Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter VI.

Purchase of stone coal by the Corporation - Case of Councillor John Lacie - Struggle between Corporation and Merchant Venturers' Society; ends in the monopoly of the latter being abolished - Establishment of Meal Market - Purchase of Brandon Hill summit - Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Bristol; lavish preparations for her reception and entertainment; Newgate prisoners receive royal pardon - Outbreak of plague in the city - Piracy in the Avon; fate of the malefactors - Visits of travelling players to Bristol - Arrival in the port of three vessels under command of Martin Frobisher - Celebration of twentieth year of Elizabeth's reign - Renovation of quay walls by means of tombstones.

Although surrounded by extensive coal-fields, Bristolians of all classes long preferred the use of wood as fuel, timber being extremely cheap owing to the vast extent of Kingswood and other neighbouring forests. The winter of 1570, however, was exceptionally rigorous, and through the difficulties of transit, caused by heavy snowstorms, the dearth of wood occasioned extreme distress. The Corporation consequently ordered in several hundred horse loads of “stone coal, to the intent to bring down” prices; and though there was some loss on the transaction, great relief was afforded to the poor. Charcoal was the only fuel purchased for the Council House for upwards of a century afterwards.

The Common Council in 1571 were called upon to consider the case of an impoverished member of the body, and


adopted a singular expedient for his relief. The following item occurs in the Chamberlain's receipts:-

“Received of John Lacie, mercer, in part payment of £10 fine, for that he should continue a burgess, being dismissed of the Common Council until he may be hereafter called to the Common Council again when he shall be of better ability, £5”.

As the remainder of the fine was never paid, it may be inferred that Mr. Lacie did not recover his position.

The first record of a violently-contested election of Members of Parliament for the city occurs in the spring of 1571. The question involved in the struggle was one of deep interest to the trading classes generally. In the last previous Parhament, in 1566, the Society of Merchant Venturers had succeeded in obtaining an Act forbidding any citizen, excepting members of the society, or persons who had served an apprenticeship of seven years to a merchant, from trafficking in merchandise beyond the seas, upon pain of forfeiture of all the goods so imported or exported. The monopoly thus established excited great discontent amongst a numerous body of tradesmen who had been accustomed to make small foreign adventures, as well as amongst the workmen employed by them; and, what was still more significant, the Common Council, which for centuries had been dominated by the mercantile interest, revolted against it, and supported the agitation of the burgesses. No details in reference to the election have been preserved except that the contest was violent and protracted, but the return of the Recorder as one of the Members clearly marked the defeat of the Merchants' Society. The Corporation followed up this success by appealing to Lord Burghley for a repeal of the Act, declared


to be injurious to the trade of the city, and a Bill to that effect was read a first time at the fifth sitting of the House of Commons, passed through all its stages in both Houses in despite of a vigorous resistance, and received the Royal Assent. In consequence of the struggle, the Common Council appears to have been the scene of frequent virulent disputes. During the year ending Michaelmas, 1572, the following receipts occur in the audit book:-

Received of Mr. Snyg, for calling Mr. John Jones knave in his ear0134 
 Received of Mr. Langley (M.P.), for saying to Mr. Saxie: You belie me0200 
 Received of Mr. Robt. Taylor, merchant, for abusing Mr. Thomas Colston with contumelious words068 
 Received of Mr. Robt. Cable, for abusing Mr. Richard Cole068

Strange to say, no ancient copy of the Act restoring freedom of trade to Bristolians is to be found in the city, and not even the slightest allusion to the statute is made in any of the local chronicles, or in the histories of Barrett, Seyer, Evans, Pryce, and Nicholls. Only the title of the measure, “A Bill for Bristowe”, is given in the “Statutes at Large”. But it is, of course, duly registered in the Chancery Rolls. During the Stewart dynasty the Merchants' Society made many efforts to procure its repeal, and the Corporation, again submissive to mercantile influences, were generally zealous in supporting the would-be monopolists, but the costly exertions proved fruitless, and were finally abandoned in despair.

All the markets in the city were at this time held in one


or the other of the principal streets, but the inconvenience of dealing in flour and meal in the open air during wet weather induced the Common Council in 1572 to order the construction of a special building for the sale of those articles. The site chosen was a piece of vacant ground, entered through a “freestone gateway”, in Wine Street. Towards the expense of the building, which cost about £250, the Vestry of Christ Church made a donation of £10, and a further sum of over £30 was extracted from two soapmakers. The Bristol merchants had at this period acquired a large trade in the Mediterranean, and olive oil being largely imported by them, they had induced the Corporation to pass an ordinance prohibiting the manufacture of soap made of tallow or fish oil. Owing to the costliness of the foreign material, the ordinance was frequently evaded; but Mr. William Yate, a soapmaker, whose dwelling closely adjoined the new Meal Market, having been detected in boiling tallow, was now fined £13 6s. 8d. for his infraction of the edict, whilst another manufacturer is alleged to have given £20 “of his goodwill” - an assertion of doubtful credibility, seeing that he was fined £10 in the following year “for boiling trayne oil”. The Meal Market was for many years set apart during the annual great fair for the accommodation of the numerous goldsmiths from London and elsewhere who attended to exhibit their wares. In the troubled times of the following century it seems to have been converted into a guard house for soldiery. The fine “freestone gateway” referred to above still remained, and was well known to every citizen until its removal in 1881. The crown of the arch bore the letter “W” and the device of a gate, from which the surname Yate was derived.

One Walker, “the miller of Brandon Hill”, turns up in


the civic accounts for 1573, having paid a trifling fine for breaking into the city pound and rescuing his horse, contrary to law. The wooden windmill which stood on the summit of the hill was then a new structure, having been erected by William Rede, Town Clerk, who had obtained a sixty years' lease of Brandon Hill from the Corporation in 1564, at a rent of £1 6s. 8d. Only a few years later, in 1581, both the civic body and its lessee were thrown into consternation by the property being claimed on behalf of the Crown. A discovery had in fact been made that a small plot of ground on the top of the hill had been given by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to Tewkesbury Abbey, when he founded St. James's Priory, but had escaped appropriation on the suppression of the monastries, doubtless from its yielding no rent. The men who wormed out these facts thereupon petitioned Queen Elizabeth for a grant of the ground as “concealed Crown land”, and this having been conceded to them at a fee farm rent of 5s., they demanded the estate from the Corporation, who were forced to buy their interest for the sum of £30. As there is a common tradition that the Queen granted Brandon Hill to the city as a place to dry clothes, it may be added that the hill, with the exception of the above plot, had belonged to the Corporation from time immemorial, and that the right of free passage over it by the public, and of user by washerwomen, was formally recognised in a corporate document of 1533, before Elizabeth was born.

The year 1574 was long memorable amongst Bristolians for the magnificent entertainment of Queen Elizabeth during her “progress” through the Western Counties. A visit had been anticipated in the summer of 1570, but after the Corporation, in a panic at its neglect of the roads near Newgate, had laid out a large sum on


repairs, the Queen altered her route. The assurance of her arrival four years later induced the Common Council to make unprecedented exertions to gratify their pomp-loving Sovereign. It was in the first place resolved to raise funds by a general “collection” from the inhabitants, which was doubtless effected by a rateable assessment. The amount thus secured was £535 1s. 7d., obtained as follows:-

All Saints' Ward£173100
Trinity Ward10470
Mary-le-port Ward9147
St. Ewen's Ward94178
Redcliff Ward7124

A further sum of £450 was borrowed from charity funds, “to be repaid as speedily as convenient”, and the Dean and Chapter contributed £5. Thus supplied, the authorities proceeded to paint and gild the High Cross, Lawford's Gate, Newgate, and Froom Gate, to order fifty-three lighter loads of sand for the purpose of levelling the streets, to purchase nearly two tons of gunpowder, to collect one hundred and thirty pieces of cannon, to enrol four hundred infantry clothed in the city uniform, and to make various other provisions for her Majesty's entertainment. The Queen arrived on August 14. After making a preliminary halt at St. Lawrence's Hospital for the purpose of changing her travelling dress for more gorgeous apparel, her Majesty advanced to Lawford's Gate, where she was received by the Mayor and Common Council, whose mouthpiece, the Recorder, addressed her in the extravagantly flattering terms in which she delighted, and presented her with a splendid purse containing £100 in gold. The gay procession then started, and after a brief


stop at the High Cross, where “some pleasant sights were showed”, and another at the Grammar School in Christmas Street, where the boys' poetical orations were so lengthy that they were brusquely cut short, the Royal visitor reached the Great House on St. Augustine's Back, the newly-finished mansion of Mr. John Young, which had been prepared for her reception, her arrival being saluted by deafening peals of cannon and musketry. The Queen remained in the city a week, and those desirous of details respecting the amusements offered her, consisting mainly of sham fighting on land and water and tedious rhymed twaddle by a man named Churchyard, may be referred to Nichols's Progresses and other works. Her Majesty rewarded her host with the honour of knighthood. The Corporate outlay during the visit was £1,053 14s. 11d., of which amount £37 were demanded by Royal officers, including the “Yeoman of the Bottles”, for their fees.

The visit of Queen Ehzabeth to Bristol subsequently involved the Corporation in an expenditure that appears to have been much begrudged. It is probable that when the Recorder, who lived at Wellington, near Taunton, travelled hither to take part in the Queen's reception, advantage was taken of the opportunity to hold the annual gaol delivery. At all events, when Elizabeth arrived nine prisoners condemned to death were lying in Newgate, and on the Queen becoming acquainted with the fact she intimated her intention of pardoning them as a special act of grace. The Royal word, however, did not satisfy the requirements of the law, which could be met only by a formal instrument under the Great Seal, and the Lord Chancellor and his subordinates forthwith came down upon the Corporation for the customary fees, amounting to over £14. The disgusted civic body had no


alternative but to pay the money, but partially recouped itself by appealing for the assistance of the parish churches, by which £8 13s. 4d. were brought in, while the Bishop of Gloucester, who held the See of Bristol in commendam, forwarded a personal donation of £2 13s. 4d., thus reducing the civic outlay to a trifling sum.

The year 1575 was marked by a terrible visitation of plague, which broke out immediately after the great fair in July and continued its ravages for six months. Contemporary annalists assert that the victims numbered upwards of 1,900, but the figures are probably much exaggerated. Four ex-Mayors, three of whom were Aldermen, were, however, carried off. The virulence of epidemics in Bristol, as in other old towns, was doubtless largely attributable to the unhealthy supply of water, chiefly drawn from wells in close proximity to the parochial burial grounds, most of which were in crowded localities limited in area, and reeking with putridity. The quay pipe was supplied from an abundant spring, the so-called Boiling Well at Ashley; but a large portion of the long conduit was unprotected, and the Chamberlain was incessantly called upon to remove the obstructions in covered pipe, caused by the bodies of dead cats. Thus, in December, 1574, he enters:-

“Paid for taking three cats out of the key pipe, where one was two yards long, five days, 5s. 6d.”

The pestilence caused on this occasion a general prostration of local trade, and the depression was seriously aggravated by unprecedented disasters at sea. In November, 1576, the Chamberlain was despatched to London with a “supplication” to the Queen, representing the decay of the city and the lamentable condition of its


merchants, through the recent loss of eleven ships and five barks - no inconsiderable proportion of the entire shipping of the port, which, according to an official report drawn up by the Customs officers, numbered only forty-four vessels in 1572. The petition was presented by Lord Leicester, but the applicants met with no warmer consolation than that “the Queen was very sorry”. The commerce of Bristol did not recover from these disasters for upwards of thirty years.

An audacious act of piracy was committed in the Avon in July, 1577, by a gang of sailors and ruffians, who took forcible possession of a small Dungarven vessel lying at Pill, robbed several other ships laden with goods for the fair, and eventually sailed off with their booty. How an alarm was raised does not appear, but the record states that the pirates were pursued by “Lord Leicester's Flebote” - whatever that may have been - with a crew of sixty armed men, and that the villains, dreading capture, landed at Start Point, when all but four managed to escape. Those apprehended were tried at the gaol delivery in September, when three were sentenced to death, and one, says the Chamberlain, was “saved by his book” - an expression perfectly intelligible to every reader eighty years ago, but now requiring explanation. In the Middle Ages the ordinary criminal courts could not pass sentence on a felon (traitors excepted) who claimed to be in Holy Orders, and who was amenable only to an ecclesiastical tribunal. And as practically everyone, except a priest, was then illiterate, it became an established point in legal practice that a prisoner was to be deemed a cleric if he were able to read a certain verse, vulgarly known as the “neck verse”, in the Book of Psalms. The unreasoning conservatism of the legal profession has,


perhaps, no better illustration than the fact that the above privilege, commonly known as “benefit of clergy”, was not abolished until 1827, although long before that date nearly every description of felony had been exempted from the relief by successive Acts of Parliament, and a thief might be hanged for stealing twelvepence-farthing. It may be added that criminals known to be laymen were entitled to the benefit only once, and that, to secure their conviction for a second offence, they were seared on the thumb for the first with a red-hot iron. Only a few weeks before the trial of the above pirates there is the following item in the civic accounts:-

“Paid a smith for making iron cuffs, set in the Guildhall behind the prisoners' bar, for the burning of persons in the hand, 2s. 6d.”

To return to the three convicts, the Corporation, believing that seafaring malefactors needed an impressive warning, resolved on hanging and gibbeting the criminals on Canons' Marsh, at the junction of the Avon and Froom, and in view of every passing vessel, the bodies being suspended so low that they were immersed at every high tide. The carpenter's wages for making the gibbet were still only one shilling per day, and those of two apprentices 1s. 2d.

A civic payment made to a travelling dramatic company in October, 1577, is of some interest to students of Elizabethan literature, inasmuch as it mentions the name of the play then performed. The record also indicates, for the first time, that the entertainment took place in the evening:-

“Paid my Lord of Leicester's players . . . and for links to give light in the evening. The play was called 'Myngo'. £1 2s.”


The audit book of the following year shows that six bands of comedians visited the city. Lord Berkeley's players are stated to have performed “What Mischief Worketh in the Mind of Man”; Mr. C. Howard's “The [illegible] Ethiopian”; The Earl of Suffolk's “The Court of Comfort”; and the Earl of Bath's “Quid pro quo”. The players of the Earl of Derby and the Lord Chamberlain afterwards appeared on successive nights in one week, but the Chamberlain, then and afterwards, failed to note the pieces performed.

Some excitement was caused in October, 1577, by the arrival in the port of two vessels under the command of the famous Martin Frobisher. The ships, according to the chroniclers, had come direct from Cattaie or Cataya, after a fruitless endeavour to discover a passage to India and China by way of the Arctic Seas. They brought home, however, a large quantity of ore, esteemed to be “very rich and full of gold”, and on information being sent to the Government, the Privy Council directed that the treasure should be lodged for safety in the Castle until some specimens had been analysed. The stone eventually proved worthless. Frobisher also brought three “savages”, doubtless Esquimaux, clothed in deer skins, but all of them died within a month of their arrival.

The “Virgin Queen” entered upon the twentieth year of her reign on November 17th, 1577, and the event was celebrated in Bristol in a manner that manifested the loyalty and affection of the citizens. The members of the Corporation, robed in scarlet, repaired to the Cathedral to “hear the sermon” - a mode of attending service that became more and more in favour with the growth of Puritanism - and on returning from church five trumpeters from the “Cataya” ships were engaged to head the


civic procession and fill the air with martial music. In the evening a great bonfire blazed before the High Cross. The demonstration was thenceforth repeated annually, and was continued for many years after the Queen's death. The quays of the city being at this period in urgent need of repair, a strange expedient for their cheap renovation was devised by the Common Council. The first mention of the matter occurs in the audit book, November, 1577, as follows:-

“Paid the churchwardens of St. Stephen's for one tombstone for the Quay wall, 4s.”

Immediately afterwards four large tombstones and five sledge-loads of smaller stones (head-stones?) were extracted from St. Lawrence's Church, adjoining St. John's, and another large block was taken from a church not specified. Soon afterwards a ponderous stone, requiring “two brace of horses” to drag it, was removed from St. Lawrence's Church, and many similar abstractions are noted subsequently. The ruined Friaries were further drawn upon, and a massive monument out of the demolished Carmelite Church was contributed by Sir John Young, of the Great House. No reference to these desecrations is made by the annalists, nor do they mention the closing of St. Lawrence's Church, of which the Corporation were the patrons. The deed annexing the parish to that of St. John, dated in March, 1580, asserts that the income of the former was only £4 10s., which was insufficient to maintain a minister. The church was converted into a warehouse. Its burial ground in Christmas Street, is believed to be now covered by the premises recently built by Messrs. J.S. Fry and Sons.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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