On An Atherstone Faire Day 1597
By Alan Roberts
In Shakespeare's time Atherstone market square would not have looked very different from the town centre shown on Robert Hewitt's Bracebridge estate map drawn over a century later. An interesting archdeaconry court case found in a box of old documents among the Leicester archdeaconry court archives throws some light on events that took place here as far back as 1597 when local villagers crowded into Atherstone to visit the annual fair. The case tells the story of an errant wife from Appleby who had run off to the Atherstone fair with one of her neighbours. One of the Atherstone residents called forth to give evidence in the case was Hugh Drayton who kept an alehouse in Atherstone overlooking the market square.
John Petcher of Appleby was brought before the Leicester archdeacon's court on 29th October, 1597 charged upon a "common fame" of having committed adultery with Sara Winter the wife of Robert Winter, his neighbour. We later find that John purged himself of this offence "as well by his own oath as by the oaths of four of his honest neighbours", was acquitted of the charge and "restored again to his good name".
Petcher was brought before the court on presentments based upon "common knowledge" but most of the evidence is circumstantial. He was reported to have been in the company of Sara Winter on several occasions, and to have frequented Robert Winter's house in his absence. A certain Galfridus Meassen from the adjacent village of Measham is alleged to have told Richard Aldret of Appleby that he saw John and Sara "together between two rye lands in Measham fields" (though he does not say what they were doing there). The principal articles of the indictment are more concerned with Petcher's luring Sara "by diabolical persuasion and enticements of the flesh" to local towns and fairs - specifically to the market towns of Ashby, Atherstone and Leicester. This mention of fairs is especially interesting as Q.R. Quaif found from his study of Somerset Consistory Court records, "wayward wives" and their lovers often met secretly in alehouses and at fairs. These festive occasions provided opportunities for illicit liaisons denied to couples within the narrow watchful world of their own parish.
It seems that Sara Winter, the young woman charged with adultery, was particularly attracted to fairs. She had already set tongues wagging in Appleby after being seen in the company of a certain sheep farmer called John Petcher from the same village. Her husband Robert was evidently trying to put a stop to her philandering for there are reports of his having "put away his wife". This could explain why she was staying with Nicholas Taylor and his family in Appleby in the days leading up to the Atherstone fair. It was suggested that Robert may have been trying to "intrap" her when he offered a reward to a shifty character called Edward Taylor "to watch Sara and Petcher to take them in adultery together". This would also explain why she was taken to Atherstone by Edward's kinsfolk rather than by husband Robert. There is a further suggestion that Robert had a hand in a crafty scheme whereby he got Nicholas Taylor to try to to persuade Sara to start a suit against her husband on the grounds that he had refused to cohabit with her - a ploy to entice Petcher to lay out money for a court action. And there are rumours that Robert bribed Edward Taylor, by providing fuel, bread and money to secure him as a witness against Petcher.
Edward Taylor visits Robert Winter at his home
Illustration courtesy of Frey Micklethwait
Click picture for larger image
The case describes events which took place on the fateful afternoon of the annual fair in Atherstone, and centred around the alehouses with which the town was particularly well provided. There were in fact 32 alehouses in the town by 1720 and Hugh Drayton's tavern or "victualling house" was probably one of many drinking and eating houses fronting the square which can be seen on the Bracebridge map. A mid sixteenth century court roll lists Hugh Drayton as a customary tenant paying 1s 3d for a burgage plot in the town while a Christopher Drayton paid rent for a barn in the market place and five acres of land. The Drayton family seem to have been well established in Mancetter. Among the surviving sixteenth century probate records John Drayton the elder is described in 1556 as both a yeoman and a butcher, while William and Hugh Drayton, are both described as tanners. It is possible that Hugh the tanner and Hugh the tavern keeper are one and the same. Hugh Drayton's alehouse was evidently well frequented by local villagers on market days and the festive atmosphere is well captured in witnesses' depositions. According to the records when Edward Taylor, the key witness arrived in Atherstone he was barely able to conceal his delight upon discovering that John and Sara were sitting together in the alehouse. But his enthusiasm overran his discretion for not long after his arrival, perhaps after a few ales, we hear he "did openly before witnesses slander John Petcher...and called him whoremaster" - a serious accusation in those days which had to be carefully examined.