Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of
“THE CORPORATION OF BRISTOL IN THE OLDEN TIME”)

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter XI.

Philip Langley fined in lieu of serving as Mayor - Further attempt to deprive Bristol of its Admiralty jurisdiction - Poverty of Bristol clergy - “Forlorn Hope” estate of St. Nicholas - Court of the manor of Temple Fee revived - Merchant Seamen's Almshouse founded - Dealings of Corporation with John Whitson concerning purchase of corn - Ship-money revived; ineffectual protest of the Corporation - Repeal of “Redemptioner” ordinances - Piratical outrage of Captain Thomas Webb - Claim of Corporation on Privy Council for financial assistance - Bristol Fair - Visit to city of Lord Essex, who becomes Lord High Steward; succeeded by Lord Treasurer Buckhurst.

In February, 1592, Alderman Philip Langley was required by the Common Council to pay a fine of £50 for being relieved for ever of the office of Mayor. The charge seems to have been an unjust exaction, inasmuch as the Alderman had served as chief magistrate ten years previously. As he had also represented the city in Parliament from 1571 to 1581, Mr. Langley was probably far advanced in years.

The city audit books at this period are singularly barren of interesting features. In 1592 the Lord Admiral made another effort to deprive the Corporation of its Admiralty jurisdiction, doubtless in order to secure the fees and perquisites in maritime disputes and disasters arising within the port; and Dr. Julius Csesar, Judge of the Admiralty Court in London, was sent down as a special

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Commissioner to investigate the subject. He held a prolonged inquiry, during which the civic body, which had already spent £30 in “gratifications” to courtiers in the hope of averting the attack, treated the learned visitor with profuse hospitality, and made him a costly present of sweetmeats. In the result, the chartered privileges of the city were found incontestable, and the Lord Admiral appears to have withdrawn his pretensions, though his defeat did not prevent some of his successors from asserting similar vexatious pretensions. The only other noticeable fact of the year was the capture of a porpoise near Temple Back. It was presented to the Mayor for his personal delectation. The chief magistrate appears to have had peculiar rights over piscatory novelties. A few months later, on a “holibut” being discovered in the fish market, the Chamberlain bought it for 4s. and sent it to the Mayor, and in the following year his worship was the recipient of a sturgeon, caught in the Avon. The account books for 1593 and 1595 have perished.

An interesting letter, illustrating the impoverished condition of the Bristol clergy through the rapid spread of Puritanism, appears in the Privy Council minutes of March 16th, 1593. I have already drawn attention to the fact that the Corporation, when attending the Cathedral on State occasions, repaired there to hear, not the liturgy, but the “sermon”. In this they followed the prevalent taste of the age; and as many of the parochial incumbents, some of whom held other livings in the country, seem to have rarely preached, the yearly offerings that had once been voluntarily rendered to them by their city parishioners ceased to be given. The Privy Council, writing to the Mayor, Aldermen, and the Custos of the See of Bristol (then vacant), remark that they have been

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informed that the state of the city clergy “is very mean and poor”, their benefices being for the most part not worth more than £8 or £9 a year each, although in time of superstition they yielded a sufficient maintenance for learned men. Their lordships had also been informed that out of the common purse of the city a voluntary contribution was made to maintain three “preachers”, while wealthy citizens gave little or nothing to enlarge the stipends of the poor incumbents. The civic body were therefore required to cause a reasonable assessment to be imposed on such burgesses as did not contribute towards the maintenance of the poor ministers, especially of those who were preachers, and also towards supporting common readers until by better encouragement the livings might be furnished with able and learned men - a remark far from complimentary to those actually in possession. The names of persons refusing to subscribe were to be sent up to the Council, with a report as to their means and abilities. The request of the Government was obeyed, though the legal right of the Corporation to impose a tax for such a purpose might well be questioned, and was possibly repudiated by many citizens. From a document of a few years later date the annual sum raised was only about £44, averaging less than £3 per parish. Out of this total the vicar of St. Nicholas, whose income was only £2 13s. 4d., received £10, and the doles to his colleagues varied from £6 to £1. The “city preachers” maintained by the Corporation appear to have received about £30 each per annum.

The value of the vicarage of St. Nicholas in 1428 was officially reported to be £20, a sum certainly equivalent to £50 in 1593. During a period extending from about 1570 to 1593 the Vestry of St. Nicholas' parish received a number

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of gifts and bequests from various citizens, who had directed that the yearly interest should be distributed amongst poor parishioners in doles of money or of bread. (It will be remembered that poor rates were still in the future.) The above benefactions appear to have been advanced in temporary loans on good security, with the ultimate view of making an advantageous purchase of land; and in March, 1594, when the fund at disposal amounted to £548, the Vestry, adding £42 to the total from the Church stock, acquired a house, garden, and about thirteen acres of meadow near Baptist Mills, in the parish of St. James, for £590. It may be assumed that from the outset the rent derived from the estate sufficed to produce the yearly gifts designed by the benefactors (about £30 in all), but it can scarcely have done more than this during the following century, owing to the purely rural character of the locality, and it is significant that the place obtained the name of the “Forlorn Hope”. In course of time, however, the growth of the population in the district had its natural effect. A few houses were built on the property; the remainder of the meadow was divided into gardens, on which some occupiers “squatted” in wooden huts;. and in 1821 the Vestry granted a new lease of the estate for seven years at a rental of £152. Until 1818 the parish authorities continued to pay the doles originally fixed by the donors of the charities, and made use of the surplus at their discretion. It was then determined, however, to apply all the proceeds (less one-fourteenth as the share of the Church stock) to the objects designed by the benefactor. This honourable conduct eventually plunged the Vestry into painful embarrassment. In 1857 the charity estates of the parish had risen in yearly value to £450, and the approaching termination of the lease of “Forlorn Hope”

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was expected to add £200 a year to that amount. Already, at every approach of the Christmas doles, the parish was inundated by worthless idlers and vagabonds, who hired a few nights' shelter to secure a share of the spoil, and spent their gains in vicious dissipation. The reform then effected is recorded in the Annals of Bristol in the Nineteenth Century. Since that date the old hovels on the “Forlorn Hope” estate have given place to several streets of substantial dwellings, which must have vastly increased the income of the charity.

In 1594 the Corporation revived the court of the manor of Temple Fee, so long held by the Knights of St. John. As the criminal jurisdiction of the court had been absorbed by the ordinary tribunals of the city, it is difficult to conjecture why the old institution was restored. It afforded, however, an opportunity for a feast, the Mayor and his brethren partaking of a dinner which cost £5. A separate banquet for the jurymen, who possibly presented “nuisances”, entailed the modest outlay of 6s. 8d.

An entry in the minutes of the Privy Council, dated October 5th, 1595, affords information in reference to a still existing Bristol charity that was totally ignored by the old annalists, and is scarcely mentioned by many later historians. Very soon after the incorporation of the Merchant Venturers' Society by Edward VI. in December, 1552, this body acquired the desecrated Chapel of St. Clement (which had been built about half a century earlier by a fraternity of mariners), intending to use the building as their hall, and before October, 1561, they had erected, on an adjoining plot of ground, an almshouse for the for the reception of aged or impotent seamen. Most of the early records of the Society having perished, it is impossible to discover how arrangements were effected for maintaining

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this institution; but by some means the Merchants' Company were empowered to collect two small imposts to be presently described, and to extend their benevolent operations. Addressing the Mayor and Aldermen on the date given above, the Privy Council state that they have been informed that in time past an almshouse was erected in Bristol for the relief of aged and infirm sailors, which was maintained by the levying of 1½d. per ton on goods, and one penny in the pound on sailors' wages, which imposts also supported a free school for sailors' children, and afforded a yearly stipend to a minister at Shirehampton Chapel for edifying the crews of the ships lying at Hungroad. It being understood that this laudable and godly order was being withstood by some, especially by those going on fishing voyages to Newfoundland, to the impoverishment of the hospital, the Privy Council required the Mayor and Aldermen to assist the collectors in gathering the dues from those attempting to evade them.

The years from 1594 to 1597 were marked by disastrous harvests, and the distress amongst the poor of Bristol, great from the beginning of the dearth, increased to an appalling extent before its close.

A singular story concerning John Whitson's trading operations during this period is related in Adams' local chronicle, which states that the Mayor and Aldermen in November, 1595, foreseeing the probability of a great rise in the price of grain, commissioned Whitson to buy 3,000 quarters of Dantzic rye. He consequently went to London and made a contract for that quantity at 28s. per quarter, to be delivered in the following May. Subsequently the civic rulers repudiated the arrangement, declined to be responsible for more than half of the grain, throwing the risk of the other moiety on Whitson, and laid upon him

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half the expense (over £8) incurred in making the bargain. But when the cargoes arrived in July the prospect of another bad harvest had raised the price of rye to 44s. per quarter, showing an enormous profit on the adventure, whereupon the worshipful Aldermen entreated Whitson to surrender his share of the gain, and offered him £50 for his trouble. Adams goes on to say that Whitson, being a good-natured man, consented to this cool proposition; but the writer practically contradicts himself on this point, for he adds that the Corporation, after a gratis distribution of some pecks and half-bushels amongst the poor, sold the bulk of the corn at 48s. per quarter, and thereby cleared £774, whereas the profit must have been at least double that amount. The Mayor's Kalendar alleges that the corporate gain was £700, part of which was expended in obtaining the Act for confirming the customs of the Orphans' Court (already referred to). That Act cannot have been very costly, and it is not a little remarkable that not a trace of the funds derived from this early exploit in municipal trading is to be found in the civic accounts, with the exception of a payment of £7 to Whitson for his charges for a journey to London to buy rye for this city. The foreign supplies, however, were soon consumed, and in the closing months of the year the scarcity amounted to an actual famine, one chronicler recording that wheat rose for a time to the almost incredible price of 160s. per quarter. The Privy Council ordered the authorities of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire to permit corn to be sent down the Severn to Bristol for the relief of the inhabitants, and similar mandates were subsequently addressed to the justices of Wilts and Somerset. The Mayor's Kalendar states that the executors of Robert Kitchin distributed £66 weekly out of his estate

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amongst the suffering poor, but the most notable measure for relief was adopted by the Corporation, who ordered that the Mayor, the Aldermen, and every burgess “of any worth” should daily give, according to their respective means, one meal of meat to from two to eight destitute people, whereby all were saved from starving or rioting.

In February, 1596, Queen Elizabeth revived the unpopular impost of ship money, for the alleged purpose of defending the English Channel against the Spanish warships and Dunkirk privateers then ravaging English commerce. The demand made on Bristol was for three ships fully manned and provisioned, the outlay being estimated at £2,500. But of this sum Somerset was to contribute £600, the city of Gloucester (drawing £40 from Tewkesbury) £200, the city of Worcester £40, Shrewsbury £66, and Cardiff £40. In the mandate imposing the burden the Government ordered the Mayor and Aldermen not to extort more from those contributories than the sums specified. They were further directed to assemble all the able-bodied seamen in the port, and to impress as many of them as would be required to man the vessels.

These requirements extorted a wail from the Corporation, who, in a piteous supplication for relief addressed to the Privy Council, set forth the depressed condition of local commerce. The city, it was asserted, had become so poor that it was unable to bear the proposed burden. Londoners had not only monopolised its old and profitable trade with Southern Europe, but they had, through their riches, acquired the internal trade of the kingdom to within ten miles of Bristol, whose merchants could not gain by any possible adventure. Spanish commerce had once employed twenty or thirty tall ships here; but King Philip's embargo and English reprisals had reduced this

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fleet to eight or ten small vessels. Such laden ships as now entered the Avon mostly belonged to strangers, who would not export Bristol goods, “whereby manufacturers are towards an utter overthrow”. The chief merchants of the city, having lost hope, had retired from business and retired into the country, whilst the meaner sort had spent what they had, or were trading without advantage. Londoners, in short, had monopolised everything. “The eagle followeth the carcase, and no wonder the enemy so often falls upon them. But that they, wealthy and strong, should meanly press the Queen and our poor purses to secure their own gains is surely a great wonder”. The Privy Council, doubtless believing that these complaints were exaggerated - although they unquestionably were based on a sound substratum of truth - refused to abate their demands. Whereupon the Corporation, by levying a rate upon the inhabitants, succeeded in meeting the Queen's requirements, in despite of the Somerset gentry withholding their quota, and the three ships fully equipped joined the Royal Navy, and took part in the memorable sack of Cadiz. One of them was commanded by John Hopkins, merchant, elected Mayor in 1600.

On their return, when the crews were paid off, the Corporation made a fresh appeal to the Privy Council, representing that Bristol merchants had lost £12,000 by disasters at sea during the previous three years, and complaining that Somerset had obstinately evaded the contribution imposed upon it. The Government, expressing great satisfaction at the exertions of the citizens, sent a strong remonstrance to the county authorities against their unpatriotic lethargy, but the gentry still sought to escape the charge by preserving a policy of silence. After a year's delay the Council sent down a

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more imperative mandate, which produced nothing save a lamentation over agricultural distress, which was common to all parts of the kingdom. The Council next instructed Lord Chief Justice Popham to “persuade” the gentry to do their duty at the following assizes, and as Popham was presented soon afterwards with a butt of sack by the Corporation, it is probable that his remonstrances had a satisfactory result.

Some of the proceedings of the Common Council about this time were of a strangely reactionary character. During the early years of Elizabeth's reign the mediaeval corporate laws debarring strangers from settling and carrying on trade in the city were so far relaxed that persons of that class were permitted to become freemen on the payment of moderate fines, and were known as “redemptioners.” Though the reform must have tended to promote the general prosperity of the port, it was, of course, obnoxious to those selfishly animated by the old spirit of monopoly, and their jealousy seems at length to have permeated the civic body. On February 22nd, 1596, a corporate ordinance was passed absolutely forbidding any “foreign” merchant or trader to be admitted a burgess, either by redemption or on petition. An exception was made as regards artificers or men pursuing a manual occupation, but the qualifications of such applicants were to be carefully investigated by a special committee, the members of which were to be fined £100 if they contravened the true purpose of the ordinance. Even for mechanics the door of admission was rigidly guarded, for another ordinance of a few months previous date imposed a fine of 6s. 8d. per week upon every craftsman wha employed a foreign or stranger workman bringing a wife or children into the city.

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Some illustrations were given in a previous chapter of the piratical raids of English merchant ships against the commerce of foreign nations with whom the country was at peace. Another local case of a revolting character is recorded in the Privy Council minutes dated June 24th, 1596. In a warrant addressed to all the maritime officers of the Crown throughout the realm, the Council stated that they had been informed of a notable outrage committed by Thomas Webb, captain of the ship Minion, of Bristol [one of the Armada ships], upon a Dantzic vessel returning home with a cargo from Lisbon. Webb had cruelly tortured the master and sailors, carried off the entire cargo, and despoiled the ship of her anchors and cables, whereby she was wrecked, and all on board were drowned. As the owners could obtain no redress, because Webb had sailed to Southampton and Bristol, where sundry of the inhabitants got possession of the plundered goods, and retained them under pretence of the Admiralty privileges of the two towns, the Crown officials were commanded to seize and sequester the merchandise, to stay the ship Minion for the better satisfaction of the aggrieved merchants, and to arrest and imprison Webb and his accomplices until they gave bail to stand their trial for the crime. Webb appears to have escaped, and his subordinates were long concealed through the connivance of sympathisers. In January, 1597, the Privy Council addressed a severe rebuke to the Mayor of Bristol, who, after the offenders had been arrested, had audaciously presumed to liberate three of them, although they were officers of the Minion, and Webb's chief instruments. The Mayor was ordered to immediately recapture them, and to make them offer bail. The record of the trial has unluckily perished. It would be interesting to know whether Captain Webb was

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in any way connected with Alderman John Webb, who became Mayor of the city in the following September.

In the autumn of 1596, when the city was suffering under the terrible famine already noted,[7] the difficulties of the authorities were greatly increased by the arrival of large bodies of troops on their way to Ireland, who had to be lodged and fed whilst awaiting a favourable wind. The Government sought to alleviate the distress by directing the justices of Monmouth and Glamorganshire to facilitate the transport of grain from those counties to Bristol, but the relief can hardly have been important. The Corporation on this occasion claimed 8d. per day from the Privy Council for the diet of each soldier, and 10s. per head for their transport to the sister island, sums greatly in excess of the customary rates, and which led to an angry protest and demand for abatement on the part of the Council. The result does not appear. Having regard to the unprecedented price of bread, the charge for food does not seem excessive; but the passage money certainly appears exorbitant. Only eighteen months later the Chamberlain shipped off sixty-six Irish beggars to their own country at a cost of one shilling per head for the voyage.

The vast extent of business transacted at the celebrated Bristol fair is indicated by an entry in the Privy Council minutes for January, 1597. A large number of London tradesmen regularly attended the fair, bringing vast stocks of goods, and one of them, a mercer, sought the help of the Council at the above date, alleging that his servants, on returning home, were robbed of £1,700, besides bills and notes. At the fair in 1590 a party of Irish merchants brought such extensive cargoes of rugs and other material that they overstocked the market. Being unwilling to

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carry the goods back again, and the corporate laws forbidding strangers to open a shop, they made a bargain with the Chamberlain, and paid a fine of £5 “for liberty to sell to all foreigners for three days, after that the citizens had first bought of them for three days before”. “Foreigners” were, of course, residents outside the city boundaries.

The Virgin Queen's last favourite, the brilliant but giddy-headed Earl of Essex, paid a visit to the city in March, 1597, probably during a West-country tour. His lordship's position at Court being well known, preparations were made for his reception, including the “cleansing of the streets of filth” and decorating the High Cross; and a sumptuous entertainment awaited him at Mr. Haviland's mansion in Small Street. On January 13th, 1599, soon after the death of Lord Burghley, the Corporation's invariable desire to secure a powerful friend in the Royal Palace led to a hasty appointment that had to be regretted at leisure. The first entry in the earliest civic minute book that has come down to us records the election at the above date of the Earl of Essex, Earl Marshal, as High Steward of Bristol “in as ample a manner as the office was heretofore held”. A patent embellished with silk and gold thereupon received the common seal, and the Chamberlain was hurried off to London to present it to his lordship, and to order a fine carving of the earl's arms for the decoration of the Council House. Before the ornament had been received, the earl's star had begun to wane, through his own wilfulness and incapacity, and a puerile seditious outbreak a few months later brought his head to the block on Tower Hill. Even before this catastrophe the Corporation recognised its blunder, and began its search for a more stable patron. It first besought the friendship of the

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Queen's cousin and chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, to whom a costly present of claret, “hullock”, and sugar loaves was respectfully forwarded. Eventually, however, the civic rulers turned their devotions towards a more powerful minister, the Lord Treasurer Buckhurst, and tendered him a still larger token of homage. On the execution of Essex, Buckhurst, of course, succeeded to the vacant High Stewardship.

Notes:
[7] Vide ante, p. 107.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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