The Intrepid and Inquiring Celia Fiennes

This blog post by Heidi Craig introduces us to an early modern woman who traveled. Celia Fiennes was an impressive woman who traveled only accompanied by servants at a time when this was by no means easy.  

By Heidi Craig

Gesina ter Borch, Woman on Horseback in a Landscape (Vrouw te paard in een landschap, 1660). Rijksmuseum, BI-1887-1463-25

“It is a pretty long Parish and through it runns a water which came down a great banck at the end of town…they say it runns off of a poisonous mine or soile and from Coale pitts, they permit none to taste it, for I sent for a Cup of it and the people in the Street call’d out to forbid the tasteing it” (95-6). As a peripatetic academic, I’ve become inspired by the travelling nonconformist Englishwoman Celia Fiennes (born in Newton Toney in 1662, died in London in 1741). Fiennes’s memoirs have been called “most important travel journal of the seventeenth century” (McRae 176) and are valued by social and economic historians for their insights into the industries, manufacturing processes, social practices, and perceptions of England and Scotland of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They also paint a striking portrait of an intrepid, inquiring early modern woman, zigzagging across England on horseback—riding sidesaddle, no less, as the title of the first edition of her memoirs (published in 1888) reminds us—between the early 1680s and the 1710s.

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Title page of the 19th-century edition of Fiennes’s memoirs, GoogleBooks.

Striving to “be curious” in order to “regain my health,” the acquisition of knowledge through travel was key to Fiennes’s quest for self-care and self-improvement. Ironically, Fiennes sometimes risked life and limb in this pursuit; in the opening quotation, Fiennes describes how, while attempting to sample water from a stream near Sheffield, she was discouraged by locals from drinking the noxious liquid. Fiennes would not be put off, however, from other drinks and foods, to which she devotes considerable attention in her journal. She was a “connoisseur of beer,” and was “delighted whenever she was near enough the coast for French wine to be obtainable,” notes Christopher Morris (xxix); at a fish-market near Borough Bridge she marveled at “crabbs as big as my two hands” (83), and she describes Colchester as primarily notable for “exceeding good oysters,” “to gratify my curiosity to eat them on the place I paid dear” (116).

Image from Richard Head’s The English Rogue (London, 1680), Wing (2nd ed.) / H1248cA.

Fiennes’s zest for travel is remarkable given the ideological and practical challenges faced by travelers in early modern England in general, not to mention women in particular. As Andrew McRae has noted, the Protestant Reformation brought an abrupt end to pilgrimages in England and beyond; moreover, in the Tudor and early Stuart period, “the Protestant assault on pilgrimage dovetailed with wider attacks” “on the causelessly mobile individual,” whose curiosity and ambition were increasingly viewed with suspicion (177). All this resulted in “the dismantling of structures of hospitality directed towards the sustenance of pilgrims on the road” (McRae 177-78). English roads had actually worsened since the Middle Ages; seventeenth-century roads were often narrow, poorly marked, susceptible to flooding, overgrown with hedges, and heavily trafficked (Morris xxx). Robbery was also a persistent concern. Fiennes recounts her encounter with probable highwaymen on the road to Chester. She describes them as “truss’ed up with great coates and as it were bundles about them which I believe was pistols,” and their efforts to “justle my horse out of the way to get between one of my servants horses and mine,” attempting to make conversation by “disown[ing] their knowledge of the way.” The men turned back once Fiennes arrived at a busy market town, but not before “they described the places we [i.e. Fiennes and her servants] should come by,” “which shew’d them no strangers to the road as they at first pretended” (225).

Guillaume Blaeu, Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1631), Wikimedia Commons.

As a seventeenth-century English traveler, Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost, swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges. As the introduction to Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women, English Drama, and the Wider Worlda forthcoming collection edited by Patricia Akhimie and Bernadette Andrea, tells us, “popular English travel guides from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries asserted that women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” “However,” it continues, “early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no diminution of their moral fiber” (n.p.). Nevertheless, despite the seeming ordinariness of early modern women’s travel, the autonomous Fiennes–unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants–would have stood out.

Traveling with servants and possessing funds to satisfy her curiosity about oysters and other cates, Celia Fiennes was clearly an elite traveler. Yet she was not simply an idle tourist. This gentlewoman made a concerted effort to learn as much as she could about the industries and social practices of England and to expose herself to a wide range of experiences and persons. Fiennes visited the various different “spaws” or medicinal springs across England frequented by the wealthy, the middle classes, and low-income persons; in Malton she noted approvingly of Mary Eure, a landlady who “set up a manufactory for linen which does employ many poor people” (93), a tantalizing reference to another industrious early modern woman.

With her clear agenda to learn and write about the economic and social practices she encountered on her travels, Fiennes produced detailed accounts of the manufacture of cloth; she also investigated the production of glass, iron, and brick, as well as of gloves, lace, silk, and stockings. Her description of her visit to Barton Mill, a paper-mill near Canterbury, is one of the few known accounts of English papermaking in the seventeenth century:

There are also Paper mills which dispatches paper at a quick rate; they were then makeing brown paper when I saw it; the mill is set agoing by the water and at the same tyme it pounded the raggs to morter for the paper, and it beate oatmeale and hemp and ground bread together that is at the same tyme; when the substance for the paper is pounded enough they take it in a great tub and so with a frame just of the size of the sheets of paper, made all of small wire just as I have seen fine screens to screen corne in, only this is much closer wrought, and they clap a frame of wood round the edge, and so dip it into the tub and what is too thin runs through; then they turn this frame down on a piece of coarse woollen just the size of the paper and so give a knock to it and it falls off, on which they clap another such a piece of wollen cloth which is ready to lay the next frame of paper, and so till they have made a large heape which they by a board on the bottom move to a press, and so lay a board on the top and so let down a great screw and weight on it, which they force together into such a narrow compass as they know so many sheets of paper will be reduced, and this presses out all the thinner part and leaves the paper so firme as it may be taken up sheete by sheete, and laid together to be thoroughly dryed by the wind. (124)

Peter Thomas notes that the multi-use mill, used for both paper making and to “beat oatmeale and hemp and ground bread together,” would have made low quality paper; as he puts it, because the mill “combined three or four operations,” “this would have been a very dirty place and so it is questionable if they could have produced much, if any, good white paper” (n. 4). One imagines that the bread made from flour milled at Barton Mill was even worse!


In 1990, the book artists and papermakers Peter and Donna Thomas created a miniature book (2 9/16″ x 2″) that reproduced Fiennes’s account of her visit to Barton Mill. Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking includes text by Peter Thomas, illustrations cut by Donna Thomas, and a reproduction of seventeenth-century brown paper by Ray Tomasso. The book was also printed on very special recycled paper, namely, “paper trimmed from the margins of an incomplete copy of Keble’s Reports (which was printed in England around in 1685)” as the edition’s end note tells us. Two hundred copies of the book were produced; the copy pictured here is held by the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Previously belittled and overshadowed in criticism by Daniel Defoe’s later Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1726), Fiennes’s writings are finally getting their due as among the most extensive, detailed, and, occasionally the sole surviving accounts of English industries and social practices in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries. While an early editor notes Fiennes’s “masculine interest in the national economy” (xli), in fact,this remarkable early modern woman established a model and standard of travel writing that would be followed by male writers in the eighteenth century and beyond.

Dr. Heidi Craig recently completed her PhD in English and Book History & Print Culture at the University of Toronto. She has been a fellow at the Huntington and Newberry Libraries and in September 2018 will begin a year-long fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is completing a book manuscript on the production and reception of English Renaissance drama during the English theatre ban of 1642 to 1660. She is also researching ragpickers, rag-sorters, and women working in the early modern book trade and paper-making industry. 

Photos of Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking by Heidi Craig, reproduced with permission of Peter and Donna Thomas.

References and Further Reading

Akhimie, Patricia and Bernadette Andrea,eds. Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women, English Drama, and the Wider World. Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. and Ian Duncan, eds. Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Fiennes, Celia and Christopher Morris, ed. The Journeys of Celia Fiennes. London: The Cresset Press, 1947.

Fiennes, Celia, with an introduction by Mrs. [Emily] Griffiths. Through England on a side saddle in the time of William and Mary: Being the Diary of Celia Fiennes. London: Field & Tuer, the Leadenhall Press; New York: Scribner & Welford, 1888.

Kaderly, Nat Lewis. “Southey’s Borrowings from Celia Fiennes.” Modern Language Notes. 69: 4 (1954): 249-253.

Kinsley, Zoë. Women Writing the Home Tour, 1682-1812. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

Herbert, Amanda E. “Gender and the Spa: Space, Sociability and Self at British Health Spas, 1640–1714.” Journal of Social History 43.2 (2009): 361-383.

McRae, Andrew. Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Osborne, Bruce and Cora Weaver. Aquae Britannia: Rediscovering 17th Century Springs & Spas: In the Footsteps of Celia Fiennes. Malvern: Cora Weaver, 1996.

Picciotto, Joanna. “Breaking through the Mode: Celia Fiennes and the Exercise of Curiosity.” Literature Compass 6:2 (2009): 291-313.

Thomas, Peter and Donna Thomas. Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking. Santa Cruz: Peter & Donna Thomas, 1990.

Willy, Margaret. Three Women Diarists: Celia Fiennes, Dorothy Wordsworth, Katherine Mansfield. London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League, by Longmans, Green, 1964.

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