Tudor Towns

Tudor Towns

The military and naval activity of the Hundred Years War brought varying degrees of temporary prosperity to Hampshire towns Both Portsmouth and Southampton suffered in the long wars with France when both were burnt, and the constitutional development of the former was hampered to a certain extent by Southampton’s claim to consider Portsmouth a mere part of its own greater port and not an independent town The county was not the scene of major fighting in the Wars of the Roses, yet the Tudor period which followed, was often a time of financial difficulty for some corporations, despite the individual prosperity of many townsmen. There is a marked contrast between the wealth of individuals and the general complaints of decay and financial hardship drawn up often by the very same men on behalf of their own boroughs.

Henry Vii’s decision to build a dry dock at Portsmouth in 1495 was a decisive factor in the town’s future history. Though this dock was soon filled in, and though during the reign of Elizabeth I the harbour was used by many pirates, and there. was also much secret coming and going on the part of Roman Catholic priests and recusants, and though royal interest centred on seaports nearer London or on the activities of West Country seamen, Portsmouth’s place in national history as a permanent home for the Navy was soon established without doubt. In 1600, a royal charter from the queen gave Portsmouth its first definite status as a corporate borough, under a mayor elected by the burgesses. Its importance as a naval centre and garrison town was shown by the fact that the grant was not in any way to prejudice the power of the Captain of Portsmouth. In 1627 Charles I confirmed all these privileges, granting the inhabitants also the right of making certain kinds of woollen cloth, an indication that the town’s prosperity was not entirely bound up with the future of the Royal Navy. Law and order were maintained by the court-leet which dealt with all trading offences as well as frequent complaints of ‘fray and bloodshed’. Religious life centred round the original Ports  mouth parish church of St. Thomas (now the cathedral) and the church of St. Mary at Kingston, which had belonged to Southwick Priory until its dissolution in 1539.

In contrast to Portsmouth, in the Tudor and early Stuart period, Southampton’s fortunes were declining. By 1531 the Corporation there was almost bankrupt, chiefly because of the absence of foreign trade. The effect of the withdrawal of the Venetian galleys was particularly noticeable, and not until the 19th century did trade with the New World recreate the town’s former commercial prosperity. Yet there were wealthy men in the Tudor town, chiefly ‘new’ men who , had founded their fortunes as a result of the economic changes brought about by the Reformation. Amongst these were the Mile or Mills family, Town Clerks and Recorders, who were able to speculate in Southampton and Hampshire property and soon set themselves up as ? landed gentry, with a town house in the High Street and fine manor houses on the other side of Southampton Water.

The early Tudor period in Winchester was a time of financial difficulty in civic affairs. The Corporation attempted to meet this i problem by obtaining a series of reductions in the fee-farm of the city and by obtaining permission for the mayor to take his oath of office locally instead of having to go to London with a retinue at the citizens’ expense. A more positive and very special kind of financial help was given after the marriage of Philip and Mary in Winchester Cathedral, an event which required considerable local expenditure. A series of Letters Patent granted Winchester various reductions in the city’s fee-farm and also gave the Corporation those properties in the city which had formerly belonged to certain dissolved moiastic houses. Like Portsmouth, Winchester obtained its first charter of incorporation I from Elizabeth I and this great charter set out Winchester’s constitution as it had evolved from medieval times. Local government under a mayor and corporation of 24 survived undisturbed until the Municipal Corpor­ations Act of 1835, despite attacks from the later Stuarts.

The governments of Southampton, Portsmouth and Winchester were essentially plutocratic, but these local men occasionally needed help from a social level higher than any they themselves could hope to reach. Thus in Portsmouth, the Corporation obtained the good services of Lord Mountjoy, Captain of the port there, in order to petition Elizabeth I for that charter granted in 1600. In Southamp­ton, the Corporation approached Sir Francis Walsingham when they needed a friend at Court, and Walsingham was made Winchester’s first High Steward for exactly the same practical consideration. A ‘new’ man himself, he thus succeeded to the position of a powerful local patron, similar to that enjoyed in medieval times by some of Hampshire’s feudal nobility, including the bishops of the diocese and the lay Justices of Assize.

Despite certain economic difficulties, there were in fact many prosperous Hampshire townsfolk. Some could afford to build themselves fine town houses and where these survive, in a few places only, they are the best possible proof of the prosperity of Tudor Hampshire. The timber-framed building called ‘Tudor House’ in St. Michael’s Square, Southampton, was built by Sir John Dawtrey, a royal customs official who was Sheriff of Hampshire in 1516. Wills and inventories provide many details of other houses. In the reign of Elizabeth I, Winchester was something of a centre for medical studies, and John Warner, dean from 1559 till 1564, had been first Regius Professor of Medicine. Doctor Thomas Bassett, who died in 1575, had a fine house with many rooms including a hall, a parlour furnished with joined table and stools, cushions of tapestry and needlework, a study containing a standing glass for a student, that is, a microscope, and a dispensary complete with still, at the back of the building. It is not certain where Bassett’s house stood, but Doctor Simon Trippe, who was physician to the Dean and Chapter of Winchester till his death in 1586, had an even more elaborate and finely furnished establishment in what is now Colebrook House. Trippe was a Renaissance gentleman, educated at Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua.

Occasionally large new Tudor houses encroached on what had been ancient lanes and rights of way. Thus in 1582 the construction of a great town mansion by Sir Walter Sandys, in charge of the Winchester garrison, meant the partial but permanent closing of the south end of Lower Brook Street in Winchester. At the western end of the south side of the High Street, the Bethell family entirely enclosed St. Nicholas’ Lane for the same sort of purpose. The Bethells’ main residence, Hyde House, on the outskirts of Winchester, was built in the new material, brick, and on the ancient site of Hyde Abbey which the family had eventually obtained from Wriothesley after the dissolution of the monastery.

A general use of brick, instead of wattle and daub, began to transform the appearance of many street frontages. The average house still occupied the site of its medieval predecessor, but increased space was sometimes obtained, as it is now, by building high. A town house which belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral, the old Manor of God-be-got, was thus rebuilt as one of the tallest timber framed brick buildLlgs in central Winchester, with fine stone fireplaces, and can be compared with Moberly’s in Kingsgate Street built in 1571.

It would be wrong indeed to leave the Tudor period without a brief glimpse of the very large number of charitable bequests which are such a feature of that age, some carrying on old medieval traditions, but others, with their main emphasis on education and indicative of a con­cern for learning. Peter Symonds left money for the almshouses called Christ’s Hospital, and in Winchester, also, Ralph Lamb rebuilt the almshouses of St. John’s Hospital. At Andover a free school was founded by John Hanson in 1571, the founder and first headmaster both being Wykehamists. At Southampton a grammar school was founded with money left for the purpose by William Capon who had been rector of St. Mary’s, and who died in 1550. Many townspeople were not only prosperous, but also public-spirited and had a conscious civic pride, a pride expressed also in corporate improvements in the general standards of town life, sanitary conditions, street lighting, for example, and a pride also expressed in the frequent and not always successful attempts to make compulsory the wearing of special gowns and hats by senior members of civic corporations.

This prosperity of professional men, lawyers, doctors, schoolmasters, was to a certain extent a contrast with the prosperity of medieval towns, which was centred particularly on direct commercial activity and the profits of retail and wholesale trading; it was the source, not only of wealth, but of much of the opposition to the first Stuart kings of England.