A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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TUDOR AND STUART COLCHESTER INTRODUCTION
The earlier 16th century was a period of contraction in Colchester as the cloth trade, on which the town's economy depended, declined. The borough began to recover about the middle of the century, and its economy was greatly boosted from 1565 by the arrival of Dutch immigrants who introduced the manufacture of new draperies, the lightweight bays and says which were the mainstay of Colchester's cloth industry throughout the 17th century, and the foundation of its prosperity and growth. (fn. 1) The town was also known for its oysters and for its candied eryngo or sea holly, a sweetmeat and reputed aphrodisiac; both were presented to important visitors and sent to the borough's patrons and friends at court. Borough government was reorganized by Charles I's charter of 1635 which, among other provisions, gave the town a mayor in place of the two bailiffs who had hitherto been its chief officers. (fn. 2)
Colchester's population, declining from the mid 15th century, may have continued to contract in the early 16th. (fn. 3) Estimates based on the subsidy returns of 1524-5 suggest a figure in the range of 3,500-5,000, with one of c. 4,000 probably closest to the truth. (fn. 4) That figure is consistent with another estimate, based on the numbers taking the oath of allegiance to the heirs of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, of c. 3,600 (excluding clergy) in 1534, at a time when the town's population may have reached its nadir. From then on there are signs of slow recovery, the population reaching c. 4,600, including 431 Dutch immigrants, in the 1570s. Thereafter the trend was distinctly upward, despite short-lived interruptions in the early 1590s and between 1606 and 1610, producing a total of c. 11,000 by the 1620s, including 1,535 Dutch. An estimate of 10,400 for 1674 suggests only slight contraction by that date, despite the ravages of the siege of 1648 and the great plague of 1665-6. Thereafter numbers seem to have at best stagnated and by the mid 18th century Colchester, with c. 2,342 households, (fn. 5) was falling well behind other more rapidly developing towns.
Part of the town's growth was due to natural increase, a surplus of births over deaths, despite the appearance of small deficits in both the 1590s and the 1620s, and another larger shortfall during the quinquennium 1601-5 caused mainly by the severe plague epidemic of 1603-4. (fn. 6) Although births did outnumber deaths over the period 1561-1640 as a whole, the surplus is insufficient to account for the extent of the expansion achieved. Immigration, from elsewhere in England and from overseas, played an essential part in the growth, a feature of the town's development that was of great concern to the urban authorities in the later 16th and early 17th century. (fn. 7)
Colchester's growth was punctuated by outbreaks of epidemic disease. The years 1514, 1545, 1557-9, 1569-70, 1586-8, 1597, 1603-4, 1625-6, 1631, 1651, 1665-6, and 1679 had particularly high mortality. (fn. 8) The high mortality of 1557-9 was probably caused by the national epidemic of influenza and typhus in those years, (fn. 9) while that of 1597 was possibly due to either famine or disease induced by malnutrition, the result of four successive years of high grain prices. (fn. 10) Plague appears to have been responsible for most of the other years of high death rate, and was active in the town at other times, producing peaks of mortality in particular parishes. St. Botolph's, for instance, experienced additional years of high mortality in 1578, 1583, and 1610-11, St. James's in 1580, Lexden in 1595, and St. Leonard's in 1638-9. The frequency with which the poor parish of St. Botolph experienced such crises demonstrates the close relationship between poverty and epidemic disease. (fn. 11) None of the epidemics was capable of stemming the town's growth. Although plague was a frequent visitor to the town, only in 1597, 1603-4, and 1625-6 did mortality reach double the average level for a sample of parishes representing the town as a whole, and under 10 per cent of total mortality in the early 17th century was due to the additional deaths that such crises produced.
The plague of 1665-6 was of a completely different order of magnitude. The death toll was variously given as 5,259 for the 17 months between August 1665 and December 1666, of which 4,731 were from plague, and 5,034 for the 67 weeks from 8 September 1665 to 21 December 1666, of which 4,526 were from plague. (fn. 12) Approximately half the town's population perished in the epidemic, probably making it the most destructive outbreak experienced by any large town in early modern England. The full resources of the corporation were mobilized. Two new pest houses were built, in St. Mary's-at-theWalls and at Mile End, while searchers and bearers of the dead were appointed to dispose of the bodies. (fn. 13) Funds collected in Colchester churches quickly proved inadequate to relieve the sufferers, and were supplemented by a tax on villages within 5 miles of the town, authorized by the J.P.s and producing £217 a month. Early in 1666 an additional £250 a month for three months was ordered to be levied in the hundreds of Lexden, Dunmow, and Hinckford, and by July funds were also being raised in the hundreds of Clavering, Uttlesford, and Ongar, and in Witham half hundred. In May 1666 weekly collections were made in London churches by order of Charles II, amassing a total of £1,307 10s. In all c. £2,700 was raised in taxes and donations for the relief of the town, a sum that was administered with painstaking diligence by the corporation and its officials, despite the absence of the mayor and several aldermen, assistants, and councillors during October and November 1666. (fn. 14) A surplus of £400 of the money collected for the poor remained in the corporation's coffers some 18 years later. (fn. 15)
The immediate impact of the epidemic was profound, but both the population and the economy recovered surprisingly rapidly. Already in March 1666, when the months of peak mortality were still to come, 279 houses stood empty. By 1674, however, only 63 houses were empty, showing that Colchester had conformed to the typical pattern whereby urban population losses were quickly made good by an influx of migrants. (fn. 16) Cloth production also quickly recovered, and achieved new heights as early as 1668. (fn. 17)
Disturbances, some politically as well as economically motivated, marked mid and later 16th-century Colchester. (fn. 18) A few attracted the attention of the government in London. A Norfolk priest spread rumours of Kett's rebellion in the town in 1549, and two Colchester men were pardoned for 'treason and insurrection' that year. On 31 August another six men, presumably rebels but not, apparently, from Colchester, were condemned by the earl of Oxford and Sir Thomas Darcy and hanged at the town gates and in the market place. (fn. 19) Jerome Gilberd, a lawyer who was to be recorder of the town in the first year of Mary's reign, seems to have been suspected in 1550 of writing two seditious bills, (fn. 20) and in 1563 a shearman was accused of repeating 'slanderous reports' of the queen. (fn. 21) Between 1577 and 1579 Robert Mantell or Blosse, a seaman who had claimed at Maldon to be Edward VI, was imprisoned in Colchester castle. (fn. 22) While there Mantell built up a following in the town which included the councillor Stephen Holt, who with the gaoler and his assistant was suspected of aiding his escape in July 1579. (fn. 23) Mantell was recaptured, imprisoned in Newgate, and executed in 1581. (fn. 24) In 1584 Thomas Debell, a servant of Catherine Audley of Berechurch and like his mistress a suspected popish recusant, was imprisoned by the bailiffs for 'very dangerous' speeches pointing out that Mary Queen of Scots was the next heir to the throne and complaining that Mantell had been executed on the evidence of only one instead of two witnesses. The town clerk and the Privy Council took a less serious view of the matter, and Debell seems to have been released. (fn. 25)
In 1588 the borough supplied a ship and perhaps a pinnace for service against the Armada, and in April that year sailors from as far down the Colne as Brightlingsea were ordered to appear at the moot hall, presumably so that crews could be found. (fn. 26) Apart from the Civil War, national affairs did not impinge on Colchester again until the 1680s. In 1683, while the assembly of mayor, aldermen, and assistants duly presented a loyal address to Charles II on the discovery of the Popish plot, other burgesses were feared to be 'dangerous to the peace and government' of the country, and a drunken townsman boasted that he had fought against the old king and would fight against the present one if necessary. (fn. 27) The earl of Oxford's regiment was stationed in the town for about a month during Monmouth's rebellion in the summer of 1685. (fn. 28) In December 1688 the assembly ordered the distribution of arms to some burgesses, and troops were again quartered in the town. (fn. 29) In 1691 the recorder and the M.P., Sir Isaac Rebow, examined some 'very dangerous persons' who had been trying to escape overseas. (fn. 30)
Royal and other important visits to the town were few, but generally costly. When Catherine of Aragon came to Colchester in 1515 on her way to Walsingham (Norf.) she was given a purse and £10. (fn. 31) In 1544 the bailiffs were ordered to prepare provisions for 1,600-2,000 horse accompanying Henry VIII to Harwich. (fn. 32) Colchester declared for Mary at her accession on 19 July, and the queen travelled through the town on 26 July 1553, on her way from Framlingham to London. The streets were mended in preparation for her visit, and she was presented with a silver gilt cup and cover and £20. (fn. 33) Elizabeth I spent two or three days in Colchester in 1561; she was presumably met by the bailiffs, aldermen, and councillors in their livery gowns, welcomed by the recorder, and presented with a silver gilt cup and £20, as was planned for cancelled visits in 1578 and 1579. When the duke of York, later James II, visited the town in 1667 he was presented only with a box of candied eryngo, and a similar present was given to his son-in-law the future William III in 1681. (fn. 34) An expensive entertainment was planned for William on his journey to Harwich and the Netherlands in 1691, but on the return journey he was merely offered an oyster. (fn. 35) The duke of Marlborough visited Colchester in 1704, but his entertainment apparently cost only £2. (fn. 36)
Although it was overshadowed in the region by Ipswich, Colchester was by far the largest town in Essex, (fn. 37) and its castle housed the county gaol until 1666. The county town, however, was Chelmsford, where both the assizes and the county quarter sessions were usually held. Colchester acquired none of the legal and other business which those courts generated; it had fewer inns than the much smaller Chelmsford, and seems to have attracted fewer lawyers. (fn. 38) Nevertheless a number of professional men settled in Colchester, some in pursuit of their careers, others in retirement. Thomas Audley, a lawyer from Earls Colne who moved to Colchester as town clerk in 1514 and ended a career in the royal service as Lord Chancellor and Baron Audley of Walden, (fn. 39) was perhaps the town's most distinguished burgess. Although he resigned as town clerk in 1531 he had by then settled at Berechurch within the liberty, and retained his links with the town until his death in 1544. (fn. 40) Francis Jobson, son and grandson of Colchester bailiffs, also made a career in the royal service, becoming lieutenant of the Tower of London in 1564, and acquiring former monastic lands including West Donyland with its house at Monkwick, within the liberty. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, thus connecting himself with her half brother John Dudley, later duke of Northumberland, father of Lady Jane Grey. He served as M.P. for Colchester in 1552, in 1553-4, and 1555. (fn. 41)
Samuel Halsnoth or Harsnett (d. 1631), son of a Colchester baker William Halsnoth, obtained his degree at Cambridge and returned to the town briefly as master of the grammar school 1587-8. He ended his career as archbishop of York; although he had not lived there since 1588 he left his library to the borough. (fn. 42) His cousin Adam Harsnett followed him to Cambridge where he took his B.D. in 1612; he was later known as a moderate Puritan theologian. (fn. 43) William Gilbert or Gilberd (d. 1603), son of Jerome Gilberd, also went from Colchester to Cambridge. He became physician to Elizabeth I and James I, but his reputation rests chiefly on his pioneering study of magnetism, De Magnete (1600). (fn. 44) Thomas Skinner, physician and biographer of General George Monk, duke of Albemarle, practised in Colchester where he died in 1679. (fn. 45) The madrigal composer John Wilbye lived in retirement at Colchester from c. 1628 until his death in 1638, as a member of the household of Mary Darcy, Countess Rivers, daughter of his earlier patron Sir Thomas Kitson of Hengrave (Suff.). (fn. 46)
The Civil War
Growing religious differences between opponents and followers of Archbishop Laud fuelled factionalism in borough government and may have led to the arrest and trial of John Bastwick, later a leading parliamentarian writer, in 1634. (fn. 47) Most borough officers in the 1630s favoured a presbyterian or independent form of church government, but Robert Buxton, mayor 1636-7 and 1645-6, supported Laud's reforms and may have had links with the court through his trade in candied eryngo. (fn. 48) In January 1642 the town petitioned parliament against bishops, chancellors, and archdeacons and their ceremonies, as well as against 'idle, double-faced, scandalous, and ignorant ministers', probably a reference to the hated Thomas Newcomen, Laudian rector of Holy Trinity church. (fn. 49) The town defended itself in the courts against the extension of the forest bounds in the 1630s. (fn. 50) It seems to have paid the £400 assessed for ship money in 1635 and 1636 although both payments, like others from the county, were late, but in 1638 it refused to pay, and in 1639 petitioned for a reduction in its assessment. (fn. 51)
The first violence, in June 1640, was directed against the recusant Anne, wife of Sir Henry Audley of Berechurch, and its underlying cause may have been as much the distress resulting from a decline in the cloth industry and resentment against the billeting of soldiers in the town as fear of papist plots. When two strange Irishmen appeared in the town at the end of May the rumour spread that Lady Audley, or her fellow recusant Bestney Barker at Monkwick, was gathering armed papists, apparently led by the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Ely, and even that the queen's mother, Marie de Medici, was expected there. A group of apprentices and other young men led by a drum marched from the town to the Hythe intending to go to Berechurch and Monkwick, but most were stopped by the borough constables before they reached either house. (fn. 52) The following year a papist's house in the town was searched for weapons and for letters from Ireland. (fn. 53)
Violence in 1642 was directed against the Lucas family at St. John's Abbey. They and the burgesses had been in dispute throughout the 1630s over the inclosure of common lands and over the damage caused by the pipes of the town waterworks. (fn. 54) Sir John Lucas's entertainment of Marie de Medici on her way from Harwich to London in 1638 may also have been unpopular. (fn. 55) Early in 1640 there was a further dispute, over the activities of saltpetremen who, Sir John alleged, had done considerable damage to St. John's Abbey but had not even visited other houses in the town. (fn. 56) In 1641 Sir John infringed the borough liberties by prosecuting those involved in an inclosure riot at Rovers Tye in the House of Lords instead of in the borough court. (fn. 57) In June 1642 he seems to have been suspected of stockpiling arms and ammunition. (fn. 58) When, at the end of August, his plans to join Charles I became known, a drum was beaten and a crowd said to be several thousand strong assembled and broke into St. John's Abbey, where they seized arms and armour as well as household goods. They went on to attack the Lucas tombs in St. Giles's church. Sir John and his family and Thomas Newcomen, who had been going to accompany Sir John, were taken and imprisoned in the moot hall. Lucas and Newcomen were removed safely to London only by the intervention of two M.P.s, Sir Thomas Barrington and Harbottle Grimston. (fn. 59) The crowd went on to attack Sir Henry Audley's house at Berechurch and then that of Countess Rivers at St. Osyth before moving further afield. (fn. 60)
In August 1642 the county committee thanked Colchester for its zeal in raising money and plate and in offering horses for the army. (fn. 61) By October that year the trained band under John Langley was at Brentwood on its way to London, and the town was being asked for £285 10s. to pay its troops, as well as for horses for dragoons. The money was still unpaid in November, and the soldiers were becoming discontented. (fn. 62) That month Harbottle Grimston urged the mayor to fortify the town against an expected royalist attack, and Henry Barrington was given command of the town's ordnance. (fn. 63) Early in 1643 Colchester sent a company of troops to Cambridge, but in March it was 54 men short and its pay in arrears. (fn. 64) Requests for men and money were repeated in July and September, by which time the company was only 20 men short. (fn. 65) In October the borough tried unsuccessfully to have the trained band recalled to defend Colchester from the enemy or from its own 'unruly multitude'. (fn. 66) In December the band was still short 33 properly equipped men, and three months' assessment was unpaid. (fn. 67) Almost all the leading burgesses subscribed to the earl of Essex's army in June 1643. (fn. 68)
A Colchester committee for the sequestration of delinquents, composed of the mayor, the recorder Harbottle Grimston, and alderman Henry Barrington, was set up in March 1643, and a similar, although slightly larger, committee for the defence of the Eastern Association in September that year. (fn. 69) In July that year representatives of the county gentry and some inhabitants of Colchester petitioned parliament for the appointment of an M.P. as governor of the town. (fn. 70)
In 1642 or 1643 Grimston's relations with the town deteriorated as many leading burgesses moved away from the presbyterianism he supported towards more extreme forms of protestantism. There may also have been rumours that he had been profiteering at a time when the townsmen were suffering from the collapse of the cloth trade. Grimston alleged he was 'traduced and libelled', not only by the poor but also by many of the better sort. (fn. 71) Some opposition to parliament seems to have appeared in 1643, when the county committee complained of the slow collection of rates, and a man at the Hythe grumbled that parliament would not listen to the king. (fn. 72) In June the mayor was warned to take care to prevent disorders and riots at the coming midsummer fair. (fn. 73) In 1644 Colchester failed to impress enough soldiers for the earl of Manchester's army, and the same year the borough petitioned parliament for relief from its heavy weekly assessment. (fn. 74) The petition seems to have had little effect, for in 1645 the total collected rose from £4,406 to £6,280. In all, between the start of the civil war in 1642 and Michaelmas 1648 the town contributed £30,177. (fn. 75) In addition, voluntary collections were made, such as those for shoes for the earl of Essex's soldiers in 1644 and for the garrison of Gloucester in 1645. (fn. 76)
A parliamentarian writer accused Robert Harmer, town lecturer 1640-8, of stirring up the people against the 'heretics and schismatics' of the army, and the townsmen of abusing the soldiers quartered on them. (fn. 77) In January 1648 some townsmen did refuse to accept soldiers billeted on them. (fn. 78) After a 'riotous and tumultuous' assembly on 30 April 1648 the trained band was called out to keep the peace on May Day. Two days later the county band had to be ordered to suppress the 'tumult' in the town, which parliament no doubt feared was related to similar risings in Suffolk, notably at Bury St. Edmunds. (fn. 79) Shortly afterwards a disgruntled townsman expressed the hope that now the troopers were gone he would have some of the best beer, and even 'a day to plunder the roundheads and the Independents'. (fn. 80)
The election of the moderate John Shaw as mayor in September 1647 suggests that opinion, at least among the free burgesses, was swinging against the army, and Shaw's removal by the army presumably added to its unpopularity. When a royalist force of c. 5,600 under George Goring, earl of Norwich, commonly known as Lord Goring, approached the town on 12 June 1648 the gates were shut against them, but were opened after a brief skirmish. The royalists, whose officers included Sir Charles Lucas, younger brother of Sir John, seem to have been searching for supplies and men and intended to stay in Colchester only a few days. (fn. 81) On 13 June, however, a pursuing parliamentarian force under Thomas Fairfax, Lord Fairfax, reached Colchester, and having failed to defeat the royalists in a skirmish around Head gate settled down to besiege the town.
The siege lasted until 28 August and caused serious physical damage to the town and temporary disruption to its trade. (fn. 82) The town was unprepared, and although at first the royalists managed to bring in food and ammunition from the Hythe and from the countryside north-east of the town, the completion of encircling siege works in mid July cut them off from further supplies. In the almost nightly sallies and skirmishes in June and early July both sides burnt or pulled down houses outside the wall. Grimston's house at Crutched Friars was at first occupied by the royalists but taken by the besiegers at the end of June. St. John's Abbey was held by the royalists until it was successfully stormed in mid July; having plundered the house the parliamentarian troops broke into the Lucas family vault in St. Giles's church and dismembered the bodies there. (fn. 83) The burgesses' request to Fairfax early in the siege that they might continue exporting bays was not surprisingly refused, as war their request on 7 August that non-combatants be allowed to leave the town. Both sides were accused of plundering and even killing townspeople, and the townspeople, particularly the poorer ones, suffered severely as the town was starved into submission. By the end of July the besieged were reduced to eating horsemeat, and by the end of the siege dogs and cats had also been consumed. The poor diet and the lack of water after the besiegers had cut the town's water-pipes at the end of July, caused 'fluxes' from which some townsmen died. (fn. 84)
Sir Charles Lucas, who was blamed by the parliamentarians for bringing the royalist army to Colchester, (fn. 85) had apparently expected to be able to recruit from among the impoverished weavers there. (fn. 86) He and Goring may have expected some support from the borough assembly, and after the siege several borough officers, including three aldermen, suspected of royalist sympathies were removed. One of them, Robert Buxton, with 'one Leomans', probably Henry Leming, allegedly encouraged Goring to hold out in the early days of the siege. (fn. 87) On the other hand, a royalist officer recorded that during the siege the townspeople, their 'inveterate enemies', were always ready to help foment mutiny among the soldiers and that the mayor, William Cooke, refused to co-operate with Goring in the distribution of bread. (fn. 88) On 27 August the historian John Rushworth reported from Fairfax's camp that negotiations were going on both with the royalist delegation and with 'many of our people in town'. (fn. 89) Of those sequestered or fined after the siege only Henry Leming was from Colchester. (fn. 90) Parliament, however, blamed the townspeople for the siege. Fairfax, in refusing permission for the baymakers to carry on their trade, said they should have considered their trade before they let the royalists into the town, (fn. 91) and the committee of both houses, writing on 27 July 1648 to Yarmouth which was threatened by the royalist fleet, pointed out that Colchester was suffering grievously for being 'very forward to invite and receive the enemy'. (fn. 92)
On 27 August the royalists agreed to Fairfax's stern conditions for surrender. All soldiers and officers below the rank of captain were to have fair quarter; captains and above were to surrender at mercy. On Fairfax's orders Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were executed at once, outside the castle, an unprecedented action taken to satisfy 'military justice' and to avenge the innocent blood which they had caused to be spilt. (fn. 93) Fairfax also imposed a fine of £12,000, £2,000 of which was later returned for the poor, on the town. Half the fine was paid by the Dutch congregation. Of the rest, £3,293 was collected in Head ward and North ward, no fewer than 17 individuals contributing £100 or more, and the remainder was presumably paid by South and East wards. Such contributions were exacted from those who had already suffered considerable losses; in 1654 a total of 19 inhabitants claimed to have lost almost £7,000 between them during the siege. (fn. 94)
The town remained suspect, and in October the mayor was warned of the many 'disaffected persons' who with others lately in arms had 'dangerous designs' in hand. (fn. 95) One man was accused in 1649 of saying that he wished all the roundheads were hanged, and the following year two Colchester men thought Cromwell a rogue. (fn. 96) There were fears in 1651 that royalists would seize Colchester for Charles II, then in Scotland. A drummer who spread prophecies of the overthrow of Cromwell may have reflected the mood of some poorer townsmen. A garrison of 300 men from the county trained bands was placed in the town, and after an initial delay the defences built during the earlier civil war and siege were destroyed. (fn. 97) During the early 1650s a party opposed to Henry Barrington and the 'Cromwellians' gained the upper hand in borough government, leading to a purge of the corporation in 1655. (fn. 98) Four Colchester men were arrested in connexion with the abortive 'Salisbury insurrection' of 1655. One of them, 'Capt. Barker', may have been Robert Barker of Monkwick. (fn. 99) Troops were quartered in the town in 1656 and 1657, and there was 'great talk of Cavalier attempts again', (fn. 100) but in June 1659 the town offered to raise a troop of horse for parliament. (fn. 101)