Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter IV.

Bristol and feudalism - Interference of Anne Boleyn in Bristol affairs - Visit of Anne and Henry VIII. to Thornbury - Suppression of St. John's Hospital; unsuccessful attempt by Corporation to obtain possession - Trouble with Lord President of Welsh Marches; attempts to levy tribute from Bristol; his pretensions finally put an end to - Seizure of Bristol corn by Mayor of Gloucester - Persecution of Protestants in Bristol - Accession of Elizabeth - Bristol trained bands reorganised and given an independent commission - “Crying down” of the currency - Erection of turnstiles in Bristol - “Certificate for eating of flesh in Lent” granted to Corporation.

The sketch of corporate transactions down to the middle of the sixteenth century, given in the three previous chapters, has chiefly dealt with subjects relating to the internal affairs of the city. Before proceeding further, a few matters may be noticed in which the Common Council were acted upon by outside influences. Feudal privileges, for example, though decaying, were by no means extinct. There were still many manors in Gloucestershire in which the labouring population were serfs, attached to the soil they cultivated, and liable to be transferred with the soil from one owner to another. Many Bristolians living at the accession of Henry VIII. must have remembered that, less than thirty years previously Lord de la Waire, an opulent local landowner, had threatened to recover as one of his bondsmen a rich merchant, William Bird, who


had served the offices of Mayor and Sheriff of the town, his lordship claiming the right to treat the aged gentleman as a runaway beast, to take possession of his property, and to appropriate his family as “villeins”. Happily Mr. Bird was able to prove beyond dispute that though his grandfather had lived for some years on one of De la Warre's manors, where his children were born, his ancestors had dwelt in Birmingham as free men for many generations, and upon the Corporation taking action on behalf of a valued colleague, the peer found it prudent to abandon his claim. The threat was, in fact, preposterous, it being one of the immemorial privileges of Bristol that a countryman who had lived for a year and a day within the walls was a townsman, and entitled to permanent protection. The issue was recorded in the Great Red Book at the Council House by a “Remembrance, to be had in perpetual memory for a president to all slanderous persons having their tongues more prompter to speak wickedly than to say truth”.

Interference on the part of Royalty was a more serious matter. Queen Anne Boleyn, during the brief period of her favour, followed the example of the courtiers around her, who habitually sold what influence they possessed to those willing to buy it. In January, 1534, Her Majesty addressed what was practically a mandate to the Mayor and Corporation, requiring them to confer the next presentation of the Mastership of St. John's Hospital at Redcliff, of which they were patrons, upon two officers of her household and David Hutton, of Bristol, grocer, stating that they would appoint a fitting person when the office became vacant. The Corporation obeyed the command with great alacrity, the grant of the presentation to the Queen's nominees being made only four days after


the date of her letter. Whether Mr. Hutton, who was doubtless the prompter of the transaction, got his money's worth for his money is a matter of conjecture. He was a man of good position, and had served the office of Sheriff. Probably, in consequence of this transaction, the Common Council passed an ordinance in 1551, forbidding any member suing the Crown for any office in the gift of the city on pain of being dismissed and disfranchised. Before dealing with the fate of the Hospital a further reference must be made to the Queen.

In 1535 the King paid a visit to Thornbury Castle, one of the fine estates of the Duke of Buckingham, whose judicial murder a few years earlier had been mainly determined upon and ruthlessly perpetrated for the sake of cutting off a nobleman whose royal descent was a standing menace whilst there was no male heir to the Crown, and whose vast possessions aroused the greed of an unscrupulous despot. Henry was accompanied by his second consort, and they purposed to pay a visit to Bristol, but had to abandon that project through a deadly outbreak of the plague. The Corporation manifested much anxiety to propitiate their formidable Sovereign. Ten fat oxen and forty sheep were forwarded to plenish the Royal larder, and Queen Anne was presented with a massive gilt cup, containing 100 marks in gold, as the offering of “The Queen's Chamber”, the title proudly claimed for Bristol. The gay recipient then little imagined that she was within nine months of her doom.

Reverting to St. John's Hospital, it would appear that the mastership did not fall vacant until 1542, when one Bromefield, presumably Hutton's nominee, was appointed; but the institution was suppressed and its estates confiscated in March, 1544. The Corporation immediately


attempted to obtain a grant of the spoil. A deputation was sent up to Court, and the Members of Parliament rendered earnest assistance. The expenses of the Chamberlain during this negotiation appear in the audit book, and afford a striking illustration of the cheapness of travelling at that period. The officer and his man were absent fifteen days, and the total outlay for their maintenance and that of their horses at inns on the road and in London was 38s. 8d., being less than 1s.3½d. per day for each man and his horse. The hire of two horses cost 11s., or 4½d. per horse per day. The servant's wages were 5s., or 4d. per day, and a special breakfast for the city members “for their pains”, at a London tavern, cost 4½d. per head.

The corporate efforts were fruitless, the King giving the Hospital and all its belongings to his physician, George Owen. The worthy doctor, however, seems to have had some compunction in appropriating a charitable foundation, for in 1553 he granted the Corporation a ninety-nine years' lease of numerous houses in Bristol, and 130 acres of land at Chew Magna, formerly belonging to the Hospital in trust, to maintain ten additional inmates in Foster's Almshouses at a cost of about £15 a year. At a later date the Corporation purchased the fee simple of this estate from Owen's representative, and in recent years the rents have brought in £1,500 a year to the Charity Trustees, one-sixth of the proceeds being credited to Foster's Almshouses and the remainder to the Grammar School.

One of the most vexatious and most lasting outside troubles of the Corporation was the claim of the Lord President of the Welsh Marches to contributions from Bristol towards the expenditure of his Council. The


courts of this great official were held at Gloucester, Ludlow, or Wigmore Castles, and it was his custom to assume that this city was within his jurisdiction, and to summon the Mayor to wait upon him and render military service and tribute for the defence of the Marches. The first recorded instance of this preposterous demand occurs in 1542, when the Chamberlain paid fees to two pursuivants bringing “commands” of this character, but no response seems to have been returned. In 1551 a similar mandate was issued by Sir William Herbert, Lord President, in a more peremptory style, and after vainly seeking protection in London, the civic body sent a deputation to Ludlow to protest against the aggression. The result must have been unsatisfactory, for further appeals were forthwith made by the Corporation to the Royal Court. A butt of wine, costing £8 10s., was ordered to be sent to “the Duke's grace of Somerset”, and 33s. 4d. was paid for its carriage to London; sugar loaves were forwarded to a judge and two legal officials, and directions were given to the city delegates to inquire “whether Sir Henry had any such authority to direct any such commission sent to the Mayor, or that we were within his Principality of the Marches, and how London was served in this case”. The Lord Chancellor at length ordered the issue of a writ of oyer and terminer to settle the question, but there is no record of the result.

In 1558 renewed arbitrary injunctions of the President provoked the Corporation to vigorous resistance, and the Chamberlain was sent up to London with a “Supplication to Parliament”. What was more to the purpose in those days, a butt of “muscadel of Candia” was presented to the Lord Treasurer, whose secretaries and porters and various other underlings were duly “gratified”, and


£6 13s. was given to the Solicitor-General “for his counsel and friendship”. The Chamberlain was thereby enabled to return in triumph, bearing letters of rebuke to the President, which - submissive courtesy being no longer indispensable - were sent to Ludlow by a groom. Only four years later, however, in 1562, the claim was raised again in all its former extravagance, much to the indignation of the civic body. On this occasion, after a fruitless effort by the Chamberlain, from whom the President extorted 30s. for “harness, pikes, and other monyshyon”, the Mayor, John Pykes, and some of his brethren, went in some pomp to London, and spent money so freely, yet so judiciously, that, according to a minute in one of the Council House books, “the citizens were exempted from the Marches of Wales for ever, which before it was great trouble unto them”. The Mayor seized this opportunity to sue Queen Elizabeth for a charter granting additional privileges to the Corporation, and this effort, for the time unsuccessful, doubtless added to the civic outlay, which, owing to a widespread scattering of gratifications, including a black satin robe for the Lord Chief Justice, exceeded £200. Even after this crushing defeat, the Welsh officials had the audacity in 1586 to again assume suzerainty over Bristol; but a journey to Court of one of the legal advisers of the city, possibly aided by “gratuities”, put a final end to the Lord President's pretensions.

In times of scarcity the Common Council was accustomed to make purchases of corn for distribution amongst the poor at cost price, and had sometimes to go far afield for supplies. In 1531 a quantity of wheat was bought in the upper valley of the Severn, and was being brought down in boats, when, on reaching Gloucester, it was


seized by the Sheriffs by direction of the Mayor, who had it sold, and coolly retained the proceeds. The Bristol authorities thereupon appealed to the Court of Star Chamber, which forthwith ordered the Gloucester officials to deliver at Bristol within six weeks as much good wheat as they had appropriated, whilst the impudent Mayor was summoned to London to answer for his conduct, and he and his Sheriffs were mulcted in £6 13s. 4d. each, to be paid to the Corporation of Bristol.

The corporate audit books for the first three years of Mary's reign have disappeared, and we are consequently deprived of information respecting the attitude of the local authorities in reference to the religious reaction of the time. The expense of burning unhappy Protestants must have fallen upon the civic purse, but as the records are lost, it is impossible to determine the precise number of victims, on which the old calendar writers strangely disagree. If it be true, and it is probably only too true, that the officers who carried out the sentences, instead of taking dry faggots from the plentiful stores on the quays, bought green wood at Redland to increase the agony of the sufferers, let us hope that the Corporation were not responsible for this additional torture. The account book for 1557 shows that the King and Queen's players and those of the Earl of Oxford visited the city to offer diversions amidst the prevailing horrors, and that the former were paid 15s. and the latter 10s. for the entertainments. It also appears that the Corporation had revived the celebration of Spencer's Obit in accordance with the original trust; but this may have been due to compulsion; and the flight of two of the city ministers to escape persecution indicates that in Bristol, as in London, Protestant doctrines had taken a deep root.


The accession of Elizabeth, which put an end to the reign of terror, was hailed with rejoicings and bonfires, and still greater manifestations of joy took place at her coronation. “Paid as a reward to the parson and clerk to sing Te Deum, commanded by the Mayor, 2s.”, indicates that the Corporation refused to attend Mass at the Cathedral. The civic body soon after appealed to their new Sovereign for a confirmation of the city charters, and after some demur the petition was complied with, the huge patent entailing an outlay of about £50 in fees at Court.

The Government seems to have speedily taken a new departure in reference to the armed forces of this and other cities. The annual muster of the trained bands had been previously a mere form. In 1561, after some rusty old armour had been put in order at the expense of the Chamber, twenty “gunners” were dressed in uniforms, provided with gunpowder, paid 6s. 8d. each as “conduct money”, and ordered off to take part in the general muster of Gloucestershire. Four civic visits were paid to Lord Chandos, Lord Lieutenant, in the course of the year, and he was presented with four hogsheads of wine. The inclusion of the Bristol force in that of the county, however, was regarded as derogatory. The Chamberlain was despatched to London to plead the privileges of the city, and by liberal presents to the proper officials, including a butt of sack to the Earl of Pembroke, Lord High Steward of Bristol, the messenger succeeded in obtaining a pledge that the city should henceforth receive an independent commission. Thereupon, “12 ells of sarsenet, red, blue and yellow” - the city colours - were bought in London for £3 5s. to make a grand “ensign” for the troopers, which was decorated with “two buttons of gold, and tassells


to hang at the top”, and two drums were purchased to give a martial tone to the music of the city waits. All preparations being completed, the next year's muster of the trained bands took place in the Marsh before the Mayor and Corporation, who dispensed £4 i6s. 8d. in gratifications to the captains, ensign-bearer, and other officers. The force was strong, having regard to the population, for in 1570 the Chamberlain laid out more than £65 in purchasing “8 score cassocks (with laced sleeves), and 8 score breeches, for 8 score soldiers”. Iron corslets and hand guns - then just coming into vogue - for twenty men were also stored in the Guildhall. After this reorganisation the saturnalia of the Watch Nights became less popular; and in 1572 the Corporation laid out a large sum for “harness”, which probably meant fire-arms, as shooting matches were fixed to take place in the Marsh on Midsummer Day, St. Peter's Day and St. Bartholomew's Day.

One of the greatest difficulties of the early years of Elizabeth's reign was the debasement of the currency perpetrated by Henry VIII. and the base ministers of his successor. With a view to restoration, repeated “cryings down” of the value of current coin were made by proclamation. At the first of these operations, in 1559, the Chamberlain obtained only 61s. 6d. for eighty-eight shillings, and on coins professing to be worth £10 9s. 6d. he lost £3 9s. 10d., or one-third of the face value. “The worser sort” of shillings, says a local chronicler and the worser sort invariably passed as wages to the poor - were cried down to 2½d., causing infinite distress. All “outlandish money”, which from its superior intrinsic value had come largely into circulation, was next forbidden to pass current, and the city treasurer lost some money on the French crowns and pistolets and Flemish angelettes


that he had on hand. The Queen finally prohibited the use of base coin, and issued pieces which, though far inferior in value to the currency of the Plantagenets, were an enormous improvement on that of her father and brother, and afforded incalculable relief to the whole community. The town wall, which at this period extended from the Froom near Thunderbolt Street to the Avon at the Welsh Back, had long been of no practical value for the defence of the city, and the gate in it, called the Marsh Gate, was merely an obstacle to traffic. During a riot in 1561, arising, it is said, out of the baptising of a child, the doors of this gate were removed, and they were never restored. But some substitute being thought necessary, the Council ordered the erection of a “turnpike”, also called a “whirligig”, and really a turnstile. Another whirligig was about the same time placed near the upper end of Steep Street, and doubtless stood at the top of a precipitous footpath on the site of the modern Christmas Steps. (Christmas Street had not then entirely lost its original name of Knifesmiths Street, and how the singular transformation was brought about remains a mystery.) There was a third whirligig in Tower Lane under the gate still standing there. It is not surprising to find that the turnstiles required as frequent renovations as the stocks, which the Corporation maintained in all parts of the city for the punishment of rogues, and were constantly in need of repair. Having mentioned this quaint instrument of correction, which each of the thousands of manors in England was bound to maintain, and which was everywhere to be seen down to about the beginning of Victoria's reign, it may be added that the corporate accounts contain numberless items for renewing or mending the Ducking Stool for ducking vixenish women, three of whom are


recorded to have been “washed” in a single day, that the pillory was always getting worn out, and that a new ladder for the gallows was required at short intervals. A cage for frantic disturbers of the peace, and a den styled “Little Ease”, in Newgate, were amongst the other amenities of those good old days.

Elizabeth's Privy Council were accustomed to issue a yearly proclamation forbidding all persons, save invalids, from eating butchers' meat during the season of Lent. The Corporation, however, sought some further relief from the restriction, for the Chamberlain paid a yearly fee of one shilling to “the Lord Keeper's man for entering a certificate for eating of flesh in Lent”, and this proceeding gave so much satisfaction that the fee was doubled, and was paid for many years. But the Common Council on one occasion presumed rather too far in its evasion of the Royal commands. In consideration of the sum of £13, to be paid by yearly instalments, a licence was granted to a butcher, living in one of the parishes outside the walls, to sell meat to all comers throughout the forty days' fast. But in 1570, when the favoured trader had paid £8 6s. 8d. of the money, either the Butchers' Company raised a clamour against the violation of their statutes, or some informer had acquainted the Privy Council of the contempt and induced it to send down a reprimand, for the Common Council hurriedly revoked the licence, and ordered the repayment of the amount received, declaring that “it was not lawful to sell flesh contrary to the butchers' ordinances”. Though the Royal mandate for abstinence continued to be issued for more than half a century afterwards, the rapid growth of Puritanism caused it to be ever less regarded, and except amongst a sprinkling of High Churchmen, it was finally treated with contempt.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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