Gap years and study abroad: 17th century MPs and the legacy of a foreign education

As international travel continues to be unpredictable and as universities and colleges start a new academic year in uncertain times, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1640-1660, considers MPs who went abroad to complete their education and the effect of that on their parliamentary service…

As Dr Paul Hunneyball observed in a previous post from James I to Restoration, more than a quarter of early seventeenth century MPs had experience of foreign travel – a fact all the more remarkable given the attendant hazards. By the middle of the century a slightly smaller proportion of MPs appear to have had such experience. This difference is readily explicable because the civil wars at home diverted some youths into military activity and because Parliaments of the later 1640s and 1650s attracted more men of relatively modest backgrounds, who had lacked the resources for travel or for extended higher education anywhere. In any case, there remained a core of eminent MPs who brought to the House perspectives shaped by significant periods abroad. Indeed, alongside numerous veterans of military service in the Netherlands and Germany, without whom civil war could scarcely have been prosecuted, a few, like Yorkshire-born Presbyterian leader Sir Philip Stapilton, deployed in their cavalry regiments skills learned in the Loire valley at the elite equestrian academy of Angers.

For many MPs, exact information is hard to come by. For about fifty who sat in mid-century, we know only that they had when young obtained an official pass to travel overseas, often for up to three years, and seem to have acted upon that permission, at least for a short period. For others, we learn from contemporary comment simply that they had ‘sojourned’ on the continent – France, the Low Countries and Italy being the most frequently mentioned.

Padua anatomical theatre, 1595

The shortcomings of medical education in England had long encouraged would-be physicians to complete their training at continental universities like Basel, Leiden, Montpellier and Padua, which were either Protestant (the first two) or for the time being accessible to non-Catholic Christians (the second two). Thus, once he had graduated from Oxford, Dr Samuel Turner joined the surprisingly large number of Englishmen who braved the Alps to go to Padua, before returning to become a physician at the royal court. Unsurprisingly, he opted for the king when war broke out, and in 1644 was expelled from the Commons.

For any English students, Padua and Leiden were probably the most popular European universities. The latter had the added attractions of proximity and potential support from the expatriate trading community. An unlikely entrant at Leiden was 21-year-old John Suckling, the future poet, wit and gamester who was to sit for a Sussex seat in 1640. Although a precocious talent which apparently enabled him to acquire ‘tongues [languages] enough to renew that good understanding among men that was lost at Babel’ qualified him on one level, he was not an obvious fit in a Protestant bastion and he soon left for Catholic Brussels [D. Lloyd, Memoires (1668), 157-8]. A more plausible scholar was Francis Rous, whose year or more in Leiden informed his subsequent theological study and writing, and helped equip him for service in every Parliament from 1626 to 1659. Eventually Speaker of the avowedly godly Nominated Parliament (1653), in the meantime he was a stalwart of many parliamentary select committees on religious matters and on the visitation (and regulation) of Oxford and Cambridge universities.

A few future MPs had attended the French Protestant academies and rather more the Academy at Geneva. While for some this was simply a staging post on a continental tour, for others it was a formative experience. Philip Sidney, Viscount Lisle, a prominent member of the Rump and Nominated Parliaments who prudently sidestepped involvement in the trial of Charles I, had spent two and half years at Saumur. This academy, founded by the sixteenth century resistance theorist Philippe Duplessis Mornay, was at that time becoming enmired through its leading professors in a theological controversy which rocked Calvinist Europe and which later surfaced in the Westminster Assembly. A fellow student of Lisle’s there, Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, who was to be pre-eminent in Irish and Scottish politics under the Cromwellian protectorate, also subscribed at Geneva, the bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy and inspiration for Scottish Presbyterianism. To royalist commentators like Edward Hyde, the future earl of Clarendon, those educated in Geneva had by definition imbibed subversive religious and political ideas.

One aristocratic family at the heart of English politics invested heavily in continental education. Independent and war party grandee William Fiennes, viscount Saye and Sele, had despatched abroad three sons who later became MPs and a fourth who probably died there. Intriguingly, it seems that Geneva was not on their itinerary: James Fiennes, the eldest and least radical, was not admitted to the academy; Nathaniel and John certainly took a route straight from Basel to Padua. Nathaniel, apparently the most extensively travelled, had already spent a few months at Leiden pursuing the civil law studies that had kept him at New College Oxford far longer than most noblemen’s sons. Then, with John, he had spent nearly three years at the university of Franeker in Friesland, where the English Calvinist theologian and controversialist William Ames expounded opposition to ecclesiastical hierarchy. Later at Westminster, Nathaniel Fiennes was an eloquent advocate in the early 1640s for the abolition of bishops, while as Speaker of the Other House in the later 1650s he revealed his wide grasp of church history.

A continental education underlay many contributions to seventeenth century debates. However, for some the connection with European scholarship was virtual. John Selden, who commanded respect in the Long Parliament for his learning in the law, was also a jurist of international reputation, but he evidently never went abroad, instead participating in far-flung intellectual networks through publication and correspondence.


Further reading:

John Stoye, English Travellers Abroad 1604-1667 (Yale, 1989)

Biographies or further biographies of Roger Boyle, James Fiennes, John Fiennes, Nathaniel Fiennes, Edward Hyde, Francis Rous, John Selden, Philip Sidney, Sir Philip Stapilton, John Suckling and Samuel Turner are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

4 thoughts on “Gap years and study abroad: 17th century MPs and the legacy of a foreign education

  1. Dear Dr Larminie,

    Can you give me any references for exploring further who studied at Saumur and why they chose it? I am beginning to see dimly an interesting group of those so influenced and would love to dig more. Many thanks,

    Martin Rose
    (and yes, John Stoye was my tutor and friend)

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