The perils of foreign travel in the early modern era

With holidays abroad still a major challenge due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project, considers the risks associated with travel overseas four hundred years ago…

One of the standard clichés of life a few centuries ago is that people tended not to travel very far. While this was broadly true for the bulk of the population, there were in fact more opportunities to explore the world than we generally assume. By the early seventeenth century enterprising mariners and merchants were crossing the Atlantic, and reaching as far afield as Russia and India, in addition to more routine contacts with most coastal areas of continental Europe. For several decades, England had permanent garrisons in the Netherlands, which generated a great deal of traffic across the North Sea. For the privileged classes, the option of foreign travel for cultural or educational purposes was becoming more routine. This was also the era which witnessed the rise of the spa break – literally trips to take the medicinal waters at Spa, in modern-day Belgium (domestic options were also popular). More than a quarter of all MPs who sat between 1604 and 1629 had some experience of foreign climes. However, these ventures were not without their dangers.

Prior to the advent of air travel and the Channel Tunnel, all trips abroad necessarily involved a spell at sea, invariably in vessels highly vulnerable to bad weather. Anyone who’s experienced seasickness will sympathise with Sir Thomas Ridgeway, who in 1606 got caught in a storm on the Irish Sea for 48 hours. His ship did eventually reach Dublin harbour, but some other travellers were not so fortunate. Two decades later Sir Robert Yaxley was shipwrecked off Anglesey while on his way to Ireland. The English Channel was not necessarily any safer, as Sir Thomas Lucy discovered to his cost in 1609, being wrecked near Dover. The risks naturally increased further from home. That same year Sir George Somers made it all the way across the Atlantic, only for his ship to go down off Bermuda. However, these men were all luckier than Thomas Conway, who drowned off the Danish coast in the winter of 1631-2.

Pieter Mulier, ‘A ship wrecked in a storm off a rocky coast’ (C17th)

While sea crossings were clearly hazardous, journeys on dry land were not necessarily much safer. George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham fell off his horse seven times while travelling to Madrid in 1623. A few months later, Leonard Mawe, subsequently bishop of Bath and Wells, was lucky to escape serious injury while on his way to join Buckingham; thrown by his mule, he reportedly landed on his head. Ten years earlier Nicholas Ferrar was so frightened by a near-fatal accident in the Alps that this supposedly prompted him to devote his remaining life to the service of God. But reaching your destination was no guarantee of safety. Disease is no respecter of frontiers. Francis Norris, 2nd Lord Norreys, nearly died of fever in Paris in 1605, his wife thoughtfully requesting permission for him to absent himself from Parliament while his life hung in the balance. A trip to Italy in 1611 by William Cecil, Viscount Cranborne was disrupted by an attack of fever at Padua, while Paul Bayning, 2nd Viscount Bayning contracted smallpox in Tuscany in 1635. Even the threat of disease could cause problems. Sir Dudley Carleton (later Viscount Dorchester) was quarantined in 1611 while on his way to serve as English ambassador in Venice, for fear that he might bring plague into the city.

A robust constitution was of course no protection against physical violence. In 1608 Sir Julius Caesar’s eldest son died in a brawl in Padua which he had himself provoked. By definition Sir Richard Hawkins was also looking for trouble when he undertook a privateering voyage in 1593, though he presumably didn’t anticipate being captured by Spanish forces off the coast of Peru and held prisoner for nearly a decade. One feels more sympathy for William Whiteway, who was incarcerated in France in 1591 while serving there as an apprentice merchant. His only offence was to be a Protestant in a Catholic region during an upsurge in the French wars of religion. Normally France was a relatively safe country for Anglicans to visit, compared with Spanish or Italian territories, where the Inquisition posed a constant threat. Young gentlemen travelling in Italy, such as Sir William Pope, William Cecil, 16th Lord Ros, and William Cecil, later 2nd earl of Exeter, ran the risk of imprisonment in all but name, while their captors attempted to convert them to Catholicism.

Assuming that all these dangers were avoided, and travellers managed not to run out of money, as happened to Edward Vaux, 4th Lord Vaux in 1609 in Italy, a safe return home was guaranteed. Nevertheless, a warm welcome also depended on good conduct while abroad. Sir Jerome Horsey, who served as English agent at the court of Ivan the Terrible, arrived back from Russia in 1587 and was promptly prosecuted by the Muscovy Company for alleged corruption. During a trip to Germany in 1610, Sir Edward Herbert made the mistake of challenging Theophilus Howard, Lord Howard de Walden to a duel, and was subsequently hauled before the Privy Council to explain himself. However, the prize for an inglorious return must go to Thomas Arundell, 1st Lord Arundell. As a young man (and a Catholic) in search of adventure, he travelled all the way to Hungary, where his military exploits in the service of Emperor Rudolf II earned him the rank of a count of the Holy Roman Empire. Arriving back in England the following year, he survived a shipwreck off the south coast, only to find himself imprisoned by Elizabeth I, who was outraged that he’d accepted an honour from a foreign ruler without her permission. Undeterred by this disgrace, Arundell also later managed to offend James I by undiplomatic behaviour abroad – but that’s another story.


Further reading:

John Stoye, ‘English Travellers Abroad’ (1989)

Edward Chaney and Timothy Wilks, ‘The Jacobean Grand Tour’ (2014)

Biographies of the duke of Buckingham, Bishop Mawe, Lord Norreys, Viscount Cranborne, Viscount Bayning, Viscount Dorchester, Lord Ros, the earl of Exeter, Lord Vaux and Lord Arundell will appear in our forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.

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