The Dangers of the Early Modern Alehouse

Alehouses were common in early modern England. A 1577 census of England recorded the existence of 14,202 alehouses, alongside hundreds of inns and taverns. Alehouses were similar to modern pubs, primarily offering ale (unsurprisingly) as an alcoholic refreshment and offering a place for the common person to relax. Jennifer Bishop claims that the period 1550–1700 saw a ‘golden age’ for English alehouses and their popularity grew to such an extent that religious officials saw them as a threat to religious obedience. Thomas Young, a Scottish minister, wrote in 1617 that the average parishioner would ‘goe ten times to an Ale-house, before they goe once to a Church’ and although drunkenness had long been something against which the authorities — religious and civic — had railed, ale-houses seemed to make the problem systemic. One broadside ballad from the late 17th century features a dialogue between a man (Henry) and his wife (Elizabeth), who complains that ‘Thou hast in the Alehouse wasted in vain’, echoing the popular view that alehouses encouraged infidelity and destructive behaviour. In reality, however, the early modern alehouse was a place for socialising, unwinding, and murdering. Oh, didn’t I mention the murder?

A depiction of an early modern alehouse

Of course, alehouses weren’t infested with murder but many murders took place there, as did many other crimes. This is unsurprising, given that alehouses would often feature groups of people (not always friends) in close proximity who were often intoxicated. Many criminal acts took place as a result, from slander to physical assault and from adultery to murder.

On one level, tales of alehouse quarrels and crimes are simply interesting stories in themselves and offer insight into contemporary inter-personal relationships among a class of people (the ordinary folk) which might otherwise not be told. Among the records of Edmund Gamull’s quarter session records is a peculiar case. Between the complaint of a merchant having a cellar full of fish which ‘maketh avery stinking smell’ and the horrifying theft of a silver spoon worth a whopping 9 shillings is the case of Conway and Burley. This quarter session examination from 1585 recounts a tale of cold-blooded murder arising from sleeping arrangements in a Cheshire alehouse. On the 26th of February, Robert Burley was stabbed in the stomach by Hugh Conway. The weapon used was a small ‘poinadow’ (a small dagger) and the cause was the bed in which Burley desired to sleep. Conway demanded that Burley let him ‘lie there’ and when the latter refused a quarrel began, though who initiated the conflict is unclear. As though a scene from The Mousetrap, the candle is blown out and, once relit, Burley had been stabbed. Unfortunately for those hoping for a truly dramatic tale, Burley was not actually dead, simply badly wounded. Cicely Bell (the wife of the alehouse’s owner, Roger Bell) heard the commotion and upon entering the room heard Burley cry that he was ‘slain’, to which Conway was clear to point out that the man was not, in fact, dead (yet).

Although witnessed by at least four people, Cicely Bell apparently was unsure as to how the wound had been delivered. The attacker was clearly Conway and Burley didn’t shy away from announcing it, along with scribbling down a will. Conway was soon arrested and taken to jail, Cicely Bell allegedly stating that she ‘cared not a turd’ what happened to him. As it transpired, Burley was technically in the wrong as the bed had previously been claimed by Conway, though not even a 17th century jury would approve of his response. Strangely, there was no evidence of any history between the two men. Court records often show the same characters appearing repeatedly and it wasn’t uncommon for families (or even individuals) to have grudges but in this case that doesn’t appear to have been the case.

John Pearson, Bishop of Chester (1673–1686)

The case of Conway and Burley is certainly an interesting one. Other cases are just as interesting but can also reveal local (or even national) power struggles through the medium of alehouse shenanigans. Introducing Littler Sheene and Abraham Smith. No murder here, I’m afraid, but lots of juicy gossip and a little bit of violence to keep us entertained. Sheene was the vicar of Over, a town in Cheshire, and Smith was the curate of Over (essentially an assistant to Sheene). Unlike the previous example, this conflict takes place over many years (from 1674–1677) and is much more complicated than a simple fight. There was fighting, however, as the picture drawn of Abraham Smith is one of a drunkard and a thug (not clergy-like behaviour). In fact, one witness claims that the verbal abuse issued by Smith was so severe that ‘had he not been a black coat [a clergyman] he would have [been] beaten’. His abuse was also physical, ranging from simply grabbing the brim of someone’s hat ‘in a quarrelling way’ to punching a man (although some witnesses dispute this) and even throwing a ‘candlestick of a pot’ at the landlady. At a deeper level, local religious tensions are brought to light as Sheene and Smith argue over the Bishop of Chester’s relationship with the Presbyterians and both accuse each other of conducting illegal, secret marriages. The witnesses seem to be partial to the conflict, some describing Smith as an incompetent, lazy clergymen and others accusing Sheene of malpractice. If the early modern alehouse is to be seen as a window into sociability and politics at a personal level, then it’s unsurprising that local religious conflicts can be found here and that national politics can subsequently be inferred.

A woodcut depicting a seventeenth-century alehouse

Families and friendships were often put to the test during alehouse disputes, as in the case of William Smallwood and George Partington in 1600. The latter murdering the former in the alehouse of John Fovell (possibly the same John Fovell who married Ellen Peerses in 1614) after an argument arising from the unwanted presence of William Platt among a group of men who were both friends and many, through marriage, family. Resentment against authority is another theme in alehouse troubles, such as in the case of Godfrey Burman and a certain ‘Harper’ from 1699. Walking in on Harper abusing his assistant, Wilson, Godfrey intervened but was overpowered and essentially taken prisoner by Harper briefly, before being freed by two strangers. Many others nearby did not intervene, despite Godfrey’s pleas, and his attacker was rescued by the hostile crowd who taunted the constable. Although such blatant acts of resistance aren’t all too common, cases involving slander often arose from criticism of local (or national) authorities, both civic and religious.

The early modern alehouse was an interesting place. Although apparently lethal if seen only through legal records, they were really just places for people of all ranks to relax and socialise, as well as to drink. Some crimes committed there can reveal tensions between families and friends, others depict a religious power struggle between local clergymen, and others show disobedience to authority. Some just show bizarre and curious behaviour between people, shedding light on events that might otherwise have been ignored had they not occurred in a relatively public settings. While many of these don’t illuminate local political tensions or have any real historical significance, they give a voice to the common folk (albeit when they’re slightly intoxicated) which is otherwise so often silenced.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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