Travel in the sixteenth century: Getting there

Whilst driving across Texas to visit my folks in Taos, my thoughts naturally turned to what a similar trip would be like in Francis Bacon’s time.

It’s about 372 miles from Austin to Lubbock, where I spend the night. Google says it should take 6.5 hours, but I stop a lot, so it’s more like 7.5 for me. I had air-conditioning, audio books, and a cellphone with which I could summon help, should I need it. I’ve been driving to Taos for 30-odd years, so I don’t need a map. I just turn left in Brownwood, left again at Abilene, right at Roscoe and straight on to my motel in downtown Lubbock.

First map of Scotland, 1570 – National Library of Scotland

In Bacon’s time, you would also navigate by towns and inns, but unless you knew the route well, you’d need a guide to choose the right path at rural crossroads, of which there are many. You might get by with directions from locals and fellow travelers, but you’d need to be a good judge of character not to be misdirected, whether by a villain meaning to waylay you in a woods or by one of those helpful people who feel compelled to give an answer even when they know nothing.

If you were well-to-do and educated, you might have a map like the one above, but it doesn’t show roads, much less the tracks and paths you’d use at either end of your journey. We have so many choices in the map department these days, we can get from anywhere to anywhere, door to door, with nary a false turn.

It’s about 332 miles from London to Edinburgh, according to (I don’t know how accurate this tool is, but it’s yet another fun way to waste time on the web.) In the sixteenth century, it would take a normal traveler a good 18 days to make that trip at the average travel speed of 20 miles a day. Even pedestrians could achieve that rate; it was common for men and women to walk 10 miles to the nearest market town, do their buying and selling, and then walk home at the end of the day. Modern walking tours cover 8-15 miles a day, depending on the will and the hardiness of the walkers.

Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth. NT; (c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth. NT; (c) Montacute House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Robert Carey, 1st Earl of Monmouth, made the ride in 2 amazing days, leaving the bedside of the dying Queen Elizabeth on 24 March, 1603, and arriving in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh late on 26 March. He must have ridden like fury and changed horses at every inn along the way. Google says it should take 6.5 hours to drive from London to Edinburgh — no, make that 7 hrs 38 mins in current traffic. Lord Monmouth would not have had traffic to worry about, at least, in his mad dash to be first to bring the news to King James.

He must have ridden through the night, which would surely have been impossible without a moon. The NASA moon phases website gives us a full moon on March 27th, so Lord Monmouth would have had pretty good light, if it wasn’t cloudy or raining. North of England… what are the odds?

You’d also need a strong heart and a fearless disposition to travel at night. Outlaws, demons, wild beasts — all manner of dangers lurked beyond the verge. In our time, we have to worry about drunk drivers, fatigue, and wild beasts leaping in front of our headlights. I have yet to see a Demon Crossing, but I’m young yet.

I packed like a crazy person, having just moved out of my temporary digs into an even more temporary hotel room, putting the apartment stuff under dust cloths in my unfinished house. Anything I couldn’t think what to do with went into the car to be driven across the state. It’s amazing what you can fit into a Honda Fit.IMG_20140722_184822_001

If you were walking in Bacon’s day, you might carry a single bag slung across your shoulders. You’d have a change of linen or two, perhaps a warmer layer like a jerkin and some thick stockings. You might have a book, if you were literate, or a broadside ballad to sing around the fire in the evening at your lodging. You’d have a bit of food for a roadside dinner and a flask of some sustaining beverage. You’d keep your money in a purse inside your clothes. If you were going to market, you might have a basket of eggs or turnips or handmade whatnots. You would not have a neglected sewing project, three pairs of reading glasses, the contents of your mail box for the past four days, and whatever was on the middle shelf in the pantry when you moved out.

If you were on a horse, you could carry quite a bit in your saddlebags. Things to sell, diplomatic pouches, fine clothes to put on when you got where you were going (for men; you couldn’t get a late century farthingale into a saddle bag.) Lord Monmouth could cheerfully assume he would provided with everything needed or desired on his arrival. If you had a mule or a packhorse, you could bring whatever you wanted, including your latest sewing project, a week’s worth of letters, extra spectacles, and whatever was on the pantry shelves when you left.

Bacon in France

Francis Bacon at 18, by Nicholas Hilliard. National Portrait Gallery 6761.

Sir Nicholas Bacon removed Francis and Anthony from Cambridge in 1575. Soon after, he brought them to Gray’s Inn. The record shows that they were admitted on June 27th, 1576. As the sons of a judge (the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal was chief justice in the Court of Chancery), the boys were admitted directly into the Grand Company of Ancients. Most members of this august body were men who had passed the bar and been practicing law for at least 8 years. Since it normally took 8 years of continual residence and study to be called to the bar, your average Ancient was a man well into his thirties.

Francis did not stay long at Gray’s Inn. Sir Nicholas had the measure of his youngest son and plainly intended to groom him for service at the highest levels of government. Toward that end, alone of all his sons, he sent Francis to live abroad in the household of the ambassador to Paris. Edward and Anthony traveled to the Continent, but independently, both having escaped their parents in order to do so. Francis was never a leash-slipper. He dutifully went where he was sent and did what he was meant to do. He remembered this period of his life as a very important stage in his development and especially remembered with evergreen pride being allowed to take his leave directly from the queen, kissing her hand in a formal farewell.

About the portrait: this is reproduced with permission from the National Portrait Gallery in London. Francis seems to have been a very pretty boy, but it must be noted that painter Nicholas Hilliard made everybody look sly and sexy. No wonder he was so popular! (The link to the gallery takes you to a page of Hilliard miniatures.) The portrait fairly drips arrogance (a quote whose author I’ve forgotten.) Hilliard was so impressed with the lad he inscribed the painting, “If the face as painted is deemed worthy, yet I prefer the mind, in his eighteenth year.” The original is in Latin and has been variably translated as “If only I could paint his mind!” I’m looking at the Latin and I think Jardine & Stewart got it right (p.53.) Hilliard was in Paris possibly to capture a likeness of Francois duc de Alençon, then a candidate for Queen Elizabeth’s hand.

The ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet, was a man of impeccable religion, even by Lady Bacon’s stringent standards. He had been Governor of Jersey, where he sheltered Huguenot refugees from Catholic France. He exhausted his health and his fortune in her Majesty’s service, later being charged with guarding Mary, Queen of Scots, in his own house for the last year of her life. Ambassadors were expected to support their own offices in those days. I don’t know why anyone would have volunteered for the position, but there must have been some profit in it somewhere. Paulet’s correspondence is full of pleas for funds, begging support for his messengers, his intelligencers, and members of his household. The ambassador’s chief job was managing information, both getting and giving. He was expected to submit regular reports on a range of subjects. Francis probably helped to write some of them; good training that stood him in good stead. According to du Maurier, he was always able to concentrate intensely, write quickly, and turn easily from one task to another. Put down the speech for Parliament, pick up the masque for Gray’s Inn. Write a letter to some philosopher in French, then to a courtier in English, then jot some notes about a religious tract in Latin. We can bet Sir Amias got his money’s worth out of his young attendant.

The king of France in those years was Henri III. The Queen Mother was Catherine de Medici. Henri surrounded himself with frilly, perfumed mignons who were the scandal of the Court and utterly shocking to the English. Quite a contrast to the soberly gowned scholars and lawyers of Cambridge and Gray’s Inn. I can imagine Francis, carefully dressed in quiet black, a bit shy and younger than most, spending many of his days standing about the edges of the glittering French court, watching and listening with his absorptive gaze and his exquisite sensitivity to language. Du Maurier says he would have learned to bow so low his forehead touched the floor. What a school!

Tapestry depicting the French court in the sixteenth century.

The household spent some time in Paris, but the French court traveled, like all courts were obliged to do. They tended to eat up all the local supplies and fill up all the local privies, so they had to keep moving. Paulet was kept at arm’s length on account of his severe Protestantism, so his household was often lodged in villages little able to accommodate their needs. They lived in St. Die outside Blois, then on to Tours, thence to Poitier. (I always have to stop and look at the map. Traveling southwest from Paris, you could plot a sensible route through those towns. You’d strike the Atlantic coast at Rochefort or La Rochelle.)

Francis formed many lifelong friendships in these days. I’ll just list them here; each deserves a post of his own. Nicholas Hilliard, the painter; Jean Hotman, a French nobleman who graduated JD from Oxford and served the Earl of Leicester in the Low Countries; Thomas Phelippes, cryptographer; and Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s great library.

Francis’s days — and nights — must have been crammed full, but the activities that occupied him in the ambassador’s train were not what Sir Nicholas had in mind. He wanted his son to learn civil law, the legal tradition descended from Rome that was practiced in most of Europe. Knowledge of civil law was required for cases touching international matters of trade or policy. Sir Nicholas strongly believed the well-rounded civil servant should be grounded in both the common law of England and the civil law of the Continent. So he removed Francis from the ambassador’s house and sent him to live with a civil lawyer somewhere outside of Paris. Neither the name of this lawyer nor his place of abode are known, which seems like a strange gap to me, but such is the historical record. Perhaps no one had time to write letters, or all those letters were burned in some mundane incident. We do know it was a French-speaking household, so Francis had a year of total immersion in that language.

He wanted to go to Italy in 1578, like every curious young Englishman. He petitioned Sir Amias, his father, and Lord Burghley. His pleas were denied, but not for fear he would be contaminated by the amoral Italians. No one seems to have had any such doubts about our Francis. In his case, the fear was that, as the son of a highly-placed government official, he was at risk of kidnapping, for ransom, or to be tortured by the Inquisition to effect a highly visible conversion.

In his essay On Travel, Bacon advocated the keeping of diaries while traveling. Sadly for us, he did not follow this advice himself. He also offers this advice on what sorts of persons one ought to meet while abroad. He wrote the essay some twenty years after the experience. He speaks, as always, with the voice of experience guided by intelligence.

“As for the acquaintance, which is to be sought in travel; that which is most of all profitable, is acquaintance with the secretaries and employed men of ambassadors: for so in travelling in one country, he shall suck the experience of many.”

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