Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter VIII.

The Avon obstructed by a wreck - Soldiers quartered in Bristol en route to Ireland; expense incurred by the Corporation - “Street pitcher” appointed - Difficulties in postal communication - New charter granted to Bristol; heavy expenses involved in obtaining the title “City” - Bristol Parliamentary representative appointed Speaker of the House of Commons.

A SHIPPING disaster, which appears to have long obstructed the navigation of the Avon, occurred at Hungroad in March, 1579, when a large vessel called the Lion, laden with Spanish salt and oil, struck the rocks and immediately foundered in the river. The Corporation called on a number of ship captains to superintend the raising of the ship, but the measures they took were unavailing, and the civic body, in great alarm, sought the advice of the Privy Council, apparently without result. At length, in May, the hulk was weighed and brought to shore; but it soon afterwards slipped back into the river, and the situation became even worse than before. In spite of heavy expenditure, the tidal way was blocked for upwards of a year, and was cleared in April, 1580, only by tearing the wreck to pieces.

During the Irish rebellions of this period, the city suffered severely from the frequent presence of large bodies of soldiers, sent down from London for embarkation, but often detained for weeks by contrary winds. The troops, impressed from the lowest classes, spent their time in debauchery and rioting, setting the civic authorities, who


were required to feed them, at defiance. In August, 1579, when six hundred ruffians were lying here, the Chamberlain paid 8s. 9d. “for making and setting up a gibbet in High Street, to terrify the rage of the soldiers, who were so unruly both in fighting and killing”. This grim menace proved so effectual that it was repeated on two subsequent occasions. In December of the same year another body of one thousand troops arrived, but was speedily got rid of. But a fresh batch of five hundred came down in July, 1580, and was unable to sail for six weeks, during which disorders were of frequent occurrence, the insolence of the bravoes often bringing them into collision with pugnacious Bristolians, in which they were sometimes soundly punished. The unruly soldiery were not the only trouble of the Corporation. The Government, in forwarding the men, required the city to provide them, not only with rations and pay, but sometimes with “conduct money” when they departed, and shipping had also to be hired for their transport. In the first of the above cases, the outlay was £483, in the second £443, and in the third £1,160; and those large sums cannot have been raised without extreme difficulty. The embarrassment was still greater in the year ending Michaelmas, 1581, when, owing to King Philip of Spain sending some forces to assist the Irish rebels, the Government despatched great reinforcements by way of Bristol, and the corporate expenditure on them was about £4,000. In order to recover the money laid out on each contingent, the Chamberlain had to ride up to Court, and, as it was never an easy matter to wring money from the penurious Queen, the unfortunate gentleman had much to endure in following her about to country residences, and “gratifying” officials for their help in getting his accounts passed. The following illustrates his vexations:-


“September, 1580, Paid one of my Lord Treasurers secretaries for his pains in examining my account, for it was very much misliked of and evil taken by my Lord Treasurer, because the charge was so great, being £1,160 8s. 8¾d., so that two days was spent in trying of the said account, which, thanks to God, could not be faulted in one halfpenny, 10s.”

How the poor Chamberlain, who had only a single attendant, managed to convey large sums of money safely from London to Bristol (on one occasion he brought down £2,500) is a mystery. But though he was frequently on the road, and each journey to and from London occupied three or four days, he never encountered a mishap.

The rebellion partially collapsed in 1583, when the Mayor and his brethren were regaled at the Tolzey with a sight of the head of the revolted Earl of Desmond, “pickled in a pipkin”, and on its way to gratify the Court. It is stated in a previous chapter[5] that the task of paving the streets was at this period laid upon the proprietors of frontages, who were severally required to repair one-half of the street as far as the gutter that ran down the centre. As each owner fulfilled his duty at his own time and in his own fashion, the general result must have left much to be desired, and in September, 1579, the Corporation initiated a reform. The audit book records:

“Paid the new pitcher of the streets as a reward on his making his abode here until he pitches all the streets in the way agreed upon by Mr. Mayor and the Aldermen, and will take not above 1½d. per yard, and do his work well, 20s.”

Further items in subsequent years show that the new official was vigorously at work. Difficulties, however,


arose in localities where there were houses only on one side of the thoroughfare. Such was the case at Redcliff Hill, and in May, 1583, the Chamberlain paid sixpence “to a drummer to get company together to carry stones to mend the highway” at that spot. The summons was effectual, for four months later the civic treasurer disbursed 4d. for ale drank by the Mayor and his brethren at Redcliff Church style, doubtless after an inspection of the repairs.

The difficulty of communicating with persons at a distance before the establishment of a post-office is illustrated by the following item:-

“1580, August. Paid to Savage, the foot post, to go to Wellington with a letter to the Recorder touching the holding of the Sessions, and if not there to go to Wimborne Minster, where he has a house, where he found him, and returned with a letter; which post was six days upon that journey in very foul weather, and I paid him for his pains 13s. 4d.”

About the close of 1580 the Corporation resolved upon petitioning the Queen for a new charter, empowering them to increase the aldermanic body from six to twelve. The matter was placed in the hands of the Recorder, who was furnished with funds to “gratify” the courtiers whose help was desirable; but one of his disbursements proved disappointing. One Dr. Wilson,[6] it appears, received £10 upon his undertaking to obtain the Queen's signature approving of the scheme, but the money was no sooner pocketed than the doctor departed from Court, and is heard of no more. Secretary Walsingham proved a more trustworthy friend, but other influential persons wanted


gratifications, and the affair still hung fire. Nearly six months after the Wilson collapse, when the Attorney-General was on a visit to Ashton Court, the Corporation sent him a seven-pint bottle of “hullock” wine and half a pound of sugar, desiring to “understand his pleasure” respecting the delayed patent, and remarking that Walsingham's secretary had twice sent information that the Queen had signed the warrant. Mr. Attorney, moved perhaps by the present, but more by the hope of favours to come, promised that the great seal should be appended with all speed, and this was actually accomplished in July, 1581, after the civic body had incurred some further expense in getting Bristol styled a “city” instead of a “town”. The Recorder, on his arrival with the charter - for which he had laid out £53 - was welcomed with a present of two gallons of wine (Muscadel of Candia), and another gallon was sent to the Attorney-General, with the promise of a more substantial reward. Four hogsheads of wine, costing £16, were next forwarded to Secretary Walsingham in gratitude for his services, £10 were given to the secretary's secretary for keeping his master “in mind” of the subject, and £5 were paid to the Attorney-General's clerk “for his travail”. The Chamberlain noted that Mr. Attorney and the Recorder were still to be suitably recompensed, but the following year's audit book is missing.

To meet the above expenditure, the ancient ordinances dealing rigorously with “foreigners” - that is non-freemen - trading in the city were brought into operation, the obnoxious class being offered the alternative of paying fines for admission as burgesses, or of having their places of business “shut down”. Three dyers were mulcted in £10 each, and two musicians, whose mode of gaining a livelihood is shrouded in darkness, paid 53s. 4d. each.


Numerous others were dealt with, and the total receipts from the process were £67 11s.

In January, 1581, at the opening of the third Session of Elizabeth's fourth Parliament - originally convoked nine years previously - John Popham, the senior Member for Bristol, was appointed to fill the vacant office of Speaker. The proceedings were of a peculiar character. When Popham's election was suggested, the Commons were informed that he had been withdrawn from his Parliamentary duties by the Upper House, which claimed his presence there as Solicitor-General. Applications for his release from this service having been made to the Lords, he was permitted to return to his proper place. The Corporation of Bristol, much gratified by the honour bestowed on the city representative, presented him with a hogshead of claret. Popham, who had resigned the office of Recorder a few years before, afterwards became the Lord Chief Justice, whose acquisition of Littlecote, the home of “Will Dayrell”, was long regarded with deep suspicion by the people of Wiltshire,

[5] Vide ante, page 26.
[6] Secretary of State and Dean of York, although a layman.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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