Untold lives blog

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4 posts categorized "Medieval history"

14 May 2024

Bridgnorth: A Town of Unique Distinction – Part 1

David Fitzpatrick marks Local and Community History Month by exploring the history and features of his home town, drawing from notable histories and guides found within the British Library’s collection.

Introduction to Bridgnorth (Salop)  “Queen of the Severn”  The Official Guide  1937Introduction to Bridgnorth (Salop), “Queen of the Severn”, The Official Guide, 1937. Image used with the permission of Bridgnorth Library.

The Shropshire market town of Bridgnorth lies nestled in the Severn Valley.  It is, as one visitor’s guide notes, ‘a town of unique distinction’, in that it consists of two parts. High Town sits high above the Severn on a large bluff of red sandstone.  From there multiple sets of steps and a funicular railway – the oldest and steepest of its kind in England – descend into Low Town, which straddles the river.

The town has a medieval castle, now in ruins, having been bombarded, captured and ‘slighted’ in 1646 by the Parliamentarians.  The largest surviving fragment is its Norman keep, which leans at a more acute angle than Pisa’s tower.

View of the Castle Ruins and the Church of St Mary MagdaleneView of the Castle Ruins and the Church of St Mary Magdalene, from Bridgnorth (Salop), “Queen of the Severn”, The Official Guide, 1937. Image used with the permission of Bridgnorth Library.

Once a busy river port, by the 20th century Bridgnorth had become, as Laurie Lee noted, ‘a pleasant slumberous town’, and remains so.  Inexplicably, the German Luftwaffe dropped twelve bombs on the town on 29 August 1940, destroying several homes and killing two people.  (Incidentally, Adolf Hitler allegedly earmarked Bridgnorth as a potential base in the event of a successful Nazi invasion of Britain.)

Today Bridgnorth is perhaps best known as the northern terminus of the Severn Valley Railway.  The original line opened in 1862, but the town’s relationship with steam locomotives goes even further back.  The famous Catch Me Who Can was built in a Low Town foundry and in 1808 became the first steam locomotive in the world to haul fare-paying passengers on a site just south of Euston Road.

View of Bridgnorth railway station  with a train to Hampton Loade  on the opening day of the Severn Valley Railway  23 May 1970.View of Bridgnorth railway station, with a train to Hampton Loade, on the opening day of the Severn Valley Railway, 23 May 1970. The leaning Castle Ruins are visible in the background. Copyright Ben Brooksbank, licensed for reuse by Geograph under a Creative Commons Licence.

Bridgnorth is home to numerous historic buildings, such as Bishop Percy’s House.  Built in 1580, it is one of very few from that period to survive the fire that engulfed High Town during the Civil War fighting in 1646.  The house was later the birthplace of Bishop Thomas Percy, sometime owner of the Percy Folio (now in the British Library), which he used to compile his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  Other notable buildings include the Town Hall (formerly a 17th-century tithe barn), St Leonard’s Church (built with local sandstone), and the Church of St Mary Magdalene (designed by Thomas Telford).

View of Bridgnorth High Street and town hall  from The Tourist’s Guide to Bridgnorth  1875.View of Bridgnorth High Street and Town Hall, from The Tourist’s Guide to Bridgnorth, 1875. Image used with the permission of Bridgnorth Library.

Arguably the town’s most striking landmarks lie on its outskirts.  Two prominent sandstone outcrops sit high along the valley’s eastern ridge, offering excellent vantage points from which to view High Town and the hills beyond.  The higher of the two, Queen’s Parlour, appears at the very top of the valley.  The other, known rather more matter-of-factly as High Rock, juts out incongruously from thick woodland high above the river, looking as though it has been lifted from some remote part of California.

View from Castle Hill  with High Rock visible in the distanceView from Castle Hill, with High Rock visible in the distance. From Bridgnorth (Salop), “Queen of the Severn”, The Official Guide, 1937. Image used with the permission of Bridgnorth Library.

Both are remarkable sights when viewed from Castle Walk, a promenade on the edge of High Town.  Perhaps Charles I had them in mind when describing the walk as the finest in his dominions.

David Fitzpatrick
Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
George Bellett, The Antiquities of Bridgnorth; With Some Historical Notices of the Town and Castle (Bridgnorth: W. J. Rowley; London: Longmans & Co, 1856): 
The Tourist’s Guide to Bridgnorth, Being a Complete Handbook to Places of Interest in and Around Bridgnorth (Bridgnorth: Evans, Edkins, and McMichael; Madeley: J. Randall, 1875)
Elizabeth P. Morrall, A Popular Illustrated Guide and Handbook to Bridgnorth and its Environs etc. (Bridgnorth: Deighton & Smith, 1891)
Bridgnorth (Salop), “Queen of the Severn”, The Official Guide (Cheltenham and London: Ed. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., 1937)

Bridgnorth: A Town of Unique Distinction – Part 2

03 March 2020

A ‘Full House’ of Brut English Chronicles

Libraries are renowned for being quiet places but you should have heard the excited cries of 'Housey Housey!' when we recently acquired a copy of the Saint Albans Chronicle printed in London by Wykyn de Worde in 1520.  Its acquisition means the British Library can now, uniquely, provide access to the complete sequence of printed editions of this English Chronicle.

The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande The distinctive Printer’s Device used by Wynkyn de Worde on the last printed leaf of the Descrypcyon of Englande bound before his 1520 edition of The English Chronicle.
British Library shelfmark: C.194.b.430. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Originally Anglo-Norman, the ‘Brut chronicle’ refers to a collection of medieval works on the history of England that incorporate the mythological founding of Britain by Brutus of Troy. It became the most popular vernacular historical chronicle and its wide circulation in manuscript made it an obvious contender for the early printing press.  It saw thirteen editions between 1480 and 1528, the first by William Caxton, and the last by Wynkyn de Worde.

'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition.'Here come Normans'! The book’s decorative start to the Norman conquest in the 1520 edition of The Chronicle. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Just as its many scribal forms were embellished and supplemented, the English Chronicle’s printed versions were treated to additions also.  In just the two years between Caxton’s first and second editions the vocabulary of the text was modernized and punctuation increased.  Spacing was improved and the breaking of words was avoided (i.e. gen- | till became Gentille; des ||| turbaunce became dysturbbauce).  Caxton introduced additions using ‘many dyverse paunflettis and bookys’ he had at his disposal and so the Brut was brought up to the times of Edward IV.  Caxton also responded to the growing interest in geography amongst ordinary readers by printing a Description of Britain but his information was lifted from Ralph Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century text badly in need of updating.  The Chronicle and the Description became frequently bound together or printed together in later editions.

Caxton’s second edition (1482) with 35 cuts inserted from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles This copy of Caxton’s second edition (1482) has a lovely feature of intervention by a past reader; 35 cuts from the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles have been inserted in the margins at an early date. British Library shelfmark C.10.b.4. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1486 the work was edited and expanded by the so-called ‘Schoolmaster of St Albans’.  It was given a new prologue, a summary of the lives of the Popes (pre-Reformation of course and destined, as with the newly acquired copy to have occurrences of the word ‘Pope’ censored and scored through) and was generally made more readable.  It also saw the introduction of woodcut illustrations; Biblical and topographical: Tower of Babel, Rome and London.  In 1497 the St Albans text was selected by Wynkyn de Worde for a new edition.  Using more popular illustrations like battle scenes, Kings, and mythological curiosities such as the fabled wrestling match between the giants Gogmagog and Coryn, de Worde published five editions of the Chronicle.  Another London printer, Julian Notary, introduced eye-catching illustrations of Adam and Eve, Noah, and Abraham in his 1504 and 1515 editions.  These illustrate developments in how books were becoming tailored for a wider, more popular audience.  Yet no more than a dozen copies of this 1520 edition survive.  The copy acquired comes with noteworthy English provenance having been in the Library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire since the 17th century.

Battle between Coryn and Gogmagog 'How Brute arryued at Totnesse in the yle of Albyon / And of the / bataylle that was bitwene Coryn / and Gogmagog.'  This battle is believed to have took place on Plymouth Hoe (where commemorative figures of the two giants were cut into the turf up to medieval times). Coryn defeated Gogmagog by tossing him upon the rocks below. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

For library workers it is an especial pleasure to be able to provide readers with examples of the entire printed representation of a particular work - all in one place under one roof – a ‘Full House’ so to speak in Library Bingo lingo!

Woodcut illustration depicting violence and shipsA glorious woodcut illustration depicting violence and ships, both of which feature prominently in the English Chronicle!  Printed by Julian Notary, in 1504. British Library shelfmark: G.5994 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Table of thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle 'Eyes down for a full house!' All thirteen printed editions of the Brut chronicle held at the British Library. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Christian Algar
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections


04 September 2018

Unsung Souls: William Skeyte and the English Reformation

The singing priest, William Skeyte, suffered the misfortune of losing a ‘job for life’ not just once but twice, first in consequence of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and again within ten years as the English Crown drove the Reformation yet harder with the abolition of chantries and free chapels.

Singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter ‘Cantate domino’ – singing priests in the St. Omer Psalter [Yates Thompson MS 14 f.103r]

Christchurch Priory (then in Hampshire, now Dorset) was surrendered to the Crown in November 1539 (its cartulary survives at the British Library in Cotton MS Tiberius D VI).  The life pension of £6 subsequently granted to William Skeyte was typical of those received by all of the Priory’s former canons: in modern terms, this might be equivalent to annual income of about £33,000.

The manorial free chapel of St Anne at Hinton Admiral, just three miles from Christchurch Priory, is absent from the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291-2 (Harley MS 591), and so was probably established after that date.  Its endowment in 1448, by the foundation of a chantry within the chapel, provided a salary of 63s 4d for a cantarist, and Skeyte is likely to have taken up this post only after his duties at the Priory had been abolished.  In order to reduce the time they would spend in purgatory, Skeyte would be required to sing daily prayers for the souls of a long list of founders and their family, friends, and benefactors, but primarily for the souls of Elizabeth St. Omer and her third husband, John Syward.  The psalter pictured above was produced initially for a member of her family, and it was from Elizabeth’s second husband that their daughter, Joan, inherited the manor of Hinton Admiral in 1394.

Manuscript illustrating the relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory' The relieving of souls, ‘drawne up oute of purgatory by prayer & almos dede’ [BL MS Add. 37049, f.24v, early 15th century] Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

After the closure of the chantries on Easter Day 1548, Skeyte continued to receive his salary in the form of an additional life-pension.  The chapel itself was turned to other uses within the manor.  Its assets, seized by the Crown, amounted to no more than ‘one litle Belle’ weighing about 20 pounds and valued at just 2 shillings, together with ornaments valued at 9 pence and plate at 2 pence.

TNA E 101-75-14 (detail)  Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death Accounts showing the payment of just a half of Skeyte’s pensions during the year of his death [TNA E 101/75/14, E 101/76/15]. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Among Skeyte’s possessions, listed in an inventory taken after his death in January 1551 by the mayor of Christchurch, were a surplice, and a saddle and bridle, all of which had presumably been in daily use for his visits to Hinton.  Curiously, he also owned a sword and spear.  Administration was granted to his brother, Thomas Skeyte, a husbandman of Downton, Wiltshire.
Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 1

Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte  page 2Inventory of the Goods of William Skeyte [Hampshire Record Office: 1551U/091] Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The chapel is the subject of ongoing research, which has already established that its structure may have survived until the early 19th century, close to the site of the present-day war memorial at Hinton Admiral.  A century earlier, the manor house across the road was replaced by another elusive building, Hinton Place.

Stephen Gadd
University of Winchester

Further reading:
Alixe Bovey, Death and the afterlife: how dying affected the living
Cotton Ms. Cleopatra E v, f.142: Bishop of Worcester's writing on purgatory, with notes by Henry VIII
Crown and Church: How did reforms in religious practice in the mid 16th century affect the people of Britian?
A broader picture and a list of source material is given by Alan Kreider, English chantries: the road to dissolution (Harvard University Press, 1979)
Details of the elaborate dining and shaving routines of the canons in Christchurch Priory before its dissolution can be found at Cotton MS Tiberius D VI, II ff.67-68, published in Katharine A. Hanna, ed., Christchurch Priory Cartulary, (Winchester, 2007).
The Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music has a growing collection of music of the sort that would have been familiar to William Skeyte.


25 October 2015

St Crispin’s Day

The Battle of Agincourt was fought between the English and French armies 600 years ago on 25 October 1415, St Crispin’s Day.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
(Shakespeare’s Henry V Act 4, Scene 3)

Plan of the Battle of Agincourt

Plan of the Battle of Agincourt from The Chronicles of E. de Monstrelet (London, 1840) BL flickr  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


St Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers, cobblers, and leatherworkers.  In the third century two brothers, Crispin and Crispinian, went from Rome to France where they preached Christianity and worked at night making shoes.  The Roman governor had them put to death and they were made saints having been martyrs for their faith.


St Crispin and St Crispinian
St Crispin and St Crispinian from William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Shoemakers traditionally celebrated St Crispin’s Day with a day off work and much merrymaking. Newspapers often published stories of shoemakers ‘on the drink’ as they kept St Crispin’s Day. An old rhyme ran:

The twenty-fifth of October,
More Snobs drunk than sober.

If it rained on 25 October, St Crispin was said to be helping shoemakers by sending weather that made people think of buying new shoes and galoshes.

William Hone tells the story of Emperor Charles V roaming incognito in Brussels when his boot needed mending.  He found a cobbler but it happened to be St Crispin’s Day.  The cobbler refused to leave the jollities to carry out the repair in spite of being offered a handsome tip by the Emperor: ‘“What, friend!” says the fellow, “do you know no better than to ask one of our craft to work on St. Crispin?  Was it Charles himself, I’d not do a stitch for him now; but if you’ll come and drink St. Crispin, do and welcome: we are as merry as the emperor can be.”’ Charles accepted the offer.  The cobbler guessed that Charles might be a courtier and drank a toast to the Emperor. Charles asked if he loved the Emperor: ‘“Love him!” says the son of Crispin; “ay, ay, I love his long-noseship well enough; but I should love him much better would he but tax us a little less”’. The next day, Charles summoned his host to court.  When the man realised whom he had entertained the previous day, he feared his joke about the Emperor’s long nose would cost him his life. However Charles thanked the cobbler for his hospitality and as a reward ordered that the cobblers of Flanders should bear arms of a boot with the Emperor’s crown upon it, and that the company of cobblers should henceforward take precedence over the company of shoemakers in processions.

The Emperor Charles V
The Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) from Cassell's Illustrated Universal History (London, 1893) BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


So we wish you a Happy St Crispin's Day!

Ho! workers of the old time styled
The Gentle Craft of Leather!
Young brothers of the ancient guild,
Stand forth once more together!
Call out again your long array,
In the olden merry manner!
Once more, on gay St. Crispin's day,
Fling out your blazoned banner!

From 'The Shoemaker' by John Greenleaf Whittier


Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive

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