Alehouse Characters #2: The Drunken Constable

Mark Hailwood

This is the second in a series of posts to mark the publication of my new book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. Each post focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

On an October evening, in the year 1604, a weary traveller by the name of John Oultings entered Turner’s alehouse in the Essex parish of Layer Marney. It was around 6 o’clock, and Oultings ordered himself some beer and cheese, and requested a room in which to rest overnight. It was the kind of routine stopover that was a common occurrence in England’s seventeenth-century alehouses, as the institution represented an important component of the country’s hospitality infrastructure.

So far, then, nothing particularly remarkable. But what Oultings was to witness during his stay was a sequence of rather more intriguing events. On his arrival he found John Lufkin – the central character of this post – drinking with one Thomas Marsh and several other men. Whether Oultings joined these men is not clear, but at around 9 o’clock he saw John Lufkin call to the alehousekeeper to bring forth ‘a huge great stone pot’, which contained ‘very near two gallons’ (that’s 16 pints) of beer, a vessel that the drinkers referred to as ‘Fowler’—a rather odd nickname for a drinking vessel, but its provenance will become clear. Oultings was not interested in participating in whatever drinking ritual was about to ensue, and retired to his bed chamber.

Bring forth 'The Fowler'!

Bring forth ‘The Fowler’!

Yet when he rose the next morning, between 4 and 5 am, he found that John Lufkin and his fellows drinkers were still ‘playing’, as he put it, with the great stone pot. But one of the company had apparently been defeated in the attempt to drain this mighty vessel, for Thomas Marsh was, as Oultings observed, ‘so drunk he fell fast asleep at the table, hanging down his head, foaming, slavering, and pissing as he sat’. He had, in short, got so drunk he had befouled himself.

That was not the end of his indignity. One of the company fetched a sack, and placed it over Marsh’s head, whereupon John Lufkin, the ring-leader of the drinking company, bellowed in Marsh’s ears that he too would forever after bear the nickname ‘Fowler’. Just to top off the shaming ritual, Lufkin undid Marsh’s codpiece, and left him sitting there, unconscious, soiled, and with what contemporaries would have referred to as his ‘carnal instrument’ publicly exposed: a gesture intended to literally and symbolically expose his manhood, or rather, his lack of.

Not the desired state...

Not the desired state…

Here then is an example of alehouse antics that reinforces some of the points I made in my first post: that alehouse ‘good fellowship’ was not simply about drinking heavily to blot out the horror of seventeenth-century life, but was instead a highly ritualised practice, and one in which men often sought to express their masculinity and define their honour in relation to being able to hold their drink. Ending up in a drunken stupor, and losing control of mind and body, would end up in shame and ritual humiliation, as the unfortunate Thomas Marsh all too cruelly found out.

But there is another story that relates to the character John Lufkin, the good-fellow-in-chief, that highlights one of the other major themes of the book. As the number of alehouses in England began to rise rapidly between 1570 and 1630, so too did concerns about their increasingly prominent role in society. Religious reformers and the central government feared that the alehouse was providing a serious rival to the Church, and one that encouraged all manner of vice, from adultery, violence, idleness, money-wasting and even open political discussion, something that the lower orders were not deemed to have a right to at this time.

As a consequence Church and State embarked on a concerted campaign against alehouses, manifested most clearly in a raft of legislation passed against the institution in the opening years of the seventeenth century. It’s fair to say some of the measures were draconian: a one hour time limit was imposed on drinking in an alehouse in your own parish (only overnight travellers could stay longer). Closing times of 9 o’clock were stipulated (the time at which our Essex good fellows were just about to take their drinking up a gear), and drunkenness was made a criminal offence for the first time, with a 5 shilling fine attached (not an inconsiderable sum at a time when a labourer might expect to earn 8 pence a day).


‘Sup up chaps, its 8.55…’

This was a remarkably ambitious campaign on the part of the state to micro-regulate people’s leisure activities, and the book dedicates a lot of attention to examining just how successful it was. Indeed, this campaign against the alehouse provides a valuable test case for exploring the reach of central government in this period: could they really control people’s everyday lives this closely?

I don’t want to give too much away about the conclusions I reach, but the events I’ve described above do provide a clue. There was no professional police force in the seventeenth century, so the enforcement of the legislation against alehouses fell on the shoulders of local village constables. This was an office held, essentially, by unpaid amateurs, appointed from the ranks of the local community and charged with upholding the law for a year, before they could pass on responsibility to a neighbour. This was no easy task, especially when it came to enforcing unpopular legislation. Turning up in your local pub after 9pm and politely asking everyone to head home was not a job to be relished.

So, how successful were the village constables of seventeenth-century England at leading the charge against the increasingly popular alehouse and its culture of good fellowship? Well, if we take the example of Layer Marney, you may well have guessed by now who was the local constable… it was of course John Lufkin, the ringleader of the Fowler drinking ritual. Indeed, the events in Turner’s alehouse were described by John Oultings as he was giving testimony in a case in which Lufkin stood accused of neglect of the office of constable. The man charged with prohibiting good fellowship was in this village its greatest champion. With men like this in the front line, the campaign against the alehouse was likely to be an uphill struggle. But, as we will see in the next post, it was not only the authorities who sought to challenge the growing popularity of good fellowship…

Alehouse Characters #1: The Jovial Good Fellow

Mark Hailwood

This is the first in a series of posts to mark the publication of my new book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England. Each post focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

Meet our first alehouse character: Roaring Dick of Dover, the Jovial Good Fellow of Kent.

Roaring Dick of Dover

Roaring Dick of Dover

Roaring Dick is the narrator of an eponymous 1630s drinking ballad of the sort that would have been performed in, and perhaps even pasted onto the walls of, England’s seventeenth-century alehouses. His message is an inviting one: join him in a toast…

“Here’s a health to all good fellows,

that intend with me to join,

At the Tavern, or the Ale-house,

and will freely spend their coin.

But for such as hate strong liquor,

are not for my company,

O it makes my wits the quicker,

when I taste it thoroughly.”

Roaring Dick’s panegyric to a few pots of strong stuff down at the alehouse was typical of a whole genre of contemporary drinking songs – known as ‘good fellowship’ ballads – and it provides us with valuable insight into the reasons why so many people chose to spend their time and money in England’s growing number of alehouses (there were roughly 25,000 of them in the 1570s, but their number had rocketed to 50,000 by the 1630s.)

The alehouse was on the rise

The alehouse was on the rise

Historians have long been aware that alehouses were becoming more prevalent in seventeenth-century England than they had ever been before, but explanations as to why tended to see this as a function of growing poverty. England was witnessing a period of high food prices and low real wages, and the popularity of the alehouse was therefore attributed to growing numbers of poor men stepping through their doors in pursuit of narcotic oblivion, seeking out alcohol as an anesthetic that could render them senseless and thus ‘blot out the horror of their lives’.[1]

But Roaring Dick paints a rather different picture of alehouse culture: for him a visit to the alehouse was not about achieving a state of drunken oblivion. Rather, it was about enjoying spending time in good company: in ‘good fellowship’. He has little time for those who want to sit around glumly drowning their sorrows:

“Wherefore should we live in sorrow,

since we may embrace true joy?

Today alive, and dead tomorrow,

as most commonly they’ll say.”

He wants to seize and enjoy the moment, encouraging his companions to ‘Come my Lads, be blythe and merry’ and to ‘sing and drinke’ long into the night. For Roaring Dick, and for many other ballad good fellows, the alehouse is a world of liberality, pleasure, and of living-in—rather than escaping from—the present.

It’s one of the key arguments of the book, then, that contemporaries flocked to the alehouse above all to engage in this spirit of jovial good fellowship. It was a hub of camaraderie, sociability and friendship, and it was for this reason that men and women, young and old, poor labourers and prosperous yeomen farmers, headed down the pub.

'Fancy sharing a bowl of wine good fellow?'

‘Fancy sharing a bowl of wine good fellow?’

Of course, alcohol was part of the attraction. Roaring Dick was not alone in insisting that you had to ‘taste it thoroughly’ to get the best out of a visit to the alehouse. But its attraction was not as a narcotic or anesthetic – a type of drug that dulls the senses – but rather as a stimulant, something that would, as Dick puts it, ‘makes my wits the quicker’. A generous helping of ale, beer or wine was recommended as it served as such an effective adjunct to the desired environment of mirth, jollity and song. It was seen as a pick-me-up.[2]

Contemporaries called this state of sociable intoxication being ‘merry’, and that’s what they were aiming for when they drank. They were well aware, however, that it was all too easy to overshoot this optimal level of drunkenness and end up being ‘overcome’ by drink, a state where all control of mind and body was lost: a state of alcoholic stupor. Overstepping the mark was not uncommon, but ending the night in a state of drunken oblivion was not what alehouse-goers were in it for. In fact, those who did cross the line were likely to be subjected to the further humiliation of elaborate shaming rituals, as we will see in the next post…

'Overcome' with drink

‘Overcome’ with drink

[1] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), p.22. See also Peter Clark’s The English Alehouse (1983).

[2]  See my: Mark Hailwood, ‘”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’, Brewery History, 150 (2013), pp.39-53.

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot III: Places and Practice

Laura Sangha

This is the third of three posts surveying the London Catholic community at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. View the first here and the second here.

Yesterday we discovered that records of fluctuating levels of persecution might in fact provide us with more information about shifting international relations and official anxieties than changing levels of commitment to Catholicism. In this final post I use more qualitative data in an attempt to flesh out our understanding of the Catholic community in London through an exploration of some of the most prominent sites of Catholic activity in the capital.

I. Gaol

Perhaps surprisingly, priestly activity is particularly visible in the records relating to the numerous London gaols. Most seminarists were incarcerated at some point during the time they spent in England, but in practice this could facilitate rather than confine religious activism, as the farcical laxity of restrictions in these privately run institutions facilitated a variety of Catholic practices. The London Sessions Records document that in May 1612 there were seven suspected priests housed in Newgate, whilst the records of the Society of Jesus indicate that in 1615 there were six priests in Newgate and twelve languishing in the Clink. Even the diligent Spanish ambassador Count Gondomar was aware the reputation of the gaols, noting in a letter to Philip III that ‘priests in detention celebrate mass and give communion to many with such little secrecy, that it is impossible that the king and his councillors do not know it’. Peter Lake and Michael Questier have argued that prisons acted as clerical lodging houses, arenas for a variety of Catholic pastoral and propaganda activities, becoming in effect ‘centralised locales where many priests were gathered together, to which other Catholics could resort’. They also provided the first point of contact for many of the priests entering the country: on arrival in London Thomas Maxfield’s first action was to seek out his friend Father Harris at the Gatehouse, where he celebrated his first mass in England.Norden 1593 editThe uneasiness on the behalf of the government with regard to prevailing conditions in the prisons is further evidence of their status as resource for the Catholic community. Periodically there were complaints in Parliament that lax regulation allowed such gaols to become ‘churches of the Papists’, and in 1612 charges were bought against Simon Houghton, the keeper of Newgate for making the prison a ‘chapel for superstitious service’ and allowing priests to leave the prison to ‘work what mischief they could’ in the city before returning again at night. The extent to which priests were able to operate within such confines should not be underestimated – a search of the Clink in April 1626 uncovered altars in four of the priest’s chambers, along with ‘cart loads’ of books and ‘many rich copes, surplices, wax candles, crosses, crucifixes very rich, beads, jewels, chains, and chalices of silver and of gold’.

II. Embassy Chapels

Spanish ambassador Gondomar, Unknown, printed by Ashuerus Janss, 1620s.

Spanish ambassador Gondomar, Unknown, printed by Ashuerus Janss, 1620s.

The situation in the prisons bears much resemblance to that of the embassy chapels, which also generated much official anxiety. Throughout James I’s reign Londoners could secretly attend mass at the residences of various Catholic diplomats in the city, and sizable crowds appear to have attended such services. Attempts were made to prevent such use of these embassy chapels in 1606, 1610 and 1611, but it proved a ticklish problem as James was loathe to offend the diplomatic immunity of the ambassadors. Of particular concern was the Spanish embassy just outside the city walls at the Barbican, which gained a reputation as the principle centre of Catholic worship in the city – on Sundays two masses were celebrated there, one for the staff, the other for the public, and the latter were liable to attract conspicuous crowds. Indeed, the Spanish ambassador Gondomar described the embassy as ‘the parish and cathedral church for London’. During Holy Week in 1611 so many people flocked to the chapel that James asked Gondomar to show more restraint because the public celebration of mass was causing ‘grave scandal at court’. It seems that this had little effect however, and in 1613 proceedings were initiated against a number of people attending mass at the embassy on Palm Sunday. Hence embassies and prisons could evidently function as centres of devotion, providing the Catholic community in London with the opportunity to participate in worship and to access guidance and support.

III. The Inns of Court

The unique environment in the capital had other characteristics that encouraged the continued existence of Catholicism. At the Inns of Court the staunchly conservative lawyers showed little enthusiasm for reform, and the government repeatedly tried to rid the legal professions of papists. Lying to the west of the city, the constant traffic of lawyers, justices, clients and students could cloak a priest’s movements, and the Inns’ gardens and walks provided what appears to have been a recognised rendezvous, ideally suited for clandestine conference and discussion. Despite formal tests of orthodoxy and regular chamber searches, papists still gained admission to the houses, and the Inns continued to be frequented by Catholics.

IV. The Printing Press

The capital also provided printers and publishers the materials and privacy they needed to ply their trade. John Gee, alongside his list of Roman priests residing in the capital, also supplied a list of over one-hundred Catholic works that he claimed were printed and distributed there. The reports of William Udall, a government informer, also testified to a burgeoning underground literature. Udall was involved in exposing the circulation of proscribed books in the capital, and his reports detailed both distributors and receivers. Examples underwrite the joined up nature of the Catholic underground: Ann Dowse was a widow who ‘selleth Popish books’ and who appeared in the recusant rolls on four separate years, she dwelt against the turning stile into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, placing her within walking distance of hearing mass at the Inns of Court. Meanwhile, one of the biggest seizures that Udall was involved in was at the Venetian embassy, when a substantial store of books were found in the cellars. Udall was also thwarted in his attempts to secure a prisoner following a successful search of Montague House in Southwark, because the Keeper at the Clink ‘suffreth priests to escape for money’.

V. The Court

Even higher up the social scale in the refined atmosphere of the king’s court, there was also a distinctive Catholic presence. James only required a minimum of conformity from his Councillors and Ministers, and his Queen, Anne of Denmark, had converted to Catholicism. What’s more historians have traced numerous contemporary courtiers and office holders with known Catholic connections, and the Catholic tinge that characterised James’ court is reasonably well known.

Summary: The London Catholic Community and the Gunpowder Plot

Crispijn van de Passe the Elder, National Portrait Gallery.

Crispijn van de Passe the Elder, National Portrait Gallery.

I don’t think that it would be going too far to say that the Catholic presence in London formed an authentic community – people evidently knew where to go to hear mass, contact a priest or to secure books and devotional objects. Nothing illustrates the integrated nature of the community better than the course of events known to history as the Gunpowder Plot. The international aspect of the religion is underlined by the plotters’ links with Continental Catholicism: Guy Fawkes and Tom Wintour had both fought for Catholic Spain in the Low Countries, and both visited the Spanish court in the hope of securing support for the English cause. The plotters links to the Jesuits were extensive: Tom Wintour was introduced to Henry Garnet whilst in Spain, and in England he and other plotters visited the Superior in his rented London houses. Conspirator Thomas Percy was one guest present at White Webbs in 1604 in a group that also included Sir Thomas Parry, English ambassador in Paris, and William Byrd, a papist court musician who on this occasion sang high mass. Many of the plotters had ties to court: Percy himself was in the service of his courtier cousin the ninth earl of Northumberland. Other links across the community can be discovered – Thomas Wintour’s sister-in-law, Gertrude, was listed as a recusant in Holborn, and several members of the Inner Temple were deeply implicated in the plot, indeed, when there were fears on November 1st that the plot had been betrayed, Robert Catesby met and talked with fellow conspirator Francis Tresham in Lincoln’s Inn Walks. Confinement of suspects after the failure of the plot did not sever links with the Catholic community either: Garnet was able to maintain contact with his fellow priests despite his imprisonment, and Elizabeth Vaux, also deeply implicated in events, was surprised in her cell whilst having ‘just completed the Holy Sacrifice’ with a Father in Newgate gaol.

Although the crown presented it to the world as a Jesuit conspiracy, it is evident that the Plot was embedded in an extensive Catholic network that formed a coherent community within the city. This is of course not to suggest that the majority of the members of this community would support the actions of the Gunpowder plotters – the reality was that the conspirators struggled for support and their actions would have appalled most contemporaries, whatever their religious allegiance. What is clear is that this urban community included members from across a wide social spectrum. The capital served as the centre of communications for the wider English Catholic community, priests touched base in the city and it provided a link to the continent and the wider international arena. Its importance as a rallying point and a focus for Catholics struggling to practice their faith in a hostile and restricted environment should not be underestimated.


  • Bowler, Hugh (ed.), London Session Records 1605-1685 (London, 1934)
  • Challoner, V.A.L., Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of Both Sexes (Dublin, 1874)
  • Foley, Henry (ed.), Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, Vols.1, 3 (London, 1877)
  • Gee, John, The Foot Out of the Snare: With a Detection of Sundry Late Practices and Impostures of the Priests and Jesuites in England (London, 1624)
  • Gerard, John, Autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. Philip Caraman (London, 1991)
  • Jeaffreson, John (ed.), Middlesex County Records Vol.2, Indictments, Recognizances, Coroner’s Inquisitions-Post Mortem, Orders and Memoranda, temp. James I (London, 1887)
  • LaRocca, John, Jacobean Recusant Rolls for Middlesex (London, 1997)
  • Larkin, James and Hughes, Paul (eds), Stuart Royal Proclamations, Vol.1: Royal Proclamations of King James I 1603-1625 (Oxford, 1973)
  • Loomie, Albert (ed.), Spain and the Jacobean Catholics, Vol.1: 1603-1612 (Great Britain, 1973)

Further Reading

  • Aveling, J.C.H., The Handle and the Axe: The Catholic Recusants in England from Reformation to Emancipation (London, 1976)
  • Bossy, John, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850, (London, 1975)
  • Brigden, Susan, London and the Reformation (Oxford, 1989)
  • Caraman, Philip, Henry Garnet 1555-1606 and the Gunpowder Plot (London, 1964),
  • Dures, Alan, English Catholicism 1558-1642: Continuity and Change (Harlow, 1983)
  • Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot, Terror and Faith in 1605 (London, 1996)
  • Lake, Peter and Questier, Michael, ‘Prisons, Priests and People’, Nicholas Tyacke (ed.), England’s Long Reformation 1500-1800 (London, 1998), pp.195-233.
  • Prest, Wilfrid, The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts 1590-1640 (London, 1972)
  • Questier, Michael, Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580-1625 (Cambridge, 1996)
  • Walsham, Alexandra, ‘“The Fatall Vesper”: Providentialism and Anti-Popery in Late Jacobean London’, Past and Present (1994)
  • Walsham, Alexandra, Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 1993)

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot II: The People

Laura Sangha

This is the second of three posts surveying the London Catholic community around the time of the Gunpowder Plot. View the first here.

Recusant roll entry edit

Recusant roll entries can give details about social status.

Having established that there were lots of missionary priests about in Jacobethan London, my question today is: how much of an appetite was there for what Catholics were selling? We are fortunate in that recusant rolls survive for Middlesex from 1603-1625, so these provide part of an answer. Recusancy was the term applied to those who refused to attend Church of England services: from 1593 these people were punished with fines, property confiscations and imprisonment. Whilst not all people who were fined for refusing to take communion in Church were Catholics (they might be Protestant nonconformists), Jacobethan Puritans were less likely to avoid attending altogether, and more likely to attend begrudgingly, omitting parts of the service or disrupting the performance as part of a vocal protest. Records were kept of those people that were indicted, and these recusant rolls often give details about the identity and status of absentees, in the process historians have assumed that they furnish us with information about the Catholic community.

The editor of the Middlesex records admits the figures for the first five years of the reign are ‘defective’, but they nevertheless reveal some interesting trends. At the outset of his reign James appears to have shown greater tolerance towards his Catholic subjects, and the remittance of recusant fines between July and November 1604 probably accounts for the low numbers of indictments seen in the graph. A Treaty with Spain, signed in the same year, would also have encouraged such trends.

Recusant graphFollowing the Gunpowder Plot, and the introduction of an explicit oath of allegiance in 1606, it appears that indictments doubled, peaking in 1608. It is unsurprising to find evidence of the harsher application of penal laws in the city following the events of 5 November 1605, and yet, historians generally agree that James was inclined to view the plot as the work of a fanatical minority and that no intense persecution followed in its wake. The oath was not vigorously enforced until at least 1610, when a restive parliament and the assassination of Henry IV France resulted in the stricter enforcement of the penal laws. This makes the indictment figures more problematic – the low numbers in 1610 could be taken to contradict the generally accepted view of government policy, but equally they may represent greater compliance on the behalf of harried citizens faced with more vigilant persecution and stricter financial penalties. Other aspects of the figure are perhaps easier to read, the spike around 1615 followed grumblings in parliament that the penal laws were not being strictly enforced, provoking a crackdown on Catholics in close proximity, and the general decline in numbers towards the end of the reign reflects closer relations with Spain and the opening of negotiations to secure a Spanish match for Prince Charles.

Samuel Ward_To God In memorye of his double deliveraunce from the invincible navie and the unmatcheable powder treason

Samuel Ward engraving celebrating the ‘double deliverance’ from the Armada and Gunpowder Plot, 1605.

It is clear that a recusancy statistics cannot be simply treated as a poll or index of the Catholics living in London in a given year. The raw figures are ambiguous at best and perhaps tells us more about government policy and anxieties than personal convictions and allegiance. Yet they are still revealing of broader patterns. The rolls reveal a constantly shifting and variable community, for names which recur throughout the reign do not necessarily appear in every roll. Of those individuals that are referred to more than ten times throughout the twenty-two years of the reign, the average number of years when recusancy is recorded is eight, although this figure obscures a great variation in practice. For example, John Blake, a glazier, and his wife Magdelena are referred to in the recusant rolls over ten times, but their recusancy only occurs in three separate years. This is in contrast to the chandler Daniel Knowlinge and his wife Elizabeth, whose recusancy spans the entire reign – first appearing in the rolls in 1603 they are listed again in 1624, and they were prosecuted in thirteen of the intervening years.

The mode value of the thirty-four individuals that are referred to more than ten times in the rolls is six or seven years of recusancy, consequently I have used the thirteen individuals that conform to this value as a sample for further analysis. Several interesting details are suggested by this evidence – it is apparent that strict recusancy (as advocated by the Pope) was not practiced within London, rather individuals moved in and out of conformity with the Church of England, particularly at the beginning of the reign when a scattering of references to individuals reveal no discernable pattern. These findings are consistent with the work that Alexandra Walsham has undertaken on Church papists. Walsham has confidently argued that occasional conformity could be privately countenanced as a temporary expedient by the leaders of the Counter-Reformation. Whilst acknowledging that the extent of compromise permissible with the state was much debated among contemporaries, strict recusancy required ‘either indomitable courage or fanaticism’, and faced with financial and familial ruin conformity as an ‘involuntary act of a constrained will’ was possible. In light of Walsham’s argument that the categories of recusant and church papist are not mutually exclusive, the sample demonstrates that extenuating, personal circumstances clearly affected recusancy rates.

However, despite obvious fluctuation, the figures also reveal continuity in personnel. The greater enforcement of the penal laws around 1614-17, the reinstatement of legislation following the collapse of Spanish marriage negotiations in 1623, and the corresponding increase in indictment numbers may therefore not represent the detection of new recusants, but rather the stricter pursuit of known non-conformists. Political circumstances thus played a major part in defining the form Catholicism took within the capital. The reality was that politics and religion commingled in ecclesiastical flux.

Panorama of London 1616, Claes Van Visscher

Panorama of London 1616, Claes Van Visscher

Scrutiny of the recusant rolls themselves can therefore reveal much about the composition and nature of the Catholic community in London, but conversely also reveals their inherent limitations as a source. Reliance on official records tends to create a picture of a faith defined solely in relation to action taken by the government in opposition to it, and encourages a simplistic definition of Catholicism, when the reality is far more complicated. Historians have rightly argued that that formal, ritualistic separation from the Church should not be taken as the key criterion for defining the Catholic community, and the fluctuating conformity exhibited by those individuals appearing in the rolls supports this argument. Evidently, to understand what it meant to these goldsmiths, tailors, gentlemen, servants and scissor-makers to be Catholic during James’ reign, it is necessary to supplement recusant roll evidence by attempting to map the presence that this proscribed faith had within the city – which I’ll be doing in my final post tomorrow.


John Jeaffreson (ed.), Middlesex County Records Vol.2, Indictments, Recognizances, Coroner’s Inquisitions-Post Mortem, Orders and Memoranda, temp. James I (London, 1887)

John LaRocca,  Jacobean Recusant Rolls for Middlesex (London, 1997)

Michael Questier, Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580-1625 (Cambridge, 1996)

Alexandra Walsham, Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 1993)

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot I: The London Mission

Laura Sangha

Allegedly Guy Fawkes’ lantern, now in the Ashmolean Museum

On 4 November 1605, during a search at around midnight on the eve of the state opening of England’s Parliament, a soldier by the name of Guy Fawkes was accosted by officials in an undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords. He was wearing a cloak and hat and carried a lantern, and a search of his person revealed several slow matches and touchwood. Nearby, under a pile of faggots and wood, thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered. Fawkes was promptly arrested and taken to the king.

This was of course the moment at which the infamous ‘gunpowder treason’ plot was foiled, bringing to a halt the breathtakingly ambitious plan of a group of Catholic conspirators determined to reduce Parliament to rubble, to assassinate king James VI and I and his family, and to tear the heart out of the Protestant political establishment by killing in one fell swoop privy councillors, senior judges, the leading lights of the aristocracy and members of the House of Commons.

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, 1799 engraving.

At the trial of the surviving conspirators, the Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke insisted that the plot had been invented by Jesuit priests, depraved fanatics determined to subvert the loyalty of the English people. Historians have interpreted this as part of a consistent policy on the part of James I to separate religious radicals (both ‘papists’ and ‘puritans’) from their more moderate allies, whereby he emphasised the subversive and dangerous nature of the radical fringe in an attempt to persuade their more moderate brethren of the utility and desirability of religious uniformity within the English nation.

Whilst many people are familiar with the details and aftermath of the gunpowder plot, perhaps less is known about the quality and character of contemporary English Catholicism and the community that the conspirators were a part of, something I hope to address in these posts. In the past historians have disagreed about England’s Catholic community. In the 1970s John Bossy argued that traditional religion initially died out, creating the conditions for a new type of Catholicism to be imported by missionary priests. This Catholicism was suited to aristocratic tastes and aspirations, hence medieval, secular ‘survivalism’ died out to be replaced by an imported ‘seigneurial’ Catholicism, characterised by separatism and located almost exclusively in gentry households. Other historians supported his analysis, though Christopher Haigh differed somewhat by suggesting that  by concentrating their efforts on the gentry, the seminaries failed to capitalise on the widespread potential support for Catholicism existing among the lower orders at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. Whilst not without merit, Haigh’s vision of missionary priests ‘relaxing in plush Oxfordshire manor houses’ sits uncomfortably with the very high rate of attrition that they suffered at the hands of the regime. Subsequently historians have paid more serious attention to Catholicism, acknowledging its continuing influence on English life, and there has been greater interest in ‘plebeian’ strands, seeking to explore the faith away from the gentry and the manor house.

In three short posts leading up to the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot I will be revisiting the Catholic community in London. Rather than retelling the well known narrative of the notorious plot and the conspirators, I want to provide some sense of where Catholics could be found in the city and who they were.

Early modern London

The capital was a vibrant and expanding metropolis, the centre of both royal and parliamentary government, and it was this unique environment that enabled Catholicism to survive and grow within its bounds. London dominated the political, legal, economic, educational and social life of the country, and was the most important trading and communications centre. By 1603 its population had grown to a remarkable 141,000 and it had begun to overspill its ancient walls, though most of its inhabitants were not born within the city but gravitated there in search of work or alms – despite unusually high levels of urban mortality in the city this migration sustained continued growth. As a result parts of London were horribly overcrowded and decayed, and the government was forced to issue numerous proclamations seeking to restrict the ‘great confluence and accesse of excessive numbers of idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons’ who flocked to the city. This gives a sense of the amorphous nature of the London scene, a landscape that was the perfect place for Catholics to lose themselves – government concerns about the presence of ‘malefactors’ encouraged by conditions in the city were certainly not misplaced. Yet London was also one of the earliest places to experience evangelical reform, and in many ways it was the most ‘Protestantised’ area of the nation. So how and why did the Catholic community find a home there?

The priests: a missionary hub

Jesuit Superior, Henry Garnet

Jesuit Superior, Henry Garnet

The evidence tells us that the capital housed a disproportionate number of missionary priests. It was the centre of a Catholic communications network – when priests departed for England from Dunkirk or Calais, their point of entry was the south coast, from where they naturally gravitated towards London. In 1623, the Catholic apostate John Gee published The Foot out of the Snare; with a detection of sundry late practices and impostures of the Priests and Iesuites in England, which listed 126 known by him to reside in the capital. The Jesuit Superior in England from 1587 until his execution for involvement in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606, Henry Garnet, was often to be found in the capital coordinating the activities of his fellow priests. Garnet secured several houses in the London area which served as shelters for seminaries, and in 1605 he rented ‘White Webbs’ in Erith, a manor house that could accommodate as many as fourteen priests. The house was subsequently used for yearly assemblies when Jesuits resident in England would meet to renew their vows with the superior, and it received a constant throng of Catholic gentlemen visitors.

Other sources provide anecdotal support for the missionary importance of the capital. Bishop Challoner’s Catholic response to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, his Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholicks (1741) documents a number of seminaries active in London. These included John Roberts, a Jesuit distinguished by his assistance of a ‘great numbers of the infected’ during the 1603 plague year; and Thomas Somers, a schoolmaster turned priest whose diligence and zeal towards the ‘poorer sort of Catholics’ earned him the moniker ‘parish priest of London’. Other insights are provided by priests’ letters and papers – the Jesuit John Gerard often visited London during his time in England, and he described how he was able to administer the sacraments to ‘men of rank’ there, perhaps guiding them through the spiritual exercises and in some cases reconciling them to Rome. Indeed, Gerard took ‘special pleasure’ in the conversion of Sir Oliver Manners, the 4th Earl of Rutland, who as Clerk of the Council was in daily attendance on the king.

Isolated examples of Catholic activity were occasionally bought to the attention of the authorities, resulting in accounts in official records. For example, in October 1607, Oswald Nedham appears in the Newgate Gaol delivery to the London sessions, indicted for saying mass before thirty people in Farringdon. The list of the attendees’ names and occupations is invaluable as evidence of a specific congregation within the city. There were eleven women and nineteen men present, comprising four gentlemen, nine yeoman, three clerks, two tailors and two wives of tailors (the remaining women are all simply described as ‘spinster’). Evidently Catholicism did have its more plebeian adherents in the capital. On another occasion, on the evening of 26 October 1623, the Jesuit Father Drury was preaching to a three-hundred strong congregation in Blackfriars, in a garret adjoining the French ambassador’s residence, when the floor suddenly gave way, plunging more than ninety people to their deaths. The ideological and political resonances of the ‘fatall vesper’ have been examined in detail by Alexandra Walsham, but it is worth noting here that the event demonstrates a significant interest in Catholicism within the city walls, with enough coherence that news of the sermon had plainly reached the ears of many. Accounts of the incident included lists of casualties that suggest the congregation was a diverse mix, where ‘ordinary’ people such as tailors and servants took their place amongst the better sorts of people.

The 'fatall vesper'.

The Blackfriars ‘fatall vesper’, where 90 people attending a Catholic mass lost their lives.

Evidently London was a hub of missionary activity, and there was a flourishing Catholic presence despite the proximity of the authorities and the strong evangelical commitment of many of the city’s inhabitants. Tomorrow I take a closer look at exactly who it was that was prepared to heed the call of these missionary priests.


V.A.L. Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of Both Sexes (Dublin, 1874)

John Gee, The Foot Out of the Snare: With a Detection of Sundry Late Practices and Impostures of the Priests and Jesuites in England (London, 1624)

Hugh Bowler (ed.), London Session Records 1605-1685 (London, 1934)

John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850, (London, 1975)

Christopher Haigh, ‘The Fall of a Church or the Rise of a Sect? Post-Reformation Catholicism in England’, Historical Journal, 21:1 (1978), pp.181-186.

Patrick McGrath, ‘Elizabethan Catholicism: a Reconsideration’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 35:3 (1984), pp.414-428.

Alexandra Walsham, ‘“The Fatall Vesper”: Providentialism and Anti-Popery in Late Jacobean London’, Past and Present (1994)



The Woolcomber’s World, Part IV: Births, deaths, marriages and fighting cocks

Brodie Waddell

On 22 March 1697, ‘there were a great many fighting Cocks carried through Coxall on horsback in linen baggs’. So wrote Joseph Bufton in one of his eleven surviving notebooks.

Watching to cocks tear eachother apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

Watching two birds tear each other apart: not as much fun as you might imagine

But this odd little memorandum was not an isolated scribbling. It was, in fact, just one of about 180 entries in his Coggeshall chronicle, which he began in February 1678 and continued to May 1697. In it, we find festive celebrations, church business, unusual weather, family injuries, highway robberies and much else besides.

The entries from 1693, a fairly typical year, give a sense of the whole:

  • 11 Jan. 1693, John Bufton went to combing.
  • 4 Feb. 1693, my cousin Sparhawk was carried to prison.
  • 15 Feb. 1693, there was a bonfire made by the Crown for the joy that Squire Honeywood got the day of Sir Eliab Harvey and was not cast out of the Parliament and when he came home from Chelmsford through Coxall the night after he was chosen abundance of candles were lighted for joy.
  • 24 Mar. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon and went back again through Kelvedon 28 Mar.
  • early 1693, the new king’s arms and the 10 commandments new writ were set up in the church.
  • 1693, the Quakers made a new burying place in Crouches
  • 1 May 1693, the soldiers set up a Maypole at the Woolpack door
  • 18 May 1693, the poor did rise because the Bakers would not bake, because some of their bread was cut out the day before for being too light.
  • May 1693, my cousin Sparhawk came home.
  • beginning of May 1693 Francis Clark broke.
  • end of May 1693 the same month the Poor had Badges given them to weare which tis said were made of Pewter and Coggeshall Poor 1693 set upon them.
  • 1693, Mr Mayhew sold Coxall Lordship to Mr Nehemiah Lyde of London. 11 May he came first for his rent and 5 Jun kept court and Counsellor Cox was his steward.
  • June 1693, our 4th bell was carried to Sudbury to be new shot and brought home and the other were chipt to make them tuneable. They were first rung 6 July.
  • 30 Oct. 1693, King William went through Kelvedon.
  • 2 Nov. 1693, John Ancil had hung himself but was cut down in time.
  • 1693, a new pound was set up on Grange hill and the shambles was repaired.

Continue reading

‘The Rabble that Cannot Read’? Ordinary People’s Literacy in Seventeenth-Century England

Mark Hailwood

Those of us historians intent on exploring the world of ordinary women and men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conduct a lot of our research by looking at surviving examples of what such people read–for instance, cheap printed broadside ballads–or of what they wrote–take, say, Joseph Bufton’s notebooks. These materials are fascinating and undoubtedly useful, but regular readers of this blog might understandably find themselves wondering about the validity of this approach, and asking themselves a simple but important question: to what extent could the lower classes of England actually read and write in the seventeenth century?

David Teniers the Younger 'Peasants Reading a Letter...' But could they?

David Teniers the Younger ‘Peasants Reading a Letter…’ But could they?

It’s a fair question, and has important implications. Does this material really provide a window into the minds of the most humble people in Tudor and Stuart society, or were reading and writing skills the preserve of the more affluent, or at least the middling, classes of society? After all, in 1691 the puritan writer Richard Baxter had described his lower-class neighbours as ‘the rabble that cannot read’. Was this fair?

Back in the 1970s the social historian David Cressy came up with a cunningly simple way of measuring the literacy skills of our early modern ancestors: counting the percentage of people who could sign their name to witness statements that they gave before the courts. Witnesses in court cases were drawn from across the social scale, and included men and women, so the results could be broken down by class and gender. The methodology was simple: given that it was customary in the period for people to learn to read before learning to write, it was assumed that people who could write out their own signature were fully literate: they would have learned to both read and write. Given, Cressy argued, that there was no particular stigma attached to not being able to sign your own name, it was unlikely anyone would have learned to do this specific task if they were not actually able to write. Those who could not write out their name, who instead usually simply signed documents with a cross, were counted as illiterate.

The results of this approach suggested that in the seventeenth century only roughly 30% of adult men were fully literate, and only 10% of women were. When broken down by social group, the results show considerable divergence across the social scale. Almost 100% of the gentry were literate. The number was around 60% for yeomen (i.e. wealthier farmers) and tradesmen: the groups historians tend to see as the ‘middling sort’ or middle class. But for husbandmen (poorer farmers) and labourers, the percentage that could read and write was only between 15-20%. Put crudely, all gentlemen were fully literate, just over half of middling class men were, but less than 1 in 5 men from the lower classes were. For all classes of women the figure was more like 1 in 10.[1]

Richard Baxter: 'the rabble that cannot read'

Richard Baxter: ‘the rabble that cannot read’

This might seem to suggest then that reading and writing materials that survive from this period are indeed artifacts of upper and middle class male culture, not the culture of more humble men and women. But there are some problems with these statistics. For a start, as several historians, including Cressy, have pointed out, they are underestimates of reading ability in particular. It was quite common even for the children of the poor to have some schooling, and hence to learn to read, only to be taken out of school at the age at which they were deemed old enough to work on the family farm or in its workshop: around 7 or 8 years old. It was at this age that the teaching of writing skills typically began. It is highly likely then that many people who could not write their name, and would thus be counted as illiterate in these calculations, could in fact read: they were partially literate. Indeed, some historians have suggested that these figures are therefore a massive underestimate of reading ability in the period.[2]

Moreover, in a recent class I showed some examples of seventeenth-century signatures (not taken from witness statements, but from some petitions by villagers to have alehouses either set up or closed down in their locality) to highlight how this methodology works. In the course of the discussion we identified a number of issues with this process of counting signatures that suggests not only is there a problem here with underestimating reading ability, but that the system of sorting them into ‘signatures’ and ‘crosses’ may well be underestimating writing ability too.

Take, for example, this petition from 1646: sent by the neighbours of one Robert Dowse of Hackleton in Wiltshire to the local magistrates encouraging them to issue him with a license to run an alehouse:

Hackleton Petition

Hackleton Petition

It contains some clear examples of written signatures that suggest their authors were competent at writing, and thus at reading:

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

The signatures of Thomas Bushell and John Hodges

Others clearly fall into the category of simple crosses, where someone with greater penmanship skills has written out the name of the signatory and left a space for them to leave ‘his’ or ‘her marke’, i.e. to sign with a cross:

Widow Piper, 'her marke'. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of inexperience with the quill

Widow Piper, ‘her marke’. The blotchy cross may indicate a lack of experience with the quill

These individuals would be counted as illiterate. Others, however, are not so clear cut. When William Hickman was asked to scratch his mark onto the parchment, he went beyond leaving a simple cross: he sketched out one of his initials:

William Hickman, 'his marke'

William Hickman, ‘his marke’

What should we make of this? This is not a full signature, so in Cressy’s methodology William Hickman would have been filed under ‘illiterate’. But does his use of an initial suggest he had a modicum of ability with the quill in hand? Perhaps he had stayed in schooling long enough to begin writing lessons, but had not fully mastered the art before being called back to lend a hand tilling the soil. If so, he would almost certainly have been able to read. Or maybe he had asked a literate associate, a tradesman from the village, to teach him the basics, so he could at least offer an initial rather than a cross. There may not have been a stigma attached to being unable to sign in full, but it may nonetheless have been important to Hickman to show that at least his literacy skills were a step up from poor Widow Piper’s. This was, after all, a society obsessed with status at every level.

Hickman’s act of one-upmanship might have left an impression on his fellow petitioner Richard Guy. He was invited to add his mark to the list just below the marks of Hickman and Widow Piper. Confronted by their contrasting efforts–the bold H; the blotted cross–Guy may have felt the urge to show that he too was not one of the rabble who could not write: he proffered an initial too, a large R, but it betrayed his inexperienced quill-craft. It was back-to-front:

Richard Guy, 'his marke', albeit back-to-front

Richard Guy, ‘his marke’, albeit back-to-front

Another example, this time a petition from 1631 by the inhabitants of Monksilver and Bicknoller in Somerset to have a disorderly alehouse suppressed, again indicates a diverse range of literacy skills that are not sufficiently captured by the categories of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’:

Signatures on a petition from Somerset

Signatures on a petition from Somerset


Once more, we have some polished full signatures:

John Bellamy

John Bellamy

Yet we also have some marks that do not even come up to the standard of a simple cross. Paul Sayer’s blotted squiggle might well be evidence of an individual with very little experience of ever holding a quill (though it might also be the result of an unsteady hand withered by age):

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

The marke of Paull Sayer of Monksilver: a splodge

Nor does Gilbert Thorne’s mark seem to suggest much familiarity or confidence with writing. This curt flick also invites us to rethink Widow Piper’s dexterity: by comparison her cross is rather more sophisticated, and may suggest that she was more used to putting pen to paper than Sayer or Thorne:

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Gilbert Thorne, his marke

Most intriguing of all though is the signature of the man I will call George ‘Middleton’ (as you will see his surname is very difficult to decipher – I’m open to advances):

George 'Middleton' of Monksilver

George ‘Middleton’ of Monksilver

First of all, you need to ignore the large cross that looks like a big lower case ‘q’. This is in fact the mark of the previous petitioner, who has signed in the wrong place (easy to do, presumably, if you cannot read). Well, I say ignore, but first note that the cross has been made without removing the quill from the parchment, which could indicate a greater degree of skill than a two stroke cross. It’s joined-up handwriting. Even simple crosses, then, can reveal a diversity of calligraphic ability.

When we look past this cross, we can see that George has not left ‘his marke’ in the form of a cross, or even an initial. It seems as though he has attempted to write out his Christian name, albeit misspelled, in full:



What is more, if we look back to where a more skilled writer has set George’s name down for him to place his mark next to, we see that they have in fact written, uniquely, that what will follow are ‘the markes‘ of George Middleton, not the more routine singular ‘the marke’:

'The markes of George...'

‘The markes of George…’

Perhaps George had requested for it to be phrased this way, insisting to his fellow petitioners that there was an important distinction between his writing ability and that of those who could only put a cross beside their name. Why, though, is his surname crossed through? Here is my theory. Imagine his embarrassment when, after confidently insisting he could do ‘markes’ plural, he managed to omit the second ‘g’ from his name. It was a blemish that this proud petitioner could not bear to let alone. So, he decided to up the stakes. He struck out the belittling lines where another man had had to write out his name for him, and down at the bottom of the sheet, below all the other signatures, he endeavoured to sign his own name in full. This time, albeit with a shaking hand that left a spidery ‘George’ and a cramped ‘Middleton’, he succeeded in making his way into the ranks of the ‘literate’:

The fully literate 'George Middleton'

The fully literate ‘George Middleton’

Perhaps this is being too fanciful. Is it really the same hand as the first misspelled ‘Geore’? The ‘G’ is certainly not identical, but then would we expect an inexperienced writer to consistently produce identical characters? I admit that we can’t be sure, but even if we put this example aside we can see that the range of signatures on these petitions reveal subtle differences in writing ability: even two simple crosses can be compared and contrasted to tell a story about the varying level of skill with which petitioners could handle a quill. This is important because it demonstrates to us that these gradations in ability mattered to ordinary people at the time: many signatories showed great determination to demonstrate that, with their use of an initial, for example, they were not on the bottom rung of the literacy ladder. It suggests that status, and its handmaiden stigma, clung closely to the literacy abilities of even relatively humble people.

I may be pushing this material too far, but I think these signatures are fascinating. Using them to produce broad statistical estimates of reading and writing ability in the period is, undoubtedly, very useful, but reading them closely has the potential to reveal so much more about the spectrum of literacy that existed in this society. Sorting these signatures into the ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ results in the lumping together as ‘illiterate’ many people who would in fact have had a wide range of at least some reading and writing skills. An illiterate rabble they were not.

[1] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1 (1977).

[2] See for example Margaret Spufford, ‘First Steps in Literacy: The Reading and Writing Experiences of the Humblest Seventeenth-century Autobiographers’, Social History, 4 (1979).