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Cosmopolitan, cad, or closeted Catholic?

Having just arrived via ferry to the Dutch town of Sluis in mid-May 1611, William Cecil, Lord Roos (1591-1618), promptly exposed his “privy member” (penis) to what one assumes were rather surprised townsfolk. The gesture, repeated “5 or 6 times” for emphasis, was meant to display Roos’s disdain for the Protestant Dutch rebellion against Catholic Spanish rule. Later the same day, Roos emphasized this contempt by his “speeches uttered against the Hollanders” while touring a church.

The dangers of foreign travel in the early seventeenth century

The English Lord Roos was hardly the first young man to display boorish behavior while abroad on educational travels, and he would not be the last. In the early seventeenth-century, it became more common to send young men from elite families abroad for a year or two to acquire language skills, knowledge of foreign courts, customs, art, and history. Creating friendships and networks with important people was also a boon. A young man from a good family with such skills, knowledge, and networks was well-positioned for a career at the royal court, or perhaps royal service abroad. Many families thought the potential payoff worth the expense.

In addition to monetary cost, however, sending impressionable youngsters abroad also posed risks. They might be seduced by foreign vices, princes, and religions. Worried parents hired tutors to accompany their sons and ensure they stayed away from bad influences. Unsurprisingly, some tutors found it difficult to control their independent-minded charges.

We know of the above incident with Lord Roos because Thomas Lorkin, tutor to Thomas Puckering, found the behavior disturbing enough to report it to his charge’s brother-in-law Sir Adam Newton, secretary to Crown Prince Henry. Puckering made Roos’s acquaintance while they were both in Paris. Roos asked Puckering to accompany him on his tour of the Low Countries. Lorkin agreed to this arrangement because he thought this was a worthwhile connection for Puckering to foster: Roos’s great-uncle Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, was the most powerful man in England next the king. Roos also sought an appointment in the prince’s household, making the connection to Puckering useful. It was precisely the sort of networking that educational travelers were after.  

After traveling with Roos, Lorkin regretted his decision. The negatives far outweighed the few positives: seeing sites, being kindly received at the court of the regents of the Spanish Netherlands in Brussels, and making the acquaintance of Roos’s cousin, Salisbury’s son. In Roos, Lorkin found every danger with foreign educational travels personified. Roos drank and partied too much, stayed up late and slept the mornings away. He lost money gambling and engaged in “unsavory & obscene discourse.”

The company Roos kept was more troubling, because Lorkin thought it dangerous for his pupil’s very soul. For Protestant Englishmen, Catholicism constituted the greatest danger abroad. One could not avoid Catholics when travelling in Catholic regions, obviously, but one should keep one’s distance and not engage in religious debate. By contrast, Roos surrounded himself with Catholics. One of his travel companions was Sir Tobie Mathews, a Catholic Englishman who lived in disgraced exile. Roos regularly dined and conversed with Catholic priests and visited English Catholics living in Brussels. Rumors of Roos’s potential conversion to Catholicism persisted during his educational travels.

The disdain that Roos developed for his own home-country was also worrisome. After a long sojourn in Spain, Roos had fallen in love with everything Spanish. Lorkin said he had “never heard any so highly magnify any nation or country, as he doth” Spain, and while praising Spain, Roos was vilifying other countries, even “his owne.”  Many Englishmen were highly suspicious of Spain, as the enmity of the war during the late Elizabethan age lived on, and Spanish attempts at reconverting England continued. Lorkin noted Roos’s association with people who were suspected of being Spanish spies. Roos’s love of Spain led to his disagreement with the Protestant Dutch rebellion against the Spanish crown, which then led him to expose himself in Sluis. His peculiar penis protest became the crescendo of his caddish behavior.

While Lorkin expressed concerns, others might dismiss Roos’s behavior as ill-advised youthful antics. Indeed, English agents and ambassadors abroad found him charming company, an affable young man with a keen interest in wider Europe. Just a year after the trip with Puckering and Lorkin, King James sent Roos on a formal mission to congratulate the election of a new Holy Roman Emperor.

In the case of Roos, his family’s significant investment in his educational travels thus initially seemed to pay off. When he came home, he made a good marriage. He received a royal appointment to go as extraordinary ambassador to Spain. But his high hopes were soon squashed, and the foreign lands where he spent his youth became a source of respite from Roos’s growing troubles at home. His marriage soured, his career stalled, and his relationship with his in-laws fell apart spectacularly. According to his critics, Roos’s foreign travels had ruined him.

Feature image by Clark Young via Unsplash.

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