Bringing Sextons Back: Stepney’s Buriers, Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

In my last post, I introduced the maritime hamlets of early modern Stepney and explored some of the ways in which the parish’s middling sort used admin and officeholding to establish themselves as part of a local elite. Returning to the vestry minutes book as a starting point, this post will examine some of Stepney’s less desirable parochial offices before attempting to place these stations within the maritime parish’s complicated civic and social hierarchies. 

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers’ and searchers’ acts of civic duty took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

Noisome Graves and Troublesome Sextons

Plague had an acoustic, and that acoustic was the ringing of bells[1]

Stepney’s sexton played a crucial role in the daily management of the parish. Responsible for both the ringing of the parish church’s bells and the digging of graves in the churchyard, the sextons employed at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, found no shortage of work during the first half of the seventeenth century. As the parish’s population swelled and outbreaks of plague tore through the riverside hamlets, the St Dunstan’s churchyard quickly became overburdened. The vestry minutes record that in 1625 ‘the spedy purchasing of one parcell of ground’ for new burials was ordered, as well the earthing over of the present churchyard, owing to the ‘noysome sents’ that emanated from ‘the ground there so opened by reason of so many bodies formerlie enterred there’.[2]

Unfortunately, the Stepney vestry found itself repeatedly troubled by ‘very uncivil and disorderly’ sextons.[3] In 1601, sexton Francis Whitacres was ‘put out of his place’ and ‘utterly dismissed’ from the parish for a series of transgressions, which included neglecting and breaking the church bells to ‘the great chardg’ of the parishioners; attempting to persuade the parish clerk to embezzle funds so that they did not ‘dye beggers’; breaking his bonds and promises with the vestrymen; and bidding a churchwarden to ‘shake his eares emonng dogges’. A later sexton, William Culham, was similarly declared ‘unfitt for any further imployement’ after making himself known to be a ‘contemner & scoffer of them that are godly’ and refusing to ‘suppress a victualing house’ that he leased and ‘furnish[ed] … w[i]th beere’.[4] The early modern sexton perhaps best lives on today in the shape of Shakespeare’s proud ‘sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’, the Gravedigger from Hamlet.[5] The Gravedigger’s oaths, flippancy, morbid wit, and request for a ‘stoup [jug] of liquor’ suggest that unruly sextons were not only found in Stepney but throughout the nation, working their knavish grave-making characters into the broader early modern imagination. 

However, the position also provided perks and financial security. Along with the respected and necessarily literate clerk and curate, the sexton was provided a room above the vestry house and was also guaranteed a steady income owing to the constant need for bellringing and burials.[6] Furthermore, as demonstrated by Culham’s position as both sexton and landlord of the victualing house ‘the Rose’, Stepney’s sextons were able to pursue other economic ventures alongside their paid parochial responsibilities. 

A close up of a book

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A sexton at work in Humphrey Crouch’s Londons Vacation, and the Countries Tearme (London: Richard Harper, 1637)

Bearers and Searchers of the Dead

During the plague of 1625, ‘certaine [individuals] dwelling about Stepney’ took it upon themselves to become ‘common bearers of such as die of the pestilence and other diseases’.[7] In an attempt to suppress the extortionate ‘summes of mony as are no ways sufferable’ that were charged by these bearers, Stepney’s vestry decided to formalise the trade, setting fixed rates for the bearers of between four and twelve pence depending on where the body was carried from and its method of burial. The vestry further ordered that the bearers must travel ‘w[i]thout cloakes and cary red wands in theire hands that euery one may take notice of them’. It was decreed that the production and delivery of the wands to the bearers would be the responsibility of the sexton. 

Another office created in response to disease – this time an initiative of the vestry, rather than the regulation of an existing practice – was advertised for in 1617, although it was not filled until the outbreak of plague in 1625. It was ordered by the vestry that, in order to prevent the spread of infection, ‘there shalbe chosen in euerie hamlet two fit aged women to search and vew the bodies of euerie one decease[ed]’, with the women being paid ‘four pence a peece by the householder for the said vew and serch’ or the same amount by ‘the Churchwardens or Collectors for the poore’.[8] In 1625, Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott of Ratcliff were ‘chosen to be searchers […] in case & feare of Contagion of sicknes now suspected’.[9] Unsurprisingly, given the wealth disparity within the hamlet of Ratcliff, the St Dunstan’s parish registers reveal that both Mary Oswell and Elizabeth Scott resided in the hamlet’s poorer western side, in Shadwell near to Wapping Wall. 

Elizabeth Scott of Shadwell, ‘widow & pentioner’, is entered into the parish’s burial register on 8 May 1626, one year after her appointment as a searcher of the dead.[10] Mary, ‘wife of William Oswell of Shadwell[,] mariner’, followed just under a year later on 6 March 1627.[11] By tracing Mary and William Oswell through the parish registers of Stepney, Wapping, and St Katherine by the Tower, it becomes clear that Mary lost a three-year-old son a month after becoming a searcher, and left an eight-year-old daughter and two-month-old son behind after her death.[12] William, perhaps owing to his need for childcare and an imminent return to sea, remarried just three months later.[13]

The above example illustrates that although women’s names are almost entirely absent from Stepney’s vestry minutes, women did indeed perform civic office and play vital roles in the management of their communities, as has been explored in fantastic detail by the Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 project. However, in this instance, it is possible that Elizabeth Scott and Mary Oswell did not have much choice in the matter. In The Launching of the Mary by Walter Mountfort, a drama composed by the middle-ranking East India Company merchant during his 1632 return to Stepney from Persia, the hardships of mariners’ wives are extensively portrayed. The characters Mary Sparke and Isabel Nutt testify that the ‘two months paye a year’ provided by the East India Company is not ‘able to keep’ them whilst their husbands are at sea, and the character Dorotea conveys the need to ‘sitt at shopworke’ to ‘gett a liuinge by hard hand-labour’ during the ‘discontinuance of theyr husbands’.[14] Bearing in mind William Oswell’s profession, and the age of their children, it is possible that Mary Oswell found herself in a similar position. 

Civic Benefaction

So far I have argued that while the office of sexton might not have been the most desirable or respected occupation, it was nonetheless a necessary job that provided a secure position and reasonable economic stability – as long as you behaved and did as the vestry asked. While the reputation gained from performing the role of sexton might not be transferrable to another parish, and there is no evidence in Stepney of individuals advancing from sexton to a higher parochial office, the parish’s sextons seem to consistently hold positions somewhere between securely middling and of the lower-middling sort.

Stepney’s bearers and searchers of the dead also performed acts of civic benefaction that were necessary to the continued function and wellbeing of the parish community. The performance of deeds that benefitted the broader civic community was a key way in which individuals could gain public reputation for being a valuable member of the parish. The bearers and searchers acts of civic benefaction took the form of the dangerous handling of the parish’s diseased bodies, and these acts were carried out in public view and were recorded in important records kept in the parish chest. However, while this might sound like the ideal circumstances for achieving social advancement, for the bearers and searchers of the dead the reward was not favourable reputation but the monetary incentive that directly replaced – or at least supplemented – the poor relief they would otherwise receive. The wages of these workers were provided directly from affording households or from the already established overseers of the poor. Although these ‘offices’ received parochial recognition – and in the case of the bearers were even provided with uniform – just like in the case of Shadwell in my previous post, these individuals were brought into the public eye and recorded within parish documents so that they could be identified, shaped, and regulated by the parish’s central governing body.

Stepney’s parish records are full of complex narratives. These may partly be pieced together through retrospective historical study, but, far from being superimposed by scholarship, they were consciously written into these texts by early modern individuals whose representations have remained inscribed upon them ever since. 

The office of sexton is proving a particularly fascinating position to explore in the investigation of Stepney’s middling sort as, although the officeholders seem to have consistently occupied places amongst the parish’s lower-middling sort, unlike others in their social and economic position they held a secure role that was assigned to them for the length of their ‘naterall lyffe’.[15] Was it the guarantee of work and social position, but lack of hope for advancement from their office, that gave Stepney’s sextons the confidence to repeatedly act out against the vestry?  As Hamlet notes to Horatio beside the Danish sexton, ‘The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense’.[16]


[1] Adam Smyth, Autobiography in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 177.

[2] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 71v, 73r.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 106r.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 106r, 113v.

[5] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 420. 

[6] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 40r, 71v.

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 70r.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, ff. 57v, 69r. 

[9] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 69r.

[10] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[11] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/277.

[12] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/256; P93/DUN/265; P93/DUN/277.

[13] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/265.

[14] Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. by John Henry Walter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932).

[15] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 10v.

[16] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Methuen Drama, 2006), p. 414.

How to Get Ahead in Early Modern London’s Maritime World

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 83v. 3 April 1632.

Early modern London was a port city, which sat at the centre of England’s international networks of colonial and commercial venture. However, London’s maritime operations were underpinned by working communities that were situated just beyond the city’s walls, in the vast parish of Stepney to the east. Home to the riverside hamlets of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, and Poplar, and host to branches of powerful institutions such as the Navy, the East India Company, and Trinity House, Stepney provided London with the materials and workers necessary for the capital’s overseas activities. The economic growth of both London and the maritime sector in the late sixteenth century prompted a huge number of workers to migrate to maritime Stepney, some of whom settled permanently but many of whom were seasonal workers or mariners sent immediately to sea. 

This post will offer a look at some of the individuals, chiefly of the middling sort, that lived, worked, and fought for their positions within the mobile communities of Stepney’s riverside hamlets. In a maritime parish permeated by competition at all levels, it was necessary for individuals to take advantage of every opportunity to establish their social and professional positions. For the early modern middling sort, holding administrative office was a valuable way in which one could achieve social advancement. The following exploration of Stepney’s vestry minutes book will uncover some of the ways in which middling individuals worked to write themselves into their local community and, through administrative culture, equipped themselves with the edge needed to get ahead in maritime London.

The vestry minutes book (1579-1662) of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, contains a textual record of the meetings and administrative activities of the parish’s chief civic and ecclesiastical governing body, the vestry. Chronologically ordered, and loosely structured around the annual election of parish officers, the vestry minutes provide a frequently updated index of the parish’s local elites, or ‘chiefest inhabitants’, as well as a record of the region’s shifting social, economic, and topographical landscapes.[1] However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book was not just a static record of past events; it functioned as a tool that, like the navigational instruments crafted in the maritime parish’s workshops, could be used to locate and project one’s current and future positions. As an object of communal memory and consensus that parish elites repeatedly returned to, and subsequently disseminated the contents of, the vestry minutes book provided a textual surface onto which the parish’s middling sort could write their identity and assert their position within their local community. By providing access to this important piece of administrative culture, the vestry served as a privileged platform on which Stepney’s land-based middling sort could attempt to negotiate and settle identities of place, self, and other within the parish’s turbulent and mobile maritime hamlets. 

The Vestry 

Although the appearance of vestries as the central unit of local government did not occur in many rural areas until after 1660, Stepney’s minutes indicate that the vestry was central to local governance and administration by as early as 1579.[2] Initially made up of thirty-two men – eight representing each of the parish’s four hamlets of Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar, and Mile End – Stepney’s vestry was populated by necessarily local individuals, who were largely drawn from the middling to upper-middling sort. Rather than being ruled directly by manorial authority or by the elite commercial or naval officers that worked within the parish, Stepney’s vestry was largely composed of individuals whose social and economic positions were won through the professional status that they held within the parish’s maritime industries. That they described themselves as the ‘chiefest inhabitants and p[ar]ishoners’ is significant – these were men that lived and worked within the realms of Stepney parish, and the parish bounds were often the limits of their influence.[3]

Stepney’s maritime social signature was clearly reflected in its vestry. From 1589 onwards, Stepney elected to operate a ‘select vestry’, meaning that only those chosen by the previous vestrymen were able to serve, ensuring the group remained a self-selecting maritime ‘in-crowd’. Amongst the names in the vestry minutes are individuals whose colonial and military involvement gained them wide renown, such as William Borough and John Vassall, and also those whose professional achievements earned them fame beyond the parish, such as John and William Burrell, a father and son that were, between them, Master of Trinity House and Master Shipbuilder for the East India Company.[4] However, most vestrymen were successful middling professionals whose occupations included ballasters, ropemakers, shipwrights, anchorsmiths, chandlers, and victuallers. 

The Vestry Minutes Book 

This example of a minutes book was a new form of textual culture that developed alongside the establishment of England’s vestries and the growing civic consciousness and cultural identities of the middling sort. Drawing on established models of administrative and textual culture, such as chronicles and court records, vestry minutes often rhetorically positioned the vestry to speak on behalf of the entire parish and depict the group’s decisions through a united authoritative voice.

Wee the Cheefe Parishoners beinge now assembled together […] have by mutuall assent and consent, ordayned and agreed, that there shalbe chosen of the fowre Hamletts viz. Ratcliff Lymehowse, Popler and Milend, Eight specyall p[er]sons w[hi]ch […] assemble together in the Vestrie and there to consult, and agree, howe to reforme, and order any matter, or thing […] and the same enter or cause to be entered in this Churchbooke for a Testimony of their agreement.

We the Parishoners p[re]sently assembled both for ourselves, and in the name of all the rest of the Parishoners doe bynde our selves, and them by mutual assents, To howled, observe and mayntayne.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 19r-19v. 17 August 1589.

The language of unity and consensus used throughout these minutes was especially important for the Stepney vestry’s depiction of itself as a cohesive governing unit, as the group of thirty-two was larger than most early modern vestries, which nearly always consisted of twelve or twenty-four members.[5] In 1599, the vestry elected to increase its number even further to forty. Reflecting the vestry’s large membership, Stepney’s minutes book contains a vast diversity of “hands” (handwriting styles representing an individual) both anonymous and identifiable, giving the book the appearance of an incredible work of joint authorship – an example of this multitude of hands can be seen in the list of signatures included later in this post. Furthermore, a wealth of scribal evidence throughout the book demonstrates that generations of future vestrymen repeatedly returned to the vestry minutes and election records. 

The above table records the names of the vestrymen elected for Ratcliff and Limehouse in 1594; ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ are marked against the names of those no longer on the vestry and the names of future vestrymen are inserted into empty spaces. Whilst the inscriptions of ‘dead’ and ‘gone’ evidence that the minutes have been returned to by a parish clerk or a member of the vestry, it is not entirely clear when any of these notes were made. Joseph Pett’s name is inserted towards the bottom of the list for Limehouse alongside the label ‘dead’ – whilst Pett did become a vestryman in 1599, the next vestry election after the creation of this table, he did not die until 1605. 

Paper Performances and Placemaking

Whilst the surface performance of unity and continuity was important for the vestry’s image as an authoritative collective, the minutes book’s pages also served as a site of social competition amongst the vestry, particularly amongst those of the middling sort that were looking to consolidate and improve upon their hard-won positions.

Stepney’s vestry minutes book was a stage on which displays of skill and literacy were performed. The vestry minutes were produced and consulted in meetings that involved influential maritime figures, meaning that individuals who had earned a place on the vestry, but who were still seeking social and professional advancement, could exhibit their skilled identity in front of – and in competition with – the other local elites. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327

Robert Salmon, who served variably as vestryman, auditor, and churchwarden for Stepney parish between 1623 and 1641, was a prominent merchant, a leading director of the East India Company, a sometime Master of Trinity House, and the suggested eponym for Stepney’s Salmon Lane.[6] A conservative estimate, based on the number of signatures made in the vestry minutes book, puts the document in Salmon’s hands and gaze at least fifty times during his tenures. Catching Salmon’s attention through the vestry meetings and minutes could have proved a profitable endeavour.  

From ‘A Map of London and the adjacent Country’, John Rocque, 1746

Whilst it was Salmon’s reputation that placed his name onto the map and into public use, the vestry meetings – and the minutes book itself – also played a part in shaping place and space in early modern Stepney.

As the East India Company’s presence in Stepney rapidly increased, particularly after the building of Blackwall Yard began in 1614, the hamlet of Poplar’s importance began to be challenged by nearby Blackwall. Within the vestry minutes, the ‘hamlet of Popler’ increasingly becomes the ‘hamlet of Popler & Blackwall’, reflecting Blackwall’s rising significance. 

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 108v. 16 April 1650

However, Stepney’s vestry minutes book not only records the ways in which conceptions of local place changed, but evidences active attempts made by vestrymen to shape the places of the parish. Just as the area of Blackwall had been thought of as a subdivision of Poplar, before being elevated to the same status as the hamlet itself, the district of Shadwell began as a part of the larger hamlet of Ratcliff. In 1641, the vestry formally decreed that owing to the difficulty of managing Ratcliff’s growing population, they would divide the hamlet into two distinctly bounded administrative regions. 

Whereas the Hamlet of Ratcliffe is of late so largely encreased by the multitude of buildings & number of Inhabitants […] It is therefore at this vestry ordered & decreed, so farre as in vs lieth, that in the Hamlet of Ratcliffe shalbe chosen two Churchwardens […] 

the Churchwarden of Ratcliffe to have for his division, Stepney, Whitehorse street, Brookestreet, Ratcliffe wall, Ratcliffe street unto the old balist wharfe, And the Churchwarden for Wapping side to have for his division, upper Shadwell, lower Shadwell, Ratcliffe highway, Foxes lane, wapping wall, Prusons Iland, Kingstreet Wapping, Knockfergus, Newgravel-lane & Old gravel-lane.

London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Yet, whilst Ratcliff’s division from Shadwell is explained as an administrative necessity, the vestry’s decree also functioned as a placemaking activity that was closely bound to the control of civic identities. The vestry’s division of Ratcliff into the ‘Stepney’ and ‘Wapping’ sides clearly distinguished the wealthy eastern side of Ratcliff from the much poorer Shadwell to the west. Although both sides had churchwardens to regulate their districts, it was only the eastern ‘Stepney’ side that retained the name of Ratcliff and only this side that was represented on the vestry. Furthermore, whilst the decree’s first item clearly asserted that the two churchwardens ‘shalbe reputed & taken but as one’, within four years Ratcliff’s churchwarden is openly referred to as the ‘upper churchwarden’ over Shadwell’s ‘under’, consolidating Ratcliff’s superiority.[7] That the large majority of vestrymen lived and worked in Ratcliff, rather than Shadwell, is no coincidence.

By formalising the social and economic division between Ratcliff and Shadwell through the creation of parochial offices, and through further repeated appraisals within the vestry minutes of an ‘upper’ Ratcliff and ‘under’ Shadwell, Stepney’s vestry consciously shaped concepts of place within the parish.[8] By 1670, Shadwell had become its own distinct parish, functioning as no part of Stepney at all.

‘Shadwell Churchwarden’. London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

Being elected to the vestry was a testimony to one’s reputation and position within a local community. It allowed middling individuals, who were still working daily to keep their social and economic positions, to assert their place amongst a ‘better sort’ and attempt to fix this achieved position through acts of parochial legislation and record-keeping. Stepney’s vestry minutes book functioned as a tool that allowed its users to demonstrate their skills and project their own envisaged identities, whilst also shaping places and managing the ‘divers others’ that were not a part of the vestry’s ‘unified’ local elite. 

By Michael Powell-Davies
(PhD Candidate, University of Kent, School of English and Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies)


[1] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[2] Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, 1550-1640 (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 206-7.

[3] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 30r. 26 May 1597.

[4] For biographies of these individuals, and many others mentioned in the vestry minutes book, see Memorials of Stepney Parish, ed. by G. W. Hill and W. H. Frere (Guildford: Billing & Sons, 1891).

[5] J. F. Merritt, ‘Religion and the English Parish’, in The Oxford History of Anglicanism, Volume I, ed. by Anthony Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 122-147 (pp. 135-6).

[6] Sydney Maddocks, ‘Ratcliff’, Copartnership Herald, 3.26 (1933), no pages. Hector Bolitho disputes this claim, suggesting that the lane is named after an earlier Captain Robert Salmon (fl. 1588) in Without the City Wall (London: John Murray, 1952).  

[7] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 99r. 19 May 1641.

[8] London Metropolitan Archives, P93/DUN/327, f. 103v. 6 May 1645. Subsequent references to the ‘West’ and ‘East part of the Hamlett of Ratcliffe’ evidences that ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are appraisals of position rather than topographical references. 

Lettice Greene of Stratford-upon-Avon and her World

Stratford-upon-Avon Guildhall

Lettice Greene, like the majority of women in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, led a life in which her social status was determined by her male relatives. The life of her husband, Thomas Greene, was very well documented, particularly during the period 1602-1617, when he was town clerk and then steward of Stratford-upon-Avon. Lettice emerges as an important figure in documents made by or pertaining to her husband and other Stratford residents. This blog post presents a portrait of a middling woman who emerges from fragments of text.

Middling women’s activities often have to be glimpsed through snatched words, and their biographies are frequently partial. Their lives, where documented, are often written by men, though they followed very different trajectories: their educational experienced was geared towards skills that facilitated their running of a household, they very rarely gained positions of office, and their luck in marriage often determined whether they lived comfortable or difficult adult lives.[1] Their experiences, however, were varied, and many young women gained apprenticeships and positions of service before marriage and continued to have evolving careers over the course of their lives, as the Women’s Work in Rural England project has shown.[2]

Lettice began her life as the youngest daughter of a landed gentleman of West Meon in Hampshire. Here she would have had a privileged life, and she inherited 100 marks out of the profits of her father’s land. She bought this into her marriage to Thomas Greene, which took place in or around 1603, by which time she would have been in her late 20s. Thomas, although he was entitled to the title “gentleman” due to his education at the legal training centre of Middle Temple, was reliant on wages gained from his work for survival, and their early life in Stratford was spent as lodgers at New Place. Therefore, at this point in her life Lettice could be considered what we are terming “profession-al middling” status (working in or adjacent to a profession or literate role for a living), dependant on the hope that her husband would rise in status and wealth throughout his life. Although this status would have been gained through marriage, and shows a downward mobility from her landed gentry beginnings, from the evidence presented below, it seems that she may also have held this status in her own right, through the work she performed in relation to her husband’s profession as town clerk.

Lettice as a Writer and Networker

Letter from William Chandler to Thomas Greene at the Middle Temple. 26th January 1614. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

Lettice first caught my attention when I was exploring her husband Thomas’ cultural life through his writing. The letter in fig.1 is from William Chandler to Thomas, who was at the time of the letter, 26th January 1614, away from Stratford at the Middle Temple, where he spent a lot of his time. William asks Thomas for a subpoena out of the Star Chamber for six labourers involved in the enclosure of the common fields at Welcome, to which the Stratford Borough Corporation was opposed. He writes that:

I would intreate you if you have not the note of Remembrance that you tooke concerninge Mr Combe and other busyness at London all ready, then I would intreete you to Right downe to my mother greene that shee may send you the note up to you by the next retorne of the carrier.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, BRU15/5/151.

This sentence tells us a lot about Lettice’s important role in her husband’s professional life. She was clearly literate enough to read her husband’s fiendishly tricky cursive handwriting (which was especially bad in any of his ‘notes’) and could navigate her husband’s working space to the point of locating a particular document. Without his wife’s household management, Thomas might have been left to make do without some important information. Lettice, then, played an important role in mediating between Thomas’ life at the Middle Temple and his Stratford business.

The second document that gives an insight into Lettice’s involvement with her husband’s professional world emerges from Thomas’ diary, which records his conversations and actions during a protracted enclosure dispute in 1614 and 1615. Lettice’s social network of Stratford women gave her information, via Margaret Reynolds, of attempts by the local Combe brothers to buy up land from nearby landladies; this insight was relayed to her in Thomas’ absence, and he then recorded it in his diary when he got back.[4] Lettice was, then, trusted as a source for town news to be written down and Thomas’ recording of the conversation he had with her after his return home demonstrates the social role she played as a gatherer of information.

The third document where Lettice’s presence is marked is on a deed of conveyance for Elizabeth and Adrian Quiney drawn up in 1611, which she signs as a witness in fluent italic hand. Here we get more of a sense of her social connections – she signs alongside her husband as well as Edmund Rawlins (another lawyer) and Judith Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s daughter. She was, then, connected to some of the most powerful women in Stratford-upon-Avon: Elizabeth Quiney, the merchant and landowner, the Shakespeares (with whom she and Thomas also lodged at New Place in the first decade of the 17th century), and Margaret Reynolds, another female landowner. Her handwriting, present in her signature, also hints at her high level of literacy: her ink distribution is even and her hand confident (despite having to add an ‘I’ into her first name – Let^i^ce). The image of Lettice which emerges from these three documents is one of active involvement within her community and embeddedness within a network of socially and economically prominent women.

Lettice’s fluent handwriting, ability to locate and send documents to her husband, and role as a gatherer of information begs the question, just how frequently did Lettice write? Where did it all go? How typical was she of a middling woman married to a professional man who often spent time away for work? I’d been willing to imagine from her handwriting that Lettice was a regular scribe; that maybe she sent letters to her husband in his absences; that maybe she noted down information given to her. Her importance as an administrator only comes to light in a few documents, with her inevitable considerable unpaid labour towards her husband’s professional life hidden – if we had her matriarchive then #thanksfortyping might well be applicable to Lettice’s writing!

Lettice – a Businesswoman?

Although very little information survives about Lettice’s and Thomas’ home ‘St Mary’s’, it was described at its sale in 1617 as having a ‘brewing furnace’ and a brewhouse, as well as some land. This hints at the kind of activity Lettice may have participated in to enhance the household’s income. If Lena Orlin’s research into Anne Hathaway, and her speculation that Anne brewed beer at New Place is considered, it is not unlikely that Lettice, whilst lodging there, picked up this skill and continued it in her own home.[5] Her social circle of women who were economically active and successful in their own right, like Elizabeth Quiney and Margaret Reynolds, would suggest that Lettice also participated in similar enterprises within the town. Middling wives and widows conducted a range of paid and voluntary work within their homes and locales, and so it would not be unusual for Lettice to have generated produce in her brewhouse and on St Mary’s land to sell on.

After the house’s sale, Thomas and Lettice moved to St John’s Parish, Bristol, where, they largely disappear from the record.[6] Sadly, it seems Lettice’s marriage was not as economically or socially advantageous as she perhaps anticipated when she married a Middle Temple lawyer, who had secured a good position of office. In Thomas’ will (the final document in which Lettice can be found) he makes Lettice sole executrix, and bequeaths all of his remaining goods to her his ‘most deare & loving wife, being sorry that I haue noe more (than I haue to doe good a woman)’.[7] This statement is an extraordinary admission of Thomas’ failure to sustain the lifestyle Lettice was born into, but also suggests her important role as part of a team in marriage. Although, then, it is difficult to gain a full picture of Lettice’s life, these small mentions of her activities in documents pertaining to others hint at her varied work activities and the essential role she played in her household’s economic production. Perhaps, then, we might think of Lettice as having more than a supporting role, but as sharing a career with her husband, through her labours in his absence and domestic production of consumables. 

Hannah Lilley


[1] For an introduction to women’s education see: Caroline Bowen, ‘Women in Educational Spaces’ in The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing, ed. by Laura Lunger Knoppers (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[2] See https://earlymodernwomenswork.wordpress.com/ and Laura Gowing, ‘Girls on Forms: Apprenticing Young Women in Seventeenth-Century London’, The Journal of British Studies 55:3 (2016), 447-473.

[3] BRU15/5/151. William Chandler to Thomas Greene, Stratford the 26th January 1614. The survival of this letter within the borough archives suggests that either it was never sent, or that Thomas bought it back from London with him.

[4] BRU 15/13/29r.

[5] SBT, BRU15/7/128. Lena Cowen Orlin, ‘Anne By Indirection’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 60.4 (2014) 421-454,  p.447.

[6] BRU, 15/7/125 and BRU15/7/128.

[7] Will of Thomas Greene, National Archives PROB 11/186/420.

NB. Links in text are to Shakespeare Documented and to a Buzzfeed summary of #thanksfortyping.

The Cally Family: Chester’s Early Modern Music Scene

This document details a rather formal conclusion to a brotherly quarrel.

BL Harley MS 2054

Dated 1599, it’s preserved as part of a manuscript “anthology” of copied and original documents from Chester’s administrative past by early antiquarian, Randle Holme II.

The brothers in question, Robert and George Cally, were both musicians, and they seem not to have been able to agree how to share the profits of their profession. This formal accord, signed by both of them, concluded that they should split the shares equitably between them based on the number of sons each had (1 and 2 respectively, at this date, with provision for this to change in the future). Having agreed to terms, they pledged to “Contynue be and remayne of one consorte and to play vpon their instrum{en}t{es} together still in one Company and be loving and frendlie.” The subsequent shape of their careers shows that this happy settlement didn’t last so long… But the Callies do present a fascinating case study of a large family of musicians adept at navigating the social hierarchy, status, and commercial possibilities of musical performance in the early modern city.

Meet the Callies

The Cally/Kelly family were something of a Chester dynasty of musicians. They had been active as musicians or performers from at least the mid-sixteenth century, and the George and Robert of this particular document were at their busiest in the early years of the 1600s.

After their agreement to continue as “one Company,” they seem to have split and sought different areas of patronage in the following decade. George, for instance, became a servant to the Earl of Derby (William Stanley), while Robert worked for Sir John Savage—both local elite figures. In their introduction to the Cheshire edition of Records of Early English Drama, Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence Clopper, and David Mills point out how the nature of this patronage arrangement speaks to a complex hierarchy of service: in 1609, under these new employment situations, George accused Robert of “crouching” to Savage (ie being servile or sycophantic), the erstwhile Mayor of the City, and he suggested that working for the mayor was far less prestigious than working for the noble Earl of Derby (lxiii).

Nearly a decade after signing the accord with his brother, George became the first musician to be made “free” of the city (granting him privileges and rights in accordance with his profession), granted in 1608 without any customary fee. He was clearly proactive not only in arranging his financial legacy for his children but in securing requisite status and authority within the city to practice music as a serious trade or profession.

The Case of the Missing Musicians

This proactive approach went further in 1613, when the Chester “waits”—the musicians who work formally for the city—just vanished without a trace! George saw this as an opportunity to petition the City for the role for himself and his company. He asked the Assembly whether he “and his felowe Musitians may be admitted waytes […] in steede of the Waytes now absent fyndinge Instrumentes of his own Charg to perform the service” (REED p. 387 and and Calendar of Assembly Minutes, ed. Margaret J. Groombridge, 1956, p. 66). The Assembly delayed a decision “vntill it may be vnderstoode what are become of the ould waytes.” This tantalising Case of the Missing Musicians notwithstanding, the Assembly did eventually grant the petition, and the mayor even gives them extra instruments on top of those Cally promised to secure himself: a “double Curtayle [a bassoon-like instrument] wantinge a staple of brasse for a reede, and one tenor cornett beinge the Citties instrumentes” (REED 383).

George was also more widely engaged in commercial competition and jostling for status, petitioning in 1615 for protection against “strangers” who were teaching music and dance. His complaint asserts his rights as a freeman of the city and also draws on his newfound public “office” as City Wait; he also emphasises how his musical ability and dance teaching have not only helped keep him and his family of ten children “but hath allso obtained & procured a good respecte and estimacion from men of the best sort & generall fashion truelie sensible and respectiue of the like faculties [of music and dance]” REED 407-08). Cally’s wording confers significant status on the public musician, indicating the role’s respectability and music’s potential for social mobility (and so speaking very closely to Ipswich’s Marten the Minstrel, who likewise occupied important public office as a town musician).

Just Dance 1612

Such musical rivalry is detectable throughout Chester’s rich history of music, play, and performance, sometimes overlapping with its wider leisure industry (especially in drinking!). In 1595, for instance, we hear of Richard Preston from Warrington, a musician who was visiting with his company when he gets into an altercation with an over-eager musical enthusiast (available on the Intoxicants website):

about 10 of the clock in the night upon Tuesday last this examinate and his company were playing upon their night’s music up St Werburgh’s Lane out of the Eastgate Street towards their host Foxall his house and saith that in that Lane Mr William Hicock clerk who came out of John Stile’s tavern overtook them and spake to this examinate and requested this examinate to leave him this examinate’s treble violin to play upon […]

Chester Record Office ZQSE 5/46

After a few drinks, the evening of violin-exchange turns into the theft of the musician’s sword by the drunken Hicock and a violent scuffle. In 1612, a Quarter Sessions case shows Robert involved in similarly impromptu performance, with an apprentice going to a “Sillibub” at Margery Waterson’s house, before meeting Robert Cally at 4 in the morning, whom he asked “to teache him daunce & stayed dancing one hower” (REED 391).

A pamphlet written by T. F. in 1579 offers a lively picture of what such dance teaching might have looked like. Written partly in satire and partly in censure of such revelry, the pamphlet’s speaker tells us how he visited a dancing school in London to partake in some of the pleasures “that were straunge and noueltie [sic] vnto vs of the Cuntrie”:

when wée weare come into the Schoole: the Musitions were playing and one dauncing of a Galiard, and euen at our entring hée was beginning a trick as I remember of sixteens or seuenteens, I doo not very wel remember but wunderfully hee leaped, flung and took on

Newes from the North C3r

T. F. indicates something of what visitors to Chester might meet in the Callies—a distinctly different urban leisure scene from quieter surrounding towns and villages. Such a difference is certainly borne out by the many different court documents of Chester from the mid-sixteenth-century onwards that recount individuals visiting or holidaying in the city, simply in order to sightsee, to drink in inns and taverns, or to meet up with friends. As such, individuals like the Callies helped create an atmosphere of play that was central to Chester’s economy and to the movement of people in and through its streets—in other words, to its local identity and sense of place.

Middling Musicians

The Callies therefore occupied a major role in the festive life of the city, while, even in a court case dealing with bad behaviour, delineating its propriety or respectability, in a similar way to George’s advertising of positive reviews from “men of the best sort.” As he intimates in his petition in 1615, by monopolising the trade of music and dance in the city, individuals like Cally could control its status and ensure that it was taught and performed to standard.

And so the document above signed between Robert and George in 1598/9 testifies to a rivalry developed early in their musical career. It also makes clear that at this earlier stage than the examples above, the two played together in a troupe, ahead of subsequent work for two different elite employers (Savage and Stanley respectively) and eventually for the city (at least for George and possibly for Robert or other Cally family musicians who may have formed part of George’s promised “company”). Despite their various quarrels, their brotherly connection and the longer family history of professional music-playing clearly helps map for them a way to make a living as musicians and dancing instructors. In this, they parallel the extraordinary rise to prominence of Edward Alleyn, a key and perhaps exceptional middling success story, who began as a player in a troupe with his elder brother; Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, who followed the playwright to be an actor in London, also springs to mind!

The signatures of George and Robert Cally on this document offer a wonderful chance to get a little closer to the rich and tempestuous creative lives of these two remarkable personalities of early modern Chester.

Callan Davies

WFH 2: Tradesmen and Tools for Working from Home, Chapter 1

Chisel, 17th Century. Item ID: LON-4261F3

For this second instalment of ‘Working from Home’ in early modern England, I’m going to take a look at some of the tools and materials urban individuals used as part of their trade in two posts. The first looks at the wider uses of tools and the second studies joiners.

The chisel in the image above might seem fairly ordinary, but for the 17th century tradesman it would have held a specific function and purpose for the performance of their craft. In early modern towns, individuals were set up and equipped to work from home, or in the home of their employers, and would often share tools, moulds and materials with their peers. Home set-ups are also a recurring concern from our own period of social distancing where many people have difficulty accessing the necessary equipment for performing their job – e.g. an adequate internet connection, working laptop or a comfortable seat.

From 1560 onwards there was a shift in how these tradespeople’s’ working spaces developed, with open hall houses giving way to an increase in rooms with specific purposes. Jane Whittle has noted that in Kent from 1600 to 1629 there was an increase in the number of specialist service room[s] within houses (like brew houses, mills and warehouses).[1] Two of this project’s team leaders, Catherine Richardson and Tara Hamling, have shown how people in urban settings invested in locks and doors to separate ‘working space from other spaces’.[2] Artisans would craft these areas to mark their trade identities to passers-by through the tools, materials and wares on display—and they often displayed shop boards at their openings, so they were not dissimilar from our own understanding of high street retail. But these shops were spaces of production, too, and could double as the site in which a trade was performed.

Tools and Identification of Trades


A Drawing of Tools seen in Chester Shops by Randle Holme in one of his manuscripts for The Academy of Armoury (1649), Harley MS 2026. Left = butchers, Middle = bakers, coopers = Right.

Randle Holmes III’s, The Academy of Armoury, or a Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry, published in 1688, helps explain the importance of shop tools to urban identities. In it, he describes the trades he encounters through his home town of Chester, the tools artisans use and the ‘terms of the art’ as well as providing illustrations. The above image Holmes’ workings in a manuscript compiled in 1649, and on this folio he depicts tools used in three professions (butchers, bakers and coopers) in careful detail.

Tools are considered part of symbolic identities. Individual tradesmen are tied to their craft through the material culture that surrounds it in the form of the assemblages of tools used for their work. Tools were kept with and deployed by a person. As such, they could be viewed like clothing, which conveyed signals about a person’s status, residence, societal roles, gender, wealth and occupation. [3]  A tradesman formed a close association with the equipment they shaped, repeatedly employed, and held.


Randle Holmes, Academy of Armoury, pp.364-65.

This facsimile, taken from the printed edition of Academy of Armoury, illustrates tools used in woodworking crafts like carpentry, joinery, and carving. The accompanying text is distinctly heraldic in its language with, for example, the mallet in the fourth image on the top row is elaborated with:

IV. He beareth Sanguine, a joyners mallet, Argent. By the name of Mallet. There is much difference between the masons, and the Joyners or Carpenters Mallets, the first being round and heavy, the others square both in the face and sides.

Randle Holme, The Academy of Armoury, or Storehouse of Armoury and Blazonry (1688), p.365

Holmes both describes what a woodworking mallet looks like and specifies how it should be used in a coat of arms. ‘Argent’ is the heraldic term for silver, and ‘Sanguine’ is blood red, so he also prescribes the correct colours for the mallet’s proper rendering. Holmes also uses the phrase ‘he beareth’ and ‘to bear’ has the meaning to be ‘the wearer of a garment, ornament, badge, etc.’ (3a, oed). A tool often borne in a joiner’s hand is here used as a suggestion for his coat of arms, linking his identity to the equipment he uses for his trade. Within the Academy of Armoury, Holmes paints the visual world of trade identity through tools.

Tools at Home

Inventories—lists of goods made at (relatively wealthy people’s) death—sometimes record the tools belonging to an individual, and occasionally in great detail. They are therefore a means through which we might ground the tools deployed in Holmes’ volume in specific locales.

For example, Thomas Bonner, an Ipswich blacksmith inventoried in 1583 had a variety of tools in his shop.

The shoop stuff

Item one stythe [blacksmith’s anvil] and blocke ______4 0 0

Item a paier of bellowes and appurtenances _______  0 12 0

Item a beake horne [the pike of a blacksmith’s anvil] and carnayle toole and the blockes 0 2 6

Item one vyce ___________ 0 5 0

Item nyne hammers  __________ 0 6 0

Item thre payer of tonges ________0 1 6

Item the smalle tooles _________0 1 8

Item tenn Punchins [small pointed tool which could pierce materials] ___0 1 6

Item a nayle stocke __________0 0 8

Item fyve fyles two buttres a paier of pynsons and other tooles_____0 1 4

Item a carte strake wrought _____ 1 7 6

Item fyftie six pound Iron  ________0 4 8

Item LVIIIli leaden waights________0 4 10

Item two beames and skooles_______ 0 5 0

Item one smythes troughe___________0 0 6

Item a gryndston and cranke and the troughe _____ 0 5 0

From: The Ipswich Probate Inventories 1583-1631, ed. by Michael Reed (Boydell Press, 1981). Hereafter, IPI.)

Some of these tools are specialised to the blacksmith’s craft with a ‘stythe’ being a blacksmith’s anvil:


Modern blacksmith at work using 17th century style tools at Little Woodham Museum. By David Brightmore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Other tools, like hammers, files, weights and grindstones, are used across trades.

Archaeological examples of hammers show similar features to what we might expect today, with its flat head and prongs.

Iron Hammer, circa 1650. ID: LON-B0bD16

Bonner also has tenn ‘punchins’ which are small, sharp tools used to pierce metal. In his possession of ten of these punchins, Bonner would be able to produce piercings of various aesthetic effects, creating decorative touches to his work in ways which might make his work easily attributable to him.

Alongside his tools, Bonner has fire attending equipment, essential for the heat needed in the manipulation of metal, but also for light and warmth within the shop. Passers-by would be able to observe Bonner at work from the street, could judge his work, and make requests for wares to be made for them. The shop, in this sense, was a permeable boundary between the home and the outside world, where production and purchase happened in the same space.

The value of tools can be seen in the way they became heritable items. For example, Gilbert Mayerte, Millwright of Ipwich’s will details that:

‘I give and bequeathe unto the sayd Richard my sonne all my Tymber plancke bourd toles and all other tinges necessary belonging and Apperteyning to my science’

Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich Branch, IC/AA1/7/67.

As such, craft identity as it is expressed through tools, permeates workspaces in multi-layered ways: tools used to create items for consumption in the present may have been inherited from a family member or employer which gave them significance as memory prompts of past craftsmen in their continued use through generations. Patterns of craft could then be established in locales where these tools and techniques were passed between people through inheritance. We can see this with the distinct style of armchair that emerged from Salisbury joiners’ workshops in the seventeenth century, as seen in a past blog post.

Apart from the shop, there were many other rooms used for manufacture or for the storage of tools and materials. On a small scale, these rooms might be listed as chambers. For example, houses in Ipswich and Bristol occasionally have ‘shop chambers’, which were linked spatially and in purpose with the shop.

These chambers frequently contained tools, materials and shop wares. Stephen Grenewich, dyer of Ipswich, had a room next to his shop that held weights and scales and a skraier (a frame for layering cloth upon) for clothworking (IPI, p.55). On a larger scale, someone might have workhouses or warehouses. For example, Henry Piper of Ipswich, poldavisweaver (poldavis is a particular type of cloth common in Brittany, which was bought over to England in 1547, and Ipswich became the centre of its production in England), inventoried in 1615, has two workhouses with nine looms and various cloths ‘in makinge’ and this demonstrates a larger scale of production taking place domestically, with multiple employees—an “SME” or small “factory.”[4]

In non-inventoried houses low down the social scale, in precariously middling or poor households, tools would also have appeared. There are plenty of examples in churchwardens accounts of wool cards, timber and other tools and materials handed out in charity to enable those less fortunate to generate income.

These practices extend to women’s work.  Widows often inherited shops and responsibility for its trade and production, alongside household labour. For example, Ann Barnarde, widow of Ipswich whose inventory was taken in 1606 possesses tools for embroidery – a ‘reell and a little yarne’ – things she may have used to generate some income (IPI, p.65).  A request for a women’s service in needlework appears in an Ipswich deposition too, where Margaret Morgon remembers that one Dorothy, a servant to Mr Barker,

bought unto the house of this deponent [Margaret] one shirte wrought w[i]th blacke worke of sylke & requested her this deponent to breake the same & to make the said dorothie a neckercher thereof w[hi]ch she […] so did.

Petty Court Depositions, Suffolk Archives, Ipswich, C/2/3/8/1, 140

Margaret recognises this shirt as stolen, but does the work anyway, with this case later going to court. The fact that the material garment recycled for the neckercher was stolen, is the only reason this example of Margaret’s work (and indeed Dorothy’s time as a servant before her marriage) is recorded. Work like this, completed with small tools like needles relies on archaeological examples like this needle to understand craft practices:

Post Medieval Needle, Portable Antiquities Scheme

There are many gaps in our understanding of practice generated by tools and materials which were ephemeral, used then thrown away, or too insignificant to be frequently recorded.  But records, archaeological finds and images demonstrate how essential tools were to a trades-person’s identity within an urban setting. Next time I’ll be looking more closely at a particular kind of making setting and the tools used within it: the joiner’s workshop.

By Hannah Lilley


[1] Jane Whittle, ‘The House as a Place of Work in Early Modern Rural England’, Home Cultures, 8:2 (2011), 133-150, pp.134-136.                                                                

[2] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, A Day at Home in Early Modern England: Material Culture and Domestic Life, 1500-1700 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p.144.

[3] For more on  clothing, tools in civic ceremonies, and identity this see, Catherine Richardson, ‘Dugdale and the Material Culture of Warwickshire,’ in C. Dyer and C. Richardson eds., William Dugdale, Historian, 1605-86: His Life, His Writings and His County (Boydell and Brewer, 2009).

[4]Eric Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), p.123.

Martin the Minstrel and the Playhouses of Suffolk

How did ordinary people “play” in towns and cities outside of London in early modern England?  Leisure is a crucial aspect of middling experience and a key theme for this project, which aims to understand the different elements of non-elite cultural experience, ranging from gambling to reading to musical tuition.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ipswich and its surroundings—one of our community case studies—offers an insight into the vibrancy and variation of public forms of “play” in this period, one that tells us a great deal about how Tudor and Stuart people understood recreation (and, in turn, how the development of the playing industry in London had crucial “provincial” contexts).  Our work on Bristol has already shown how a long-standing playhouse in Wine Street (operative for some 20 years) sat at the centre of a lively political and commercial network of middling individuals in the early seventeenth century. This property was a tenement with one front door and several rooms—all let out for various purposes—in which one or two rooms were used to host “comedians.”  Despite, or perhaps because of, the multipurpose nature of this property, its proprietor Margaret Woolfe explained that it was “commonlie called the playhouse” by Bristolians (The National Archives MS C2/328/28).  Her description testifies to the flexible nature of the term “playhouse” and its applicability to a range of architecturally-, commercially-, and recreationally-diverse enterprises.

“for kepinge A pleyhowse”

The archives of Ipswich and wider Suffolk contain further evidence of the way expansive “play” activities shaped the lives of the non-elite.  

In 1627, Jacob Abadham was reportedly running a playhouse in Ipswich.  It’s not certain quite what was on offer in the establishment, but like the Woolfes’ venue in Bristol, the Quarter Sessions cited Abadham “for kepinge a Pleyhouse,” in this case among a list of individuals bound £10 “not to plaie att vnlawfull games” (which could encompass anything from dicing and carding to bowling) on the 17 January (Suffolk Archives  C/2/9/1/1/8, 178).  Two years later, John Payne was bound “not to suffer any pleyinge in his house” (28 July 1629; 198).  Such instances indicate how the term playhouse described, at least in this corner of the country, spaces where “game” was practised and extend the connections between the performance of playing and gaming along the lines recently identified by theatre historians such as Gina Bloom, Erika Lin, and Tom Bishop.  It also testifies to Peter Clarke’s remarks about how, in the wake of attacks on church-orientated festival, the alehouse increasingly became a centre of communal games and rituals (with a corresponding increase in regulation) (The English Alehouse [1983]).

These activities sat among a broader spectrum of what residents would have termed playing.  Visiting bearwards, for instance—particularly in the mid-to-late sixteenth-century—were popular purveyors of entertainment in the area.  One payment from 1565 records a fee delivered to the “dewekes bereward for his reward for baitinge of his beares vppon the corne hill” (Suffolk Archives C/3/2/1, 21v [19]).  This entry indicates where exactly bearbaiting would occur in early modern Ipswich—in the Cornhill immediately before the main civic building, the Moot Hall (or Town Hall). 

from John Webb, The Town Finances of Elizabethan Ipswich (1996)

This is not only where all the work of government and legal proceedings would take place, but it was also where visiting troupes of players would have performed before the town authorities and perhaps wider audiences.  These include “national” troupes patronised by major figures (including the Queen, Fortescue, Worcester, or Pembroke) but also troupes identified by their very regionality: “c{er}ten players of Lincolnshere” (SA C/3/2/1, 29r [27]) and “Mr Tewk{es} plaiers the highe sheriff of Essex” (21v [19]).  

When the cook Henry Semer was arrested in Ipswich on 14 March 1620 “for ffightinge w{i}th the pleyers” (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 59), it may therefore have been an altercation with one of these well-rewarded visitors, but it could also have been for a quarrel with somebody he knew well.  The town had a long history of its own performers, particularly surrounding the prominent Martin the Minstrel, rewarded frequently in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign for his varied theatrical labours in and around the town.  It also seemingly commissioned its own drama from local schoolchildren; in 1565, the Chamberlain “paide for a play to mr Scott{es} lads the sonday before newe yeres day [10s]” (SA C/3/2/1, 12r).

Middling Minstrelsy?

But what does the elastic nature of “play” have to do with the cultural lives of the middling sort?  Play represents one vehicle for achieving prominent status in the community and for securing the type of local political and administrative agency that so often marks out those in the “middle” stratum of society from their more precarious, even disenfranchised, neighbours.

Community performance is one area that might afford such agency.  The study of civic pageantry is at present an especially lively field, and Tracey Hill’s work and her current REED Civic London project explore the breadth and extent of those involved in theatrical activity across livery companies, the mayoralty, and beyond in the early modern capital.  Ipswich’s political structures—upheld by the type of people this project aims to learn more about—were no less involved with the commissioning of play, and as a consequence (beyond “patronage” and livery), the notion of formal administrative “officeholding” extends in this period to performance.

In 1558, the first year of the Queen’s reign, the chief performer of early Elizabethan Ipswich Martin the Minstrel was carried by the Chamberlain and his horse to see the local MP, John Suliard (SA C/3/2/1, 6r).  Martin’s role in local diplomacy and civic ceremony indicates the crucial connection between public office and professional performance in this particular community, and he and his company also play “before” the bailiffs’ physical and symbolic “entry” into their roles in 1567.  

To Martyn the mynstrell for him & his company in plaienge before m{aste}r baylyff{es} at ther entrye of ther Baylywicke xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

To Martyn the minstrell for playenge before M{aste}r Bayly Whetcrofte at his goinge to m{i}chaelmas t{er}me [no cost entered]

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

It is highly likely that Martin the Minstrel is also William Marten, musician and player, who was funded by the town to perform in his various “entertainment” roles, including fees for him “and his companye for A playe at the mote hall” in 1572 (ibid. 38r).  By 1582, Ipswich had purchased

at the request of Will{ia}m marten musician the said Will{ia}m marten & his Company being 6 in all […] waight{es} [woodwind instruments] bought at the townes chardge & that he & they shall therewith s{er}ue the towne for one yere in suche order as by the bayliff{es} shalbe thoguht mete & requisit And the said Will{ia}m & his Company to send to the considerac{i}on of the towne, for ther wages in that behalf, And it is furder Agreed by the consent of the said will{ia}m that if the towne shall not lyke of ther s{er}uice At the yere ende that then he the said will{ia}m shall repaye the som{m}e f money the towne shall so disburse backe ageyne And for the better assurance of payment therof the said Will{ia}m p{ro}miseth to stonde bound with sufficient suerties Accordyngly as by mr Bayliff{es} for the tyme being shall thinke mete And allowe of/.

(SA C/2/2/2/1, 142)

The company were kept as the town waits (“musicians” or performers named after the popular woodwind instrument similar to the oboe—the “wait”) from this date forward, ratified again in 1590 (ibid. 293), before in 1597 they were discharged of their retainer in the time of sickness (March 1597).  Martin’s skills ranged in thirty-odd years of service from “playeng the fooles in the hall” (SA C/3/2/1, 30r) to professional musicianship.  His company’s career was already established by the time it was appointed to civic service, though continuance in that role seemingly depended upon the tastes and approval of the Ipswich governing authorities.  

The shawm or wait (Wikimedia Commons)

The hiring of Marten’s troupe formalised the existing relationship between Ipswich and the “independent” Martin the Minstrel and his company, instituting a new career phase in a public service role akin to the “watch” or to beadles, surveyors, or highways inspectors.  Other such offices rewarded by the Chamberlains include attorneys, pursuivants, and sergeants—roles more formally recognised today, perhaps, as part of a town hierarchy.  Yet Martin’s activities also position him as a man of both financial success (with regular reward from the Chamberlain) and “office,” as the local player and musician leader.  

More surprisingly, Marten also occupies a second formal role in civic administration as the clerk of the market.  From at least 1574 onwards, for several years, he received payments of 6 shillings and 8 pence per quarter for this responsibility, at the same time as he fulfilled his theatrical roles.  These successive payments from 1575 testify to a complementary relationship between creative performance and bureaucratic office in the early modern commonwealth:

It{e}m p{ai}d to Will{ia}m Marten clarke of the markett the xxiiijtie daye of Iune for his q{uar}ter wag{es} — vjs viiijd

It{e}m p{ai}d to will{ia}m marten Clarke of the markett more the xxtie daye of Iune by a warrant for musicke at ye gilde dinn{er} — xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 87r)

Marten’s social status is therefore determined by both public administration and play.  An inventory from 1580 made by the town treasurer indicates how these roles had similar material concerns regarding the township’s possessions, with the inventory of items “vnder the Custodie of will{ia}m Marten clark of the m{ar}kett” including several bushells, a chain, brass scales, “A pound wayte & A q{uar}ter of A pound” (165r).  A fortunate pun therefore draws together Martin the minstrel—player of the wait (the woodwind instrument)—with Marten the clerk, who commanded the town’s measures and weights. 

Not only does Marten rise above hand-to-mouth existence thanks to his regular employments here, but his negotiations between local authority, townspeople, and a paying public position him as a key civic actor, in all senses of the term.  Such roles are particularly important if we are to understand this broad and complex status of those between the “elite” and the wage labourer, particularly in the case of early modern Ipswich and Bristol: urban environments where major political power was increasingly monopolised by a closed oligarchy but where intermediate positions (such as Marten’s) delivered degrees of civic agency. Marten the Minstrel’s biography as gleaned from these records may be scattered, but it allows us to put him as an early, provincial parallel (albeit on a smaller scale) to successful actor-entrepreneurs with civic or royal responsibilities in London later in the century, such as Edward Alleyn.

Work, Home, and Play 

Marten’s offices represent one aspect of middling status inextricably bound up with theatrical performance, but the social significance of play for a range of non-elite men and women also extended to physical spaces.  We have seen, for instance, how Abadham was cited for running a playhouse and Payne fined for playing at his house.  In this sense, “play” can bring together the ostensibly closed domestic home with public and even commercial leisure activity.

Inns and taverns doubled up themselves as play/houses, and these spaces may indicate an overlap with Abadham’s or Payne’s properties: there was a worryingly thin line for authorities in this period between the common inn or alehouse and a household that played host to multiple visitors—not least in a period where regulation of victualling houses, rented rooms, and inns was intensifying (see, for instance, punishment by imprisonment of any “such p{er}sons as have taken any Inmates into their houses” [1625; SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 151]).  Those ranging from the JAMs (the just-about-middling—those above wage labour) to the upper ends of middle status (those pushing gentry level) frequented such spots to play, gamble, and/or drink, and Mark Hailwood’s study of the alehouse (ostensibly the “lowest” drinking spot) has illustrated the demographic diversity of these social spaces.  

What might be on the surface more clearly be defined as a domestic house—and middling homes in particular—also had sense of multiplicity and permeability.  Catherine and Tara explore in A Day at Home in Early Modern England how these properties acted as “multifunctional houses and spaces” with a “penetration of work and leisure, domestic and commercial production” (266).  This happens not only at the level of household production or artisanal practice (in the sense that a goldsmith’s workshop, say, may be in the street-facing room of their home), but at the level of game and play, too.  

When Peter Watlyn was indicted for “pleyinge & sufferinge pleye” in Ipswich in September 1621 (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 92) or when Thomas Cowper was indicted simply for “pleyenge” (1623, ibid. 108) they were being accused of hosting and practising an activity that sat, uncomfortably for authorities, between public commerce and “private” sinfulness.  According to more cynical commentators, they also help to fill the civic coffers; T.F.’s Newes from the North (1579) complained that town officials only pay lip service to the punishment of unlawful gamers, arguing that “if there were as great gayn and profit to the Magistrates and Officers in the godly lives and honest conversation of the common people as there is in the contrary: these harbours of ungodliness and misnurture, would have less favour anad maintenance than they have” (F4r).  Watlyn, Cowper, and the Suffolk “playhouse” owner Abadham therefore, by circles, helped pay the wages of sanctioned civic players like Martin the Minstrel and formed part of a calculatedly, regulated-just-enough industry that simultaneously infringed upon and enriched the community. 

Such individuals were also “playing” in a range of establishments beyond the inn, as illustrated by examples like Bristol’s Thomas Rockwell, whose probate inventory records not only an array of pictures and painted hangings but “a payer of playing tables” in the closet next to the hall (Bristol Archives, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1620).  If “playhouse” were a fluid concept for early modern men and women, then certain semi-permeable middling homes could easily have represented spaces where household sociability borders on commercial recreation and where the line between the domestic house and the playhouse is teasingly thin.  

Games board from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-1900).

Material items are one clue to how such interaction between work and leisure extended out from the household and across the spectrum of society, as is clear from the likes of Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Goldbolde, who found themselves in trouble with the Petty Court in 1576 for spending working hours playing at dice: 

about fortnett before Whitsontide Laste he this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te and one Nicholas Godbolde were in companie together & they played together at the dyce at the game called Passage for monie at w{hi}ch tyme the seid nycholas Godbolde ded Wynne of this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te Syxtene pence & then Lefte plaie And furdre this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te saithe that he this deponent & the seid nycholas Godbolde plaied together oth{er} tymes at the Dyce for monie At m{istre}s ffastoll{es} hayestacke when they had served ther Cattell And this vppon his othe he confesseth to be trewe./ ./ ./

(SA C/2/3/8/1, 155)

Dice are small material props that can instantly transform a space for work into a commercial or profit-based recreational activity—here, gambling in an outdoor work location.  Inside the inn, tavern, or even the domestic home, such items can have a similar effect: a pair of dice could conceivably be enough to transform John Payne’s “house” into a “playhouse” or (to use another common early modern term) “dicing house.”  Those of higher means and status are unsurprisingly much more rarely subject to legal repercussions than those with limited political or financial agency, but that does not mean that similar forms of recreation were not, directly or indirectly, important parts of their worlds.  

Dice and accessories from games board (above) from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-19

Indeed, other physical items might advertise “greater” cultural capital but similarly align the house and the playhouse: the Woolfes’ theatre in Bristol, for instance, is associated with a pair of virginals that Nicholas Woolfe bequeathed to his son Miles.  Christopher Marsh has explained how ostensibly “high-status” instruments such as virginals might nonetheless be found in more “popular” non-elite spaces such as alehouses and taverns (Music and Society in Early Modern England [2010]); it’s not a stretch to imagine them in use in a theatre in a well-heeled part of town.  As such, the Woolfes’ household tuition, practice, and pastime merge in these objects into spaces designed for paid public performance.  

Virginal with date 1575 engraved, Horniman Museum and V&A M29.3.61/1

These examples, from Marten the Minstrel to the Woolfes in Bristol, indicate that “play”—in all its forms—could be a valuable, profitable, and respectable means to social preferment.  Such individuals combined creativity with business or administration to enhance their cultural, financial, and political capital—and just as importantly, one might imagine, to delight in and share their artistry.

Callan Davies

The Furniture of the Middling Sort

Many thanks to Chris Pickvance for this guest post on the furniture of the middling sort. You can hear Chris talk the team through a “middling” style chair in the video at the end of this post… You can also read more about furniture of this and other periods at the Regional Furniture Society.

In an ideal world (for researchers) there would be a close correspondence between household social status and domestic furniture. Higher status households would have greater incomes or wealth and be living in larger houses with more specialized rooms. They would thus have furniture of higher quality and of more varied types. In practice, life styles are not only influenced by means. Large houses can mean more ‘old’ furniture is preserved, for example because inherited ‘family’ furniture is valued, or because old pieces are relegated to servants’ quarters or outbuildings. Moreover, norms can differ among households in the same economic position. 

Wood

In the 1560-1660 period, furniture was mainly made of solid oak; veneer arrived later. Imported and exotic woods became available in small quantities or through chance purchases as trade routes extended to Asia and the Americas. Cypress and juniper chests were also imported and survive in considerable numbers. Decoration took the form of work on the surface: primarily various forms of carving, to a small extent stain or paint, and the introduction of inlay. 

1627 chest with a variety of carved motifs (Bonhams)

Middling Furniture?

Applying this approach to the ‘middling sort’ is not straightforward. As Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson write in A Day at Home in Early Modern England, this group is defined more by its social status (they ‘held social positions that bestowed a certain superiority within their local contexts’) than by a shared economic position (‘they might be moderately to exceptionally wealthy’) (p.9). It follows that their furniture preferences were shaped by local as well as national influences rather than being invariant across localities. 

This is consistent with the evidence of diversity. On the one hand, the furniture that survives from the 1560-1660 period is likely to over-represent the furniture of the middling sort and  upper classes; lower quality and less durable furniture is intrinsically less likely to survive, and in so far as furniture enters the market, pieces that are less appealing to later users, including collectors, are less likely to survive. One can thus conclude that the furniture of the middling sort constitutes a major part of what survives today from this period. 

Motifs, Techniques and Region

On the other hand, while renaissance motifs such as fluting, guilloche, scrolling and gadrooning were taken up nationally, in most regions they were combined with local favorites, e.g. the ‘worm’ and Celtic interlace in the Lake District, dragons in Cheshire, Wales and the Borders, the ‘domino’ in Wiltshire and the ‘eye’ in Wiltshire and Dorset. Dates, initials and, occasionally, couples’ names were popular features on carved press cupboards, chests and armchairs in Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria. East Anglia was particularly open to Flemish renaissance influence, and Scotland and the South West to French renaissance influence.  

Dorset or Devon box with eye motif and colour, late 17th c. (Bonhams)

Carved work covered a range of techniques. The simplest was incising produced by a V-tool, which led to ‘outline’ designs which left most of the surface intact, as in Dorset and Devon, where it was combined with paint or stain on boarded pieces. The most common type of carving dug deeper into the surface of the oak to produce recurrent patterns such as guilloche, and needed greater skill. Indeed, combinations of these stock patterns were the main feature of English carved furniture. Relief carving was rare and limited to adornments such as sculptural terminal figures, whereas on the Continent furniture with sculpted scenes could be found.

1648 chest with heavy carving and relief figures (Semley www.semleyauctioneers.com/)
Box c 1600 with rectilinear inlay, nulling, punchwork and mastic initials (Bulstrode www.bulstrodes.co.uk/)

As well as carving, fine rectilinear inlay using contrasting woods arrived in the middle to late Elizabethan period, brought by German and Flemish migrant craftsmen, initially in the most costly furniture. Floral inlay followed soon after and remained popular in Yorkshire armchairs, press cupboards and chests till late in the 17th century. 

1682 Lake District chair with Celtic interlace and ‘worms’ (Bonhams)

On the other hand, punched work was used as a background to a main design, as a decorative element in it, or to fill secondary spaces. 

1626 armchair with carving, punchwork and mastic

Other techniques included the use of mastic to add contrast to incised designs, as on this armchair.     

1626 date in mastic

It cannot, however, be concluded that those frame and panelled chests and panel back armchairs which lack carving on their panels were therefore made for lower status social groups. Such groups sat on stools, not panel back armchairs of any type, and their chests are most likely to have been of the simple ‘six plank’ boarded type which could also serve as benches. Rather, plain panels indicate the range of variation within the furniture of the middling sort.  Finally, the century in question saw a great expansion in furniture ownership and all aspects of domestic comfort, so statements about furniture need to be qualified by reference to time and place as well as social status.    

— Chris Pickvance

Dress Hooks of the Middling Sort

We are grateful to Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum, for this guest post on “dress hooks.”

Identifying the ‘middling sort’ through their material culture is fraught with difficulties, not least as there is potential to interpret these items within our own, modern (21st century), perceptions of status, and any supporting evidence is largely lacking from contemporary written or art-historical sources. Indeed, often the best evidence for most material culture is the archaeological record. 

A case in point are ‘dress hooks’, commonly found through metal-detecting and reported in substantial numbers to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) – a project to record archaeological finds made by the public in England and Wales. In contrast to some other ‘detector finds’, dress-fastenings are mentioned in the written record, notably wills and inventories, and they also appear in art. That said their role and function, though studied (notably by David Gaimster et al in 2002, Antiquities Journal 82), remains somewhat enigmatic – indeed Gaimster described ‘dress-fastenings’ as ‘a crucial yet unsung element of Tudor dress’ (174). In general, it is believed that they were used to draw up garments, to keep them out of the muck of the street or display the rich fabric of the garment beneath, and may also have been used to fasten garments, or simply as decoration. Indeed, a multifunctional role, a bit like modern dress fastenings (buttons, ties etc) seems likely, and this might be reflected in the fact that they vary considerably in form and decoration.     

To date (August 2019) the PAS has recorded some 4,600 dress hooks; also – incorrectly – logged as ‘hooked tags’, which is a term for similar items of the early medieval period. If the material composition of dress hooks is any indication of the status of their owners, then it is of interest that almost 4,000 of them (so the vast majority) are constructed of copper-alloy. Thereafter, some 470 are silver, followed by 100 or so lead-alloy examples. 

It must surely be the case that the lead-alloy dress hooks are under representative of what once existed, and indeed it is of interest that their forms often mimic those found in the other metals – take for example a cast leaden example from Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire (BH-C23A16) which has a similar lozenge form to a copper-alloy example from Shalfleet, Isle of Wight (IOW-AF7846).

BH-C23A16

An assumption might be that dress hooks were being produced in lead (and maybe other ‘lesser’ materials, like bone, antler and wood) to cater for a less affluent market, though the numbers suggest otherwise. That said, there is a general recovery bias in the PAS data against lead, not least because intricately made leaden objects appear to survive less well in agricultural plough-soil (where most detected finds are recovered) than those of copper-alloy; on the Thames foreshore in London, thanks to the anaerobic conditions of the river mud, the survival of lead-alloy items is much better, though still copper-alloy dress hooks are most common.   

It must be that dress hooks made of precious metals, notably silver, were for those above middling culture, although Gaimster et al said that ‘detailed study of the iconographic and documentary record suggests that dress-hooks, as functional dress-fastenings, were not a significant part of male or female elite dress, particularly that of the royal court, in the early Tudor period’ (190). There are some fabulous examples of dress hooks within the PAS dataset. From Boxford, Berkshire (BERK-93DC8A), for example, is a silver-gilt dress hook made of several parts to form a flower-like head.

BERK-93DC8A

The central boss serves as a rivet, with its shank passing through a hole in the front plate and a silver back plate, before forking in two. Attached to the reverse is the hook. Also of composite form, is a silver-gilt dress hook of lozenge form, from Langham, Norfolk (NMS-116943). Again, the central boss serves as a rivet joining the elements of the object together, though the use of solder is noticeable. Besides these elaborate precious metal dress hooks are some humbler items, which because of their simple construction might have been more within the reach of the middling sort. Take for example a dress hook from Bletsoe, Bedfordshire (BH-B4EDCA) which is made of singly cast plate, with its hook added on after.

BH-B4EDCA

This type of dress hook – a cast plate with hook – is common amongst the copper-alloy PAS finds. It would seem from the quantity that these are the stock of dress hooks being used in Tudor and Stuart times, but by whom? It is interesting to posit whether this data is representative of all society, or just part of it. An inkling, given that their ornate designs suggest more than just a practical function, is that these would have been bought by those with some disposable income – maybe indicative of middling sort? Gaimster et al. seem to agree, suggesting that ‘pairs of decorative dress-hooks were mainly the preserve of women of the middle ranks’ (190). Some examples serve to illustrate the point. One from Asselby, East Yorkshire (YORYM-5281A5), though incomplete, is formed of an attractive openwork design, perhaps featuring a pine cone.

YORYM-5281A5

Of note is its integrally cast rectangular attachment loop and the hook, though broken. An important example from Arreton, Isle of Wight (IOW-A203D3), very much mimics a form of composite dress hook usually found in precious metal. It is formed of three bosses decorated with rope-work, likely to replicate applied filigree decoration found on some precious metal examples (including HAMP-B7066E).

Simplest in form amongst the copper-alloy dress hooks are those made of a single piece of wire, such as one from Watlington, Oxfordshire (SUR-3488DA).

SUR-3488DA

It appears that this form had a long life, and (although relatively few are recorded on the PAS database), they must have been relatively common. Surely these are below the middling sort, though we must not dismiss the use of simple, yet practical hooks, by all in society, especially if they were out of view. 

Returning to dress hooks of lead and lead-alloys. There is no doubt that these would be easier and quicker to make, so therefore (presumably) cheaper to buy. In general terms the examples recorded with the PAS are similar in form and designs to those of copper-alloy, though are normally cast in one piece; in the case of the copper-alloy examples the hook is usually soldered to the plate. For example, from Twyford, Hampshire (HAMP-48DED2) is a rectangular leaden dress hook decorated with a lattice of lozenges, within each lozenge a quatrefoil. Also, and much like examples seen in silver and copper-alloy (see above), is a dress hook from Stockton-on-the-Forest, North Yorkshire (YORYM-0D11C9). It does seem, therefore, that these dress hooks are imitating (or akin) to those of copper-alloy, with those in lead looking silver when new, and those of copper-alloy appearing golden (for gilding). Whether these lead-alloy dress hooks were popular amongst the middling sort is unclear, but it is a possibility…

Michael Lewis

Head of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, British Museum


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)

Tudor Intergenerational Inequality

My father was a Yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of 3 or 4 pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked 30 cows. He was able, and did find the king a harness, with himself and his horse, while he came to the place that he should receiue the king’s wages. I can remember, that I buckled his harness when he went unto Blackheath field. He kept me to school, or else I had not bene able to have preached before the king’s majesty now. He married my sisters with v pound, or 20 nobles apiece; so that he brought them up in godliness, and fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbours, and some alms he gave to the poor, and all this did he of the said farm. Where he that now has it, pays 16 pound by year, or more, and is not able to do anything for his prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the pore.

27 sermons preached by the ryght Reuerende […] Maister Hugh Latimer(STC 15276; 1562), E3r [George Elwes Corrie, ed., Sermons By Hugh Latimer (Cambridge, 1844), 101]

This passage is taken from the printed version of a sermon given by Hugh Latimer (c. 1485 – university divine and bishop under Henry VIII, court preacher under Edward VI, executed as a heretic under Mary I – in 1549.  This autobiographical anecdote, dating from just a few years before the period the ‘Middling Cultures’ project investigates, highlights many of the themes and concepts that will be central in our research. It emphasises the role of identity and self-perception even as it also shows the ways in which these interacted with and were shaped by external and variable economic and social forces. It reminds us that middling status could be precarious and fleeting as individuals, across just one or two generations or even across a lifetime, might rise and fall beyond it. Latimer’s invocation of contemporary anger at a divide between rich and the ordinary – and the exploitation of the latter by the former – provides an important and central context for the lives of those trying to carve out a space in the middle of a hierarchy that to some felt increasingly hostile. It also resonates with many modern concerns about a world with a rising super-rich and a middle who wonder if they will ever have the economic security that an older generation enjoyed.

Hugh Latimer preaching before Edward VI, as imagined in an illustration in John Foxe, Acts and Monuments (1563). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

As Latimer delineates his father’s status, the intermingling of social, economic, political, moral and cultural capital is clear. His father’s position, in Latimer’s retelling, rested not just on his modest wealth, but on his charity and hospitality, his ability to serve the king (including at Blackheath: here Latimer is describing his father fighting for the king against a Cornish rebellion in 1497), and his ability to raise his children ‘in godliness’. He also provided Latimer with the means of social advancement: he was able to ‘put him to school’, the first step on a dizzying rise that saw him preach before the king. His trajectory may have been extraordinary, but many of Latimer’s contemporaries also used education to rise beyond middling origins. The contemporary social commentator Sir Thomas Smith wrote in 1583 that the universities were one of the ways that gentlemen ‘be made good cheape’ in Tudor England. But while his father’s comfortable, though not extravagant, life had given Latimer the opportunity for a life among the elite, his self-conscious, deliberate and very public evocation of it shows that his middling origins remained both important and useful to Latimer. Used here as a rhetorical tool to help spur the king to action, invoking and appropriating an ‘ordinary’ identity allowed him both to speak on behalf of the people, and to align himself with a group that he presents as the moral and social core of their communities, and the nation.

Latimer is describing, and bemoaning, a world in flux. His father’s way of living has already gone and his (perhaps hypothetical) successor at the farm lived a much more marginal and straitened life: he had slipped beyond the relative comfort and safety of the middling. The decades that followed Latimer’s sermon would see the pace of this change not slow, as he had hoped, but accelerate. It was in this crucible of economic and social change that the cultural identities of the middling were forged, contested and asserted.

Ceri Law