Religion 2 Melchior Smith

After the departure of Thomas Fugall there was a vacancy for a vicar in Hessle, which as you will remember included Hull. Now the living was in the gift of the crown and one would have expected the appointment to be made by the Lord Chancellor, and he of course had to give his consent. But what actually happened was that the corporation sent one of the town officers to Boston in Lincolshire where there was a Godly preacher called Melchior Smith, and poached him for Hull with the promise of the living at Hessle. A vicarage was a far more secure position than a lectureship, which was paid for by local subscription and therefore subject to the goodwill of the Bostonians. Also at this time Hull was rising and Boston was in decline. So Melchior Smith came to Hull in November 1561.

Claire Cross has raised the possibility that Smith may have had German ancestry or connections, this is based on his name of Melchior and his familiarity with German protestant practice. I don’t think that the evidence is very strong. He was born near Burton-on-Trent and spent at least a few months of Queen Mary’s reign in that town, teaching Calvin’s catechism and the psalms of David, at which, he said, no one was offended, ‘only certain papists.’ As for his name, I have at least one other Melchior in Hull, Melchior Appelyn, who is too old to have been named for the vicar.

It is difficult to know whether the aldermen of Hull knew what they were getting in Melchior Smith, but it is certain that some of them did not like what they got. Their previous vicar Thomas Fugall had read the English service with obvious reluctance, as to him it represented heresy. Smith on the other hand did not read it at all. He claimed that there were curates to perform the less important tasks of reading services and celebrating Holy Communion, ‘Which thing he believeth is agreable to the worde of God and the doinges of the Apostles who rather then to hynder the worde . . . did elect and chose certeyne bothe learned and godlie to serve at tables, that is to minister the sacrements, the apostles only applying the office of preaching.’ Characterising the sacrament of the alter as ‘serving at tables’ although properly quoted from the Acts of the Apostles, is a long way from Fugall’s doctrine, and too far for some of the congregation. This problem would not have been so apparent in Boston, where he had been employed solely to preach, and where the parish clergy would have read the services, but in Hull he was the parish clergy.

Whilst Fugall had been charged with failing to enforce the orders against the use of rosaries. Smith was criticised for neglecting his own devotions, even standing to take communion, this was, he said, in order to keep an eye on the congregation to see that no-one was surreptitiously beating their breasts, holding up their hands, or making the sign of the cross, or otherwise ‘committing idolatry’.

With the arrival of Melchior Smith the form of the debate changed. Smith was not avese to making a gesture, but mostly he dealt in words. He preached, usually three times a week, he discussed confessional issues at the dinner table, and we know what he said from his depositions. Whilst Fugall had said almost nothing in reply to his accusers, Smith came back at them full of bounce. Except for some peripheral matters, he did not deny or excuse his conduct, he merely explained it. In fact he was eager to explain it. He did not criticise the Elizabethan settlement, although he may have interpreted it a little. He said that the efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on kneeling or wearing the surplice. However to win people to the gospel, he would be prepared to wear anything, ‘even a friar’s coat.’

He tried to prevent those who were not intending to receive communion from attending the consecration, for fear that they were there to worship the sacrament. Although he did not actually discourage the congregation from kneeling to receive the sacrament, he pointed out that Christ had passed out the bread and wine to the seated disciples, and that this example was followed in parts of Germany.

He further disconcerted people as whilst everyone else was kneeling in prayer, he prowled about Trinity Church, with his hat on his head, muttering; he was, of course, running over his sermon.

He preached on the martyrdon of John Rough. He preached on the Disputation of Westminster. He preached on those who obstructed God’s word, prophesying that they would meet the same fate as Herod. As these doomed obstructors of God’s word were the two wealthiest aldermen in Hull, this was unacceptable behavior. Just as the aldermen supported the authority of the church, the clerics were expected to support the authority of the town. This was after all, the Church of England.

To the charge that he ‘sowed discord’ he knew of nothing that he had done unless it was preaching against papistry . . . and wicked vices . . . emonges theis synfull and adulterous generacion’. Melchior Smith was not shy of comparing himself with the great. ‘No other thing’ he said ‘had chanced unto him then did unto the prophets the apostles and disciples, yea unto Christ himself at whose preaching there was as much dissention as at any mans.’ He found that people took exception to insults hurled at them from the pulpit. Later, in the 1590s, the vicar of Hutton Cranswick near Driffield got into trouble when he declared in his sermon that the sins of Sodom and Gommorah were as nothing compared to those of Hutton Cranswick.

Smith was charged with omitting the prayers for the Queen and others in authority, and he admitted that he had tended to lump them all into one general prayer, ‘for brevity only and to avoid tediousness.’ This was from a man whose sermons never lasted less than two hours.

He accepted in court that Magistrates were allowed and established by God but said ‘Neither is it of valew before God, whether a man be a King Prynce Duke Earle or Lorde Jewe or Gentill, learned or unlearned, wyse or unwyse, magistrate or subjecte, man woman or child.’ Pointing out that a gentleman or an alderman was of no more worth than the lowest inhabitant, may have been theologically sound but did not endear him to some of the ruling elite of Hull.

The aldermen that he suspected of being behind the case against him ‘Mr Jobson and Mr Thomas Dalton. He was openly rude to ‘ . . divers tymes meeting them in the streete withowt any reverence, not ones moving his capp or his hatt nor speaking any word unto them, to the great offence of his parichioners’. But as he explained, in failing to off-cap to them in the street he was merely reflecting God’s opinion of them.

Of these two aldermen Thomas Dalton, the second richest, was of a difficult family in Hull. The Daltons did not marry into the other aldermanic families or apprentice their younger sons to their fellow merchants. This is most noticeable because they had a lot of sons in every generation. I believe that their isolation was due to their confessional differences with the other aldermen. In the 1590s they had more than their share of recusants and seminary keepers, although only from the branches of the family that had taken their money and left Hull, buying property in the countryside and calling themselves gentlemen. The Daltons who remained in Hull conformed.

The other insulted alderman was Walter Jobson, who was about as awkward and litigious as an Elizabethan could be. If there was a generally held position, he was against it. Although the richest man in Hull he was ejected from his office (the only ejection of an alderman in the reign), at a time when unanimity on the bench was considered important. He does not seem to have had any previous sympathy with Catholicism, in fact he is associated in the Marian parliaments with the opposition. Glenn Burgess has suggested to me that he was an early proponent of the Anglican via media, myself I think he would have started an argument in an empty house.

Returning to Smith. Obviousy he failed to wear the surplice, ‘It was to be wished’, he said ‘that all men would take them but for clowtes and ragges and rather worse than better.’ For his refusal to wear the surplice Smith came before the court at York at least three times, and the evidence given in the earliest case, is what I have been quoting.

One of his sermons had been on theft. He preached that thieves did not only lurk in the hedgerows to attack travellers, they also sat at home at night by the fire planning by false weights and other trickery to deceive their customers. Those who took money for work and did not act honestly in their vocation were also thieves, and that included Bishops who did not preach.

He had however a very high opinion of the worth of the right sort of clergy. At table with the now Mayor, Thomas Aldred of the Customs House, the discussion turned to St Paul, and Smith ‘said that there were some men in England in these our days which both could and also were willing to set forth [as] good doctrine and orders as Paul hath set forth and taught, (miracles only excepted).’ And in a sermon on the Disputation of Westminster, ‘he hath told . . the shame and confusion of the papists, for they were offered to be disputed withall in number, day, and place appointed in the presence of the Queen’s Council, But when the time came they were rather given to brawling and railing than to reason or disputing, Then said [he] that they showed them selves as they did afore, all dumb dogs that could not bark, But as concerning our Bishops, he willed all men to be thankfull for we had never so many learned men at one time nor never earnester or oftener preachers, nor perfecter followers, Moreover he willed all men to be thankful For amongst the papists there were not three in England that were able to read the Bible in the Hebrew tongue much less to translate and expound it, But amongst the protestants there were a hundred at the least, that could exactlie and absolutely do all three.’

The Disputation of Westminster between the new protestant regime and the Marian Catholic bishops has sometimes been considered a protestant own-goal, but its reputation was obviously different in Hull.

From the papers of another case, that against the parish clerk William Stead we see that as well as the aldermen who attacked Smith, there was also an underground of opposition. Stead had it seems on occasion, thinking that the preacher was finished (or that he should be), started to play the organ before the end of the sermon. He was also suspected of putting forward the clock to shorten the available time. This he denied, saying that Smith never had less than two hours in which to preach. People in Fugall’s day had used to remark on how early one could get home to dine on a Sunday when Christopher Legard was away. It was very different under Melchior Smith. He may not have spent time on prayers, but he did not skimp on his task of edifying Christ’s congregation.

Stead was accused in 1570 of drunkenness, failing in his duties as parish clerk and of Catholic sympathies, in which it was claimed he was not alone. A suggestion was made that people were afraid to come to communion in case he had poisoned the wine, (the bread of course was sound, but poisoning the wine would catch the utraquists). It sounds unlikely, but once again the talk on the street was about conflict in doctrine. The case against Stead was brought in 1570, probably because Stead’s conduct had ceased to be tolerable in the political climate after the arrival in England of Mary of Scotland, and the revolt of the northern earls. What had been merely annoying had become potentially treasonous.

Returning to Smith, One All Saints night, probably in 1563, Melchior Smith was dining with the mayor when the bells of Trinity Church started to ring. Stead the Parish Clerk was probably in charge of the ringers. Immediately the mayor sent a message that they were to stop, but this and two subsequent messages had no effect. An enforcement party led by the Mayor and supported by the Vicar and other officers then set out to the church to stop the bells.

The ringers ran away at their approach, but some were caught and brought back into Trinity Church which was in darkness except for a single torch carried by one of the mayor’s party. According to his accusers the vicar ‘did take and pull on Nicholes Laborn, maryner by the beerd. And gave him such a strooke upon the face with his fist that Laborn brast owt of blood boothe at the mouthe and at the noose.’ Smith said that in the dark and confusion the nose bleed could have been caused by a collision with almost anybody, ’but whether he was hurt on the nose by [him] or some other he knoweth not certainlie, but he believeth it was not by [him]’ And if it was proved to be by him, then it was an accident. From the other depositions I think that there is little doubt that Smith lost his temper and struck him. Melchior Smith does not seem to have been a nice man. Amongst the dirt that the was thrown at him during his trial, very little of which stuck, it was claimed that he was so awful to his wife that she had tried either to run away or to kill herself by running over a staithe and jumping into the river Hull. The poor woman survived, but apparently got very muddy.

Smith’s response was ‘he belevith that he and his said wif at there furst commyng to Hull did not at all tymes agree so perfytelie as they aught to do, Nevertheles whatso ever was between theme yt haithe beyne done so secretelie and quietlie that no honest or true person is able justlie to burthen either of theime with yt’. The complaint was not that he had mistreated his wife, which he was entitled to do, but that the effects of his marital disharmony had disturbed and annoyed his neighbours. Amanda Capern tells me that at this time the only legitimate way to stop a man beating his wife was to complain about the noise.

Melchior Smith’s personality evidently proved too much for Hull and he was relegated in the later 1570s to Hessle where presumably the less sophisticated population would take what they were given. There he lived until the 1590s and became the founder of a small dynasty of vicars. A curate read the services in Hull whilst an equally protestant, but more emollient preacher, Griffin Briskin, was appointed to make the sermons. He too refused to wear the surplice, but he survived with occasional admonitions until the 1590s when he took over the parish of Beeford, on the way to Bridlington. He was succeeded as preacher by Thomas Wincopp whose monument bust may still be seen in Trinity Church on the South Choir Isle, and then by Andrew Marvell, the father of the parliamentarian and poet.


Many of the documentary sources for this paper are published, principally by J S Purvis in his 1948 book, Tudor Parish Documents in the Diocese of York. Cannon Purvis, who was the archivist at York Minster, includes documents which have since been lost (according to the staff at the Borthwick, undoubtedly lost by him.)

The other Yorkshire sources have been exhaustively used by A G Dickens in varous publications. There has also been an article by Clair Cross on Melchior Smith, the second of my two vicars, in the context of religion in Foxe’s Lincolnshire, and the most recent discussion has been by Emma Watson, in an article on Ecclesiastical Discipline.

The full documents are at the Borthwick Institute at York. When I read them they were called CP R VII G 1396 Smith and HC CP 1487 Stead.


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