The Tudor Society

16 May – The real “John Blackthorne” of Shōgun

On this day in history, 16th May 1620, navigator William Adams died in Hirado, Japan. Adams is thought to be the first Englishman to have reached Japan (arriving there in 1600) and was the inspiration for the character of John Blackthorne in the famous novel Shōgun.

How did William Adams end up in Japan and why did he stay there when he had a family in England?

Find out more about this interesting Tudor navigator in today's talk.

Book recommendation: “Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan” by Giles Milton.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 16th May 1568, following her escape from prison in Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots, landed on English soil and was taken prisoner once more, but this time by England. Why was Mary taken prisoner? What happened? Find out in last year’s video:

And on this day in 1536, the condemned Queen Anne Boleyn's spirits seemed to have lifted and she was hoping for mercy. Why? What could have made her so hopeful?

Also on this day in history:

  • 1511 – Burial of Walter Fitzsimons, Archbishop of Dublin and Lord Deputy of Ireland, in the nave of St Patrick's Cathedral.
  • 1532 – Resignation of Sir Thomas More as Chancellor.
  • 1544 – Death of John Skewys, lawyer and chronicler.
  • 1566 – Death of Patrick Ruthven, 3rd Lord Ruthven, a man who was involved in the murder of David Riccio, Mary, Queen of Scots's private secretary.
  • 1567 – Death of Sir Anthony Browne, judge, at his home Weald Hall, South Weald, Essex. He had served Mary I as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, but was removed from this office by Elizabeth I and made a Puisne Justice of the same court.
  • 1576 – Burial of Nicholas Bullingham, Bishop of Lincoln and Worcester. His burial was originally registered at Hartlebury (he died at Hartlebury Castle), but his tomb can now be found in the north aisle of Worcester Cathedral.
  • 1579 – Death of George Freville, judge and 2nd Baron of the Exchequer.
  • 1618 – Death of Dorothy Wadham (née Petre), founder of Wadham College, Oxford. She is buried in St Mary's Church, Ilminster.


On this day in history, 16th May 1620, navigator William Adams died in Hirado, Japan.
Adams is thought to be the first Englishman to have reached Japan (arriving there in 1600) and was the inspiration for the character of John Blackthorne in the famous novel Shōgun.

Let me give you a few facts about this Tudor navigator…

• William Adams was born in September 1564 in Gillingham, Kent, and was the son of John Adams.
• Nothing is known of his early life, except that he worked as an apprentice to shipbuilder Nicholas Diggens in Limehouse, London, between the ages of 12 and 24.
• In 1588, at the time of the Spanish Armada, Adams served as master of a 120 ton supply ship called the Richard Dyffylde.
• After that, he served as pilot and master for ten years for the Barbary Company, which traded with Morocco.
• In 1589, Adams married Mary Hyn and they had two children together.
• In 1598, when he was 34, Adams was recruited by the Dutch to pilot the Hoop, the admiral’s ship, on a voyage via the Strait of Magellan to the East Indies for spices and other products, with the added incentive of attacking Spanish settlements in South America.
They left Rotterdam on 27th June 1598 and reached the coast of Brazil on 2 January 1599, and the Strait of Magellan on 6th April 1599. However, they couldn’t pass through due to the winter weather, and it was September when they eventually cleared the strait. Unfortunately, due to Spanish attacks and the weather, only two ships, the Hoop and the Liefde, made the arranged rendezvous in November 1599 off the Island of St Mary, and even they had suffered attacks by Indians, and, sadly, Adams’s brother, Thomas, had been killed. By this time, Adams was on the Liefde rather than the Hoop.
The remaining crews decided to sail to Japan, where they believed that they could sell their cloth. Unfortunately, they encountered trouble again, being attacked while sailing near the Hawaiian Islands, and a storm in February 1600 saw the ships becoming separated and the Hoop perishing.
In April 1600, the Liefde arrived in Japan, off the coast of Bungo. It was the first non-Iberian European ship to reach the country, and William Adams was the first Englishman to do so.
• In May 1600, Adams was called before regent Tokugawa Ieyasu to explain where he’d come from. Adams was able to persuade him that he and his crew were not the thieves and robbers that previous European visitors, the Jesuits and Portuguese, had made them out to be, and explain that they were there to trade. He hit it off with Ieyasu, which was good because later that year, Ieyasu took power, after defeating his opponents in battle, becoming shogun of Japan. Ieyasu was also keen on expanding trade.
• Although Adams was very much welcomed to Japan, he wanted to go home to his family after the negotiations with Ieyasu. However, his ship had been destroyed and his shipbuilding and navigational skills were valued by the Japanese. He ended up becoming one of the shogun’s advisors, helping particularly with European matters, maths and geometry. In return for his service, he was given land.
• Adams became involved with a Japanese woman and she had two children by him. However, he continued to support his family back in England by sending them money. He also had another child in Japan, but little is known about the mother and child.
• Adams was also able to help Japan by acting as an interpreter between the shogun and the Dutch, and also the English, in trade negotiations.
• After successful negotiations between the English and Japanese in 1613, Adams was employed by the English company in Hirado for three years. During that time, he took two voyages to Siam.
• Adams was eventually given permission to leave for England, but he decided to stay in Japan, and he made three further voyages between 1617 to 1619, two bound for Faifo and one to Tongking.
• Adams died on this day in history, 16th May 1620 in Hirado. According to the terms of his will, half his estate went to his wife and surviving child in England, a daughter, Deliverance, and the other half went to his children, Joseph and Susanna in Japan. Adams was buried in Japan.
• James Clavell’s famous novel, Shōgun, which was adapted for TV, was based on Adams’ story, which has also inspired many other works of fiction.

Leave a Reply

16 May – The real “John Blackthorne” of Shōgun