CELT document T100081

Francesco Chiericati's letter to Isabella d'Este Gonzaga

Two Early Tours in Ireland

In the Middle Ages there was no spot in Ireland so celebrated as St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg (Co. Donegal). I have even seen an early map of Europe where the only place designated in Ireland is this Purgatory. Its reputation was first made by the so-called confessions of the Knight Owen (one of King Stephen's court), who says he visited this place, and obtained relief for his conscience after a life of hideous crimes. He knew about it because he was an Irishman. His story was written in Latin by Henry of Saltry, and ran over all Europe, so that there is little doubt that Dante had it before him when composing his Purgatorio. For the date of Owen's visit is about 1154 A.D.

From this time onward there grows up a whole literature about this and lesser Purgatories. How early the real origin of this sanctum does not appear. The general similarity its rites bear to the initiation at the Eleusinian Mysteries and those of the cave of Trophonius suggests that it may possibly be the echo of these Greek mysteries and oracles reaching across the Dark Ages, and kept alive by their adaptation to Christianity. It is not my purpose here to pursue this line of investigation, or to give any further history of the fortunes of this famous purgatory.  p.2 A clear and learned summary of it has been given by the late Thomas Wright, the well-known editor of Gerald of Wales in Bohn's series. But for his ultra-Protestant attitude, which forbids any sympathy with such superstitious piety as legends and pilgrimages imply, Wright's short book (St. Patrick's Purgatory, London, 1844) gives us an admirable survey of this curious history.

What concerns me here is to save from neglect the information left us by two of the numerous pilgrims or tourists who were tempted to make this long and then perilous journey from Continental Europe. Very few of these journals have been printed; there may be others lying in MS. in the libraries of Spain or France. The Knight Owen, however, the earliest known pilgrim, is so busy confessing his sins, and describing the miracles and wonders of the place, that he vouchsafes us hardly a word about his voyage. As he was an Irishman, what he saw may not have struck him as curious, and he never returned from Lough Derg, where he became a monk for life.

Wright refers to, and quotes from, a certificate given by Edward III to two foreign knights, but these have left us no journal of their travels. The voyage of Count John de Perilhos (or Perelhos) 1 is attested by the reference, also made by Wright, to the permit granted him on Sept. 6, 1397, by King Richard II, to whom the Count was recommended by the King of France. There is no reason whatever to doubt the genuineness of the narrative. This text, originally composed in Catalan, is now preserved only in a Provençal version of 1466, known to Philip O'Sullivan, in whose Historiae Catholicae Iberniae Compendium (1621) there is quoted part of it in Latin. But he omits the very passages which are to us interesting, about the manners of King O'Neill's Court, just as a modern patriot would omit them. A learned French edition of the Provençal text, with grammar and glossary, was published by MM. Jeanroy  p.3 and Vignaux (Toulouse, 1903). The portion of it which is worth citing was translated for me from the Provençal by my colleague, Professor Rudmose-Brown.

The other document was long sought by me, for part of it was published in Mrs. Cartwright's Life of Isabella d'Este, to whom Bishop Chiericati, Papal Nuncio at the Court of Henry VIII, and a friend of Erasmus, communicates it in a letter written from Middleburg (Zeeland) in 1515. 2 There is between them this distinction: the former was a pilgrimage, the latter a mere tour of curiosity. But the two were not easily distinguishable in earlier days. The tourist found his passports by turning pilgrim, and the pilgrim often added worldly interests to his pilgrimage. Chiericati's letter has been translated for me by Professor J. G. Smyly, so that my only credit in this paper is to have brought to a focus the learning of others. I must add that it was Mr. Armstrong of Queen's College, Oxford, the well-known author of the standard book on Charles V, who told me where to find the rare pamphlet on Chiericati's life. 3 Here follow the translations of the two texts. 4

Francesco Chiericati

Edited by J. P. Mahaffy

Francesco Chiericati's letter to Isabella d'Este Gonzaga


Chiericati's Account

To Isabella d'Este Gonzaga

To Isabella d'Este Gonzaga

Most illustrious and excellent Lady

It is already many days since I promised in my last letter to your most illustrious Ladyship to describe to you what I have found out about the Purgatory of St. Patrick in Ireland, after having been there. And as I did not find it to be such as I had thought, or to correspond to the stories which are told concerning it, yet I am unwilling to leave my promise unfulfilled.

So I must inform your Excellency that by the gracious permission of the King (Henry VIII), and carrying letters from him, I left London and in five days traversed England till we came to the sea to a city called Chester. There we embarked in a ship and in one day and one night crossed the sea to a city in Ireland called Dublin. This is one of the three metropolitan cities, 5 and is the capital of all Ireland; here is collected the Grand Council of the Kingdom, and, as it is a maritime place, it is sufficiently populous. Here there are countless vessels which carry away salt fish, hides, cattle, and Irish hobby-horses, and import wine and merchandise of many kinds. There we were honourably entertained by the Very Rev. Archbishop and by the Illustrious Earl of Kildare, vice-roy of the island. We were given letters and attendance as far as Drogheda, a distance of twenty miles. Leaving Dublin we passed over level ground through country pleasing enough to the eye, overlooking the sea till we came to Drogheda, a fairly rich territory, five miles distant from the sea. Thence we set out and journeyed for one day to Dundalk, once an illustrious city, but at the present day rather ruinous. Continuing our way we journeyed twenty-four miles and arrived at another metropolitan city called Armagh. It is the seat of the Primate of the island, but is very desolate, the best thing in it being an Abbey of Regular Canons. It was here that we began to meet with brutish people. Thence we left the sea behind us and began to penetrate into the mountains. Having journeyed twenty miles we arrived at a cathedral city, called Clogher, beyond which the country is full of thieves. We entered another district called Fermanagh (?), which is full of robbers, woods, lakes, and marshes, proceeding as far as Tremon (?) where there is an earl:  p.11 here the rule of England ceases. Parting thence we traversed another district called Omagh (?) extending for six miles and full of robbers and rascals. There we found many rivers, where are found in heaps and handfuls the pearls of oysters, which are produced in the following way. During those two months some very black fogs are wont to spread over these rivers in the morning; when the sun rises, they become liquid and their substance is reduced to a drop which falls into the river. If by chance it falls into an open oyster, of which there is a great number there, it begins to congeal into a black substance, and afterwards becomes white and larger. The country people find so many of them that it is astonishing, and they make a good profit out of them. These are the pearls which are called Scottish.

Thence we came to the Purgatory, which, situated among hills, lies in a valley, and is in the middle of a lake, which surrounds it for four miles. There in the middle is a rock, which is twenty paces long and sixteen wide. We sounded a horn and made signs with a white cloth fixed on a pole, and immediately there came to us one of the two servants who attend on the three Regular Canons, who are stationed at the Purgatory. They conveyed us across to the rock one by one in a hollowed out beech [oak], and charged a shilling for each. When we were all landed we received the indulgences at all the usual places. The Purgatory is situated in the following manner. First there is a small church with stone walls, which looks like an oratory; behind the church, to the north, is a small dwellinghouse, made of planks, for the three resident monks. Close by is another small dwellinghouse, also made of planks, for the pilgrims. Before the door of the church, over the lake, towards the west, are three bells (bee-hive cells?), dedicated one to St. Brigid, another to St. Patrick, and the third to St. Columba. Behind the church, to the east, is the Purgatory. The door, which is made of iron, is about three cubits from the ground. The Purgatory is a grotto made in the rock, on the level of the ground; it enters so far that twelve persons can stand at their ease in it. It is two and a-half cubits wide. It is true that at the back the grotto turns aside for two cubits, where, they say, St. Patrick used to sleep. This place I could not see, because I was unwilling to look into it, being terrified at the things which are said about it; but I stood  p.12 three paces away from the door. The monks entered into it with two pine torches, and I looked carefully at everything straight in front of me; but there was nothing to see except rock. At the turning of the grotto there is a round stool, which looks like a mill-stone; when it is struck it seems to respond like an echo. They say there is a well there and that this is the origin of the stories which are told of the well of St. Patrick.

Two of my companions entered, and there were five other pilgrims who entered with them. However, the greater penance was mine, because I was compelled to wait for about ten days, during which the greater part of our provisions fell short. The first day, immediately on their arrival, they make their wills, that is those who have a will to make. And by special privilege, credit is given to one of the monks of the place. Then all those, who intend to enter, confess: then the ordinary penance of them all is to dine on bread and water for nine days and nine nights in succession; then they have to visit for so many hours a day all the three bells (cells?) of the saints, and repeat a certain number of prayers. Besides these duties they must stand so many hours a day in the lake up to the middle of the leg, to the middle of the body, to the neck; some more and some less. When the nine days have passed by, at dawn mass is said, and they all communicate and receive the blessing, and then, after ablution with holy water, they are conducted, with the cross before them, to the door of the Purgatory. They enter it naked, and then the door is closed, and is not opened again till the next day at the same hour, because they are bound to remain there for twenty-four hours. On one side the rock is pierced, and through a small hole a vessel, to serve for their necessities, is put in and taken out. At this hole one of the monks stands all the time, who preaches to them, that they should be resolute, and not permit themselves to be overcome by the temptations of the devil: because, as they say, innumerable different visions appear to them, and many of them come forth stupefied and raving; and they say that these have yielded to the temptations. Of those who entered, when I was present, two had such visions: one of them, when he came out, had almost lost his senses, and when he had been questioned in various ways said that he had been very severely beaten, and that  p.13 he did not know by whom: the other said that there had appeared to him several ladies of the most beautiful form, who invited him to eat with them and make good cheer, setting before him fruits and food of various kinds; and he said that he came very near to allowing himself to be overcome, owing to the great weakness of his condition. The others said that they had not seen or felt anything except cold, hunger, and great weakness. The following day they came out half dead, and were restored as well as was possible, and their names were entered in the book which is placed in the church, and in which are inscribed the names of all who come there. The first name inscribed was that of Guarino da Durazzo, which I had believed to be a fable. But now I saw it anciently inscribed there in a parchment book. The merit won by those who enter the Purgatory is, according to what they say, superior to the apostolic indulgences, because God granted as a grace to St. Patrick, that whoever should enter this Purgatory and do penance, would not have to do penance in the Purgatory of the other life.

At last we set out thence and returned by the same route to Armagh; thence we journeyed twenty-two miles to Vardelino (?), where there is a stately abbey of monks. Continuing our journey we made thirty-four miles to a city by the sea called Down, where we found a bishop from the city of Viterbo, a man of the age of a hundred and fourteen years. In its church are the bodies of the Saints Patrick, Brigid, and Columba. And there the pilgrims make a halt for three days. In this place I could not walk in the street, because every one ran to kiss my dress, understanding that I was a Nuntio from the Pope, so that I was almost compelled by force to stay in the house; so great was their importunity, which arose from a strong religious feeling. The good bishop received us most graciously, and procured for me much pleasure in fishing. There for a shilling one can obtain a salmon weighing fifty pounds, 6which, in Italy, would be of great value, and would be very highly esteemed.

We set out thence and came to a castle called Sole (?), and thence we directed our course towards Cavalo (?) through walled-in  p.14 territory, but before we arrived, we found on the way the tomb of a giant, made of flint, which was forty-eight feet long. In the village of Cavalo a stream gushes out from under a mountain, and falls far down into a small open building. The pilgrims enter it and say a pater noster and an ave Maria as well as the prayer of St. Patrick. They remain there on their knees with the water falling all the time on the top of them; and this, they say, was done by St. Patrick. Thence we returned to Dublin.

The island of Ireland lies behind Scotland and England, and is a third larger. The climate is very temperate and warmer than it is in England, which is very wonderful. The King owns only the third part of it, that is the places on the sea-coast. The rest is in the hands of diverse lords, who are little more worthy of honour than our peasants. They say that the Pope is their King. And accordingly the other lords place upon their coins the keys and the three papal crowns. The Earl of Kildare is the chief lord of them all, and is a man of ability, and has all the civilization of England. Such also are the places on the sea-coast. The country in general is poor, except in fish, cattle, and poultry. An ox is worth a ducat, a pair of capons two pence, or half a carlino, of fish there are few that cannot be bought at a penny apiece; the people are very cunning and quick-witted, and very valorous in arms, because they are always exercised in wars between themselves; they live on oaten bread, and, for the most part, drink milk or water. The clothing of the men is a woven saffron shirt from the feet to the neck, shoes without heels, a cloak over it of a gay colour, a felt hat on the head, no other kind being used: they are all shaved except on the chin. The women are very beautiful and very fair, but slovenly. They wear the same saffroned shirts, with a red coif on the head à la carmagnola. They are very religious, but do not regard theft as a crime, and do not punish it. They say that we are brutal because we make private property of the gifts of fortune, and that they live in accordance with nature, because all things ought to be in common. This is the reason why there are so many thieves among them, so that there is great danger of being robbed, if not of death, in passing through the country without great precaution. In places further to the north they are more brutish, as I have heard; they go about naked, they dwell in caves in the mountains,  p.15 and eat raw flesh. These things are what I have found out about the stories that are told concerning the island of Ireland and the well of St. Patrick; and though they are of small importance, I have been unwilling to omit writing of them to your Excellency, as I promised, knowing your rare intelligence which wishes to understand not only important things but also the smallest. I hope that your most illustrious ladyship will accept it all in the spirit in which I write.

I am here in Zeeland with the most serene Catholic King who is on the point of departure. I hope, by the divine assistance, to come in a few days to pay my respects to your most illustrious ladyship. Meanwhile I recommend myself to your good graces and respectfully kiss your hand.

Given at Midelburg in the island of Zeeland on the 28th of August MDXVII. Devotus Servus Fr . Chierigatus.

I have little to add to these interesting narratives, which speak for themselves. In the second, the writer seems to have had little faith in the miracles of the Purgatory, and I have only given his letter in full because he tells us something of his return journey, which Perilhos does not. 7 The adventures of various other narrators inside the Purgatory are given at length in Wright's book, which is a study on such mediaeval Purgatories, whereas my object here is only to reproduce impressions of Ireland from mediaeval observers.

What is here told corresponds very well with the observations of Gerald of Wales about 1200 A.D., long before either of them, and with the Elizabethan pictures of Ireland, such as Derrick's Image with its curious pictures, and Fynes Moryson's Itinerary. We may note it as a curious omission that Perelhos makes no mention of harpers at his Christmas feast with O'Neill. The same omission is to be noted in Chiericati, who did not attend such a feast, but who professes to give a general account  p.16 of the manners and customs of the people. But anyone experienced in such accounts must be content with what they tell, and only lament what they omit.

We have failed to identify many of the place-names, which the travellers set down phonetically as they heard them. But seeing that Perilhos gives us Yrnel for O'Neill, we may allow ourselves some liberty in our conjectures. Even so, we are completely at fault in many cases, and appeal to the learned Irish topographers to help us in the identification of these names. Where they represent monasteries, the task should not be hopeless. I had thought of delaying this publication till such researches had been made by some of my learned friends, but think it better that any good results they may obtain should be published separately and under their names.


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Title (uniform): Francesco Chiericati's letter to Isabella d'Este Gonzaga

Editor: J. P. Mahaffy

Author: Francesco Chiericati

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Electronic edition compiled and proof-read by: Beatrix Färber and Janet Crawford

translated by: J. G. Smyly

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1. First draft.

Extent: 4370 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2012

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: T100081

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT project for purposes of academic research and teaching only.

Notes statement

We are very grateful to Dr C. J. Woods, author of 'Travellers' accounts as source material for Irish historians' (Dublin 2009) for calling our attention to this travel account.

Source description


  1. Thomas Wright, St. Patrick's Purgatory: An Essay on the Legends of Purgatory, Hell and Paradise Current during the Middle Ages. (London: John Russell Smith 1844).
  2. Julia Cartwright, Isabella D'Este, Marchioness of Mantua 1474–1539. (London: John Murray 1903).
  3. Francesco Chiericati, Vescovo e Diplomatico, by B. Marsalia, reprinted from the Proceedings (1873) of the Accademia Olimpica of Vicenza (pp. 80–92).
  4. Robert Easting, 'The Date and Dedication of the Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii', Speculum 53:4, October 1978, 778–83.
  5. Carol G. Zaleski, 'St. Patrick's Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision', Journal of the History of Ideas 46:4, Oct to Dec 1985, 467–485.
  6. Eileen Gardiner, Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante, New York 1989, 149–195.
  7. Claudia Di Fonzo, La leggenda del "Purgatorio di S. Patrizio" nella tradizione di commento trecentesca, Comunicazione tenuta presso il Dipartimento di Italianistica della Sapienza di Roma il 10 giugno 1997, pubblicata in Dante e il locus inferni. Creazione letteraria e tradizione interpretativa a cura di S. Foà e S. Gentili, "Studi (e testi) italiani" 4 (1999), 53–72.
  8. Jean-Michel Picard und Yolande de Pontfarcy: Saint Patrick's Purgatory: A Twelfth Century Tale of a Journey to the Other World. Four Courts Press, Dublin 1985 (with introduction and English translation).
  9. M. Purcell, M., 'St Patrick's Purgatory: Francesco Chiericati's letter to Isabelle d'Este', Seanchas Ardmhacha 12:2 (1987) 1–10.
  10. See also Arlima.net: http://www.arlima.net/mp/purgatoire_de_saint_patrice.html.
  11. For a bibliography on St Patrick's Purgatory see also http://www.hell-on-line.org/BibPatrick.html.

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Two Early Tours in Ireland’ (1914). In: Hermathena‍ 40. Ed. by Dublin Members of Trinity College, pp. 1–3, 10–16.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {J. P. Mahaffy},
  title 	 = {Two Early Tours in Ireland},
  journal 	 = {Hermathena},
  editor 	 = {Members of Trinity College, Dublin},
  address 	 = {Dublin; London},
  publisher 	 = {Hodges, Figgis \& Co. Ltd.; Longmans, Green \& Co.},
  date 	 = {1914},
  volume 	 = {40},
  pages 	 = {1–3; 10–16}


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Creation: Article written by J. P. Mahaffy; the tour by Francesco Chiericati (c.1480-1539), written 1516, has been translated by J. G. Smyly

Date: 1516 (original); 1914 (translation)

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  • The translation is in English. (en)
  • Some words are in Latin. (la)

Keywords: travel; description; prose; St Patrick's Purgatory; Lough Derg; customs; Francesco Chiericati; Isabella d'Este Gonzaga; 16c; O'Neills

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  1. 2012-06-06: Online proofing of file. (ed. Janet Crawford)
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  3. 2012-06-05: File proofed (2); more encoding applied; file parsed; SGML and HTML files created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  4. 2012-05-22: File proofed (1); structural encoding applied; header with bibliographical detail created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  5. 2012-05-22: Article captured by scanning. (text capture Beatrix Färber)

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I100081: Un principe di Toscana in Inghilterra e in Irlanda nel 1669: Visita a Roberto Boyle (in )

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  1. recte Ramón de Perelhos (modern Catalan: de Perellós), whose account is mnow availble at CELT. 🢀

  2. The letter gives the year of 1517. 🢀

  3. Francesco Chiericati, Vescovo e Diplomatico, by B. Marsalia, reprinted from the Proceedings (1873) of the Accademia Olimpica of Vicenza (pp. 80–92). 🢀

  4. The second text is available at CELT in a separate file, T100079. 🢀

  5. Dublin, Armagh, Cashel🢀

  6. About thirty-seven pounds English. 🢀

  7. The Catalan text edited by R. Miquels y Planas, Barcelona 1914, has about one page of text about that return journey. 🢀


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