Archive for the Middle Ages Category

Francis Drake’s Prayer: Fact or Fiction?

November 22, 2014 with 4 Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

Drake with his crest and the motto “Great things from Small”

There is an interesting prayer that appears in books and websites and is attributed to Sir Francis Drake, an English 16th century explorer and soldier. It goes like this:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.


Finding a source for this is far from easy. It is easy to find it quoted in many books, but only in books of inspirational prayers and quotes, not real history. These books rarely have footnotes, and finding the source of this quotation proved difficult. There is an article called Drake’s Prayer by D. Bonner-Smith from 1950 that examines the history of a prayer from Drake, but it runs much differently:

O Lord God, when though givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through him who for the finishing of they work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.1

This came from the 1941 book Daily Prayer, which modernized quotes of historical figures “who did not deliberately write prayers as such, but wrote something closely akin to prayer….”

Francis Drake

This quote originated in an article in the London Times of November 20th, 1939:

There must be a beginning of every matter, but the continuing unto the end yields the true glory. If we can thoroughly believe that this which we do is in defence of our religion and country, no doubt our merciful God for his Christ our Saviour’s sake is able and will give us victory, though our sins be red.

Published at the beginning of World War II, it served as a inspiration to a nation embarking on war.


This quote was not without basis. It seems to have come from a letter written by Drake to Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State, on May 17, 1587. He said:

There must be a begynnyng of any great matter, but the contenewing unto the end untyll it be thoroughly ffynyshed yeldes the trew glory. Yf Hanybull hda ffollowed his victoryes, it is thowght of many he had never byne take by Sepyo.

God mak us all thanckfull agayne and agayne that we have, althowghe it be lettell, mad a begennyng upon the cost of Spayne. If we can thorowghly beleve that this which we dow is in the defence of our relygyon and contrye, no doubt but out mercyfull God for his Christ, our Savyour’s sake, is abell, and will geve us victory, althowghe our sennes be reed. God geve us grace that we may feare hym, and daylly to call upon hym, so shall nether Sattan, nor his menesters prevayell agaynst us; although God permett yow to be towched in body, yeat the Lord will hold his mynd pure.2

The author in the Times took this quotation, modernized the language, and removed the references to Hannibal and the Spanish Coast.

But even this does not find us a source for the prayer given at the beginning of this post. We could find no reference to it in historical works. The first work we could find that referenced it was Cathedral Age published by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation in 1985, but there we can not be sure it is even attributed to Francis Drake as we don’t have a copy of the book.  The date 1577 is referenced at times, perhaps this is a corruption of the 1587 date for the other rewritten prayer.

Do you have any thoughts or more information about either of these prayers? Please contact us and let us know.

Drake sails up the Pacific Coast

1. Drake’s Prayer by D. Bonner-Smith in The Mariner’s Mirror, volume 36, issue 1, 1950, p. 86-87.

2. The Life, Voyages, and Exploits of Adirmal Sir Francis Drake, Knt by John Barrow (London: John Murray Albemarle Street, 1843) p. 233-234.

Peter Bartholomew – Life and Death of a Fanatical Fraud

November 3, 2014 with 3 Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

The First Crusade, from 1096 – 1099, was a truly remarkable event. Tens of thousands of soldiers, pilgrims and churchmen from all across Europe, impelled by religious zeal, a search for adventure, or a desire for money, fame or glory, set out to capture Jerusalem from the Muslim. There are many facets to the story, but one of the most interesting is the rise and fall of Peter Bartholomew.

The Siege of Antioch

Finding the Holy Lance

In 1098 the Crusade was in crisis. It was held up at Antioch, still hundreds of miles from its target – Jerusalem. After a long and difficult siege they had captured the city, but a large Muslim army arrived almost immediately and besieged them. The Christians were starving and dying of disease. It seemed uncertain that they would be able to hold out. In this time of peril the crusaders received a message that many believed was divine interposition on their behalf. An insignificant pilgrim named Peter Bartholomew came to the leaders and reported that he had had a vision in which St. Andrew told that the Holy Lance, the spear used to pierce Jesus’s side, could be found buried at a church in Antioch.

Workmen went to the church and dug into the floor. They found nothing and were about to abandon the attempt, when Peter jumped into the hole and pulled out a spear. Most were convinced by this discovery. With the soldiers encouraged by this supposed sign from heaven, they sallied out from the city and defeated the encircling armies on June 28th.

The Ordeal by Fire

During the next months, Peter Bartholomew came to hold a place of power with the leaders of the crusade. He reported that he had many visions from St. Andrew, crusaders who had fallen in battle, and even Jesus Christ himself. He reported messages which he said they had given him, in which they gave instructions for the army and rebuked or encouraged the crusaders. Peter and the Lance were being used by Count Raymond, who was struggling with Bohemond for power.

There were those who harbored doubts. Why was it Peter who had discovered the Lance, when so many were looking for it? Why was the Lance in Antioch at all? Why was it a fanciful Arabic weapon, rather than a simple Roman spear? Finally matters came to a head. In a council of crusade leaders, Peter declared:

I wish and beg that a very large fire be built; and I will pass through the midst of it with the Lance of the Lord. If it is the Lance of the Lord, I will pass through the fire unhurt, but if it is not, I will be burned in the fire. For I see that neither signs nor witnesses are believed.1

What Peter was requesting was an ordeal of fire, a practice not unheard of during the Middle Ages. The person being tested would be exposed to either fire or red hot iron, and then they would be examined immediately, or three days later, to see if the person was either uninjured or had a wound that was healing quickly.

The Ordeal by Fire

On April 8, 1099, two large fires were built next to each other, the flames reaching 50 feet into the air. Before a large crowd who had assembled to watch the proceeding, chaplain Raymond spoke:

If Almighty God spoke face to face with this man … let him pass through the fire unhurt. If, however, it is a falsehood, may he be burned, together with the Lance which he will carry in his hand!2

After kneeling for a moment in prayer, Peter set off through the fire, Lance in hand. He emerged on the other side living, though he did have sizable burns on his body. The ordeal was declared a success, and the multitude crowded around him, rejoicing and trying to seize a piece of his garment to keep as a relic.

The leaders had spoken too soon. Several days later, on April 20, Peter died. Some reported that he had received mortal injuries in the fire, though his remaining supporters argued that he was injured by the crowd.3


It is impossible to establish events of Peter Bartholomew’s life with absolute certainty, especially regarding the many visions that he professed to have seen. However, several points can be established with certainty, and they may prove applicable in evaluating other mystics.

First, Peter was a fake. If God was indeed sending him visions, he would not have allowed him to fail the test, by dying either from wounds received in the fire, or inflicted on him by the crowds. Whether he was somehow seeing visions, or he was just inventing them in his own head, they were not from God.

Second, he fully believed that he was receiving genuine visions from God. He willingly subjected himself to the ordeal of fire. If he had known he was inventing them, he would never have consented, as he would have obviously been burnt. Again, it is impossible to know with certainty what was happening in Peter’s mind. He may have really been seeing things, or perhaps he deceived so many others that he convinced himself. Either way, Peter was a fraud who was exposed at his own request.

Siege of Jerusalem

1. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants by August C. Krey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921) p. 230.
2. Ibid, p. 231.
3The First Crusade: A New History by Thomas S. Asbridge (London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2005) p. 292.

Soldier’s Gear from 1066 to 2014

August 11, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages, Reformation, World War I, World War II by

New Discoveries about the Black Death

April 1, 2014 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

The Annual Horse Bleeding

December 26, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages by

Today. the day after Christmas, is the feast of St. Stephen. During the Middle Ages this was traditionally a day in which horses would be bled. In this poem Thomas Naogeorgus, a 16th century German protestant pastor and playwright, describes the custom:

Then followeth Saint Stephens days, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely seate, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time took charge of horses heare

While this practice seems strange to us today, it was in accordance with the ancient’s theories of medicine. From the ancient Greeks to the 19th century, the four humors was one of the leading medical theories. It held that there were four elements: fire, earth, water and air, and four corresponding fluids in the body: yellow bile, black bile, phlgem and blood. Sickness was thought to be caused by an imbalance of these fluids. Thus, it would make sense to bleed their horses on St. Stephens day if an abundance of blood would cause sickness.

Chart of the four humors

1. The Every-Day Book and Table Book by William Hone (London: Thomas Tegg, 1830) vol. 1, p. 1643

Last Time a Pope Resigned – The Western Schism

February 11, 2013 with No Comments and Posted in Middle Ages, Reformation by

It has recently been announced that Pope Benedict will be resigning. Although this is unprecedented in recent years, it is not the first time this has happened. The last time was some 600 years ago with the resignation of Pope Gregory XII, ending what was called the Great Schism or Western Schism in the Catholic church. It began with the search for a successor after the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1377. Rome broke out in riots intended to ensure the appointment of a Roman as Pope, but the cardinals selected Bartolomeo Prignano of Naples, who became known as Pope Urban VI, because they said there were no suitable Roman candidates. But within just a few months many of those same cardinals were dissatisfied with the new Pope. They repaired to Anagni in central Italy, and appointed Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. This second appointment threw the Catholic church into disorder. There had been rival popes popes before, but now the same group of cardinals had appointed two popes! Nations aligned themselves behind different candidates, and the church would remain split for decades. It became an important factor in European diplomacy, with rival nations supporting different popes. Even when the initial claimants died, the crisis did not end. Urban was replaced by Pope Boniface IX in 1389, and Clement in Benedict XIII in 1394. When Boniface died in 1404, the cardinals of the Roman faction promised to not elect a rival pope in Benedict would resign, but when the Avignon papacy refused, they elected Innocent VII, and then Gregory XII.

The schism was finally resolved with the Council of Constance in 1414. Gathered in Constance, Germany, the council was composed of all the great leaders of the Catholic church. It recommended that both Benedict and Gregory resign, along with Pope John XXIII, an antipope, or illegitimate pope. Gregory had empowered his representatives to present his resignation. He did this to reunify the church, and was appointed to the second-highest rank in the Catholic church. Benedict refused to resign, and was excommunicated.

But the Council of Constance did more than just resolve the Great Schism. In the early 15th century the Protestant Reformation was just beginning. The Council condemned the doctrine of John Wycliff and his followers. One of these was John Huss, who was called to appear before the Council. Huss was a Czech reformer, and he knew the danger that awaited him when he set out to appear, he had already been excommunicated. He only came when he received a safe passage from the Emperor. But the promise was broken and Huss was arrested. Refusing to recant, he was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. His dying words were, “Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on us!”