Custom Tattoo Work—Historical Improvisation During William Lithgow’s 1612 Pilgrimage

Travel narratives about Holy-Land pilgrimage tattoos are one of my go-to evidence banks for demonstrating the significant presence and visibility of tattooing in the early modern period (defined as approximately 1450-1850). William Lithgow’s travel narrative (in its various editions) represents probably the most often-cited example of these texts. I’ve lectured many times about the “surprising” nature of what Lithgow writes about tattooing (surprising…only if one believes in the Cook myth), but not published these thoughts. A recent request from a fellow body-art scholar to recap part of a recent talk I gave about Lithgow and other early-modern tattoo wearers made me realize I should write the Lithgow material down for broader dissemination. In doing so, and in relooking at the texts, I had some new epiphanies. So here you go, an updated analysis of the tattoos of 17th-century, Holy-Land pilgrim, William Lithgow:

In 1612, the Scottish traveler and author William Lithgow, apparently along with several companions, obtained tattoos in Jerusalem. This was not a novel idea: pilgrims before him and many more after him had received similar marks of piety. Had Lithgow and others not written about these tattoos, we might not know about them. Standards of dress and the conventions of portrait painting during the early modern period dictated that little skin be shown in formal representations, so images like Lithgow’s portrait in the frontispiece of the volume, costumed in exotic finery from his travels, do not show him as tattooed. (Later, a few travelers, such as German diplomat Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, did proudly roll up their sleeves to display their tattoos for visual posterity.)


The frontispiece to the 1632 edition of Lithgow’s narrative


In the first version of Lithgow’s narrative about his travels published in 1614, he writes:

“In the last night of my staying at Jerusalem, which was at the holy grave, I remembring that bounden duty, & loving zeale, which I owe unto my native Prince; whom I in all humility (next and immediate to Christ Jesus) acknowledge to be the supreme head, and Governour of the true Christian and Catholicke Church; by the remembrance of this obligation I say, I caused one Elias Bethleete, a Christian inhabitour of Bethleem, to ingrave on the flesh of my right arme, The never-conquered Crowne of Scotland, and the now inconquerable Crowne of England, joyned also to it, with this inscription, painefully carved in letters, within the circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex.”

The historically significant part of this passage relates to how Lithgow describes here a tattoo that diverges from a traditional pilgrimage tattoo. A traditional tattoo would have featured standard Christian iconography. The tattoo he describes honors his monarch back home in England—a monarch that once was his king in Scotland. His publisher, perhaps realizing that Lithgow left out any discussion of traditional pilgrim tattoos he might have received and knowing that readers might want that information, adds an annotation next to this passage that notes: “The Crownes of the two kingdomes, and the great Armes of Jerusalem, are to be seene ingraven on his right arme.” So we know from this short note that Lithgow also had had a typical pilgrim’s tattoo inscribed (more about the Arms of Jerusalem below as he elaborates in later editions).



The marginal annotation in Lithgow’s 1614 account of getting tattooed in Jerusalem


King James I of England (formerly King James VI of Scotland) can be considered a somewhat controversial figure in the history of Christianity. This makes the religious and political implications of Lithgow’s tattoo interesting to explore. (I’ll let Lithgow explain more about this in his own words later in this article.) But what jumps out to me as a tattoo historian when I read Lithgow’s words is that he customized his tattoo experience in the Holy Land. From a contemporary, popular perspective this seems exceptional. Many tend to think of “custom” tattoos as a relatively modern development, but there is no reason to think that earlier tattoo customers could not also see the potential of the art form—the communicative possibilities—and decide to use the medium to permanently express or memorialize content they chose.

Slightly later in the early modern period we also find other examples of tattoo customization from the history of colonization of North America. Travelers in the 17th century used the technology of native American tattooers to have European motifs inscribed. Diéreville was one of several observers who noted this. In 1699, he wrote that the French in Acadia had Native Americans tattoo them with “all types of images, crosses, the name of Jesus, flowers; anything that one might want.” Custom tattoos have deeper roots than one might presume.

Lithgow continues his narrative with a description of how his tattoo was received by the person who tattooed it. One must take such uncorroborated first-hand accounts with a giant grain of salt (people love to spin yarns), but according to Lithgow the tattooer was not aware until after he had tattooed the crown design that it honored King James. He continues:

“…Vivat Jacobus Rex. For the which the old Frier was mightily discontented, and railed upon me, that I should (as he said) have indured so much paine for such an Arch-enemy of the Roman Church, but he not knowing how to mend himselfe, in the end, I quenched & abated his calumnies, by a recitation of the incomparable vertues of our dread Soveraigne; who for his bounty, wisedome, learning and government, was not equaled, nor paragonized amongst al the Princes of the earth. which he deeply conceiving, was stricken in admiration, & began to intreate me (if I lived) to returne to my native Soile, that I would make it knowne unto his Majesty, the great tribulation & oppression they susteined under infidels, to preserve the memory of these monuments, especially of the Holy Grave; for the maintaining whereof (said he) that the great Monarch gave never any allowance, nor supported the poore afflicted Christians at Jerusalem: which indeed, I promised to do, and also performed his request: for after my first arivall in England, most humbly did I report it to his Highnes, in the privy garden of Greenwich, who indeed gave me a most gracious and compassionable answere, saying: They never sought any helpe of him; and if they had, he would have supported their neccessitie.

Lithgow clearly used tattooing to make a political statement in honoring his monarch with a celebratory tattoo; he presents the information about the tattoo after “acknowledging” King James “to be the supreme head, and Governour of the true Christian and Catholicke Church”. But there seems to also be a deeper religious critique at play here as well. I’m no expert in early modern religious politics, so I can only start to engage with this part of his text, but it appears he usurped the services of an Orthodox-Christian-heritage tattooer to inscribe a conscious slap in the face to Catholicism—an image that asserted the superiority of Protestant Christianity—while on Holy Ground. That Lithgow chose to add politicized material permanently to his body, via an image that was foreign to his tattooer reveals a spirit of choice and collaboration on designs. In fact in his text, rather than talking the standard language about pilgrimage tattooers giving tattoos to customers, Lithgow notes the he “caused” Elias Bethleete to engrave the tattoo on his arm. Lithgow is asserting his agency to commission the custom tattoo.

Update: It seems Lithgow’s tattoo seriously angered some Catholics. In 1620, he was captured by the Spanish Inquisition in Malaga and tortured. Apparently his King James tattoo was stripped from his flesh! Thanks to my colleague Benôit Robitaille for sending me a note about this. Also more here about this, as fodder for future research/validation.

Lithgow (or his publisher) changes and adds to his story in the various editions of his text, ever tweaking the narrative. The 1616 edition differs in a few small ways, but not significantly. The 1623 edition introduces a considerable amount of new material about his tattoos plus a rare illustration of what they looked like. We only have a handful of images that have come to light that show what early-modern pilgrimage tattoos looked like, so having this representation is particularly valuable to understanding the visual history.



Next to the illustration in the 1623 edition, the publisher helpfully includes a currency conversion annotation to help readers understand how much the tattoo cost (about £60 in 2005)


It is important to note that most pilgrimage tattoos were rendered by stamping the image from a stock set of motifs. An invented image that combined the crowns of two different political entities, only recently joined via a coronation, would not have been part of the canon, much less have been converted into a stamp. Lithgow may have had something with him that showed this image or items that had insignia of the two crowns that were combined here. (I’m still doing more research to try to find this exact image on something–I’ve even run it through a reverse Google images search beyond the usual forms of image research–but right now it appears to be an image Lithgow created). He could have had, for example, this coin with him, a book (this one is from 1621, so a tiny bit later than Lithgow’s visit, but you get the gist), or many other items.

In 1623, among the text amendments, Lithgow adds a poem he wrote after the detail about the motto that accompanied the tattooed joined-crown motif:

“I caused one Elias Bethleete, a Christian inhabitour of Bethleem, to ingrave on the flesh of my right arme, the close and never-conquered Crowne of Scotland, and the now inconquerable Crowne of England, deciphered with it in the Globe and crosse, with this inscription carved in the circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex, Let King James live:
Long may he live, and long may GOD above
Confirme, Reward, Encrease, true Christian love:
That He (blest King of men) may never cease
To keepe this Badge, the sacred PRINCE of PEACE;
And there’s the Motto, of His MAIDEN Crowne,
Haec nobis invicta miserunt, ne’re wonne.

One scholar, Juliet Fleming, based on a slightly different wording of the introduction to these lines of verse in the later 1640 edition (she appears to have been unfamiliar with either the 1623 or 1632 editions), asserts that this verse was tattooed. That later edition (as well as the 1632 edition) writes that Lithgow “fixt these lines for King James”. But I’m not sure that Lithgow had these lines of verse tattooed (and trust me, I am ever one to err on the side of believing something is a tattoo, rather than to dismiss a tattoo theory). Lithgow clearly had the crown amalgam tattooed. But I think the 1623 verse passage finds Lithgow merely waxing poetic about the import of getting tattooed and honoring his king permanently on his body. If we look at Lithgow’s other texts, as well as other parts of this text, he clearly enjoyed writing verse.

Fixt is a provocative word choice, and one can see how it might have been interpreted, in the absence of a perusal of the 1623 edition, by a much later scholar as meaning that the poem was tattooed. Fixt could mean that he had these words literally fixed in his skin—“fixed” as defined as “embedded” or “implanted”. We do find forms of the verb “to fix” used occasionally to refer to tattooing in this time period. For example, John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis from 1653 refers to tattoos at one point in the text as “those fixed figures”. (Although Bulwer is using it in the context of the Picts, who recent research have determined were probably not tattooed, so it is possible that Bulwer knew this as well and did not intend a tattoo meaning for “fixed”.)

Rather I’ll posit that Lithgow meant “fixt” in a metaphorical sense: that the sentiment contained in the poem was “fixed” by the inscription of the tattoo, that it made this sentiment an inseparable part of his being. We can also think here of fixed as in the sense of the fixed stars, about which there was much writing at the time. This brings to mind Shakespeare’s love as an “ever-fixed mark” in Sonnet 116 from 1609, which references nautical traditions and celestial navigation. (However, come to think of it, given the pilgrimage tradition, “ever-fixed mark” might actually be a double metaphor—referencing tattooing, in addition to the pole star, especially given the then-contemporary pilgrimage tattoo tradition!) Lithgow also may simply mean “fixed” in the sense of written down for posterity in his travel journal.

In the 1623 edition, beyond including an illustration of the other, traditional pilgrimage tattoo Lithgow got (the Arms of Jerusalem), he elaborated upon this other design. After the poem to King James he continues:

“These five crosses, are the Great Armes of Jerusalem, supported by the name of Jesus, which three letters signifie, Jesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus the Saviour of mankind: The modell whereof is here affixed, as I carry it with me one my Arme. And understand me, I was not constrained to take this marke, it being a benovolent custome, which men may do or not do, as they please: for I paied two Piasters, for the doing of it, and all the paines mine owne.” (After this passage the 1623 text repeats the 1614 part above about the tattooer getting angry over the King James tattoo.)

This particular passage contains information not found in either the previous 1614 and 1616 editions nor the later 1632 and 1640 editions. Of note is Lithgow’s explanation of the Christogram initials and his sentence about how he got the tattoo of his own volition. One wonders whether he received some criticism about the tattoos (from exisiting evidence, 1612 appears to be fairly early in the English pilgrimage tradition timeline), or if people thought he might have been forced to get tattooed, along the lines of what we read in the captivity narratives that were starting to become popular around this time. And we all must laugh at his joke about paying the tattooer with money but additionally have to “pay” for the tattoo through “all the paines mine owne”. No matter what point in history you might come from, if you’ve gotten tattooed, you can relate to that sensation and how one must earn a tattoo through pain.

The Arms of Jerusalem design is still commonly tattooed today (I received my own, in fact, on a recent trip to Jerusalem from the venerable Razzouk family which you can read about in a recent piece I penned for Atlas Obscura). Many of the pilgrims’ texts that talk about getting tattooed note this design and other visual documents show it as well.


An image of the tattoos of German pilgrim Ratge (or Ratger) Stubbe from a 1669 trip which shows another version of the Arms of Jerusalem tattoo


Lithgow and/or his publisher revised the account again for the 1632 version of the narrative, abbreviating the 1623 description slightly and changing the order of the text. This version was also republished in 1640. The text of these two editions is as follows:

“Earely on the morrow there came a fellow to us, on [sic] Elias Aracheros, a Christian inhabitant at Bethlehem, and purveier for the Friers; who did ingrave on our severall Armes upon Christs Sepulcher the name of Jesus, and the Holy Crosse; being our owne opinion and desire: and heere is the Modell thereof. But I, decyphered, and subjoyned below mine, the four incorporate Crowns of King James, with this Inscription, in the lower circle of the Crowne, Vivat Jacobus Rex: returning to the fellow two Piasters for his reward: I fixt these lines for King James.

Long may he live, and long may God above
Confirme, Reward, Encrease his Christian love:
That He (blest King of men) may never cease
To keep this Badge, the sacred Prince of Peace;
And there’s the Motto of His Maiden Crowne,
Haec nobis invicta miserunt, ne’er wonne.

Which when the Guardian understood, what I had done in memory of my Prince upon that Sacred Tombe, hee [sic] was greatly offended with me, that I should have polluted that Holy place, with the name of such an Arch-enemy to the Romane [sic] Church. But not knowing how to mend himselfe, and hearing me to recite of the Heroick Vertues of our matchlesse Monarch: who for Bounty, Wisedome, and Learning, was not paragonized among all the Princes of the earth: His fury fell; and begun to intreate me, to make it knowne to his Majesty, that hee never allowed any support to their afflicted lives, neyther any gratuity for maintayning of these Sacred Monuments at Jerusalem, his subjects being as free here as they. Which indeed I performed, for after my arrivall in England, and having propined his Majesty with diverse rare things, and a Turpentine rod from Jordan; in the midst of my Discourses, I told his Highnesse, in the Privy Garden of Greenewich, the Guardians request. Who indeed gave me a most gracious answere, saying, They never sought any helpe of him, and if they had, he would have supported their necessity.”

There are several changes of note in the 1632/40 editions. First, the voice of the text changes from the singular “I” to the plural “we”. He talks in this edition about how a group of pilgrims went to get tattooed, rather than just himself. One can postulate many reasons why this part of the text was changed, among them that his travel companions might have wanted to be acknowledged in the text or Lithgow desired to convey that his pilgrimage tattoo practice was not unique by stressing that multiple people obtained tattoos. Second, the crown tattoo is now described as “the foure incorporate Crowns of King James” rather than just a melding of two crowns of Scotland and England. James died in 1625, so this might have to do with something that happened politically during the time period between the 1623 and 1632 editions. (There’s always more research to do…add that to the list.) Third, the name of the tattooer has changed from Elias Bethleete to Elias Aracheros. One wonders if one of his travel companions or a later traveler to the Holy Land had gotten Elias’s proper last name rather than one that Lithgow seems to have made up from the city which Elias called his hometown—Bethlehem. Fouth, there are many more details in the description of Lithgow talking to the tattooer about King James and about relaying back the tattooer’s request for assistance in preserving the Holy Land sites and helping the people who live and work there. At this point James is dead, so there’s no one to corroborate any artistic license Lithgow may have taken with his conversation with the King and the circumstances surrounding it. One must wonder how much literary embellishment is happening at this point in the edition history.


One of the small changes to the page in the 1632/40 editions can be seen next to the illustration, instead of the handy currency conversion in the 1623 edition, the illustration now has simple descriptions of the designs


To conclude my thoughts about Lithgow (and there is so much more to write, especially about this text as a fascinating example of rare book history with its many, quite different editions and the subsequent bilbiographic history which involves foreign translations and much later republications), I’ll focus on a couple of takeaways. First, Lithgow’s text was popular, as were many other pilgrimage texts that mention tattoos. As I’ve often discussed, that so many texts in so many editions talked about tattoos (especially during the later part of the early modern period) means the literate public would have had a significant familiarity with tattooing at this time. As noted above, Lithgow published three slightly different accounts of his tattoos during his lifetime in five editions. News of his tattoo experience was likely widespread. And he was not the only pilgrim writing of these tattoos.

Second, Lithgow’s tattoos represent improvisation on the part of both Lithgow and Elias Bethleete/Aracheros the tattooer—improvisation that would have been disseminated widely to the literate public. The traveler and the craftsman worked together to create a custom tattoo experience. My research has taught me that many types of tattoo experiences are ever cyclical. Here we have yet another example of a type of tattooing that appears in different historical periods—people commonly think of “custom” tattoos as a product of the tattoo Renaissance of the 1960s and 70s and which are particularly popular now in the 21st century. For those who look into the past beyond our grandparents’ generation, we also can note custom tattoos during the Victorian aristocratic/socialite tattoo upswing in the late 19th century. Now we can add early modern tattooing and a spirit of improvisation in both the Holy Land and colonial North America to this story.


A few notes: In my transliterations of the rare book texts, I chose a couple of conventions to make the older text easier for modern readers. When capital “J”s were written as the usual early-modern “I”, I swapped out the modern J instead. Where u was used instead of v (and vice-versa) I updated to contemporary letter forms. Any things that look like typos are actually as written in the original texts. I didn’t want to have to repeatedly add [sic], as it distracts from the flow of reading. Lastly, I wanted to give all these editions of Lithgow’s narrative a fresh review prior to publishing this post (the last time I worked with them was about 10 years ago, so my notes were old and limited in nature), so many thanks to my dear friend and colleague Matt Lodder who has fancy academic access these days (one of the only things I miss about university teaching), and who could provide me with scans of the relevant pages that I needed.


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