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 Bridgwater Corporation Pew c.1620

We thank Susan Orlik for this guest post on the Bridgwater Corporation Pew:

If you had been sitting in the congregation on a Sunday in the early seventeenth century in St Mary’s church, in the centre of Bridgwater, Somerset, your line of sight facing east would have been radically changed by a new construction. Around 1620 the Corporation had built for itself a space between your seat as a parishioner and the communion table at the east end.[1] In front of you, they had erected a highly-decorated wooden chancel screen, which stood before the chancel arch on a north-south axis. Behind that you would have seen the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses sitting in their seats. Behind them you would just about have been able to perceive the old fifteenth-century rood screen, which itself stood in front of the communion table. The Corporation had created a discrete enclosure for themselves, positioning the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses in primary position at the front of the church, visually dominant, and separated from the rest of the congregation. Together, today, the Corporation’s seats and the screen are known as the Corporation Pew.

The parish church was not only the place for religious worship in this period, but also a social space where status was expressed and negotiated. The surviving material evidence for investment in these buildings by parishioners is crucial for understanding ‘middling culture’. 

Christopher Marsh and Amanda Flather have established some important principles on church seating: congregational seating was ordered by the Churchwardens hierarchically by gender, age, moral reputation, and by ‘degrees and estates’.[2] Robert Tittler has suggested that in the context of public civic seating, in the face of discontinuity with the Reformation, patterns of symbolic usage became more important than ever.[3] This view has resonance with the material evidence at Bridgwater, which provides an insight into how middling elites constructed and displayed their special status within their local community.

John Chubb’s pre-1818 lithograph, church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, showing the original position of the Corporation Pew, with the rood screen behind it: A. H. Powell, The Ancient Borough of Bridgwater (Bridgwater: Page and Son, 1907), facing page 216. It is also in Somerset Heritage Centre: SHC: A\DQO/54/4.

Since 1857 the line of sight from the nave has been changed as the Corporation Pew has been moved to the south aisle, where it stands on a west-east axis. Slightly reduced in size, now 9.3 metres long, its magnificence and decoration still stand as evidence of the Corporation’s pride, wealth and cultural investment. With rich material evidence, but thin extant archival sources, what does this rare construction tell of the middling elite in this prosperous West Country Borough?

The screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, early seventeenth century, known to be constructed before 1620. 

While the original screen had a double central opening, as the early nineteenth-century lithograph by the amateur local artist, John Chubb, shows, the repositioned screen has two openings. There were, and now are, four parts to the screen. The front of the screen has an inscription, and two rows of superimposed arches with a frieze of grotesque masks and beasts with fish tails above the arches. The bays are separated by carved columns. 

Detail of the arches and frieze of grotesque masks and bests with fish tails, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620.
Detail of the reverse side of carved columns separating the bays, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620. The brackets for the mace may not be of that date.

Second, above the bays is an arcade with pierced spandrels. The third part is a cornice which sits above the arcade with carvings of hybrid creatures on the front and stylised patterns on the back.

Detail from the reverse of the pierced spandrels, the cornice and the crest with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620. 

Fourthly, the screen is crested with strapwork and thin ornamental obelisks. These obelisks were common symbols on funeral monuments representing wisdom and eternity. On the front of the screen is the text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’.[4]

Detail of the inscription, ‘Feare God. Honour the King’, the screen of the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset, c. 1620.

Behind the screen, on either side of the openings, are three rows of seats for the Mayor, Aldermen and Corporation. Some of these are the original seventeenth-century while others date from the nineteenth-century; the Mayor’s seat is differentiated from the others by a higher back rest and arm rests. 

The seats of the Mayor and Corporation the Corporation Pew, the church of St Mary, Bridgwater, Somerset. Some seats are nineteenth century while others date from the Pew’s construction c. 1620.

Although expressions of civic identity in parish churches can be found in other boroughs, the specific discrete enclosure of the seating of Bridgwater’s elite public officials in the chancel appears rare, if not unique. At Axbridge in the same county the Corporation sat in the nave in their own pew. At St Saviour’s in Dartmouth, Devon, the town council in 1614 placed themselves along the east wall with a specially carved and cushioned seat for the Mayor. The screen and pews at Bridgwater took the placing of the Corporation to a new level of visual dominance in its display of power and wealth, by its size, its position, and by its decoration. 

The fine carvings of the pierced spandrels and the crest with strapwork and thin obelisks would indicate that part, if not all of the screen was carved by skilled artisans from an urban centre with more sophisticated workshops than a town like Bridgwater could provide. Tantalisingly there are no Corporation minutes or church records to help us. We can only speculate that, as the premier port of Somerset, sitting on the River Parrett with easy access to the Bristol Channel, Bridgwater’s corporate investors identified that Bristol may have been where such skilled carvers and joiners were to be found. We know that the less wealthy town of Axbridge had dealings with Bristol when they were planning their decorated plaster ceiling in 1636: the churchwardens’ accounts noted, ‘Item spent at Bristoll when we went to take a pattern of the fret work 1s’.[5] The entry is ambiguous: either they, the Churchwardens, or the craftsmen were purchasing a print from Bristol or they were taking a pattern to Bristol. At Bridgwater, we have no such archival guidance. What we do know is that the whole scheme, which included fish-tailed creatures and troll-like creatures on the screen, belonged to the grotesque tradition, a fashionable Renaissance import, of which wealthy merchants would have been aware of during their business travels to Bristol, London and other significant urban centres. The Corporation had decided to erect new, contemporary-styled woodwork, which would have appeared startling in its modernity to the viewing parishioners. The taste of an upper middling elite that was well networked to Bristol and London appears to have been influenced by continental fashions. Their import into England has been well documented; in particular, the effect of continental prints on all media has been explored by Anthony Well-Cole. He highlighted the principal contribution of Netherlandish prints to the ‘highly distinctive combination of grotesques and strapwork’, both manifest in the Bridgwater screen.[6]

Bridgwater, described as ‘rich and sturdily independent’, the premier port of the county, was generally prosperous, despite the vicissitudes of trade.[7] As an administratively strategic Borough, it shared the Quarter Sessions with Wells, Ilchester and Taunton, and enjoyed its own Justices of the Peace. Bridgwater’s elite, the leading townsmen, were mercers who led the wool manufacturing businesses of the town. Important for cloth production and its export, the town was well known for the ‘Bridgwater cloth’, a good quality serge. Among the middling elite would have been merchants who traded the agricultural produce and minerals from the hinterland particularly to and from Ireland and South Wales, as well as the coastal trade and the trade with France, Spain and Portugal. Among the goods that Bridgwater, ‘the busiest port in Somerset’, exported were peas, beans, coal, salt, iron and finished cloth, while it imported hides, wool, timber, and wine. The mercers and the merchants, the middling elite, drove the town’s prosperous economy, which had recovered from depression in the 1590s to improve significantly in the early seventeenth century. They also led the civic authorities. It is likely that the expensive investment in the Corporation Pew c.1620 is linked to this renewed prosperity in the Borough. 

The Corporation drew its membership from the mercers and merchants; and it is the relationship between the Corporation and the Parish which is at the heart of the story of the Corporation Pew. The rectorial rights of the parish were granted to the Corporation by Elizabeth in 1571.[8] Part of the terms of the 1571 grant charged the Corporation with stipends of £20 for a man ‘to preach and teach in town and neighbourhood’, £13 6s 8d for a curate and another sum for a schoolmaster.[9] Exercising its rights as rector, the Corporation was taking one-tenth of the agricultural produce of the parish, which realised significant sums; for example the Rectory Accounts of 1579 show receipts of £124 13s 5d, payments £81 13s 3d and the balance of £43 0s 2d. The number of Burgesses allowed rose from 18 to 24 in 1628, an indication of the Corporation’s growing power and influence. The Corporation held the rectorial rights, paid the stipends of the clergy and was receiving substantial income, all of which enhanced its position of power in the town and in the parish.

On the front of the screen was a reminder of tripartite authority: the biblical text ‘Feare God. Honour the King’. The congregation were urged to fear God, and honour the King who took his royal and religious headship from God. By obvious implication authority was triangulated, as through the screen the local civic authority was on view to the congregation throughout the service, who should also be obeyed in this hierarchy of authority. Found in other churches, the inscription was also common in domestic contexts. Not only had the Burgesses of Bridgwater built an expensive screen, highly decorated in a modern, fashionable manner, to sit behind, and to be seen differentiated from the rest of the worshippers, they had also boldly displayed their authority, linked to the King and to God. The metaphorical and the literal display conjoined. 

The evidence suggests that this parish in the first decades of the seventeenth century was committed to a stricter form of Protestantism (often referred to as ‘godly’), which rejected what it perceived as unnecessary religious ceremony. While such rich adornment of this seating may seem inconsistent with such ‘godly’ attitudes, the Corporation Pew reflects a much wider wave of material investment in parish churches in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century which gave the wealthier and more influential middling sort opportunity to express their status and taste.

The dominant position of the seating for the wealthy Corporation at Bridgwater appears rare. The Corporation’s power and status were displayed through their investment in decorated woodwork, located in an unusual, exclusive, primary position at the east end of the nave, which emphasised their leadership of this godly community. At present, no other configuration has been found of a Mayor and Corporation sitting in what was essentially an enclosed pew either with their backs to the chancel, facing west to the congregation in the nave, or facing inwards towards each other. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest which way they faced.

In any case, as you sat in the congregation you could not have failed to have been impressed by the burgesses’ investment. The sheer size and magnificence made the screen visually dominant. The exclusive nature of the space for the burgesses was clearly demarcated. The modernity of the fashionable imagery, combined with the skill of the workmanship, demonstrated the wealth, power and networked connections of the town’s leading figures. They had enhanced through decorated wood their civic status and also their church, over which they held the rectorial rights. You could not have ignored the elegant linking of the authority of God and the King to their own, materialised through the magnificence of the woodwork, the fashionable imagery and the inscription. This was investment driven by civic pride and aldermanic status on a bold scale. 

Susan Orlik is an associate member of the department of History, University of Birmingham. This case study draws on research for her PhD thesis, ‘The ‘beauty of holiness’ revisited: an analysis of investment in parish church interiors in Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire, 1560-1640’ (University of Birmingham, 2018).


[1]We can be confident in dating the construction through three pieces of evidence: a mayoral will; a brass plate to a deceased Mayor; and a pew dispute which locates and dates the ‘new ile’. SHC: D\D\cd/71; SHC: DD\X\SR/5/c403.

[2]See especially Christopher Marsh, ‘Order and Place in England, 1580-1640: The View from the Pew’, The Journal of British Studies vol44, no. 1 (January 2005): 3-26; and Amanda Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007).  

[3]Robert Tittler, ‘Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 205-223, 214.  

[4]KJB I Peter 2: 17, ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King’.

[5]SHC: D\P\ax/4/1/1 Cwa Axbridge, 1636.  

[6]Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints 1558–1625(New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997) passimand 47.  

[7]Baggs and Siraut, “Bridgwater: Economic history,” VCH, Somerset, vol. 6, 213-223;J. F. Lawrence, revised and completed by J.C. Lawrence, A History of Bridgwater (Stroud: Phillimore, 2005), 78-9.

[8]Lawrence, History of Bridgwater, 76-7; SHC: D\B\bw/2433/1 Church Records, other than accounts.

[9]Baggs and Siraut, “Bridgwater: Churches,” VCH, Somerset, vol. 6, 230-235.

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)