For many fly fishers, one of the most famous names in fishing history is that of the ‘Father of Angling’ Izaak Walton. His book, ‘The Compleat Angler‘ was written in 1653 and is considered one of the best-loved books about fishing and seventeenth century life.
Born in Stafford, England in 1593 to Jervis and Anne Walton, Izaak’s father was an innkeeper who died when he was a toddler. As a young man, he apprenticed in London, becoming first an ironmonger and then a linen draper. He ran his own business. During this time, he became a verger and churchwarden at St. Dunstan’s church. It was here that he struck up a friendship with the well-known poet and clergyman, John Donne.
By all accounts, Izaak had literary leanings very early on and one of his first published works was a biography of his friend, Donne, which was well received. He went on to write other biographies before, in 1653, writing the fishing book that would make him world famous. It is now the third most printed book in the English language and there are over 600 different editions.
He married Archbishop Cranmer’s great-great niece Rachel Floud in 1626 and when she died in 1640, he married a second time to Anne Ken in 1646. Between them, there were 10 children although only 2 survived to old age.
In 1644, Izaak retired from his business and went back for a time to live in the Staffordshire area, at a place called Shallowford. This purchase was as a result of the English Civil War and was a place of retreat from the aftermath of that event. Although Izaak eventually returned to London, he kept Shallowford cottage for the rest of his life, bequeathing it to the citizens of Staffordshire when he died. It is now a museum.
‘The Compleat Angler’ was still a work in progress for over 25 years by Izaak Walton after he initially published it. The work is a mix of poetry and prose, and was added to by Izaak’s friend, Charles Cotton, who contributed the section about fly fishing and flies.
So well-known was Walton that other authors referenced him in letters or books, and he has even been inducted into the US National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
Izaak Walton has also been the subject of various media over the years. American artist and writer, James Prozek, made a documentary about Izaak for his thesis at Yale University. The film is about his travels in Izaak’s footsteps. If you are interested in seeing the film, here it is:
In 2003, the BBC featured Izaak in a broadcast on its Radio 4 channel. It was in celebration of the book’s 350th anniversary. There are 3 parts to the broadcast and this is the first one. If you wish to listen to the second 2 parts, you will find them here.
izaak walton in winchester
Izaak’s second wife, Ann, died in 1662 and by then, he had come to know George Morley, later the Bishop of Winchester. Morley invited Izaak and his family to join him in Winchester. Izaak lived there until he died, at the very old age of 90, in 1683, and having lived through the turmoil of the English Civil War, Cromwell’s Army and the Great Fire of London. He is buried in Prior Silstead’s Chapel in Winchester Cathedral.
The cathedral also has a Fisherman’s Chapel. It is in the South transept and has a stained glass window depicting Izaak reading, sitting down by a tree with his fishing rod close at hand. Donations from fishermen in the US and the UK paid for the window which was installed in 1914.
Today, most fly fishers know of Izaak Walton even if they haven’t read his book. Others though, like to raise a glass to him the next time they’ve had a successful fishing trip.
(With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, Winchester Cathedral and others for providing image/source material)