Caverswall in the 16th and 17th Centuries

The hundred years between 1580 and 1680 covers an exciting time of English history both on a national and local level. This period witnessed the transition of society from Elizabethan into Jacobean England and significant events included the Gunpowder Plot (1605), Civil War (1642-49), the execution of the monarch (1649), a Commonwealth (1649-60) and the Restoration of the monarchy (1660). It is also a period littered with such names as William Shakspeare, Sir Francis Drake, Isaak Walton, John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, Sammuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton.


History is always full of big names and the wealthier members of society. Usually the ‘common folk’ are often forgotten as they leave very few records. They appear in the registers of baptism, marriages and burials, and perhaps a brief mention in the churchwardens accounts where these survive. However a wealth of information about these individuals may be glimpsed from both their wills and inventories where they survive and it is these documents that provide much of the information in this book.


Rarely did individuals write their own wills but rather dictated their wishes to a scribe who would draught the document that they would then sign, or more usually, leave their mark. The wills were written by those from Caverswall possessed such skill. William Brown (died 1603) wrote four of the wills during the 1590s including his own, a figure only surpassed by Rauffe Browne who was responsible for four wills and six inventories between 1603 and 1606.


A number of wills written by different hands, but identical in their wording, reveal that a common formula was in use within the parish. The four wills written by Rauffe Browne only once deviated from his otherwise word-perfect Puritan formula in favour of a much simpler one written for Thomas Ashburie. William Cooper wrote six wills between 1659 and 1675, his only deviation from his Puritan formula being for John Burtinshaw, who had been vicar of Caverswall. Burtinshaw himself had been responsible for three wills between 1659 and 1667. His extremely elaborate preamble which consisted of a mixture of Puritanism and Calvinism, had the Calvinistic element removed when he wrote the will of John Browne. This suggests that testators did have input into the religious preamble if so inclined. Did John Browne hold some form of Calvanstic grudge? Where a testator rejected the standard Protestant formula this may suggest a connection with Catholicism. Although none of the wills concluded this, the Compton Census of 1676 estimated that 7% of the parish were Papists and 3% Non-Conformists.


The will was used to express wishes concerning the welfare of family members, and sometimes servants and the poor. The testator also included the bequest of the soul and burial instructions and nominated executors to see that his wishes were complied with. Their responsibilities also included collecting any money that was owing to the testator, and paying legacies and debts. In order to generate finances an inventory was drawn up of the testator’s possessions, often including his or her debts and credits. These were compiled by appraisers, who were often neighbours or relatives, one of whom would have had sufficient knowledge of the testator’s trade to accurately value his belongings. A particularly tragic note can be seen in the will of John Ginder. Although providing for his wife and five children in his will, the parish register reveals that his youngest son was born six months after his death.


It must be remembered that inventories were simply lists of what a person had at the time of death. Those elderly may have been living with children or other family members and therefore may have owned relatively little, falsely suggesting a lack of wealth. Although these documents are no more than a minimum statement of a person’s wealth at the end of their life they are still one of the best sources for examining social history at a domestic level. With these we can, to a certain degree, travel back into their world and into their homes. By examining the contents of probate inventories it is possible to see how these homes were furnished. At the end of the sixteenth century tables were often in the form of loose boards or shelves accompanied by frames, trestles, or joists, upon which the boards were placed. When not required these could easily be dismantled to give more space. However by the early seventeenth century fixed tables made by a joiner began to appear and quickly replaced the old loose boards which had disappeared altogether by the middle of the seventeenth century. By the 1660s specific tables such as long, leaf, fall, livery and kewing began to appear. One individual also possessed a ‘pair of tables’ referring to two hinged leaves forming a board on which backgammon and other games were played. Tablecloths were used to cover the table while eating and napkins and towels became popular towards the end of the period. Vicar Alexander Howe was the only person to possess cupboard cloths.


Chairs were the most popular form of seating. Before the middle of the seventeenth century these were plain with the exception of a ‘wyne chair.’ After 1660 there was an increase in both the quantity and style suggesting, as with tables, that furniture became more decorative and ornate, rather than being purely functional. These included Rush-and-leathered chairs, a great twiggen chair and a throne. When Hugh Cotton died in 1633 he possessed‘a pair of weaneschott’. Although taken to mean wainscot panelling found on an interior wall, the term could also be applied to panelled chairs, the most probable explanation considering the term ‘pair’.


Next to chairs, forms, benches and stools were the other main type of seating. As with tables after 1660 they became individualised and included buffet, three-footed, round, covered, backed, joint and little stools. Only three households possessed close stools, an early form of commode. Where tables were mentioned, but without any form of seating, that person may have used a coffer or chest to sit on at mealtimes. Cupboards were usually side tables, often with a series of shelves for displaying silver, pewter or earthenware and similar to these were dishboards. Actual dressers only appeared from 1667 onwards, originally used as a table to dress food before cooking. Rarer still were safes, used for storing food, and livery cupboards. These were a small enclosed cupboard with a shelf. They were either on legs or surmounted by a canopy and made to hang on a wall, the front and sides pierced with ventilation holes, or more frequently, made of turned balusters set fairly close together. The name is derived from the liveries of wine or beer and bread, which along with candles each person took to his bed on retiring for the night. Presses began to appear by the middle of the seventeenth century. These large cupboards with doors, and usually shelves, evolved because it was more convenient to suspend certain garments rather than to lay them in chests. Three of the later ones found were used for storing books rather than household linen or clothes. These appear to have belonged to the wealthier, as did the desks and cabinets that were found. Desks were originally portable boxes fitted with locks, which were later given legs and sloping lids and known as standing desks, while cabinets were simply boxes with a number of drawers. The most popular item for storage were coffers, with most households possessing four or five. Chests and arks were used for storing clothes and linen although those found in barns would have been used for housing meal or malt. Other items of storage included trunks, boxes and whiches.

A man was sometimes judged by the costliness of his bed, it being regarded as one of the most important features in any seventeenth century home. During the Elizabethan period beds often had four posts with curtains. This not only help to eliminate draughts but also offered privacy. Many bedrooms were passage rooms where one led through to another. These were highly prized and often bequeathed to family members. The most common type of bed were feather beds usually belonging to the wealthier who often possessed two or three. Also common were flock- and sealed beds. Less common were trundle or truckle beds, along with high, low and wool beds. Along with actual beds, bedsteads and bedstocks were common. Elizabeth Massye also possessed a ‘craddyll for a child’, the only other being in the inventory of John Greatbach. These varied greatly in style although during the seventeenth century were mostly low box-like structures of panelled oak on rockers and with wooden hoods, which not only protected the child from draughts but also denied them of fresh air.The most numerous article of bedding was sheets. These were considered superior to blankets, and therefore the greater numbers were found among the wealthier. Most were unspecified, although the few that were included flaxen, hempen, twill, and coarse, and rarer still were both fine and Holland. Blankets were also common as were coverlets although quilts were rare. Additional comfort was often provided by bolsters and pillows.


When George Brassington died in 1591 he possessed four pairs of bedstocks and two mattresses, along with six pairs of sheets, two blankets, two coverlets, two pillows and three bolsters. Although leaving the lease of his house to his wife, Constance, his goods were jointly divided between her and his son 'indefferentlie as heretofore it hath been in my tyme’. Constance was buried six days after her husband. Her inventory was taken only two days after that of her husband’s by the same appraisers, although the bedding had reduced by more than half to only one mattress, three pairs of sheets, one coverlet and 'other things'.


Carpets and rugs, found only in the households of the extremely wealthy, provided extra warmth for those that could afford them. These usually appeared after the 1660s, often found alongside bedding for which they were used, or to cover tables and other furniture, but never placed on the floor. Carpets in the modern sense of the word did not become common even in the homes of the wealthy until the last quarter of the eighteenth century. When John Burtinshaw died in 1670 he possessed a 'kittermister' carpet, so called because it was made in Kidderminster, and Raphe Browne who died the same year had a turkey-worked carpet, meaning material woven on a loom, of wool with a pile, in imitation of carpets imported from Turkey. Rugs, generally more coarse than carpets also began to appear after 1660. Like carpets, these were used alongside sheets and blankets to provide extra comfort, and were seldom used as floor coverings. Valances were a border of drapery hanging either from the canopy of a bed, or from the mattress to the floor.Cushions were popular for providing comfort. When Henry Howarth died in 1667 he possessed half a dozen Turkey-work cushions, while Alexander Howe in the same year had cushions of both wrought and branched silk. Painted clothes, a cheap substitute for tapestry used mainly for keeping out draughts, and depicting religious scenes, flowers or mottoes were popular before 1640. Curtains all dated from the 1660s being listed along with their rods. Henry Howarth had a pair of ‘caddow’ curtains along with a valance, while John Burtinshaw had a kittermister pair also with a valance. Winnowsheets also existed, and from their position in the inventory were taken to imply a sheet or sack over an unglazed window to help prevent draughts, rather than a sheet on which corn was winnowed. With one exception these all appeared before 1640.


Items of 'brass and pewter' were often valued as simple totals rather than being listed individually. Alexander Howe's inventory identified pewter plates, dishes, saucers, porringers, salts, cans, candlesticks, a bowl, basin, bottle, flaggon and a shirepot. His brass ware included kettles, chaffing dishes, skillets, skimmers, malters, pots, a plate dish, possnet, ladle and warming pan. For those items of pewter that were listed among the inventories the largest was dishes, saucers, salts, spoons and candlesticks. Thomas Porter, like Howe, had a small range of both pewter and brass, including a pewter chamber pot and a pair of brass scales. Brass was more common than pewter, especially pans and pots. Other items included kettles, candlesticks,  ladles, skimmers and skillets. Less common items included possnets and warming pans. Rarer still was the clock of Henry Howarth and the watch of John Burtinshaw.


Twelve individuals possessed silver, of which the most popular item was spoons, often given as gifts at christenings or weddings. Alexander Howe had a dozen spoons along with three bowls and three salts (two of which were gilded) and a cup, a can, two silver ‘botes’ and three silver bodkins. Less common  items included hooks, rings, and the watch belonging to Raphe Browne (died 1670). Only five individuals possessed items of gold, three of these being rings.


Iron was by far the most common metal for household utensils, largely due to the implements associated with both the fire and cooking. Grates were mentioned in half the inventories, as were tongs (although not always in the same ones). Of the more common items were fire shovels, backstones, brundirons, cobirons, broaches and spits. Pots and pot-chains were also found in large numbers, and other utensils included kettles, bellows and slices.


These items throw light upon the cooking practices of the period. Meat was roasted on a broach or spit in the fireplace. Pot-chains hung from the chimney for suspending pots over the fire for boiling. An alternative method was brundirons, a stand or tripod serving the same purpose. Under the roasting meat stood the dripping pans to catch the fat. Baking was accomplished on a large flat stone or iron plate commonly called a backstone, an alternative method being in bread ovens built into the chimney. Because these were regarded as a fixture, however, they often went unrecorded. Less common household items of iron included frying pans, dripping pans, peales or bread irons, branches, candlesticks and smoothing irons.


Henry Howarth possessed both a hand milne and a malter, while Alexander Howe had a brass malter and a malt mill. Although none of the individuals could be traced as having a licence to sell ale, it seems likely that they were at least involved in brewing no doubt for home consumption.


Many items appeared with no indication of their material. These included kettles, pots, skillets, frying pans, warming pans, dripping pans, chaffing dishes, plates, salts and candlesticks. Because no material was given it is assumed that these were all fairly low in value, and probably iron.


Items of tin were seldom recorded, which was also true of earthenware. Possibly some of the items where their material went unrecorded such as basins, porringers, plates (especially where listed among tableware) and the painted jug belonging to John Burtinshaw were of earthenware. The few items that were specified included coups, pots and butter-pots, along with the general term ‘earthenware’ or ‘earthen vessels’. Their under-representation may have been due to these items being considered cheap and practical, not worth recording in detail, and classed under the often-used phrase of ‘all other things’.


Glass was only found in the form of bottles belonging to John Burtinshaw, and the unspecified glasses of George Barghe. Alexander Howe had a bottle and spoon of turtle shell, as well as a beaker of ‘gilded alcymie’. Looking glasses, as well as clocks, were only mentioned twice


The majority of wooden ware appears to have been used for brewing, dairying and storage. The most numerous articles were bouks, looms, barrels, trenchers, dishes, tubs, turnels, churns, piggins and kimnels (one of which was specified as being used for washing). Storage items also included firkins, a bushel and a hogshead. Measuring utensils included tankards and noggins, a peck, half a strike and two half-hopes.


Looms and bouks both have double meanings and rarely did appraisers make any distinction. In all but two examples were looms listed separately from the rest of the wooden ware. The inventory of webster Hugh Cotton listed looms with gears valued at £2, as well as mentioning flax and hemp in gears. Yeoman John Vise possessed two pairs of looms with gears. These are therefore regarded as weaving looms rather than a large open tub or vat. Bouks found among wooden ware were taken to mean a pail or bucket rather than reading material.


A similar problem was also encountered with wheels as not all were classed as being for spinning. However, only a few of those were found among agricultural implements such as wain bodies or harrows. The majority were all found in the house, and due to the presence of wool, hemp or flaxen yarn are taken to mean spinning wheels. These, added to those that were designated as spinning, meant that wheels appeared in a quarter of all the inventories.


Items specified as being cheese-making equipment included presses, tubs, vats, boards, racks, cratches, and a cheese-ladder. Raphe Browne possessed one cheese-tub, six cheese-vats and four cheese-boards indicating his involvement in its production. Unfortunately his inventory did not include any foodstuffs. He was also one of the six individuals recorded with a churn. Alexander Howe possessed a kneeding trough, a moulding board and peales, indicating baking possibly beyond a domestic level.