Hull & the Spanish Armada

In 1588 the Privy Council ‘receiving daily advertisement of the preparations of the King of Spain to increase’ and ‘thinking it necessary that [the] Navy on the seas should be reinforced and strengthened’ sent out two orders by letter. One went out on the 31st March to the maritime counties to prevent English ships leaving port and the second, signed on 1st April, was an order sent to twenty-two port towns to provide, at their own charges, forty-nine ships and twenty pinnaces to serve under the admirals. (1) In the list in The Acts of the Privy Council the towns are named in geographical order between Newcastle and Bristol, with London placed last on the list. There are no Welsh ports included, nor is Chester, nor any other North-West port.

Each port town was ordered to provide between one and three ships and some a pinnace in addition, with the exception of London which was to supply eight ships and two pinnaces; all the ships were to be of 60 tons burden or above, armed, manned and provisioned for two months from 25th April. This choice of date was either inspired or very well informed, as the Armada finally sailed from Lisbon on 30th April. but it only gave the port towns three weeks to find the ships, to load crew, arms and provisions and to rendezvous with one of the fleets. I should point out here that I will be using the old style calendar throughout, as that is the calendar used by all of my sources. The year will however begin on the 1st January not the 25th March.

We can tell that the Privy Council cannot have been expecting the responses that they received from the port towns, because when the first replies arrived, from Poole and from Chichester, pleading poverty, decay, and lack of ships and men, the Privy Council wrote to them, releasing them from the levy.(2) Within a week of this generous gesture, every single port, except Bristol and London had protested its own individual inability to comply. As a result Poole and Chichester went straight back on the list.

Faced with all these dutiful and loyal but negative replies, individual Privy Councillors wrote to the towns where they had interests, expressing their personal feelings as well as those of the Council. Sir Francis Walsingham wrote to Hull, and received in reply a re-statement of Hull’s willingness but complete inability to contribute – or at least not in the time allowed. In support of their position the Aldermen of Hull sent a list of all the Hull ships, with their tonnage and crew numbers and where they were thought to be on that day, the seventh of April 1588. They also claimed that a recent press for the Navy Royal, by an agent of Hawkins, deputed on that same first of April, had left the town empty of men capable of going to sea. Hawkins’s own commission was dated all of eight years earlier, a fact which was noted in the letter to Walsingham from Hull. Between the Navy and their merchant fleet, Hull claimed that just over 500 men were absent from the town: a quarter of the male population. Nevertheless, such was the force of Walsingham’s letter, that Hull agreed to provide its two ships and a pinnace just as soon as sufficient ships and men returned to port. The larger ships, and none of Hull ships were very big, had sailed to Wardhouse (Vardo) to fish for cod, and there was no possibility that they would have returned in time, but some the coasters plying between Newcastle and London were of the required size, 60 tons or over. (3) Hull was not alone in this lack of ships and men; the letters staying shipping from leaving the ports had been sent too late to be useful for this levy, and the Navy Royal itself was pressing both ships and crew at the crown’s charge in many ports, in competition with the levy. (4)

The Privy Council dealt with the excuses of the port towns on an ad hoc basis; their policy on the ship levy developed gradually and observably over the next two months. Some problems were easily solved: Newcastle had no guns? They could be borrowed, on the Mayor’s bond, from the royal supply. (5) Bristol required a warrant to press a surgeon? A warrant was sent. (6) The Lord Admiral had agreed with Ipswich that the town should supply 3 hoys with ordnance and musketeers rather than the two 60 ton merchantmen originally required? This was approved. The other problem, the difficult problem, was of course the financial problem. Who was to stand the charges?

It would be tedious and unprofitable to rehearse here the squirms and wriggles of each individual borough, but fortunately a pattern does emerge. First came the government’s demand, then the protestation of readiness and willingness but complete inability to comply, then the accusation of disloyalty and undutiful slackness, and the grovelling and contrite response. There then followed the Privy Council’s authorisation to raise money from those not of the town but from neighbouring areas, who were assumed to benefit from the port. This turned the levy into a complete dog’s breakfast; there were no rules only guidelines. In a series of letters the Privy Councillors explained that their desire was that the poor should not be troubled, only those able to pay. Anybody who derived benefit from trading through the port was to be, for the purposes of the levy, chargeable as a member of the port. The original letter of 1st April seems to have laid stress on the profits that had been made in the ports from voyages of reprisal; a claim which was hotly denied by every port.

Of course these letters, intended to spread the load to neighbouring towns and parishes, were then used as weapons in a number of local feuds, not least that between York and Hull. The method seems to have been that the Privy Council’s letters were sent to the port towns for them to deliver to their neighbours with appropriate words of explanation and encouragement. The Privy Council’s correspondence was consequently increased by the protests of those on whom demands had been made by the ports. The only excuse that the Privy Council would accept at first, was that a particular community had already contributed to the Land Service, and in the case of York, whose merchants shipped through Hull, even that was not accepted. The Privy Council commissioned the usual local dignitaries to settle the problems in their locality, The sanction of an order of personal appearance before the Privy Council was made available to them, and to some, imprisonment as well, but most of these commissions failed and the problems returned again and again to the Privy Council’s agenda.

These concerns did not however prevent Hull Aldermen from taking action. They hired every ship-carpenter within twenty miles of the town, and two of the Aldermen went to York, to buy casks for the provisions, and to inspect and negotiate for the hire of a possible pinnace. While they were there, and on the sole authority of the Privy Council’s letter, they attempted to press York keelmen for service in the Hull ships. The fury of York when this was discovered was increased as it seems that some of their men had actually agreed to take the Hull shilling. When York then realised that they were also expected to pay a large proportion of the costs of Hull’s two ships and a pinnace, they were even more annoyed, especially as while the Hull Aldermen had been in York making a valiant attempt at a hot press, the Lord Mayor of York had been in Hull buying armour for his City’s Land Service. (7)

Nothing had been resolved by the time the Hull ships joined Seymour’s blockade squadron in the Narrow Seas. They seem to have been very nearly on time: the Lord Admiral had given them a second rendezvous for the 27th April, and they probably sailed on the 29th, (8) But it didn’t really matter, because to everybody’s great inconvenience, the Armada was delayed. It was bad for Parma, waiting in the Low Countries to embark his army, but it was also bad for the English naval preparation. On 9th June the Armada was damaged and scattered by storm and started to regroup and refit at Corunna. In the Channel ports ships’ stores were replenished, and what repairs were possible, were made. There was no information, everybody waited, and it is said that Drake played bowls. Then at the end of June, their two months’ service being completed, the Hull ships went home. They sailed back to Hull and their crews were discharged. The Aldermen, received another of Walsingham’s letters (already on its way before the Hull ships had tied up), and the ships sailed again, but this time it was at the Crown’s cost, for wages and supplies, and at the usual tonnage rate. (9) The Bristol ships also needed resupply and this was paid for by Bristol merchants, but it was at the Privy Council’s request and as a loan to the Crown. (10) The 1588 uncompensated ship levy had officially ended before the Armada arrived; the correspondence is very clear. Admiral Seymour himself on the 24th of June, the day before the expiry of the two months, was authorised to procure ships to replace those of the port towns whose service was ended. (11) The Crown of course hadn’t any money, and with the Invincible Armada almost in the Channel, its credit was limited, but it seems at first to have accepted liability for all costs of the ships of the port towns after 25th June. At some point the Newcastle ships had also returned home, after being used for merchant convoy to Stade. We know that they went home because they had to be called out again as the Armada sailed up the North Sea. (12) (Newcastle, after its initial problems with lack of ordnance, probably caused the least trouble to the Privy Council of any port.)

It is worth looking at the 1588 correspondence between the Privy Council and Gloucester. Gloucester does not appear on the list in The Acts of the Privy Council to receive the initial letter of 1st April, This may merely be a clerical error, but I am inclined to think that the inclusion of Gloucester was an afterthought, as the Gloucester story seems to run about a month behind that of the other port towns. We first hear of them in mid-May, when the lack of a seacoast at Gloucester has been noticed and the Privy Council’s letter refers to orders given to ‘divers ports and inland towns’. They call on Gloucester with the aid of Tewkesbury ‘to furnish rateably the whole charge and expenses that hath been laid forth in preparing and manning the ship, called the Bark Sutton . . . and do require them to deliver the money so levied and collected for that service unto such as the lord Admiral shall nominate.’ (13) On the 29th of May Gloucester reported that Tewkesbury was refusing to pay its share. The Privy Council’s solution was, as with other such refusals, to spread the load further into the neighbouring hundreds. (14) In early June, Gloucester and Tewkesbury finally realised that the Privy Council was not going to relent and that the amount that was demanded for the Sutton was far in excess of what it would have cost them to do it themselves. They therefore changed their response, and offered to send the ship and pinnace, instead of paying for the Sutton, and this offer was accepted. (15) Their ship was captained for them by its owner or its owner’s man, and came from Devon.

When the Hull ships returned home for the second time, after the Armada had passed, they carried an instruction from the Lord Admiral that the town not the government was to pay the remaining three months’ tonnage for the ship and the crews’ wages: although reprovisioning had been paid for by the crown. Hull, which had already paid out £700 for the first voyage to the end of June, was now faced with an additional £315 for tonnage and wages after the end of June. (16) It soon became apparent that the Privy Council had indeed changed the rules, and that Hull was going to have to stand this charge too.

This also happened in other port towns. In July Lyme, Chard and Exminster were already estimating that they would have to pay for four months, (17) In September, Dover, already receiving refusals to pay from those assessed for the levy, was instructed by the Privy Council that they were also to pay two further months tonnage. (18) The two ships of Totnes and Dartmouth had served for four months and the towns were expected by the Privy Council to pay for the whole. (19) Bristol, which supplied three ships and a pinnace, was told that they had to pay for them for five months, but in October the Privy Council agreed to reimbursed the town for all except the two months of the original uncompensated levy. (20) Bristol was traditionally a major supplier of merchantmen for the Navy for a price, and their contribution to the fleets was undoubtedly more than the levy ships.

We have some evidence of how much this was costing the port towns. Hull’s two ships and a pinnace came to £1015, Lyme Chard and Exminster for the same £719, (21) perhaps their ships were not as large, or they had served for less than five months. For Exeter’s three ships and a pinnace £600 ‘was not half’ the cost, (22) Fowey and Looe had provided a ship and a pinnace and £600 had been spent, (23) Bridgwater’s single ship and a pinnace came to £447 15s. 6d. (24) Weymouth were charged with £451 1s 10d by the owner of one of the ships of their two and a pinnace. (25) It seems that a ship fully furnished for war was costing between £400 and £500 for four to five months service. Aldebrough’s ship of 160 tons cost them £590. (26) These were not inconsiderable sums. The amount due from Weymouth and all its neighbouring towns and hundreds was, by the Privy Council’s own admission, the equivalent of half a subsidy. (27) Ipswich claimed that the cost of the three hoys that they had provided was the equivalent of four subsidies if borne by that town alone, with other money raised at interest and £500 still unpaid. (28) Harwich, though jointly charged with them, had apparently failed to pay anything.

Who was bearing this debt; very little of the money had actually been raised? To deal with the exception first, one John Rasheley esquire had very rashly, although loyally, made a loan of £600 pounds, the entire cost, for the ships for Fowey and Looe, of which in July 1588 he had only been able to recover £100 from an initial collection, and his prospects for collection the remaining £500 were not looking good. (29) Generally though, for the hire of a fully fitted, armed, manned and supplied ship, the ship owner was out of pocket, and for the hire of a ship to be fitted out by the town, the ship owner, the suppliers and the crew needed paying. Most of these debtors, individually, collectively or by attorney, were petitioning the Privy Council though only a fraction of the correspondence mentioned in The Acts of the Privy Council has survived.

It is interesting, for the sake of completeness, to return to the parallel universe of Gloucester and Tewkesbury. By some miracle they had achieved the hire of a Devon ship of 75 tons and and pinnace 25 tons completely furnished for only £320, of which sum, by another miracle they had raised and paid-over £260. This was somewhat unfortunate both for them and for the owner of the Bark Sutton which, as you will remember, had been nominated by the Lord Admiral to serve for Gloucester’s ship. The Sutton had performed well with the Navy and the owner was claiming his charges from the town, in which he was supported by the Lord Admiral and eventually by the Privy Council. The Devon ship, hired by Gloucester and Tewkesbury, had never, it was claimed, joined the fleet at all, but had spent the time in other ways, as was evidenced by the fact that it and its crew were under arrest in Southampton for piracy. After making quite serious accusations of bad faith on the part of Gloucester, the Privy Council eventually only required that Gloucester and Tewkesbury should raise the balance of £60 which was to be given to the owners of the Sutton. (30)

It took at least a year to settle the disputes and some of the money was never collected. Many of the smaller debts sank without trace, presumably, they were written off as the cost of lobbying the Privy Council outgrew the value of the debt. As the months went on the Privy Council moved from asking for contributions “in neighbourly sort” to “an indifferent assessment” and finally “rateably, according to the subsidy book”, which at least gave some structure to those who were commissioned to persuade people to pay towards the levy. It is interesting that the Privy Council, from 1588 onward, wanted the payment for the ship-levy to be a voluntary contribution partly made out of loyalty to the state and partly out of neighbourly feeling for the local port town. They tried, to avoid making rules for the contribution.

Before the end of April 1588, in fact the day before the Hull ships sailed for the first time, Hull had secured a letter from the Privy Council to the Earl of Huntingdon, who was Lord President of the Queen’s Council in the North Parts. The letter instructed the Lord President, to deal with merchants and others, in York and thereabouts to contribute “in some reasonable sort.” This was a start for Hull, but it was too vague to have any effect. (31) It should be recognised here, that if Hull had agreed to shoulder the whole charge, the Privy Council, the Lord President and York would have been perfectly happy to let them do so. The movement to force York to contribute was started by Hull, and was maintained by Hull.

Hull’s principal contact with the Privy Council was Walsingham, with whom they had many dealings. I would not call Walsingham the town’s patron; Hull never gave him the title and he never claimed it, nor did he ever visit the town or have property in the area. He was however given the title of High Steward of the town and Hull Aldermen always went to him first with their petitions to the Privy Council, and his requests for jobs in the town for his clients were treated seriously. He may even have nominated one of Hull’s burgesses of the Parliament in a by-election. Walsingham had bought the farm of customs at Hull, which somewhat soured the relationship, but generally he was regarded as a friend of the town.

In September 1588, after the ships had returned to port, the Aldermen wrote to Walsingham professing themselves “dutiful in any her highness service as far as life lands or goods shall extend” but asking that they should be relieved of having to pay for more than the two months originally required of them, and further, that York should be made to pay a part of the same two months: they were attempting to lower their liability from £1015 to less than £350. The inhabitants of York, they said, were refusing to comply with the Lord President’s requests. This letter was taken to London by a responsible bearer, probably one of the Aldermen, who carried with him the Lord Admiral’s letter imposing the extra charges, and he expected to be received and heard by Walsingham. (32) Within a week of the delivery of the letter to Walsingham, a letter was written by the Privy Council to the Lord President at York reminding him of their former letter and asking him to get on with it. (33) The subsequent correspondence is complicated by other matters; Hull was at the time defending itself in a major action in the Court of Exchequer, but this meant that there were always Hull Aldermen in London during the legal terms and often at other times. The Hull letters were generally intended to serve as an introduction to the bearer who would usually have other supporting documents to deliver, as well as being able to argue the town’s case. The Hull bearers were also responsible for delivering the letters that the Privy Council wrote at their request. This particular letter to the Lord President was brought back to Hull and then taken up to London again with a covering letter from Hull. It had crossed on the road with Huntingdon himself. (34) While in London the Hull men procured yet another letter of instruction to the Lord President from the Privy Council and carried the resultant letter from the Lord President in London to York along with copies of the Privy Council’s latest letter. In York a committee of Aldermen was formed to plan the City’s resistance. It was by then mid-October of 1588. (35) My purpose in detailing these letters to and fro is to show how each step in the process was facilitated by the Hull Aldermen. They both solicited and delivered every part of the correspondence.

In the meantime the many suppliers of the Hull ship, from swabbers to ship owners, remained unpaid, and word reached the London that they were planning what would today be called a mass lobby, if not a March on London. No doubt this was partly a tactical threat but it certainly worried the Lord President who wrote urgently to the Mayor of Hull to prevent it. (36) By Hull standards, York’s response was slow. They did not decide on a delegation to London until November 13th, to leave a week the following Monday but they sent a letter ahead of it apologising for the delay. Delay would have been a good tactic for York, except that Hull had men in London already, who were lobbying against them. (37) The matter was heard in full before the Privy Council on 15th December 1588. Delegates presented their cases and written submissions and rejoinders were examined, and Hull won. The Hull Aldermen convinced the Privy Council that as York had the benefit of the port, York should contribute; the total sum owing or paid for the levy was £1015 and York were required to supply £600, which is just over half. The move to persuade the Crown to carry the costs for the final three months had failed. (38) The Privy Councillors believed, probably correctly, that York had three times the wealth of Hull and that there were no more than fourteen substantial households in the Hull. The wealth in Hull, along with the political power, was concentrated in very few hands. (39) Whatever the Aldermen of Hull failed to pass on to York, they would have to pay themselves. It was not the town’s capital that the Aldermen were defending, but their own.

York had lost, but the Aldermen and merchants there had yet to accept their defeat. They continued to urge their case in letters to the Lord President and they did not start collecting in the city until March 1589. The collection went badly and in April they issued warrants to attach those who were refusing to pay. (40) At the end of May they wrote apologetically to Hull in reply to what was probably one of a number of demands, that they could not pay more than they already had done as ‘the inhabitants here do refuse to contribute with us’; their assessment had obviously included many who were not citizens. The York Aldermen offered to pay 10% interest on the outstanding balance to Hull or anyone of Hull who would advance them the money. (41) Hull cannot have accepted the offer, as in July 1589 York borrowed £300, half their debt, in London for a year at 10% per annum, on the bond of some of the Aldermen who were themselves secured by a mortgage of some City property. (42) That settled the debt to Hull but in October 1589 York were still trying to raise money from their resident strangers. (43)

You may ask why I have concentrated on the York collection and not that of Hull, but the fact is that the Hull town clerk was very busy in London that year, and in his absence the Hull Bench Book wasn’t being properly kept. We don’t know how the Hull contributions were collected.

1. Acts of the Privy Council pp7-10. 31st March and 1st April

2. APC p.23 9th April

3. The National Archives State Papers 12/205, 75 (ff114-7)

4. TNA SP 12/209, 91 (f136)

5. APC 1588, p.41, 24th April

6. APC 1588, p.30, 12th April

7. York City Archives B.30 f.20v.-21 April 17-20 1588; TNA SP 12/209 104 (ff152-3); APC 1588 p.46 28th April; YCA B.30 f.34 May 22nd 1588

8. KHRO BRL/85, 7th April 1588 (Kingston upon Hull Record Office currently HHC)

9. KHRO BRL/86, 12 September 1588

10. APC 1588 p 134, 24 June

11. APC 1588 p 134, 24 June

12. APC 1588 p 212-3 2 August

13. APC 1588 pp 61-2, 12 May

14. APC 1588 p 95, 29 May

15. APC 1588 p 98, 2 June

16. KHRO BRL/86, 22nd September 1588

17. APC 1588 pp 161-2, 14th July

18. APC 1588 p 294 30th September

19. APC 1558 pp 374, 8th December

20. APC 1588 pp 312-3, 16th October

21. APC 1588 pp 281-2, 21st September

22. APC 1588 pp 112-3, 6th June

23. APC 1588 pp 159-60, 14th July

24. APC 1588 p 279, 18th September

25. APC 1588 p 301, 6th October

26. APC 1588 p 93, 28th May

27. APC 1588 pp 353-4, 20th November

28. APC 1588 pp 399-400, 17th December

29. APC 1588 pp 159-60, 14th July

30. APC 1588 pp 405-6, after 17 December

31. APC 1588 p 46, 28th April

32. KHRO BRL/86, 12th September 1588

33. APC 1588 p., 28th September

34. KHRO BRL/87, 8th October 1588

35. APC 1588 pp316-7, 18th October; YCA B.30 f.65v.

36. KHRO BRL/89, 28th October 1588

37. YCA B.30 ff67v-68, 69v, 13th-23rd November 1588

38. APC 1588 pp395-7, 15th December

39. APC 1588-9 pp 45-6, January 1588/940. YCA B.30 f88v, f96, f99

41. KHRO BRL/93, 28th May 1589

42. YCA B.30 f119v and f121v

43. YCA B.30 f144


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