The following text is from an article by Norman Hidden, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol. 86 (1993), pp. 130-135.
The Poet as Historian: Fresh Light on Urban Fire Damage in Elizabethan Hungerford
by Norman Hidden
Poetry may seem an unlikely source for historical fact. A Latin poem entitled 'Hungerforda' by the Elizabethan poet Daniel Rogers records the 16th-century devastation caused by fire to this town on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border. Yet no other account of a great fire there exists. The author's research into a wide range of 16th-century local records has revealed a mosaic of individual properties mentioned casually as affected by fire at this period, all located within a particular area, which gives credence to the poet's veracity. Rogers' interest in the town may have been inspired by his link with the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton.
Although ancient Greek mythology named Clio as the muse of history and of epic poetry, present day historians may only occasionally find in poetry historical evidence of a factual kind. Plato's view that poets are fictionalisers is more likely to appeal, since the magic of poetry depends so much on a subjective and often hyperbolic view of events which it purports to describe. Recently the writer discovered the existence of a 16th-century poem which told of a great fire in a town on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border, of which no other record seemed to exist. Although it seemed unlikely that the poet would invent a disaster which never occurred, the question arose of how much credence could be placed in the poem's reference to it and where might some documentary evidence be found to confirm it?
The poem itself is listed in the Historical MSS Commission report on the Marquess of Hertford MSS, which refers to a small manuscript volume in Latin of poems by Daniel Rogers entitled Urbes. The volume is now in the possession of the Henry H. Huntington Library, USA, whose curator has kindly supplied a photocopy of the poem. (Historical Manuscripts Commission, Fourth Report, p.251; Huntington Library, USA: HM 31188, f 205).
The author, Daniel Rogers, was born c.1538 at Wittenburg, the eldest son of John Rogers, who was one of the Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary. Through an introduction to the court of Queen Elizabeth and his knowledge of European languages, he became useful to her ministers and others engaged in European affairs. He was employed by Sir Henry Norris, the English Ambassador in Paris, between 1566 and 1570. In October 1574 he went with Sir William Winter to Antwerp and a year later accompanied an important embassy to the Netherlands to treat with the Duke of Orange. Between that date and March 1578 he was engaged in diplomatic business in the Low Countries. In September 1580 he was sent to Germany, was arrested at the request of Philip II of Spain, and detained there in prison for four years. In 1587 he was appointed clerk to the Privy Council. He died 11 February 1591 and was buried in Sunbury, Middlesex (D.N.B.).
Although the Rogers MSS became part of the papers of the Marquess of Hertford, it is not clear that Rogers had any special relationship with the Seymour family. Indeed, the Earl of Hertford himself was in disgrace with the Queen and if Rogers had had any connection with the family, it could not have been advantageous to him at court or in his career. He was, however, on close terms with leaders of the dominant Protestant faction such as Cecil, Walsingham, Leicester and Pembroke. His poems are dedicated to a wide range of Elizabethan court notabilities, and the twenty-eight urbes that he celebrated in his poems of that name seem to represent towns in which many of them had a special interest.
These included the cities of London, Bristol, Bath, Salisbury, Warwick, Coventry, Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Winchester and York, not to mention the towns of Northampton, Banbury, Bedford, Reading, Rochester and Colchester. Among these historic and illustrious towns the inclusion of the small market town of Hungerford is startling. Entitled Hungerforda, the poem reads as follows:
Bercia Vilugiis disterminat arva colonis
Hungerforda sui voce Celebris heri,
Quam mediam fluidis Cunetio dissecat undis
Navigero primis flumine nostris avis
Aede, schola, domibus, numeroso et cive decora,
Igne sed immodico pene perusta fuit
Maiorem et cladem domini de clade receipt
Corruit a civis crimine facta nocens,
Urbibus exemplo reliquis, has esse beatos
Quorum cives fidos regibus usque colunt.
In the last line the word cives has been underlined and in the right hand margin the word dominos has been written in the same handwriting, suggesting that Rogers had toyed with the idea of substituting the one word for the other. Translated, the poem reads as follows:
Hungerford, celebrated through the fame of its lord,
Separates Berkshire fields from the settlers of Wiltshire,
As the Kennet, whose waters bore the ships of our ancestors,
Divides the town with its flowing streams.
Graced with church, school, houses and numerous townsmen
It was almost utterly destroyed by a devastating fire.
Yet it received a greater blow by the downfall of its lord
And it fell disgraced by the crime of its own townsman.
It is an example to all surviving towns
That those citizens are blessed who remain faithful to their rulers.
What may have brought Hungerford to Rogers' notice was the fact that the Earl of Pembroke was High Steward of the manor there, a fact which leads to the supposition that Rogers' poem was designed for his eyes (or ears).
The date of the poem's composition is not known. The volume in which it is contained is said to be of thick quarto paper, 'last quarter of the 16th century', and the contents to be in Rogers' own handwriting (H.M.C., op cit). Most poems are undated, but some in the same volume have dates ranging from 1570 to 1579. The internal allusion within the poem, if correctly interpreted, to the crime of one of its townsmen means that it cannot have been written before the latter end of 1573, and the allusion is sufficiently topical to suggest a date c.1574.
This and other allusions suggest that Rogers is likely to have known the town from personal acquaintance with it. As it lay halfway on the direct route from London to Bristol, and also halfway on the direct route from Oxford to Salisbury, travellers found it a convenient overnight stopping place. If Rogers visited the Earl of Pembroke's seat at Wilton near Salisbury, an overnight stay in Hungerford would bring him within thirty miles, or a comfortable day's journey. As Pembroke was High Steward of the town, Rogers would have a reason to make himself acquainted both with its topography and its history and even its internal politics.
The picture of the town's topography given in the opening lines of the poem is undoubtedly true and exact. For Hungerford is partly in Berkshire and partly in Wiltshire, the two counties having met at this point for as many centuries as we have record. The river Kennet even now, after modern irrigations and water workings, has many branches, small tributaries and 'flowing streams'. One such stream which flows through the town is a small tributary nowadays called the Dun, but in past times regarded as part of the Kennet. The confluence of these streams had provided the early Saxon settlers with a last landing place upstream before navigation became impassable. Hence Rogers' reference to the river as navigero (line 4).
Lines 5 and 6 which relate that the town was almost utterly destroyed by fire are among the most fascinating in the poem. For there is no other known document which refers to such a catastrophe, yet the statement is too precise for it simply to have been invented. In a town of open hearths and many thatched roofs, occasional conflagrations were to be expected, yet the poem underlines a much greater disaster than the occasional loss of one or two isolated houses.
There are two other specific historical allusions, which are compressed into lines 7 and 8. The first, in line 7, to the fall or disgrace of the town's lord, must refer either to one or other of the several attainders which befell the family of Hungerford or to that of Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset. The lordship of manor, park, and borough had been granted by Henry VI in 1446 to Sir Walter, Lord Hungerford (PRO, DL37/13). His grandson, Robert, third Lord Hungerford, like his forebears was a firm Lancastrian supporter. Attainted under Edward IV in 1464, he was beheaded and his lands became forfeit to the Crown (VCH Berkshire, Vol IV, p 188). The lands were restored to the Hungerfords by Henry VII but fell again into Crown hands by attainder under Henry VIII. The manor was then granted by the young Edward VI in 1548/9 to his uncle the Lord Protector Somerset. Somerset was overthrown in 1552 and he too was beheaded and all his lands and honours forfeited (Loc cit).
To which of these downfalls does Rogers refer as maioram cladem, a disaster even greater than the great fire? The most likely is that which befell Somerset, an event which occurred in Rogers' own lifetime and one which would still be live in the memory of the local townsmen. Somerset's seat at Wulfhall in Savernake forest was only a few miles from Hungerford.
What of the event hinted at in line 8? Only one instance is known of harm done to the town by one of its townsmen. This occurred in 1573 when the town's charter was allegedly stolen by one of the townsmen, against whom a suit was brought by the town's officers in the Duchy of Lancaster court. The court, however, found (and this was very much to the Duchy's interest) that there was no evidence that such a charter ever actually existed (PRO DL6/22). The townsmen consequently faced loss of all their ancient borough rights. In desperation they appealed to the Earl of Pembroke as High Steward of the borough to plead on their behalf with the Queen. This Pembroke found an opportunity to do when the Queen visited him at Wilton in September 1574, and he was successful in eliciting from her a masterly Delphic and diplomatic reply to the effect that 'the inhabitants should have, use and enjoy without interruption all such liberties and profits and benefits as heretofore time out of mind and remembrance of man they had used and enjoyed' (VCH Berkshire, Vol IV, pp 185,186). But what those liberties, profits and benefits actually were the Queen left the inhabitants and the Duchy to work out for themselves.
Returning to the reference in lines 5 and 6 to a great fire, there is no documentary record of a great fire as such in Hungerford, but a survey of town properties taken in 1573 reveals a disproportionate number of entries 'decayed by fire', 'one void plot of ground late burned', 'a decayed piece of ground late burned' (Berks RO, HM5/1). These entries concern six of the town's burgage tenements out of a total of about 95, and the nature of the entries suggests they refer to buildings completely gutted. Six properties out of some 95 may not seem a major disaster. The figures become more impressive, however, when the concentrated location of the burnt down dwellings is taken into account. They correspond to present day property sites on the east side of the old High Street (two burgages) and on the west side (four burgages). None of these affected properties had been rebuilt in 1573 and must have been regarded as uninhabitable at the time of the survey.
All of them were situated at the lower or northern end of the town. The four properties lying on the west side of the High Street as it then was called (nowadays this portion is known as Bridge Street) stretched from the southern bank of the stream known today as the river Dun and extended over what is now the canal. It is at this point, from the southern bank of the canal, that the modern High Street begins. The southernmost of the four properties lay approximately on the site of present day nos. 6 and 7 High Street. Almost opposite this point were the two devastated houses on the east side of the street, where the Post Office now stands.
The town survey in 1573 gives no indication other than the word 'late' of how long previously the fire had occurred, but it must have been later than 1552 when a previous survey was made which contains no mention of any burnt dwellings (PRO DL42/108). Another section of the survey of 1573 is concerned with the Queen's water mill which, says the survey significantly, 'is now in good reparation'. It may be assumed from this that the fire had damaged the town mill and that full repairs had been made which enabled it to continue its function by 1573. This assumption is reinforced by the enquiry of a commission in 1576 into the lands of the former priory of St John in Hungerford. This revealed that of three tenements which belonged to the priory, two were standing but one was 'decayed by fire' (PRO E178/2828). These three tenements were immediate neighbours to the mill.
We have here two additional items not specifically referred to as burnt in the 1573 survey, and it becomes clear that the fire was greater than the six particular references in the survey might at first suggest. Indeed, there was no necessity for the survey to refer to burnt properties at all, since quit rent was due to the Crown whether a site was occupied or vacant, whether it was used for dwelling house, business, or agriculture, or simply left idle.
Because it was Crown property and because of its economic importance to the town, it is likely that the mill was repaired or rebuilt with particular urgency and speed. A law suit in which miller John Yowle was involved in 1570 throws light on both the date and the origin of the fire. Yowle had acquired lease of the mill by marrying the widow of the previous miller John Austen, who died in 1560 (PRO REQ2/240/19). As Yowle was only twenty years of age at the time of Austen's death, his marriage to widow Austen and consequent tenancy of the mill may not have been immediate. In or about the year 1565, however, we know that he went to Southampton to purchase a mill stone (PRO DL4/15/6). If this date indicates an approximate commencement of his interest in the mill, we may be able to place the date of the mill fire as between this purchase in 1565 and the date of the law suit referred to above in 1570. For in this suit Yowle claims that 'by misfortune and negligence of his neighbours, the said mills were burnt and utterly consumed with fire. After which time . . . [he] did re-edify the said mills, which cost him [one hundred pounds] or very near thereabouts'.
This fire which 'utterly consumed' the mill and which began 'by misfortune and negligence of his neighbours' may well have been the starting point of the great fire of which Rogers' poem makes mention. Neighbouring the mill on its northern side were a brewhouse and a dye house, both using furnaces for their operations.
Confirmatory evidence of other destruction by fire at this date is provided by the draft of a Crown lease dated 8 July 1566 (PRO DL14/55/2). By this lease the Crown let to Henry Edes a number of properties in Hungerford which had formerly belonged to two recently dissolved local chantries. These properties, about twenty in number, were scattered on either side of the old High Street. In a different hand from that on the main body of the lease the following postscript had been written: 'Memo: there is six of the tenements belonging to these chantries burnt'. And Henry Edes was made responsible for the rebuilding or repair, at his own cost, of the houses which were 'of late burnt'. A court case in 1569 confirms that he had covenanted in his lease 'to build, make up, and re-edify certain burnt and decayed houses and tenements' among the former chantry properties and it seems that he had as yet not done so (PRO DL1/79E2).
It is not known which of the chantry properties were the six that had been burnt, but it is possible to determine the position of chantry properties in general from the 1573 town survey. Since the survey does not mention whether burnt or not in relation to any of the chantry properties, it is clear that these burnt tenements acquired by Henry Edes must have been additional to the six non-chantry properties which the survey does mention as having been burnt. Assuming that the chantry tenements affected by the fire were most likely to have been in the area where all other reported damage had taken place, this would be in the northern section of the old High Street, below Church Street on the west and Cow Lane (now Park Street) on the east. On the west side, below Church Street, there were only three chantry properties used as dwelling houses. Two of them were in the immediate vicinity of the mill, while the third was on the site of present day nos. 13/14 High Street. On the east side, below the old Cow Lane, there were three chantry properties on the site of present day nos. 115, 117, and 118.
The difference of time between the date of the postscript to Henry Edes' lease of 1566, the report of houses 'late' burnt in the survey of 1573 and of the commission enquiry into priory lands in 1576 is not greatly significant for, as may be seen from Yowle's evidence, the cost of rebuilding could be considerable and few townsmen could afford to go about it so rapidly as circumstances had obliged Yowle to do. Edes' court case in 1569 shows how reluctant landlords were to set about re-building.
Indeed, the next town survey, in 1591, shows that of the six properties reported in 1573 as 'decayed by fire', at least four were still in the same condition (PRO DL42/117). In one case the 1591 survey makes explicit that the 'void plot of ground late burned' (1573) was the site of a building 'whereon sometime a house stood'. Even as late as 1609 a further town survey describes one of these same houses as 'lately burned'. Restoration and re-edification was a delayed and expensive process in days when no insurance companies were to hand to meet the costs of rebuilding.
With the six chantry properties the total of houses burned has now increased to fourteen. In addition, there exists a set of surveys and rent rolls for the estate of the Hungerford family (at that time Sir Walter Hungerford Kt.). This estate was known as the manor of Hungerford Engleford (or Englefield). There is extant a manorial survey of 1583 which records two more instances of houses 'lately burned' that were not mentioned in the town survey. Both of these were at the northern end of the town. In one of the two cases some rebuilding had taken place, for the entry reads: 'one cottage lately burned and a backside . . . whereon is now a dwelling house builded' (Wilts RO 442/1).
Additional, but rather more circumstantial, evidence of the extent of the fire damage may be evinced by the Hungerford Engleford court rolls, which reveal a sharp concern for fire regulations to be observed by the tenants. These court rolls do not exist for the period suggested above as the probable date of the fire, but when they recommence at a court held in April 1593 it was presented that Thomas Curr lit fires in his house without a chimney or "flewe"'. For this he was threatened with loss of his customary tenancy in the premises. In the following year it was ordered that William Parre should not make a fire in his tenement called 'le bakehouse' without a chimney or flue on pain of his loss of the tenancy. George Burrowe was likewise warned to make himself a chimney or flue, the lord granting him an elm tree for the purpose. In the next court roll it was presented that George Burrowe still had not made himself a chimney or flue in his house nor in the section of it which he had sub-let to his mother-in-law. Accordingly, he was adjudged to have forfeited his tenancy (Wilts RO 490/1539).
These presentments and orders suggest an alertness to the dangers of fire which had impressed itself on the minds of the jurors and of the lord's steward alike. Indeed, since no similar presentments occur in other Hungerford Engleford court rolls, neither earlier in the century, nor later in the next century, it may be assumed that their incidence at this particular date was a result of men's memories, even some twenty-five years or more later, being still vivid of the great fire which had caused so much damage and incidentally had impressed a visiting poet.
Another remarkable instance of the length of time with which the memory of natural disasters remained impressed upon men's minds may be seen in a landlord and tenant court case in Hungerford in 1610. The case also illustrates how slowly rebuilding after such a disaster could proceed. In this case (PRO C2/Jas I/M20/9) the landlord complained that his lessee had agreed to repair the building if the landlord would provide the timber. This the landlord says he did 'to the amount of 20 tons at least'. The tenant then proceeded to work on the timber on what we would nowadays call a do-it-yourself basis, making a frame or fabric of the timber. He pulled down a greater part of the roof which was at that time covered with tiles, together with one double chimney, 'intending to re-edify the house', but suddenly all work stopped. The landlord complained that the tenant
"has kept the frame un-set up and has made havoc and spoil of the timber, allowing the frame to be without doors and uncovered and so subject to rain and weather for these many years . . . the several rooms where the building did formerly stand do yet lie open and uncovered for eight or nine years and [the tenant] has prepared and made fit only a little room for his trade and kept it thatched, to the hazard and danger of all other the inhabitants and neighbours their habitations, being once heretofore as he [the landlord] hath credibly heard set on fire and in great danger of consuming by means therefore."
The landlord would not himself have experienced this great fire, since he was a newcomer to the town, but he had apparently heard of it and if the reference is indeed to the great fire then his was one more house that was so affected. That these references to fire damage all relate to a great conflagration in the late 1560s seems probable not only for the reasons adduced, but also because all the instances of damage may be pin-pointed to an area at the northern end of the town. No reference has so far been found to fire damage which might have occurred to buildings beyond (i.e. south of) the Cow Lane - Church Street intersection. The supposition occurs that the width of these intersecting streets may have acted as a natural fire break.
At the time there were probably no more than 95 dwelling houses in the old High Street. The exact figure is uncertain because a few quit rent roll entries may be for closes of land on which no building was sited. Of these estimated 95 dwelling houses, about half lay in the northern section of the street, and in this northern section we have documentary evidence for fire damage in the case of the following buildings:
- 1573 town survey 6
- St John's priory commission 1
- Mill 1
- Former chantry houses 6
- Hungerford Engleford Manor 2
This gives a total of 16 instances which have been discovered, a substantial proportion of the total buildings in this area. Even so, there are likely to have been more.
The location of these instances on a street map suggests a pattern of fire commencing in the neighbourhood of the mill and carried by a strong northerly breeze up the main street. It seems inconceivable that some additional houses were not affected where they were located between those which are known to have been destroyed or damaged. The odd house or two may have been leapfrogged in such a wind-swept inferno and perhaps escaped destruction due to luck, or the possibility of a house being built of stone or brick or having a tiled roof, but there would not be many of these. Destruction must have been nearly total. The whole northern end of the town may have resembled something like the modern waste of a wartime bombed site. This northern end was the main entrance to the town from both London and Oxford and if Daniel Rogers passed through the town he would have seen at first hand some of the scars the fire had left, enough to justify his poetic licence in describing how the town igne sed immodico pene perusta fuit.
A local historian may feel indebted to Rogers, for without his reference to the great fire such scattered allusions to burnt dwellings might have been passed over as a series of unrelated individual events. His reference to the existence of a school is also helpful, for we have no documentary evidence of the existence of a schoolmaster before 1633 or of a school before 1636, an absence which was puzzling in a market town the size of Hungerford.
In rendering thanks to Rogers for the otherwise unknown information he has given concerning these details in the history of the town, we should not lose sight either of his wider perspective as a courtier or of his skill as a poet. His perspective as a courtier may be seen in the concluding lines of the poem, which contain its moral. The compact Latin construction does not lead to easy translation; but the meaning though primarily expressing a general sentiment likely to be acceptable to Pembroke (or, if dominos is substituted for cives, to Elizabeth), is also a specific reminder to the townsfolk of Hungerford of their responsibilities to their High Steward. This compactness of language and tightness of structure while presenting vivid pictures and clarity of thought, are a tribute to the poet's skill. A vast amount of story telling and moralising is compressed into a mere ten lines, and the firmness of the moral conclusion is admirable. Perhaps topographical poetry may be welcomed as an adjunct to history after all?