It is dangerous to get interested in history, so hard core archivists claim. “Don’t get carried away by what’s in the archive, don’t become interested. You won’t get any work done.” As I stare at the paper, I feel dangerously interested. Luckily, I am not an archivist, although I work in libraries and archives. My job allows me to let my imagination go.
I came across a huge book of 16th century parish records from All Hallows on Bread Street, in the City of London. I was looking for a good example of legible Tudor writing for a school workshop in need of refreshing. The records are in very good condition, as early paper tends to be robust and survives. They were bound into a good solid book at a later date, which also assists with longevity. Such records from the City of London are quite rare though, as many were destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666.
The records I was looking at were written by the All Hallows’ churchwarden and parish clerk. They record the business of the parish and church, and includes the registers of baptisms, marriages, burials, vestry minutes, financial accounts, poor rate and tithe rate assessments. The churchwarden’s and parish clerk’s roles differed, the warden being laity and responsible for the church building and contents. The clerk’s role, although administrative, also included assisting with services. Both positions would have been relatively powerful within the parish and needed an educated person, reading and writing being central to the work.
In the 16th century, the population in the City of London grew from about 50,000 at the beginning, to around 225,000 at the end. That’s a huge expansion. According to the Friends of the City Churches, there were about 111 parishes serving that population. On average, using these figures, a parish would have been serving an average of 2000 people by the end of the century. So, they had their work cut out.
The book contains the parish records from over several decades and were written by a number of people, which you can see with the change of handwriting. Handwriting should have been pretty standard, as these are official records and needed to be read, but there is variability over time, and of course, between person to person.
That is the historical and factual context of the records. Everything I am going to say now is conjecture, but logical based on my knowledge and
other sources. The thing that I found compelling was the fact that the document is handwritten. To me it feels like looking into someone’s soul. It offers tantalising and direct links to the person, their conscious and unconscious thoughts and processes. As I looked at the writing, slowly skimming through the book, turning the pages, reading extracts, I thought, “who was this man, the owner of the handwriting, that direct link to this person?” First of all, it is likely that he was a man. He would have lived in the City of London and within the parish. But where, what road, what would his house looked like, did it have a garden, was it on Bread Street? It was probably a good size and the likelihood is that it had a garden, which served the house as well as being a place of enjoyment. It is odd to think of growing vegetables, fruit, herbs in the City.
Taking the latter years in the book, the 1580s and 90s, and assuming the “scribe” was the Churchwarden, let’s say he was in his mid-40s (complete conjecture now). That means he was born in the 1550s, or the later 1540s. His early years could have seen the end of Henry VIII’s reign and as a child would have lived through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. In later life he may even have witnessed Elizabeth as she travelled along the Thames by barge between Greenwich and Whitehall palaces. He would have experienced the major events, royal deaths, accessions to the throne, wars with France and Spain and the Spanish Armada. Along with those events were the popular anxiety and celebration. No doubt he would have been part of the many processions in the City of London, and if not part of, then watching. There were the betrayals and executions, such as the Babington Plot (1586), or even the political implications and celebrations of Mary Queen of Scots death a year later. Did he see an execution, a dismemberment or someone hung, drawn and quartered?
He walked along all those streets in the City of London, and would have taken it all for granted, as we do with our surroundings now. But think of the iconic medieval buildings of London that we no longer see – Cheapside, the gothic St Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge with the buildings on either side and heads on posts on the south gateway. He may have enjoyed the entertainments on the South Bank. Would he have been to the Rose, the Globe, and seen a play by Shakespeare, Marlow, Jonson or Dekker? Did he actually see these people, pass them in the street, know them? Although, being closely connected to the church, he may not have engaged in such activities; theatres were not the “cultural” hubs as they are now. Perhaps the closest he got to the theatre was when the Curtain Theatre was silently and carefully taken across the City piece by piece from Shoreditch to the South Bank in the middle of the night, silently passing under his bedroom window as he slept fast and sound.
He would have seen an expansion in trade in London and an influx of many people from around the world. There wouldn’t have just been the usual Germans, French, Italians and Spanish, but at that time, many people from north Africa and the east, Turkey and modern day Syria for example. They all would have worked and some settled in London, bringing with them strange, exotic worldly trappings and foods. That is one of the reasons why London’s population increased so much in the Tudor period. After the break with Catholic Europe, London needed other trade partners to thrive. What was our churchwarden’s attitudes towards the immigration? What discussions with his contemporaries in his parish did he have? We only know of the official line on such themes, as we have the government archives and records. The intangible conversations and debate is lost.
Did he ever meet the baby or toddler John Milton, who was born in Bread Street in 1608? Did he know the family? If he was active in the parish at that time, then probably, yes. Milton’s father was a strong protestant and the church itself had attracted protestant controversy. In 1555 Laurence Saunders, the rector of All Hallows, was burnt at the stake for preaching protestant doctrine. Perhaps our man was strongly protestant too and had an active role in promoting Protestantism. Did he have meetings with Milton’s father in one of the many inns on Bread Street, such as the Star, the Spreadeagle or the Three Cups? Was he present at the party celebrating Milton’s baptism on 20th December. As Dr. Anna Beer writes in Milton, Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot,
“… the ceremony marked the baby boy’s incorporation into a dynamic urban community in which his family played a vital part.”
I’d like to think our churchwarden was part of that community.
One of the pay-offs of my career has been the unlimited access to amazing collections,including include museum objects, archival documents and historic buildings. All these items are closely connected to the people who produced them. I’ve been able to investigate collections on my own terms, spending as much time as I need, without constrictions, opening boxes myself, discovering and inspecting items up close. Time after time I have I stumbled across intriguing items that takes my attention away from my job in hand and cause me to delve into another world. And still now, as always, I leave work with more questions than I had at the beginning of the day.
Many of the records of City churches can be looked at the London Metropolitan Archives. You can access the catalogue online here: http://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA?LOGONFORM
The documents I was looking at are under P69. In particular, I was looking at All Hallows, Bread Street: City of London, P69/ALH2.
You can find out more information on how to use the records on the LMA information leaflets, although, these are aimed more at family historians:
All Hallows Church in Bread Street is no longer there. It was first mentioned in documents from the 13th century, burnt down in 1666, rebuilt by Wren then finally demolished in 1878. The Wikipedia page is:
I read Dr Anna Beer’s book on John Milton to understand a bit more of the context and background of Bread Street around 1608, when Milton was born. It is a very good book.
Beer, A. (2008), Milton, Poet, Pamphlet
You can view many versions of the Agas Map online. A good site is The Map of Early Modern London: