From his prison cell, John Rastell reflected bitterly on the crushing nature of his downfall after a life of startling achievement.
He was, he wrote, ‘now by long imprisonment brought to extreme misery, forsaken by his kinsmen, destitute of his friends, comfortless and succourless.’
There was to be no escape. Rastell died in prison in London on 25 June 1536, a casualty of the struggle over religious reform, for which he had become a zealous advocate.
It was a humiliating end for one of Coventry’s most extraordinary sons, a man now largely forgotten in his native city.
Printer, mathematician, lawyer, writer, designer, dramatist and cosmographer, John Rastell was perhaps the closest a native Coventrian has ever come to being a truly Renaissance Man, possessed of an astonishing range of talents and interests. And while his career flowered in London, its roots very much lay in the city of his birth.
Born in Coventry around 1475, he came from a family which had long been active in civic affairs. His father Thomas was a Justice of the Peace and Coroner for the city. His grandfather, a dyer by trade and also called Thomas, was Warden of Coventry in the 1440s.
Made a member of the influential Corpus Christi Guild in his mid-teens, young John trained as a lawyer and in 1507 succeeded his father as Coroner of Coventry.
His horizons had already broadened beyond the city, with his marriage, probably in 1500, to Elizabeth More, sister of Sir Thomas More and from a wealthy London family which almost certainly had ancestral connections to Coventry.
There’s evidence that he retained close connections with his birthplace as late as 1510, acting as a paid adviser to the Corpus Christi Guild and possibly helping it to stage pageants. But from 1508, Rastell appears as a book printer in London. He may well have been the first in Europe to print a musical score.
When war broke out with France in 1512, he was working for Sir Edward Bellknap, brother of Henry VIII’s Clerk of Works, and played a minor role in the conflict, overseeing the transport of guns to the Continent.
Although a man of independent and forceful opinions, Rastell was profoundly influenced by the visionary utopian ideas of his brilliant brother-in-law, Sir Thomas More, and in 1517 he joined an expedition to the New World, in search of a living embodiment of More’s Utopia.
The aim was probably to found a colony, but the ship’s captain declared that he preferred to ‘go robbing on the seas’ and put his hapless passengers, including Rastell, ashore in Ireland.
The outraged Rastell not only later used his legal connections to have the man arrested and tried, but promptly dashed off a morality play titled The Nature Of The Four Elements, a work that exhibited a great gift for scenery and decoration.
Those gifts came to the fore three years later when Rastell was given the daunting task of decorating the roofs of temporary buildings erected for Henry VIII’s celebrated meeting with the king of France at the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’. He followed that up by writing a lavish pageant for the visit to London of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
In 1524, by now a minor, but successful, player in the legal and cultural landscape of Tudor London, he acquired land in Old Street in Finsbury Fields, where he built himself a house and a theatre for his own private use. Thought to be the earliest Tudor stage in London, fifty years later it became the capital’s first public theatre when it was re-built by the actor manager James Burbage.
While Rastell wrote pageants and plays to be performed there, his wife Elizabeth made theatrical costumes for hiring out to other enthusiasts.
By then, Rastell was working as a Chancery lawyer for Henry VIII’s formidable Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, and in the mid-1520s he emerged as a prolific writer on law. Some of his works are still in use by students of English law.
In 1529, Rastell became MP for Dunvehed (Launceston) in Cornwall, a seat probably lined up for him by his brother-in law, who in that year became the king’s all-powerful Lord Chancellor.
In that year too Rastell published (and probably wrote) The Pastyme Of People, the first English printed portrait book, which recounted a history of England up to the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and included a series of full-page woodcuts of English monarchs, from William the Conqueror to Richard III.
A staunch Catholics until his fifties, in the early 1530s Rastell was converted to Protestantism and severed his connections to the doomed Sir Thomas More, later working with his successor, Thomas Cromwell.
He became an enthusiastic exponent of religious reform, arguing in print that priests should be able to marry and earn a living outside the church. It could be a dangerous field and Rastell, opinionated as ever, picked a fight with the Church over tithes to the clergy.
It was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had him thrown into that London jail, from which he wrote his final, despairing message to the world.
Peter Walters, Coventry Society Committee Member