When I finished school in the late 1980s, I secretly longed to spend a gap year InterRailing, convinced that it was a direct route to coolness and sophistication. But being a sensible, middling sort of girl, I instead went directly to the University of Southampton to finish my education. I left the UK only on the day after my finals to hitch through Europe as far as Athens, catch a boat to Israel and end up broke and working on a moshav in the Negev to pay for my fare home. Little did I realise then that in undertaking my belated post-university tour I was emulating generations of earlier English travellers. And I certainly didn’t understand how far back the tradition of educative travel for young people extended, even into the first quarter of the 17th century.
Received wisdom still holds that significant British cultural tourism began only after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 with the rise of the institution of a Grand Tour for elite young men after they came down from university. This cultural rite of passage for the sons of the nobility reached its height in the 18th and early 19th centuries when, accompanied by a tutor or cicerone (guide), young men set off on well-trodden paths around the notable sites of continental Europe to finish off their education. The aim was to refine travellers’ tastes and minds and, through the introductions performed by resident English ambassadors and other worthies, enable them to meet the most powerful families of Europe and bring home useful information and cultural artefacts with which to impress friends, family and betters.
The Jacobean Grand Tour: Early Stuart Travellers in Europe comprehensively demolishes this narrative, establishing it as a significant cultural practice much earlier. The end of the Anglo-Spanish war in 1604 after nearly 20 years, and the bedding-down of James I’s peaceful policies, enabled a new generation of young English noblemen to see for themselves the remains of classical civilisation in large parts of post-Reformation Europe that had long been inaccessible to Protestants.
This book is far from a simple survey of continental travel; instead, it offers a detailed account of the itineraries of just two comparatively truncated tours, undertaken by the sons of the newly related-by-marriage Cecil and Howard families. On 1 December 1608, William Cecil (Viscount Cranborne and the only son of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury) married Catherine Howard (daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk). Just a few days later, accompanied by his new brothers-in-law Henry and Thomas, he parted from both country and wife. Also in the party were two other notable men carefully chosen by his father for their sense and taste, Inigo Jones (later architect to Charles I) and the aspiring courtier John Finet (who went on to help retrieve Charles from his abortive attempt to woo the Infanta of Spain in 1623). Cranborne’s diaries, written for his father to read, detail his impressions of the ancient sites and contemporary cities he visited, and showcase his developing artistic taste. He reached Provence on his first tour and, again accompanied by Finet, travelled as far as Venice and Padua in 1610-11, before turning for home following a protracted illness.
The problem with academic accounts of early modern travel – continental or global – is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for readers to visualise the site, artefact, event or people under discussion. This book’s 107 black-and-white illustrations and photographs and 11 colour plates are a tremendous boon; they join the dots between Cranborne’s sometimes sparse diary entries to allow us to imagine the experience of travel for ourselves.
But the real skill on show here is Edward Chaney and Timothy Wilks’ recreation of the social and artistic milieu for this originary moment of one of the most important cultural practices to shape elite young Englishmen for more than 300 years.
The Jacobean Grand Tour: Early Stuart Travellers in Europe
By Edward Chaney and Timothy Wilks
I. B. Tauris, 336pp, £25.00
Published 18 December 2013