previous chapter
The Sanctification of Power
next section

The mayor’s role as both the king’s and the community’s servant received special emphasis when royalty visited the city. Between 1461 and 1509 there were five such visits to the city, of which only Henry VII’s in 1486 is documented in detail.[28] These rare events stressed Bristol’s dual character as a legal corporation and a moral community. Although in planning each of these celebrations the Bristolians must have paid great attention to the monarch’s tastes and views, they also had a chance to express their own outlook, since the arrangements were all made and financed by the citizenry themselves. Henry VII visited Bristol in 1486 on his progress through the realm to secure the loyalty and obedience of his kingdom’s major cities after his victory at Bosworth Field.[29] Hence much attention was bound to have been paid to Bristol’s subordination to royal authority. But the principal theme of the performances put on during his stay was, not the power of the king, but the corporate autonomy of the city.

The most important pageant took place amid “great Melodie and singing,” immediately as the king passed through the town gate. Henry was accompanied there by “the Maire, Shriffe, the Bailiffs, and ther Brethern, and great Nomber of other Burgesses al on Horseback,” who had ridden out of the town to greet him. “But the Mair of Bristow bar no mase, nor the Shrif…no rodde, unto the tyme they came to the gate…wher beginneth ther Fraunches.” Here the mayor and the sheriff took up the symbols of their offices as the representatives of royal justice in the borough, in the process accentuating the boundaries of the community and their own authority within it.[30]

When the king had passed the gate and entered Bristol proper, he was greeted at once by a figure representing the legendary British “King Bremmius,” according to tradition the founder of the city. Bremmius welcomed his “moost dere Cosine of England and Fraunce” to the town, thanking God highly on behalf of the Bristolians “for such a Soueraigne Lorde.” But his main purpose was to ask Henry for assistance. “This Towne lefte I in greate prosperitie,” he said,

By you, ther herts Hope and Comfort in this Distresse,
Havyng Riches and Welth many Folde;
The Merchaunt, the Artyficer, ev’ryche in his Degre,
Had great Plentye both of Silver and Golde,
And lifed in Joye as they desire wolde,
At my departing; but I have been so long away,
That Bristow is fallen into Decaye
Irrecuparable, withoute that a due Remedy
By you, ther herts Hope and Comfort in this Distresse,
Proveded bee, at your Leyser convenynetly,
To your Navy and Cloth-making, wherby I gesse
The Wele of this Town standeth in Sikerness,
May be mayteigned, as they have bee
In Days hertofore in Prosperitie.
Now farwell, dere Cosyn, my Leve I take
At you, that Wele of Bountie bee
To your saide Subjects for Maries Sake,
That bereth you ther Fidelitie.
In moost loving wise graunte ye
Some Remedye herin, and he wille quite your Mede,
That never unrewarded leveth good Dede.[31]

This may seem no more than a straightforward petition for aid from the Crown, but the speech has another, more subtle dimension.[32] According to Geoffrey of Monmouth and his followers, King Bremmius, or Brennius as he is more frequently called, was one of the noble race of Trojans who ruled Britain after Brutus had conquered and settled the land. In one version of the story, made prominent in Bristol by Ricart’s Kalendar, this Brennius is identified as the founder of Bristol, just as Brutus founded London and King Ebrancus founded York.[33] Since Henry Tudor himself claimed descent from the British kings,[34] King Bremmius gave Bristol a form of kinship tie to the new monarch which was of use in requesting assistance from him. At the same time, reference to the mythic founder helped avoid the worst implication of the petition—the apparent dependency of the borough community upon the royal will for its maintenance. Since Bristol was in existence from the first beginnings of the “British realm,” the Bristolians seem to have been saying, its status could hardly depend on a later royal patent. Any special exemptions or privileges it received were offered, not by the king’s mere motion and sovereign will, but as a moral obligation to preserve the noble work of his great and famous ancestor. As Bremmius says, he founded the city and “called it Bristow” after himself, “for a Memoriall,” so that the British would never forget him.[35]

Along with advancing Bristol’s claim on Henry for aid, this form of petition upheld Bristol’s independent honor. It was clear in law that each of the city’s liberties and franchises, including that of corporate status, required royal warrant. In this sense the borough community was founded by the royal will. But the existence of the borough, with its sworn membership and its reciprocal and interlocking social relationships, transcended this dependency, since its citizenry formed a moral community as well as a legal corporation. History was called upon to resolve this dilemma. Because the city was obviously the creation of men, it could not be thought a part of the natural landscape. It required a founder. But if the community was to preserve its independence, its foundation had to be set in the distant past. By stressing Bristol’s antiquity, King Bremmius pointed not only to the borough community’s continuity but also to its autonomy. Autonomy went hand in hand with unity. The city presented itself to the larger world as a single, integrated whole, existing independently of its surroundings.

previous chapter
The Sanctification of Power
next section