Media Moment 1: Bristol’s Audits

This blog introduces a new series of posts related to Middling Culture research: Media Moments.  These posts will provide short “glimpses” into topics that relate to ordinary, everyday lives in early modern England under the scope of this project, from keywords to documentation to objects and images.  This post begins the series by considering early modern Bristol’s civic accounts, which are presented in the surviving yearly audits made by the Chamberlain (now held at Bristol Archives).

“Audit is about much more than just the numbers,” according to one of the world’s Big Four professional services firms; “it’s about attesting to accomplishments and challenges […].”  For professional financial auditors, “numbers tell a story.”

In that sense, auditors’ scrutiny of today’s businesses shares an affinity with historians’ interrogation of the past—its successes and its failures; the lessons to be learned and the stories that are sometimes obscured, eclipsed, or simply hidden from sight.  One central source for anyone approaching such “big theme” issues is to look at the finances behind both individuals and communities—and to consider the different stories they might tell.  Such work is unsurprisingly at the centre of a range of historiographic traditions, not least economic history.  The growth of early modern material culture studies over the past thirty years or so has also led to focus on sources such as personal account books, wills, and inventories.  Each of these sources is built from descriptions, quantities, and prices and they offer insight not only into the development of local and national economies but into issues as various as individual wealth, domestic interiors, personal networks, and the circulation of the paper on which such details are written—the life of the material text itself.  In Hugh Oldcastle’s words, from 1588, such sources are “used and compiled of many things.”[i]

It is with these several strands in mind that I approached the financial statements of early modern Bristol from the 1550s to 1620. 

Bristol Archives, F/AU/1/13, p. 254-55 (opening of audit from 1592). Reproduced with permission from Bristol Archives.

Each year, the city’s Mayor commissioned an audit of its accounts by its Chamberlain.  They begin with the yearly rents of property owned by the Corporation, which include a range of houses, tenements, and shops across the centre of the city.  They go on to detail the fees and dues paid by the Council for various obligations and debts and then list the individuals made “free” of the city (i.e. those given the licence to practice their trade there) either by apprenticeship of usually 7 years, or otherwise by marriage to a freeman’s widow or daughter, by having a prominent father, or by “redemption”—permission granted at a fee by the Council.  All of those made free here are men, but a number of those training apprentices are women.  Perhaps the richest vein in these yearly audits is the general payments: these include expenditure per week and range from substantial building work at the quayside or marsh or reparations on Council-owned buildings to money for horse hire and travel, gifts for visiting noblemen, or cleaning and gilding done on the swords and guns belonging to the Council and its members or officeholders.

These documents can help create and shape historical narrative and they offer some insight into “ordinary” business and the men and women involved—often otherwise obscured.  It is here where many of those in the middle sections of society—and those “below” (i.e. unnamed labourers, “a poore woman [paid] for keeping clean the house of office and the watering place at the Guildhall door” (F/AU/1/15, p. 216 [1604])—lie recorded in acts that range from the mundane (cleaning the sewers) to the sensational (piratical escape and capture).  In part, these sources provide a useful chance to understand more about what might define “ordinary” or “middling” identity: not only do a number of figures here receive regular, substantial income from their work (therefore providing economic indicators of status), they also occupy positions of distinction within the community—as officeholders, as people shaping the material life of the city, as key suppliers of materials (including stationery, furniture, or arms) for civic administration and display; or as senior employers in the building, painting, stationary, or leisure industries.  The remainder of this blog offers some glimpses into how entries in these audits can bring questions of middling culture, and the writing of history more broadly, to the surface.

Accounting for the Past: Bristol’s Audits, 1550-1620

A number of “ordinary” individuals are preserved in the record only thanks to their civic contract work as recorded here.  Some of these were clearly substantial business people in Bristol society, regularly contracted for major infrastructure works by the Council across decades—but a number of these cannot (as yet) be found in other record sources (including marriage, birth or death records), outside these audits.  

Others in the labouring class also play significant roles in Council business.  In 1578, the Council paid “William Savage a labourer for going on foot to the Court to Greenwich to deliver a letter sent from Mr Mayor to the body of the Council touching a letter which was received from my Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney touching the intent of Stewckley” (F/AU/1/11, p. 225)—a reference to the notorious English mercenary, Thomas Stukeley, killed later that year during The Battle of Alcazar in Morocco (who proved valuable fodder for stage plays across the following decades).  Savage’s postal duties show an interesting breadth of opportunities available to the “labourer” and indicate a civic “honour” or office that may have conferred status or distinction upon a non-elite worker.  Other such offices were occupied by the likes of prolific mason Thomas Barwell, a regular payee for a range of “subcontracted” work for the city, who was also one of Bristol’s “surveyors”: those responsible for assessing building work and the safety and integrity of existing or proposed structures.

In 1600, the Council paid one Widow Phippes “for painting the City’s Arms upon the new Conduit at the quay and for gold and other Colours” (F/AU/1/15, p. 84).  The entry testifies to the significant role that women played not only in the local economy but in inscribing civic identity into the city—here via her craft as a painter.  Presumably, Phippes must have been highly adept at her profession to gain this commission, and her family were also painters: in 1608, Morgan Phippes was made free thanks to his apprenticeship with one John Phippes in this trade; according to the Early Modern British Painters Database, (another) John Phippes (d. 1583, and perhaps Widow Phippes’s late husband) was also commissioned for work on Bristol’s gates.  This tiny glimpse into the Phippes’ suggests a small family dynasty of creatives, working in a period in England when “painting” was largely considered practical manual labour, but during which its status as a noble artistic pursuit was slowly gaining traction.

The bittiness of historical accounting documents means that, by their nature, they offer partial records of acts and exchanges and not discrete or rounded wholes.  As I have explored elsewhere with regard to theatre history, this scrappiness can be embraced as an inherent part of early modern bureaucracy and honoured in our analysis of the past.  Entries such as 

Item paid for a book of large paper of 4 quires for the Tolsey covered with calfskin vellum, bought it of John Pacie and delivered to Mr Pacie — 4 shillings (F/AU/1/11, [1579])

or

Item paid for taking down the stained cloths at the Tolsey — 4 pence (F/AU/1/18, p. 172 [1617])

represent the fullness of a particular type of record. The challenge, especially for a project such as ours, is how to preserve that spirit of story-less “scrap” while building around it a broader picture of social networks, material objects (in particular extant ones), and other markers of social and cultural status.  Part of the aim of this project is to gain a more holistic sense of the lives of “middling” individuals by looking at the fullness of their lived experience, in order to do as much justice as possible to those lives for whom we do have various “scrappy” surviving records but who are not always popularly at the centre of the stories we tell about the Tudor or Stuart period.

Ancient House painted cloth, from Ipswich (c. pre-1578); photo Tara Hamling. This photo shows one of the few surviving painted cloths from the period.

Among the more surprising features of these accounts are the instances where the Chamberlain bursts into fine storytelling form.  Take this series of “pirate” entries from 1577:

Item paid for the charges of a man sent to London at the appointment of Mr Mayor and of the Aldermen to obtain a special Commission for to arraign the Pirates, wherein a gentleman of the new Inn of Chancery took pains therein, wherein also William winter gave his good will, but my Lord Admiral would not agree to it, the charges of the said journey cost: 16 shillings…

[…] Item paid to Henry Robertes for a charge of Pursuing the pirates by the Flyboat whereby the said Pirates were forced to the shore, near Steart in the County of Somerset, whereby 4 of them were apprehended, whereof three were executed and one was saved by his book, and were arraigned by the Commission of Oyer and determiner for that the fact is felony by statute law, the which charges were examined by Mr Mayor and the Aldermen and amount to 12£

[…] Item paid to John Baton carpenter for 2 days’ work to frame timber for a pair of Gallows to be set up in Canning marsh, for the executing of 3 Pirates, which were condemned, who were of that company that stole a bark of Dongarvan out of the 6 rock and Pill of 30 Ton and went away with her, which being pursued by my Lord of Leicester’s flyboat, furnished with 60 persons well-armed, was forced to come a land near Steart, where the pirates fled, at 12 pence per day… (F/AU/1/11, pp. 164-65)

Not only do these entries preserve details about the pirates’ theft of a boat and their sensational capture by the Lord of Leicester’s man, who gave chase and ran them aground in Somerset, but they also record the mundane, the banal.  In the stories of these anonymous pirates, the quotidian and the sensational come together, and the picture of John Baton engaged in 2 days’ work constructing a gallows that will kill 3 men provides a sobering reminder that all of these payments—some more significantly (and irreversibly) than others—have material consequences for the men and women involved. 

Bristol Archives, F/AU/1/11, p. 165.

Coda

The payments in these audits witness Bristolians carrying out major acts of cultural construction.  They build inexpensive gallows to execute pirates but they also rebuild and repair leisure infrastructure or “new build” the legal and administrative hubs of the city in the Tolzey and the Guildhall.  They paint the City arms on its new water fountains. Each of these acts—and a surprising number of their actors—would have been entirely lost to posterity but for the survival of these meticulous audits.  As such, they testify to both the possibilities and limits of historical narrative; they present self-contained scraps of banal, brilliant, or tantalising detail, snapshots of action and activity across early modern Bristol.

On the broadest level, then, “auditing” the historical city by taking into account the fullest scope of records such as these is a fruitful and important way of recovering what we might mean by the loaded term “ordinariness” in the archives, identifying and exploring the lives of people whose names would be otherwise forgotten yet whose labours are inscribed into the fabric of the city.

Callan Davies


Notes

[i]Oldcastle, John. A briefe instruction and maner how to keepe bookes of accompts after the order of debitor and creditor…. London, 1588. Web. Early English Books Online. 5 Sep. 2019. B4v.

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.