy of Princeton University Library. Figure 5. The drawing of Frederick the Second's copper ring precedes the text in Samuel's book. Notice that the inscription running round the ring is in Greek. Three previous owners of the book have scribbled notes in ink on some twenty-one pages. Two of the owners have inscribed their names on the ring drawing. Courtesy of Princeton University Library.


The second illustration is of considerable interest. It is a drawing of a copper ring that Samuel says was attached to a pike taken in 1497 from a lake near Haslepurn, the imperial city of Swethland (Sweden; figure 5). The ring was fitted about the pike’s gills and it was engraved with a message translated into Greek by the scholar Johann von Dalberg, who became Bishop of Worms near Mannheim in 1482.[10] The message on the ring reads:

I am the first fish of all, put into this lake by the handes of Frederick the Second, ruler of the world. The fifth day of October, in the yere of our Lord 1230.

Samuel continued with the following commentary: “There upon is gathered the sum of 267 years. And verily before it was of Frederick the Emporour so marked, a good while it have lived, and if as yet it had not been taken, it would have lived a longer time.”[11] Samuel credited Gesnerus (the Swiss naturalist Conrad von Gessner) for the story of the pike and reproduced Gessner’s diagram of the ring.

D.E. Rhodes of the British Museum Library, writing in The Library, noted that the story came from Gessner’s Nomenclator aquitilium animantium. [12] Samuel, however, as Bentley pointed out, had mixed up his geographical locations:

Haslepurn, the imperial city of Swethland: the author [Samuel] or his printer, has created confusion here, for no “Haslepurn” is known, and “Swethland” is a common sixteenth-century form of Sweden. Properly translated it should read “Heilbron, the imperial city of Swabia.” [Heilbron, Germany, is about fifty miles southeast of Mannheim.][13]

Although the story of the emperor’s pike was first mentioned by Gessner and repeated in standard works on freshwater fishes as well as countless angling books, few people realise that the Natural History Museum (London) possesses a priceless seventeenth-century oil painting of this famous fish[14] The artist has overpainted an inscription with a legend that tells the same story (with small differences) as the engraving on the ring.

This is the biggness of the pike, which the Emporour Frederick the Second with his owne hand, hath put the first time into a poole at Lautern; and hath marked him with this ring in the yeare 1230. Afterwards he brought him to Heydelberg the 6 of November 1497. When he had beene in the Poole 267 years.

Gessner put the weight of the emperor’s pike at 350 pounds and the length at 19 feet. The skeleton of the pike was preserved in Mannheim Cathedral and, as a consequence, the story of this colossal pike impressed early writers such as William Samuel and Isaak Walton. Curiously, Walton – in The Compleat Angler (1653) – seems to have copied Samuel’s mistake when he stated that the emperor’s pike was taken in Swedeland (yet another name for Sweden).

In my book Pike, I reported that the story of the emperor’s pike was proved fraudulent by a naturalist who found that the pike’s backbone had “acquired” a considerable number of extra vertebrae.[15] Keen Buss, a noted American fishery biologist, gave a new twist to the dismissal of the claimed length when he wrote “according to the normal length-weight ratio found in ‘modern’ pike, a nineteen-foot pike could weight about 3,000 pounds.”[16]

Contemporary Angler Images

As far as we know, unlike its predecessor, The Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle Samuel’s The Arte of Angling had no illustration of an angler, so should we wish to see what a sixteenth-century angler looked like, we have to rely on an image of an angler that appears in the frontispiece of Leonard Mascall’s A Booke of Fishing with a Hooke & Line (1590; figure 7).

Recently I discovered another contemporary image of an angler embroidered in a table carpet. The angler depicted on this silk-embroidered table-carpet – the so-called Bradford table carpet – shows how a gentleman angler would have dressed in William Samuel’s time. According to Linda Wooley, assistant curator, department of textiles and dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “He is wearing what is probably meant to be a woollen jacket and breeches, and his hat may well be of felted wool.”[17]

The carpet was originally thought to be late sixteenth century (i.e., contemporary with William Samuel), but after recent closer scrutiny of all the garments, is now thought to date between 1605 and 1615, some twenty five or so years after his death. It is thirteen feet long and five feet, nine inches wide and is meant to represent five stages in civilisation and man’s relationship with nature. The carpet, now in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, came from Castle Bromwich Hall, home of the earls of Bradford. Table carpets, as one may suspect, were made for the owners of big houses to place on top of their board tables (often wrongly called refectory tables). The delicate embroidery on the Bradford table carpet was tent-stitched onto linen canvas and probably took a team of embroiderers years to complete.

The carpet angler possesses a creel. This is probably one of the earliest illustrations of a wicker creel. Its shape (less handles) was subsequently adopted by almost every creel-maker for the next three hundred and fifty years.

Final reflections

There is more, much more, to add to the story of William Samuel. We may yet find a second volume of his book that will reveal all that was printed or pictured on the missing leaves. We may yet be able to locate the author’s house or vicarage, because many houses built during Samuel’s time still stand in his hometown.

One last thought. Izaac Walton failed to acknowledge the name of the author whose book he used as a model for The Compleat Angler. Was it because the book he used is the very same one now at Princeton?

Copyright F. Buller 2000.

[1] D.E. Rhodes, “Bibliographic Notes,” The Library, fifth series, vol. 10. no. 2 (1955), pp123-25.

[2] Edward Topsell, The Historie of Serpents (London 1608).

[3] See Eynesbury manuscript collection UMS/EYNES/223a at the Norris Museum, St. Ives, Huntingdon.

[4] Victoria County History for Huntingdonshire, vol. Ii (London: The Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 1938) p 112.

[5] Personal correspondence to the author from the secretary of the vicar of St. Mary’s, the Reverend Neil Follet, 8 February 2000.

[6] T.P. Harrison, ed. William Samuel, The Arte of Angling (Ashburton, Devon, England: Flyfisher’s Classic Library, 2000), p 96.

[7] Personal correspondence to the author from the secretary of the vicar of St. Mary’s, the Reverend Neil Follet, 8 February 2000.

[8] Victoria County History for Huntingdonshire, vol. Ii (London: The Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 1938) p 112, Pat. 3 Eliz. Pt. Xm. 14 (no. 972)

[9] Robert Fox, The History of Godmanchester in the County of Huntingdon (London: Baldwin and Craddock, 1831) p 336-43. Commenting on Samuel’s appointment, Thomas P. Harrison (Notes and Queries, October 1960, pp 373-76) noted, “This appointment is a signal recognition of Samuel, not a university man, as a responsible and literate churchman and distinguished citizen of Godmanchester.”

[10] Presumably later translated into Latin and subsequently picked up by Conrad von Gessner in his Nomenclator aquitilium animantium (Zurich, 1560), p 316.

[11] From the recto side of the twenty-sixth leaf in the original The Arte of Angling (pages not numbered).

[12] D.E. Rhodes, “Bibliographic Notes,” The Library, fifth series, vol. 10. no. 2 (1955), p 316.

[13] Gerald Eades Bentley, p 78 in the second and third reprint editions of The Arte of Angling.

[14] The 66 mm by 168 mm oil painting was presented to the museum by Robert Few in 1881, but the name of the seventeenth-century artist is unknown. An image of the painting before it was restored by the Victoria and Albert Museum in the late 1960s was first reproduced in Buller’s Pike (London: MacDonald and Co., Ltd., 1971).

[15] Frederic Buller, Pike (London, MacDonald and Co., Ltd., 1971; reprinted London: Robert Hale, 2000), p 25.

[16] Personal correspondence to the author (20 April 1968) from Keen Buss, head of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, with gifted reprints from the Pennsylvania Angler of the Commission’s The Northern Pike: A Benner Spring Research Station Special Purpose Report (1961).

[17] Correspondence from Linda Wooley, assistant curator of the department of textiles and dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 23 February 2000.


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