The Woolcomber’s World, Part II: Finding God in seventeenth-century Essex

Brodie Waddell

Joseph Bufton spent a lot of time thinking about God. He assiduously went along to hear sermons by the local vicar and by travelling preachers. He read scores of books and pamphlets offering religious guidance. What’s more, he filled many volumes with notes and extracts from these sermons and published texts. He even tried his hand at spiritual poetry, with decidedly unimpressive results.

What, then, do we know about Bufton’s faith?

Bufton - Coggeshall parish church

The (mostly) 15th-century parish church in which Bufton spent many a Sunday

As I explained in my previous post on Bufton, almost all of our knowledge of this Essex woolcomber comes from the notes he scribbled in the margins and blank pages of eleven volumes of almanacs between the 1660s and the 1710s. As such we can learn a considerable amount about his exposure to diverse religious ideas and instruction.

However, there are limits. The volumes include only a few hints about his own personal thoughts on such matters, especially his place in the fraught religious politics of the later Stuart period. Still, the fact that eight of the eleven surviving volumes are mostly or entirely focused on spiritual concerns surely can tell us something about how a simple layman set about finding God in late seventeenth-century Coggeshall. Continue reading

The Woolcomber’s World, Part I: A life scribbled in the margins of almanacs

Brodie Waddell

On 8 August 1716, Joseph Bufton sat down to take stock of his little archive.

For about forty years, he had been filling the margins and blank pages of old almanacs with notes. He now had quite a collection and his terse list hints at their contents.

‘I reckon I have here 22 almanacks’, he wrote…

  • Seven volumes were ‘filled up chiefly with things taken out of other books’, including ‘out of a dictionary’.
  • Five were account books, some ‘of household stuff, &c.’, but others probably related to his work.
  • Three volumes were ‘out of Irish letters, &c.’, that is to say, copies of letters between Joseph and his brother John, who had removed to Ireland in 1678.
  • Two were ‘filled up with notes of sermons’ and ‘an account of funerall sermons’.
  • One was ‘filled chiefly with buriall and marriage’, chronicling the vital events of his family members and neighbours.
  • Another ‘I keep on my board and write in dayly’, though its precise contents remain a mystery.
  • One he ‘fill’d great part with Bellman’s verses’, short poems celebrating the chief annual religious and civic festivals such as Christmastide and the royal birthday.
  • A final volume recorded the rules of his trade in the form of ‘the orders in Comber’s book, &c.’

This extraordinary little library has only partly survived the ensuing centuries. Only eleven volumes – half the total noted by Bufton in 1716 – are known to remain. Eight of these are held in his native county at the Essex Record Office and another three can be found at the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Still, the fact that any escaped the rubbish heap is surely a sign of providential favour – most personal jottings of this sort were long ago destroyed by unfortunate fires, spring cleanings or damp basements.


One of Bufton's almanacs, including a scrawl of notes in every available margin.

One of Bufton’s almanacs, including his scrawl of notes in every available margin.

This brings me to the question that I suspect most readers’ are now asking themselves: Who was Joseph Bufton and why should anyone care?

I would love to be able to include a portrait here of Bufton, showing you what he looked like posing in his prime. However, unlike Laura’s current hobby-horse Thoresby, Bufton never achieved the sort of wealth or notoriety necessary for a pictorial acknowledgement of his existence. Even his biographical details are too sketchy for a detailed pen-portrait, and I am still trying to fill in some of the gaps.

Coggeshall, Essex, c1700

Coggeshall, between Braintree and Cochester (c.1700).

What we do know is that Joseph Bufton was born in 1650 to John and Elizabeth, a clothier and his wife. He grew up and lived most of his life in Coggeshall in Essex, a small town dominated by the woollen industry, and he found employment there as a woolcomber. I have not found any evidence that he married or had children, but he did have an older brother, John, and three older sisters, Mary, Elizabeth and Rebecca.

In 1699, he left Coggeshall, and he made few notes after that date. It is not clear where he lived out the rest of his life, though it may have been London or Colchester as he lists two account books as ‘1 for Lon., 1 for Colc.’. Similarly obscure is his death. All that is certain is that he survived until at least 1716, when he would have been sixty-six years old.

In subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to shine some light on this ill-defined silhouette. By looking at his eleven volumes of surviving notes from several different angles, we can begin to illuminate a well-rounded individual with eclectic tastes, surrounded by a diverse crowd of family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. My hope is that I’ll convince you that Bufton’s scribblings are not only interesting and sometimes amusing. They can, in fact, allow us to get some sense of how life was lived – God worshipped, money made, communities peopled – by people who far too rarely wrote anything down.


I owe a considerable debt to Henry French for both information and ideas about Bufton, some of which he has published in The Middle Sort of People in Provincial England, 1600-1750 (2007), pp. 244-50. I’ve also drawn on G.F. Beaumont, A History of Coggeshall (1890), pp. 219-29. I previously discussed Bufton in God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life (2012), pp. 199-202. The title of these posts is borrowed from Paul Seaver, Wallington’s World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (1985). Bufton’s surviving notebooks can be found at the Essex Record Office, D/DBm Z7-Z14, and the Brotherton Library, MS 8-10.

Elizabethan ‘madmen’ Part III: Puritans, Plums, and a Cereal Complainer…

Jonathan Willis

I don’t know about you, but I’m always delighted and intrigued when I’m unexpectedly reminded of the humanity we share with the inhabitants of early modern England. I’ve been reading through a large quantity of godly lives recently (spiritual diaries, memoirs, biographies, books of remembrance, etc.), and if I’m honest the content is often rather unedifying – by which I mean, far, far too edifying! It’s therefore quite pleasing when, amidst the intensely personal but also strangely generic soul-searching, you come across something which gives you a flavour of the individual. This happened while I was reading the diary of Samuel Ward. Ward finished his career as a moderate, establishment puritan figure and Master of the recently founded puritan college, Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. In the 1590s, however, whilst a student (later Fellow) at Emmanuel, Ward was ‘a vigorous and outspoken puritan’.[1]

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget?  'Wicked child!'

NOT historically accurate, but who can forget? ‘Wicked child!’

Outspoken or not, though, his diary reveals his ongoing struggles with sin, and particularly with food and drink. In June 1595, for example, he recorded ‘to much drinking after supper’ on the 21st, ‘going to drink wyne, and that in the Taverne, befor I called upon God’ on the 27th, and ‘immoderate’ eating of cheese at 3 o’clock in the morning on the 22nd (perhaps a snack to satisfy the hunger cravings brought on by drinking too much the night before?). Cheese was a recurrent weakness. He recorded ‘immoderate eating of walnuts and cheese after supper’ on October 3 1595, and ‘intemperate eating of cheese after supper’ on August 13 1596. Perhaps the catalyst for this binge was the fact that, the day before, Ward recorded in his diary ‘my anger att Mr. Newhouse att supper for sayng he had eaten all the bread’. As well as bread, cheese and wine, Ward also hankered after fruit: references to damsons, plums, pears and raisins pepper his diary.[2] On 8 August 1596 Ward noted that after observing ‘my longing after damsens … I made my vow not to eat in the orchard. Oh that I could so long after Godes graces…’

Lovely cheese...

Lovely cheese…

The puritan relationship with food was often a complex one: like sleep, food was a bodily necessity, but also a reminder of carnal appetites and a minefield in terms of potentially sinful behaviours.[3] It is perhaps not surprising that fasting was such an important aspect of puritan piety: an abstinent mortification of the flesh. For many people in Tudor England, however, fasting was a luxury which they literally couldn’t afford, as they weren’t able to buy food in the first place in order to be able to deliberately refrain from eating it. Enter ‘Robart Boushell’, my third eccentric letter-writer in what is becoming a series of eccentric letter-writers, a series which I’m starting to think might form the kernel of my next research project.

Plums, glorious plums!

Plums, glorious plums!

Bushel’s letter is dated 1596, the same year as Ward was longing after damsons and eating too much cheese. He identified himself as ‘one kept from all outward meanes’ and yet preserved as ‘the savgard of my life … my wife & vij christians’.[4] His complaint was simple: that ‘the price of corn & all other vetles’ was un-affordably high. The plight of the poor was such that ‘if it be not lokid in to in time god shall be so dissonored as he was not in the time of papistri the like’. In other words, for the government to permit food prices to reach such great heights was to the great dishonour of both God and the Queen: ‘for in the moultitud of the peepoll the quine is honered & in the dirth of the peepoll the quine is disshonered’.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

The valleys standing thick with corn.

At the risk of treading on Brodie’s toes (he’s written a brilliant book on economic culture which you should definitely buy), what is fascinating is the direct link established by Bushel between food prices, the health of the individual, the health of the nation, and also the health of the reformation itself. ‘If the price of corne do not fall many canot live that would live’, Bushel wrote, and through hunger were brought to ‘great weaknes of body & soul’, because in their dire straits they began to ‘find falt with thee ghospell & the professors of the same’. Bushel was keen to empahsise that he himself wished nothing but prosperity to ‘good ministers of the worde of god & good profissers also which hatithe covitousness & loveth rightiousnes’, but also begged liberty to ‘speak without blam & dessplisur’ some more scurrilous speech ‘which hath passed the mouthes of sum in essex wher I dwell’.

Bushel's 'humble suit and petition'...

Bushel’s ‘humble suit and petition’…

As a historian of religious (rather than economic) culture, what interests me most about Robert Bushel’s letter is what it might have to say about the reformation, and religious identity. One could quite easily argue that a professed faith which could be displaced by the ominous rumblings of an empty stomach was very clearly more apparent than real. There is also no way of telling for sure whether Robert Bushel adopted the position of ‘godly complainer’ because it was how he genuinely felt, and what he actually believed, or simply because he judged that it would be the most effective rhetorical strategy. The threatening subtext – by starving us, you feed popery – cannot have been lost on the government, and was presumably the reason this letter was squirreled away by Cecil, with a host of other potentially subversive religious oddballs. But in Bushel’s use of such language, I would be inclined to see evidence of a layman who was at least sufficiently educated and informed to know which buttons it would be most effective to press. It was also (I think), at least in part, the existence of a discursive framework in which he and Cecil were both in a sense brothers in Christ (‘which is your head & yow his membere’), which enabled him to articulate his demands with such confidence.

[1] Margo Todd, ‘Ward, Samuel (1572–1643)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 6 Aug 2014]

[2] There is always a temptation to link spiritual battles over soft fruit with the influence of Augustine, and Margot Todd has done so in the case of Samuel Ward, but as Alec Ryrie has recently noted, sometimes people just innocently ate pears. See his Being Protestant in reformation Britain, p. 430.

[3] Ryrie has recently written both about sleeping and fasting: see his essay on ‘Sleeping, waking and dreaming in Protestant piety’ in Martin and Ryrie (eds), Private and domestic devotion in early modern Britain (passim); and Being Protestant, pp. 195-199.

[4] British Library, Lansdowne vol. 99 no. 18, f. 49.

Marooned on an Island Monographs: A Historical Fiction Reading List

Laura Sangha

A recent mini-series has emerged on the monster, in which Mark (social history and the history of drinking), Jonathan (reformation history) and Brodie (economic history) have all shared the classic history books that they would take with them if marooned on a Pacific beach. But given that it is impossible to imagine anyone actually settling down with a cocktail and Joan Thirsk’s Economic Policy and Projects, and following an excellent suggestion by a monster reader, my list is comprised of some historical fiction that you might actually pop in your suitcase this summer.


But first, I have to get something off my chest. My name is Laura, I am an early modern historian, and I didn’t like Wolf Hall. In fact, I couldn’t even finish it. I tried, several times, and eventually made it about 200 pages in, but my resolve faltered when I realised I still had 450 pages to battle my way through. Even now I am not quite sure of the reason behind my complete failure to engage with it, but I suspect the slow pace didn’t help, nor the subject matter – when you have just marked 50 essays on Tudor England, spending your precious free time inside Thomas Cromwell’s head seems more like hard work than fun. So apologies, but Wolf Hall doesn’t make my list, though I appreciate that it is much loved – indeed, that is why I wanted to explain its absence. I hope you can still bring yourself to read what follows.

The other thing to note is that I have defined historical fiction in an entirely arbitrary way in order to narrow the field and make my task slightly easier – I have only included novels written by authors writing about a past they did not experience during their lifetime, hence no room for my beloved Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding or Tim O’Brien – they will have to wait for another list!

1) Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998).

instance-of-the-fingerpostPears’ murder mystery is a meticulously researched and brilliantly crafted novel covering spies, blood transfusions, secret societies, witchcraft, faith, political intrigue and much more. It vividly conjures up England in the 1660s, a few years after the Restoration of the monarchy and Church, in a world deeply marked by the political, religious and intellectual revolutions of the preceding decades. The action revolves around the murder of an Oxford fellow, with four witnesses describing in turn their recollections of the event some years later. These unreliable narrators give the novel its ultra-modern feel, the multiple perspectives encouraging the reader to be aware of subtle tricks of misdirection and omission in the witnesses’ evidence and in the process revealing the complexity of influences and motives of the inhabitants of early modern society. In other words, this masterpiece encourages the kind of critical reading of the evidence that historians are trained in – it’s no surprise that so many academics rate it highly! The subject matter is also not to be missed – the four witnesses include mathematician John Wallis and antiquarian Anthony Wood, and there are walk on parts for many other notable figures, including Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys and Valentine Greatorex.

2) Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (Serialised Feb-Nov 1841).

Barnaby_in_Newgate_by_PhizBarnaby Rudge was Dickens’ first attempt at a historical novel, and it is less highly esteemed and much less well known than his only other attempt, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Written during a time of unrest in Victorian England, Rudge also deals with rebellious times, treating the Gordon Riots of 1780, when Protestant anti-Catholic mobs in London erupted into lethal violence, attacking Parliament and the Bank of England, and largely destroying Newgate Prison and the Clink. (Linda Colley describes the events as ‘the largest, deadliest and most protracted urban riots in British history’). Having grown up in Dickens’ country in North West Kent it was inevitable that I would be enthralled by his work, but the strange Rudge is one of my favourites. It has the usual hallmarks of better known Dickensian classics: persistent humour, careful plotting, keenly observed characters suffering an unusually high level of nominative determinism. The book is named for a mentally disabled young man who wanders in and out of the action with his creepy talking raven, Grip; and whilst the heroes and villains are a pleasing mix of both Catholic and Protestant characters, indicating Dickens’ liberalism, his descriptions of the ordinary, mostly working-class mob, are vicious and uncompromising, reflecting his own horror of the many-headed monster. It is the descriptions of the relentless momentum of the rioters, incited by opportunists from the upper classes and swept along in a mindless orgy of violence that really give the novel its power, and despite its flaws it is a neglected gem.

3) Arthur Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke: his statement as made to his three grandchildren Gervas and Reuben during the hard winter of 1734 (1889)

clarke 2A rollicking historical coming of age adventure novel narrating the events of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Micah Clarke is a young teenager living near Portsmouth, the son of ‘Ironside Joe’, a devout Protestant who had fought on the side of Parliament in the Civil War. With his father’s encouragement, Micah joins the rebellion against the Catholic James II led by the 1st Duke of Monmouth, first marching to Taunton and eventually fighting at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Along the way Clarke gets into various (and sometimes very harrowing) scrapes and learns the ways of the world, encountering numerous colourful characters including Monmouth himself, but also the fictionalised London gent and wit Sir Gervas Jerome (forced to join the rebels due to his financial difficulties) and the ruthless professional soldier Decimus Saxon (cunningly feigning piety to get his own way). A light read notable for the impressively realised seventeenth-century world it reveals – full of incidental and everyday details that betray an impressive historical knowledge. Identifying those anachronistic elements/ attitudes that were clearly the product of Doyle’s Catholic upbringing is all part of the fun.

4) Robert Harris, Pompeii: a novel (2003)

pompeii001Robert Harris does a great job of writing a suspenseful novel despite the fact that all his readers will already know the ending. The appeal for me is the way that Harris uses a narrative of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to give a detailed picture of life in the Roman Empire in 79AD. The reader follows an aquarius (hydraulic engineer) as he tries to discover why the water supply to many towns in the surrounding area has dried up, in the process becoming embroiled in the murky politics of the region and meeting Pliny the Elder. But all of this is quite literally overshadowed by the catastrophic eruption of the volcano which is described to devastating effect. If the present-day dialogue seems a little incongruous at times and the romance rather unnecessary, it’s spectacular conclusion easily blows these objections away. Note: the novel has nothing to do with the recent hollywood blockbuster on the same topic.

5) Neil Gaiman, Marvel: 1602 (2003).

marvel page 2It’s 1602, Elizabeth I is finally coming to the end of her lengthy reign, there is trouble abroad and economic strife at home, strange portents have been seen in the skies over London… and most of the original Marvel superheroes and villains have suddenly turned up on the scene! Forgive what might be considered a frivolous choice and bear with me while I explain my final entry. Marvel 1602 is a series of comics that transplants Marvel characters into the Jacobethan era, weaving their marvellous origins into the events and institutions of the age. And why not? Mixing the providential and apocalyptic tropes of the Elizabethan world with the concerns of contemporary comics actually works rather well. The early modern age was far more attuned to the possibilities of the invisible world than the current one after all, and winged beings with preternatural powers and James I’s anxieties over the ‘witchbreed’ and entanglement with the Inquisition hardly seem to stretch the bounds of possibility too far. Best of all, transporting marvel heroes back to 1602 reveals some very surprising and satisfying roots for Captain America…


On reflection, perhaps my list also helps to explain my lack of enthusiasm for Wolf Hall. Whilst all my choices deal with significant historical events, they focus their narratives on bit players who only encounter great historical personalities on occasion. This frees up the authors to weave unpredictable plots and to play with their subject matter, providing the everyday look and feel of a period without burying the reader in details they could find in a conventional history book. This leads me to conclude that I probably derive my historical novel satisfaction from fleshing out my contextual understanding of great events and people, without getting too enmeshed in the particulars and straying too close to ‘the day job’. I enjoy the creative liberties that these authors take with their subjects, which opens up spaces to think differently or more loosely about the past. And of course many of these novels also prompt reflection and comparison with events of more recent history, acting as fingerposts to unexpected and unexplored avenues. I’d be delighted to know which novels do the same for you…

Postcript, 05/08/14: More on the role of historical fiction in this Guardian article, including some thoughts from Hilary Mantel herself on the genre. Which I entirely agree with.

Marooned On An Island Monographs: A History of Drinking Reading List

Mark Hailwood

With the school holidays imminent it seemed like a good time to offer another instalment of our summer series of beach books for the historically inclined. I would understand, albeit with a tinge of sadness, if you thought the social, economic or religious histories of early modern England were a bit sober for those long hot afternoons by the pool. But perhaps if I put on my other hat for this list – as a historian of drinking culture – I might be able to offer some suggestions more fitting to be consumed alongside a few cheeky cocktails. So here are my top 5 suggestions for a crash course on the history of drinking…

Continue reading

Happy Blogiversary! The Monster is Two

Apparently a ‘blogiversary’ is a thing. It is, no doubt, another one of those neologisms that will make many of you cringe. But its also an excuse for a bit of fun, so we are going to take the chance to celebrate the fact that the many-headed monster is now two-years old! And what better way to celebrate than with a virtual cake and some statistics?!

Let them eat cake!

Let them eat cake!

It all started back on 18th July 2012, with Brodie’s first post in his ‘Norwich Entertainments‘ series, about the providential messages inherent in the parading of a hairy child and a boneless girl around the city. Over the first two weeks we averaged a modest but respectable 10 hits a day.

Since then we have received over 53,500 hits on the blog, spread across 122 posts, complete with 685 comments, at closer to an average of 100 hits per day. These hits have come, somewhat unbelievably, from 140 countries! Less surprisingly most of our readers come from the UK, the US, Canada and Australia – though Germany and France are also well represented in our viewing statistics. India also makes the top ten.

More low-calorie virtual cake, anyone?

More low-calorie virtual cake, anyone?

Our top five most popular posts are all from our ‘History from Below’ online symposium held last summer. Laura’s post on John Dee’s Conversations with Angels is the most popular outside of that event. We summarised some of the other most popular posts in our 100th post recently if you want to know more.

One of the more curious things about our blog statistics are some of the unusual search terms that have led readers to the site. ‘Okapi’ has introduced no less than 11 unsuspecting stripy-animal enthusiasts into the world of early modern history (courtesy of Laura’s posts on the use of analogy in history writing). A search for ‘dirty mind of young sally’ has sent 9 browsers into our midst – and I think we would rather not know how or why.

Much more innocently the search ‘be nice to archivists’ has produced 8 visitors: certainly a sentiment we are happy to be logarithmically associated with. ‘Male hunk zodiac signs’ rather less so. Although, if this search produced a link to the John Dee post we’d like to think he would have been flattered…

So there you go: two-years of the ‘unruly sort of clowns’ and other early modern peculiarities. Some people out there seem to think the age of the blog is coming to an end. Others that they are an increasingly important component of being a historian in the 21st century. Whichever way the wind may be blowing we’re hoping to have many more blogiversaries if you, our beloved readers, keep coming back. Thanks for all the views, comments and tweets: we hope you’re enjoying the blog half as much as we are.

The Many-Headed Monster

Memorial and History, appendix i; in which Jonathan jumps on Laura’s bandwagon…

Jonathan Willis

This short post is inspired by Laura’s brilliant mini-series on ‘Memorial and History’, which took its own inspiration from her discovery of Exeter’s 1909 memorial to the Marian martyrs Thomas Benet and Agnes Prest.

Hearing Laura talk about Exeter made me curious about the city where I was born and raised, and which bears the somewhat ignominious dual-honour of being the location of the first documented case of medieval blood-libel (a false accusation of ritual murder against the Jewish community), and also of witnessing the execution of one of the first evangelical martyrs of the reformation. Continue reading