Heritage: A 17th century European tour
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
In his latest column, Prof Ged Martin takes us on a stagecoach journey back through the mists of time
The accounts recorded every penny spent on the two young gentlemen’s study tour of France, right down to the very last leg, the stagecoach home to Hornchurch.
Dacre and Richard Barrett were the teenage sons of the owner of the Aveley mansion Belhus.
In May 1670, they left for a 19-month immersion in French culture, escorted by their German tutor Henry von Bobbart.
On reaching Paris, they hired a “lacquay” – a lackey or manservant.
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He was given a smart uniform, complete with “ribbands”.
Later, a cart ran over his foot, and his broken bones required surgery.
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The young men ordered ornate outfits from Parisian tailors, such as “Twoe silk suits with pantaloons”, and 22 pairs of gloves.
France imported furs from its colony, Canada.
The brothers each purchased a “bever”, a tall hat made from beaver pelts. These were stiffened with mercury, a chemical whose fumes caused brain damage – which probably explains our phrase, “mad as a hatter”.
The French monarch, Louis XIV, was Europe’s grandest potentate.
The youngsters toured “the King’s houses about Paris”, visiting the Louvre and Fontainebleau. (Louis only occupied his grandest palace, Versailles, in 1682.)
At the Palais de Luxembourg (where the upper house of the French parliament meets today), Richard Barrett’s sword was stolen.
Later, after relocating to Orléans, in the Loire valley, they made an excursion to the magnificent Château de Chambord, where the French Court was in residence.
There they probably saw the “Sun King” in all his majesty.
To use the Château as a summer hunting lodge, Louis XIV built stables for 1,200 horses.
Not surprisingly, Chambord eventually became too expensive even for Europe’s richest ruler.
It wasn’t just a sight-seeing holiday. Dacre and Richard were in France to become cultured gentlemen. They studied the language (although not for long) and employed a “Dancing master for 10 months & a half”.
Musicians taught them to play the lute, “the guitarre” and the “castaniettes”.
They gave up fencing lessons after just two months: the equipment was expensive, and maybe the pastime was too dangerous.
A great deal was spent on a “tennis master”, who coached them in “tossing of balles &c.” This was Real (i.e. Royal) Tennis, an indoor game like squash. Lawn tennis was only invented in 1873.
Sometimes they misunderstood French customs. “We were invited to a Christmass supper, but payed for it.”
An educational visit took them to see criminals broken on a wheel.
France executed its felons by tying them on their backs around the rim of a huge cartwheel.
The executioner then smashed their bones with a sledgehammer, starting by breaking the legs, which caused agonising but non-fatal injuries.
It could take hours, even days, for criminals to die.
Eventually, the executioner would take pity and aim a massive whack at the victim’s chest, triggering a fatal heart attack.
This was called “the blow of mercy”. We still use that French term, “coup de grâce”, although in a rather more general sense.
Dacre and Richard paid to watch three criminals killed in this way.
As a bonus, a fourth offender was “shot to death”.
The French revolutionaries replaced the punishment in 1791 with the quicker guillotine.
In December 1671, Von Bobbart and the young Barretts headed slowly back towards “Cales” (the English pronunciation of Calais).
The brothers made a short side trip on their own to Dunkirk, their first time off their tutor’s leash.
Loaded with luggage, the three reached London just after Christmas. On 30 December, they caught a stagecoach at Whitechapel, “and soe to Hornchurch”, where the Belhus coachman probably met them.
I imagine Dacre and Richard jolting along Hornchurch High Street, their heads full of elegant palaces and screaming criminals. When they caught sight of the spire of St Andrew’s church, they’d have known they were almost home.