Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lithgow, William
LITHGOW, WILLIAM (1582–1645?), traveller, was born at Lanark in 1582, the elder son of James Lithgow, merchant burgess, by Alison Graham, who in 1603 bequeathed 1,078l. to her husband and three ‘bairnes.’ William styles himself ‘generosus’ in his bond for good conduct (1624), and seems to have claimed kinship with Montrose. Maidment says that ‘the exact period of his birth has not been ascertained,’ and places it conjecturally in 1585; but we learn from the traveller himself that he was thirty-three in 1615 (Travels, p. 377), and ‘past threescore years’ in April 1643 (Surveigh of London, p. 1). He was educated at Lanark grammar school, and is said by Sir Walter Scott, on no discoverable authority, to have originally been bred a tailor (Somers Tracts, vol. iv.). His reasons for leaving Scotland are darkly hinted at by himself in two obscure passages and an obscurer poem, where there is mention of ‘that vndeserued Dalida wrong,’ ‘the scelerate hands of four blood-shedding wolues,’ and ‘one silly stragling lambe,’ of ‘an Armilla staind, whom foule affections preyd, and Lucre gaind,’ and of the maxim that ‘vertue's better borne then noble blood.’ Following a family tradition (1863), in this Delilah we may dimly recognise a Miss Lockhart, in the lamb himself, and in the wolves her brothers, who are said to have caught her and Lithgow together, and cut off his ears, his local nickname hence being ‘Cutlugged Willie’ (Maidment, p. x). Anyhow, in ‘the stripling age of adolescency’ he had made two voyages to the Orkneys and Shetlands, and afterwards had surveyed all Germany, Bohemia, Helvetia, and the Low Countries from end to end, when in 1609 he paid a visit to Paris, and stayed there ten months.
The narrative of his nineteen years' travel, during which he claims to have tramped thirty-six thousand miles and odd, begins with his leaving Paris on 7 March 1610 for Rome, which he reached on the fortieth day. He remained in Rome four weeks, and from stanzas 43, 44 of ‘A Conflict betweene the Pilgrime and his Muse’ (1618) would seem to have heard mass, prostrated himself at the elevation, received ‘the holie Blessing,’ and even kissed the pope's foot, though ‘not,’ he explains, ‘for Loue, but for the Crownes.’ Of this, however, there is no hint in the ‘Travels,’ which teem with railings against popery, and in which he asserts that he ‘escaped from the hunting of the blood-sucking Inquisitors’ through a Scottish friend who hid him in the top of the Earl of Tyrone's palace, and on the fourth night leaped the city walls with him. He next proceeded to Naples, Loretto, and Ancona, thence by sea to Venice, Zara, Corfu, and Patras, thence by land to Athens, and thence by sea again to Crete, the Archipelago, Troy, and Constantinople. During these wanderings he was in frequent peril from storm and shipwreck, robbers and pirates, displayed as great valour as piety, helped a French galley-slave to escape, and redeemed from bondage a Dalmatian widow.
After a three months' stay at Constantinople he sailed to Smyrna, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Tripoli, whence, after an excursion to Lebanon, he journeyed to Aleppo. Having missed the Bagdad caravan, and failed to overtake it at ‘Beershacke’ (Birejik, on the Euphrates), he returned to Aleppo, and, wintering there, set out with nine hundred Armenian pilgrims, six hundred Turkish merchants, and one hundred soldiers, and by way of Damascus, Cana, Nazareth, Tyre, and Beersheba, arrived at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday 1612. During a stay there of three weeks he visited the Dead Sea, Jericho, Emmaus, Bethlehem, and Bethany, and spent three days and nights in the church of the Holy Sepulchre to witness the Good Friday and Easter ceremonies.
On 12 May he started for Cairo with eight hundred Copts and six German protestant and four French catholic gentlemen. Three of the Germans perished in the desert of thirst and sunstroke, and the other three, on reaching Cairo, drank themselves to death with strong Cyprus wine in four days. The last left Lithgow heir to all their money, which, after the surrender of a third to the Venetian consul, amounted to 420l. Having seen the pyramids and the sphinx, Lithgow sailed down the Nile to Alexandria, and there took ship for Ragusa with the French gentlemen. They all four died on the voyage, but as they were papists, and left only sixty-nine sequins, which moreover the master of the ship ‘meddled with,’ Lithgow felt he could put in no claim.
He came off at Malta, and thence crossed to Sicily, where he brought about the capture of the crew of a Moorish pirate, and was rewarded with gold, ‘which if I tooke or not iudge you.’ By sea he went to Naples, and on foot thence to Nice (near which he ran a risk of being murdered in an inn), and so on to Montpellier, Barcelona, Bordeaux, and Rochelle. At Paris he ended his ‘pedestriall pilgrimage,’ and soon after visited the English court, where he presented King James, Queen Anne, and Prince Charles with certain rare gifts and relics brought from Jordan and Jerusalem.
Lithgow's second journey, undertaken ‘vpon some distaste, within a yeare’ (in September 1614), took him first to the camps of Prince Maurice of Orange and Spinola (the latter had just captured Wesel). For five weeks he had free intercourse with both camps, being respected by both generals. Spinola set him at his own table, and let him lie in his second tent. Thence he passed on to Cologne, Heidelberg, and Nuremberg (where he brought news of their death to the six Germans' kinsfolk, and was rewarded and feasted by them); thence through Switzerland and Italy to Sicily. In Calabria his patent of Jerusalem gained him life and liberty from four ‘absolute murderers,’ who afterwards made merry with him; in Sicily he came on the corpses of two young beardless barons who had slain each other in a duel. First rifling them of three hundred and odd pistoles and of their diamond rings, he raised the alarm, and then hastened to Malta, where for three days he ‘made merry.’ From Malta he crossed to Tunis (September 1615), and there saw much of Captain Ward the pirate, now ‘turned Turke,’ with ‘fifteene circumcised English Runagates.’ He got from him a safe-conduct to Algiers (‘a diuelish town’), and, reaching it in twelve days, came in seven more to Fez, a great and beautiful city, but given up to bull-fighting and filthiness. He now struck southward for Ethiopia, but got lost in the desert, where he and his dragoman had for seven days to rely wholly on tobacco until, holding north-east by his compass-dial, he encountered nine hundred savage ‘Sabuncks,’ worshippers of garlic, and by one of them was guided back to Tunis. He returned to Naples over Malta and Sicily, ascending Etna, and at Syracuse burying the renegade, Sir Francis Verney; visited the Sibyl's Cave, and dared the perils of the Grotto di Cane, and then made his way by Rome, Venice, Pola, and Gradisca to Vienna. He descended the Danube to Komorn, and thence trudged into Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia, where six murderers robbed him of sixty gold ducats, stripped him of his Turkish clothes, and tied him stark naked to an oak-tree. Released and recompensed by a protestant baron, he returned to London by way of Cracow, Lublin, Warsaw, Danzig, Stockholm, and Elsinore. At Danzig he was for three weeks so sick that his grave was prepared for him.
On 9 Sept. 1617 Lithgow was shipwrecked near Rothesay (Poems, p. 52); on 22 Aug. 1619 he landed at Dublin, furnished with letters from James I, and having for final goal ‘Æthiopia, Prester Iehans Dominions.’ His sketch of Ireland is full of interest—the general unwillingness to drink the king's health, the plenty of Spanish sack and Irish ‘vscoua’ (whisky), the moon worship, the ploughs drawn by the horses' tails, the women giving suck to the infants they bore on their backs, and the dissoluteness of the protestant clergy, who, ‘mechanick men and rude bred souldiers’ originally, were hand and glove with the mass-priests, their wives and children and servants all papists.
On 23 Feb. 1620 he embarked at Youghal for St. Malo, and on 19 June entered the Spanish peninsula. He visited Pampeluna, Saragossa, Compostella, Portugal (‘twenty dayes fastidious climbing’), Salamanca, the Escorial, Madrid, Toledo, and Malaga. Here towards the end of October he was arrested as a spy, robbed by the governor of 548 ducats, heavily ironed, and shortly before Christmas taken from prison to a little winepress house, and there racked for six and a half hours till blood flowed from ‘armes, broake sinewes, hammes, and knees,’ being forced meanwhile to swallow huge draughts of water. Still he would not confess, so was re-ironed and brought back to his dungeon, where, but for a pitiful Turkish slave and the Indian cook Eleanor, he must have perished of cold and hunger and gnawing vermin. Then, all his books and notes having been translated into Spanish by an English seminary priest and a Scotch cooper, he was given eight days in which to recant, and at the end of that term was sentenced to be first tortured and then burned at Granada. That night he was tortured again, drenched with water, and hung up by the big toes; but a fortnight before Easter the governor chanced to relate the whole matter to a cavalier, whose servant, a Fleming, overheard their discourse, and carried it to the English consul, and through his intervention Lithgow was on Easter Sunday delivered into English hands, and carried on board one of an English squadron. Reaching Deptford in fifty days, he was borne on a feather-bed to Theobalds to exhibit his ‘martyrd anatomy’ to all ‘the Court, even from the King to the Kitchin.’ James twice that year sent him to Bath, where, except so far as his left arm and crushed limbs were concerned, he was cured. From Gondomar, however, he could meantime obtain nothing more than promises of redress, until at last, in April 1622, in the presence chamber he assaulted, or rather, it seems, was assaulted by, the ambassador. A contemporary letter says that ‘the Lo. Gondomar beate a Scottish man the other day openly with his fists, in the presence of the E. of Gwartzenberg and others, for saying that such a great man in Spayne (of whom the Sp. Ambr. and the Scott who had bin in the inquisition in Spayne were speaking) had not used him like a christian. Though the Scottish man tooke his blowes patientlie, yet he was after committed to prison, where he yet remayneth’ (State Papers, Dom., vol. cxxix. No. 50). He lay for nine weeks in the Marshalsea, where for fellow-prisoner he had his ‘fellow-poet,’ George Wither, and where he received a letter from two papists taxing him with having communicated at Rome in 1605.
Lithgow seems, though of this he himself makes no mention, to have been recommitted to prison on 2 Feb. 1623 (ib. vol. cliii. No. xxvi.), and to have only been released on 21 Jan. 1624, on his bond in 200l. for good behaviour (ib. vol. clviii. No. xxxix.), between which dates on 29 May he was served heir to his father. In the next reign, in 1626, he preferred a bill of grievance to the upper house, and followed it daily for seventeen weeks, but the dissolution quashed it, and in the spring of 1627 he walked to Edinburgh. In 1628 he was entertained for some days at Brodick Castle in Arran by the Marquis of Hamilton, and afterwards, with view to a work called ‘Lithgowes Surueigh of Scotland,’ which, though perfected in 1632, was never published, he journeyed through Galloway and Dumfriesshire, and thence northward to Caithness and Kirkwall in Orkney. Some jottings of visits to Stonehenge, the Peak, St. Edmundsbury, &c., ‘left in manuscript,’ and printed in the ‘Travels’ (12th edit.), may belong to this period.
In May 1637, mounted on a ‘Gallowedian nagge,’ Lithgow started from Scotland, and after visiting the Bishops of Carlisle and Durham, and the Archbishop of York, came to London, and so to court. He was bound for Russia, but, finding the summer gone, merely crossed to Holland, and there witnessed the siege of Breda. In the spring of 1643 he came by sea from Prestonpans to London; in 1644 he was present at the siege of Newcastle. The year of his death is unknown, but ‘Scotlands Parænesis to King Charles II’ (1660) cannot have been by him, for we miss in it the inevitable allusions to his travels and sufferings. That he ‘settled down in his native town, married, and had a family,’ is the mere assertion of Chambers's ‘Picture of Scotland;’ but according to the old ‘Statistical Account of Scotland’ (xv. 33, 1793), he ‘died in the parish of Lanark, and is buried in the churchyard, though no vestige of his tomb can be traced.’
Lithgow's principal work is ‘The Totall Discourse of the Rare Aduentures and painfull Peregrinations of long nineteene Yeares,’ &c. (London, 1632, 4to, 507 pages), a first draft of which, now excessively rare, had appeared in 1614, and of which a twelfth edition, ‘illustrated with notes from later travellers,’ was printed at Leith in 1814. In spite of its absurd euphuistic style, where ‘ruvidous vulgarity’ stands for ‘common people,’ and ‘ovile flockes’ for ‘sheep,’ it is a book of uncommon value and interest, for its descriptions of men and manners even more than of places. Thus it is probably the earliest authority for coffee-drinking in Europe, Turkish baths, a pigeon post between Aleppo and Bagdad, the long Turkish tobacco-pipes, artificial incubation, and the importation (since about 1550) of currants from Zante to England, ‘where some Liquorous lips forsooth can now hardly digest Bread, Pasties, Broth, and (verbi gratia) bag-puddings, without these curraunts.’ His other prose writings are three pamphlets: ‘A True and Experimentall Discourse … vpon this last Siege of Breda,’ London, 1637, 4to; ‘The Present Surveigh of London … with the several Fortifications thereof,’ London, 1643, 4to; and ‘An Experimental Relation vpon that famous Siege of Newcastle … the Battle of Bowden Hill, and that victorious Battell of York or Marston Moor,’ Edinburgh, 1645, 4to. Of the last there is a reprint by Brockett (Newcastle, 1820); of the two first in Scott's edition of ‘Somers Tracts.’ Lithgow's six poems, printed between 1618 and 1640, were collected and printed privately by J. Maidment, Edinburgh, 1863, 4to, one hundred copies. The most interesting of them is ‘Scotlands Welcome to King Charles, 1633,’ which gives a very curious picture of North Britain—the decay of education and of football, the runaway marriages to England, the taking of snuff by ladies for the headache, and the immodesty of plaids.[Works, as above.]