Windows into History has concentrated principally on 19th Century travel journals so far, but this month we are going to look at something a little bit different, England as seen by Foreigners in the days of Elizabeth and James the First. Although this is a 19th Century publication (1865), it brings together a collection of translations of seventeen travel journals from the 16th and 17th Centuries, all written by visitors to England at the time. As foreign travel was rarely an option for anyone other than the wealthy at the time, much of the description in the journals relates various visits to aristocracy and royalty, but there is still plenty of interesting information to be discovered within the pages of the book. Over the next few weeks we will look at a selection of the best journals from the book, starting with the very first, written by the secretary to Frederick, Duke of Württemberg. As usual, I will be presenting quotes from some of the most fascinating passages from the journals, and offering background information to give context to the quotes.
Before we start looking at the first journal though, it is worth mentioning a little bit of biographical information concerning the great man who brought all these journals together in one volume, William Brenchley Rye. Born in 1818, Rye gained employment in the office of a solicitor in London in 1834. There he met a future librarian at the British Museum, who obtained employment for Rye at the Museum in 1838. Over the course of a distinguished career, during which time Rye was able to indulge his interest in antiquarian books, he rose to the position of Assistant Keeper of the Department of Printed Books in 1857. In 1865, while still in that role, his collection of journals was published, and in 1869 he was appointed Keeper. Sadly he was only able to hold the post until 1875 due to ill health. Even more sadly, his eyesight was already in a serious state of deterioration, and he eventually lost his sight altogether, which must have been terribly frustrating for a man who had made books his life. He died in 1901. Let’s turn our attention to the first journal in his wonderful volume, from the year 1592. We pick the narrative up in Gravesend:
Here, having first dined, a small vessel was ordered, and we embarked upon the river Thames, which is tolerably broad, and in which there are many swans; these are so tame that you can almost touch them, but it is forbidden on pain of corporal punishment in any way to injure a swan, for Royalty has them plucked every year, in order to have their down for court-use. Into this river Thames there sets also a tide of the sea, which accordingly every six hours flows up and down. We then sailed towards London. Upon the left-hand side of the river we passed the beautiful and pleasant royal Palace of Greenwich, where the Queen moreover is usually accustomed to receive and to give audience to envoys and ambassadors from foreign potentates.
The traveller is Frederick I, Duke of Württemberg but the journal was written by his secretary, Rathgeb. The events described in his journal took place in 1592, although it was not published until 1602. The duke became something of a victim of humour when he was referenced by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, for reasons we will look at later in this article.
Royal ownership of the swans on the Thames was first legalised in the Royal Charter of Edward IV (1482), although the scope of the charter is limited to seizing swans marked illegally and giving half of them to the king, so the monarch at that stage did not in fact own all the swans on the Thames! Many were marked in a practice known as “swan upping” for landowners other than the monarchy.
London is a large, excellent, and mighty city of business, and the most important in the whole kingdom; most of the inhabitants are employed in buying and selling merchandize, and trading in almost every corner of the world, since the river is most useful and convenient for this purpose, considering that ships from France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Hamburg, and other kingdoms, come almost up to the city, to which they convey goods and receive and take away others in exchange.
It is a very populous city, so that one can scarcely pass along the streets, on account of the throng.
The inhabitants are magnificently apparelled, and are extremely proud and overbearing; and because the greater part, especially the tradespeople, seldom go into other countries, but always remain in their houses in the city attending to their business, they care little for foreigners, but scoff and laugh at them; and moreover one dare not oppose them, else the street-boys and apprentices collect together in immense crowds and strike to the right and left unmercifully without regard to person; and because they are the strongest, one is obliged to put up with the insult as well as the injury.
The women have much more liberty than perhaps in any other place; they also know well how to make use of it, for they go dressed out in exceedingly fine clothes, and give all their attention to their ruffs and stuffs, to such a degree indeed, that, as I am informed, many a one does not hesitate to wear velvet in the streets, which is common with them, whilst at home perhaps they have not a piece of dry bread. All the English women are accustomed to wear hats upon their heads, and gowns cut after the old German fashion — for indeed their descent is from the Saxons.
This is the sort of quote that makes old travel journals so fascinating. There is no better way to get an impression of what life was like at the time than through eyewitness accounts such as this, although it is important to remember that the writer was very far removed indeed from the sort of society he was attempting to describe. The duke was visiting London at a vibrant time for the city, which had experienced a meteoric rise in its importance as a centre for trade during the previous few decades. The population had risen corresponding to its success, from 50,000 in 1530 to around 200,000 at the time of Frederick’s visit. Although this obviously pales in comparison with today’s population of over eight million, it was still a bustling place to be. An important symbol of the recent success of the city was the Royal Exchange:
The Exchange is a palace, where all kinds of beautiful goods are usually to be found; and because the city is very large and populous, the merchants who transact business together appoint to meet each other at that place, of whom several hundreds are constantly to be met with congregated there.
Queen Elizabeth, to whom the duke was shortly to pay a visit, had officially opened the Exchange in 1571. Contemporary mentions of the building are a little poignant, as it was sadly destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The current building was opened by another female monarch, Queen Victoria, in 1844, after the second Exchange building was lost in another fire. Also severely damaged in the Great Fire was London Bridge, so the following is an important contemporary description from prior to that destruction:
Over the river at London there is a beautiful long bridge, London Bridge, with quite splendid, handsome, and well-built houses, which are occupied by merchants of consequence. Upon one of the towers, nearly in the middle of the bridge, are stuck up about thirty-four heads of persons of distinction, who had in former times been condemned and beheaded for creating riots and from other causes.
If you take a careful look at the image that accompanies this article, an engraving from 1616 by Claes Visscher showing London Bridge, you will be able to find the heads of executed criminals on spikes at the top of the Southwark Gatehouse on the bridge, a practice as described in the quote above.
At noon we came to Hounslow, an English village. Towards night we reached Maidenhead, a beautiful large place or town, but which, like all other English towns, is without walls: here we were met by the ambassador, Beauvois.
There are in fact dozens of English walled towns, some hailing from Roman times, but many built during the 12th and 13th Centuries. They were not all derelict at this stage either, despite claims made in Frederick’s journal, with many still in use during the English Civil War (1642-1651).
The second and final part of this journal article will follow soon. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.