The exiled Stuart court in Rome: some evidence from the Venerable English College Pilgrim Books

During the early modern period, the Venerable English College in Rome, as well as being a seminary, was also a port of call for many travellers, principally from England and Wales. From a small collection of notebooks, known as the Pilgrim Books, which record the comings and goings of these visitors to Rome and the College, we can glean the fact that Catholics and Protestants from England and Wales, of all sorts and of all social backgrounds, came to the College for accommodation and food. Depending on their station, they would be granted three to nine days’ board. Some were even given alms or clothes on their departure, depending on their character and how well they got on with the rector and the students. While women were not allowed to stay in the hostel itself, they did receive food from the College kitchens and their names appear amongst the records. As the College, opened in 1579, and its antecedent pilgrim hospice, opened in 1362, were meant to serve England and Wales only, Scots and Irish people were expected to go to their respective national colleges, although they were at times given food and shelter at the Venerable English College if they travelled with an English or Welsh person. Though the Pilgrim Books record only the names of those who either dined in the College as passing guests, or those who stayed there for a period of time, rather than more casual visitors, overall they are a useful record for any historian of British travellers to Rome.


For me, however, the information contained within these books sheds some light on the exiled Stuarts in Rome. In 1688, James II (1633–1701) of England was deposed and forced into exile with his family. His son, James Francis Edward Stuart (1688–1766), continued to claim the royal rights of the Stuart family to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland, a claim which posed a genuine threat to Hanoverian rule for the first half of the eighteenth century at least.  From 1719 until his death in 1766, James Stuart lived with his court in Rome, recognised as King James III by his supporters, including the pope and the English College. My recent visit to the Venerable English College archives proved fruitful and the Pilgrim Books contain various snippets of information that bring to life this exiled court and its interactions with English visitors to Rome.

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James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of James II of England, portrait of 1720 by Francesco Trevisani, National Galleries Scotland


Details in the Pilgrim Books inform us that English travellers who found themselves short of funds went to the Stuart court for charity. For example, on 27 August 1733, Henry Clerk, a watch-maker, received fifteen giulios from James’s two young sons, Prince Charles Francis Edward Stuart (1720–88) and Henry Benedict Stuart (1725–1807), Duke of York.  To this gift were added one sequin (a gold coin) from Sir Thomas Dereham (1679–1739) and clothes from Charles Radclyffe (1693–1746), de jure 5th earl of Derwentwater – two prominent exiled Jacobites at the court. On 2 September 1736, a “Kentish man & a Protestant” received two sequins from the palace. Whether all those granted alms from the court were loyal Jacobites is uncertain. Only one account provides specific information, about one Peter Whittel, a man who had “suffered much on account of his being so stiff a Jacobite”. Whittel was granted three sequins by “his Majesty” in August 1749.


For some, however, a visit to the court was just a lucrative opportunity: the Pilgrim Book records how Thomas Richardson “being more solicitous how to get a little cash (being in great want) left the church and went to the King’s palace where his majesty gave him… two sequins. He came not again to our college before he had spent all his money”. This gentleman at least was more concerned about getting some coins into his pocket.


The Pilgrim Books also contain accounts of people who had come to James III to be “touched for the king’s evil”.  Sometimes known as Scrofula, “King’s Evil” was a disease which, it was believed, could be cured by the touch of the monarch. Conveniently, the symptoms of the illness were intermittent, and therefore it could appear to be that people really were cured. Those who chose to ask James to cure them must have firmly believed in the legitimacy of the Stuarts and their divine right to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Some examples in the Pilgrim Books include George Ward, who in July 1729 arrived in Rome “very much afflicted with ye kings evil … come on purpose to be touched by his Majesty which was done on the 14th”. In June 1736, “came here one Richard Freeman … lame with ye king’s evil for which he came to be touch’d by his majesty”. Women also came, and the records for August 1737 include one Mrs White.


Belief in the curing powers of the King’s touch was not limited to Catholics. Again in August 1737, one Matthias Woodbridge from Reading, aged 16 and a Protestant, stayed at the College and visited James to be touched for the king’s evil. As part of the touching ceremony, the king would give the invalid a silver medal or coin known as a touch-piece. These medals not only served as a souvenir of the ceremony, but could stand in for the actual touch of the king: through their having been held by the monarch, the coins subsequently took on some of his power and, it was believed, could cure the sick even without their physical presence. As such, touch-pieces are very much like relics. They would have been cherished by Jacobites as a way of being connected to their exiled monarch. Often a hole was made in the top so that the touch-piece could be worn on a ribbon around the neck, close to the body. A fine silver example can be viewed on the website of National Museums Scotland at

The medals have a standard design which had been used since the fifteenth century. On the obverse, the Archangel Michael defeating the dragon is surrounded by the inscription SOLI DEO GLORIA (to God alone be glory). On the reverse is a ship in full sail, with the monarch’s titles inscribed around it. While this design was not specifically Jacobite, there may have been some Jacobite interpretations of these images and words – a topic for another blog.


Here it is worth noting however that examples of Stuart touch-pieces can be found as late as the early 1800s, when Henry Benedict, Cardinal Duke of York, and the last of the Stuart line, nominally claimed for himself the title of Henry IX. Accounts from his estates – which can be found in the VEC archive – include payments in 1801 to Giovanni Hamerani (1763–1846), a member of a distinguished Rome-based family of medallists, for medals for scrofula and for the engraving of images on the medals. Even though there was no possibility of Henry regaining the thrones of his family, he still considered it useful to distribute touch-pieces, such as the one illustrated in the link below, in order to prove his family’s rightful place as true royals:

Henry ("IX"), Cardinal York, touchpiece 1788 – 1807, RCIN 443319 Image©RoyalCollectionTrust

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Faded glory: the Palazzo Muti, former residence of the Stuart court in exile, today.

Photograph: Georgia Vullinghs

Georgia Vullinghs is a PhD candidate, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): she is currently undertaking a joint research project between the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland, on Jacobite loyalty and the material and visual culture of the exiled Stuarts.


Georgia Vullinghs