Faire Day By Frey Micklethwait
ESSAYS / ARTICLES
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 at the Archdeacon's Court
Illustration courtesy of Frey Micklethwait
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".
Edward Taylor visits Robert Winter at his home
Illustration courtesy of Frey Micklethwait
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.
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.
The events which followed can be pieced together from two dozen pages of witness depositions for the archdeaconry court case. By mid afternoon the fair was at its height and a merry throng had crowded into the alehouse. The downstairs rooms were "greatly frequented with guests going in and out continually". Several groups of people sat eating and drinking in the hall which joined onto the parlour where John and Sara sat with Nicholas Taylor and his wife. It's not certain how long the couple were left alone together after Nicholas and his wife withdrew. However, as it was pointed out, although the parlour door was closed it was unlocked; so there was little chance of their being left undisturbed. Much was made of the suggestion that "most men coming into a victualling house on a fair day, especially if they lack a place to sit in, do usually look into a parlour where guests use to be". If they couple were misbehaving, it was argued, surely the landlord, his wife, his servants or his guests would have known! The court was rightly sceptical about Taylor's claim to have "taken" the couple in adultery and his supposed refusal of sixpence from Petcher to keep silent about the matter, since no one else came forward to verify this tale. Also there is strong evidence that Taylor spent most of the afternoon drinking with Hugh Drayton in a nearby alehouse. It is hardly surprising that his allegations were described as expedients for him to "release or excuse himself, and not for any truth that is in the matter".
The sworn depositions of the three Swepstone farmers, Richard Dudley, William Chilwell and Thomas Burrows, all support this judgement. According to their account they were sitting in the hall when Nicholas Taylor's wife entered "meaning to see whether the said Petcher and Sara were naughty together". But she "could not, nor did see them in any such sort and was reproved of the said Dudley for her peeping in". Dudley's admonition suggests that the Swepstone farmers did not think well of spying on their neighbours. All three swore that they had been in the alehouse or in the street outside all afternoon and they had not set eyes upon Edward Taylor or his wife in that vicinity. Furthermore they avowed that their beasts were so crowded against the alehouse that no one could possibly have approached the parlour window from outside.
The case against Petcher was therefore turned into an attack on the character of the principal witness. Edward Taylor is scornfully caricatured as "a man that hath not land, lease, stock or possessions...to maintain his wife and children", who had "for very poverty, idleness or some other cause given over his occupation of blacksmith wherein he was trained and brought up" taking up "bad, shifty and unhonest practices". He had already confessed himself before witnesses to adultery and was commonly known to be a cozener or defrauder of men. A long catalogue of his alleged crimes include allegation that he robbed a woman upon the highway, with a threat that if the woman informed upon him he would say that she gave him money for sexual favours. He is also accused of stealing candlesticks from a house in Ashby and barley sheaves from Appleby fields. He was accused of extorting money from the young men of Appleby with a document purporting to give him authority to take soldiers and one occasion he apparently tried to steal a horse from George Smaller's stable at Snarestone, "and was riding away with him, and had ridden so away if the said Smaller had not met him and scared him". If these stories are to be believed it is amazing that Taylor had so far escaped imprisonment or hanging. Indeed, it appears that he had spent time in Leicester gaol but he had persuaded the keeper to allow him "to go awhile into the town" and absconded, despite a solemn promise to return. His wife Helen, who was "commonly accompted to be light fingured and of no credit or reputation at all" had also spent time in Ashby gaol for stealing a pair of shoes. It's possible Taylor's criminal tendencies were exaggerated to blacken his name and destroy his credibility as a witness, but these accusations seem to indicate that there was a great reservoir of "tolerated criminality" in Elizabethan times and that local ne'er-do-wells were to some extend shielded by their neighbours. According to G.R. Elton, one Somerset magistrate complained in 1596 that as much as four fifths of committed crimes went unreported.
The case against Petcher is typical of its kind. It is first mentioned in the LiberActorum or Instance Court Act Book for October 1597. Witnesses were still being examined the following March and April, after which the case seems to have been abandoned. Ten years later, following an archdiaconal visitation Petcher's name is included on a list of those suspected of fornication who had been overlooked by negligent churchwardens. Clearly the effectiveness of these courts in suppressing immorality must be questioned. The courts of quarter sessions and assizes meted out punishments that included imprisonmentt, branding, amputation and hanging for crimes against the state- but the archdeaconry court had to rely on social sanctions. Convicted adulterers and fornicators were usually made to perform "penance in sheets" which according to William Harrison in 1587 needed replacing with "some sharper law" since it was "counted as no punishment at all to speak of, or but smally regarded of the offenders". Its not surprising that the villagers often treated the church courts with contempt considering that Petcher's acquittance owes much to sworn depositions against the principal witness and the hint of Winter's own complicity in using the court to intrap his wife.
Our investigation throws some light on the petty intrigues of Elizabethan village life but of course it leaves many unanswered questions. The witnesses' depositions reflect ambivalent attitudes towards sexual misbehaviour - ranging from vehement denunciation on the one hand to apparent indifference on the other. The court proceedings can penetrate only the surface layers of this tightly-knit world at irregular intervals, yet they provide a strong impression of social intrigue and surreptitious behaviour in seemingly quiet villages much like that of our own times. Did Sara and John continue to keep company together, or did Sara return to live peacefully with her aggrieved husband? Was Edward Taylor dragged before the assizes for his roguish ways? Did Hugh Drayton continue to hang out with local rogues like Edward Taylor in his Atherstone alehouse? Whatever the answers to these questions we are left with the impression that sixteenth-century inhabitants of Atherstone and its surrounding villages lived socially more eventful, emotionally more unsettled and sexually more active lives that one might at first suppose from reading dry economic records.
Witnesses depositions from Archdeaconry Court Proceedings, Leicestershire Record Office: 1D41/4/673a, /721c &c. Apart from church and probate business the archdeaconry courts dealt almost exclusively with moral offences. Their twin preoccupations with illicit sex and defamation earned them the popular name of "bawdy courts".
For alehouse liasons see Q.R. Quaif, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives, 1979 p. 128. Atherstone alehouses, Victoria County History of Warwickshire Vol. IV, p. 126.
Drayton refs. Benjamin Bartlett, History and Antiquities of Mancetter, 1791, pp 150-3.
Drayton inventories in Marion J. Alexander, "Sixteenth century probate documents from Mancetter", Warwickshire History, Winter 1985/6 Vol. IV, no. 4.
G.R. Elton's introduction to J.S. Cockburn's History of English Assizes, 1558-1714, p. 107.
Negligent Churchwardens, Leics. Record Office 1D41/11/30 f121.
William Harrison's Description of England, ed. G. Edelen, Ithaca, 1968, p. 189.
Text © Alan Roberts, 2012
Images © Frey Micklethwait, 2012