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“I have passed by several persons talking Latin
in the streets”: The Reverend William Coxe
in Hungary in early 1778

Peter Sherwood

Henry Herbert, tenth Earl of Pembroke, and his wife Elizabeth Spencer, daughter of Charles, third Duke of Marlborough, were determined that the education of their son and heir, George Augustus Herbert (1759–1827), should be rounded off with the traditional extensive Grand Tour in the company of suitable tutors, equipped with letters of introduction to the people that mattered in the capitals and other cities of Europe. Henry had met most of these people on his own travels, so that it was comparatively simple to write informing them of his son’s projected tour; but it cannot have been easy to find suitable tutors.

On this last point, Henry and Elizabeth were in complete agreement. The number was to be limited to two; both were to be young; one was to be responsible for all forms of exercise as well as geography and French, the other a scholar and member of the church, who was to do most of the teaching.portrait of William CoxeWilliam Coxe The two men chosen were both well known either to Henry and Elizabeth, or to her brother, the Duke of Marlborough, and were admirably qualified. One was John Floyd, who traced his family back to the middle of the seventeenth century and whose father was a great friend of the Duke of Marlborough. The other was the Reverend William Coxe (1748–1828), who was highly recommended by Dr Thomas Dampier, Lower Master at Eton while Coxe was there. Coxe had continued his studies at King’s College Cambridge, where he received his BA in 1769 and his MA in 1772. Ordained deacon in the Church of England in London in 1771 and priested in 1772, Coxe was a learned antiquarian and historian, bracketed by some with Macaulay and Dr Johnson as one of the fathers of modern biography, but perhaps best known to historians of Hungary for his three-volume History of the House of Austria (1807).For more on Coxe, see Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. It seems safe to surmise that his interest in this part of Europe was kindled on this trip.

The young George and his companions set off on their travels in November, 1775, not to return until 1780. The fascinating and intimate correspondence between Coxe and, especially, Lady Pembroke, detailing every stage of their trip, was found in 1933 by Sidney Charles Herbert, the sixteenth Earl of Pembroke (1906–1969), together with a vast quantity of other manuscripts, when he opened a trapdoor in the floor of the estate office at Wilton House, the country seat of the Earls of Pembroke since the sixteenth century. Lord Herbert published this correspondence in 1939 under the title Henry, Elizabeth and George (1734–80). Letters and Diaries of Henry, Tenth Earl of Pembroke and his Circle (London, Jonathan Cape). While at least one distinguished historian does note in passing that Coxe visited Hungary,Robert J. W. Evans, ‘Hungary in British Historiography. C. A. Macartney and his forerunners’. In: G. Ittzés, A. Kiséry, eds., Míves semmiségek/Elaborate trifles. Tanulmányok Ruttkay Kálmán 80. születésnapjára/Studies for Kálmán G. Ruttkay on his 80th birthday. Piliscsaba: Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem. 2002. 477. this particular volume, providing evidence of at least two visits by Coxe to Hungary in 1778, would seem to have escaped historians’ notice,It is not mentioned in Domokos Kosáry’s standard Bevezetés a magyar történelem forrásaiba és irodalmába, I–III, Budapest, 1951–1956, nor do Coxe’s visits seem to be known to even such an indefatigable student of the links between Hungary and the Anglo-Saxon world as István Gál. perhaps at least in part because of its unassuming – and, let us add, unpromising – main title. In this respect the reissue of the volume in 1942, under the new main title The Pembroke Papers, was no more likely to attract notice.The Pembroke Papers (1734–1780). Letters and Diaries of Henry, Tenth Earl of Pembroke and his Circle. Edited by Lord Herbert. London, Jonathan Cape. [Verso of title page:] “First published 1939 under the title ‘Henry, Elizabeth and George’. Re-issued 1942”. The quotations and page numbers in the following paragraph are taken from, and refer to, this publication.

Selecting from the leisurely tour those encounters likely to be of interest to the Hungarian reader, one might note the meeting of George and his companions with “Count de Haddick”, the famous (Austro-)Hungarian general András Hadik (1710–1790), in Prague in September 1777 (p. 105), while on 10 February 1778 they left Vienna to pay a visit to “Prince Esterhazy”, that is, the patron of Haydn, Miklós Esterházy “the Magnificent”, (1714–1790); they “arrived at BudapestThe anachronism is the editor’s; it was known as Pest-Buda at this time. the next day” (p. 107). Later in the year, however, the Reverend Coxe offered his impressions of Hungary in the following detailed letter to Lady Pembroke, written from Pressburg,Today’s Bratislava/Pozsony, the Slovak capital. in which the keen eye and wide-ranging curiosity of the future scholar are already in plentiful evidence (pp. 111–114).

Presburg. April 21st, 1778.


Since I quitted England I have seen no country (Switzerland alone excepted) wh[ich] has given me so much pleasure as Hungary: and I do nothing but regret that our time would not permit us to visit more of it; for there is scarcely a foot of ground in the whole Kingdom, which is not famous for some remarkable event. This country may indeed be called the theatre of war with as much propriety as the Low Countries: only the latter are more known and the wars between the French and the Southern nations of Europe more interesting to us than those between the Hungarians and the Turks, or than the civil commotions, which for a long period agitated this country.

Formerly the Kingdom of Hungary was absolutely elective. Upon the death of Louis II who was killed at the battle of Mohacs in 1524 [sic, recte 1526 – PS] against the Turks, Ferdinand brother of Charles V and afterwards Emperor himself, by the influence of his sister the widow of the above Louis: but he did not get possession of the kingdom till after many battles; for John de Zapola [Zapolya] [sic – PS] was elected by a strong party and supported by the Turks. From that period the kingdom continued though elective yet permanent in Emperors of the House of Austria, because every monarch got his son elected during his life time. Under Leopold the Kingdom was declared hereditary in the male line, his son Joseph crowned the first hereditary King in 1687; and the famous oath of Andrew II, which the Kings were accustomed to take at their coronation, was abolished. By this oath it was declared that if the King did not keep the laws inviolate, the nobles might take up arms against him without being considered as rebels. Charles the VI procured his eldest Daughter Maria Theresa the present Empress, to be chosen as Queen, or as the Hungarians call it King; and she renewed the abovementioned oath.

I am not able to send your Ladyship any precise idea of the constitution of this Kingdom except in the following general terms. The Sovereign promises to govern by the laws. If any new ones are to be enacted or any amendments in the old ones to be made, any additional taxes to be laid on, the People are assembled at Presbourg, and this meeting is called a Diet, wherein all the regulations which are passed by the plurality of voices and with the consent of the Crown, have the force of laws. By the word ‘People’ is not to be understood the people at large, but only the Nobles and the deputies of the free Towns; and the Nobles never pay any part of the taxes, altho’ they impose them. The peasants are oppressed, subject to so many corvées or task works so many days in the week at the pleasure of their Lord; do not possess the propriety of their lands, and cannot remove from their dwelling place without his consent; and this is called Liberty: that is the Nobles are free and the peasants slaves. The Empress indeed has of late made several regulations in favour of the peasants, but they have in many places been counteracted by the Nobles, and have not yet produced the good effects as expected. The Diet is convoked by the Sovereign and is assembled only occasionally. The general administration is carried on by the Sovereign in certain Courts and Chambers appointed by him.

Hungary is very thinly peopled, containing in all not much above 2,000,000 inhabitants, of whom about a fourth part are Hungarians. This amazing depopulation arises in part from the wars with the Turks, and in part from the civil commotions, which were not finally appeased until the year 1711. The other inhabitants are Germans, Sclavonians and Gypsies. The latter are called Zigeuners: many of them rove about the woods quite naked and live in caves. Concerning their origin little is known; some say their ancestors came from Egypt, but from what authority I know not. They are plainly a different race of people, and are much darker in their complexions than the other inhabitants; some of them are almost black. They all speak the language of the country in which they are fixed: and have besides a language of their own entirely different either from the German, Hungarian, Sclavonian and Wallachian, the four principal languages which are spoken in Hungary. Besides these four the Latin tongue is almost universally spoken, and all the acts of Government are given out in that tongue. I have frequently heard Floyd’s servant, who is of Moravia, dispute in Latin with the Post Master, and even with the postilion; have passed by several persons talking Latin in the streets, and have got an innkeepers bill classically written in that tongue.

The variety of dresses is also as curious as the variety of languages. The Hungarian dress is particularly becoming. It consists of a tight waistcoat with an upper kind of jacket bordered with fur: this jacket is sometimes put on, at other times is strung over the shoulders and thrown occasionally over the left arm in the manner of the antient Roman Toga. By the way this Hungarian dress exactly resembles that of the Hussar. Some wear hats, others Bonnets lined with fur, others high black cylindrical caps. Many of the peasants have only a short shirt of coarse linen, and trowsers of the same materials; some wear the jackets of sheep skin and over these, large wrappers either of coarse flannel or of sheep skin with the wool on, just as it is torn from the animal. I do not know a more singular figure than a peasant with one of these coverings, the wool outwards. The Women wear also the short jackets either of fur or of sheep skin. We passed several villages where the women had on only a long coarse shift with boots and no stockings.

The Sclavonian married women wear a coarse linen cloth which covers the head: in hot weather it hangs down behind, but in cold weather it is brought round the mouth and chin, so that nothing but the eyes and nose can be seen.

Of all the places I saw in Hungary I think Buda the most curious and interesting. It is a very large straggling town: part of it is built upon the plain and part upon the side of the hill; the citadel and University occupies the top. The Danube flows by it, and is there a full deep and rapid river. Opposite is Pest, a large handsome town lying entirely in a flat and contrasts finely with the irregular situation of Buda. At the latter place there are some few Roman antiquities, some remains of the palace of the old Kings of Hungary, a Turkish Mosque and some Turkish Baths.

We are now at Presbourg, and are just come from visiting every thing worth seeing here. This Town is situated by the side of the Danube, which is divided into several branches: the castle is built upon a hill, and forms a picturesque object as it hangs over the town. We went over it; it is now the palace of the residence of Prince Albert of Saxony and his wife the Archduchess Marianne. We there saw the room wherein the present Empress harangued the nobles and deputies of the Diet in 1741, when the French had got possession of Prague, and she was obliged to retire from Vienna to Presbourg. She appeared in deep mourning, held up the present Emperor, an infant just born, and addressed the Nobles, etc, in Latin, telling them that her only hopes were in their assistance. When she had finished her speech all those who were present drew out their sabres and cried out with a spirit which is better felt than described, that they would sacrifice their lives and fortunes in her defence. I cannot fancy a scene more touching. […]