John Painter … of Palace Court?

by Nicholas J Casley
Published May 2012

On the corner of what used to be High or Cat (or Stillman) Streets stand the remains of the old Palace Street Board School, built in 1880 on the site of Palace Court. Now occupied by the University, remains of the old Palace Court have been encased in sections of the rear wall and could be seen from High (now Buckwell) Street only year ago. Unfortunately, the gap that allowed this view has now been filled in.

Many histories of Plymouth remind us that this was the probable home of the merchant John Painter, who provided lodgings and entertainment for the newly-arrived Katherine of Aragon in 1501 before her long journey overland to London and marriage. In his History of Plymouth, Worth recognised that “Paynter’s connection with Palace Court is purely traditional”. I have not been able to see whether Harris mentions the tradition in his writings of the early nineteenth century, but it may only date back to a few years earlier from when Worth was writing, for in 1860 the local architect James Hine gave a lecture to the Plymouth Institution on the subject of The Old Buildings of Plymouth in which he related the following about Palace Court: “What is the history of this place which retains so grand a name, as if in mockery of its present state,(1) and which in its old age rather inclines us to melancholy reflections? If I mistake not it was erected by John Painter, four times Mayor of Plymouth, the last time in 1492”.

Hine was wrong about the date and the number of times Painter was Mayor – this was, after all, before the time of Worth’s transcription of the Borough’s papers – but Hine relied on the notes of the great Tudor antiquary John Leland for part of his argument. Leland, writing between 1533 and 1536, stated that “One Painter, that of late dyed a rich Marchaunt, made a goodly House toward the Haven, whey Catarine, Princess Dowegar, took Water ..”. 

On this basis we have evidence for Katherine of Aragon staying at the house of John Painter, but that this house was Palace Court remains unproved, despite Palace Court seeming to qualify as both “a goodly House” and lying “toward the Haven”. Hine, though, considered that the name Palace Court was a direct reference to the princess’s stay and that it became inextricably linked with the property after her departure for London.
Although he makes no mention of it, Hine’s argument just may have been swayed by a reference in the Borough’s accounts for the year 1517-18. Here four pence was paid “for a man & his Oxen to fetche one of the grete slyngs, fro mr payntr is palls to the [Guild]hall pale”. This entry would seem to imply that John Painter possessed a palace. Of course the word palace in this part of the world has connections with (fish) warehouses rather than sumptuous accommodation. An alternative meaning has palace as an enclosed area, i.e. the land contained within pales. In a local context this may have come to mean a courtyard surrounded on all sides by buildings that may or may not have been of a defensive nature. John Painter’s connection with a palace may imply either interpretation, but does this provide verification of his house being Palace Court?

It maybe better to look at the fabric of Palace Court itself. The building today no longer exists, but we do have good drawings as well as photographic evidence to see how substantial a property it was. Hine’s own description may here suffice: “It is a quadrangle, the north and west sides of which are occupied by the so-called Palace Buildings, and the south by the ancient gateway. … The buildings are of three stories of very substantial erection, with walls of dark limestone, pierced with numerous doors and windows, having granite dressings and mullions. When built it must have been a very noble house,….”. In many respects this description could quite easily be applied to Yogge’s House, that is the misnamed ‘Prysten House’ just to the south of St. Andrew’s church. 

This property is also formed on a quadrangular layout with a gateway, and three stories composed of limestone and granite. Perhaps, then, Palace Court was indeed the home of a leading merchant of Plymouth, in the same vein as Yogge’s.(2) We can, therefore, understand Hine’s reasoning behind his contention that Palace Court was the property of John Painter: the name reflected the stay of Katherine of Aragon in 1501, and the form of the property was that of a substantial house for a substantial merchant. But there is other evidence to consider. When the house was demolished in 1880 to make way for Palace Court School, Worth noted that “a quantity of ecclesiastical material was found built up in the walls”. It is, unfortunately, not clear whether this material would have been a visible part of the structure or whether it had merely been used during the construction of the fabric. He illustrated some of this archaeological evidence in his History of Plymouth (on page 231). It is difficult to equate a house of a merchant with this kind of evidence, for there would appear to be no need for Painter to have had a private chapel in his house with St. Andrew’s church so near. Consequently, Palace Court may have Episcopal or abbatial origins, and there are hints that both the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral as well as Plympton Priory had property interests in this area. 

In Simon Carswell’s book there is an undated rental of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter that refers to land held in Cat Street.(3) It is interesting, however, that the 1439 Act of Incorporation expressly reserved property ‘on the north side of Stillman Street to the Prior of Plympton. Nonetheless, a petition to parliament in 1464 saw Plympton Priory give up its jurisdiction over the property.

That last sentence may prove vital in understanding the link that was proposed between John Painter and Palace Court. It is appropriate to mention here that Bracken, in his A History of Plymouth, makes reference to the unpublished papers of Henry Woollcombe, who, writing in the early nineteenth century, mentions a property in Cat Street that he believed was formerly owned by the Prior of Plympton. Long known as ‘The Abbey’ Woollcombe’s description of it clearly indicates that Palace Court is intended. Furthermore, James Hine had discussions with Rev. Collins Trelawny, whose family once owned the site and who provided him with additional information. Trelawny told Hine that he had heard a tradition that Palace Court was the Plymouth residence of the Prior of Plympton, “who, like the Bishops, assumed the honours of Royalty, and therefore their residences were called, like Bishop’s residences, ‘Palaces”‘.

In a sense we have been here before, for was not the supposed `Prysten House’ once known as ‘The Abbey’, and yet was subsequently shown as a merchant’s house. There is a slight difference in the case of Palace Court, though, and that is the ecclesiastical material found within the latter’s walls at its demolition, but the fact that the Prior’s property in Stillman Street was given up in 1464 does not preclude the possibility that it was subsequently rebuilt or redeveloped, using some of its ecclesiastical features, as a merchant’s house.
In conclusion, then, let us look at the hard evidence we have:

The Prior of Plympton maintained jurisdiction over a tenement with garden on the north side of Stillman Street. (An undated rental refers to land held by the Dean & Chapter of Exeter in Cat Street);

the Prior of Plympton surrendered this jurisdiction;

By 1486
John Painter was a leading merchant of the town and was Mayor five times;

John Painter built a good house in the town close to the harbour;

John Painter provided accommodation for Katherine of Aragon on her arrival in England;

John Painter had a palace in Plymouth where slings were stored;

Palace Court, upon demolition, contained ecclesiastical features in its structure, but resembled Yogge’s house in its design.

Can we draw any firm conclusions beyond the bare content of each sentence? I do not think that we can with any certainty posit a direct link between John Painter and Palace Court. If other evidence was forthcoming, then our job would be easier. Certainly if the property deeds were still available for earlier years it might be possible to prove or disprove a link, much as Jennifer Barber was able to do with the `Prysten House’. In the meantime, the case must remain a matter of conjecture.

Bracken, C.W.: A History of Plymouth (1931)
Hine, James: The Old Buildings of Plymouth, in Annual Reports & Transactions of the Plymouth institution, Vol. I (1865)
Leland, John: Itinerary, in R. Pearse Chope: Early Tours in Devon & Cornwall (1918)
Welch, C.E.: Plymouth City Charters 1439-1935 – A Catalogue (1962)
Worth, R.N.: History of Plymouth from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (1890)
Worth, R.N.: Calendar of Plymouth Municipal Records (1893)

(1) Hine described it in 1860 as “filled … with as many miserable rooms, for as many miserable people, as can be crowded in it”.
(2) Hine himself hints at this when he wrote in a footnote that “it is remarkable, that of the ‘goodly houses’ built by the merchants of the 15th century, (some of whom, as Yogge and Painter, possessed considerable wealth), there should be no existing remains”.
(3) This certainly does not suggest that the Bishop himself had a palace here: apart from the fact that the Chapter was a separate entity from the Bishop, other evidence clearly indicates where the Bishop maintained the small number of residences that he had in his diocese.

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