Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter I.

Bristol in the early sixteenth century - Description of the town - Surrounded by religious houses - Numerous public holidays - Endowments, chantries and obits - Religious and secular pageants - St. Catherine's Eve - Shooting and wrestling competitions in the Marsh {Queen Square) - Play-actors and bear-keepers - Bear-baiting and bull-baiting - Feast of St. Nicholas; ceremony of the boy-bishop - Public executions - Christmas festivities.

Perhaps it may not be uninteresting to readers with some taste for local history to give a few facts from authentic records respecting the life and doings of Bristolians in the far-off days of Henry VIII. The most important of these records are the account books of the Corporation, which commence in 1531; but they can be supplemented and illustrated by various other contemporary documents, and some of the contrasts that can thus be made between the social customs of the sixteenth and of the twentieth centuries may prove at least amusing, if not instructive.

The transcendent circumstance which differentiates the Bristol which saw the accession of Henry from the city of to-day is the religious faith of the inhabitants. Roman Catholicism, at the former period, had reached the climax of its magnificence. It was the Church both of


the State and of the people, and there was not a whisper of dissent, for nonconformity was punishable with a cruel death. The young King was a fervent devotee, and an amateur theologian, and his book against Luther gained for him from the Pope, in 1521, the proud title of Defender of the Faith. A very few years sufficed to work revolutionary changes, but it may be worth while to endeavour to form an idea of what was really the local situation at the date that has just been named.

The town - for it had not become a city - was extremely limited in area, and does not appear to have much increased in population during the previous two hundred years, having in the meanwhile been frightfully ravaged by the Black Death and the Plague. It may be broadly described as being bounded by Dolphin Street and Temple Street on the east, the course of the Froom along Broadmead to St. Augustine's Back on the north and west, and the town wall between Redcliff and Temple Gates on the south.

Around all this boundary line were institutions, independent of corporate jurisdiction. The Royal Castle, with its extensive fortified precincts, and the church and monastic buildings of the Black Friars, lay on the east. The Priory of St. James, and its adjoining farm lands, covered a vast space on the north. The Grey Friary, the Nunnery of St. Mary Magdalene, the Hospital of St. Bartholomew, the Carmelite Friary, the Hospital of the Gaunts, and the Abbey of St. Augustine, each enclosing wide areas around their respective churches and houses, entirely surrounded the north-western side of the borough, while the Hospital of St. John the Baptist and the Augustinian Friary, lying to the south, continued the circuit to Temple Fee, belonging to the military monks of


St. John, who repudiated the civic jurisdiction claimed by the Corporation. There was thus no room for suburbs outside the walls, even if there had been a desire for them; but there is no evidence to show that the townsfolk felt any objection to the ecclesiastical circumvallation. Many of their wills attest rather their satisfaction at the multitude of their ghostly comforters. A few years later seven of the monkish churches around the city had been swept away, and half of two others was demolished; but though there was a rush to get a share of the royal plunder, few additional dwellings were reared on the vacant sites until a much later date.

Another peculiarity arising from the then national faith was the remarkable number of public holidays. A chronicler of the fifteenth century observed that in the agricultural districts the aggregate number of holidays accounted for eight weeks in every year. The total can hardly have been so large in trading towns, but it was still very notable. Great church festivals, called Red Letter Days, were of frequent occurrence, when attendance at morning service was obligatory, and as business of all kinds was suspended for “a general procession” of the civic body, it is unlikely that much work was done in the afternoon. Many wealthy Bristolians, again, had bequeathed large sums for the establishment of what were called chantries in the parish churches, where, in addition to daily prayers for the founders' souls by the chaplain or chaplains supported by each endowment, a grand anniversary service, called an Obit, was held yearly, attracting a vast attendance of all classes.

In 1548, when these endowments were seized for the profit of the Crown, an inquiry was held in Bristol by the


Royal Commissioners to ascertain the value of the local estates. The amount reported by them was probably grossly underestimated, for one of the inquisitors, a notorious gambler (afterwards hanged) named Partridge, forestalled all would-be purchasers by obtaining from his employers, the Government, a grant of the entire property en bloc; while a congenial colleague, Sir William Sharington, master of the Bristol Mint, who confessed in the following year to having committed enormous frauds in coining base money, lent Partridge the purchase money, and took fully one-half of the spoil as his own reward. Even if the value of the estates were justly rendered, the total, £360 per annum, was equivalent to ten times that amount in modern currency. The chantries of Evrard le French and William Canynges in St. Nicholas and Redcliff Churches were returned as of the yearly value of over £33 each, and supported four priests, who had no other duties to perform. A rich merchant, named Knapp, not only founded a chantry with two priests, but built a special chapel for it, dedicated to St. John, on the Welsh Back, the site of which is now[1] a little playground. About twenty other chantries had at least one priest each, independent of the parish incumbents, and if we add about thirty friars, who held daily services in their four churches, but were all paid for taking part in “general processions”, the number of available clergymen in the town four hundred years ago, exclusive of the numerous monks in two large monasteries, must have far exceeded the staff of the ancient parishes in the present day.

It remains to be seen how these institutions affected public holidays. An anniversary Obit took place on the average about once in three weeks all the year round, and


potent means for securing the attendance of the townsfolk had been taken by the chantry founders. As a fair example of the general custom to secure the presence of the Mayor and Corporation in full state, the proctors of Hallewey's Chantry in All Saints' Church were directed to pay 6s. 8d. to the Mayor, 3s. 4d. to each of the Sheriffs, 1s. to the Town Clerk, 4d. to the Swordbearer, and 3d. each to the four civic sergeants, while, to allure the working classes, a silver penny was given to each of six hundred persons - about one-fifth of the adult population when the chantry was established, and when the daily wage of an unskilled labourer did not exceed the amount of the dole. It is not surprising that work came to a standstill when an attractive street spectacle was backed by the prospect of pecuniary profit.

Besides the Obits, there were various occasional pageants, some religious, some secular. About Whitsuntide the Guilds of Weavers and Cordwainers yearly went in pompous array to the Chapel of St. Anne-in-the-Wood, near Brislington, a spot greatly frequented by pilgrims, and more than once visited by Royalty, to place before the altar two gigantic candles, alleged by William of Worcester to have been of the somewhat incredible length of eighty feet each, and to have cost no less than £5 - equal to the quarterly “wages” of the Mayor. A few weeks before midsummer brought round the feast of Corpus Christi, one of the greatest holidays of the year. The members of every guild - and practically every Bristolian belonged to a guild - assembled with music, flags and banners to join in a splendid ecclesiastical procession through the streets, where the houses were decorated with tapestry, brilliant cloth, and garlands of flowers, and the afternoon was spent in the performance


in the open air of miracle plays, in which every craft claimed its special part, to the enjoyment of the whole community. The excitement caused by this festival can have scarcely subsided before the inhabitants were called upon to participate in the corporate parade, called the “Setting of the Watch” on Midsummer Eve.

In imitation of a similar ceremony in London, which cost an enormous sum yearly, the members of the chief trade companies - who emulated each other in the display of gay dresses, banners, burning “cressets” and torches, and in the supply of minstrels and musical instruments marched in procession through the streets, the proceedings terminating in morris dancing and various games, in which the populace participated. The Corporation left the chief expenditure of the day to be defrayed by the guilds, but provided 114 gallons of wine, presumably for the subsequent suppers of the companies - the weavers and tuckers receiving ten gallons each, whilst the remainder was distributed amongst the other twenty-six fraternities. When the streets were muddy, and they were rarely otherwise, the city treasurer also paid the cost of covering them with twenty or thirty tons of sand.

Another civic outlay of the day is somewhat puzzling. It would appear that the procession ended and the sports began upon Bristol Bridge, and to that spot a great quantity of nettles, cut down in the Marsh (Queen Square), were invariably transported beforehand at the corporate charge. The only plausible conjecture that can be suggested to explain this outlay is that the stinging plants were provided for a rough-and-tumble scuffle. Another “Setting of the Watch”, of a precisely similar character (nettles included), took place on St. Peter's Day in August.

The eve of St. Catherine, in November, was the most


notable festival of the weavers, then the leading and most numerous local handicraft. According to the Mayor's Kalendar, written about 1490, the Mayor and members of the Corporation, after having been entertained in the Weavers' Hall, near Temple Church, on spiced cake, bread and wine, “the cups merrily filled about the house”, returned to their homes, “ready to receive at their doors St. Katherine's players, making them to drink at their doors, and rewarding them for their plays”, which must thus have been performed in the open streets. A grand procession through all the thoroughfares took place on the following morning.

The Corporation also made provision for various outdoor sports. Extensive butts were maintained in the Marsh for the practice of archery, which was then obligatory on all capable of bearing arms, and the place was largely resorted to by bowmen on Sunday afternoons in the summer months. In July a day was set apart for wrestling matches in the Marsh, and another and more popular competition of the same sort, between townsmen and countrymen took place at Lawrencetide, in August, at Lawrence Hill, a prize of 6s. 8d. being given out of the city purse on each occasion. As the second display required the corporate body to march a mile into the country, a “modest quencher” became, of course, indispensable, and in 1532 the city fathers disposed of six and a half gallons of wine, costing 5s. 5d.; “more for bread, 1d., pears 2s. 4d.” The bill for wine and fruit slightly varied in subsequent years, but the penny for bread was a fixed quantity, whatever might be the consumption of liquor. In 1543 there was a slight hitch in the arrangements, explained in the accounts as follows:-


“Paid the wrestlers on both sides, 4s. The old custom was 6s. 8d., but for because the country side brought not a goose according to the old custom, therefore was paid but 4s. Spent upon them at Laffords Gate [to smooth matters over?], 4d.”

Soon after this wrestling competition the Worshipful Mayor and his brethren suspended business at the Tolzey, and gave themselves a holiday in order to enjoy the cheerful sport of fishing in the Froom, in the presence of crowds of spectators. As sometimes as much as 4s. were paid “to the men that went into the water”, a large staff must have been employed to drag the nets. The catch must also have been generally good, for on one occasion the Mayor was paid 10s. “because he did not go a-fishing”.

Other causes of distraction from work came from outside the city in the shape of travelling companies of play-actors and bear-keepers. The King and several noblemen maintained these parties of strangers, who were allowed to travel about the country when they were not required at Court, and were always welcome. In 1532 the Corporation gave 10s. to the players of Lord Lisle and 6s. 6d. to those of the Duke of Richmond, the King's illegitimate son, whom Henry once contemplated to proclaim heir to the throne. In the same year, from 3s. 4d. to 5s. each were bestowed on the bear-wards of the Duke of Suffolk, Lord Westmoreland, and the Duke of Richmond. Bear-baiting and bull-baiting were two of the most favourite “sports” of the age, and as, unlike the drama, they could be witnessed free of expense, every exhibition attracted thousands of working men.

The civic ceremony which seems the most extraordinary to modern ideas was that which took place on December


6th, the feast of St. Nicholas. At this festival a boy, doubtless one of the servitors of the parish priests, was solemnly instituted as a bishop, and having been clothed in episcopal vestments, delivered a sermon in St. Nicholas' Church, before the Mayor and Common Council, on whom he gravely pronounced his blessing. And then, says the Mayor's Kalendar, the spelling of which we modernise:-

“After dinner, the said Mayor, Sheriff, and their brethren to assemble at the Mayor's compter, there waiting the bishop's coming, playing the meanwhiles at dice; the town clerk to find them dice, and to have one penny of every raffle; and when the bishop is come thither, his chapel there to sing, and the bishop to give them his blessing; and then he and all his chapel to be served there with bread and wine. And so depart the Mayor, Sheriff, and their brethren to hear the bishop's evensong at St. Nicholas' Church”.

The ceremony of the boy bishop was of ancient date, and was practised in all parts of the kingdom. In 1299 Edward I. rewarded one of these mock prelates at Newcastle with a sum now equivalent to £40. But conceive the Bristol Council of our day solemnly assembled to receive a madrigal boy befigged as a bishop, whiling away their time with the dice box which the Town Clerk - on the look-out for his fee - had at hand for the Lord Mayor, and making four processions through the crowded streets to and from sham services at St. Nicholas!

It is perhaps hardly fair to include public executions in the list of holidays, and yet they unquestionably filled the streets with non-workers. They occurred once (and sometimes twice) every year as a certain issue of the sessions, and there was always a small payment for


“carrying the ladder to and from St. Michael's Hill”. There being no carts in Bristol, the unhappy convicts had to make their long journey from Newgate to Cotham on foot, and were swung off the ladder by the hangman.

Finally, during Christmas week, the lord of misrule was in full supremacy, and holiday keeping generally extended from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. A day or two before the festivities the Mayor, for the sake of public order, made public proclamation that no inhabitant, gentle or simple, should go about mumming with masked faces at night after the tolling of the curfew bell unless he carried a torch, lantern, candle, or sconce, and that no one should wear weapons by night or by day, on pain of fine or imprisonment. In a season of universal license it may be questioned whether much heed was paid to the regulations. It was the season of unlimited guzzling, the city magnates setting the example. By an ordinance of the Common Council in 1472, the Mayor's Christmas drinking was fixed to take place on St. Stephen's Day (December 26), the Sheriff's drinking on St. John's Day (December 27), the senior Bailiff's drinking on Innocents' Day (December 28), and that of the junior Bailiff on New Year's Day. “And on Twelfth Day to go to the Christmas drinking of the Abbot of St. Augustine as of old custom, if it be prayed by the Abbot and Convent”.

[1] 1902.   The playground has since been done away with.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library