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Archaeology and History

Blog discussions 2022/23

Welcome to the new term and new year. HERB this year is a little different, it will now be organised by Laura Burnett, Polly Lowe, and Nick Collins. We have decided to condense things a little bit, so we will aim to have four discussions per term, concentrated in the middle of term when people have the most time for this sort of thing. We will be keeping the format broadly the same, although we would like to open things up to two new types of contribution:

1. Any work that people want feedback on but aren't ready to put out in public could be discussed in the group and then not uploaded to the blog afterwards
2. Depending on the number of contributors we have to the blog, we may run some of the sessions as discussions of recently published research in economic and social history that we haven't many opportunities to discuss with colleagues yet

That means we are now issuing a call for papers! We are looking for blogs in the same format as before on the new theme of wealth and property. If anyone wants to volunteer to chair a discussion, also please get in touch.

We are being a little bit more flexible with the format this time - we're looking for something around 1000-2000 words and relevant to the theme, but otherwise we don't have any particular requirements.

  • After the discussion the blog is edited by its author and then sent to Vivienne at to be uploaded here.
  • Any questions please get in touch, the blog group is administered by Vivienne Bates If you would like to present a blog, please contact her with a title.
  • If you would like to be added to the group mailing list in order to take part in the discussions please email and Vivienne will send you a link.

On 30th October 1601, Sir John Hippeslye III, wrote a letter to Sir John Spencer. Hippeslye was a lawyer by training, having attended the Inns of Court, and being a careful man kept a copy of the letter in his papers as a record of his correspondence. In all probability, it is this copy which is now lodged in the family archives and kept at the South West Heritage Centre in Taunton (DD/H1/304). Hippeslye was steward to Sir John Spencer, who was the freeholder of the manors of Long Sutton, Shapwick and Kilmersdon (all of Somerset). The original letter, which may have been a draft, (a photograph of which appears as appendix 1) has been transcribed and reproduced (appendix 2). It is full of deleted words, inserted phrases and abbreviations which occasionally make it difficult to understand. The alterations perhaps indicate the negotiated relationship between Spencer and his new steward, as the writer tries out different phrases and comments in a draft version of the finished letter. Hippeslye assumes a level of knowledge in the recipient, which is not always available to early modern historians. He also includes a list of people identified as rioters or suspected rioters associated with an incident in August 1601. Through careful reading, the letter illustrates themes and issues which were of importance to new landowners in Somerset in the early 1600s.

Sir John Spencer III was a new Somerset landlord. His father had bought the manors from the Crown in 1599, a year before his death. The letter is full of information about local events in central Somerset at the turn of the seventeenth century. The first line of the letter mentions Richard Walton who was the tenant of the manor of Shapwick (Somerset). The Waltons, like the Hippeslye family, were ambitious men. Richard Walton acquired the lease to the rectory of Shapwick, and to lands at Ashcott, Catcott, Edingham, Moorlinch, Sutton Mattet and Stawell in 1595-6. He was the plaintiff in a case which was sent to the Court of Common Pleas in 1594 involving contested access to a watercourse in Shapwick manor. Walton was subsequently involved in disagreements with Shapwick inhabitants over access to nearby Loxley Woods.

The letter notes that Richard Walton had paid his rent for his tenancy of Shapwick and Kilmersdon. John Hippeslye, in his letter, suggested to Spencer how the money could be spent; displaying a keen understanding of what the land could sustain. He recommended buying some cattle at St. Andrew‘s Fair. There was a St Andrew’s Fair in Somerton which was held between 29th November and 7th December each year. Somerton was a manor close to Shapwick, and would have been a natural place for Hippeslye to arrange the purchase on behalf of his lord. The Victoria County History for Somerset records the fair did not survive beyond the end of the fourteenth century, but the reference to it in the letter suggests otherwise. The name, St Andrew’s Fair, is also a link back to pre-reformation times and offers a way in which the memory of the old religion lived on in common usage.

The letter then refers to something taking place during the night on 18th August 1601. Is this the incident in which those on the list of ‘...knowen and suspected rioters...’, as Hippeslye writes, are thought to have taken part? They may have appeared before the ‘...koryt at Daynton (Gloucestershire)(Doynton?)...’ as the letter implies. No record of a riot has been found in any of the Star Chamber records so far for this time. It is well known that plaintiffs used the word ‘riot’ or ‘riotous behaviour’ loosely in their dispositions to the Star Chamber to secure a hearing, but this reference is in a letter from a steward to his lord. There seems to have been little to gain from exaggerating the incident. It raises therefore the interesting possibility that some riots were never sent to the Star Chamber. At this point, however, it is only possible to speculate what the issue may have involved. The Spencers may have attempted some land management changes, which might have been met with hostility by local people. We have no way of knowing if the matter related directly to them or to one of their tenants. Whatever the cause, it seems to have been a significant event locally. At the bottom of the letter, John Hippselye, somewhat testily, wrote out for his lord the names of the rioters once more, as it is clear Spencer has lost the first list which Hippeslye sent him on 18th October 1601. The names include Matthew Test, described as a tithingman, Arthure Player and his bailiff Thomas Atwood. These are not common people, but individuals with local standing. Thomas Atwood himself was accompanied by Mary Thomas, his servant. No reference to Matthew Test has so far been found.

Arthure Player, on the other hand, is described as a gentleman from Siston (South Gloucestershire). He appears as someone buying land from a man called Butler in 1599 and then selling it to a Bristol merchant, John Guy. He is also found in deeds selling land in 1598 to a Richard Codrington of Doddington (Lincs.) He is a lessor with others, including John Guy, of land from the Gore Langton family in 1598 and again with others as a lessor of land in Barrow Minchen Manor in 1597-8. Dorithie, the wife of Arthur Player, is recorded as having died on 25th February 1605. Arthur Player himself died on 5th April 1610. Both appear in the list of deaths in the parish of Syston (Siston). This is the behaviour of a man comfortable in buying and selling land: a middleman identified by early modern historians, oiling the wheels of property sales, using his local knowledge and contacts to enable wealthy men to buy estates. Player also bought the manor of Doynton (South Gloucestershire) in 1595 from Sir John Tracy of Toddlington. He then conveyed it to Sir John Spencer, father of the recipient of the letter. This may explain why Hippeslye was keen to share the information with his employer and suggests the location of riot was South Gloucestershire. Doynton is close to Siston where Player was reported to be living. Does this purchase of Doynton Manor somehow link Arthure Player to the alleged riot? The reference to the’...koryt at Daynton (Doynton)...' in the Hippselye letter is a further indicator of the location of the trouble.

Thomas Atwood is listed as the bailiff of Arthure Player. Atwood is a common name, but there was a family with that name living in Doynton (South Gloucestershire) in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is close to Arthur Player’s home of Siston and may imply the two were known to each other. Furthermore, a William Atwood was in dispute with Sir John Tracy over the ownership of Doynton manor during the second half of the sixteenth century. Is William Atwood related to Thomas Atwood? Does the riot mentioned by Hippselye have any connection with this disputed ownership of Doynton?

Three other families with the same names as those appearing on the list in the letter have also been identified. The Francomb(e) family were carriers, masons and the innkeeper of the Three Horseshoes in Doynton during seventeenth century. None of these individuals appears earlier than 1663. There is no absolute link between this family and Thomas and Isabell Frankcomb who are listed as rioters by John Hippesyte, but it is possible they are related. The other two families traced to Doynton from the list of names are Read(e) and Thomas. There was a Richard Read who was a carpenter in Doynton between 1598-1611. Walter Thomas is recorded as living in Doynton as a miller 1591-98 and William Thomas as a carpenter at the same time. Both names, however, are sufficiently common as to leave room for doubt that they might have been related.

The letter continues with news that Mettford, ‘...the bayliffe of Longe Sutton...’ had brought the half year rent on Long Sutton. The writer clearly felt the need to explain to Spencer who Mettford was, suggesting that he was unfamiliar with members of the local society. This is mildly surprising because Spencer had bought the manor of Long Sutton in 1600 and therefore was, probably, Mettford’s employer! The rent brought by Mettford indicates he had collected it from Spencer’s tenants in Long Sutton. The letter then mentions Edward Horton, described by John Hippeslye as ‘ good frind...’. There was an Edward Horton who lived in West Wiltshire at the same time. He was a wealthy clothier with substantial landholdings in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset. If this man is the same as the one mentioned in the letter, he would certainly have been likely to have moved in Hippeslye’s circle and be someone with whom he might have hoped to do business. The letter also contains a bit of gossip which Hippeslye suggests would be of interest to his employer. Mettford reports that Mr Hext might be interested in selling Somerton manor, which is close to Shapwick and Long Sutton. Edward Hext bought the manor and neighbouring one of Aller in 1592 from Henry, Earl of Huntington. Hippeslye encourages and flatters Spencer by saying’ fitt...for you in respecte of the good neyborhod..’. However, Edward Hext did not, in the end, sell the manor. He served conscientiously as a local JP, built almhouses for the poor of Somerton and on his death in 1626 left the property to his daughter.

The letter then mentions Arthure Player once more. The comment that he '...hathe byne heere and offered me many greate many offers which I forebeare to write of...’ suggests a familiarity with a man who could not be relied upon to fulfil his promises. Do the ‘offers’ relate to other lands that Hippeslye had been shown or does it relate to a debt that Player owes to Spencer? The letter says that Hippeslye and Player were due to meet again on 6th November to discuss matters further. The letter closes with a list of 15 ’...knowen and suspected rioters’, including 3 women. Hippeslye signed off writing that he is going to Ston Easton, where he has property and land himself.

What does the letter reveal about early modern Somerset and the nature of landlord and tenant relationships in the county? There is a sense of a local gentry society in flux as outsiders moved in. Both Spencer and Hext were new to the area. Richard Walton and Edward Horton held land, recently acquired, which they leased out. Furthermore, the relationship between these new men and their tenants feels tenuous and strained. Hippeslye is the mediator between Spencer and his tenants, introducing him to key figures in the local society, receiving rent from the land, negotiating with others on behalf of his employer and advising on investments and potential purchases. Walton is embroiled in disputes with his tenants. Hext having acquired Somerton in 1592, might have indeed been thinking about selling it less than 10 years later. Moreover, Hippeslye was clearly acting, as Joseph Bettey has put it, as the eyes and ears of his lord. ( J.H.Bettey, The Eyes and Ears of the Lord: Manorial Stewards in SW Wiltshire, (Devizes: WA&NWM, 2003), vol.96, 19-25) Not only was he providing Spencer with titbits of gossip, but he was also giving him valuable information about local trouble and the people he suspected of being involved. They were also in frequent correspondence. We know that Hippeslye had written a minimum of two letters in October to Spencer and had received at least one in return.

The letter also introduces characters familiar to early modern historians. Arthure Player acting as the go between rich men to facilitate the buying and selling of land and using their local knowledge is a common figure in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Richard Walton was playing the role of the ruthless and unscrupulous landlord. The possible riot in August 1601 also suggests that all is not well in the area. The lack of any information about where and why the event occurred is frustrating. However, it is plausible that trouble was provoked by a change in the management of lands, possibly in the forests or commons which were particularly sensitive areas at this time. The proximity of so many new landowners make it probable that some disturbance had occurred in the order of things. As James Clark has noted, it is not simply the presence of a new landlord, but the frequency and persistency of the change of owners which challenged livelihoods. (James Clark, The Dissolution of the Monasteries, (Padstow: Yale UP, 2021)) The tenants of Long Sutton, Shapwick and Doynton had had three different landlords between 1595 and 1601. The apparent absence of any record of the riot, apart from this letter, suggests it was local and short lived. However, the disturbance was sufficiently important for Hippeslye to devote a considerable proportion of his letter to it and for Spencer to ask again for the names of the rioters, having mislaid the original list. Finally, the letter provides an echo of the old religion. The reference to St Andrew’s Fair allows us to reach back to the monastic landlords and supplies an example of how pre-reformation Somerset continued to influence life in the early seventeenth century. The letter supplies a sense of new ways being established, but, as Nicola Whyte put it ’...not completely extinguishing the pre-reformation landscape.’ (Nicola Whyte, Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory 1500-1800, (Southampton: Hobbs, 2009))

A‌ppendix 1: Somerset Letter

Appendix 2: Somerset letter transcription