23 Peasholme Green, YO1 7PR
A fine timber-framed house
Now a popular public house, the Black Swan was originally one of the finest medieval timber-framed private houses in York, a suitably impressive residence for a succession of MPs and Lord Mayors of the city. It is thought that Sir Martin Bowes rebuilt the property in 1560 incorporating an earlier house belonging to his family. The central section with twin gables facing Peasholme Green dates from the late 16th century. Extensive additions in brick were made by Sir Henry Thompson in 1670.
Despite the building’s current use – the Black Swan has been a public house since the late-18th century – much of the fine 17th-century interior remains. There are robustly-moulded classical doorcases in the entrance hall which leads to a well-preserved, open-well staircase with bulbous balusters and imposing newel posts with ball-finials. On the ground floor is the atmospheric Smoke Room with early-17th-century panelling and a late-17th-century fireplace with a painted overmantel. A rare survival is the late-17th-century trompe l’oeil painting on panelling in the first-floor room above the Smoke Room where there is also an overmantel with a painted frieze.
William Bowes (d.1439)
One of the wealthiest wool merchants of his day, William Bowes owned property in Peasholme Green where water meadows bordered the King’s Fishpond. Surviving records of his trading in wool date back to 1391. He became York City Chamberlain in 1399 and, by the time of his first election as MP for York in March 1416, he had also served as sheriff and was one of the Council of 12, the ruling body for the city. In 1417, he became Lord Mayor of York. Bowes owned a “capital messuage” – a house lived in by the owner of an estate – and at least three tenements in Peasholme Green. In 1420, Bowes was reprimanded by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the brother of Henry V, and other royal commissioners for polluting the king’s fisheries. Through negligent management of his properties, the water had become silted with debris and the fish stocks depleted. The matter appears to have been resolved by erecting fences to prevent access to the fishpond. William Bowes was elected MP for York in a further four elections: in 1421, 1422, 1426 and 1431. He paid for the rebuilding of St Cuthbert’s Church opposite the Black Swan and it was here, in 1439, that William Bowes was laid to rest alongside his wife, Isabel who had predeceased him in 1435.
William Bowes (d.1476)
In his early years, William Bowes Jnr worked alongside his father and would eventually take over the profitable family business. He did not, however, inherit his father’s financial acumen and would become mired in legal actions and debt. His father’s social position gave William Jnr a head start in rising through the ranks to play a major role in the governance of York. In 1417, he was admitted to the Freedom of York by patrimony and, in 1425, he was elected as one of the chamberlains of the city. Around this time, he married Agnes, daughter of the former Sheriff of York Robert Kirkeby and, in 1428, the couple were admitted to the Guild of Corpus Christi, the leading religious guild in York. William was elected as one of the sheriffs in 1431 and, by 1433, he had joined the Council of 24, the ruling body for the city. In 1437, he was elected MP for York and reached the peak of his political career when he became Lord Mayor of York, 1443-4.
Hanseatic League dispute
His business dealings did not run as smoothly or as successfully. The Bowes family was primarily trading in wool, exporting large quantities to the Continent, particularly to the major cloth-making centres of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. William’s merchandise came to be caught up in a trade dispute with the Hanseatic League, a federation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe which controlled shipping routes in the Baltic and across the North Sea to England. In an attempt to create a monopoly, each Hanseatic port had a merchant representative and warehouse; York was one of these ports. However, during the 15th century, the power of the League was being challenged and merchants attempted to use unauthorised ships. In 1422, a consignment of cargo exported by merchants from York, Hull and Beverley bound for Danzig, including goods owned by William Bowes, was seized by Hanseatic ships.
The wool trade relied on a complex system of credit involving letters of exchange which resulted in many disputes. William Bowes had to instigate a series of legal actions to recover sums owed and, in turn, he was the subject of claims from other merchants. In 1446, he was ordered to pay compensation of £254 to a French merchant to resolve a dispute over a bond for £1,000. These were huge sums of money at the time. Bowes was involved in several other disputes and law suits. On 31 October 1445, he was assaulted by a group of men led by John Wady, a York draper and former chamberlain, at Layerthorpe. In 1446, questions arose over the executorship of his father’s will and, in July, William purchased a general pardon to exonerate himself from litigation. In his role as a trustee of an estate, he was sued by the heiresses of mercer Thomas Scorby for his refusal to allow them possession of the freehold of a house and garden in St Saviour’s Gate, York.
Calais Court of Staple
Ultimately more serious were William’s mounting problems with debt. Around 1449 he was sued by three Flemish merchants in the Court of Staple at Calais for debts totalling £535. A staple port was a port designated for the import and export of a certain type of merchandise. Several towns in England were staple ports, including York, and, in 1363, the Merchants of the Staple in York and Bristol established a new staple in Calais which dealt with all wool exports from England to the Continent. The system enabled governments to monitor overseas trade and to levy taxes on goods.
The court found in the Flemish merchants’ favour and William was held prisoner in Calais until the debt was settled. Several years later, legal action initiated by a merchant of Beverley, John Holme, in 1453, resulted in an order for the valuation of William’s moveable goods in York and Calais. It seems that the sheriffs of York conspired to undervalue William’s wealth; in May 1457, they declared to the Exchequer that Bowes’ chattels were worth £33 6s 8d, stating that he owned no property in the city. However, on 14 October that same year, the king’s attorney-general, William Nottingham, submitted information to the Exchequer verifying that Bowes owned 20 properties in York. A year later, the sheriffs of York once more stated that Bowes’ owned no property. The matter dragged on into the reign of Edward IV until, on 28 November 1461, Bowes secured a pardon due to ‘divers errors in the record and process’. He had, however, been discredited in York and resigned as alderman. He left the city and died intestate in 1476.
Martin Bowes (1496/7-1566)
For Martin Bowes, born at the house in Peasholme Green in 1496/7, the streets of London would truly be paved with gold; he would become first a goldsmith, then run the Mint at the Tower of London and, in 1545, be elected Lord Mayor of London. His father was Thomas Bowes. Unlike other male members of the Bowes’ family, Thomas did not pursue a career in politics and it is thought that he is the goldsmith Thomas Bowes who was admitted to the Freedom of the City of York in 1498. At the age of 14, in 1513, Martin was apprenticed to a leading London goldsmith, Robert Amadas who, by 1520, was supplying gold and silver to Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII and his courtiers. In 1526, Amadas was appointed Master of the King’s Jewel House. At this time, he was also one of the two deputy masters of the Mint at the Tower of London and, possibly due to the demands of his duties at court, he made Martin Bowes his own deputy at the Mint.
Dispute at the Mint
In the 1530s there was to be controversy at the Mint over the level of remuneration of its senior officers. William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy, who had been Master of the Mint since 1509, was dissatisfied with his share of the profits which was equal to that of his deputies. The matter came to a head in 1530 when there was a dispute about the proportion of profits due, resulting in Lord Mountjoy suing Ralph Rowlett, one of the two deputy masters, and Martin Bowes in the Court of Chancery and the Court of Common Pleas. Robert Amadas was not joined in the action presumably due to his position at court. Lord Mountjoy had tutored the young Prince Henry; he was at the king’s side at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and accompanied the king to meet Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1522. He never lost the king’s favour so the actions of Bowes and Rowlett in defending the legal action were risky. The court case dragged on for three years during which time Bowes and Rowlett tried to supplant Mountjoy at the Mint. Due to his royal duties, Mountjoy spent little time at the Mint so his deputies had free reign. Bowes asked Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Henry VIII’s chief minister, to intercede with the king on his behalf, promising him a gold chain worth £30. Possibly due to ill health, Mountjoy finally surrendered his position at the Mint in 1533 and Rowlett and Bowes became joint masters. Lord Mountjoy died in November 1534.
Rationalisation of York’s parishes
In addition to managing the Mint, Bowes was pursuing a political career. He became an alderman of the City of London in 1536, sheriff in 1540 and lord mayor in 1545. In 1547 he was elected as MP for London in Edward VI’s first Parliament. Prior to the election, the wardens of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths asked all liverymen to vote for Bowes. He was re-elected a further five times. One of the first Acts of Parliament he supported was a bill for the reduction of the number of parish churches in York. In the early 16th century, the economy of York was at a low ebb and many parishes could not provide a sufficient living for a priest. The bill authorised the archbishop and the city corporation to unite parishes as they saw fit with the aim of providing a living of up to £20 a year. Between 1548 and 1553, 15 of York’s 38 parish churches were closed. Two of the redundant churches continued in non-parochial use; the majority were demolished, some being sold to members of the corporation for absurdly low prices. Bowes ensured that St Cuthbert’s in Peasholme, the church rebuilt by his grandfather, was not affected by the rationalisation of York’s parishes.
The Great Debasement
In the 1540s, Martin Bowes, was to become involved in a currency controversy which came to be known as the Great Debasement. King Henry VIII’s personal expenditure was lavish and wars against Scotland in 1542 and Scotland in 1544 were to drain the nation’s coffers. Henry’s raid on the wealth of the church during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41), selling off Crown land and raising taxes had boosted the king’s income, but this was still not sufficient. In May 1542, Henry began, in secret, to strike debased coinage with a reduced percentage of gold and silver; the surplus bullion could be used for his own expenditure. Over a two-year period, the coins were minted and stockpiled in the Jewel Tower at the Palace of Westminster. When, in May 1544, there was insufficient bullion at the Mint to produce the standard coins, the government authorised the circulation of the debased coinage. Just two months later this ruse to devalue the currency was discovered; in July 1544 merchants in the Low Countries began offering less foreign currency in exchange for the debased coins. The silver content of the coins – they were mainly copper – became so low that the silver rubbed off the king’s raised image earning him the nickname of “Old Coppernose”. Bowes was party to the king’s secret and, during the striking of the debased coinage, he was at risk of investigation. When the debased coins were authorised by the government in 1544, Bowes was promoted to Under-Treasurer at the Mint, perhaps as a reward for his loyalty.
One dark incident cast a shadow over Martin Bowes’ term of Lord Mayor of London, 1545-6. He was involved in the examination of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew in 1545. Askew was tortured on the rack in the Tower of London. Despite the fact that her limbs were pulled from their sockets, she refused to name other Protestants. As she could not walk, she was carried on a chair to Smithfield where she was burned at the stake on 16 July, 1546.
A management position at the Mint brought with it huge personal wealth and Bowes had been acquiring extensive property. In 1539, he bought the White Horse Tavern in Lombard Street and, in 1540, benefiting from the Dissolution, purchased monastic property in Woolwich, Plumstead and Bexley, Kent. There were further land acquisitions in Kent: the manor of North Cray in 1546 and the manor of East Wickham, which Bowes purchased from the Crown, in 1553. He made provisions for establishing a chantry at St Cuthbert’s in Peaseholme and presented the magnificent Bowes Sword to the lord mayor and aldermen of York in 1549.
Some financial irregularities were, it appears, discovered at the Mint in 1551 and, at the king’s request, Bowes resigned. He was presented with a bill for £10,000 which he eventually paid ‘with much ado’, receiving a pardon for all monetary offences together with a lifetime pension. Sir Martin Bowes died on 4 August 1566 and was buried at St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London in ‘a goodly marble close tombe under the communion table’.
Henry Thompson (c.1625-1683)
By the 17th century, the Black Swan was occupied by the Thompson family who also owned the Olde Starre Inn on Stonegate. Henry Thompson and his younger brother, Edward, were wine merchants importing hock from Germany through Hull. Henry purchased a large estate at Escrick in 1668 which is still owned by one of his ancestors, leaving Edward to run the business in York. He also bought Clifford’s Tower from the trustees for the sale of Crown lands and opposed the Restoration fearing that this would mean he had to surrender the tower. His fears were unfounded, however; the tower remained in private hands until the late 19th century. Lord Mayor of York in 1663 and again in 1672, Sir Henry also served as MP for York, 1673-83, at which time he was living at Long Marston Hall. He was frequently absent from Parliament but his close friend, the poet Andrew Marvell, was in attendance to look after Sir Henry’s interests. He died in 1683. Born in 1659, Sir Henry’s son, also Henry (1659-1700), was MP for York, 1690-5 and Lord Mayor of York, 1699-1700.
Duke of York and the Popish Plot
When James, Duke of York, King Charles II’s brother, visited the city in 1679, he got a distinctly cool reception; the country was in the throes of hysteria due to the Popish Plot and an Act had been drafted barring the Duke of York from acceding to the throne. Since the Reformation, there had been religious strife in England and now the allegiance of Charles II was being questioned. In 1662, the king had married a Roman Catholic princess, Catherine of Braganza, and, in 1672, he issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence allowing Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics to practise their faith. Worse still, in 1673, it became known that the Duke of York, the heir to the throne, was a Roman Catholic. Anti-Catholic sentiment grew even stronger in the mainly Protestant population of England and there was dissent in Parliament.
Rumours spread and hysteria mounted, culminating in the farcical Popish Plot of 1678. In what would ultimately be exposed as a fictitious conspiracy, a faked document in which the Catholic Church approved the assassination of Charles II was “discovered” behind some panelling. Forged by Titus Oates and Israel Tonge, the manuscript named 100 Jesuits and their supporters who were supposedly involved in the plot to kill Charles. Although the king remained sceptical, the strength of anti-Catholic feeling fuelled the belief in the conspiracy. Oates and Tonge were examined by the Privy Council, allowing the two conspirators to implicate yet more notable Catholics including, in addition to 541 Jesuits, Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician, and Edward Colman, secretary to Mary of Modena, Duchess of York. Oates became bolder and accused five Catholic lords who were then imprisoned in the Tower. The situation for Catholics in London worsened with the discovery of the mutilated body of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey MP in October 1678. Godfrey was a strong supporter of Protestantism and was the magistrate who, in September, had taken the deposition of Oates and Tonge, swearing an oath that the conspiracy document was true. Catholics were accused of Godfrey’s murder. The king acted quickly, banishing all Catholics from a radius of 20 miles around London.
There was an attempt to extend the conspiracy into Yorkshire by accusing one of the county’s leading Catholics, Sir Thomas Gascoigne of Parlington Hall, near Aberford, of being involved in the plot, despite the fact that he was 85 years old and had rarely left the estate in 30 years. Gascoigne insisted that the trial was held in Yorkshire and was eventually acquitted by a jury comprised of his Protestant neighbours. Shortly after his acquittal, he left England for Germany where he died in 1686.
Edward Thompson (c.1639-1701)
The frenzy surrounding the Popish Plot was, therefore, at its height when the Duke of York visited York in 1679. Edward Thompson owned ‘the most commodious house’ in the city – the Black Swan in Peaseholme – and was approached to make this available to the Duke during his stay. At first, Thompson refused but it seems he was forced to comply. In what was seen as a snub to the Duke, Thompson ‘took away all his furniture’ and refused to wait on the Duke. On hearing of the treatment of his brother, King Charles II rebuked the Lord Mayor of York.
Edward could have easily vacated the house; he had bought the estate of Sheriff Hutton around 1676 as his country residence. Sheriff Hutton Hall had been built between 1619 and 1624 by the notorious Sir Arthur Ingram, Secretary to the Council of the North. In the 1730s, the house was substantially remodelled by the Thompson family who remained in possession of the estate until 1880. Edward’s treatment of the Duke of York does not appear to have adversely affected his political career, however; he became Lord Mayor of York in 1683 and was MP for York 1689-90 and 1695-8.
The Great Re-coinage
Like Martin Bowes before him, Edward Thompson would become embroiled in currency irregularities. In the late 17th century, English currency was in a state of chaos. Silver coins which had been hand-struck before 1662 had been clipped around the edges, reducing their weight and value; they were increasingly not accepted as legal tender. Machine-struck coins produced by the Mint at the Tower of London after 1662 had an engraved and milled edge to prevent clipping, but this did not stop forgeries. It was estimated that, by 1696, 10 per cent of the coins in circulation were forgeries. There was an additional problem: the scrap value of the coins in Paris and Amsterdam was greater than the face value in London so large quantities of coins were melted down and sold abroad.
In an attempt to stabilise the national currency, in 1696 in what came to be known as the Great Recoinage, King William III ordered that all English coins should be replaced. Old coin was withdrawn and compensation paid by weight rather than face value. To cope with the workload, regional mints were established at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich and York. Edward Thompson became deputy master of the York mint in 1696. However, he was soon accused of misappropriation of funds. The Treasury had ‘directed £600 to be paid to him to be distributed among the poor of York’ and it was alleged that he had ‘converted the greatest part thereof to his own use’. However, in July 1696, the Treasury lords acquitted Thompson of this ‘scandalous’ accusation.
He was re-elected as MP for York for the third time in January 1701 but died on 6 August that same year and was buried at St John’s, Micklegate. His son, Richard (c.1676-1753), was Lord Mayor of York in 1708 and 1721.
Edward Thompson (c.1697-1742)
Descended from William Thompson of Scarborough (c.1558-1637), the Thompsons were, by the early 18th century, one of the leading families in the county with estates at Escrick, Long Marston and Sheriff Hutton. William was elected MP for Scarborough in 1625 and politics was obviously in their blood. The next Thompson MP to occupy the Black Swan as his York townhouse was Edward, the grandson of Sir Henry Thompson. He served as MP for York for 20 years from 1722. In 1725, he was appointed as Commissioner of Revenue in Ireland and had to justify the imposition of excise duty on certain goods manufactured in the country. This was just the latest in a series of measures which, in the opinion of Irish patriots, were imposed with the aim of destroying the economy. Dublin-born Jonathan Swift was to become one of the strongest critics of the British Government’s involvement in Ireland. He satirised English politicians such as Edward Thompson in a series of political pamphlets produced from 1720 onwards and in his most famous publication, Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, he portrayed Robert Walpole, Prime Minister 1715-6 and 1721-42, as Flimnap, the Treasurer.
Edward married Arabella Dunch in 1724. He later became separated from his wife as she had become involved with his close friend, Sir George Oxenden, with whom she had two children. Isabella died in 1734 whilst giving birth to Sir George’s second child. Henrietta, Edward’s sister was to have a more successful marriage. She was born at Long Marston Hall in 1704 and married Major Edward Wolfe at All Saints’ Church, Long Marston in 1724. The couple lived at the house on Peasholme Green until July 1726 when they moved to Westerham, Kent where James Wolfe was born on 2 January 1727.
James Wolfe (1727-1739)
Edward Wolfe had a distinguished military career and both of his sons followed him into the army. The eldest son, James, fought in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8), returning to Great Britain to play a part in the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion which had broken out in 1745. The Scottish armies were defeated at the Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746. During the battle, James was ordered by the Duke of Cumberland to shoot Charles Fraser, a wounded Highland soldier, however he refused declaring that he would rather resign his post than sacrifice his honour. Cumberland shot Fraser nevertheless, but this event was widely reported and earned Wolfe the admiration of the surviving Scottish troops. Returning to the Continent, he was wounded at the Battle of Lauffeld on 2 July 1747 and was posted back to Great Britain in 1748 where he spent the next eight years garrisoned in Scotland.
Wolfe’s participation in the Seven Year’s War (1756-63), fought between Great Britain and France, brought him to the attention of the Prime Minster, William Pitt the Elder. Although a planned attack on the French port of Rochefort in 1757 failed, Wolfe’s skills in amphibious warfare were noted. Pitt had decided to launch an attack on North America where he felt the French were vulnerable. Canada was part of a larger area, New France, which had been a French colony since 1535. Wolfe was promoted to Brigadier General and was second in command of a force which set out, in 1758, to take Quebec. They laid siege to the Fortress of Louisburg and, in June, the French capitulated. The harsh winter conditions in North America meant that further action was postponed to the following year.
In 1759, the British forces once more assembled at Louisburg and set off to lay siege to Quebec. The three-month siege came to a dramatic end. On 13 September, in a brilliant tactical move, Wolfe, together with 4,400 troops, scaled the 200m-high cliffs on the St Lawrence River which protected the city from the west. The French had thought this natural defence impenetrable and were taken by surprise. Within 15 minutes, in the ensuing battle on the Plains of Abraham, the English were victorious. Unfortunately, Wolfe was shot three times and he died on the field of battle, but not before he knew the day was won. ‘God be praised, I die contented,’ were reported to be his last words.
The fall of Quebec would lead to the expulsion of the French from North America. Wolfe became a national hero. Benjamin West’s painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1770), was justly celebrated and hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. His birthplace at Westerham in Kent, renamed Quebec House, is now owned by the National Trust.
Photos by Rachel Semlyen
S.T. Bindoff (ed.) The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1509-1558, (London, 1982). Also available online.
Stephen Brumwell, Paths of Glory, The Life and Death of General James Wolfe (London 2006)
Joseph Foster, Pedigrees of the County Families of Yorkshire (London, 1874)
Basil Duke Henning (ed.), The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1660-1690, (London, 1983). Also available online
D.M. Palliser, The Reformation in York 1534-1553, Borthwick Papers No.40 (York, 1971)
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995
‘Houses: Newgate-Peter Lane’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp.170-180. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp.170-180 [accessed 26 July 2018]
J.S. Roskell (ed.), L. Clark (ed.), C. Rawcliffe (ed.), The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1386-1421 (Stroud, 1993). Also available online
- Sedgwick (ed.), The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1715-1754 (1970). Also available online
Compiled with the help of historians at the History of Parliament research project who provided information on William Bowes (d.1476) prior to the publication of The History of Parliament, The House of Commons 1422-1505, Linda Clark (ed.).
© Richard Wilcock