Monday, 25 February 2013

Gilbert Potter: a Tudor barman turned national hero

In 1553 Gilbert Potter was a young man working as a 'drawer' (the 16th century equivalent of a barman) at the St John's Head tavern in Ludgate, London. He would have spent his life in obscurity, unknown to history and ourselves had he not acted as he did on the 10th July 1553. His actions led to him becoming a heroic figure in the eyes of the people and his heroism was reinforced by 'Poor Pratte's' epistle, which was a work of propaganda in support of Potter which began to circulate on the 13th July.

Portrait miniature of a young woman
usually thought to have
been Lady Jane Grey

On the 10th July, just a day after Lady Jane Grey had been proclaimed queen, the royal barges set off down the Thames from Richmond and landed at 3 o'clock at the Tower of London in an inconspicuous manner as requested by Jane herself, who at this time was still uncomfortable with the thought of her impending reign. The banks of the river were lined with clusters of curious spectators who had come to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who was said to be their queen. Those along the banks and in the city of London itself were still in stunned silence as they had expected the Lady Mary, Henry VIII's daughter, to be their queen so they were understandably shocked to hear that someone else was proclaimed queen. In order to procure a reaction from the people bands of heralds-at-arms and archers were sent into the city where they were to repeat the proclamation of Jane as queen. At Cheapside, Paul's Cross and Fleet Street the proclamations were read out and the heralds stated that 'the Lady Mary was a bastard, and the Lady Jane was queen'. The heralds then cried 'God save the queen!' but the only response came from their accompanying archers who repeated the cry and threw up their caps.

It is at this point that Gilbert Potter made his way into the history books, albeit as something of a footnote. Upon hearing the proclamation Gilbert exclaimed that 'the Lady Mary has the better title', and it was these seven words that cast Gilbert forward out of the shadows of obscurity. It seems like a relatively harmless comment to make, it is undeniably true as Mary's claim was stronger than Jane's and the rest of the crowd were thinking it although none ventured to voice in such a public place. Unfortunately for Gilbert his master Ninian Sanders overheard him and probably in fear of his business and personal welfare if anyone else had heard, he reported young Gilbert to the guard. In some awful form of poetic justice Sanders fell into the Thames when travelling home by wherry on the same day that he had handed Gilbert to the authorities. He drowned but the other passengers and boatmen (who James Froude calls the 'instruments of providence') survived.

Modern (mock!) demonstration of how someone's
ears would have been nailed to the pillory
The new regime was incredibly unstable, as Mary was still on the loose and rapidly gathering support, so they were ruthless in the face of any opposition even when it was just a young man of little influence and standing.  Gilbert was seized by the guard and imprisoned but the worst was yet to come. The next day he was taken back into the city and his ears were nailed to the pillory for all to see, and after hours of pain and humiliation his ears were sliced off so as to free him and return him to his cell.

Whilst in prison Gilbert was sent a copy of Pratte's epistle. The opening line of which reads 'Poor Pratte, unto his friend Gilbert Potter, the most faithful and true lover of Queen Mary, doth him salute with many salutations'. The epistle is an effective piece of propaganda that has heavy religious undertones and compares Potter to many biblical figures including Daniel who was cast to the lions in the Old Testament.  The epistle was distributed by being nailed to posts and dropped on the ground in public places where it would be found, read and shared so that the fate of bold Gilbert Potter was known throughout the country. Part of the epistle (taken from Linda Porter's book Mary Tudor) is below:
What man could have shown himself bolder in her grace's cause, than thou hast showed? Or who did so valiantly in the proclamation time, when Jane was published queen (unworthy as she was) and more to blame, I may say to thee, are some of the consenters thereunto. There were thousands more than thyself, yet durst they not (such is the fragility and weakness of the flesh) once move their lips to speak that which thou didst speak. Thou offerest thyself amongst the multitude of people to fight against them all in her quarrel, and for her honour did not fear to run upon the point of the swords. O faithful subject! O true heart to Mary, our queen! 
If you're interested in reading the whole epistle it can be found here.

Gilbert Potter's travails did not go unrewarded as once Mary was firmly on the throne she ensured that by the 30th May 1554 Gilbert had received a message of thanks for his loyalty and valuable land in South Lynn, Norfolk.

So although his fame was brief his story is an interesting one and it demonstrates how open expression of political beliefs could be extremely dangerous in the sixteenth century. But fortunately in the case of Gilbert Potter his brief stint as a hero and Mary's champion was not in vain.
Further Reading: 
The Reign of Mary Tudor by James Froude
Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards
Foxe's Book of Martyrs by John Foxe
Memoir of Mary Tudor by Frederic Madden
Mary Tudor: The First Queen by Linda Porter

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