Archive fever: the night watch, 1605

This is funny. (Well, it has a serious side too.) A witness statement from Flintshire, 13 November 1605, concerning “a watch that was appoincted at Caerwis [Caerwys] for the stay of passengers and all maner of straungers… at the tyme of the treasons comitted by Percy, and Catsby”:

Robert ap Thomas ap William* of Caerwis, deposeth and sayth that the said xijth day of November at night, he the said Robert togeather wth Robert Williams, Thomas Gruffith and William Pyers beinge appoincted to watch by Hugh ap John Wynne the head constable, wthin the towne of Caerwis, the said Robert Williams beinge verie unwillinge to watch the same night… [but the constables refused to accept a substitute,] wherupon the said Robert Williams came himself wth the rest that were formerly appoincted to the heigh crosse at Caerwis to watch, and at there cominge thither, some of the neighbours of the towne sent them some ale, they drunke the same night xxtie [20] pottes of ale duringe the tyme of the said watch the said Robert Williams and one Hugh ap Thomas ap Richard of Skiviocke… did singe certaine Christmas carrolles, untill John Thomas ap Harry petti constable came to the place to commaund them to keepe sylence, afterwards one William Thomas Williams passinge by aboute vj roodes [probably ‘rods’: 6 rods = 33 yards] from the place where the watchmen did sitt, the said Robert Williams came to him and would knowe of him whither he would goe, who aunsweared that he would goe homewardes, yett the said William Thomas Williams tolde this deponent that he would walke up and downe the towne to see whither they would keepe true watch that night and soe he went by them three or foure tymes, at the laste Robert Williams tooke excepsions against the said William Thomas Williams and woulde have taken his staffe from him that hee had in his hand, which the said William Thomas refused to deliver to him, but sent this deponent to the pettie constable and said that he would deliver his staffe unto him (beinge an officer) and soe he did, wherupon the said Robert Williams gave the said William Thomas Williams very badd wordes, and the said William Thomas aunsweared that in respect he was a watchman he would have nothinge to doe wth him, sayth further that he knoweth of his owne knowledge that Katherin verch Ithell wief to the said Robert Williams is a great recusant, and hath absented herself from church for many yeares past… Robert Williams as this deponent thinketh beinge very angry that he was appoincted to watch, gave himself to singe and drinke the moste parte of the night till morninge…

(A second witness told much the same story more briefly, adding only that Robert Williams was an alehousekeeper.)

I don’t think I need to explain what the ‘treasons’ were, do I? But I probably should note that Flintshire was one of the key centres of surviving Catholicism in 17th-century Wales (the other main county was Monmouthshire). Not least because of the popularity of St Winifred’s Well with Catholic pilgrims. The JP who examined the witnesses was Roger Mostyn of Mostyn; some very close relatives of his were prominent Catholics. Even before November 1605, large numbers of recusants were being prosecuted in Flintshire; it must then have become very uncomfortable for them.

And I don’t know whether this story is best regarded as:

a) illustrating anti-Catholic paranoia in the aftermath of the Plot at the local level, with efforts to increase surveillance of people’s movements; or
b) a rather nice example of the disadvantages of relying on ‘amateur’ and ad hoc local policing within early modern communities…

Although it wouldn’t be too hard to do both at once.


*I can be so slow sometimes. I’ve only just really noticed the name of this witness. Although I can’t say with any certainty, there’s quite a strong chance that Robert ap Thomas ap William would be the brother of William Thomas Williams; although their names are written down slightly differently, both represent the same patronymic, ‘son of Thomas son of William’. It might explain how Robert knew about William’s plans to keep an eye on the watch that night, anyway.

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