A Naturalist Abroad:
A Seventeenth-Century Journal

By Mary Devine

"Many men have wrote voyages, especially of these parts, which makes mee short; but they have all omitted some necessary things, more especially the distances of places; the foreign moneys; and the comparative value; the prices of inns, from place to place or the necessary expenses in travelling." ~Tancred Robinson, Breviary~1

In 1683 Tancred Robinson, son of a Yorkshire merchant, set out on a long tour of France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Map of France, Italy, Germany & The Netherlands A hundred years later, such a tour would have been a commonplace, almost a necessary part of a young man’s education. But in 1683 it was less usual; moreover Tancred Robinson was not an ordinary young man. Four years earlier, he graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge as a bachelor of medicine; he had studied at Paris under Tournefort, the botanist, and Duverney, the anatomist; above all, he was a disciple and friend of the great naturalist, John Ray.2 John Ray, Naturalist Robinson corresponded with Ray from 1681 onwards and particularly during the 1683 tour when he made extensive observations and collected many specimens of flora and fauna. These specimens were apparently stolen from him during the return journey. But the observations he had made proved very valuable: they provided Ray with much comparative information and they supplied Robinson’s first contribution to the Philosophical Transactions at the Royal Society in June 1684. This article had originally taken the form of a letter written at Montpellier to Martin Lister, physician and archeologist, whom Robinson had known in York. Robinson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1687, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians; later he became physician-in-ordinary to George I and was made a knight.3

Amongst his fellow members of the Royal Society, Robinson was most closely associated with Hans Sloane, the Irish physician and naturalist, Francis Willoughby, the ornithologist, and James Petiver. Cover of Historia Piscium They, with many others, were all regular correspondents of John Ray, but Robinson was perhaps the most faithful and favoured in this respect. He made many contributions to Ray’s work, particularly the Historia Piscium in 1685 and the Methodus Emendata in 1703. Even if he was not himself a scientist of the first order, he had an intent and scholarly mind. He was at the heart of a movement that produced many great naturalists and was termed "amicorum alpha" (first among friends) by the most notable of them, John Ray.

Tancred Robinson was born around the year 1660, the second son of Thomas Robinson of York, merchant, and grandson of Sir William Robinson, once Mayor of York. In the past, his family had been held in high esteem for their part in civic affairs. In the centuries that were to come several of its members rose to national fame. Among Dr. Tancred Robinson’s nephews were the rear admiral, Sir Tancred Robinson, and Thomas, first Lord Grantham, the diplomat, Keeper of the Great Wardrobe to George II and Secretary of State (1754-1755). In the nineteenth century the family produced a Prime Minister in the Earl of Ripon, and a Viceroy of India in his son.

Newby Hall, EnglandAlthough Dr. Robinson lived in London and never kept a residence in Yorkshire, he corresponded with his nephews who lived there, and it was, in fact, at Newby Hall, once the seat of Thomas Robinson, third Lord Grantham, that there was found the small stout volume inscribed Tancred Robinson 1683 Breviary, prefaced by the comment on journals which is quoted at the beginning of this article.4

The Newby Hall MSS., listed by the National Register of Archives, contained little else relating to Dr. Robinson other than this volume and thirteen family letters. The breviary itself can hardly be considered of great scientific importance, for it is largely concerned with non-scientific information. It was in his letters that Robinson recorded the scientific results of his tour, and unfortunately those he wrote to John Ray exist only in Derham’s Epitome. However, this journal is at least a collateral record of the journey and does mention many scientific discoveries with the circumstances surrounding them.

The journal fills just over half this vellum-bound octavo volume; it is written, fairly compactly, in the neat legible hand which Robinson preserved into old age. It covers his first, fifteen-month journey over the continent, made in the company of Hans Sloane, and his second journey to the Spanish and Dutch Netherlands and parts of Germany, made in 1688 with Lord Wiltshire. This is followed by three pages headed "Dutch affairs 1688," mainly concerned with the reactions of the followers of the Prince of Orange to the birth of an heir to James II of England, and finally by what Robinson describes as "A continuation of the historian's guide, 1687-1688," being a synopsis of the tumultuous events in Northern Europe before the accession of William of Orange to the English throne. The first one hundred and eight pages, dealing with the first journey, have wide margins which Robinson used for editorial notes and additional remarks on distances, weather, and specimens seen. In reverse, the volume has sixteen written pages; the first contains recipes and prescriptions and the remainder an analysis of the cost of each stage of both journeys, notes on foreign coinage and rates of exchange, and a very long list of all towns visited. The seventeenth page is blank, simply headed: "My son's voyage A.D. 1721, 1722, 1723."

Robinson and Sloane set off from Gravesend on 3rd May, 1683, embarking "on a French vessel near Tilbury fort." They travelled through Normandy to Paris where they stayed for nearly two months. After travelling down the Rhone Valley as far as Avignon, 17th Century view of Avignon they went out to Montpellier, then back to Marseilles, Toulon, and Antibes, and so into Italy. Here they journeyed down the west coast to Rome and Naples, east to Ancona and northwards, through Milan, to Switzerland, West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. In all, their journey covered over a hundred and eighty towns, mostly those which John Ray had himself visited between 1663 and 1666. Robinson’s journal describes some of these in great detail, considering the situation, the industry and architecture of each; especially commenting on the churches, libraries and schools and the dress of the inhabitants. At Rouen he says, "We went to see…the pott-house where they make fine earthenware, glazing it with a stone grinded in water, and compounded of lead, tinn and sand melted….They paint them with preparations of Venus" (copper). He devotes many pages to Paris, describing monuments, arches, buildings and the environs of the city. He compares it with London, and of Parisians he observes: "The general habitt of the people is much like ours in England, only they commonly wear feathers in their hats and shoulder-belts; they are much given to change and a man may wear or doe any thing in Paris and noe body take notice of him, it being a place of great freedome and looseness."

Robinson had studied in Paris after his graduation and was therefore familiar with its academies which he here describes in some detail. He mentions the public conferences held each day in the house of some learned man. He names various Parisian scholars, but "at our being at Paris, M. Justell was gone to England upon the persecution of the protestants; M. Deny had fallen upon practise and M. Blegny was in prison upon the account of his dissecting a humane body found in the street without leave first obtained." 17th Century sketch of Montpellier

Alongside these comments, there are notes on the scientific specimens collected: three types of hyacinth found between Pontoise and Paris, the wild plants growing around Paris, the tubera terrae, or truffles, in Montpellier, already described by Ray in his "Observations" (1683); "the glandulous substances, jelly or sperm like" found at Scheveling on the Netherlands coast. Apart from Paris, the town that most occupies him is Montpellier which he reached on 30th July, 1683. This town had been visited and fully described by John Ray himself. It was a popular place with English visitors and of particular interest to botanists because it was the home of Pierre Magnol, the herbalist, who had published the Catalogus Monspeliensis in 1676. Magnol's Catalogue Robinson considered all aspects of the town but particularly the herb-gardens, watered by artificial canals, and the diet of the people: "kidney or Turky beans, many gourds (cucurbita) and lentils in their soups; they put much of the red carrot...into their sallets." The air of Montpellier was said to be good for "our English catarrhs and defluxions," mainly because of the aromatic herbs growing there. These Robinson lists as rosmarinus (rosemary), lavender, thyme, origan (wild marjoram), cistus ladanifer (resinous shrub), satyrion (orchis) and menthe cattar (mint). Herbs--Rosemary, lavender

As Robinson and Sloane reach Naples and eventually turn northwards, the descriptions of towns grow shorter and the scientific data less frequent. At this point Robinson refers more than ever to earlier sources – the works of Schottus, Browne, Raymond, Ray and Lassells – and to his own notes, written in the margins of his copies of these works.

The journal is a record of many and accurate observations: not exclusively those of a naturalist, but those of an educated young man visiting foreign towns. The form it takes suggests that Robinson contemplated publishing Observations similar to those of John Ray. He frequently addresses "the reader" and gives all references with care. The main scientific material is not here, rather, as has been suggested, in letters written to his friends and in the notes made in the margins of the scientific books he carried with him. Much of the information he gathered was passed on to Ray. For example, in Paris, he notices the people eating "much fish, amongst which they reckon their 'macreuse' and eat it all Lent and upon fast days when 'tis really a sea bird being a sort of Puffin or duck." Behind this comment there lies an enquiry from Ray as to the nature of the macreuse; the origin of the bird had been traced by Graindorge but his book had been suppressed and Parisians continued to eat macreuse during Lent. In 1684 Robinson sent two specimens to Ray who immediately recognized it as a Scoter – a type of puffin or sea duck. At this time, Ray was working on his Historia Piscium.

Physic Garden at AmsterdamRobinson’s account of his second journey to the Netherlands in 1688 covers only about seventeen pages. These contain simply a record of places visited, for Robinson remarks, "I have noted some things on the sides of my printed voyages (Ray and Brown) not remark'd by them before, nor by myself and I visited some places not seen by them or myself." However, he does supply here a valuable list of species found in M. Banting’s garden at Sourfleet and in the famous Physic Garden at Amsterdam.

But, to recall Robinson’s opening remarks on the aims of his journal, many greater men had written of similar voyages undertaken in the interests of science, and he himself perhaps did not wish to duplicate where he could not improve. He simply referred to the earlier works, emending and confirming earlier opinions according to his later observations. What he did add was an accurate record of the expenses of his tour, the length of journeys, and the means of travel ("from Lyons to Avignon 2 days or 2 days and a half by the Rhoane"). He devoted much attention to the currency problems that faced travelers, remarking, for example, "Florens are very various, at Geneve they reckon 6 sols to be a florin, in some parts of Germany...3 or 34 sols, in others...40 sols, but I think the ordinary currant or true florin is 28 Dutch stiver that is 33 French sols and a half or about an English half crown." On the subject of hotels and inns he offers a brief guide: his final comment, made on his return in 1684 "the Kentish road the most exacting in Europe: 12 pence for a bed" might appeal to modern travelers.

In his approach Robinson displays neither insularity nor fastidiousness. Cover of 1724 Philosophical Transactions He describes with equal objectivity Parisian fashions, ploughing in Umbria and the method used in Montpellier of feeding young pigeons by pouring water and millet-seed through a funnel placed in their mouths. He was in the Netherlands from May to July, 1688, and made his own comments on the events he witnessed during this period of the most intense political activity when the birth of James Edward, later the Old Pretender, set in motion the events which led to the overthrow of James II by William of Orange. As a scholar, Robinson made many contributions to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; he preserved throughout his life a wide range of interests and most generously afforded to many, and especially to John Ray, the unquestioned benefit of his editorial judgment. He practiced as a physician until three years before his death and medical problems always had a large share in his interests. He regularly re-examined in his journal the claims of continental curative waters and herbs and his advice was always at the disposal of his friends. By 1745, he was himself elderly and declining in health. To his nephew, Admiral Sir Tancred Robinson, who had been ill, he wrote, in May of that year, discussing the treatment the Admiral had received and congratulating the physician; as for himself: "I grow very Infirm and Weak, doth not sleep; my glass runs very low, but I hope yours will soon fill, and glide many a year." Tancred Robinson died in 1748, a man, as Canon Raven estimates, whose energy of character and generosity of temperament had enabled him to exert a very real influence over a scientific movement during its most illustrious early years.


1The Tancred Robinson journal dated 1683 was found and catalogued in the middle of the last century amongst the large archive that survived at Newby Hall (in the West Riding of Yorkshire, United Kingdom). The Newby Hall archive extends over eight centuries and, covering wide-ranging estates, it passed through many owners by intermarriage. Most of the carefully wrapped bundles of deeds, parchment and paper, naturally concerned estate matters – the purchasing, managing and leasing of land, and legal documents, but there were also papers relating to the professional lives of the various families who inherited the estate. Originally the archives were kept in a special Muniment Room, a sturdy stone building on the estate, close by but separate from the main house. This important and very large collection of documents was deposited by the then owner, Major Compton, in the Leeds Public Library (Yorkshire) in the 1950s and is now housed at the West Yorkshire Archive Service (at Nepshaw Lane South Morley Leeds LS277JQ), listed as Newby Hall MSS and available to historians and all scholars. The Robinson Journal, with which this paper is concerned, originally numbered NH 2911, is now WYL5013/2911.

2John Ray, Naturalist: His Life and Works. Canon Charles E. Raven. 2nd Edition re-issued in the Cambridge Science Classics Series, 1986. Cambridge University Press.

3Sir Tancred Robinson’s biography is well covered in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with details of his contributions to the Transactions of the Royal Society. (The Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was founded in London in November 1660 and chartered by Charles II in 1662; Robinson became a Fellow in 1684. The Royal College of Physicians was chartered by Henry VIII in 1518; Robinson became a Fellow in 1687.)

4Newby Hall, originally a small manor house not far from Ripon (Yorkshire), was extended and redesigned by the noted architect Robert Adam in the eighteenth century. Noted for its setting, for its paintings and statuary, and for the charm of its landscaping (with what is described as the longest herbaceous border in the country), Newby Hall is still a private residence but is open to the public for many months of the year.

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