Celia Fiennes (16621741)



  • Traveller

Biographical details

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
October 2022

Celia Fiennes escaped many of the restrictions placed on an upper-class woman in her time by carrying out extensive travels around England and documenting them in her journal, though this record was not rediscovered until long after her death. In fact, her Journeys, the book on which her reputation now rests, remained unpublished until 1888. Outwardly Celia Fiennes lived a quiet and inconspicuous life, though it extended to the age of seventy-eight. The book on which her reputation now rests, her Journeys, was unknown until the late nineteenth century. No newspaper accounts were printed when she died, but a memorial tablet at Newton Tony church in Wiltshire gives her birth on 7 June 1662 and her death on 10 April 1741. She is commonly thought of as a countrywoman, since she was born and brought up at the family home near Salisbury, and her work is based on travels round all parts of the nation, including some remote areas. The fact is that after the death of her mother in 1691, and especially after Newton Tony manor house passed out of the family a few years later, she spent the majority of her time in the London area. There she lived in close proximity to her eldest sister Mary (ca. 1656–1737), who had married in 1684 the prominent City figure Sir Edmund Harrison, a Turkey merchant who was knighted in 1698. Celia attended several coronations and royal funerals between 1685 and 1702.

A close link to the commercial life of the capital was provided by her niece Mary Harrison (ca. 1689–1735), who became the wife of Samuel Read(e) (d. 1733). He was a pepper merchant in Hackney, but he made at least £60,000 by dealing in South Sea stock while a director of the company. As a result, he was one of the guilty parties most stringently dealt with by parliament after the great crash in 1720, and allowed to keep only £10,000 of a fortune worth more than ten times that amount–even then he was “esteem’d worth 80,000 l.” at his death. Celia would die at Hackney, as her sister and brother-in-law had done. Among Mary’s siblings were Fiennes Harrison (d. 1733), whose directorships included such rickety firms as the York Buildings Company and the English Copper Company; Jane, who married Matthias King of Hackney; Sarah, who married Joel Watson; and Cecilia Snell (named after her aunt), who married William Snell and had a son who became a director of the Bank of England. Mary Read herself was buried at Bunhill Fields, the favoured resting place in London for dissenters including Bunyan and Defoe. The burial of her mother would take place there two years later, followed by the interment of her father, whose remains were moved from Clerkenwell church.

Celia may not have followed her sister’s corpse to the grave, as it was still comparatively rare for women to do this. However, the dissenting strain formed a significant part of Celia’s religious and cultural background. Few heads were rounder than those of the Fiennes family, who collectively took a major share in the Parliamentarians’ war with the Royalists. Her father, Nathaniel Fiennes (ca. 1607–69), was a colonel in the army and his father, the first Viscount Saye and Sele, had been involved in devising military strategy at his home near Banbury, renowned as a centre of the Puritan faith. After the Restoration he abstained from politics and lived unmolested by the victorious royalists in Wiltshire. Celia’s elder half-brother William would succeed as the third Viscount: at his death in 1698 he was described as “imbecile,” but this means that he was physically and mentally incapacitated, perhaps as a result of a stroke.

By the time of her brother’s death, Celia was beginning to strike out for herself. It was probably when she was in her early twenties that she began her journeys, at first covering quite short distances from Salisbury. After her move to London, she embarked on longer excursions around the Home Counties, with one more ambitious trip to the Welsh border. In 1697 she undertook a protracted tour of the English Midlands and the North of England. This was followed next year by her “great Journey to Newcastle and to Cornwall, the account of many journeys into most parts of England [with] observation and distance of one place to another in my travels.” Starting out in East Anglia, she went across the country to Liverpool, and then up to the Scottish border, before zooming down to the West Country on to Land’s End, and back to London across Cornwall and Devon, with a short stop at her family home in Wiltshire. After the turn of the century she made an extended exploration of London, visiting tourist sites such as Hampton Court and Windsor. By 1702, the main diary entries in which she reported her experiences on the road were completed. Although her heroic days as a traveller were over, she did go on a number of smaller jaunts for the next decade.

Her trips were conducted on horseback, generally in the company of a single servant. The routes she took often led her down bumpy roads that were scarcely more than a track, in regions that did not always welcome visitors. Facing discomfort or danger, she remained stoical, and a number of alarming near misses were handled with total sang froid. Once, on the way to Liverpool, she met up with highwaymen, “but the Providence of God so order’d it as there was men at work in ye fields haye-making,” so their attack was foiled. In the Fens, she almost got submerged in flood water; more than once she fell off her horse. She had the knack of making the best of things, helped by her strong religious faith. As she relates one such misadventure:

Little before I Came to Alsford forceing my horse out of the hollow way his feete failed and he Could noe wayes recover himself, and soe I was shott off his neck upon the Bank, but noe harm I bless God and as soone as he Could role himself up stood stock still by me, which I Looked on as a Great mercy.

At some points in her narrative, we recall stout women explorers in the Victorian age who braved the hazards of Africa and Asia.

Fiennes never shirked from commenting on people, things, or landscapes, doling out praise and blame with in a hardheaded manner. We are allowed very close to her immediate experience: “All the offices are very convenient very good Cellars all arch’d and there I dranke small beer four years old—not too stale very good Beer well brew’d—their kitchen pastry and pantry all very convenient.” Practical and forward looking, she is always ready to suggest how things could be done better, as on the draining of the Fens: “I wonder they have not perfectly runn off the water, and so barracadoed it as not to, soe it often overflows againe as it does it many places—but they are a lazy sort of people and are afraid to do too much.”

Occasionally her patience wore thin and she grew more acerbic. A landlady in Carlisle provoked one outburst, after she “ran me up the largest reckoning for allmost nothing; it was the dearest lodging I met with and she pretended she could get me nothing else; so for 2 joynts of mutton and a pinte of wine and bread and beer I had a 12 shilling reckoning, but since, I find tho’ I was in the biggest house in town I was in the worst accomodation, and so found it, and a young giddy Landlady that could only dress fine and entertain the soldiers”(203). More often, even when forced to rough it in a poor cottage, she accepts these hardships as the necessary lot of a traveller.

When her journeys sometimes grew arduous or downright unpleasant, Fiennes did not try to conceal it. Like other travellers of her day, she was forced to negotiate several notorious black spots on the English road system. Approaching the town of Dunstable along Watling Street, she reached a particular hairy stretch of the highway, “7 mile over a sad road called Hockley in the Hole as full of deep sloughs, in the winter it must be impassable.” But on she rode, leaving it for Defoe to dilate at length on the perils of this section. Still, her frequent mention of the nature of the ground under the horses’ feet, whether it was made up of chalk, flint, clay, or mud, serves as a reminder of the conditions that all transportation endured in the early modern period.

Fiennes ranged widely over the English landscape. She only tiptoed a few miles across the Scottish border before scooting back into the safer expanses of Cumberland. One thing that put her off was the sight of “women and great girls bare legg’d,” and in addition she found out that there were few towns apart from Edinburgh and Aberdeen which could provide decent accommodation to visitors. Nor did she take more than a brief excursion into Wales, much of which was regarded as too wild for someone of her sex and class. The tone is again dismissive: Flint, though a county town, is “a very ragged place, many villages in England are better,” while the papist shrine at Holywell reminds her that “poor people are deluded into an ignorant blind zeale and to be pity’d by us that have the advantage of knowing better and ought to be better.” She had something of the old Puritan strain that never left her comments.

We know very little of her later life. She became a property owner in and around the capital, and continued to maintain close relations with her Harrison nieces in Hackney and Clerkenwell to the north of the City. In 1715 as Cecilia Fiennes, a parishioner of St. James, Clerkenwell, she petitioned the local justices for relief of poor-rate taxation because it had been imposed on her “store” as well as her house. She may or may not be the “Mrs. Fiennes” who in 1720 had been leasing a large house in Clerkenwell. There are no signs that her religious fervour died down: in April 1730 “The Honble. Cælia Fiennes Spinster,” together with six men, applied to the Middlesex justices for permission to register a tenement she owned on Highwood Hill in Edgware as a meeting house for Presbyterians. This was an elevated area where several wealthy City merchants made their home.

She made her will on 6 November 1738, with later codicils. Described as “Cecelia Fiennes of the Parish of Chipping Barnet, Hertfordshire,” she describes herself as in good health though now suffering from “infirmitys of Body and sudden Seisures.” She asks to be buried “without Ostentation only put into a Leaden Coffin and interred in my Fathers Sepulchre in the Church at Newtontony … the Place of my Nativity.” Only her age and time of death are to be added on her father’s monument, and “all Escutcheons or Bearings” are forbidden. As it has pleased God to remove by death a great man among her near relations (no obvious candidate emerges, but it could be her nephew Fiennes Harrison, who was involved in the fraudulent Harburg Lottery and may have dissipated the family fortunes before his sudden death in 1733), her temporal state has been diminished and her substance sunk, so that she now cannot make the intended donations in her former wills. Virtually all the legatees are women. Celia’s most interesting bequest is perhaps one to the chapel in Wood Street, Barnet, which she had helped to endow in 1709. An oddity is that the will itself was witnessed by “Dan: Deffoe,” that is the novelist’s younger son, a merchant in Cornhill who may have had contacts with Fiennes either through the nonconformist church or through links in the Clerkenwell area. Sadly her “dear Niece” and executrix Jane King predeceased her, so that she added a codicil on 2 October 1739, making Jane’s husband the executor. Further codicils added on 30 July 1740 and 23 December 1740 direct that her residual estate, other than personal and family items, should go to a fund for country ministers “of the descenting denomination.”

The travels were first published in 1888 as Through England on a Side Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, with a partial transcription by Hon. Emily Griffiths, daughter of the 16th Baron Saye and Sele, of a manuscript in the hand of a copyist. Almost sixty years later, a fuller edition with good notes was provided by Christopher Morris under the title The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (London, 1949). This drew on a holograph version and it remains the standard version, while the introduction supplies the most complete account of the author’s life to date.