RASTELL, JOHN, the younger, elder son of John Rastell; English lawyer, visited Newfoundland and perhaps part of Labrador with Richard Hore; b. c. 1497 in Coventry, England; d. c. 1540.
John Rastell, the elder, married Elizabeth, sister of Sir Thomas More. He moved to London in 1512, where he combined a legal practice with a printing business, and undertook various tasks for Henry VIII. As a member of Sir Thomas More’s circle, he took part in discussions on America and its potentialities.
The elder Rastell determined to explore and settle North America, influenced, apparently, by advice from Sebastian Cabot that a half-way house on a northwest passage to Asia would be very profitable. With two London merchants, John Howting and Richard Spicer, he got letters from the king on 5 March 1517 and a small loan. One or more royal ships were assigned to the expedition, the preparation of which was supervised by Sir Thomas Spert, a naval officer (though he and the lord admiral, the Earl of Surrey, were later accused of faint-heartedness and sabotage).
Starting late in the summer, the expedition, consisting of at least four vessels with supplies and equipment for settlement, delayed at Sandwich, Dartmouth, Plymouth, and Falmouth. Dissension broke out among the men and their leaders. One ship returned to England, another touched Ireland and then sailed for France, while two ships seem not to have gone beyond Falmouth. The seamen clearly were unwilling to settle in Newfoundland or Labrador and to search the northwest passage for a way to Asia from this base. Set ashore in Ireland, the elder Rastell wrote a moral play entitled A new interlude and a mery of the nature of the iiij elementes, which he published when he returned to England about 1519 and which embodied both his own ideals of colonization and his use of oral evidence from those who made American voyages before 1506. His vision of an overseas empire, which he made no further attempt to realize, is the only one of its kind before Queen Elizabeth’s reign to survive.
The younger Rastell was born in Coventry and in 1511 was entered, when a child, as a member of the Corpus Christi Guild. (The elder Rastell, too, had been born in Coventry, c. 1475, where he later became coroner before his move to London.) The son reached manhood at a time of crisis for his family. His father broke with his uncle, Sir Thomas More, when Henry VIII came into conflict with the papacy. The elder Rastell was a reformer in the Reformation Parliament of 1529–1536, but he went too far for Thomas Cromwell in challenging the continuation of tithes, was imprisoned, and died in 1536. It was probably before his father’s difficulties became acute that the younger John had committed himself to join the expedition to Newfoundland which was to be led by Richard Hore and on which he left London in April 1536 with a number of other gentlemen adventurers. We do not know whether he sailed on the Trinity or the William. It is possible that one or both ships penetrated the Strait of Belle Isle and got into trouble on the coast of Labrador before returning to fish off Newfoundland, but all got home safely in the end. Beyond some appearances in the courts, little is known of the younger Rastell’s subsequent career, but the continuity of his American expedition with his father’s projects is of some significance.
Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots (1929), and Cabot voyages (1962), contain a number of documents [see Richard Hore for others]. DNB (Rastell, John the elder, and William). For a discussion of A new interlude, see G. B. Parks, “The geography of the ‘Interlude of the four elements,’” Philological Q., XVII (1938), 251–62, and J. Parr, “John Rastell’s geographical knowledge of America,” Philological Q., XXVII (1948), 229–40. A. W. Reed, Early Tudor drama (London, 1926), deals fully with the biography of John Rastell the elder, and has most of what is known on John Rastell the younger.
Revisions based on:
A. J. Geritz and A. L. Laine, John Rastell (Boston, 1983), which used A. L. Laine, “John Rastell: an active citizen of the English commonwealth” (unpublished phd thesis, Duke University, Durham, N.C., 1972).