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Images of Martyrdom in an Early Modern Pilgrim’s Narrative

Visiting Early Career Research Fellow, Dr Emily Price, examines William Lithgow's account of torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition.

Dr Emily Price was a Visiting Early Career Research Fellow in 2021 and now holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Newcastle University. Her project, Conversation, Consumption, and Conversion in Early Modern Europe, c. 1580-1700’, explores how British Protestants travelled through Catholic Europe, focussing on cross-confessional debates held over meals.

Content warning: depictions and images of torture

In 1621, the traveller and courtier William Lithgow returned to the British Isles a broken man. Lithgow was near death from torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, who had arrested him in Málaga as a heretic and a spy. Racked, waterboarded, and beaten, he had refused to disavow his faith or his sovereign. “Witnesse all the Court of England”, he wrote in his account of his return, “even from the King to the Kitchin, what a martyrd anatomy I was.” [1] Lithgow, a strict Scottish Calvinist, offered up his broken body, along with the published narrative of his travels, as proof of the dangers faced by Protestants travelling in Catholic Europe and further, the danger that Catholics in England posed to the realm.

Virtual Journeys

I read Lithgow’s book as part of my investigations into how early modern Protestants and Catholics encountered each other on the road. My own travels last summer were curtailed by COVID restrictions and I was unable to take up my fellowship in person; however, the Rylands’ digital resources allowed me to make significant progress from home.

The library’s visualiser, which captured images as I followed along over Zoom, let me examine anti-papal broadsheets from the Rylands’s Street Literature collection. As I directed the staff member positioning the broadsheets, I was able to get a sense of the documents’ physicality and size while reading their propagandizing text, helping me better understand the cultural baggage that Lithgow brought with him to Catholic Europe. I also accessed digitised versions of early modern travel accounts, encountering them, in a way, like Lithgow’s Stuart readers would have: longing for travel too dangerous to undertake, but making an imagined journey through text and images.

Figure 1: Illustration depicting Lithgow as a sophisticated world traveller, in “Turkish” costume. From William Lithgow, The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Aduentures, and Painefull Peregrinations of Long Nineteene Yeares Trauayles… (London: Nicholas Okes, 1632), 124. John Rylands Library Special Collections 5232.1.

Catholics Hiding at Court?

Lithgow first wrote about his travels in 1614, issuing an expanded version in 1623 which included accounts of his further journeys and his captivity. Comparing these earlier editions with the copy of his book held at the John Rylands, which is from the greatly revised 1632 printing, I noted not only much stronger anti-Catholic language but also eight striking illustrations, two of which depict his torture.

The union of England and Scotland under James VI and I, in bringing together two Protestant powerhouses, would once and for all defeat continental Catholicism, Lithgow hoped. But he feared that the English church was too “Romish”, fears made more urgent by a series of reforms that imposed English practices on the Scottish kirk. Further, James chose not to examine the consciences of his subjects: even his queen and his closest advisors could practice their faith discreetly as long as they observed outward conformity to Protestantism. The fact that Catholics could therefore be hiding in plain sight deeply troubled Lithgow.

Dedicating his revised 1632 edition to the new king, Charles, Lithgow urged him to consider “the grievous Sufferings, tortures, and torments, I sustayned in Malaga… condemned to death by their bloody Inquisition for the Gospells sake”. [2] The book would show, Lithgow hoped, that Catholic superstition and error, as he saw it, lead inevitably to civil unrest and to violence like that visited upon his own body.

Damnable Errors at Large

Describing his visit to St Peter’s in Rome, Lithgow wished that British Protestants could witness the spectacle of worshippers stroking and kissing the feet of the bronze statue of the saint. Lithgow wrote for an audience several generations removed from England’s break with Rome. He feared that his compatriots, knowing only Catholicism as quietly practiced in their land, had forgotten its dangerous idolatry and emotional excesses.

In the 1632 text, he replaced vaguer allusions to the “combustions of Christendom” with specific anti-Catholic insults, calling out “snakish Papists” and their “damnable errors”. [3] He inserted sections on false miracles debunked and unruly mobs at shrines. To the account of his captivity, he added descriptions of his dialogues with the Inquisition’s Jesuit priests in which he bested them on points like the intercessory powers of the Virgin. He illustrated these passages with two illustrations that vividly displayed his tortured body to his readers.

Grievous Sufferings Illustrated

The first image [figure 2] shows Lithgow shackled to the stone floor of his cell. The chains, the heavy stone walls, and the sense that he is underground create an aura of dread. He reaches towards a smaller figure who offers him a drink: this is a Muslim Turkish slave who was kinder to the prisoner than his fellow Christians.

Figure 2: Illustration from Lithgow, Totall Discourse, 455

The second image [figure 3] shows Lithgow tied upside-down to a V-shaped rack, naked except for a loincloth. On the left, a man tightens the ropes that stretch his body. Above, an inquisitor and a scribe sit ready to take down his confession. At the bottom right is a giant jug filled with water: the text describes in excruciating detail how the torturers forced open his mouth and poured water down his throat until his stomach bloated and he choked.

Figure 3: Illustration from Lithgow, Totall Discourse, 464

By including these images in his 1632 revised edition, Lithgow was likely evoking illustrations of suffering martyrs from John Foxe’s famous Actes and Monuments, a widely read account of historical horrors perpetrated against Protestants, especially in the British Isles [figure 4]. Aligning himself visually with these older depictions of perseverance in the face of torture, Lithgow positioned himself as equally willing to risk pain and death for the sake of the true faith. As they perused these shocking pictures from the comfort of their homes, readers of Lithgow’s book learned both that its author was exceptionally devoted to his sovereign and his God, and that Catholicism remained a very real danger to the bodies of Protestants and to the body politic.

Figure 4: Burning of William Tyndall. From John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Dayes Touching Matters of the Church… (London: John Day, 1563). John Rylands Library Special Collections R146847.

[1] William Lithgow, The Totall Discourse, of the Rare Aduentures, and Painefull Peregrinations of Long Nineteene Yeares Trauayles… (London: Nicholas Okes, 1632), 483.

[2] Lithgow, Totall Discourse, A4r

[3] William Lithgow, A Most Delectable and True Discourse of an Admired and Painefnll Peregrination… (London: Nicholas Okes, 1623), A3r; Lithgow, Totall Discourse, Bv

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