A Norfolk Clergyman Takes The Grand Tour—Twice!

Pannini Gallery ready for Grand Tourists looking for purchases

Pannini Gallery ready for Grand Tourists looking for purchases

Going on The Grand Tour in 17th and 18th-century Britain became an essential element in the education of the sons[1] of the gentry and nobility. They were sent to acquire the correct veneer of polish, based on personal acquaintance with the monuments of Ancient Rome and the great artists of the Renaissance and later.[2] Many returned laden with pictures, sculptures and objets d’art to decorate their fine houses. A few even returned wiser and more cultured.

So long as those indulging in this kind of ‘finishing school’ education came from rich families, the question of how to pay for a year or more abroad[3] hardly arose. But when the idea filtered down towards the middling sort, as such ideas tend to do, the matter of funding became more challenging.

The Rev. William Gunn (1750–1841) was a Norfolk clergyman who made The Grand Tour twice (in 1785 and 1792–3), the second time with his wife, baby daughter and a nursemaid. As a clergyman of the Established Church, Gunn was an ‘honorary gentleman’, but his personal origins placed him firmly in the middle rank of society. His father, Alexander Gunn of Irstead, Norfolk, was described in the records of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where his son studied, merely as ‘Gent.’

So how did this clergyman, antiquarian, art enthusiast and lover of Italy manage to afford two lengthy periods abroad, the second during the aftermath of the French Revolution, when Britain and France were formally at war?

The Church as a Source of Income

For a start, Gunn was a pluralist—a clergyman holding several parish appointments or “livings” simultaneously. In 1779 he became vicar of Felmingham and in 1780 curate of Hoveton St. John. Next, in 1784, he added the rectory of Sloley,. Finally, in 1786, he swapped Felmingham and Hoveton for the post of Rector of Barton Turf and Irstead.

Vicars and curates generally received only part of the church tithes (taxes on local farmers) as income. The actual proportion varied, with vicars receiving much more than curates (the curacy of Hoveton St. John was reckoned as worth only £17pa in 1845). Rectors were entitled to all the tithes.

It’s hard to estimate Gunn’s income accurately, but two (or three) livings were certainly better than one. The Rectory of Barton Turf and Instead was valued in 1831 at £379 per annum, and the Rectory of Sloley between £250 and £300 in 1845. If we say that by 1785 his income was in the region of £350 per year, rising to nearly £700 in 1786, we may not be too far out[4]. That’s around £65,000–£70,000, then £110,000–£130,000 in today’s money. Its actual purchasing power in the 18th century would have been still higher.

How Could You Serve Multiple Parishes?

Pluralism was fairly common at the time. It would be unfair to suggest that such clergy saw their parishes entirely as a source of income, but they certainly did not expect to spend more than a fraction of their time on parish matters. The general custom was to hire a ‘poor curate’ (a clergyman waiting for his own living to be granted) to do the bulk of the work and take enough services to satisfy local parishioners. The actual vicar or rector might take only a single service each week, with accompanying sermon. Some did even less than that. Since this was usual, few parishioners objected. Yet they, as we shall see, were not the people who mattered most.

Gunn would also have been able to indulge his antiquarian and artistic interests to a significant extent, since in 1785 he was unmarried. By the time he had a wife and child to accompany him, his income seems to have nearly doubled.

Even so, this is a good deal less than the sons of the upper gentry and nobility would have had at their disposal as they wandered around Europe. Gunn does not seem to have been extravagant in his living and travelling arrangements, and he did not send home large amounts of purchased art (much that was bought on The Grand Tour being tossed off by local artists specially for rich young Englishmen to buy). That must have helped his budgeting. However, he did have to maintain a home in England and pay one or more curates.

Nonetheless, his case shows that “doing The Grand Tour” was within the grasp of at least some of the middle classes by the latter part of the 18th century. Sadly, it happened just as a crescendo of political quarrels, from The Seven Years’ War (1754–63), the American Revolution (1776–83) and the wars following the French Revolution (1791–1815) systematically closed much of Europe to tourism, especially under Napoleon.

Those at Home

What of those left behind in England? Not just family, but also the wealthy local families whose support was vital to any clergyman. Would they be content with curates to take the services? How would they feel about their rector disappearing for a year or more to undertake some purely personal development?

Surprisingly relaxed, it seems.

In December 1784, Dr Bagot, the Bishop of Norwich, made no difficulty in allowing Gunn leave to absent himself in this way. Gunn may not however have been entirely honest with his superior. He was allowed leave on the grounds of his health, the bishop adding a recommendation (Lisbon) and a warning (stay away from Nice and Naples). No mention was made of arrangements for his various parishes during his absence.

Ignoring his bishop, Gunn made straight for Nice, en route to Naples.

The local squires and grandees also made no objection. Gunn seems to have been on good terms all round, from the Norris family at Barton Hall, to the Prestons at Beeston Hall, the Macks at Frankfort Manor, Sloley, and the Blofelds at Hoveton Hall. Several members of these key families kept up a lively correspondence with him during his absences, updating him on local news and requiring after his progress.

All in all then, William Gunn was able to spend a pleasant time away on both his tours, coming back with the materials for two books on antiquities and an abiding love of Italy.

Yet his story goes a long way to showing why the various dissenting churches and the evangelical movement amongst Anglicans saw the established church of the time as religiously moribund. They believed clergy ought to focus solely on the spiritual welfare of their parishioners, not draw the income and spend it on personal pursuits and interests.

The Grand Tour Fades Away

Napoleon might well be credited with ending the Grand Tour. From 1803 until his fall in 1815, most of those who might otherwise have continued to wander around Europe found it far too threatening. English people caught in French territory (which began to mean most of Europe) risked being seized and imprisoned. Even the Earl of Bristol, that indefatigable traveller and collector, sprinkling Europe’s cities with various Hotels Bristol, had one of his hauls of Classical loot confiscated. How could you benefit from the Grand Tour if you were in prison and your purchases had been taken to decorate some French palace or gallery?

England also began to turn in upon itself, seeking home-grown ways of completing the education of its upper classes. A university education (Oxford or Cambridge, of course) became more important, even if the attendee either failed to graduate or obtained only the ‘Gentleman’s Third Class Degree’. Prowess on the sports field gained in importance alongside a new cult of ‘manliness’[5]—perhaps responding to the radicals’ charges that the British upper classes had become too effete and focused on aesthetics to remain its natural leaders. Prowess in fox-hunting prepared young men for service in the cavalry, while ever more opportunities arose for the surplus sons of the upper classes to live lives of relative luxury while playing their part in governing the Empire. India’s gain was Italy’s loss.


  1. And a few daughters, though this was rare.  ↩
  2. Some, of course, obtained a closer knowledge of Continental brothels, gambling and drinking, despite the presence of a ‘Bear Leader’ chosen to try to keep them on the straight and narrow.  ↩
  3. Generally a year, though William Windham II of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk managed to persuade his father, Ashe Windham, to finance no less than four years spent wandering around Italy and Switzerland in the 1740s with an allowance of £600.00 annually (maybe £80,000 or more in today’s terms)!  ↩
  4. Of course, he may have had some private income in addition.  ↩
  5. That was what lay behind the remark, usually credited to the Duke of Wellington, that the battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton.  ↩

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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