Dr John Bargrave was born in 1610. The Bargrave family were prosperous local yeomen farmers and tanners from Bridge, just outside of Canterbury, who had recently entered the ranks of the Kentish gentry. John Bargrave’s father, Captain John Bargrave, had served as a mercenary soldier and adventurer in the wars with Spain. He was an upwardly mobile and ambitious individual. His lucrative career coupled with a favourable marriage to Jane Crouch, daughter and heiress of the London haberdasher, Giles Crouch, subsequently financed the construction of an impressive family home known as Bifrons, at Patrixbourne, near to Canterbury.
John Bargrave the younger was the second son. Like many in his situation he was destined for a career in the church. He was educated at King’s School in Canterbury before proceeding in 1629 to Peterhouse, the oldest of the Cambridge colleges. He served as college librarian from 1634-6 and was admitted to a fellowship in 1637. It is quite likely that Bargrave’s life would have remained relatively uneventful if he had not become caught up in the political and religious upheavals of the mid-17th century. His uncle, Isaac Bargrave, Dean of Canterbury, was a staunch supporter of the established church and of the monarchy. On the eve of the Civil War he was detained and sent to the Fleet Prison. He died shortly after his release in 1643. John Bargrave’s social and political connections, and no doubt his religious and political sympathies as well, resulted in his removal from his Peterhouse fellowship in 1644.
Bargrave’s upbringing and academic career appeared to have aroused a wider intellectual curiosity in him, possibly reinforced by the military and mercantile activities of both his father and uncle, Robert. Amongst other activities his father was an early investor in the Virginia Company. The unfriendly political climate in England now prompted Bargrave to travel. Between 1645 and 1660 Bargrave chose to spend most of his time on the continent away from the turmoil across the Channel. In 1645 he toured France, recording some of his observations in a travel diary. In 1646-7 he undertook a much longer tour to Italy. This resulted in the publication of an Italian guidebook, the Mercurio Italico, although this appeared under the name of his nephew, John Raymond.
Bargrave is known to have visited Rome on at least four occasions, 1646-7, 1650, 1655, and 1660. Occasionally he also took charge of parties of young acquaintances from Kent or Cambridge. During his travels he was able to collect numerous natural curiosities, antiquities, coins, and medals. These objects were carefully recorded in his own manuscript catalogue.
He displayed a remarkable sensitivity to local cultures, remarking in his 1645 diary that travellers should not pass unfavourable judgements about countries simply because the country was not the same as their own.
Following the Restoration of Charles II and the House of Stuart in 1660, Bargrave resumed his ecclesiastical career and was appointed a canon of Canterbury Cathedral. In 1662 he was asked to undertake a mission to Algiers with Dr John Selleck, the Archdeacon of Wells, as a semi-official envoy of the church, to ransom English captives held there. They were provided with the sum of £10,000. Bargrave was fortunate not to be enslaved himself. After tense, but successful negotiations, Bargrave left for England. However, the hapless British Consul, Robert Browne, was forcibly taken into slavery. This mission was Bargrave’s last overseas adventure. He returned to England and resumed his ecclesiastical duties.
In 1665 Bargrave married the well-connected widow, Frances Osborne. Nevertheless, he continued to remain an active member of the Cathedral community. He served as receiver-general of the Dean and Chapter and also as Vice-Dean. He died in 1680 and was buried in the cathedral. In his will he requested that the chains from one of the ransomed slaves from Algiers be placed above his tomb, echoing the chivalric tradition of placing arms and armour above a tomb as funeral achievements. He also bequeathed his substantial collection of objects to the Dean and Chapter. This was eventually transferred into their possession by his widow in 1685.