The Town in 1498

by Nicholas J. Casley 
Published December 2012

1498: Columbus, on his third voyage, discovers South America whilst da Gama finds the sea-route to India; Charles VIII of France dies; Erasmus teaches at Oxford; and da Vinci, Durer and Michelangelo are at work. What was happening in Plymouth?

The Mayor in 1498-9 was John Painter (for ease of reference all personal names have been standardised into modern English -Painter’s name was usually spelt `Paynter’). This man often appears in histories of the town, largely due to the belief that his house was Palace Court, on the corner of High Street and Cat Street (or Stillman Street), and that this property was where Katherine of Aragon stayed upon her arrival on these shores in 1501. The other notable remark made about Painter was that he was Mayor of the town five times. The first of these claims – that concerning his property and its occupants – has yet to be proven by documentary evidence, but he certainly did hold the office of Mayor five times. This year of 1498-9 was his second period of office. Before this he had been Borough Receiver, or Treasurer, in 1487-8; Mayor (for the first time) in 1491-2; and keeper of the King’s weights and measures in 1495-6. 

It is strange that his name does not appear amongst those listed in the first surviving borough rental, of 1491-2, the year of his first Mayoralty, but his leading role on the council up to this time is witnessed by his appearing in the town’s Black Book in the court case brought by Sir John Crocker (of Lyneham in Yealmpton parish?) against the town and its leading merchants in 1494-5 for theft of Roborough Stone worth forty marks (£26 13s. 4d. [about £26.67]), and also in the list of town dignitaries granting the creation of a Tailors’ Guild in 1496. I shall leave the subsequent details of his career as brought to light in the Plymouth records by Worth until further quincentenaries, but a consideration of the link between John Painter and Palace Court appears elsewhere in the Newsletter.

If the Mayor this year was John Painter, the Borough Receiver was another man with quite a local reputation. He was Henry, or Harry, Hornbrook. His trade was in Biscay wine, but he also appears in the town’s records for the wrong reason. A hangover from the Victorian view of English history is the way that local heroes are painted either black or white. And so Plymouth’s leading Medieval merchants must assume a mantle of grey in order for, ironically, a more colourful perspective to appear. Whilst Harry Hornbrook may seem at first sight to be a man of sound reputation – a Borough Treasurer, Alderman for Vintry Ward, wine merchant and shipowner – he was also not adverse to a little piracy. Or so some would claim.

One such claimant was Raulin Pape, a merchant of Dieppe, who petitioned the Lord Chancellor about ten years earlier, claiming that Hornbrook and his allies seized his vessel and all its goods whilst lying in the mouth of the Fal, leaving Pape and his crew to founder in a small boat “to the great jeopardy of their lives”. Pape had even confronted the then Mayor of Plymouth, Nicholas Henscott, in St. Andrew’s Church in a vain attempt to gain some redress against Hornbrook.

It was a common occurrence on the high seas throughout the 15th century for ships of different nations to be subject to seizures and raids, especially during times of heightened tension and open warfare between England and France. Fortunately, the long wars with France had effectively ended in 1475. But ‘those who live by the sword, die by the sword’, and in 1482-3 Harry Hornbrook is himself seen petitioning for redress following the capture of his vessel, Andrew, by a Breton ship-of-war. Indeed, in this instance Hornbrook was even betrayed by his business partner, Thomas Crop, who having sold his interest in the seized property to Hornbrook, then travelled to Brittany and successfully claimed back for himself the valuable cargo. No doubt trade offered great fortunes to be earned, but equally such fortunes could be lost overnight.

The events that Worth chose to reveal through his transcription of some of the Receivers’ account for the 1498-9 year have a marked leaning towards crime and punishment. Two men, Cornet and Kelly, were to hang. One might initially think that these men may have been convicted of crimes relating to the Cornish ‘An Gove’ march on London a year earlier, or possibly they may have been followers of Perkin Warbeck, who were to be made examples of locally for treason. But no, Cornet and Kelly were thieves, a crime that ordinarily did not automatically mean the death penalty. However, no details of their crime are given, but they almost certainly would have been tried at Exeter: although the town’s charter of 1440 gave the town the right to try minor cases (misdemeanours), felonies were to continue to be dealt with at county level.

From the reasonably detailed descriptions in the accounts it would appear that this kind of spectacle was not a common occurrence, for new equipment was required to perform the executions. Before their hanging the thieves were put in the pillory: William Russell was paid 4d. (2p) for the job. The pillory had cost 3s. 8d. (18p) to make. A John Will was paid 6d. (3p) for putting irons on the prisoners. The gallows cost 4d. in timber, but Is. (5p) in the making. The wording is unclear , but a certain Jagge seems to have been the builder. The sum of 6d. was paid for six men to carry the gallows to the place of execution (the Hoe?) and they were likewise provided with 4d. worth of ale for their trouble. A ladder cost 10d. (4p) and 5d. (2p) was spent on rope for the halter. But of all this expenditure by far the greatest amount, 17s. 6d. (88p), was paid to John Grisling for providing thirty gallons and three pints of bastard wine, which, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us, was a sweet Spanish wine similar to Muscadel. During this period Spanish wines became more popular to trade, although Bordeaux remained the predominant source for wine merchants. Grisling, by the way, was to become Mayor fourteen years later and may have been related to the Grislings who were arch rivals of the Hawkins family in the 1530s.

The accounts state that this wine was given to Mr. Bowring “for his coming here to do the execution”, but this probably gave the town an opportunity to partake too: for all we know, an execution may have engendered a carnival atmosphere in the town. Mr. Bowring was in all likelihood the Recorder of the borough, for he received one half of the Recorder’s fee in the accounts eleven years earlier. Whereas the Mayor was symbolically considered the chief magistrate of the borough, his was an annual appointment with different men in the position each year, and there was no guarantee that any Mayor would have any legal training. The Recorder of the borough, however, was a professional lawyer who served an indeterminate length of office and therefore was, in effect, the chief legal officer in the town. Hence his presence was required to oversee the execution.

At the end of Worth’s extract from the accounts for 1498-9 he intriguingly writes “work done on the old town ward tower, the castle generally, and the `byschoppe ys towre”‘. It’s clear from later entries in the accounts that the wards of the town were each allotted part of the castle in order to maintain its defensive upkeep, but it is not clear which of the castle’s four corner towers was the responsibility of the Old Town ward. The reference to the bishop’s tower is commonly considered to be that of Edmund Stafford, Bishop of Exeter and Henry V’s Lord Chancellor, who made a grant of indulgence over eighty years earlier in 1417 for those who contributed to repairs to the Cawse and to the reconstruction oftwo towers. (1) That towers of the castle were meant seems to be confirmed by Tristram Risdon, who, upon viewing the remains in the early seventeenth century, wrote that Bishop Stafford’s coat-of-arms could be seen there engraved. Indeed, this grant of 1417 is probably the first documentary reference that we have to the actual existence of the castle, as opposed to merely inferring its existence from other evidence.

It would have been nice for Worth to have provided us with the details of the work carried out, but Mark Brayshay of the University of Plymouth seems to have afforded us some of them. Although listing the following details under the year (2) `1499′ , 5s. (25p) was paid for 2,500 slates (‘helying stones’) for the castle with 7 1/2d. (3p) being paid for their transport from the quarry. A further 4s. 6d. (22 1/2p) was expended in wages for a roofer and his assistant for nine days work. Although the castle may have been entering its final phase of providing any effective service in the defence of the town, it was clearly also being used as a store for weapons and would also have provided a base from which the town’s defence could be organised. It no doubt also served as a potent symbol of the town’s determination and pride.

Appleby, John: Devon Privateering From Early Times To 1688, in Duffy, Fisher, Greenhill, Starkey & Youings (Eds.): The New Maritime History Of Devon, Volume I – From Early Times to The Late Eighteenth Century (1992).
Brayshay, Mark: The Sixteenth Century Protection Of Sutton Harbour & Plymouth Sound – The Documentary Evidence, in Ray, Keith (Ed.): Archaeological Investigations & Research In Plymouth, Volume I – 1992/1993 (1995).
Childs, Wendy: Devon s Overseas Trade In The Late Middle Ages, in Duffy, Fisher, Greenhill, Starkey & Youings (Eds.): The New Maritime History Of Devon, Volume I – From Early Times to The Late Eighteenth Century (1992).
Gardiner, Dorothy: A Calendar Of Early Chancery Proceedings Relating To West Country Shipping, 1388-1493 (1976).
Welch, C.E.: Plymouth City Charters 1439-1935 – A Catalogue (1962).
Worth, RN.: Calendar Of Plymouth Municipal Records (1893).

1 I am grateful to Colin Squires for pointing out to me amendments required (via Hingeston-Randolph’s Register of Edmund Stafford) to my monograph Plymouth Castle (1996) concerning Bishop Stafford’s grant of Indulgence. 

2 Presumably the details therefore refer to the latter part of the 1498-9 financial year. However, Brayshay may be indicating that they belong to the 1499-1500 accounts.

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