Anti-Popery, Scottish Identity, and the Uses of Travel at the Early Stuart Court

In the Jerusalem section of his 1632 travel account, the Scottish adventurer William Lithgow paused to tell a story that had taken place closer to home, in Whitehall. One day in 1612, Lithgow wrote, a Greek invited to court by the Spanish ambassador was canvassing for donations to repair an ancient monastery. Lithgow questioned the man and discovered that he had never been to that particular monastery and, indeed, knew very little about Jerusalem in general. The Greek lost his nerve and fled with the money he had already scammed from more credulous gentlemen.[i] Thanks to Lithgow’s travel-gained knowledge, the court was spared further fleecing and embarrassment.

In characterizing international travel as the best preparatory school for courtiers, Lithgow anticipated the next century’s Grand Tour. But unlike an eighteenth-century aristocrat buying antiquities for his London townhouse, Lithgow preferred life on the road to dancing attendance at Whitehall. He sought the ear of the monarch, I think, not primarily for personal advancement but because as a Calvinist Scot, he was profoundly troubled by the growing influence of Catholics at court. James VI and I, in Lithgow’s view, needed Protestant—and preferably Scottish—advisors to keep the country on track: after all, the Greek con artist had gained access to court via “the advancement of the Papists.”[ii] In this post, I take a brief look at the changes that Lithgow made to the successive editions of his narrative for what they reveal about the relationship between travel and early modern courtiership.

Lithgow’s “sundry trials”: a Protestant takes on Catholic Europe

The frontispiece from William Lithgow’s travel narrative, showing him in his “Turkish suit” or traveling garb, pilgrim’s staff in hand. William Lithgow, after unknown artist. Woodcut, published 1662. NPG D28043. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lithgow published the account of his first voyage through Europe and the Levant (1609-12) in 1614, while he was back on the road. In 1623, returning from yet another trip, he brought out a new edition covering all three voyages. In 1632 he reworked and greatly expanded his narrative, adding previously untold stories and details to the account of his first journey.

Some of Lithgow’s editorial changes made his work more precise and thus more authoritative. He quantified distances, times, and measurements, replacing, to give one of many examples, a “mervailous great weight” with a “marvailous great, sometimes 600. or 800. weight.”[iii] He also added times when he tested other travellers’ claims, as when he made “sundry trials” floating things on the Dead Sea.[iv]

The bulk of Lithgow’s edits, however, served to sharpen his arguments against Catholicism. He inserted several long (and tedious) theological discussions.[v] He argued with Catholic interpretations of the sites of the Holy Land, scoffing that the “silly soule-sunke Friers” clung to “leying traditions.”[vi] He added several pertinent stories to the description of his first voyage, including one set in 1609 at a busy Italian shrine. When a female pilgrim fainted, he wrote, the crowd exclaimed that the Virgin had appeared to her. Since the pilgrims were more interested in marvelling at the woman than helping her, Lithgow and a companion picked her up, causing her to vomit wine and half-digested flesh. The crowd turned against her, calling her a devil. “And if my friend and I, had not made hast to carry the sicke woman from the Church to a Taverne,” Lithgow reported, “doubtlesse, they had stoned her to death.”[vii] Interestingly, in the 1614 and 1623 editions, Lithgow met his companion later in his travels, while the 1632 version moved the encounter to the Italian shrine, making the man (a Scot, Lithgow noted) a witness to this scene of Catholic superstition and propensity for violence.[viii]

Scottish hopes crushed: the disappointingly tolerant James

What, then, lead Lithgow to make his account more authoritative and more blatantly anti-Catholic? When James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England in 1603, many Calvinists rejoiced: two mighty Protestant kingdoms, united dynastically and diplomatically, would surely crush continental Catholicism.[ix] Lithgow so approved of the Union of Crowns that he had it commemorated in a forearm tattoo, which he reproduced in the 1623 and subsequent versions of his text. Lithgow chose the traditional Jerusalem cross but also incorporated the quadruple crown of King James and the inscription “Vivat Iacobus Rex”.

Lithgow’s tattoo: the Jerusalem cross above the crown of King James. From William Lithgow, The totall discourse, of the rare adventures, and painefull peregrinations of long nineteene yeares travailes from Scotland, to the most famous kingdomes in Europe, Asia, and Affrica (London: J. Okes, 1640). Item supplied by the British Library via Google Books.

Lithgow’s Scottish pride was, however, gradually diminished by James’s reluctance to examine the religious consciences of his subjects. James’s queen, Anne of Denmark, was Catholic, although discreet, and even his closest advisors received a pass as long as they observed outward conformity to Protestantism. The fact that Catholics could therefore be hiding in plain sight worried Lithgow. In the 1623 and later editions of his work, Lithgow commented favourably on the Venetian practice of making its Jewish residents wear red and yellow hats; half in earnest, he wished that England had a similar rule for its Papists.[x] Moreover, between Lithgow’s 1614 and 1632 editions, James attempted to align the Scottish and English churches with the Five Articles of Perth. The Articles required several practices, such as kneeling to receive the sacrament, that Calvinists found too close to idolatry.[xi] Lithgow may have seen these changes as proof that union with England had caused irreparable harm to his kirk and his country. What could he do about it? The son of a burgess, Lithgow had no illustrious social position or great wealth: he did, however, have his traveling staff, his bravery and fortitude, and his book.

As I’ve suggested, Lithgow—“I the wandring Pilgrime” as he called himself—preferred the peripatetic life to a formal place in the king’s retinue.[xii] He proposed, however, that travel gave him the knowledge and powers of discretion that let him refute Catholicism and better advise his king. His ongoing struggle to make his text more authoritative, more persuasive, and more urgent helps us better understand the construction of courtiership before the Grand Tour.

By Emily Price, Newcastle University, UK.

Emily received her doctorate in history from the University of Michigan in 2020. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Newcastle University, looking at how British Protestants defended their confessional stances while traveling through Catholic Europe. In particular, she focusses on cross-confessional debates held over meals. Emily has published on pilgrim souvenirs and travel narratives, and her essay on the landscape of the Holy Land as an authenticating agent will appear in an edited volume next year.


[i] William Lithgow, The totall discourse, of the rare aduentures, and painefull peregrinations of long nineteene yeares trauayles, from Scotland, to the most famous kingdomes in Europe, Asia, and Affrica (London: Nicholas Okes, 1632), pp. 275-6.

[ii] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, p. 276.

[iii] William Lithgow, A most delectable, and true discourse, of an admired and painefull peregrination from Scotland, to the most famous kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affricke (London: Nicholas Okes, 1614), Sr; Lithgow, Totall Discourse, p. 298. He is discussing how much a camel can carry.

[iv] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, 256.

[v] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, pp. 34-36. See also pp. 13, 150, 219-220, 270-271.

[vi] Lithgow, Most Delectable and True Discourse (1614), Q2v; Lithgow, Totall Discourse, 268.

[vii] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, p. 32.

[viii] Lithgow, Most Delectable and True Discourse (1614), C3r; William Lithgow, A most delectable and true discourse of an admired and painefull peregrination from Scotland, to the most famous kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affrica (London: Nicholas Okes, 1623), pp. 21-22.

[ix] On Scots and the English church see Holly Faith Nelson and Sharon Alker, “From Scotland to the Holy Land: Renegotiating Scottish Identity in the Pilgrim Narrative of William Lithgow,” Connotations 19 (1–2) (2010), 176-202 (p. 178).

[x] Lithgow, Most Delectable and True Discourse (1623), p. 24.

[xi] On Scottish reaction to the Articles of Perth, see Laura Stewart, “‘Brothers in Treuth’: Propaganda, Public Opinion and the Perth Articles Debate in Scotland,” in Ralph Houlbrooke (ed.), James VI and I: Ideas, Authority, and Government, (Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 151-68 (pp. 156-8); and Jenny Wormald, “The Headaches of Monarchy: Kingship and the Kirk in the Early Seventeenth Century,” in Julian Goodare and Alasdair MacDonald (eds.), Sixteenth-Century Scotland: Essays in Honour of Michael Lynch, (Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 365-93 (p. 367).

[xii] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, p. 60.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (March 8, 2023). Anti-Popery, Scottish Identity, and the Uses of Travel at the Early Stuart Court. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6ul


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