Hull Castle 1576-7

The Castle – the story so far

In the 1540s Henry VIII, having decided on war with Scotland, reinforced Hull. A castle was built, which consisted of three blockhouses, linked by a curtain wall running along the East bank of the River Hull. It was designed at the exact moment of the trace italienne revolution in castle building, and was well out-of-date before it was finished. It was possibly the last medieval castle to be built in Europe until the 19th Century.

Hull Castle 1576-7

In 1576 the Mayor and Aldermen of Hull finally faced a problem that they had been carefully ignoring for nearly twenty years. Since Northumberland’s de-militarization of England in 1552, Hull had been responsible for the royal castle on the Drypool bank of the river Hull, and in about 1557 it had (in part) fallen down. This was unfortunate as the town had given a bond to the crown for £2,000, which it would forfeit by failing to keep the castle in good repair. The manor of Myton and Tupcotes had been handed over to the town to provide £50 a year for the maintenance of the castle, and between 1555 and 1558 the town had made new leases for these manorial lands, which had generated new rents and entry fines. Many of those new leases had been taken by aldermen and other wealthy Hull merchants and would not have survived the recovery of the lands by the crown. Altogether it was a disaster waiting to happen.

What had gone wrong is now a subject for dispute. The archaeologists maintain that the problem is the site, especially that of the south blockhouse, which is geologically unsuitable for construction. (The latest building there is The Deep.) The sixteenth century concensus however was that the original builders were at fault for using unseasoned timber which shrank and caused parts of the edifice to fall.

For an unknown reason, in May 1576 the Mayor and Aldermen decided that they had to do something, and a discussion document was prepared with the alternatives. [HHC C BRS/53/1] They could give up the castle, but risked being forced into expensive repairs before the crown accepted its surrender, and they would also have to buy back their new leases, so they decided to try to keep the castle, while at the same time persuading the crown to pay for its restoration. A second consideration was the use that the crown might have for the castle. When it had been manned, the relationship between the town and the garrison had been bad, but that between the mayor and the military governor had been worse.

Aldermen John Thorneton and James Clarkeson with John Lewes, the town clerk, were sent up to London to break the bad news to the Queen and Privy Council, to excuse it as best they could, and to petition for assistance. [HHC C BRB/2 f.147r. ]

The deputation left Hull sometime after 17 May 1576, and their argument is summarised in “The contentes of the supplicacion exhibited to the Quenes Majestie by the Maior and Burgesses of Kingstone uppon Hull” [TNA SP 12/111/10]. The causes of the decay were “the greate rage of the water of Humbar,” the use of green timber in the constuction and to the foundations and walls not having been “substauncyally wrought,” with the result that the upkeep has “byn chairgeable above all expectacion.” The town is also said to be impoverished since the reign of Edward VI; most recently by shipwrecks and piracy, and by the effect on trade of “longe trobles in forayne contreyes” by which they probably meant not only the revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule but also the seven years war between Denmark and Sweden in the previous decade. It is interesting that although 1575-76 saw the worst plague of the reign in Hull, this is nowhere mentioned as a reason for the drop in the town’s prosperity. Perhaps it was thought better not to suggest the possibility of God’s displeasure when approaching the Prince for money. Hull reminded the Queen of the sixty footmen and twenty-four horsemen supplied voluntarily, and at the town’s charge, for the suppression of the northern rebellion of 1569-70. The town asked for a commission to examine the problem and “some reasonable yearly ayde” in money or otherwise.

In a letter of 8 July 1576 [APC] the Privy Council ordered a commission of investigation, which it will be convenient to refer to as the first commission. The Privy Councillors say that they had been informed that the decay was due to “the furie and raige of water and tempestious wether” and had been asked for financial assistance, but before deciding on how to respond, they wish to have a report on the state of the castle and blockhouses, the reasons for any dilapidation, the value of the lands given for the upkeep, and the use that had been made of the income. The commissioners were also to consider how the fortress might be “beste repayred with leaste coste” and include in their report an estimate of the charges. They were not asked to inspect the armaments of the fortress, presumably because Thorneton, Clarkeson and Lewes had not reported them defective, although they undoubtedly were.

The principal commissioner was Sir Henry Gate, of the Council of the North, the keeper of Pickering Lythe Castle. He was a property owner in Hull, and allied by marriage to at least one of the Aldermen. With him were joined two others Thomas Boynton and Ralph Rokeby. Ralph Rokeby, a legal member of the Council of the North, probably did not act, as he is never again mentioned in connection with this commission and he did not sign the report. Thomas Boynton, was to be appointed to the Council of the North in the following year. [Reid, Council Appendix II Membership] There were also two specialists, John Jenkins, the the Queen’s receiver for the County of York, and Hugh Bethell the Queen’s surveyor for the East Riding of Yorkshire. Bethell, who lived at Elloughton, a village west of Hull, was employed in Hull in the subsequent decades in supervising construction and repair. It is possible that Hull suggested these commissioners to the Privy Council. The commission was ordered to report by the first day of Michaelmas Term (by my calculation 24th October, but you may disagree).

The report of the first commission was extremely detailed and answered all the Privy Council’s questions. The report is in two parts, the survey of the castle and blockhouses and a report on the lands and the income derived from them, which corresponds to the separate expertises of Bethell and Jenkins. Most helpfully, it contains a summary of their findings. The town had received £611 5s. 2d and had paid out £549 12s 2d, and therefore had in hand for the upkeep of the fortress £61 13s. The cost of repairs was estimated at £669 12s., which included £200 for building a new jetty to protect the south blockhouse from the destructive forces of the Humber estuary. These figures for repair are justified in a detailed schedule. [HHC C BRS/53/3]

In general the commissioners supported Hull’s petition, they ascribed the decay to defects of material in the original building of the castle and north blockhouse and to the force of water on the south blockhouse. This is unlikely to have astonished the Privy Council, as the collapse of gun-platforms was the most common fault at this time in the royal forts [King’s Works p.405]. Gate, Jenkins Bethell and Boynton were rewarded by the town with the customary gifts of wine, but that is not to say that the report was particularily fraudulent. In making the gift the town recognized the “friendship”, “pains” and “travail” of Bethell and Jenkins, and that Gate had been in this and other matters “a specyall and singler good and faithfull frende” [HHC C BRB/2 ff.155r. and 166v.]. A more significant “gratification” in the form of a loan of £200, was to be given to Mr William Pelham, Lieutenant of the Royal Ordnance but a native of Lincolnshire, for his assistance and in anticipation of future service.

On 28 September, probably immediately after the commissioners’ inspection, the matter was discussed in Hull by the mayor and aldermen, They had decided that it was now time for another lobby of the Queen and Privy Council for financial assistance and felt it necessary to lay down that “those to whom the prosecutinge of the Sute is committed shulde not by any meanes condescende or agree to departe with the said castell and fortes to the Quenes majestie for her highness in them to plaice a garrison of Souldiours.” [HHC C BRB/2 f.150v.] It is difficult to see how the crown could have been prevented from taking back its own, but the town’s envoys were instructed to resist.

This second round of petitioning, lasting about six months, was led by Alderman John Thorneton and Town Clerk John Lewes although others also played a part. The Hull lobbyists probably ran their operation from the White Hart in The Strand (where they are known to have stayed on other occassions), and would have been supported by aldermen and burgesses who were visiting London in the course of their own business, as well as by their messengers and clerks. Wherever there is correspondence we can find traces of these people, coming and going. It was also during this time, in early November 1576, that the money to cover the £200 loan to Pelham was obtained from Alderman Gee’s London banker, Anthony Walthall. [HHC C BRB/2 ff.154v., 155r., 156r.] By January 1577 the London operation was in need of even more funds and Thorneton and Lewes were authorised to take a further £200 from Anthony Walthall, the transfer of funds, once again brokered by Alderman Gee, to whom it was to be repaid by the town. This money was “to be imployed about the said affaires.” This money is for expenses incurred and to be incurred, and undoubtedly included presents of money to useful people, a practice known as “making friends.” Thorneton had been funding at least part of the mission out of his own pocket, for which he was later compensated.

A Hull emissary arrived in London in November 1576 armed with a letter from Hull to an honourable gentleman, asking that as the Queen had referred the petition to the privy council the honourable gentleman would give their suit his “lawful favour”. The bearer would be able to inform him of the details. Only the copy of this letter that was kept in Hull still exists and it is not addressed, but it is most probable that the intended recipient was Sir Francis Walsingham, then one of the Queen’s two principal seretaries and ex officio a member of the Privy Council. It is equally likely that the bearer who carried it to Walsingham was Alderman Thorneton. [HHC C BRL/18 ] There is also an undated copy of a petition to Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer, which solicits his favour in the town’s suit for reasons including “theire dewetifull service and good will shewed in the laite tyme of rebellion in the northe to theire greate chairdges.” [HHC C BRL/1399 formerly Stanewell M.68]

On 11 December 1576 the Privy Council ordered a second commission to report before the start of Easter term, 24 April 1577. (Easter Day was on 7 April that year and the term started 17 days later, unless they were working on Exchequer dates – the Exchequer term started 8 days earlier than the other courts. Are you sure you want to be a historian?) Two letters were sent out, one a letter of appointment to William Pelham, and the other to the Earl of Huntingdon, Lord President of the North instructing him to appoint persons of “knowledge and experience” to meet Pelham in Hull. [HHC C BRL/19 This reference covers both letters, which, being similar in wording, have been catalogued as two copies of the same letter.] It appears from these letters that the town was asking for permission to demolish part of the fortress, it does not say which part, and re-use the building material to render the rest defencible. However “her Maiestie haith forborne to make anie resolute answere before the matter shalbe dewly considered of by such of trust and skill in such matters, as are able trewly to enform her Maiestie thereof.” The Privy Council also requires to be supplied with “a platt” (a plan).

There is an undated copy of petition to Walsingham from Hull, pointing out that the Lord President has not yet named Pelham’s fellow commissioners and no date has been set for the inspection. As everything else depended on the report and “tyme thereby maie be gretely prolonged,” Walsingham is asked to “move the Queenes Majestie for her highnes consent to suche of the requestes made by the saide maior and burgesses as by the Lordes of her majestes privy counsell are allowed uppon.” It can therefore be concluded that even before the second commission reported, the Privy Council had conceded Hull’s point that it should be given some aid and that the second commission was about the method rather than the principal.

There are two copies of the “requests”, that have been “allowed upon”; one is a Lansdowne Ms. in the British Library and was once among Lord Burghley’s papers and the other is in Hull City Archives. [BL MSS La 22.9: HHC C BRL/1416 formerly Stanewell M.56] The text differs only in occassional words and in the spelling, but the Hull copy has been annotated with marginal comments which seem to record the decisions of the Privy Council meeting that ordered the letters of 11 December 1576.

The requests are in the form of a list:

1. For permission to demolish part of the castle and blockhouses and use the materials to rebuild the rest. The annotation reads “a commission is graunted to the L. president & other skilfull gent” This is the second commission.

2.  For a licence to buy and export twenty thousand quarters of wheat, malt, barley and peas and beans, free of customs duty. Annotated “graunted of every kinde of graine 5000”

3. For a grant to Hull of ‘foreign bought and foreign sold’. Marked “not disliked” and it was actually granted.

4. A monopoly on the import of Russian flax by way of the Humber for ten years. This was “disliked.” Predictably, the Privy Council (many of whom were investors in the Russia Company) would not approve this incursion into the Russia Company monopoly.

5. The incorporation of a company of the merchants of Hull. Marked “to be considered” and it was in fact granted.

6. A grant of 300 large trees from the royal woods in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This was “Refered to the Quenes Majestie” who granted the trees. Some of the same trees were later (without permission) diverted to the building of the grammar school.

The rewards of persistance flowed in Hull’s direction on 22 March 1577, when the licence to transport corn was issued. [Boyle, Charters pp. 84-89.; TNA SP 12/19, 50.] Such export licences were an established way of granting princely bounty without the Prince actually having to find the cash. They either gave the recipient exemption from a statutory ban, or freedom from paying a duty. Some believe that they were generally used to reward courtiers, [MacCaffrey, Patronage p120] but as well as this licence for Hull to provide money to repair the castle, there is also a very similar licence granted to Dover in 1583 for the repair of the harbour there, [BL MSS La. 39, 69] and Cromer on the Norfolk coast also received one in 1589-90 [TNA E 133/6/920 and E 133/1/153]

The reasons given for the grant were those of the petition: the violence of the Humber on the walls, the great charges of repair of the sea defences, the recent losses of the town, and the “faithefull, redy and duetifull service to us and our progenitors and especiall to us in our service in the tyme of the laite rebellyon in the northe partes, to theire greate costes, chairdges, and expences, aswell by sea as by lande.”

Provided that the price of wheat was not above 16s the quarter (when all grain export would be likely to be halted anyway), the town could sell permissions to export barley, malt, wheat, and peas or beans, in English or friendly-flag vessels without paying customs duty to the crown. The grain had to be bought within Hull, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire or Norfolk and the licence was valid for 5,000 quarters of each commodity and for twenty years. The licence was to be endorsed with each shipment made and once the licence was used up or expired it was to be given to the Hull Customs as their discharge. The town recorded the first sale under the licence on 12 May 1577, and the ship sailed on the following day. As well as endorsing the licence itself, the town kept a duplicate record which was written up in the unnumbered pages of Bench Book Four. [HHC C BRB/2 endpages.] The purchaser, weight, type of grain, price, sailing date, ship and master are all recorded. The licence could have been worth £2,500 to the town but some was given away freely as rewards, and others parts were sold at a reduced rate. I think that the town received about £1,600 from the licence, of which just under £1,000 was spent on the castle.

The town was also granted Letters Patent of “foreign bought and foreign sold” and the incorporation of the company of Hull Merchants, and both are dated 11 May 1577. [Boyle, Charters pp.90-97] Unsurprisingly Alderman John Thorneton is named as the first governor of the company of merchants. Hull had already obtained a grant of foreign bought and foreign sold from Henry VIII, but as it was not being enforced, they decided that a new grant would be more effective than trying to revive one that had fallen into desuetude. A grant of foreign bought and foreign sold meant that the corporation were able to prevent strangers to the town selling to each other within the liberties of Hull. In every transaction at least one party had to be a Hull burgess. This precipitated an immediate and vicious trade war with York, whose merchants were the principal victims. It required the intervention of the Lord President to work out a compromise and let commerce continue.

Meanwhile the “other skillful gentlemen” of the second commission had been appointed to join with Pelham and they met in Hull in Easter week, 7-13 April 1577. The Lord President had selected Sir Henry Gate to serve again, on the grounds that he was already familiar with the place and the problem and appointed with him Thomas Gower, who the Lord President said had been Marshall of Berwick. Their undated report was inclosed in a covering letter from the Lord President to the Privy Council dated 20 April 1577. [HHC C BRL/20 and BRL/21]

This is the same date as an order from the Queen to the Lord Treasurer granting the three hundred large trees from the royal lands in the West Riding to Hull. [HHC C Bench Book Three f.210r]. For an idea of the value, in 1583 Hull bought two hundred similar trees to continue the repairs and paid £100 for them. [HHC C BRB/2 f.233v.]

The second commission’s report with the required “platt” was sent to the Privy Council, who had been waiting for it before deciding on the plan for the repairs. The second commission supported the first commission’s view that the collapse was due to the “insufficiency” of the original timbers. They also confirmed that all the timber and lead was still being safely kept. Their report did not recommend Hull’s proposed scheme of using material from part of the fortress to repair the rest but said that that it would be more useful to leave the damaged buildings still standing, but not to repair them. What their scheme was was only shown in the platt, which the Lord President’s letter says was “bothe of the said Towne and fortes, as nowe they be, and also of that which they haue devised to be done of newe” Their scheme would cost, they estimated, not above four or five thousand pounds but that did not include maintenance of “waterworks” which they wrote would be very expensive and likely increase in cost. They recommend the immediate construction of the new jetty, but point out that Hull would need some assisstance with this, as the proposed site was neither in the royal precinct of the fortress or the liberties of Hull. They also complain that the town has allowed the castle ditch to fill up almost to the top.

I have found the platt. It is currently in the British Library manuscript collection and shows the castle and town walls of Hull, as they had been since the building of the castle in the 1540’s, with the addition of a trace italienne stucture round the castle and blockhouses, each part of which is coloured and labelled “newe worke.” The lines of fire from each of the new bastions are shown by flying cannon balls and the plan claims to be to the scale of 200 feet to one inch [1:2400:]. It fits the description of the platt in the Lord President’s letter and is consistent with the little information in the second commission’s report. It is a very fine piece of work and is signed W Browne. [BL Mss Cotton Aug.I.1.85] Had this work been carried out, the result would have been much like the extant fortifications at Berwick. Gower had worked with the Italian military engineer, Bergamo, on Holy Island and would have naturally chosen such a solution. [King’s Works pp.504–506]

The Hull aldermen were very happy with aspects of the reports of both commissions. They had been aware of the “great suspicion whiche generally was had that the said castles and fortes ware decaied by necgligent lookinge to and bicawse their was no coste bestowed upon them:” and these reports had laid the suspicion to rest, or so they believed. [KHRO BRB/2 ff.165v.]

The next question to be asked is who supported which scheme; whether or not the Pelham/Gower scheme, costing four or five thousand pounds, was supported by Hull and/or the Privy Council, or whether the Privy Council went with the scheme for repairs that the royal surveyor, Hugh Bethell, had so carefully costed for the first commission at £669.12s., or even Hull’s first proposal of demolishing part of the castle and using the material to repair the rest. The Earl of Huntington, Lord President of the Council of the North was convinced that any future threat to England would be by invasion up the Humber supported by an incursion from Scotland. He would then find himself on the front line, without troops, arms, powder or money. It would be a catastrophe, and he would get all the blame. He would have certainly favoured adding the finest and most modern defensive walls to Hull. What Hull and the Privy Council wanted is uncertain, although I would be prepared to ague that they both supported the trace italienne but it was the Bethell plan of repair that was adopted, probably at the Queen’s insistance and because it was cheaper.

Sometime after 20 April 1577 Thorneton and Lewes had had an interview with Walsingham, of which conversation they made a written record. [HHC C BRL/1401 formerly Stanewell M.70] Walsingham’s first utterance sounds unfriendly, but taken with the rest of the conversation, it is in fact sympathetic. “You shall not nede to tarie heare anie longer aboute your sute, for the Quenes majestie will not graunte anie further commoditie presentlie then she haithe donne.” If any man knew exactly what the Queen would or would not grant, that man was Walsingham, her principal secretary. It can therefore safely be assumed that by the time of this conversation all the benefits that were to be received in 1577 had been approved, if not signed, sealed and delivered. The use of the word “presentlie” holds out hope for the future, which is explained later in the conversation.

Walsingham advised them that in order to create a good impression with the Privy Council they should start on the repairs immediately and devote one day a month to digging out the ditch. He also recommended that they spend some part of the benefits that they have obtained on the repairs “wherin I wold have you to use Mr Pelham his advise.” Although the licence to export corn was applied for in order to repair and maintain the fortress and sea defences, it seems that the town is not to be restricted in its use, as it was with the grant of the income from the Manor of Myton. Walsingham instructed them that every household should have a pick a spade and a shovel and that the town should store a last or two of saltpetre for gunpowder. A last is a weight that varies according to the commodity being weighed, but it is more or less a cartload.

At this point Walsingham seems to have drawn breath, and Thorneton took his chance to introduce the real reason why he and Lewes were waiting on him. They had not come to ask for further grants or, although they are unlikely to have said so, to receive advice on ditches and shovels. They wished to know from Walsingham the Privy Council’s pleasure on the repairs, “for that their honours shoulde not thinke us uncarefull of our chairdge.” If this was a question about which scheme had been approved, Walsingham did not answer it, so it would seem that the repairs had already decided on. Thorneton and Lewes were assured that “If ther be anie thinge spoken touchinge you, I shall let your goode willes be knowne and soe advertize you.” Walsingham was promising to speak up for them at future Privy Council meetings; the bond between Walsingham and Hull was now established. Walsingham continues “And I will kepe the platte by me, and if ther be anie stirre or troble towardes, then it wilbe better dealinge with her Majestie for further consideracion.”

Walsingham was telling Thorneton and Lewes, that if the political or international situation should deteriorate, he would seize the opportunity to take the Pelham/Gower scheme back to the Queen and try again for her consent. The Queen’s principal secretary, perhaps the fourth most powerful person in the kingdom, was informing an alderman and town clerk from a northern corporate borough with a population of 4,000, of the tactics that he was going to use in changing the Queen’s mind. It seems therefore likely that at least a part of the Privy Council had approved the Pelham/Gower scheme, it was after all their commission that had proposed it, but it was vetoed by the Queen on grounds of cost. Whether or not Hull favoured the Pelham/Gower scheme is not known. They are not recorded as sending Gower a present of wine, but that may have been an oversight or a failure in the records. Hull’s priority was to retain control of the fortress at as little cost to the town as possible, and this they had acheived. Although they were under orders to take advice from Pelham, they were still in total control of the Castle, the money and the repairs.

To complete the story, on 28 July 1577 the council in Hull ordered, at the towns expense, ten dozen shovels, ten dozen spades, three score picks and a good store of saltpetre. No reason was recorded for these purchases but within the month the council were ordering that the castle ditch was to be “clensed”. [HHC C BRB/2 f.168v]


APC = Acts of the Privy Council, New Series. Vols IX and X.

Boyle Charters = J. R. Boyle, Charters and Letters Patent granted to Kingston upon Hull (Hull, 1905)

HHC C = the City records in Hull History Centre, formerly KHRO

HHC C BRB/2 = Bench Book 4

King’s Works = The History of the King’s Works Vol IV 1485–1660 (Part II) (London, HMSO, 1982)

MacCaffrey, Patronage = Wallace T. MacCaffrey, “Place and Patronage in Elizabethan Politics” in Elizabethan Government & Society ed. Bindoff, Hurstfield & Williams (London 1961)

Reid Council = Rachel R. Reid, The King’s Council in the North. (London, 1921, republished Wakefield 1975)

TNA = The National Archives formerly the PRO

You could see also Audrey Howes and Martin Foreman, Town and Gun: The 17th Century Defences of Hull. (Hull 1999) pp.11-47. This is quite a useful little book containing the most complete account available of the building and history of the castle up to its aquisition by the town. Despite its title, it covers the site from the end of the last ice-age to 1980, written from the point of view of an archaeologist, assisted by some documentary sources. As is usual in Hull histories, the Elizabethan period is barely noted in passing.


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