How to be a Goldsmith in Elizabethan Bristol

We will be producing a series of posts and guest posts over the course of the project, including “Long Reads” (longer form (but still brief) explorations of a subject) and “Short Reads” (digestible in a brief survey). This opening Long Read explores what it was like to be a goldsmith in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bristol, looking at provincial craftspeople’s relationship with the London company, the trendy craft hotspot of Bristol’s Wine Street, and the surprisingly varied uses of goldsmiths’ wares.


In late sixteenth-century England, a young man could do worse than become an apprentice with a goldsmith.  The trade offered reasonable financial rewards and put its best craftspeople into contact with well-off and well-connected customers. That didn’t always, unsurprisingly, guarantee financial success.  One of the most famous goldsmiths of the period was the esteemed miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard; despite reaching acclaim in courts across Europe for his artwork and running a thriving goldsmiths’ trade from his London shop for decades, he spent much of his life in financial precarity.  Yet he accrued other forms of capital, not least through his intimate access to English and French courts.  Moreover, Pamela H. Smith has shown how artisans, in particular goldsmiths, were at the centre of a shift in the way cultural and scientific knowledge was represented in and produced through art: “early modern artisans were experts on natural processes” (7); Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin has similarly shown how individuals connected to the trade, such as assayers, “belied any purported boundaries between artisanal, mercantile and experimental worlds” (2).  It is therefore perhaps no surprise that some of the leading innovators in representing the physical world during the Northern Renaissance—such as Albrecht Dürer—were goldsmiths by trade.  

As such, the craft brings together a range of cultural, social, and financial opportunities, and the objects goldsmiths produced found their way into circulation in a variety of surprising ways.  Those familiar with early modern drama know how something as simple as a ring can take on epic significance from the forensic to the metaphorical—as in the final scene of All’s Well that Ends Well, for instance, which hinges on the evidentiary value of such an item of jewellery. Tradespeople in a host of livery companies might also recognise the business uses of rings, which could be “deposited” to bind people to oaths and price regulations, and rings hold a widespread memorial function, too, often left by bequest in wills and given at funerals.  Goldsmiths therefore represent a major “middling” trade, with practitioners coming from a variety of backgrounds, with their wares reaching key middling sections of society, and with objects such as rings and spoons representing the combination of aesthetic, emotional, and business value at the heart of “middling” men and women’s existence.

But what was it like to be a goldsmith away from the trade’s national centre among the shops and selds (a structure of several stalls set back from the street, like a small market or mall) of London’s Cheapside?  This post assays life for provincial goldsmiths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concentrating on the network operating in the growing port city of Bristol: here, goldsmiths find themselves everywhere from the prison to the fair; they also demonstrate the successes of family trade dynasties and early forms of “banking” and financial management, while rubbing shoulders with playhouse entrepreneurs and prosperous merchants.


The Goldsmiths’ Company

One of the prime concerns for any goldsmith is the weighing of precious metal and the attendant quality of their work or wares, and anybody looking to work in Bristol, as elsewhere, would have to be comfortable having their work assessed, deemed unworthy, and publicly destroyed by senior figures from London.  This is because the royal charter possessed by London’s Goldsmiths’ Company granted them authority over the trade nationwide, making Bristolian goldsmiths subject to scrutiny and summons to their hall on Fetter Lane by London’s Guildhall.  More intrusively, the Company could search their shops and stalls, or attend commercially-orientated fairs—notably often at Marlborough, the Bristol fairs, and Sturbridge—where they tested goods by hand and sometimes further by more detailed assay or melting (sometimes taking goods into their possession to return to the Goldsmiths’ Hall for further consideration or, when clear they’re substandard, destroying or breaking them there and then). 

While you’re in the presence of one of these searches, you may learn a little more about the range and quality of your fellow craftspeople’s work, and the court books duly list the types of goods being sold by Bristolian goldsmiths and their advertised vs their actual worth. For instance, in 1633, Thomas Northall’s wares include:

23 Thimbles half made
24 gold rings
25 bodkins half made 
12 gold ^beadrings
9 knot rings
15 enamel rings
6 deaths heads
51 gilt rings

We can imagine the presence of these goods laid out in Northall’s Bristol shop and consider, as below, the ways in which these items would have circulated amongst his local community.  These searches provide a rare occasion in which the breadth of provincial goldsmiths’ goods can be recovered and studied, and they help to build a picture of metalwork in the early modern South West.

Petrus Christus, Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449. Met Museum.

Stubborn Goldsmiths

These obligations and the searches of the regions ask questions about the relationship between regional goldsmiths and the Company.  If you worked as a goldsmith in Bristol, how much identification with the livery company might you feel—and how does being governed remotely by a London company and structure affect one’s sense of civic and craft pride?

If this seems an important question, you might turn to your colleague from Salisbury, “stubborn” George Batter, for an answer (if you can pin him down…).  Batter demonstrates what resistance to such London-centric measures might look like, given the disregard for the authority of the Company he displayed on one of its searches in 1631. He lied about being of the trade, refused to allow his items to be searched or tested, declined to show up in person when summoned, and is eventually imprisoned after the two wardens of the Company convince the Mayor of Salisbury to assist them in apprehending him and forcing him to cooperate. They had over the course of these events tested “one spoon … made by the said Batter with his mark thereupon, which being tried by the touch appeared not to be so good silver as that of 9oz fine” (Book R 1: 128).

Beyond your conversation with George Batter, you might turn to individuals in your parish to see how other trades resent intrusions from London authorities—particularly if you’re friends with any members of Bristol’s prominent Soapmakers’ Company.  They demonstrate a comparable resentment towards London intrusions into their local craft dealings a few years after Batter in 1633—just a short time after Charles I’s grant to the London Soapmakers’ of a nationwide monopoly similar to that long held by the Goldsmiths’.  The Bristolian soapmakers, perhaps taking umbrage at being “governed,” compare Bristol soap (also known as “Black Soap”) with its competitors’ through a napkin-based “whites challenge” in the presence of the London assayer:

[…] Certain Linen Napkins washed by Several Women with the same several sorts of soap […] And although the said napkins washed with Bristol Soap were altogether as white washed and as sweet, or rather sweeter, than the other, yet in the washing of the said Napkins There was not Altogether so much Soap expended of the said Bristol Soap as there was of the other Soap.

(BRS 10; 195)

The civic pride implicit in the Soapmakers’ Guild is undercut in George Batter’s unfortunate experience, as he has no recourse even to local protection, with Salisbury’s mayor assisting the wardens’ enquiries. They ultimately proved lenient towards him in levying a revised fine that took into account his “poverty” and eventual acquiescence and repentance (17 August 1631, R 1:127-9). Perhaps tellingly, two years later in 1633, Batter appears again in a Salisbury search, where he proved more compliant (Book R: 2:370).

Wine Street

Perhaps you are weighing up where to set up shop as a newcomer to Bristol—something that Giles and Edward Evenet would have done in October 1571, after they are recorded as “living, resident, and abiding [in] the country” in Bristol having left London without return “by a year and a day”–a move to the provinces that the Goldsmiths’ Company seem to regard as important and in need of regulation.

In your new home of Bristol, the prime place to continue your trade would have been the thriving neighbourhood of Wine Street in the parish of Christchurch (also known as Holy Trinity).  The street was home to a series of substantial tenements and properties, many of which were owned by the City Corporation and rented by prominent figures in the city (including aldermen and past and future mayors).  It was also home to at least two major South West goldsmiths, Humphrey Clovell and Edward Harsell.  In the mid-1570s, a new “meal market” (or corn market) was built at the end of Wine Street, which was rented out to 10-12 goldsmiths from London and other places during the most important commercial feature in any Bristolian’s calendar, the St James’ Fair, which attracted buyers and sellers from across the country (and beyond the seas).  The street therefore represents a significant destination for anybody looking to buy jewellery and other metalwork.  

If you’re interested in doing some market research or understanding the tastes and styles particular to Bristol goldsmiths and their customers, it would be wise to head to No. 8 Wine Street to speak with Humphrey Clovell.  From this property, Clovell would have sold items such as the 2 bowls, 6 gilt rings, and 3 spoons with heads for which he was assessed in 1599 (Book N 181). He was a major figure in Bristol’s metalwork industry; he did his apprenticeship under Paul Freling, and the apprentices Clovell trained include Thomas Wall and John Corsley, the latter of whom went on to marry Clovell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1592 and was the first of a long line of prolific Corsley goldsmiths working out of the south west (Kent 80).  

When you arrive to speak with Clovell, you may find him slightly preoccupied with his son-in-law, who drifts in and out of Bristol.  In 1606, nearly 15 years after his marriage with Clovell’s daughter, Corsley finds himself “lying in Prison in Newgate in London upon sundry accounts of debt.”  According to the defendant (William Walton) in a Chancery case concerning unpaid debts, Corsley was freed thanks to significant loans by Walton and others that he neglected to repay.  Walton claims to have spent years chasing Corsley, only for him to “go and lay in the North parts of this land where [the] defendant should not touch him”.  When he did return to Bristol, “it was under his father in law mr Clovell, goldsmith in Bristol.”  If you visit in the 1600s, 1610s, or 1620s in the years preceding Walton’s lawsuit, you may well find both goldsmiths in Wine Street.  

If you find Clovell unhelpful, you could always look for some financing from Corsley.  According to Walton, by the 1620s, the erstwhile debtor has returned more permanently to Bristol and “dealeth in great sums in the trade of a goldsmith” (TNA C3/341/56).  The defendant’s phrasing suggests that Corsley uses his trade to function as a financier or money trader, perhaps indicating an early example of the form of “goldsmith-banking” that formed the foundations of England’s banking sector in the late seventeenth century.  But you may wish to take into account Walton’s less-than-glowing consumer report…

You could speak instead with Edward Harsell, who lived two doors down from Clovell and who clearly knew him—well enough, at least, to witness the probate inventory after Clovell’s death in 1627 that records some of Clovell’s interior design choices, including “the wainscot, stained cloths, & pictures about the hall” (BRS Vol. 54;62-4). Harsell is also a significant figure among Bristol’s early modern metalworkers.  Work from Harsell’s shop survives, marked with his name and a small symbol (for more details on surviving marks see Timothy Kent): 

Harsell (possibly Richard or his son Edward), Spoon, “with a gilt maidenhead,” © Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury, Wiltshire, (on marks4antiques.com

The marking of this spoon with Harsell’s name suggests the advertising value tied to the craft, as this form of signature or branding seems to be unique to metalwork. Might these goldsmith-specific marks enhance or alter one’s reputation in the wider community and make one’s name more widely visible than those in other trades?

Have Connections in London

Appealing as Bristol might sound by now, it’s certainly worth fostering good connections with London and particularly the hierarchy of the Goldsmiths’ Company—perhaps, if you’re well-backed enough, by looking to serve your apprenticeship in the capital.  Timothy Kent observes how unusual it is for the Company to say anything nice about the work of provincial goldsmiths (95).  But in their search of Bristol in 1633, they made comment “upon the wares of Thomas Griffyn and Edward Griffin,” which “were found agreeable to the standards of gold and silver and redelivered them again” (Book R 2: 381). It is no coincidence that Edward Griffin (also Griffith) started his apprenticeship under John Wollaston of London—one of the wardens of the Company carrying out the search… (Kent 95).

Lost and found

Lastly, it’s important to keep your wares and your belongings safe, so that these valuable items can be kept in either personal possession or sanctioned circulation.  An entry on the 24 January 1573 in the Goldsmiths’ Company court books describes how an apprentice found in a chamber a “ring of gold with a cross and a heart in a pansy, with a “d” the one side of the cross and “M” on the other side of the same, with a G & H above it, & this date “1569” under it.” The ring was found in “The Temple wherein” Mr Fleetwood and Mr Sands have their lodging.  The wardens of the Company order that the ring be delivered to those two men “to the intent that they shall deliver it to the right owner if it be possible” (L 1:179).

Elizabethan Betrothal Signet Ring; 1stdibs.com

This minor incident represents a curious textual recording of this piece of jewellery and its accidents and circulation, but it also points to the formal structures surrounding lost jewellery in such a heavily-regulated gold market.  At the same time, it preserves the personal value of the item, delivering an ekphrastic lost and found record that announces the ring’s personalised inscription and perhaps indicates that its safe return is ordered with a nod to its likely emotional significance.  If it were central to a betrothal, it also has an added legal charge, testifying to a contract or binding. Its discovery in a chamber leaves to the imagination why the apprentice considered it lost (might it have been put aside for safe keeping?) and why it was not being worn (was it purposely discarded?).  

The entry thereby combines the financial and personal significance of jewellery, something that accords with other uses of rings in company records.  If you’re curious about how your wares might be used once you’ve established your freedom to trade in Bristol, you could start up your conversation with the Soapmakers of Bristol again.  In the seventeenth century, they begin to put rings down as deposits or forfeits for their observance of pricing agreements.  In 1612, members agreed on a price to which they “set … hands and Possites [deposits],” including (to pick a selection) Humphrey Reade’s signet ring and Thomas Burrows’ ring of gold; in 1614, Mrs Slye deposited 1 ring with a diamond and Leonard Hancock’s deposit was six silver spoons (BRS 10 95, 103-4). The symbolic qualities of these objects indicate how the deposits act as an extension of individual identity.

Tracking the varied circulation of rings in this way for middling members of livery companies suggests a broader cultural network for material objects such as jewels and in turn indicates the imbrication of commercial, personal, and domestic material culture.  The Bristol soapmakers’ rings may have had or once have had romantic or other significance for their owners, but they are (also) being put into a business network as promissory pawns.  Such rings (or silver spoons) may well have come from one of the prominent goldsmiths producing such items in Bristol across this period, perhaps from the Wine Street shops of Edward Harsell or Humphrey Clovell.  If you join the local collective of goldsmiths in Bristol, you would likewise release your work into a community where jewellery’s practical and decorative uses combine to furnish men and women of the town with status symbols—ones that represent a combination of social, cultural, and economic currency.  And, like Clovell, you may develop a deep familiarity with other cultural artefacts, from stained cloths and pictures to the plays that entertained audiences at Bristol’s Wine Street playhouse for nearly 30 years. 

Callan Davies


Bibliography:

Bristol Archives (Bristol).  Diocesan Court, Cause Books. EP/J/1/11.
Bristol Record Society. 10 (Proceedings, Minutes and Enrolments of the Company of Soapmakers, 1562-1642, H.E. Matthews) (1940)
—. 48 (The Topography of Medieval and Early Modern Bristol: Part One, Roger Leech). (1997)
—. 54 (Probate Inventories, Part I, Edwin and Stella George, assisted by Peter Fleming). (2002)
The Goldsmiths’ Company Hall, Library and Archives (London).  Court Minutes.  Books L, N, and R1 and R2.
Elizabeth Goldring, Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist (2019)
Timothy Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and their Makers, 1550-1750 (1992)
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin. “A Place of Great Trust to be Supplied by Men of Skill and Integrity”: Assayers and Knowledge Cultures in Late Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century London.” BJHS (2019): 1-27.
Roger Leech. The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol (2014).
The National Archives (Kew).  C3/341/56. 
The National Archives (Kew).  C2/JasI/W4/59. 
Pamela H. Smith. The Body of the Artisan (2004)

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