The Real George Silver

According to Aylward, George Silver was descended from Sir Bartholomew Silver, knighted by Edward II. His family seat was at Ropley in Hampshire. He was the eldest of four brothers, Toby, Roger, and Peter, and probably born between 1555 and 1560, as in 1580 he was married in London. In August 1604 he Silver was named in a Letter Patent issued by King James, and seems to have lived to become an elderly country gent, as Cooke, Clarenceux King-of-Arms, confirmed his pedigree in his Visitation of Hampshire in 1622, when Silver must have been at least 70 years of age.1


However, much of this information is suspect, and modern researchers have failed to confirm any of Aylward’s information (incidentally, not an unusual occurrence for those relying on Aylward).

There are no references to Sir Bartholomew Silver (or anyone of the Silver surname) in the Victoria County History, Cussans, or Sir Henry Chauncy's The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire.

There is indeed a record of a “George Silver” marrying Mary Heydon on 02 Feb 1579(80) at Saint Clement Danes, Westminster, but no evidence that it is the author of Paradoxes of Defence.

Also, Robert Cooke died in 1593. The Clarenceux King-of Arms in 1622 was William Camden, but as he became paralyzed in 1622 and died in 1623 it is doubtful whether he visited Silver either.

There are plenty of other George Silver’s about. For example, there is a death record of a George Silver buried 04 Sep 1608 at Hythe, Kent, with the father listed as Thomas Silver. A George Silver died 11 Mar 1641 at Faversham, although this one was born to Jacobb and Mary Silver in July 1614. None stand out as the author of Paradoxes of Defence.

Given the curious fact that in 1617 the Master of Arms to Prince Henry (brother of Charles I), Joseph Swetnam, couldn't even get Silver’s name right, hazarding it as “George Giller,” it is possible Silver was not his family name at all, and was rather a pseudonym or nom de plume.

Given that Silver speaks of “the warrs” with some authority, he is likely to have first hand experience of battle, and if he was born around 1555-60, he may well have served in the Netherlands in 1585, Normandy or Portugal in 1589, in the Azores in 1597, or in any of the campaigns in Ireland, such as the suppression of Desmond in the early 1580’s, the wars in Connaught in the mid-1580’s, or the Ulster rebellion which first flared in 1594. In particular, Silver dedicated Paradoxes to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who led the storming of Cadiz in 1596. Searching among the records of these campaigns may be enlightening.

The possibility that “Silver” was a nom de plume is supported by references to “Quicksilver” in regards to swordsmanship of the period. For example:

“Sir JOHN POPHAM, of most ancient descent, was born at Huntworth in this county. In his youthful days he was as stout and skilful a man at sword and buckler, as any in that age, and wild enough in his recreations. But oh ! if quicksilver could be really fixed, to what a treasure would it amount!”2

Is it possible “George Silver” was not the true name of the author of Paradoxes of Defence, but a pseudonym for a prominent English gentleman?

Sir John Popham (1531–1607) of Wellington, Somerset, was Speaker of the House of Commons (1580 to 1583), Attorney General (1581 to 1592) and Lord Chief Justice of England (1592 to 1607). Sir John would have been a little too old, and a little too prominent to be “George Silver” himself, but he did have a son who fits the bill.

Sir Francis Popham (1573–1644) served under Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1566–1601) in Spain and was knighted by him at Cadiz in June 1596. In 1597 he was elected Member of Parliament for Somerset. He was a J.P. for Wiltshire from 1597 and for Somerset by 1602.

Sir Francis, unfortunately, was an only son, and “George” says he had a brother named “Toby.”

However, Sir John had an elder brother, Edward Popham, Huntworth, Somerset born 1530. And Edward had a son named George!

George Popham was born 1550 in Somerset. Virtually nothing is known about his early years, but his claim to fame is that in 1607 he led an expedition of 120 colonists in two ships, to found a colony in what is now Maine. George was certainly well connected; his uncle Sir John Popham, then the Lord Chief Justice of England, was one of the financial backers of the colony, while his second-in-command, Raleigh Gilbert, was son of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and half nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh. Other financiers included Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the military governor of Plymouth, and settlers included the Reverend Richard Seymour, grandson of Sir Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and brother to Jane Seymour.

Upon arrival, the colonists quickly began construction of large star-shaped Fort St. George. However, they arrived too late in the year to start growing food, found the climate harsh, and the colony quickly failed. George Popham died on February 5, 1608 – the colonies’ only fatality - and a year after landing the rest of the colonists returned to England.3

Could “George Popham” have been “George Silver”? He is the right age, and his journey to the colonies and early death certainly fit the dates, and explain why Brief Instructions, which was penned around 1605-7, was never published. He could easily have accompanied his cousin, Sir Francis Popham, on the Cadiz expedition under Robert Devereux in 1596, as evidence suggests “George Silver” did. We know George was a second son, though the name of his older brother is not known. Searching among the records of the Cadiz campaign may be enlightening in this regard.

Obviously more research is needed. There is nothing but circumstantial evidence at this point, and given the scarcity of records of the period there is a great deal we may never know. “George Popham” does not explain Swetnam’s reference to “George Giller” (of whom there is no record at all), other than as slang (an insult?) for a fisher or fish-gutter – which might make sense if George was a seaman of some kind? But perhaps - just perhaps - we are finally narrowing in on the Real George Silver.

1. J.D. Aylward, The English Master of Arms (1956) p62-3.
2. Thomas Fuller , The History of the Worthies of England, Volume 2 (1662) Vol.3 p.98
3. James Davies who kept a diary that is one of the main contemporary sources of the information about the Popham Colony. The diary is kept in Lambeth Museum in London, for anyone who would like to research further.