Strachey was born on April 4, 1572, in Saffron Walden, Essex, in the southeast of England, on an estate that his grandfather, also named William Strachey, had purchased a decade earlier. He was the oldest son of four sons and three daughters born to William Strachey and Mary Cooke Strachey. The Strachey family had long been prosperous farmers in Saffron Walden, while the Cookes were wealthy London merchants with property in Kent. On July 4, 1587, William Strachey (the elder) was awarded a coat of arms, making him—and by extension his sons—a gentleman. Mary Cooke Strachey died in 1587, and in August of that year Strachey (the elder) married Elizabeth Brocket of Hertfordshire. They had five daughters.
William Strachey (the younger) enrolled at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, on February 14, 1588, and on June 9, 1595, he married Frances Forster, a distant relative of his mother and the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Surrey. They had two sons: William, who was baptized on March 30, 1596, and Edmund, baptized on February 26, 1604, both at Crowhurst, Surrey. William Strachey (the father) died in November 1598, leaving his estate to his wife Elizabeth Brocket Strachey and then, upon her death in 1602, to his son William Strachey. The inheritance appears to have supported Strachey and his family for the next few years, and by 1605 he was a member of Gray’s Inn, the largest of the Inns of Court. No evidence exists that he ever practiced law; instead, he pursued interests in literature and the theater.
Strachey contributedto a 1604 publication of Ben Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall, a play first performed at the Globe in 1603 by William Shakespeare and his company. The journalist John St. Loe Strachey later called the poem “one of the most cryptic things in the whole of Elizabethan literature.” A shareholder in the Blackfriars Theatre in London, William Strachey apparently was friends with Jonson, the poet John Donne, and perhaps even Shakespeare.
With his inheritance running low, in 1606 Strachey drew upon his wife’s connections to gain a post as secretary to Sir Thomas Glover, who represented both the Levant Company andat the Ottoman Empire’s capital at Constantinople. Traveling aboard the Royal Exchange, the party stopped in Algiers and Greece before arriving in Constantinople on December 23, 1606. Soon after, however, Strachey fell out with Glover, who described him as “that most malicious knave” and who fired him on March 17, 1607. The Levant Company wrote Strachey that he had “much overshott” himself by communicating too freely with the former ambassador, Henry Lello. With a letter of introduction from John Donne, Strachey sailed to Venice but was unable to secure a job, and finally returned to England.
On May 23, 1609, James I granted the Virginia Company of London a, the publication of which included the name of shareholder “William Strachey, gentleman.” Strachey’s friend Donne, meanwhile, sought the position of secretary but the company instead appointed Matthew Scrivener, who was already in Virginia. When the fleet of ships left Plymouth for Virginia on June 2, Strachey was aboard the flagship Sea Venture (or Sea Adventure); neither his wife and young sons nor his friend Donne joined him.
On July 24, the ships were separated by a storm, and the Sea Venture, which carried much of the colony’s new leadership, including Lieutenant Governorand Admiral , was thought lost. In fact, it was blown off course and ran aground on a fishhook-shaped group of known as the Bermudas. Strachey vividly described the storm in A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, that “we could not apprehend in our imaginations any possibility of greater violence.” He suggested their survival was miraculous: “The Lord knoweth, I had as little hope, as desire of life in the storme, & in this, it went beyond my will.”
The castaways spent about ten months on the uninhabited islands, and Strachey appears to have insinuated himself into the company of the Sea Venture‘s captain,. On February 11, 1610, he and Newport to the christening of s daughter, named Bermuda, and on March 25, he, Newport, and James Swift became godfathers to a baby boy called Bermudas. (Rolfe’s wife and daughter both died.) Strachey served on Gates’s crew, building one of two pinnaces out of the Sea Venture‘s wreckage, and “dangers and divellish disquiets” that overcame some of the men. Somers and Gates clashed, a sailor was murdered, and multiple mutinies were quashed, with one colonist executed.
Once the pinnaces Deliverance and Patience, the colonists set sail for Virginia, arriving at Point Comfort in the Chesapeake Bay on May 21, 1610. On May 24, they arrived in Jamestown and there, according to Strachey, found “all things so contrary to our expectations, so full of misery and misgovernment.”
In Virginia, Strachey and his fellow castaways were greeted with surprise and relief by a colony on the verge of collapse. Over the winter, the settlers, under the command of, had suffered through the . The Indians’ siege of the Jamestown fort, exacerbated by , had made hunting, fishing, and foraging nearly impossible; of about 240 English colonists at the fort in November 1609, only about 60 skeletal survivors remained the following May. Having brought no extra food from Bermuda, Gates decided to , but as the colonists sailed down the James River, they encountered a resupply mission accompanied by the new governor, .
De La Warr soon convened the Council, which included Strachey, who also was chosen to be its secretary and recorder. (Matthew Scrivener had drowned in January 1609.) One of De La Warr’s first actions was to expand a set of rules, instituted by Gates, that governed the colony. The persistent and widespread perception was that, in, “sloath, riot and vanity” had been to blame for the famine. Strachey complained that “the headlesse multitude, (some neither of qualitie nor Religion) [were] not imployed to the end for which they were sent hither, no not compelled (since in themselves unwilling) to sowe Corne for their owne bellies.” As such, a new, stricter regime, “an absolute command,” was established, using these rules as a foundation for order.
When Gates left for England on July 20, he took with him two manuscripts penned by Strachey: a report on the state of the colony and his account of the Bermuda shipwreck. The Virginia Company, in turn, addressed Strachey a letter—dated December 14, 1610, and signed by Sir Richard Martin—requesting his elaboration on life in Virginia, and, in particular, “how the Barbarians are content with your being there.”
Little is known of Strachey’s specific activities in the colony from 1610 until 1611, although he clearly had repeated contacts with theIndians of , who were engaged with the English in the (1609–1614). He extensively interviewed two Indian men, Kemps and Machumps, both of whom spoke English. And he visited the Quiyoughcohannock and the Kecoughtan Indians. In September 1611, Strachey returned to England.
Living in the Blackfriars section of London, Strachey immediately set to work compiling for the Virginia Company the colony rules instituted by Gates and expanded by De La Warr. On December 13, 1611, he entered for publication, and the edition was printed in London the next month.
By contrast, the Virginia Company declined to publish Strachey’s account of the Sea Venture. Although he praised Gates and Somers, Strachey was forthright about the mutinies in Bermuda and highly critical of the Jamestown colonists’ “Idleness” and their leaders’ “misgovernment.” Ironically, he also may have been too effusive in his praise of Bermuda’s prospects for colonization, the English preferring to keep this information close lest it tempt the Spanish into populating the islands.
Two versions of Strachey’s account exist: a rough draft, started in Bermuda and finished at Jamestown prior to De La Warr’s arrival; and a longer, more polished version begun after Strachey was appointed secretary. Dated July 15, 1610, the longer version was addressed to an anonymous “Excellent Lady,” probably the wife of a company official. Both drafts likely circulated among Londoners connected to the Virginia Company, and many scholars believe that Shakespeare used one of them as a major source for his play The Tempest, thought to have been written in 1610 and 1611. In 1625, the Reverend Samuel Purchas published Strachey’s longer draft as A true reportory in the fourth volume of Hakluytus Posthumus; or Purchas His Pilgrimes. He had obtained the manuscript from.
In the meantime, Strachey labored on a history of his time in Virginia as suggested by Sir Richard Martin. He complained that “many impediments, as yet must detaine such my observations in the shadow of darknesse,” not least of these being disinterest on the part of the Virginia Company. Put off by Strachey’s criticisms, the company could also point to work published byand about to be published by Purchas on the same subjects. Strachey’s writing would be redundant and perhaps even counterproductive. As a result, Strachey looked elsewhere for support. In 1612 he dedicated his manuscript—The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia; expressing the cosmographie and commodities of the country, togither with the manners and customes of the people—to the former colony president George Percy’s older brother, Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland. Northumberland was close to and , both of whom had been instrumental in the . Soon afterward, Strachey dedicated another copy to the wealthy merchant Sir Allen Apsley, who in 1620 became a charter member of the New England Company. In 1618, he dedicated a third version to Sir Francis Bacon. Strachey’s connection to all three dedicatees appears to have been minimal.
Finally published by the Hakluyt Society in 1849, Strachey’s Historie has since proved to be a rich source of information about early Virginia Indian society, politics, and religion. “He was not prepared to be an ethnographer in the modern sense,” the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree has written about Strachey, “but he had a wider and more detailed curiosity about Indian life than any other writer of his time.” Strachey directly copied some of his material on Virginia Indians from Smith’s(1612), suggesting that, according to Rountree, “either he is corroborating Smith’s information or he does not know any better than to repeat it.”
Little is known of Strachey’s apparently impoverished final years in London. On February 8, 1613, a London court ruled against him for an unpaid debt, and a letter survives in which Strachey, about to meet friends “returned from Virginia,” begs from an anonymous “Sir” twenty shillings “to pay for my dinner.” A poem by Strachey, “To the Cleane Contrary Wife,” was appended to a 1616 edition of A wife, a long poem by Sir Thomas Overbury, who in 1613 had been poisoned in one of the most sensational crimes of the day. Strachey’s wife Frances Forster Strachey died, probably sometime before 1615, and he married a woman named Dorothy. Nothing else about her or their marriage is known.
During these years, Strachey kept a commonplace book, filled with various notes, book lists, and private thoughts, which is now in the possession of the University of Virginia. Three verses on death also survive,: “Harke! Twas the trump of death that blewe / My hower is come false world adewe / That I to death untymely goe.”
Strachey died of unknown causes and was buried on August 16, 1621, in the parish church of St. Giles in the Camberwell district of the Southwark borough, London. He left no will, probably because he left no estate to be administered. In 1996, archaeological excavations at James Fort in Virginia uncovered a brass signet finger ring used to impress wax seals on documents. It is engraved with an eagle, the Strachey family symbol dating back to the coat of arms issued to his father in 1587.
- For the Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c. (1612)
- A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; upon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his comming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, under the government of the Lord La Warre, July 15, 1610. (1625)
- The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia; expressing the cosmographie and commodities of the country, togither with the manners and customes of the people (unpublished)