A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part Four

Leaving the market behind, you see the new curate, Isaac Plume, turning uphill towards his church.  He was only installed six weeks ago, and will not stay long: he is one of a series of curates for whom St Leonard’s church is a stepping-stone to greater and more lucrative things.  He will not be much missed by the congregation as he has only a Bachelor of Arts degree, and not the Master’s degree entitling him to preach.  A good sermon, in an age with few diversions, is much appreciated. His predecessor had an MA, but only stayed four months before he secured something better and became Vicar of Bapchild.

Why not follow Mr Plume?

He walks slowly up the hill. It is a very steep slope, known helpfully as ‘the Clymb’. You have seen the church in the distance on your journey here, but at close quarters it is breathtaking – and much too big. The original Norman church was enlarged and enhanced during the glory days of the Cinque Ports, when Hythe was a town and port to be taken seriously. Now it looks as though it could accommodate the entire population, and probably could, at a pinch.

You climb the steps of the impressive porch on the south side. Two men are there before you. They shake hands and money is passed between them.  This is no clandestine deal, but a perfectly normal way to seal a contract in Hythe. Indeed, it is written into some contracts that they will be renewed in this way and in this place each year.

Passing into the church, you are struck anew by its sheer scale.  The chancel has been raised to a higher level than the nave, and accommodates underneath a vaulted passageway. Both the chancel and the nave are high-vaulted and there is an imposing tower to the west.  To the north is the chapel of St Edmund where, on the second of February each year, the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady, the jurats choose a mayor, an election sermon is preached, the bells in the tower are rung and then the corporation retires to the ‘White Hart’ to celebrate.

The church you are seeing has changed fundamentally in the last sixty years or so. The rood loft with its great crucifix was torn down, the saints removed from their niches and the relics consigned to oblivion. The altar, although you must not call it that, now stands in the body of the church rather than in the chancel, and is called the communion table. The church cat is snoozing on it.

You see that Isaac Plume is waiting at the door. He is wearing his surplice, a leftover from earlier times which Puritans in the Anglican church think carries the taint of popery and should be abolished, along with a lot of other things. He greets a small party, arriving in their best clothes. It is Thomas Hutson, a fisherman like all his family, and his kinsfolk, come to baptise Thomas’s second child, Mary. The child’s mother is not among the group: she has not yet been ‘churched’ following the birth and must stay indoors, but she will be at the celebrations at the Hutsons’ house later.  The churchwarden Thomas Stroghill, taking a break from his alehouse, is there to record the event in the parish registers, which the bishop will want to see at the end of the year.

Little Mary Hutson, like so many, will not live to see her first birthday.

Leaving the church, you turn at first eastward to look at the vault under the chancel. It is dark inside, but in the gloom you can make out, to your alarm, that it is full of human bones, not entire skeletons, but skulls and long bones, piled one upon the other. You instinctively recoil from this unlikely sight in a quiet Kentish market town. You cannot make any sense at all of why the bones should be there. And so it is to this day.

The 'crypt' of St Leonard's Church in 1907
The ‘crypt’ of St Leonard’s Church in 1907

You retrace your steps rather more quickly out of the church. In the road in front of the church you notice the stocks, which today are empty, and see, not far away, the prison. It is a foul place, a single cell with a barred window. It is not used as a place of punishment, as the stocks are, but as a holding room while the law takes its course and until sentence has been pronounced, or until a debtor has found the means to pay what he owes. The corporation takes no responsibility for the welfare of the prisoner: that is the duty of his family and friends, although they are allowed to use water from the nearby well to quench the prisoner’s thirst and sluice out the cell, which lacks even basic sanitation.

You walk down to the bottom of the Clymb. On the main street, a woman is repeatedly slapping a small boy round the head while angrily berating him. No-one stops to intervene, or seems even to notice. You see that he is one of the little lads who killed the rat at John Oldfield’s; she is his mother and she is angry because he has ripped his breeches and hose while squirming around on the ground. She has enough to do without mending his clothes and he doesn’t have another pair of breeches apart from his Sunday best. What is more, he should not have been at the brewery with his friends but helping his father, a tallow chandler, by delivering some candles. He will, she tells him, go to hell and burn for all eternity for his sins. And go to bed with no supper.


A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part 3

Make your way now back into the close. The beercart has been freed and is now being loaded with barrels of beer for an inn at New Romney. The rat has mercifully died, although the boys are squirming around in the dust on their stomachs and shrieking, pretending to be dying rodents.  It is time to go back to the street and continue on your way westward along the main street.

Many of the sideways houses still function as shops as well as dwelling places.  Some are selling goods made on the premises; others sell finished goods, small wares or food. You can buy fabric from Michael Sprott (French kersey only three shillings and sixpence the yard) or James Fordred (tawny baize at two shillings and sixpence) and have it made into an outfit by Joseph Gibbons, the tailor. You can get shoes from John Martin for two shillings.  If you are very up-to-date, you can also buy new-fangled buttons to fasten your clothes from Mr Fordred.  If you still prefer to use points, in leather, thread or silk, you can get them from Alice Robyns, the enterprising widow of a miller who keeps a haberdashery shop with her daughters Margaret and Mary. She also has jersey stockings, in red and green mixed, for five shillings and green silk garters for two shillings and fourpence.

Just now, Widow Robyns is looking askance at the packhorse tethered a little way off. It belongs to a chapman, the door-to-door salesman of the seventeenth century, who also sells stockings and points and a great deal else besides. He is trying to sell his merry-books to a young matron who has bought from him before. Her little son, still in frocks, clings to her apron and you realise that what at first you took for a stiff doll under her arm is, in fact, her tightly swaddled baby. She cannot write, but she can read a little and would like something amusing to share with her gossips. The books she looks at are either quite crudely bawdy, or, to your twenty-first century sensibilities, distasteful. For the seventeenth century reader, Welshmen are funny per se, so are ‘simpletons’. Shit is particularly funny and emptying a chamber pot over a passer-by, uproarious. Wee is pretty hilarious too, especially if, say, a barmaid pisses in a difficult customer’s ale. You are reminded uncomfortably of the humour at your primary school, and move on.

The market is in full swing, having started earlier this morning when the market bell was rung after the court sessions. The town sergeant has finished crying the latest news from the corporation, which today was only a repetition of the order banning people from letting their pigs wander the streets. They will have to pay a fine of sixteen pence if convicted. This is, as it always has been, generally ignored.  Here you can buy what you cannot grow or produce yourself: eggs, poultry, cheese, milk, meat, maybe some early cherries, or small wares not sold locally or available here more cheaply.

The market is strictly controlled and local shopkeepers, alert to any opportunity to frustrate competition, are quick to bring to the attention of the corporation any contravention of the rules, such as staying beyond the closing time of four o’clock. The corporation employs market searchers, who will weigh the stallholders’ loaves to ensure that they are thirteen ounces or twenty-six ounces exactly and are sold at the regulation price.  Flesh searchers check that meat is exactly as it is claimed to be.

Visiting yeomen and husbandmen are arriving on horseback, their wives riding pillion behind them. They gather to drink beer, now more popular than ale, at the ‘White Hart’ or the ‘George’, while the women make their purchases.  Others who cannot afford the inns’ prices drink at one of the many alehouses, licensed and unlicensed, in the town. Some of those in the back lanes are no more than a couple of tables and some stools in a labourer’s cottage, where his wife serves homebrew of formidable strength and illegal gaming takes place, but the premises of Thomas Stroghill, the churchwarden, are as respectable as one would hope for from a pillar of the community.

Take a look at what is for sale at the market, apart from foodstuffs. You may purchase a pair of gloves, a comb, pins, needles and knitting needles, handkerchiefs and hatbands, thread of all sorts, capes, neckcloths and hoods, a looking-glass to check that they suit you, ink and inkhorns, necklaces, bracelets and brooches, napkins and tablecloths, soap and starch, tobacco pipes, spectacles, scissors, whistles, spurs, thimbles, shoe buckles and slippers. These things are not essentials. Money will always be spent first on feeding the family and secondly on decently clothing its members, but the market stall holders are there to provide for the wants of those with a little disposable income.

You spend some time considering this mass of people. The respectable women are wearing tight, rather low cut bodices over chemises, and skirts draped over bum rolls, padded rolls like ring doughnuts which fit round their waists and which are homely substitutes for wire farthingales.  At their necks are ruffs, carefully starched and pleated. From the market they can buy poking sticks to keep the ruffs in good shape. Their menfolk are in doublet and hose – a long-sleeved short jacket fitted at the waist, short wide breeches – padded if they can afford it – with knitted stockings underneath. They too wear ruffs, or wide falling collars, and large broad brimmed hats, even indoors. The etiquette of when to wear one’s hat and when to uncover is ignored at one’s peril. Poorer people don’t affect bum rolls or farthingales, or padded breeches or ruffs, but the general style is the same.

The very poorest don’t affect any style at all, but wear what they can lay hands on. The woman you have just noticed sitting on the kerb stone with a wooden bowl in front of her is one such. She appears to be wearing a bundle of rags tied together with tape. She has the milky eyes of the sightless. A small child has led her to this place by the market – perhaps a favourite ‘pitch’ – and now stands dumbly by her. The child is filthy, scabby and shoeless. It could be a boy or girl, but you really don’t want to get any closer to find out. The woman once had a name, when she was a girl, and when she married and had her children.  Her man and the children are dead now and she is left with a grandchild, and has no name. She is just Mother Casement. There is no room for her at the almshouse, though she gets ‘outdoor relief’ from the town, but it is not enough. So she begs here at the market, and citizens give her farthings and halfpennies, not enough to buy a whole loaf of bread, but enough to buy a bread roll for the child from the baker, who will fleece her because the weight and price of bread rolls is not regulated and he can charge what he likes.

The woman and child smell pretty bad, and people do not approach them more closely than is necessary. This is through more than fastidiousness. They believe that foul odours, or ‘miasma’, carry diseases. Wherever possible, people keep themselves and their surroundings as clean and fragrant as possible.

A Walk Through Hythe in 1600 – Part Two

Take a closer look at one of the bigger houses. It is of timber frame construction, with walls infilled with wattle and daub, but boasts a tall brick chimney stack. It has small leaded windows with glass.  This one is still thatched, using the water reed phragmites communis which grows abundantly on the neighbouring Romney Marsh. It is ideal thatching material, being naturally waterproof and thermally efficient and withstanding high winds better than tiles.  The roof is steeply pitched to allow gravity to take rain, sleet, and snow down and off the roof, forcing water down the stems of the reeds to run off at the eaves. There is no need for guttering or drainpipes, and below the top few centimetres the roof stays as dry as a bone in even the worst weather.  Water reed thatch can last up to sixty years, so, fire risk apart, there is no great incentive for the owner to replace it with tiles.

The owner is John Oldfield, a prosperous beer brewer who also keeps horses for hire. Walk down the alley at the side of the house. This leads to the ‘close’.  Besides the house itself, this area contains a hotchpotch of buildings: the kitchen, which is separate from the main house, the stables, a barn, the brewhouse with its furnace, the privy, a pigsty, a midden, and a hen house. It is a busy, noisy place and the sharp aroma of fermentation hangs over it all. A customer haggles with John Oldfield over the cost of horse hire for a handsome black gelding;  a servant mucks out the stables; Phillis, John’s wife, and a servant girl prepare  dinner in the kitchen; an apprentice is sweeping in a desultory manner, but he has been  working since before five o’clock this morning and is tired and hungry; Christopher Argar, a day labourer and his boy are shifting full beer barrels;  a servant is trying to back the beercart  into the close to collect the barrels, but has become wedged in the narrow opening; he is now blocking the street outside and several men are offering their advice as to how he can best extricate himself; some small boys stone a rat which they have cornered near the kitchen – they have managed to break its back but it still desperately drags itself about on its front paws while the boys watch gleefully.

Be bold, step inside the house. It is quieter here, and darker. The small windows let in limited light, even in summer. You see that although they are now glazed, they still have sliding shutters to cover them. Window curtains are not yet in vogue. When the house was built, over a century ago, it was a hall house, with a central hearth open to the roof. The smoke rose and seeped out through the thatch. The hall was divided to create a private ‘parlour’ which was primarily a sleeping room. Over the parlour another chamber was created, with stairs provided. Cooking arrangements were separate from the hall, at the end of the house.  During the sixteenth century, an age of home improvement on a grand scale, the central hall was ceiled over by having a whole first floor inserted. Then a central chimney stack was put in incorporating two back-to-back fireplaces, and heating the hall, the parlour and the rooms above. The chimney stack is of brick, although this is still not commonly used as a walling material.

Today the dinner table in the hall is being set by a servant girl. Dinner is eaten at midday. The tableware in this house is pewter, although for very special occasions, Phillis might bring out her silver spoons and salt dish. Each place has a plate, a knife and a spoon. Forks are not in common use, and indeed are regarded with some suspicion, either as being too effete to be used by real men, or as vulgar, like hay forks for tossing food into mouths. Each place is provided with a napkin, an essential when fingers are used for eating greasy food. Today Phillis is serving mutton baked in a pastry ‘coffin’. There are baked onions, too, for those who care for vegetables. Phillis grew them herself in the garden plot at the back of the house.  There are separate eating arrangements for the servants and apprentice, who will make do with bread and leftovers in the kitchen, although in this place they are always assured of a mug of beer.

You notice that the family will sit at the table on stools. Chairs are not often found in houses of the middling sort. The other furniture in the hall comprises a cupboard, where the tableware and napkins are kept. The walls are covered with painted cloths. These are the seventeenth century equivalent of wallpaper and also act as draught excluders. Richer folk hang carpets on the wall, but this is beyond the means of the Oldfields. By the great fireplace there are fire tongs and a pair of bellows ready for the fires of autumn.

Walk through to the parlour, and then upstairs to the other chambers on the first floor. Each contains a bedstead of some sort – quite a grand one for John and Phillis, with posts and curtains, plainer ones for junior members of the family and truckle beds which slide under the bedsteads for the servants – yet none of these rooms could be, or indeed is, called a bedroom. They are general storage rooms in which people also happen to sleep. John and Phillis have a feather mattress, a luxury item which is not available to other members of the household, who sleep on lumpy flock, made of waste wool. Similarly, the master and mistress have a feather pillow each, but a flock bolster is provided for everyone else.

Look inside the cupboards and chests in these rooms. They contain household linen – tablecloths, sheets, towels, blankets, coverlets, – and clothing – linen shirts and chemises, stockings, collars and ruffs, scarves, handkerchiefs, men’s drawers (women do not wear them), nightgowns and nightcaps. Scattered about the rooms are tables and benches, candlesticks, chamber pots, looking glasses, boxes of correspondence and legal documents,  a sewing basket and piles of mending, bundles of bills and receipts, and oddly, John’s muskets. He needs them for his service in the Trained Band, a local militia, which is compulsory for every able-bodied man between sixteen and sixty. Perhaps this is as good a place as any to keep them dry.

Finally climb a ladder from one of the chambers to the garret under the roof. This, like every attic in every age, is full of things which might come in useful one day: broken furniture, old tools, and, as the men who will one day come to take a probate inventory of John’s goods will record ‘old lumber and things forgotten’.




A Walk through Hythe in 1600 – Part One

The first part of an imaginary walk through the Ancient Town and Port of Hythe in 1600

Take a walk in your imagination through Hythe in at the beginning of the new century. You will not be seen. You are not a time traveller but only a silent shadow which will flicker and flit through the town on one day, Saturday, 12 July 1600.  The concept of the ‘weekend’ is far in the future, and today is just another working day.  The weather is fine, but not hot. This is the middle of the ‘Little Ice Age’, when frost fairs are held on the Thames and summers are short and cool.

Your approach to the town from the east may be difficult. The road has been in a bad state of repair for a long time and the residents of Cheriton and Saltwood, the adjoining parishes, have failed in their obligation to repair it. At the bottom of the hill you find yourself at the east end of Hythe’s main street. Do not linger there long. The stench from Guy Wilmot’s tanyard is truly dreadful. The tannery is situated here on the outskirts of town deliberately, and the prevailing south-westerly winds blow the stink away towards Folkestone (although in those weeks when the wind gets stuck in the north-east, the whole town suffers).

The street is busy, not just with people. There are animals everywhere. Pigs, and the occasional goat, rootle in rubbish heaps; chickens scratch around in the side alleys; horses are tethered outside shops and houses and are ridden down the middle of the street; a stray lamb bleats forlornly; cats bask in patches of sunlight or crouch under wagons; dogs haunt the butchers’ shops, and you will catch a glimpse of a rat’s tail as he disappears round a corner. And over it all the gulls screech and wheel and swoop, scavenging for food for the chicks perching on every rooftop.

Walk westward along the main street.  There is a pavement along each side. The owners of the houses which line the street are each responsible for maintaining the section on their frontage, so it is of varying quality and height and you must be careful not to trip.  The leavings of the various animals of the town are another good reason to watch where you put your feet, and you must be careful of the various woodpiles, barrels, fishing nets, tubs, heaps of building materials and lumber of all sorts which people leave outside their houses.


St John’s Hospital Hythe

On your left is St John’s Hospital, a survivor of the Dissolution, now used by the town to house the poor and some disabled war veterans.  The five people living here are the lucky ones, if being poor or maimed can ever be called lucky. They are warm and dry.   A little further along on the right is the ‘George’, one of two inns in the town, and opposite that a fine double-fronted jettied house, home to one of the town’s gentlemen, but built a hundred years earlier. As you carry on along the street, you will see that many of the other houses are also quite old. Built during Hythe’s heyday, they have survived because as the harbour started to fail, the wealth of the town dried up and there was no ready cash to build new.  Many are built at right-angles to the main street, with a shop of some sort opening onto the pavement. Sites in the main street are much sought after and the most valuable part of the site is its frontage to the street. This gives access to customers, and customers bring the money in.  As a consequence, the plots are long and narrow.  A lot of houses are thatched, because it is cheap and readily available but the fire risk is considerable and there is a slow shift towards tiled roofs.  Chimneys are sprouting everywhere, too.

Some books

I have read over a hundred books and journal articles while doing this research. Some only had a chapter, or a paragraph, that was relevant, others needed my full attention.  Some were available through Kent Libraries, but most were not. I used instead the Templeman Library at the University of Kent.

There are a couple of ways to do this. Anyone can visit the library and read the books there. Alternatively, you can join the library as an external borrower at a cost, currently,  of £120 a year. This allows you to borrow up to eight books for four weeks at a time, though there are restrictions on core texts, and of course journal articles have to be read in the library. The library has long opening hours, and if you visit on Sundays it’s quiet and free to park.

Some books were relevant to Kent, others covered specific subjects, such as theatre, costume or alehouses. Then there were books on religion, or politics, The books are too numerous to list here, but these are some of the most useful (as well as Everitt & Clarke, which have already been mentioned).


Detsicas,  A. And N. Yates Studies in Modern Kentish History Maidstone: 1983)

Gibson, James M. Ed., Kent: Diocese of Canterbury (Records of Early English Drama)  1982

  •  Lists the travelling players who came to Hythe and the participation of some of the inhabitants in            music and drama

Hull, Felix (Ed.),  A Calendar of the White and Black Books of the Cinque Ports 1432-1955  (Kent: 1966)

  • Summarises  in modern English all the Brotherhood and Guestling meetings and the business carried out

Eales, Jacqueline, Community and Disunity: Kent and the English Civil Wars, 1640-1649  ( Faversham: 2001)

Knafla, Louis A., Kent at Law  Vols 1 & 2  (Chippenham: 2011)

  • Includes details of a Star Chamber case in 1601 involving dirty dealings by the great and good of Hythe

Lansberry, Frederick, ed., Government and Politics in Kent, 1640-1914 (Kent: 2001)

Pearson, S., The Medieval Houses of Kent: An Historical Analysis  (London: 1994)

Zell, Michael, ed.,  Early Modern Kent, 1540-1640 (Kent: 2000)

Dulley A.J.F. ‘Four Kent Towns at the End of the Middle Ages, Archaeologia Cantiana LXXXI 1966

  • Very helpful explanation of the fishing industry


Bentley, G.E., The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (Vol 1 Dramatic Companies and Players) (Oxford:1941)

Clark, Peter, The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830 (London: 1983)

Cunnington, C. Willet and Phillis,  A Handbook of English Costume in the 17th Century (London: 1955)

Lane, Joan, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914 (London: 1996)

Pelling, Margaret, The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England  (London: 1998)

Schurer, Kevin and Tom Arkell, eds., Surveying the People: The interpretation and use of document sources for the study of population in the later seventeenth century. (Oxford: 1992)

Slack, Paul, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985;

Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth Century England (London: 1981)

                                      The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century  (London: 1984)

McGurk, J.J.N.,  A Levy of Seamen in the Cinque Ports, 1602 in The Mariners’ Mirror 66, no.2 (1980)

  • How impressment into the navy worked


Borsay, Peter,  The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660-1770  (Oxford: 1979)

Barry, Jonathan,  and Christopher Brooks, eds., The Middling Sort of People: Culture, Society and Politics in England, 1550- 1800  (London: 1994)

Cross, Claire, Church and People in England 1450-1660 (Oxford: 1976)

Durston, Christopher, Cromwell’s Major-Generals: Godly Government during the English Revolution (Manchester: 2001)  

Eales JacquelineWomen in Early Modern England, 1500-1700 (London: 1998)

Green, I.M. The Re-establishment of the Church of England (Oxford: 1978)

Keeler, M.F.,  The Long Parliament, 1640-1641: A Biographical Study of its Members,  (Philadelphia: 1954)

Matthews, A.G., Calamy Revised  (Oxford: 1934)

                            Walker Revised: Being a Revision of John Walker’s Sufferings of the Clergy during the Grand Rebellion 1642-60, (Oxford: 1947)

  • Both these books have exhaustive research on the Puritan and Laudian clergy of mid-century and what happened to them during the Commonwealth and Restoration. Here I finally found the elusive Mr Wallace.

Mendelson, Sara, and Patricia Crawford,  Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720  (Oxford, 1997)

Monod, Paul Kleber, The Murder of Mr Grebell: Madness and Civility in an English Town ((Boston: 2003)

  • A fascinating study of Rye during the seventeenth century and beyond. The town became a Puritan enclave and enthusiastically prosecuted witches.

Slack, Paul and Peter Clark, eds, Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500-1700: Essays in Urban History (Toronto: 1972)

Underdown, David , Fire from Heaven: The Life of and English Town in the Seventeenth Century (London: 1992)

  • A study of Dorchester, another town which in the seventeenth century was ruled by the Godly.

Finally I must mention Ian Mortimer’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England’ (London: 2013).

I had thought hard about how to start this story of Hythe in the seventeenth century and starting in 1600 seemed too abrupt. I finally came up with the idea of an imaginary walk through the town, describing all I had learnt about its environment and people. Then I read ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide’. I was outraged. This man had taken my idea before  I had even thought it,  in fact even before his Elizabethan England book. He had previously written, I discovered,  ‘The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England’  in 2008.

To be serious, they are both excellent books, and Mortimer is an innovative historian who makes quite complex ideas accessible to everyone.  I am also very grateful to him for publishing on line a ‘Directory of Medical Personnel Qualified and Practising in the Diocese of Canterbury circa 1560-1730’ (available at http://www.kentarchaeology.ac). It was this which first brought my attention to the gross malpractice of Hythe physician John Grove, more of whom later.


Archives and sources

I was now combining my reading with research in the Kent archives.  We are lucky in Kent in having both the County Archive, at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, and the Canterbury Cathedral Archive, set behind the cloisters at the cathedral.

The Kent History and Library Centre has a modern, purpose-built archive and reading room, fully (and sometimes fiercely) air-conditioned. You need a Kent Library ticket and some extra ID to gain access, and desks should be booked in advance. They have an online catalogue, so that you can choose and order documents in advance, too. The variety of documents is enormous.  Some that I used for my research follow:

Wills and probate inventories.

Wills tell us about the testator’s family, friends, where he lived, sometimes his occupation and wealth (I say ‘he’ here deliberately, as few women in the 17th century made wills). They can also tell us about his religious beliefs, as most start with the bequest of the immortal soul and wat in which this is worded reflects the personal beliefs of the testator. For example, George Baker, who died in Hythe in 1601 used the words ‘I recommend my soul unto the hands of Almighty God from whom I hope for salvation only by the merits of his son Jesus Christ’ .  He is saying that he believes in justification through faith alone,  which indicates that he was true to the teachings of the Church of England at that time (I will come back to this later).   

Inventories were taken for probate purposes until the eighteenth century and tell us what possessions the deceased had.  They are useful for building up a picture of how people lived.  A labourer who died in 1647, for example, had in the two rooms of his house:

A flock bed, 2 blankets, 2 old rugs, 3 shirts, a tablecloth, a napkin, a pillow case, 3 towels,  3 cheesecloths, an old trunk, 1 stewpot, 1 warming pan, an iron pot, a candlestick, 1 table, 1 press, 2 spits, 1 andiron, 1 frypan, pair tongs, a philch and a half of bacon, 2 bills and a hatchet, small pieces of pewter, a bread trough, 4 pails, a shovel, and a mattock.

A wealthier man like Thomas Browning who died in 1639 , a had many more rooms and many more possessions.  Thomas had  several feather beds (mattresses) instead of lumpy flock made of waste wool;  linen cupboards and presses; a smoothing iron; carpets (for hanging on the wall to keep the draughts out, not for putting on the floor); silver spoons, a looking-glass, a bible and four other books. From this we can determine that he was literate in that he could read, but he could not necessarily write much. It depended on how long he stayed at school, as reading was taught first and writing later in the curriculum.

Local government

Local government has always produced reams of paper and the seventeenth century was no exception. What survives from the minutes, accounts and records of court cases  is largely a matter of chance.  The Hythe records are patchy, but I was delighted to find further references to the non-existent Minister, William Wallace, when in 1649 the Hythe jurats awarded him £10 a year, as he was poor and was ‘a well-deserving man’.

It is also useful to see how local government interpreted the edicts of parliament and the monarch.

Property transactions

These sound, and often are, dull, but they can shed some light on who was buying and selling, their occupations, how contracts were drawn up, and on the physical layout of the town. After examining several documents, I managed to work out where the Bowling Green in Hythe lay (only to discover, weeks later, an unpublished History of Bowling in Hythe, where the author had done exactly the same thing. There is so much unpublished research out there…).

Canterbury Cathedral Archive is charming. Built in the style of a Victorian reading room, complete with galleries, it is accessed via the cloisters at the Cathedral. A County Archive Research Network (CARN) card is required. They also have an online catalogue, but fewer desks, so booking is absolutely essential.  The chairs are especially comfy.

The archive has an eclectic range of material, not just church records, including records of land disputes, marriage settlements and some Cinque Ports documents. These last include a Quaker petition against the Mayor of Hythe. Apparently in one Sunday in 1655, George Rofe, a Quaker, went to Hythe church as the morning service was ending and stood in front of the pulpit. The mayor said ‘take away this fellow’ and the congregation, or rather as Rofe puts it ‘a multitude’  ‘laid hands on the said George striking him with their fists and kicking him and throwing him down the steps’ . Today Quakers are known as pacifists; then they were regarded as dangerous blasphemers and it is likely that one of the reasons George was so badly treated was because, like all Quakers, he kept his hat on in the church. The etiquette of when a man should wear a hat and when he should uncover was crucial in seventeeth century interactions at every level.

Of the church records, ‘Ecclesiastical Causes’ are most interesting, as these courts dealt with offences such as adultery, scolding, riotous living, bastardy, drinking on the Sabbath, non-attendance at church and contested wills. They are, however, written in Latin, though the judgement is in English.

Other Archives

There are relevant documents in archives outside the county, too. The National Archive in Kew has the Customs records for Hythe; the British Library some early books with local relevance; Lambeth Palace Library has more details of monies paid to William Wallace; The Bodleian Library has a copy of a 1648 petition, signed by Hythe jurats, calling for the King to be executed ( Everitt says the signatures are probably forged, but provides no evidence of this); the House of Lords Archive has the Protestation Returns for Shepway Lathe in 1642 (the closest thing we have to a census for the period); and, improbably, in Staffordshire County Record Office, some records of the Cinque Ports, which were retained by Lord Cobham, an early seventeenth century Lord Warden, and are now in his family papers.


Puritans and Purges

At this stage in my research, I realised that I knew a lot more about the interesting sects of the 17th century  – the Muggletonians, Levellers, Ranters Adamites, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and so many more – than I did about civic government, which has less curiosity value but is a necessary background.

I knuckled down and read the classic text of the period, A.M. Everitt’s The Community of Kent and the Great Rebellion 1640-60 (Leicester University Press, 1960). This was a pioneering work when published, and helped make local history a respectable subject. Everitt suggests that although there was a well-established central government, Kent (and other counties) was effectively run as a mini-state by its resident gentry, tied together by bonds of kinship and property ownership. It was quite insular, little affected by or interested in, national politics, and inclined to be conservative and therefore loyal to the King and the established order (but I should mention that later historians have taken issue with this view). Hythe is mentioned, but only  en passant, usually in the context of the Cinque Ports.

Next up came Peter Clark’s English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution: religion Politics and Society in Kent, 1500-1640(The Harvester Press, 1977). Apart from the useful overview, there were some specific mentions of Hythe here. Clark mentions that in 1621, 1624, 1626 and 1628 the jurats of Hythe elected Peter Heyman as the town’s M.P. (although they were usually referred to as ‘barons’ in Cinque Port parlance). Heyman, he says, was a leading critic of the town.

Then there is mention of the Archdeacon of Canterbury Cathedral, William Kingsley, who zealously implemented the policy of the Archbishop of Canterbury of purging the clergy of Puritans. The Archbishop was William Laud, whose views were very close to those of the King. Clark says that the Puritan reaction to this was hostile, especially in towns with a Laudian incumbent.  A little further research into the zealous Archdeacon revealed that he was appointed Rector of Saltwood in 1614.

Saltwood is a mile or so up the hill from Hythe, and today they are separate ecclesiastical parishes, but this was not always the case. Until the mid-nineteenth century, St Leonard’s church in Hythe was only a chapel of Saltwood Church, and the Rector had authority over both, although he usually employed a curate to look after the ‘chapel’.

I was now looking at the history of Hythe more than twenty years before the outbreak of the first Civil War in 1642, and it was clear that I had to look much more closely at what had gone before I could make sense of what happened during the conflict and afterwards. I needed to read a great deal more and go back to the primary sources.

Since I last did any serious research, the internet has developed to provide some very useful tools for local historians. My first port of call was British History Online, a digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland., with a focus on the period 1300-1800. It can be accessed here:


I searched for ‘Hythe’ and refined the search to the seventeenth century and found:

  • Physicians and Irregular Medical Practitioners in London 1550-1640 Database
  • Calendar, Committee For the Advance of Money: Part 1, 1642-45
  •  Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Interregnum, 1655
  •  Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 9, 1667-1687
  •  Calendar of Treasury Papers, Volume 2, 1697-1702
  •  Journal of the House of Lords: Volume 4, 1629-42
  • Grey’s Debates of the House of Commons: Volume 8

and 292 other entries. You have to pay £35 for a year’s subscription to view the entries. For me that was affordable.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t much about the central period I was interested in, but lots which contributed to the general social history of the time, and the way in which Hythe interacted with central government. One of the very earliest entries announced the imminent arrival of the press gangs in the town in 1602.  I began to wonder how this impacted on the town, and who exactly it impacted on.

Another very useful site is www.historyofparliamentonline which provides over 22,000 biographies of  members of parliament. You can search by constituency or name of the member.  Peter Heyman’s biography is long and detailed. It tells us he was a devout Puritan, who refused to pay the Forced Loan (one of Charles I’s desperate money-raising schemes) and ignored a subsequent summons from the Privy Council to explain himself. He ended his political career by being arrested & interrogated for telling the Speaker of the House that although he, the Speaker, was a Kentishman he was ‘a disgrace to his country and a blot to a noble family’ for seeking ‘to pluck up our liberties by the roots’. Heyman warned, ‘we shall annihilate the liberties and dignity of Parliament’. This was the man that Hythe elected to Parliament no fewer than four times.

So Hythe in the 1620s had elected as Member of Parliament  a Puritan who tried to thwart royal excesses and preserve the liberty of Parliament, but  by the 1630s had a Rector who enthusiastically carried out the anti-Puritan policies of the King’s favourite clergyman, Archbishop Laud.  Unless the townsfolk had performed a complete spiritual U-turn, it seemed that conflict was inevitable.

At this time, I was also completing my research into the life of William Gately, whose tomb was the starting point for this project. Having successfully deciphered his will (which I was able to download from the National Archives website at a cost of £3.30), I read when he died in 1652, he  left a sum of money to ‘William Wallace, Minister of Hythe


Like many old churches, St Leonard’s in Hythe has a board which lists all the incumbents. William Wallace’s name was not on it.

Another puzzle to be solved.

First steps – William Gately

When I was a girl, I knew that when I grew up I would be a historian and write books, but life isn’t that straightforward, so I became a civil servant. I got my history degree in my thirties and my master’s degree when I was fifty. Then I retired, and after over thirty years living in Dover, moved to Hythe.

Now, Dover has History with a capital ‘H’. From the Bronze Age boat, through the Pharos, the Roman painted house, the iconic castle, the landing of Charles II at his restoration, the military fortifications on the Western Heights, Captain Webb’s epic swim and Bleriot’s equally epic flight, right up to the horrors of ‘Hellfire Corner’ and secret wartime tunnels, it is difficult to avoid history in Dover. But Hythe?

Although it was one of the original five Cinque Ports, there is no castle here, and no port either, the haven having long since silted up so that even its exact whereabouts are a mystery. The Romans did build here, but all that remains of Portus Lemanis is a few ruins tumbling down the hill below Lympne Castle.  There are some visible reminders of former glory. The church, dedicated to St Leonard, towers above the town. It is magnificent – and improbably massive for such a small place. It was built when there was a prosperous port here and its scale is evidence of the wealth of the inhabitants in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.  There is a grand Edwardian hotel, and terraces of splendid balconied houses on the sea front parades, where once bathing machines could be hired and sea water baths taken by the polite  visitor to the town.  And there is the Royal Military Canal, providing pretty walks, but designed for more sinister purposes.

A little reading around the subject seemed to confirm what I suspected: Hythe has always been a conservative sort of place. After its ,medieval heyday, when as a Cinque Port it received unique privileges in return for defending the kingdom, the town, bereft of its port, gradually became a quiet backwater. Even the turmoil of the Civil Wars failed to stir the blood and Hythe remained quietly and undemonstratively Royalist throughout, no doubt heaving a small sigh of relief at the Restoration.  The Napoleonic Wars and threat of invasion brought a little excitement – and canal building – to the town, and there was a sort of regeneration with the coming of the railways and the growth of ‘The Seaside’ as a fashionable destination. Not for Hythe the raucous joys of the piers and pleasure palaces: she was content to be Folkestone’s quieter, but equally refined, little sister. Two World Wars brought upheaval, but in 1945 Hythe bucked the socialist trend and returned to Parliament a Tory scion of the local brewing family, the Mackesons. Nothing, apparently, could ruffle its conservative feathers.

None of this immediately inspired further investigation until, by chance, I came across a grave in St Leonard’s churchyard, where I was helping in a small way to tidy the place up. The churchyard is on a steep slope, and the people doing the real work there had unearthed this rather battered table tomb, covered by landslip for generations.

The tomb of William Gately in St Leonard's Churchyard
The tomb of William Gately in St Leonard’s Churchyard


Part of the inscription could still be read:

lliam Ga…who was Bay…and Mayor for the year 1650…Ancien…he…Yeare…Yeare is…

       departed this mortall life on the LORDS day the 23 of February 165… being of age….’

I had been researching the names on all the tombstones which were still legible in the churchyard, but these were generally quite straightforward, as they were mainly from the late eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.  An inscription from the seventeenth century presented new challenges, as the conveniences of online censuses, newspapers and birth, death and marriage records are not available. I had to go back to the Record Offices.

Research in county Record Offices and the National Archives had been my favourite part of studying for my degrees.  There is nothing quite like finding historical evidence in documents which have not been opened for perhaps a hundred years. But my earlier research had been largely confined to the nineteenth century, when handwriting was at least comparable to the script we use today. I soon discovered that the same could not be said of the seventeenth century. I struggled to make out complete sentences.

My salvation came in the form of a day course on reading old handwriting  at Canterbury Christchurch University, taught by Dr Gillian Draper, and a book, Reading Tudor and Stuart Handwriting by  Lionel Munby, Steve Hobbs and Alan Cosby (British Association for Local History, 2nd edition, 2002). And practice, of course. It really is about ‘getting your eye in’ (it’s the same with bird watching, I’m told).

The occupant of the tomb was William Gately. He was born in Hythe and lived there until 1652, when he died at the age of 51. He was married and had children, and was, like his father before him, a blacksmith. He was extremely litigious and not a little avaricious.

He  served as Bailiff to Yarmouth (a Cinque Ports appointment) and Mayor of Hythe during the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth. I had always had an interest in this period, described by the late Christopher Hill as ‘the world turned upside down’ , a time of bitterness and slaughter, religious upheaval, freedom of speech, radical politics and sweeping changes, not to mention regicide, rebellion and plots galore. Had William Gately, or his contemporaries,  played any part in this?  The histories of Kent had little to say on the matter, beyond confirming that Kent was, with very few exceptions, Royalist. Were the people of Hythe not stirred at all by this maelstrom? Other similarly depressed Cinque Ports such as Dover, Sandwich and Rye harboured radicals of every political and religious hue. The people of Canterbury rioted when the Puritans abolished the Christmas festivities and Sir William Brockman led a brave, but doomed, Royalist rebellion in Maidstone.  Did Hythe just sit on its metaphorical hands?