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The 1st Duke of Roxburghe and his Grand Tour of Europe

25th June 2021

A European Grand Tour was seen as a rite of passage amongst the moneyed classes, and was a must for young gentlemen wishing to play a full and complete part in high society.

An introduction to John Ker

John Ker was born in 1680, the middle of three sons born to Robert Ker, 3rd Earl of Roxburghe and Margaret Hay, eldest daughter of John Hay, 1st Marquess of Tweeddale. Ker’s father was born sometime around 1658 and had a promising early career. In 1680 he was made a Privy Counsellor to Charles II and was also Sherriff of Selkirk, Roxburghshire and Baillie of the Regality of Melrose.

This career was cut short when he was just 24, when a fifty gun frigate, HMS Gloucester, was wrecked in a gale off the Isle of Wight in May 1682. Exalted passengers such as the Duke of York (the future James II) and John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough), survived the wreck, but Ker and around 120 of the crew did not. John Ker thus never knew his father, and his five-year-old brother Robert became the 4th Earl in 1682.

Robert Ker’s tenure as earl was also short-lived, and he passed away unmarried and without issue in July 1696, meaning that his younger brother John unexpectedly became the 5th Earl of Roxburghe at 16 years of age.

The first time we can see into the young Earl’s life with any clarity is through the lens of the letters he sent to his mother whilst away on a Grand Tour of Europe from 1701. This is the term applied to what became the traditional trip to Europe indulged in primarily by young men of means from about 1660, to the advent of the supremacy of railway travel in the 1840s. It was seen as a rite of passage amongst the moneyed classes, and was a must for young gentlemen wishing to play a full and complete part in high society.

What is a Grand Tour?

The tour followed a generally accepted route, through France, Switzerland and onward to Italy, in search of remnants of classical civilisation and the great works of the Renaissance. Time spent in Venice and Rome were essential components. When the delights of Florence, Padua, Milan, Venice and Naples had been exhausted, it was time to head back through the German-speaking parts of Europe and on to the Low Countries before heading home. It was the very making of the aspiring young gentleman. The tour could last anything from a few months to a few years.

It was often conducted in the company of a Cicerone, a more mature tutor, escort or guide, whose task it was to curb the worst of the excesses and attempt to ensure some educational and developmental benefit was derived from the tour for their young charges. In John Ker’s case, this role was fulfilled by one Alexander Wedderburn, who also wrote letters back to the Countess detailing the tour’s itinerary and the activities of his young aristocratic charge.

The habit for touring increased cultural understanding and homogeneity amongst the ruling elite, though it was not technically a religious or cultural pilgrimage, it promoted an engagement with and understanding of European culture, religion, art and music. Doubtless, there was a fair degree of debauched excess, and in some senses, the tour can be viewed as the progenitor of the package holiday or modern ‘gap year’ experience.

July 1701: Paris, France

The Earl begins his tour In France, and writes to his mother regularly from Paris, updating her on his situation. His first letter from Paris is dated 26th July 1701 and tells of his arrival from Calais, a journey that took four leisurely days of travel. He initially stays at Chantilly, a château owned by Henri Jules de Bourbon, Prince de Conde. The young Earl seems to enjoy Paris, writing to his mother on August 16th that, ‘this is no contemptible place, and one needs seldom be idle here, if they had a mind to be otherwise’.

Roxburghe is not alone in Paris, there is a cadre of Scottish nobles in the city, with whom he socialises. One such is John Campbell, Marquis of Lorne and future 2nd Duke of Argyll. Roxburghe describes him as, ‘a mighty pretty gentleman, and has an abundance more of his mother than his Father, for which he may thank God!’.

Roxburghe writes next from Fontainebleau, in seemingly good spirits, ‘I am hopeful we shall have a fine journey, for yesterday and this have been the finest days ever were seen. On Monday morning I go towards Lyons, having been but since Thursday night here at Fontainebleau where indeed is all the diversion imaginable and to my taste is the prettiest place I ever saw, being full of beks, woods and heather, is near the river and beyond this forest has the finest hunt field one can see, through a great plain, open country, for there is no such thing as hedges here, except in gardens and parks’.

August 1701: Lyon, France

He writes next from Lyon a week later, stating his uncertainty whether to proceed to Turin via the Grand Chartereux (Grand Chartreuse, a 17th century mountaintop Monastery of the Carthusian Order) and Grenoble or to go via Cambray (Chambéry). It seems he eventually chose the latter route, and arrived in the northern Italian city of Turin in Early November. He was to spend the next few months in Italy.

War was brewing across Europe in 1701. In November 1700, King Charles II of Spain died without issue. What to do with the vast dominions of the Spanish Empire, from the New World to Italy, was a problem that had been foreseen, and treaties of partition had been put forward with no real consensus in the late 17th century in an attempt to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Before his death, King Charles declared Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV of France, to be his sole heir; a position to which he ascended on 16th November 1700.


November 1701: Turin, Italy

By the time Roxburghe was in Italy, France and Spain were at war with the Grand Alliance of Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Austria. The earl’s presence in the Northern Italian city of Turin placed him close to French and allied armies contesting Spanish control of the duchies of Milan and Mantua. An Imperial army under Prince Eugene of Savoy was engaged with French forces in the region from May 1701. Wedderburn attempts to reassure the countess on this issue as well, ‘the armies occasion no disorder save in that corner which they lie and even there so little to hinder travellers that we are assured people go to both camps without danger, but my lord bids me tell your ladyship positively you need have no disquiet about that step, and that he refrains his curiosity for your satisfaction’. He goes on to state that the rest of the country is fairly quiet, and that they will make no considerable stay anywhere until they reach Rome.

He writes that Roxburghe has made the acquaintance of one Lord Villiers (‘a very discreet, pretty gentleman’) and a Mr Englis of East Lothian, who have been in the city for some time. It was these acquaintances that introduced Roxburghe to Anne Marie d’Orleans, Duchess Consort of Savoy, presumably at the Palazza Madamo or Castle Rivoli in Turin. Roxburghe was entertained by the duchess and Count de la Tour, and even received a private audience and an introduction to the young Prince, Charles Emmanuel.

November 1701: Genoa, Italy

Roxburghe’s next instalment is from Genoa on November 21st, his journey southeast towards the coast bypassing the troublesome region around Milan. His plan was to continue south towards Leghorns (Livorno) the following day, but he was delayed in order to take in an Italian opera. He mentions that the Pope has made an address on the death of King James II, of note for the complimentary things he says about the deceased Stuart king and the king of France, but also in relation to his viewing of James Stuart, exiled Prince of Wales, as king of Great Britain. Rumours abound in Italy that King William is gravely ill, accurate rumours as it turned out, and Papal support for the man who came to be known as ‘The Old Pretender’ is a powerful endorsement, at least on the Continent.

He bemoans his lack of letters from home, and again makes a statement that perhaps indicates he is not so culturally fascinated by Italy as he could be, when he says that unless he receives mail, he will have to resort to writing of pictures and Holy days! From Livorno the following week, Wedderburn provides the alternative point of view, asserting that, ‘my lord was extremely pleased at Genoa with the buildings and music’. Livorno is historically a great trading centre on the Tuscan coast, and more recently had been a significant port for the British Levant Company. An increasing number of British artists, writers and travellers passed through ‘Leghorn’, providing enduring links with the city.

December 1701: Florence, Italy

At Florence in early December, Roxburghe writes that he still has received no letters from home, it has been a month and more since he has had word from either England or Scotland. War and distance is clearly interfering with correspondence. He says that all is well at Florence, and that he has been presented to both the Great Duke (Cosimo III de Medici) and the Prince, ‘they were both very nice to us, as Princes commonly are, and the Great Duke told us he had been well acquainted with my lord Lauderdale and lord Tweeddale at London’. They will be departing for Rome in four or five days. In signing off, the writing here is rather rushes, as it seems, mid-letter, Roxburghe was informed that the post was to go in the morning. He asks his mother to excuse the blots.

December 1701: Rome, Italy

By December 20th, he writes from the Eternal City itself, saying how extraordinarily happy the journey has been since leaving Paris. It seems he is beginning to enjoy the travelling life. He bemoans the lack of his countrymen in Rome, saying there are not many English and ‘no Scotch of any position’. Again, his petulant side is revealed, and the whole purpose of his travels is slightly undermined when he speaks of his boredom, ‘so while I am here I shall have nought to do but run about seeing statues and pictures and hearing music’. By Boxing Day he is in better spirits and has received letters from home, which have presumably been in his wake since he left Turin.

He mentions his previous letter, and says that since that time, ‘I have lived in churches either hearing musick or hearing the Pope say Mass. Yesterday he made a harangue to the Cardinals, it being Christmas Day, and on Wednesday last he consecrated the Patriarch of Antioch, in short, madam, His Holiness looks abundantly greater than a moderator to a general assembly, and in deed the whole grandeur of kings is a jest to that of being worshipped’. He has also been engaged in securing the necessary passports for onward travel. This has been facilitated by one Father Forbes, clearly a Scotsman, who has procured him a pass from Cardinal Janson and also the Spanish Ambassador. Without such a pass, he would have been unable to travel onward to Naples.


January 1702: Naples, Italy

By January 6th, Roxburghe has arrived in Naples and writes to his mother that he is beginning to think of his journey home. He mentions how he has received a great deal of civility form clergymen in Italy due to his relations with Lord Perth, whom he had met with at the Scotch college in Paris, and on the account of his Father’s loyalty, presumably to James II.

‘On Tuesday last I went up to Mount Vesuvius, which I truly thought was the only impertinent journey I made since I came from home, not for any danger, but because of the toyl on’t, having gone it twice up in one day through a mistake. To move on there is to be an opera and every night we have musick in some church or other. I never thought indeed to have had pleasure in pictures, statues, architecture, medals and ruinous antiquities but there’s no having a notion of any of them without being in Italy.’

This one passage perhaps illustrates as well as any other, the very essence of the purpose of the tour. It is rather diluted by his following line to his mother, ‘nevertheless, I prefer the way of living in England to anything I have seen yet and doubts not, but again I get home, I shall take as much pleasure in the diversions of our own country as ever’. Perhaps it is true to say there is no place like home. Roxburghe has been away for a little over six months.

In spite of his fondness for home, and his thoughts turning towards a journey back, he is still indulging in what would today be termed ‘tourist’ activities. He visits a Jesuit house whilst he is in Naples. The Jesuit Order, sometimes known colloquially as ‘God’s Soldiers’ due to the nature of their declared mission of spreading the Faith and enduring any hardship to do so, seemingly kept, ‘extraordinary fine cellars with a prodigious deal of admirable wine in them’. They were also very proud of the building in which they were housed, and another insight into Roxburghe’s views can perhaps be found in the fact that he agrees, ‘indeed, the vaults were as fine as their politicks’. Roxburghe moves on from Naples, and by the 15th January, Wedderburn is writing to the Countess from Santa Maria, some forty miles north of the city.

By the last week of the month, they have completed their journey north and have returned to Rome, where they remain until Easter 1702. In May, Wedderburn writes from Venice that the journey progresses well in fine weather. Roxburghe has visited Florence, and presumably Bologna, in the month or so gap that we have between the letters home.

June 1702: Vienna, Austria

By late June, they have arrived in Vienna, via the Court of the Elector of Bavaria at Munich. The war is really beginning to take the foreground by this point, and their arrival on the 25th coincided with the departure of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, marching out to take command of the army on the river Rhine. The night before, there was a fine Italian opera performed at the palace in Munich. Wedderburn describes the scene, ‘both sexes were exceeding rich in clothes and the ladies prodigally loaded with jewels, which seemed a greater excess at this time when there are complaints on all hands that the troops want pay, particularly those under the command of the great Prince Eugene, who is like to have a difficult game against an enemy far superior in number’.

Wedderburn has clearly not spent a great deal of time at the Habsburg Court. He goes on to mention Mr Stepney, the English Ambassador, who will introduce Roxburghe to the best of company in due course, but initially will be busy meeting with Lord Paget, who is fresh from the Ottoman Court having brokered a treaty between the Holy Roman Empire and their often fractious neighbours to the East. One gets the sense that Roxburghe has arrived at the very heart of European power politics. This is the big leagues, and for a young man such as he, must have been as much of an eye opener as climbing Mount Vesuvius twice in one day, and probably just as tiring.

July 1702: Prague, Austria Hungary

He arrived in Prague on the 14th July, and this great Habsburg seat was still undergoing something of a reconstruction following the great fire of 1689. Wedderburn excuses his master from not replying to the recent letters received, as he is engaged to go with the Prince of Tuscany, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, second son of Grand Duke Cosimo III, to an assembly, ‘where he will have the opportunity to make acquaintance with the nobility of this place of both sexes, they seem to be very amorous, but I doubt their conversation will prove tempting enough to make him change his resolution for parting hence tomorrow’.

Were I Wedderburn, I would not have been so sure. Gian Gastone was something of a lush. He drank and gambled excessively, and had a string of young men sent to entertain him. Perhaps not the paragon of European nobility Wedderburn hoped he might be.

The court at Prague was not without its pitfalls for an unassuming young aristocrat from lowland Scotland. Travelling seems to be doing the young man some good, Wedderburn writes, ‘the fatness he got in Italy he has lost in his journey and is now of as clean a shape as ever you knew him’.

July 1702: Dresden, Germany

Roxburghe makes the short trip north to Dresden, where he plans to stay for just one or two days before moving on northwards to Berlin. Snippets of wider European news are filtering through to Roxburghe at Dresden, notably the rumour that, ‘the king of Poland is routed by the Swedes and his majesty is missing. True or false I know not. They say too the king of Sweden has sent to the Emperor for liberty to pass through this country’.

In this instance the rumour mill is correct. King of Poland, Augustus the Strong had formed an alliance with Denmark and Russia in an attempt to strip Swedish king (and his own cousin) Charles XII of his possessions. Charles proved unexpectedly talented on the battlefield, knocking the Danes out of the war quickly, and beating the Russians in the field in 1700, enabling him to lay his attentions solely on Poland. In July 1702, the Polish army was defeated at Kliszow, and the Swedes took Krakow, 500 or so kilometres east of Dresden.

August 1702: Berlin, Germany

Roxburghe succeeds in avoiding becoming embroiled in any military matters, and successfully reaches Berlin, from where he writes on the 5th August. He has met John Hamilton, heir to Lord Belhaven here, who is travelling in the opposite direction, towards Italy (if his father permits him).

Hamilton’s father, a testy Parliamentarian, would be in opposition to the Union. When he passed in 1708, his son became 3rd Lord Belhaven, and sit in the House of Lords alongside Roxburghe as a Representative Peer. He would die in a shipwreck in 1721 on the journey to take up the Governorship of Barbados.

All that was in the future in 1702 however, and the two young men resolved to travel home together should Hamilton fail to receive paternal authorisation for onward travel to Italy.

They reach Hamburg by the 22nd August. From that great, historic trading hub, he writes of his future route, still hoping to go via Holland, not seeing formal documentation as too much of an issue. He does consider taking ship from Hamburg, as he is as close to the Humber as to London, but his aversion to maritime travel precludes him from doing so.

September 1702: Amsterdam, Holland

Roxburghe enters Holland in September 1702, and spends time in Amsterdam before heading to the Hague. He writes to his mother that now he is so close to home, the urgency to actually return to Britain seems to have lessened; he adds that so many of his countrymen being at London currently is also ‘troublesome’, but that he will return home before too long.

Indeed, Roxburghe lingers for the rest of the month, bemoaning the lack of things to do and generally feeling restless. He heads inland to visit Utrecht, that great university town and seat of learning, but on returning north, and being ready to sail from Rotterdam, hears of Marlborough’s arrival In the Hague and resolves to remain in Holland until such time as Marlborough returns to Britain.

The end of the Grand Tour

Upon his return from Europe, the young Earl was to be thrown into the bear pit of the Scottish Parliament at a crucial time. The Union with England was looming, and there was many a fractious sitting to get through. His experiences abroad, the wide variety of people he had met along the way, challenges he had faced and overcome, had matured him. Now he had to settle in for the many trials, and rewards, to come.