Nostalgia: Tudor shopping experience

Market stalls were erected on Saturdays at the western end of  Princess Street, known then as Nether Westgate.
Market stalls were erected on Saturdays at the western end of Princess Street, known then as Nether Westgate.
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Those of us of a certain age have already seen and suffered a series of revolutions in shopping, from corner to super to hyper and from “bogof” to online. But what was it like to shop in Scarborough during Shakespeare’s time?

First of all, “shop” then meant “workshop”, not just a place to buy and sell. A permanent place of retail, as distinct from a temporary market stall, usually had a back space where the goods for sale were prepared. So a cordwainer’s shop sold shoes at the front which had been repaired or made at the back and usually the cordwainer’s family, apprentices and servants lived above them. In Scarborough, Cook Row described the places where you could get something hot to eat. Though most people made and ate their meals at home, visitors or workers in the town might buy their “fast food”, such as pies and pasties, at Cook Row.

Most foods, however, particularly bread, cheese, poultry, eggs and butter were sold from market stalls on either side of Newborough on Thursdays and at the western end of Nether Westgate (Princess Street) on Saturdays. These two general weekly markets also offered leather and metal goods, fruit and vegetables in season, and cloth. The old medieval specialist markets - at the Butter Cross at the top of West Sandgate and at the Corn Cross at the western end of Longwestgate - were now disused; and the new ones, Apple Market in King Street and the Beast Market in lower Queen Street, not yet established. Unlike Whitby, Scarborough had lost its Baxtergate (Bakers’ way) by 1500. Fleshergate, where butchers slaughtered and prepared their meat, had not yet been re-named Globe Street after the Old Globe Inn.

How would you pay for your purchases? Certain goods, such as bread, ale, cloth and leather, had fixed prices and measures determined by local law; for other commodities you would be expected to bargain with the seller.

In the market places, there were borough officers, alefyners, bread weighers and leather searchers, who were employed to inspect goods and enforce the rules regarding weight, measure and quality. It was not easy then to cheat customers and punishments for attempting to do so were severe.

To support the specialist weighers and measurers, Scarborough’s four constables, one from each Quarter, would be out in force in Newborough and Nether Westgate to deal with anyone who had the temerity to defy the town’s trading rules. “Scarborough warning”, the custom whereby criminals caught in the act were hanged without benefit of defence in court, was no longer practised, but to remind potential lawbreakers of what they might expect, the borough’s stocks and pillory were conspicuously present in what is today St Helen’s Square. When the court did sentence a culprit to the stocks or the pillory, the justices always insisted that the punishment should be inflicted on Thursday market day to cause maximum pain and humiliation.

Standing by at the place of punishment would be the town’s bellman, there to ensure that the court order was carried out and that the victim was not physically injured by any missile harder than rotten fruit, fish, meat or vegetables.

The bellman was also present to sound the beginning and end of trading for the day and to declare public announcements and forthcoming events. The Common Hall was therefore always careful to choose a bellman who was sturdy, tough and suitably vocal: if his message was particularly unwelcome his job could prove dangerous.

Finally, if you were shopping at Scarborough you needed to be able to identify coins, understand their value and recognise forgeries. There was no paper money 400 years ago and all coins in circulation were either gold or silver. There was an intention to issue copper half and quarter (farthings) pennies, but they were not yet minted.

To confuse matters, there were two units of account, the pound and the mark. The pound was 20 shillings and the mark, an older unit, was worth 13 shillings and fourpence, two thirds of a pound. There were no issued coins of one mark, but the “angel” and the “noble” were both gold coins worth half a mark. Shakespeare referred to both angels and nobles in his historical plays, making puns out of them. By his day, nobles were virtually obsolete and angels had risen in value to ten shillings. During Elizabeth’s reign, gold angels, half angels and quarter angles were issued. Also minted in gold were sovereigns (£1 1s), pounds, half pounds, crowns (5 shillings), half crowns and a revived “ryal” worth 15 shillings.

However, gold coins must have been rare sights in Scarborough’s markets and workshops. Smaller denominations were made of silver, ranging from the shilling to the half penny. The smallest values were very small, even smaller than our smallest, the five pence. The three farthings coin measured only a centimetre in diameter. It was introduced in 1561 so that when a penny was offered for a farthing purchase it could be given in change. One denomination still in use was the old groat, worth fourpence, and exactly the same size as today’s 10p piece.

Because all coins were then made of precious, not base, metal, and because they were made by hand, not milled by machine, you had to be on guard against devalued “clipped” coins. The first clip-proof machine-made silver coins were not minted until 1662. On their edge they bore the inscription DECUS ET TUTAMEN, “an ornament and a safeguard”, a motto still carried by our pound coins.

Elizabeth’s coinage is particularly interesting not only for its variety and range but also for its quality. Her father, Henry VIII, and her brother, Edward VI, had both debased gold and silver coins by extracting the precious metal from then, whereas after 1558, when they remained in circulation, they were countermarked and reduced in value. For instance, the old debased groat became three halfpenny. Again, the shopper would need to know exactly the current market value of each of his coins and what he was getting in change. As for Elizabeth’s own new currency, both silver and gold, there was only a slight reduction in sterling standard and weight, which the ordinary person would not have noticed.