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. 

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)