Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter II.

Corporate revenue in sixteenth century - Position and duties of Sheriffs; an expensive post; reduction of their liabilities - Surrender by Corporation of right to levy toll; enters into possession of considerable estates formerly belonging to religious houses - Friary buildings converted into quarries - Difficulties between Corporation and Temple Fee - Absorption of the latter by Bristol - Rapacity of Thomas Cromwell; appointed Recorder of Bristol - Newly invented office of High Steward conferred upon Duke of Somerset - Suppression of Bristol chantries; spoliation of the churches.

On a cursory examination of the corporate account books in the middle of Henry VIII.'s reign, the income and expenditure of the civic body appear to be marvellously insignificant as compared with the importance and reputation of the port and borough. In the year ending Michaelmas, 1536, for example, the total receipts of the Chamberlain (Treasurer) are stated to have been £186 8s. 11⅔d., whilst his outlay was no more than £161 10s. 1d. Further examination, however, reveals the fact that this official was the recipient of little more than the waifs and strays of the corporate revenue, and that the chief financial business was in the hands of the Sheriffs, whose accounts have not been preserved in the Council House. The true state of affairs is revealed in an elaborate document addressed to the all powerful minister, Cardinal


Wolsey, by William Dale, one of the Sheriffs elected in 1518, complaining of the manner in which he and his colleague, like all previous Sheriffs, had been victimised by the Common Council. According to the detailed figures which he set forth (which must be multiplied by twelve to represent the currency of modern days), the shrieval income, including £60 received from the Chamber, was £232 10s. 8d.

On the other hand, the Sheriffs were required to pay the fee-farm of the town, yearly due to the Crown, which with subsidiary expenses amounted to £172; to furnish the Mayor with his “pension” of £20; to provide his worship with a splendid robe of scarlet and fur, wine, minstrels, and many other items, costing altogether £37; to disburse all the charges for watches, wrestlings, bear-baitings, and Christmas drinkings referred to in the previous chapter, which, with other like matters, involved an outlay of over £46; to pay the salaries of the Recorder, Town Clerk, Town Steward, Town Attorney, Priest of St. George's Chapel, porters of the town gates, and minor corporate officials, and to bedeck the whole of them with robes, at a total outlay of over £100; to defray the cost of the Sessions, £12; to pay the wages of the members of Parliament for the city when at Westminster, 2s. per day each; to keep in order St. Nicholas' clock; to give doles to the four orders of Friars, &c.; the aggregate outlay amounting to over £378. Mr, Dale and his companion were thus out of pocket £146, exclusive of £240 alleged to be “both Sheriffs' expenses and costs of household, and the apparel of them and their wives”.

The Common Council were highly indignant at these revelations, and warmly protested that the expenditure of the Sheriffs was in accordance with ancient custom, and


that the charges, alleged to be partly exaggerated and partly due to “high and prodigal minds”, might well be borne by prosperous men in consideration of the worshipful dignity conferred upon them. The Cardinal, nevertheless, commanded a reform of the system; and in 1519 the Corporation, doubtless much against its will, made new arrangements. The allowance of £60 to the Sheriffs was discontinued; but the dues derived from shipping entering the port, then amounting to nearly £83, were thenceforth to be received by the Sheriffs, together with the tolls collected at the town gates, £57. Their customary income derived from the great St. James's Fair, £23; from law fines and forfeitures, £30; and £12, the profits of the gaol (for, strange to say, the gaol was a profitable institution) were to be retained, and a few trifling items raised the shrieval income to £215. As regarded expenditure, the Sheriffs were relieved from the expense of the Mayor's “pension” and robes, and from the wages (but not from the robes) of the Recorder and city officers, whilst a few charges for wrestlings, drinkings, &c., were also transferred to the Chamber, their total expenditure being thus cut down to £273, being still an excess over income of £58. Subsequent Sheriffs must nevertheless have been grateful to Mr. Dale and the Cardinal.

The custom of demanding toll at the town gates on goods entering or leaving a fortified borough was originally established for the purpose of maintaining the walls, and was probably universal in the Middle Ages. Even to the present day the Corporation of Newcastle[2] derives a great yearly income from this source, and the proceeds of the octroi at Paris meet the ordinary outlay of the municipality. The system, however, was very unpopular in


Bristol, and the complaints of the inhabitants eventually culminated in scenes of violence. In 1546 a happy thought suggested itself to some worthy citizen, and was received with general applause. As need hardly be stated, the then recent suppression of the monasteries had led to the seizure by the Crown of an almost fabulous amount of wealth in the shape of gold and silver plate, many cart-loads of such treasure having been secured at Canterbury, Durham and York, and vast quantities in the wealthier abbeys. In the year just named the Government had already turned a covetous eye on the chantries in the cathedrals and parish churches, which with many “free chapels” were upwards of 2,300 in number, and there was ample reason for suspecting that the churches themselves - which were richly stored with valuables in the shape of processional crosses, monstrances, incense boxes, thuribles, and eucharistic vessels - would not long escape spoliation. Now the Corporation had succeeded in obtaining from the King in 1540 an extensive grant of the estates of the dissolved religious houses, and a further grant in 1544 of properties in Bristol to be referred to presently, but had been forced to borrow the purchase moneys, £1,790, and was in painful financial straits. The propounder of the brilliant idea just referred to suggested that the parochial vestries should offer the Corporation a quantity of plate sufficient to pay off a large portion of its liabilities, on condition of its surrendering its rights to levy tolls. The proposal having been approved by fourteen out of the seventeen city parishes, and eagerly accepted by the Common Council, the accounts of the Sheriffs for the previous ten years were examined to ascertain the amount received at the gates, and also the sum collected in the shape of dues on victuals and grain


of all kinds, wool, yarn and flannel brought to the quays by ships. In the result, a net sum of £44 per annum was settled upon as adequate compensation to be paid by the Council to the Sheriffs for the abolition of the tolls and dues. The fourteen vestries thereupon produced plate to the value of £523 10s. 8d., taking security from the Corporation to be borne harmless in case the treasure should be thereafter claimed by the Crown.

By the aid of this handsome gift the civic body overcame its pecuniary embarrassments, and entered into full possession of the estates of Gaunt's Hospital (save the rich manor of Pawlett, in Somerset), the Bristol houses of the Grey and Carmelite Friars, the manor of Hamp, formerly belonging to Athelney Abbey, and a slice of land, previously the property of the Magdalene Nunnery, on St. Michael's Hill, for all which the Crown had received £1,000, and also of the Bristol properties still to be described. (The country estates of Gaunt's Hospital were sold in 1836 for nearly £60,000. Colston Hall and the property in the rear, including the Red Lodge, represent the site of the Carmelite Friary.) On June 14th, 1546, a formal agreement was drawn up between the Corporation and “the discreet and loving burgesses”, whereby it was declared that, after due deliberation of the disquietness created by the tolls, the perjuries and blasphemies caused by them, and the evil slanders against the city thereby arising, and in further consideration of the future good of the city and of those resorting to it, all the gates should be thenceforth freed from all manner of tolls, and that no shipping dues should be levied on the goods and wares mentioned above. The relief from an oppressive burden was proclaimed at the High Cross amidst general rejoicing.


Not the slightest allusion is to be found in the corporate account books to the purchases from the Crown or to the contributions of the parishes. The transactions were doubtless dealt with in a separate volume, since lost. Certain “church plate”, probably from St. Mark's Church (Mayor's Chapel) was carried to the Council House, in order to be “sent to London”, and 16d. was spent “for beer, ale and wine”, drank when the plate was counted and packed into baskets for the carrier. But no time was lost in turning the acquired property to account. The Friary buildings were at once converted into quarries. “Paid two men for choosing out of the Friars certain paving stones to pave withal, 2s. 6d.” Hundreds of sledge loads of stone, including chimney pieces and other ornamental work were afterwards drawn from thence for building purposes. As the gross rents of the monastic estates amounted to £266 in 1548, when they make their first appearance in the audit book, it is clear that the purchase produced an enormous return from the outset.

The second royal grant to the Corporation was of much less value than the first, but it definitely settled a controversy that had been a chronic trouble for many generations. Early in the twelfth century, Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester, lord of the great manor of Bedminster, which then extended to Bristol Bridge, granted to the Order of Templars a portion of the borough of Redcliff, which severed portion was thenceforth known as Temple Fee. On the ruthless destruction of the Templars in the reign of Edward II. this Fee was part of the estate which the King conferred on the knights of St. John of Jerusalem, and formed part of their preceptory of Temple Combe. The new owners, like their predecessors, were empowered to hold their own courts, to execute felons,


and to exercise all other feudal privileges in their domains, independent of the ordinary authorities. When Redcliff became incorporated with Bristol, the attempts of the Corporation to extend their jurisdiction over Temple Fee, which seems to have become a refuge for outlaws, was strongly resisted by order of the non-resident knights, and civic officials pursuing malefactors appear to have frequently returned with empty hands and broken heads. In 1532, when the contest for jurisdiction was in one of its acute stages, a member of the Order, styled “the Knight of Rodys” (Rhodes) in the corporate accounts, paid a visit to Bristol to discuss the matter, and was entertained by the city with two gallons of wine and a quantity of sweetmeats, without anything being gained by the expenditure.

No settlement being effected, the respective parties appealed to the King, the Prior of St. John, who had a seat in the House of Lords, alleging that Temple Street, as part of the Fee, enjoyed liberty of sanctuary for felons and murderers, and that his tenants there had a right to buy and sell though not burgesses of Bristol, claiming also to hold courts, and to have the return and execution of writs, all which privileges were denied by the Corporation. The King referred the dispute to two of the superior judges, who, after hearing evidence, adjudged in 1535 that the civic officers had a right to arrest felons in the Fee and to execute writs, but postponed their decision on other points. Troubles with the military monks came to a summary end in 1541, when their possessions were confiscated. In 1544 the Corporation petitioned the King for a grant of the lands, quit-rents, &c., of the Fee, and the advowson of Temple Church, estimating the yearly value at £14 7s. 11d. They also prayed to be granted the estate in Bristol, then


lately belonging to Viscount Lisle,[3] but fallen into the King's hands, the annual value being estimated at £57 8s. 3d. His Majesty acceded to the request, and granted both the estates in consideration of a payment of £789 17s. 10d. The above estimates of value are shown to have been pretty accurate by the civic audit book for 1548, in which the properties make their first appearance. The rents had produced £94, reduced to about £68 by outlay for repairs.

The corporate estates were not secured by a simple payment of the King's demands for their concession. The civil government of the country, after the fall of Wolsey, fell into the hands of Thomas Cromwell, whose insatiable rapacity was phenomenal even in his own time. The astonishing results are to be read in the State Papers of the reign. It came to be universally understood that any claim, however just, and any petition, however reasonable, addressed to the despotic monarch was doomed to certain rejection unless favoured by the Minister, and that such favour was hopeless unless purchased by a bribe. A golden stream flowing from all ranks accordingly set in, and yearly increased.

John Talbot
Created Viscount Lisle. Eldest heir
general of Thomas, fourth Lord Berkeley.11
daughter and coheiress of Thomas Cheddar,
heir of a wealthy Bristol family. 13
second Viscount, killed at the
battle of Nibley Green, 1469.
Died without issue.31
Elizabeth Talbot 32
Edward Grey
second son of Lord Grey
of Groby. Created
Viscount Lisle. Ob. 1491.33
John Grey
Viscount Lisle. Ob. 1512. By
his wife Myriel, daughter of
the Earl of Surrey, left an only
child, Elizabeth, who died
without issue.51
Elizabeth Grey
heiress of her niece.52
1st, Edmund Dudley.
2nd, Arthur Plantagenet,
bastard son of Edward IV.
Created Viscount Lisle 1533.
Ob. 1541 without issue.53
John Dudley
Created Viscount Lisle 1542.
Sold the Bristol estates same
year to Henry VIII. Created
Duke of Northumberland 1551.
Executed 1553.73


Even before the monasteries were threatened, abbots and priors vied with each other in showering gratifications on the dreaded Secretary. When they fell, and the Court was besieged by innumerable suitors for a share in the gigantic spoil, the flood of money that poured into the Vicar-General's coffers must have astounded even himself. (A characteristic example of his unscrupulousness occurred shortly before his fall. In August, 1539, Gwylliams, the last abbot of St. Augustine's, transmitted him a bribe of £100 to secure the Royal confirmation to that office, which he was forced to surrender only four months later.) The Corporation of Bristol took a just measure of Cromwell's character at an early date. In 1533, the office of Recorder falling vacant, it was conferred upon the Secretary as a sinecure, bringing in £20 a year, and securing his countenance, which was the one thing needful. It may be safely assumed that a larger gratification had to be offered to him when the negotiation was opened for the Gaunt estates, but the records have disappeared. The Royal grant had passed the Great Seal only a few weeks when Cromwell, having served his master's purposes, met with the customary fate of Tudor instruments. The following entries occur in the civic account book for 1540:-

“Paid to the Lord Privy Seal by the hands of Mr. Davy Broke, Recorder, £20”. [Note by the Auditors] “Forasmuch the £20 charged paid to the Lord Essex, late Recorder, for his fee due to him at the Feast of the Nativity, 1540, which accustomally was used to be then paid at won [sic] time, and for that this said Lord of Essex was beheaded before the said feast in the said year, we the Auditors find that the £20 ought not to be allowed in this account”.

How this little difficulty was settled does not appear.


The fall of Cromwell was followed by the rise of another ignoble and greedy tool of despotism, Edward, brother of Queen Jane Seymour, created Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset, who afterwards usurped the place of Lord Protector. Seymour had Bristol blood in his veins, and the Corporation, with its usual predilection for a powerful friend at Court, invented the office of Lord High Steward, endowed it with a yearly fee of £4, and presented it to the rising luminary. Soon after the death of Henry VIII., Somerset and his myrmidons laid hands on the chantries in the manner narrated in the previous chapter, and the Protector paid a visit to Bristol to watch local operations. His inquisitorial commissions reached the city about the same time, and were profusely entertained by the Corporation, which, with a sharp eye for contingencies, presented the Lord High Steward with his “fee”, accompanied by two butts of wine, and paid the charges of his retinue. The results proved highly satisfactory. The chantries with all their estates and effects were, of course, entirely swallowed up. The Merchant Venturers' Chapel of St. Clement, the Weavers' Chapel of St. Catherine, the Tailors' Chapel of St. John, and Knapp's Chapel on the Back were suppressed, and their contents confiscated. Services at the Chapel of St. George in the Guildhall were stopped, and the image of the patron saint was torn down. The Chapel of the Three Kings of Cologne at Christmas Steps and Trinity Chapel in the Old Market, both attached to almshouses, of which the Corporation were trustees, were not included in the sale of the chantry estates. The Commissioners, however, decreed that they were the property of the Crown, and ordered the confiscation of so much of each of the hospital estates as was equivalent in yearly value


to the stipend of each of the dispossessed chaplains (about £6). This decision appears to have been long overlooked. But it was discovered in 1577 by two legal sharpers, who forthwith procured a grant of the two chapels and the reserved lands from Queen Elizabeth. The grantees then came down upon the Corporation, who were compelled to submit to their terms, and who paid them £66 13s. 4d. for a transfer of the Queen's conveyance.

The Chapel of St. Mary on Bristol Bridge, with the adjoining dwelling of the priest, was bestowed upon the corporate body, though the estates of the fabric went with the rest of the chantries. The transaction is recorded in the audit book:-

Paid to the King for the purchase of the site, with the Priest's Chamber, and the lead, with all the appurtenances belonging to the same£40
More to the King for the bells and all the vestments and implements£11

There were, however, large incidental expenses. Several journeys had to be made to London to get the grant passed in due form. The Lord Chancellor had to be paid for the patent, the Lord Privy Seal had to be feed for the signet, and gratuities had to be offered to Court underlings, scribes, and attorneys, the total expenditure being thereby raised to nearly £88. But, on the other hand, the proctors and auditors of the chapel paid over funds in hand (of which, it may be safely suspected, the royal agents had been kept in the dark) amounting in round figures to £55; the bells and implements sold for £11; and one, Mrs. Compton, paid £6 13s. 4d. “for the consideration that Sir Thomas, her kinsman, might be


admitted to the same service” - that is, be appointed chaplain, which he possibly was for life. The actual outlay by the Corporation was thus reduced to a few pounds. The chapel extended right across the bridge, being erected over an archway similar to that of St. John's Church in Broad Street.

In 1553 another gang of spoliators was nominated by the Government to confiscate the plate of all the churches in the kingdom, and Bristolians had good reason to congratulate themselves on their proceedings in 1546. With the exception of two small chalices in the Cathedral, and one in each of the parish churches, which were ordered “safely and surely to be kept for the King's Majesty's use”, every precious article was carried off, together with most of the parochial bells. (The Cathedral was deprived of five great bells and nearly 130 tons of lead roofing.) The returns as to the quantity of plate actually seized have perished, but some conception of the total may be arrived at by recorded facts relating to St. Nicholas' Church. When the parochial gifts were made to procure the freedom of the gates this church possessed 694 ounces of silver ornaments, and the vestry contributed £46 15s., which, at 5s. 6d. per ounce, the current value of silver bullion, would represent 170 ounces. The Commissioners therefore swept off the remaining 524 ounces, less one chalice of 15 ounces, left to the parish. As regards All Saints' Church, a document is in existence proving that 420 ounces were taken thence to the Bristol Mint. These were probably the two wealthiest parishes in the city; but even the little parish of St. Leonard was despoiled of 222 ounces, and it may be fairly assumed that the aggregate spoil from the Cathedral and the seventeen parochial churches must have reached about 5,000 ounces


of silver, to say nothing of the value of the lead and bells. The plate was probably removed to the local mint and converted into base money, the shillings coined by Sharington being intrinsically worth about threepence.

[2] The collection of the Thorough Toll, Newcastle-on-Tyne, will cease on August 5 th, 1910.
[3] Derivation of the civic estate known as “Lord Lisle's Lands”.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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