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The ceremonial practices we have just analyzed survived intact until the middle of the sixteenth century, but long before they disappeared there were signs that many Bristolians had come to doubt their efficacy. By the early fifteenth century, for example, most townsfolk had become indifferent to the great Corpus Christi processions, which had once been among the most popular religious celebrations and the preeminent means of expressing the town’s hierarchical organization and spiritual kinship.[43] Even Ricart’s loving codification of the annual cycle of feast and ceremony may be a sign that some Bristolians—like Mayor William Spencer, who commissioned Ricart’s book—thought their ancient customs needed to be preserved and reinforced among the civic elite. By the 1530s, moreover, the city had begun welcoming organized troupes of players to the city to perform their entertainments indoors in the Guildhall for a small elite, competing with St. Katherine’s players in both substance and form.[44]

But the old ceremonies themselves persisted into the era of Reformation. With the combined attack on popish “superstitions,” religious orders, and chantries, however, the framework described by Ricart suffered permanent and irreversible change. In 1541 Henry VIII ordered the abolition of the “many superstitious and chyldysh obseruances…observed and kept…vpon Saint Nicholas, Saint Catherine, Saint Clement, the Holy Innocents and such like.”[45] Corpus Christi suffered a similar fate, disappearing from the church calendar with the publication of the Edwardian prayer books.[46] Of course, deep religious divisions persisted in the city in the mid-sixteenth century, as Roger Edgeworth made clear in the sermons he delivered during this period of upheaval.[47] At the same time, many tradition-minded laymen, including the great Spanish merchant Robert Thorne, and such clergymen as Edgeworth himself and Paul Bush, the Marian bishop in Bristol, still ardently upheld the old forms of piety.[48] But this cultural politics did not extend its defense of customary practices to the excesses associated with the old holidays and pastimes. Against the surge of Protestant reform, the defenders of tradition in Bristol advanced their sober new vision of devotion, which preserved the crosses and the images but condemned the “gluttony” and “lechery” of traditional culture.[49] By Elizabeth I’s and James I’s time, learned Protestant ministers such as Northbrooke, Thomas Thompson, and Edward Chetwyn were striking even more vigorous hammer blows against idle pastimes and drunkenness. Under these strictures, celebrations such as those that honored St. Katherine and St. Clement stood utterly condemned for their depravity.[50]

Although many of Bristol’s late medieval gilds, like St. Clement’s and St. Katherine’s, survived the dissolution of the chantries into the later sixteenth century and beyond, they did so as a result only of the reassignment of their properties for charitable purposes, not of the survival of their old religious spirit.[51] At the same time, the feasts of St. Clement and St. Katherine disappeared from the civic calendar. One reason for the quick and relatively painless demise of the two saints’ days is supplied by Henry VIII’s attack on the church. With the dissolution of the monasteries and the suppression of the religious orders in England, the liberty of St. Augustine’s Abbey, already under vigorous attack by the city and the Crown in the 1490s,[52] ended in December 1539, with the dissolution of the monastery. In 1541, when the Knights Hospitallers were disbanded, the liberty of Temple Fee was also quashed.[53] These changes transformed the spiritual geography of Bristol. No longer did the civic map contain hot spots of great religious power but temporal pollution, where debtors could dodge creditors, illicit traders could keep open shops, and outlaws could flaunt their disregard of all just authority.[54] Now the command of the mayor and his brethren was efficacious in every quarter of the city, and every inhabitant, burgess and stranger, was subject to their rule. The city was freed from the potential for lawlessness and violence always inherent in the existence of the religious enclaves. In consequence, crossing the Frome into St. Augustine’s or the Avon into Temple no longer had the political or social significance it once did. As these districts became legally integrated into the city’s body politic, they became in a sense demystified. At the same time, the city achieved a new kind of religious unity, for in 1542 the property of St. Augustine’s Abbey became the foundation of the diocese of Bristol, carved out of the old bishoprics of Worcester and Bath and Wells.[55] For the first time, Bristol was under one episcopal administration.

But along with these alterations in traditional church administration came deeper changes in the fabric of social life in Bristol, changes in the structure of authority and distribution of power that provide the wider context for the rituals we have been examining. These developments transformed the medieval community and robbed the ceremonies of their old efficacy. We have already studied the emergence of a new form of commercial community in Bristol as the city’s economy shifted decisively away from France to focus on southern Europe and the Atlantic. By the mid-sixteenth century, control of overseas trade had fallen into the hands of a small and exceedingly tight-knit group of dealers. As the scale and internal organization of the merchant community changed, so too did its relations with the larger English economy. The city was no longer a restricted market in which all citizens had an equal opportunity to buy the goods of strangers. As we know, the common practice now was for outside dealers to have fixed contracts with particular Bristolians, using the old fairs and market hall not as places for free buying and selling but to meet regular customers or agents, settle accounts, and strike new bargains. From 1546, even the collection of tolls at the city gates had been abandoned, and in consequence the ancient distinction between strangers and citizens lost much of its economic and cultural force.[56]

Accompanying these changes were shifts in the social geography of the city. From wills and deeds we know a good deal about where the leading men in Bristol resided in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. For some of the richest citizens, such as the great Canynges family, the favored places were great stone mansions in Redcliffe and other southern parishes where land was available for gardens and orchards. Others preferred locations on the city wall, where stone towers made imposing residences. And, of course, many lived in the city center, where they enjoyed maximum command of the urban market.[57] Hence the city’s “better and more worthy” men were rather evenly distributed through the neighborhoods. We can see this quite clearly by examining the residences of the city’s common councillors at this time. We know the names of the forty-two councillors in 1381 and of fourteen others added between that date and 1409; of these, the residences of thirty-eight can be established. Twenty lived in the central city, and eighteen in the three parishes east and south of the Avon.[58] On St. Katherine’s Eve in the late fourteenth century, therefore, the procession from the Guildhall to Temple Church would have taken many Corporation members back toward their homes and about equal numbers away from them. And when St. Katherine’s players went from door to door to perform for these men, they would have toured the whole town.

The same list of common councillors allows us to establish something of the occupational structure of the city’s governing elite. Nearly all its members, wherever they lived, engaged in overseas trade to some degree. Most identified themselves as “merchants and drapers,” and many had properties both in the center and in the southern parishes. They were entrepreneurs who organized the woolen industry and traded its products in foreign markets without any differentiation of retail shopkeeping from wholesale trading or from the financing of cloth production. At least two councillors seem to have been members of St. Katherine’s gild.[59] Given the close ties between mariners and merchants, we can assume that a number of councillors became members of St. Clement’s when it was founded in the 1440s. Hence intimate economic and social connections linked the members of Bristol’s corporation and the members of the gilds of St. Clement and St. Katherine. In this period, on the feast days of the two saints it was not a distant body of strangers who came to the gild chapels but men with whom the gildsmen dealt week in and week out.

By the early sixteenth century much of this had changed radically. Where the evidence for the late fourteenth century suggests an even distribution of wealth through the city, in the 1520s we find quite distinct differences. According to statistics derived from the records of the subsidy in 1524, the center and portside parishes possessed 72 percent of the city’s taxable wealth, although during the second quarter of the sixteenth century only about 48 percent of the city’s population resided there (Table 18).[60] In this district now dwelled Bristol’s richest inhabitants, as well as a large number of middling types. Although a number of wage earners also lived there, they were concentrated primarily in a few streets near the city’s wharfs and the butchers’ shambles. Not only did the suburban districts to the north of the Frome and to the east of the Castle and in the transpontine district to the south of the Avon contain fewer wealthy residents, but those who did live there possessed smaller holdings than their counterparts in the center, and in place of the middling men we find larger numbers of individuals living on wages.

18. Geographical Distribution of Wealth in Bristol, 1524
Parishes / Mean Assessment Assessments in £[a] No. Assessed % Total Assessed
Valuation (£-s-d)
Source: Public Record Office, E 179/113/192 (lay subsidy roll dated 10 January, 15 Hen. VIII). For purposes of analysis the city’s parishes have been divided as follows: Center: All Saints; Christ Church; St. Ewen; St. John; St. Lawrence; St. Leonard; St. Mary-le-Port; St. Peter; St. Werburgh. Portside: St. Nicholas; St. Stephen. Transpontine: St. Mary, Redcliffe; St. Thomas; Temple. Suburban: St. Augustine; St. James; St. Michael; SS. Philip and Jacob.
Center and Portside / £12-10-00 101+ 11 1.93 2,040-00-00 28.63
  21 to 100 60 10.53 2,950-00-00 41.40
  6 to 20 122 21.40 1,369-00-00 19.21
  2+ to 5 85 14.91 325-04-00 4.56
  2 96 16.84 192-00-00 2.69
  1 to 2 196 34.39 249-05-00 3.50
    Total   570   7,125-09-00  
Transpontine and Suburban / £5-13-04 101+ 3 0.62 430-00-00 15.56
  21 to 100 24 4.93 1,173-00-00 42.46
  6 to 20 48 9.86 475-13-04 17.22
  2+ to 5 52 10.68 193-13-04 7.01
  2 101 20.74 202-10-00 7.31
  1 to 2 259 53.18 288-10-00 10.44
    Total   487   2,762-16-08  
City Total / £9-07-02 101+ 14 1.32 2,470-00-00 24.98
  21 to 100 84 7.95 4,123-00-00 41.70
  6 to 20 170 16.08 1,844-13-04 18.66
  2+ to 5 137 12.96 518-17-04 5.25
  2 197 18.64 392-00-00 3.98
  1 to 2 455 43.05 539-15-00 5.44
      Total   1,057   9,888-05-08  

Evidence derived from the subsidy records from 1545 and other documents from this period gives us a more detailed view of the geographical distribution of occupations. The picture is of a city in which overseas merchants, rich retailers such as grocers, mercers, and drapers, and small shopkeepers such as shoemakers and tailors dominated the city’s center, while large-scale manufacturers such as clothiers, brewers, and tanners lived in the outdistricts, along with small artisans such as weavers and wiredrawers and servants and wage-earning employees; the leather and brewing industries were located to the north of the Frome and the cloth industry to the south of the Avon. Overseas trade accounted for the richest citizens, although the retailing of luxuries and the manufacture of leather also produced significant numbers of wealthy men (Table 19). Since the Corporation drew its membership only from among the city’s “better and more worthy men,” it was now made up primarily of figures drawn from these sectors of the economy, not from the textile industries. Patterns of residence among the Corporation members also changed. Nearly all of them now lived near the Guildhall in the city center or in the two immediately adjoining portside parishes. There was almost no participation by those dwelling in the clothmaking district across the Avon or in the other outparishes.

19. Social Geography of Bristol, 1545
Occupations Center Portside Transpontine Suburban City Total Mean Assessment in £
Source: Public Record Office, E 179/114/269 (lay subsidy roll dated 4 March, 37 Hen. VIII). The districts are defined as in Table 18.
Male householders
A. Leading entrepreneurs:
    Merchants 38 27 1 1 67 25.70
    Major retailers
         draper 5 14     19 19.47
         fishmonger 4       4 7.00
         grocer, apothecary 21 1 2   24 19.81
         haberdasher 2 1     3 16.67
         innkeeper, vintner 5 1 4   10 16.60
         mercer 9 2     11 27.75
          Subtotal 46 19 6   71 19.64
     Soapmakers 3 1 3   7 14.86
         Total A 87 47 10 1 145 22.21
B. Textile production:
     Clothier 1 1     2 5.50
     Dyer     5   5 9.80
     Sherman     8   8 6.25
     Tucker     8   8 11.17
     Weaver     5   5 6.40
         Total B 1 1 26   28 8.26
C. Leather production:
     Currier 1   2   3 9.33
     Skinner 5       5 12.20
     Tanner 2 1   10 13 25.62
     Whitawer 4   1 7 12 15.08
         Total C 12 1 3 17 33 18.27
D. Clothing production:
     Capper 2   3   5 9.00
     Glover, purser 4       4 9.25
     Hosier 2       2 6.50
     Pointmaker 1       1 12.00
     Saddler 1       1 5.00
     Shoemaker 5   3   8 6.75
     Tailor 11 6 3   20 9.43
     Upholsterer     1   1 17.00
         Total D 26 6 10   42 8.85
E. Metal crafts:
     Bellfounder       1 1 5.00
     Cardmaker 1   1   2 7.50
     Pewterer 1 2     3 19.67
     Smith 2     1 3 9.67
     Wiredrawer 1   2   3 11.33
         Total E 5 2 3 2 12 11.83
F. Food production:
     Baker 5 1 2 1 9 12.89
     Brewer 1 2 1 5 9 13.59
     Butcher 4     1 5 19.20
         Total F 10 3 3 7 23 14.54
G. Shipping industry:
     Hooper, cofferer 2 8     10 11.63
     Mariner, ship’s captain   2     2 11.50
     Ropemaker   4     4 13.58
     Ship’s carpenter   1     1 12.00
         Total G 2 15     17 12.10
H. Professional, etc.:
     Attorney, lawyer 2       2 12.00
     Barber     2   2 7.00
     Clerk     1   1 30.00
     Government official     1   1 19.33
     Scrivener   1 1   2 10.50
     Stationer 1       1 5.00
     Surgeon   1     1 7.00
         Total H 3 2 5   10 12.03
I. Miscellaneous: 3   3   6 6.17
         Total known A–I 149 77 63 27 316 16.66
         Total unknown A–I 22 8 13 6 49 13.09
         Total male householders 171 85 76 33 365 16.18
Female householders 13 4 4   21 25.18
Servants 3   1 2 6 2.69
           Grand Total 187 89 81 35 392 16.46
           Mean Assessment in £ 18.17 18.10 9.98 18.64 16.46  

In the midst of these developments Bristol’s civic constitution also changed, in a manner that reinforced the building relationship between the community and the wider world and further broke down the old fabric of self-enclosed communal life. In 1499, Henry VII confirmed Bristol’s liberties and immunities but altered the structure of its governing body, primarily by creating a bench of aldermen. The mayor and aldermen received designation as justices of the peace, which brought the city into conformity with the national system of administration then emerging in the counties. At the same time, the recorder—usually an up-and-coming London lawyer—became fully integrated into town government as one of the aldermen. His presence was required at gaol delivery, of which the mayor and aldermen were now to be justices. Since the mayor also served as one of the two justices of assize, the civic body was formally bound into the judicial and administrative structure of the nation. This meant that the status and power of the leading men in town government were increased, whether they were acting at any given moment as royal or as purely local officials. It also meant that the Crown, through the mayor and aldermen, now had a direct and continuous link to the city government upon which both the city and the Privy Council could rely.[61]

Occasionally the tensions inherent in these new political and social arrangements flared into open conflict. For example, in the disputes that arose in 1543 over the existence of the Candlemas fair in the parish of St. Mary, Redcliffe, the opposing parties reflect almost exactly the new geographical and sociological divisions we have been discussing. The supporters of the fair were primarily artisans resident in the city’s outdistricts, most from south of the Avon and a few from north of the Frome. Its critics, who supported the city government’s Star Chamber suit to quash the fair, came from the central district, and especially from the richest and most powerful groups living there, the great merchants and the major retailers.[62] As a result, the city’s social divisions, which the old festivals had sought to overcome in favor of unity and harmony in communal life, now seem to have become wounds in the body politic.

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