Madoc and John Dee: Welsh Myth and Elizabethan Imperialism - an article from the Elizabethan Review by
Robert W. Barone

Robert W. Barone is
Associate Professor
of History at the University of Montevallo

The line that separates history and myth is often a perilous one that, more often than not, goes undetected by most people. In fact most people remain quite content to accept myth as history without stopping to give any deeper consideration to the topics or issues at hand. Every historian, however, is bound by his or her discipline to demythify history, to separate the fact from the fallacy. This act is what separates the historian from the antiquarian or propagandist. Antiquarians, and most people, are quick to accept propaganda—which is more often than not myth—as fact. This creates, what William McNeill has referred to as, mythistory1". Unfortunately for historians the myths themselves often become a part of history, embellishing it to serve national, religious, racial, or moral ends. What American would deny that George Washington cut down a cherry tree, and could not tell a lie? Or what Englishman would refute the tales of Robin Hood? In the end myth can sometimes have a greater impact on people's minds and imaginations than the actual history. Another way of expressing this sentiment is to say that what actually occurs in history is sometimes less important than what people believed happened. And what is believed can be a powerful force in motivating people to action. The myths of history can help in forging the attitudes people have about their culture, government, religion, and position in the world.

The Madoc myth is a case in point2". A marginal story handed down by Welsh bards from the late twelfth century, it was not until the sixteenth century that the story was put into writing3". It was at that point that the tale was seized upon by Elizabethan Empire builders and utilized in their arguments supporting British claims to the North American continent. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, was one of the first to seize upon the legend of Madoc and incorporate it into his polemical arsenal justifying British claims in the New World. Dee himself was a somewhat shadowy figure, whose interests moved him from the more practical interests he had in navigation, cartography, and mathematics, to more mystic esoteric occultist endeavors in conjuring up spirits. The former studies placed Dee in the vanguard of the Scientific Revolution; the latter consigned him to the realm of a mystic or magus4". Ultimately, Dee's connection with the Madoc myth arose from Dee's interests and efforts in overseas exploration, and through his antiquarian interest in his own Welsh heritage. It was with the combination of those two realms of thought that Dee began his propaganda campaign regarding the Madoc myth to support Elizabethan claims to the New World.

The Madoc myth was first put into print in 1583 by George Peckham in his work entitled A True Reporte Of the late discoveries and possessions taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of the Newfound Landes: etc., and later incorporated by David Powel in his work Historie of Cambria in 1584 and by Richard Hakluyt in The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation in 1589. The myth itself was obviously circulating at an even earlier point when one notices that Dee's unpublished manuscript "Brytannici Imperii Limites," which mentions the Madoc myth, was dated 15765".

The Madoc myth was the tale of a twelfth century Welsh prince caught up and embroiled in interfamily rivalries over inheritance and titles. Madoc was a younger son, possibly illegitimate, of Owen Gwynedd, King of North Wales (1137-1169). Upon the death of the king there was neither an easy nor a peaceful transfer of power. The sons began to contest the inheritance of the title by the eldest son, Edward, who apparently had some facial blemish or defect that somehow disqualified him from the title. Edward apparently did nothing to assert his claim. Two of his younger brothers, David and Howell, contested the title, and unable to settle their claims peacefully resorted to war. In the conflict that followed Howell was slain, and David assumed the title of King of North Wales. That, however, was not the end of the story. At some subsequent, undisclosed time, another brother, Iowerth, made a bid for the throne and was thwarted by King David.

Thus, the state of affairs in the Kingdom of North Wales in the late twelfth century was turbulent and chaotic to say the least. It was against that backdrop that Madoc, rather than getting involved in interfamily political genocide, decided to relinquish any claims he might have to the Welsh crown and depart across uncharted seas in quest of greener pastures.

Madoc's first voyage—he would obviously have had to return to Wales at some point to tell of the expedition's success in reaching a new land—led to the supposed Welsh landing in Mobile Bay and the establishment of a colony in North America6". Madoc apparently was so pleased with the newly discovered land that he immediately returned to Wales to solicit others—no doubt just as distraught with the state of affairs at home—to join him in his enterprise. Madoc must have done a good job selling his vision of a New World paradise to the Welsh because he would return to rejoin his former companions with no fewer than ten ships and several hundred persons. With the departure of that second expedition over the western horizon Madoc and his Welshmen faded into the western mist and into the stuff of legend. Nothing further was ever heard of Madoc and those who went with him.

The story of Madoc and his adventure would be told and retold by Welsh bards throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period. Those tales would begin to take on a new dimension after Columbus's voyages and Spanish discovery and colonization of the America's. In the mad scramble that followed all the major states of Europe would become involved in schemes of territorial gain and aggrandizement in the Americas. It was to that end, and for that reason, that the Empire builders of Tudor England began to look for possible vantage points upon which to base their claims. The myth of Madoc and his Welsh adventurers inspired the English in general and the Welsh in particular7". It was against that backdrop that John Dee began putting forth imperial claims in Elizabeth's name to a large segment of the North American continent.

English overtures toward New World territories became specifically connected to the Madoc myth at that juncture when realizes that the ruling Tudor dynasty had a Welsh affinity and that Dee himself was of Welsh decent with relatives living in Radnoshire8". Dee readily and eagerly embraced the Madoc myth adding it to his arsenal of propaganda that attempted to bolster English claims to North America.

In 1577 Dee published the first part of his projected four part General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the perfect Arte of Navigation9". The work was a appeal to the English nation to see its greatest resource as its connection with the sea and to assert British claims to foreign lands. The General and Rare Memorials was Dee's attempt to trace Tudor lineage back to legendary Kings such as the Trojan hero Brutus, King Arthur, and the Welsh Prince Madoc, using those names as support for his self proclaimed British Empire that included a sizeable portion of the North American continent10".

Dee's expansionist program involved not only his work with overseas exploration and discovery but also the recovery of lands and territories claimed by the British11". Thus, Dee used the tales of Madoc and his Welsh settlers to support his assertions that Elizabeth held dominion over a vast territory covering most of the Northern Hemisphere.

In Dee's unpublished manuscript, "Brytannici Imperii Limites," he began the process of putting forth his imperial claims to North America12 In an >". imaginative piece of antiquarian propaganda Dee traced and justified British rights to those "Sondrye foreyne Regions, discovered, inhabited, and partlie Conquered by the Subjects of this Brytish Monarchie"13". Dee continued, stating that the extent of those holdings, with Her Majesty's "title Royall to all the coasts, and lands beginning at or about Terra Florida, and so alongst, or neere unto Atlantis goinge Northerly: and then to all the most northern Islands great and small"14". The complete work was a compendium of British antiquarian, historical, legal, literary, and cartographic materials and arguments to substantiate those claims15". To that end Dee cited voyages, both real and thought to be real, of King Arthur, Saint Brendean, Malgo, "a Friar of Oxford," John and Sebastian Cabot, Stephen Borough, Martin Frobisher, and Madoc to support his thesis. The following quotation is the precise connection of Dee with the Madoc myth:

The Lord Madoc, sonne of Owen Gwyndd prince of NorthWales, leaving his brothers in contention, and warre for their inheritance sought, by sea (westerlie from Irland), for some forein, and—Region to plant hymselfe in with soveranity: wth Region when he had found, he returned to Wales againe and hym selfe wth Shipps, vituals, and men and women sufficient for the coloniy, wth spedely he leed into the peninsula; then named Farquara; but of late Florida or into some of the Provinces, and territories neere ther abouts: and in Apalchen, Mocosa, or Norombera: then of these 4 beinge notable portions of the ancient Atlantis, no longer—nowe named America16".
As William Sherman has commented, "In Dee's 1576-1578 manuscripts Madoc became the linchpin of claims for North America"17". Or as Gwyn Williams has observed, Dee "snatched what had been a marginal, perhaps underground, story and thrust it into the centre of Elizabethan enterprise"18".

The first printed text to mention the Madoc story was George Peckham's account in A True Reporte Of the late discoveries and possession taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of Newfound Landes, published in 158319". Peckham had been consulting with Dee in 1582, and no doubt it was his conversations with Dee that gave further clarification to his own arguments20".

The assumption can further be made that, infact, Dee told Peckham of the Madoc legend, which Peckham then incorporated into his own work—printing for the first time in English the legend of Madoc as a claim for Elizabethan expansion westward.

Peckham had been working in conjunction with Humphrey Gilbert in laying claims to the North America. In the third chapter of A True Reporte he "doth shew the lawful tytle, which the Queen's most excellent Majestie hath unto those Countries, which through the ayde of Almighty God are meant to be inhabited"21". As Peckham stated, his aim was to provide the material that would "restore her to her Highnesse' ancient right and interest in those Countries, into which a noble and worthy personage, lyneally decended from the blood royal, borne in Wales, namely Madock ap Owen Gweneth" had first inhabited, and thus, provided the base on which Elizabeth's claims rested22".

Dee's assertion of the Madoc legend had been taken up as the principle material to justify those claims. A Welshman of royal lineage, who had sailed the stormy seas of the North Atlantic three hundred years prior to Columbus, clearly gave the English a legal claim to the New World! It was a beautiful and ingenious use of antiquarianism that helped in formulating the legal claim that British Empire builders were then beginning to use in their quest for territorial aggrandizement.

John Dee, Adrian Gilbert, and John Davies would soon be involved in wild speculation, gaining letters of patent to a large section of North America, as they tried to put into physical and legal reality the claims that to that point had merely been academic and speculative23". It was The sad thing for their designs would be that Elizabeth never totally bought into their propaganda.

As far as Elizabethan designs of Empire were concerned, nothing ever came out of the myth of Madoc. Further, nothing ever came out of the specific claims that Dee advanced. There was little exploration and even less in the way of settlement. The failed colony at Roanoke in present-day Virginia would be the only legacy of Elizabethan colonization.

The fact was that Elizabeth had little interest in the New World and never wholeheartedly backed exploration. What support there was for the ventures had come almost exclusively from private sources. Not until the seventeenth century and a new dynasty—the Stuart's—was on the throne would government support be given to overseas ventures. And by that point the myth of Madoc was no longer being utilized as an argument for colonization or expansion. Dee's hopes of Empire had been premature. Only during the eighteenth century, after English colonization had already taken root and after American independence, did the Madoc myth re-surface—in the 1790's. By that time the myth was employed by those involved with westward expansion of the new nation. Once again the Madoc claims were used, only the emphasis and focus had altered slightly to assert American suzerainty over the western regions of the continent against Spanish, French, Russian, and even British claims to those lands.

Madoc had gone through the transformation from Welsh to British to American in the course of the two hundred years since Dee. Stories began circulating of blond haired, blue eyed Indians speaking a language that sounded very much like Welsh. But as exploration advanced further and further westward so did those Welsh Indians—at first they seemed to be in the Appalachian Region of North Carolina, then Kentucky, or Missouri, finally the Mandan tribe of the upper Missouri region of North Dakota came to be associated with Madoc and the Welsh. In the end, however, Welsh Indians were never discovered. But that simple fact—that no tangible connection to Madoc or the Welsh was ever made—never stopped people from believing in the myth. For that is the charm of myths—they are continually reinventing themselves. Such was and is the case of Madoc and those mysterious Welsh Indians.


1. See William McNeill's article, "Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians" AHR vol. 91 (February, 1986) pp. 1-10 for an introductory investigation on the relationship of myth and history. {back}

2.The principle academic work investigating the Madoc myth is Gwyn A. Williams, Madoc: The Making of a Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. {back}

3.The legend of Madoc was part of an oral tradition for which any contemporary written sources have been lost. The first written account in English was George Peckham, A True Report of the late discoveries and possessions taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, Newfound LandesÖpublished in 1583. {back}

4. For the standard biographical treatment of Dee see: Charlotte Fell Smith, John Dee: 1527-1608, London, 1909; Peter J.French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972; Nicholas H. Clulee, John Dee's Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion, London: Routledge, 1988; and William H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, Amherst, MA.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. {back}

5. The earliest surviving manuscript telling of the Madoc myth is Humphrey Lhoyd, "The historie of Cambria now called WalesÖ"left unpublished at the time of Lhoyd's death in 1568. See also Dee, "Brytanici Imperii Limites," British Library Additional MS 59681. {back}

6. The connection to Mobile Bay as the site of the landing was made when an early Spanish map of the Gulf Of Mexico, dated 1519, labelled Mobile Bay as Tierra de los Gales—Land of the Welsh. See Williams, Madoc, p. 44. Some speculation on this curious fact has to be connected to the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent birth of the princess Mary in 1516. Henry's own Welsh roots coupled with a Spanish marriage surely must have been the reason a Spanish map would make reference to the Welsh. Not to belittle the power of this myth--to this day there is a plaque at Fort Morgan on the East Coast of Mobile Bay commemorating the Welsh landing by Madoc in 1171! {back}

7. As British and colonial expansion in North America moved further westward the tale of Madoc went with them. Every new Indian tribe explorers came into contact with was seen as a possible link to Madoc. Indian dialects, to those explorers, often sounded strikingly similar to Welsh. And every light skinned blue eyed Indian was inevitably of Welsh descent. Notice also how no one single sight could be given for those Welsh Indians. At first they seem to be in the Southern Appalachians, then along the Mississippi River Valley, then the Missouri, finally most Madoc searchers rested satisfied that it was in the Norhern reaches of the Missouri that the Welsh decendants of Madoc finally settled among the Mandan Indians of North Dakota. {back}

8. See, Cotton Charter XIII, art. 38; Cotton Charter XIV, art.1; Harleian Ms. 5835, arts. 2 and 3; Royal MS. 7 C. XVI, art. 35; and Cotton MS. Augustus. I, I, i. Where Dee made refence to "The Lord Madoc, sonne of Owen Gwyndd Prynce of Northwales, led a colonie and inhabited in Terra Florida, or thereabowts.." {back}

9. John Dee, General and Rare Memorials Pertayning to the perfect Arte of Navigation (London, 1577). {back}

10. See British Library Cotton MS. Vitellius. C. VII, ff. 201 ff. {back}

11. See Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, p. 149. {back}

12. See, British Library Additional MS. 59681. William H. Sherman is the first Dee scholar to have taken notice of this work. {back}

13.Additional MS. 59681, p. 13. {back}

14. Additional MS. 59681, p. 13. {back}

15. See Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, p. 185. {back}

16.Additional MS. 59681, p.14. {back}

17.Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance, p. 188. {back}

18. Williams, Madoc: The Making of a Myth, p. 66. {back}

19. Sir George Peckham, A True Reporte Of the late discoveries and possession taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of the Newfound LandesÖ (London, 1583) {back}

20.John Dee, The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the Catalogue of His Library of ManuscriptsÖEditied by James O. Halliwell. Camden Society Publications, vol. 19. London, 1842. P. 16. {back}

21. Peckham, A True Reporte, p. 33. {back}

22. Peckham, A True Reporte, p. 33. {back}

23.See Calendar of State Papers: Domestic-Addenda, Elizabeth, pp. 103-104; and Calendar of State Papers: Domestic, Elizabeth, p. 114. {back}