Sixteenth Century Bristol

By John Latimer

(Originally published under the title of

Transcriptions by Rosemary Lockie, © Copyright 2013

Chapter X.

Dispute between rector of St. Mary-le-port and his parishioners - Spanish Armada: Bristol's contingent to national fleet; jubilation at rout of Spaniards - Trouble with the Dutch; William Colston - Lord Burghley created Lord High Steward - Thrifty expenditure of the Corporation - Purchase of coal for school over Froom Gate - Relation of Corporation to orphans of city the subject of a Parliamentary Bill (1597) - Arrival in Bristol of Bishop Fletcher - Renovations and alterations of St. Mark's Church - Depression of trade in Bristol - Piratical exploits round British coast.

Queen Elizabeth, in November, 1587, appointed six Commissioners to inquire into the merits of a singular dispute between the Rev, A. Arthur, rector of St. Mary-le-port, and his parishioners. The rector, on whose petition the Commission was granted, had been appointed to the living about eight years previously. He asserted that the parishioners had for forty years concealed the fact that the rectory was in the gift of the Crown, and had appointed at their pleasure a mere “minister or curate”, and appropriated the profits of the rectory. These profits he claimed for the entire forty years. There is no record of the Commissioners' decision, nor can any evidence be discovered to support the allegation that the advowson was the property of the Crown.

Though the sailing of the “Invincible Armada” of the Spanish King had been postponed in 1587 through the daring exploits of Drake and other causes, its approach in


the following year was regarded as certain, and the English people universally betook themselves to defensive preparations. In March the Bristolians were summoned to muster at Lady Day before their captain-general at Redcliff Church “to choose out trained soldiers”, and a large force was soon in arms and regularly drilled. The Common Council ordered another new “ancient” - a gigantic banner composed of 37¾ yards of taffeta - and directed the portcullises at the city gates to be “looked unto”, and the town walls to be repaired.

About the same time the Government, availing itself of the Royal prerogative under which shipmoney was claimed from maritime towns in case of emergency, demanded aid from every port in the shape of ships instead of coin. London was required to furnish eight ships fully manned, armed and provisioned. The call on Bristol, and also on Newcastle, was for three ships and a pinnace similarly provided. The outlay in these and minor incidents must have been raised by some form of local taxation on the inhabitants, but evidence on this point cannot be discovered.

This city's contingent to the national fleet - the Great Unicorn, the Minion, the Handmaid, and the Aid, provisioned for two months - sailed in April amidst enthusiastic farewells to join the Navy in the English Channel. The Government did not contribute a sixpence towards the expenditure, yet in June, when the victuals were exhausted, a letter was received from the Lord Admiral, requesting the city to furnish supplies. (Lord Howard was, in fact, unable to extract money from the Queen sufficient to victual her own ships.) The Corporation appealed to the Privy Council, representing that the citizens were utterly exhausted by the efforts already made, and were unable


to bear any further charge; but the Council insisted that the stores should be furnished without delay, promising to defray the outlay at a later date. The supplies were provided, but no repayment was ever received. At the great fair all the canvas offered for sale was bought up by order of the Government, and despatched to make tents for the vast army assembled at Tilbury.

The week was one of intense excitement, for the conflict was known to have begun; and though the Queen's players came to town, and were rewarded with double the ordinary gift for their performance, the inhabitants were thinking of anything but the drama. The civic rulers sent off a messenger to the South Coast “to understand some news of the fleets”, but the journey seems to have been fruitless. At length, early in August, a letter was received from London, bringing “certain news” of the ignominious flight of the Spaniards, when 13s. 4d. was paid to the bearer for his promptitude, and the city burst into jubilation, the Queen's “players and tumblers” adding an extra flash of gaiety to the rejoicings. The irritating old annalists do not afford a scrap of information as to the fate of the Bristol ships. No doubt, like nearly every crew in the fleet, the men had to take part in the final rout of the enemy when destitute of food and almost helpless from want of gunpowder, which no entreaties could induce Elizabeth to supply.

Whilst the country was threatened with the hostility of Philip II., the Government was frequently troubled by the animosity of the Dutch, who had been much exasperated by the Queen's tortuous policy during their long struggle for emancipation from Spanish tyranny. In February, 1588, the Privy Council addressed a letter to the Judge of the Admiralty Court, setting forth that


upwards of a year previously William Colston, of Bristol, merchant (an ancestor direct or collateral of the great philanthropist), in satisfaction of spoils and wrongs inflicted on him by the Admiralty of Zealand, had seized a ship and cargo of a Zealander; that the Privy Council, at the request of the Dutch Deputies, had given orders for the release of the vessel, on the undertaking of the Deputies that justice should be done to Colston; that the latter, after labouring for ten months, had secured a judicial condemnation of the Zealand authorities; and that nevertheless he could obtain no redress. The Judge was therefore ordered to give directions for the seizure of any Zealand ship and cargo found in an English port - such ship to be detained for three months to give the Dutch Government an opportunity of complying with the judgment given against them. If they neglected to do so, the ship and cargo were to be given up to Colston in satisfaction of his claims. This order having proved of no effect, the Council, in the following May, sent fresh instructions to the Admiralty Judge, giving further particulars of Colston's grievances. Their letter states that the Bristol ship was seized near Flushing in August, 1586, and confiscated, together with the cargo, the owner's loss being £2,286; and that, whilst Colston was on his way to seek relief, he was made prisoner by a Dunkirk rover, from whom he was forced to ransom himself, his total outlay being £600. The interest on these losses amounted to £381, making his total claim against the States of Holland and Zealand £3,267. The Privy Council therefore orders the Judge to grant a commission for the arrest of Dutch ships until Colston obtained full satisfaction. Being armed with this warrant, Mr. Colston thought himself entitled to follow the example set by the Dutch, and not merely recovered his claim, but


continued to make further seizures. In August, however, he was peremptorily ordered by the Government to sell no more confiscated goods, and to appear before the Privy Council to render accounts. There is no further reference to the subject.

On the death, in September, 1588, of the Earl of Leicester - which Ben Jonson asserted was caused by a poisoned potion that the earl had prepared for his countess - the Common Council followed its usual course by conferring the High Stewardship of the city on Lord Burghley, the head of the Government. No opportunity was lost of conciliating the powerful minister. In 1590 his second son, William - afterwards Earl of Salisbury - visited Bristol, and was welcomed with a present of “38 lbs. of sugar, two boxes of marmalade, gilded very fair, and four barrels of sucketts”, entertainment being also provided for himself and retinue. In the following year a gift of an undescribed character, but costing £11 10s., was made to Burghley himself, who did not lose sight of his yearly “pension” of £4. A “sargeant Painter at Arms” was paid £3 for the Lord Treasurer's portrait, which was framed for 5s. and set up in the Council House, where it is still to be seen. In 1596 William Cecil, then become Secretary of State, was presented with a double gilt silver cup, weighing forty-four ounces, and costing £15 8s. The secretaries of both the ministers were duly and sometimes largely rewarded for keeping their masters “in mind” of the city's request. Gifts were, in fact, looked for by every important official. In 1594 a butt of sack was sent to another of the Queen's lovers. Lord Keeper Hatton, doubtless in return for some service. The Clerk of the Privy Council and the Clerk of the Crown also figure for handsome donations. In 1598 the Clerk of the Parliament


by some means got hold of two new white rugs, value £5 4s., belonging to the Corporation, and “detained them, in regard he had been our friend in the late Parliament”,

Though sometimes over-reached in this way by high-placed cormorants, the civic body was by no means disposed to spend money profitlessly. On one occasion, when the Lord Admiral, according to the custom of his predecessors, contested the city's right to hold an Admiralty Court,the Chamberlain bought a fine piece of plate for him, in the hope that the gift would smooth over difficulties, but finding his lordship intractable, the civic agent gave the silversmith 10s. to refund the cast and take the plate back again.

Fuel appears to have been at a very moderate price in 1589. The Common Council having in that year established a school over Froom Gate, to teach children, not to read, but “to knit worsted hosen”, forty loads of stone coal were purchased for 15s. to warm the large room. At the same time, six loads of charcoal and a double draught of wood for the Tolzey fires cost 8s. 10d. It is difficult to determine the weight of a sledge load, but as butts of wine containing nearly 120 gallons were certainly moved about on sledges, a load of coal can hardly have been less than one-third of a ton. Firewood was cheap, owing to the abundance of neighbouring timber. Several trees were cut down in Lewins Mead in 1589.

Information respecting an ancient Bristol custom, established by a charter of Edward III. upwards of two hundred years before this date, is furnished by the minutes of the Privy Council in March, 1590. In a letter to the Mayor and his “assistants in Orphans' causes”, their lordships stated that they had been informed that the chief magistrate of the city for the time being had always


been governor of orphans, and had provided for their education and the preservation of their estates in accordance with the city charters. But the Council now understood that this good system was no longer carried out, and that orphans had been, and were likely to be, defrauded by persons having possession of their property, who refused to give the Mayor full information thereof. Their lordships, therefore, having regard for such orphans, command the Mayor and his brethren to pursue strictly the ancient practice; to summon all widows and guardians having the custody of orphans' money, goods or lands; and to inquire whether any embezzlement had been attempted. If such persons refused to produce a full account of the property committed to them, or resisted the Mayor's authority over the children, they were ordered to be imprisoned until they gave satisfaction. It may be safely conjectured that the issue of this mandate had been privately solicited by the Corporation through some friend at Court at an earlier period. Large sums bequeathed to children had frequently been brought into the city treasury, and remained there for several years until the infant owners attained full age, and whilst the Corporation in the meanwhile dealt with such funds at their discretion, there is no evidence that they rendered a fair interest on the capital. The ancient custom consequently fell into disfavour, and testators sometimes gave specific directions to their executors to keep aloof from the orphans' court. The mandate of the Government having failed to effect its purpose, the Corporation, whilst promoting a Bill in Parliament in 1597 for confirming the establishment of Queen Elizabeth's Hospital, obtained the insertion of clauses empowering them to act as the Privy Council had directed, and authorising the Chamberlain to take


possession of property when executors or trustees refused to give sureties for the faithful performance of their duties. It was, however, provided that if a testator limited the management of his estate to a parent, brother, or other relation of his children, or if such relation entered into sufficient bonds for securing the orphans' estates, the Mayor and his brethren were not to interfere. The decay of the old system thus continued, and it gradually became obsolete.

Dr. Fletcher, the supple divine in whose favour the See of Bristol was separated from that of Gloucester, after being practically extinct for forty-one years, made his appearance in the city in July, 1590, when he was welcomed by the Corporation, and presented with thirty gallons of sack and twenty pounds of sugar. From the wording of the Chamberlain's record of this gift, it is clear that the civic body were ignorant of even the name of the new prelate at his arrival. Being the Queen's Almoner and a sedulous courtier, the Bishop could spare little time for his episcopal duties; but he made another brief visit two years later, when the Corporation, honouring the Almoner more than the cleric, gave him half a hundred-weight of sugar, which cost 1s. 1½d. per pound. In 1593 he was promoted to the See of Worcester, and the bishopric of Bristol, which he had greatly impoverished, remained vacant for ten years.

So far as can be discovered, the Corporation up to this time had never availed themselves of St. Mark's Church for religious purposes. The edifice was not, however, wholly deserted. Thomas Pinchin, one of the monks of the old Hospital (who were granted a yearly pension of £6 each when they were dispossessed of it by Henry VIII.), received £2 additional from the Corporation to act as Reader in the church, and resided in an adjoining


tenement until his death, about forty-five years later, when a new “curate” was appointed, who also received 40s. yearly as “wages”. On the establishment of Queen Elizabeth's Hospital, the Common Council seems to have resolved on alterations in the church with a view to accommodating the schoolboys. A stone pulpit was introduced, several old pews were removed to make way for benches, a number of new wainscot pews were constructed, and the entire interior was decorated plentifully with whitewash. The work went on day and night in order to be ready for the Queen's Accession Day, in November, 1590, from which one might presume that a civic visit in State was in contemplation; but if such had been purposed it was abandoned, for when the holiday arrived cushions were carried from the Tolzey to the Cathedral for the comfort of the worshipful body during the sermon. In the following March there is an interesting item in the Chamberlain's accounts, 10s. being paid to a mason “for removing the great tombs of the three founders of the Gaunts, which are now set at the upper end of the chancel”. Their original position is, unfortunately, not recorded. Through corporate caprice at a later date, the tombs were removed to the south aisle of the church, where they still remain.

At this period the commerce of the city was in an extremely depressed state. The chief foreign trade of Bristol for several generations had been with Spain and Portugal, where vast quantities of fish, caught by local crews in the Northern Atlantic, were exchanged for the wines, fruit, and oil of the peninsula. This highly profitable traffic had been largely curtailed long before the outbreak of war by English adventurers like Drake, who, burning with indignation at the cruel persecution of


the Protestants in the Netherlands, and at the tortures inflicted by the Spanish Inquisition on the crews of English ships carrying on an illicit traffic with King Philip's colonies in the New World, set international law at defiance, and took to the seas as systematic buccaneers. The eventual declaration of war between the two powers, of course, suspended legitimate trade altogether. Maritime relations with Southern France, the only other important centre of local commerce, were on an equally unsatisfactory footing, although the two Governments were ostensibly on friendly terms. The slaughter in 1572 of upwards of 50,000 Huguenots in France, commonly known as the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and hallowed by the exultant thanksgivings of the Pope, aroused a passionate thirst for vengeance throughout this country, and the bigotry of the infamous French King was met by a bigotry as remorseless as his own.

Happily, the many butcheries of Romish priests in England have no connection with local history. Elizabeth's efforts, or pretended efforts, to suppress filibustering on the ocean were powerless against the connivance of the whole sea-going population, of her own Customs officers, who claimed a share of the piratical spoils, and of the gentry and merchants of the West of England, who helped to equip the adventurers. One or two illustrations of the state into which legitimate commerce was brought under such circumstances may be offered from the State papers. In June, 1592, a French official, acting for the merchants of Bayonne, informed the Privy Council that in the previous year a ship belonging to that port was returning home with a cargo valued at 5,000 crowns, when she was captured by a vessel belonging to Sir Walter Raleigh, and taken to Uphill,


near Weston-super-Mare, where certain rich merchants of Bristol received the cargo, and still held it, having forced the owner's agent to take to flight by threats against his life. In another case, reported by the same official, a still more valuable Bayonne ship and cargo had been captured by three English vessels, and taken into the port of Bristol, where several of the pirates lived, and the plunder was there openly sold, the ruined owner being refused redress. There is no evidence of any action having been taken against Raleigh and his accomplices.

The other affair was so discreditable to the second city in the kingdom that the Privy Council ordered the owners of the English ships to surrender half the cargo to the Bayonne man and to pay him £60 - a sum so pitiful as to raise a suspicion that the Government sympathised with the freebooters. This mandate being coolly ignored, the Privy Council, after the lapse of another year, addressed a letter to the Mayor and Aldermen, desiring them to see that the Frenchman received satisfaction, and pointing out that further delay would provoke the French to equip privateers to prey on English commerce. The answer of the Corporation has perished. Whatever they may have done, the warning of the Privy Council was soon justified. In September, 1596, John Love and other Bristol merchants made a clamorous complaint to the Government that a French “piratical” vessel had seized their ship, the Adventure, whilst on her home voyage from Brest, laden with linen, canvas, &c., their total loss being estimated at £5,000. By that time the French had remonstrated against several other piratical acts of English rovers (one of which was partly owned by our old friend, Thomas James), and the Privy Council declined to take any action.

OCR/transcript by Rosemary Lockie in October 2013.

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