The Merchant of Bristol (my 4th poetry collection) Day Dream Press 2006

An extended sonnet sequence in three books telling the story of and in the persona of John Smyth, a Tudor Bristol merchant and smuggler engaged in 'the Spanish trade.' The sonnets were written in 2003 as part of a larger project with the University of Bristol's history department and published in 2004 by Day Dream Press. 

The Merchant of Bristol

The Merchant of  Bristol  by Gareth Calway

i.m Gran, 92 years in Bristol, 1909-2001.

These sonnets are a poetic reconstruction of the life and work of Bristol merchant John Smyth (pronounced Smith) c 1500-1556. Where there has been documentary evidence, I have used it. Where it’s missing I have at least tried to be plausible. The story is told in three parts of eight sonnets each, three pieces of eight.

Part One 1500-1525.As almost nothing is known of John Smyth before1526, the first section is a plausible fiction: the story of a boy born in Bristol c1500 of the parents we know Smyth had, and apprenticed to the Spanish trade, as Smyth seems to have been, and who could later become the historical man we know from primary sources. 

Parts Two 1526-1544 and Three 1544-1556These sections may claim to be an historical portrait, or interpretation from available sources, of the most powerful man in Bristol at a time when, in the wake of its enterprising support of Cabot’s 1497 expedition to North America, it was achieving prestigious cathedral city status independent of Gloucester (1542) and having its traders incorporated as the Society of Merchant Venturers (1552). Bristol was already the largest provincial town after York, one taken out of Gloucestershire and Somerset by the king and constituted as a County corporate (with two Sheriffs) in1373. 

Part One, c1500-1525
The Youth


Matthew of Aylberton and his brother Tom,
Towards the end of the last century,
Followed their star across the estuary
Got coopers’ work and prospered and anon
Young Matthew wooed and married Alice John
 A “wealthy merchant’s daughter” -“Mam” to be,
And made her sails full-bellied, bearing me
To harbour as their sole surviving son…..

Alice stayed her merchant father’s daughter,
A Bristol woman steeped in ocean trade
Who laded all her life across this water,
Importing lasts of herring in old age -
Though I by then was rich beyond all care,
The richest man in Bristol and its Mayor.

I was apprenticed to the Spanish trade
In Bristol Town, the century and me
Not yet thirteen, and Dad no guide to me,
His manhood not this man my boyhood made
From studying accounts and ledgers, grade
Of wheat, wine, calf skin, leather, iron, peas,       
Hewes, kerseys, tavestocks, and Bristol frieze,
Who knew my years of book-toil must be paid.

I was John Shipman’s capemerchant from youth,
Made Portugal to oversee the sale
Of  tallow, skin and ox, dickers of hide;
My early manhood years I learned to sail
The seas of Spanish business: a Factor tried
And tested, resident, known for his truth.


The name is Smyth, John Smyth. My trade – the sea.
I am ambitious, far beyond the fixed
Horizons of my city peers, whose mixed
And weakened humours are for lechery
And all the easy vices. Mine are free.
Nor do I play at pirate histrionics,
Nor false heroics, nor metaphysics,
I hold a steady course to fortune’s fee.

And yet this sudden weakness overboard
In Southern seas, this choking taste of death,
This grasping for a hold on pitching wood,
This gasping for a salted dying breath
In muscle-lapping arms of deep sea tide
Which from sheer blue unmans me like a bride…


You think I speak of oceans. No, Sir, Love!

An Andalusian in Virgin blue

-And with the eyes of a Madonna – drew
The very soul of my existence up
Into the winged Elysium Above
And shaped my name, and drowned my forced adieu
With lips unpursed which spoke for mine and knew
My depths:too deep, yet never deep enough!

Some merchant’s daughter waits for me at home,
A match for my ambition’s sober heart,
A bridal glass for each assuming look
Approved of by The Father, by The Book,
A Mary fair as this Maria’s dark,
Who’d smooth my frowns, and let my heart alone.


My Spanish gentlewoman – there, she waves! –
Has more and finer scholarship and grace
In one unconscious flicker of her face
Than all our English mis-called Nobles have,
Who will not read (or cannot!) and whose love
Is hunting for their own ancestral place,
The humming-drum excitement of a chase
Across known lands, their tongues in settled groove.

I speak the far-flung language of the South,
The Castile silver, golden Portuguese
Her father speaks – she smiles behind her fan! –
And seek, beyond the Sack and Malmsey ease
Of Spanish business, savoured in the mouth,
Their seasoned angel-talk of God and Man.


I’m living like a King, as even he
With Spanish wife and music, scroll and tome,
Who sits so fabulous upon the throne
Of Tudor England, robed in potency
And holiness and law and mercenary
Prerogatives; and just as he at home
Would like to share the waves with Spain alone
And thereby share the world, so thus with me.

I am The Man of Bristol here - numbered
With Cabots, Newfoundland-discoverers,
Bold entrepreneurs of New World wonders -
But these must end, like all adventurers
Where Ireland, Iceland and Iberia merge,
Come down again at last to Bristol earth.


Enough! I am a plain and worldy man
Who means to own these ships I yet but manage
(So finely-jibbed, so great in beam and tonnage,
So tiny on the wide unfathomed ocean)
Which pitch themselves in fortune’s devil-plan
On silver-swelling tides and little steerage
Beyond the skill of sailors, and my voyage
Is not an allegory for Everyman.

My bible is the ledger and the log,
Not Love, inflated Spain, nor English Christs
When priests must tell us what our God opines,
My burgess mind is set on lower lines -
To be a Mayor of Bristol, be a cog
Which humbly turns ten thousand city lives.


All’s Bristol-trim, ship-fashioned and the wind
Is shaping north for home, but not alas
The over-laden heart and broken mast
My life’s become at what I leave behind.
Maria, do not think me all unkind
When he who founded Rome faced such a pass
(Your brothers, laughing, told me so) nor was
As huddled in his misery as I.

My Dido, do not plunge upon such rocks
As we can see behind us even now
(Our silver stolen out, and safe below).
My Master calls: I answer as his dog,
For such alone to Mastery can grow
- If time and chance, and God and craft, allow.


Part 2 1526-1544   The Master

It seems Smyth traded at first on John Shipman’s ship The Matthew, rising to Purser on it before purchasing his own ship The Trinity.Note that he would have called the Spanish port Pasajes “Passage.” (his ship’s perilous voyage here occurring between February and April 1539)

Today I have imported five whole tons           
Of iron out of San Sebastian:
(My maiden haul – four tons of Gascon wine -     
Had proved the man) I’m not the boy who once
Would green his gills at dealing in such sums
(For other men) with this Basque gentleman; 
I know, too steeped in risk to fear, I can
And have the wit to thrive, if not the funds.

If I can win these pitching rolls of chance,
Can strike the bargain, shake the hands
And sign and seal the articles of trade
As “Master Smyth of Bristol” – can but dance
This quayside tightrope dance to promised lands
With God-believing tread, then – I am made.


Our Matthew’s slipping out upon the tide
As Cabot’s did some thirty years ago,
The East wind in her sails about to blow;
The same support from Shipman’s enterprise;
The Cabot Matthewhalf our Matthew’s size:
The evening dying in a golden glow
Before him, while, beside him, barge and trow
And green hills, gorge, and terrafirma, glide.

If Bristol merchants hadn’t gauged their man,
The Cabot Spanish royals couldn’t see,
America would still be unfound land:
So I, who cheat the Customs House with bribes,
Declaring friezes here - and loading hides     
Down river - dream a land where trade is free.

Today I wed Joan White of Bridgewater,
The widow of a merchant of some means;
“You’ve married well, young John,” my mother beams,
(Herself a merchant’s widow) “ Tom’s daughter
And you have known and liked each one the other
Through all your fathers’ business; may your dreams
- And assets from your father’s lands in Dean - 
Keep both of you afloat through life’s adventure.”

So I grow rich from fraud, and open business,
From marriage and such assets as Dad’s be
And Mam has Father’s residue and with it
Looks like to trade as busily as he!
I kiss my youth goodbye, but I will thrive
With Joan a partner in the enterprise.


No man creates himself – and I am one
Risen to be sheriff (cost what it may!)
On swelling tides of business and, (I pray,
Secure) investment - and truth and discretion -
In our shared ventures. Am no fine nobleman
Who peddles favours - to merchants who may
By noble works be nobler, sure, than they -
Am one who works to make the many strong.

I stand alone, my friends, in only this -
This Latimer, who preaches that the souls
In purgatory may pray for us as we
Are used to pray for them, excites revolt
And doubt. On oath, in Cromwell’s teeth, in office,
I testify against such infamy!


The King stands three months ex-communicate,
The Trinitymy ship (God save her!)
Could find herself with hundreds others gathered
In patriotic Protestant blockade
Along this coast against the feared crusade
Of Franco-Spanish Catholic armada;
Instead she lades to Spain, with cloth and leather,
Two thousandtraitor bushels - beans and grain. 

My fortune hazarded upon the blue,
With war afoot and my rich Trinity
Susceptible to seizure, and life forfeit
If caught supplying our new enemy,
My debit-column All I sell twice dearly-
And God smiles on my golden Passage through.


King Henry taxes merchants; merchants make
The routes and ventures, ports and currency
That Henry taxes: Henry’s geography
Is war and treaties, turning love to hate
And hate to seeming love, and wars which waste
The merchant’s wage of sinless industry:
Our court-and-country-King makes policy;
We merchant subjects steer a city state.

I will not pay these charges to a Fool
Who shakes all our alliances, and cracks
The trusts I’ve toiled an age in Spain to build:
The King dissolves a church to “found” a school
While merchants fund new schools, like ours, with tax
Saved from his Wars. This Lily I’ll not gild.


We City fathers – Pacy, Tonell, White,
Thorne, Hulton, Coke, and Abynton and me –
Invited Cromwell years ago to be
Our Reader, hoping – Hear ye! - to invite -
The royal favour that a favoured knight         
Confers upon a faction-ridden city
Its reputation smirched by mutiny,
Seditious slander, uproar, churchyard fights!

We only wish to make this toll-locked town
A modern port to harbour brimming trade,
Investing to this end all we have made - 
Nay, I will speak! - though some shoutdronken lyars,
Dremy niggards,soon to lese our eares,
Will act! will have this Wishart taken down! 


The world is changed. Old Spain is like the Queen
Whom Henry cast away, is like the Pope
He spurns, gold past uprooted in green hope
Of futures less barren (and so far unseen)
- Utopias where Henry rules supreme
In England and in heaven, while Spain chokes,
Inquisitive and hauling back with ropes
Its Moors, its Jews, the glories it has been.

Still, favour with the servants of this King
(Their IFs and MIGHTs bought off with butts of sack),
Expediates the purchase and rich trade
Of plate and land once church’s and now state’s,
My worldly profits rise as abbeys crash,
Repair the quay, make our new City great.

Part 3 1544-1556  
The Grand Old Man

After he sold The Trinityto King Henry in 1546, Smyth seems to have gone back to lading his goods (whether declared and undeclared) on other men’s ships for the rest of his life.

Our fortune from my “Passage on the sea”
I spent on land, for land was everywhere
Like heaven’s bounty dropping from the air
In lead, bronze, stone and price of property;
Our family lands have grown beyond the County 
- Last year I bought estates to grace an heir -
In Bristol and in Bridgewater this year
And, God knows, next, I’m buying monasteries!

I’m even lending money to the City 
To pay the King for Lisle’s lands, have spent
The earth today to bring you heaven’s gate -
I mean, my Dear, the Ashton Court Estate!
My title now’s John Smythe of Bristowe, gent.
With grant of arms and, Joan, you are My Lady!


The ship I lade to Spain and to Bordeaux
(The ship that marked my early Mastery
-  And now of which at last I could be free!)
The ship my staunchest friends and colleagues know
From sharing out the loads which on her go
(Not least the risk) – I mean my Trinity
Has been “Taken Up”, Sirs, by His Majesty
For war on France, with Spain the ally now!

She wins a licence, thus, for earnings lost
“Serving the King this somer on the see”:
While courtiers strut, our new-famed Bristol fleet
Rules Western seas where France would arm the Scots
And, balked by war, my merchant hand receives
More wealth than they, for lands - and pedigree!


My conscience, Wife, will not consent to use
Opportunity or vigour of the law
In property disputes or debt-recall
(And God knows I’m owed plentiful of these,
And, yes, a score are “desperate debts” indeed,)
The trouble often isn’t worth the haul:
Forbearance, patience, prudence, on the whole
Lay treasures here, and heaven’s store increase.

And though my modish ledger is a book
Of frank and hidden, kept up to the mark,
Recording all in zealous paperwork,
My dear, let’s steal this Mendip lead aboard
These boats of faith, see wine and woad
Sea-safe from France, not play the petty clerk.


My dear George Owen, King’s physician, friend,
I thank you for your help with both my sons
Since Oxford - where in hope and pride they’d gone
To turn themselves from oafs to gentle men -
Who now disgrace the Inns of Court again:
My young son Matthew’s debts bring on the scorn
Of Lawton, and so Hugh, my child of oxen,
Thumps Lawton’s ear: thus the bull adorns his pen.

 “I’m glad the matter’s brought to such good pass
For your quiet - though forty pounds the poorer - 
For God’s sake warn them off such lyke mischance.”
You write, and so, with force, I have. Hugh lacks
My peaceful soul, Matthew my care. And this ox
Must be my country gent, this ass my lawyer!


I’ve seldom hounded debtors, let these two
Who can’t pay be forgiven, to repent
And let the crooked tide come in unspent
That brings this silver river from the blue:
The plenty paid, or owed, I’ll leave to you
- When you’re my widow - to claim or relent
And still to son and heir can leave the rent
To which a landed gentleman is due.

Mam never knew she owed me (nor what for)
The pounds she left our children and the poor,
The like I’ll leave our tenants at Long Ashton:
Nay, let’s be generous with what’s flowed to me
- Not least, good Wife, a …child who lives in London,
To whom you’d not begrudge a father’s dowry?


In Edward’s reign, Lord, I bought Chantry land,
Was sold a licence to eat Lenten flesh;
When Mary got our Bishop dispossessed
As Protestant, perhaps I lent a hand
To find another living for the man:
But, Holy Mary, Christ, is it as suspects,
That Hugh and I are called, like half the West,
To The Commission? Judge Thou what I am:

On Lord Mayor’s Spanish Tile and bended knee,
I leave my soul to Thee, Almighty God,
In trinity three persons, and my body
To be buried in a Christian burial -
Were only Ranting Edward’s mad ideal, 
Or Bloody Mary’s,  Amor dignus Dei.


They audit me –“a Sheriff under Henry,
With lasting friends made, like as not, of merchants
As like as not apprenticed to him once;
As Mayor he served King Edward andQueen Mary
And dies possessed (near half in ready money)
Of two thousand pounds, large properties, lands,
His Small Street home still stocked with tons of iron:”
A merchant’s house, no Ashton Courtier me.

They count my clothes – “one gowne of scarlette furred,

One grey-furred skarlett cloke, rich cloths, fine braid-”

But silks of office are no guide to me;
My gold is rich-silt tides which Avon’s sea
Heaps up ashore and, though my heirs be Sirred ,
I live and die at Bristol’s heart, its trade.


These ships have been my life: The Mary 
Of Gloucester, TheMatthew andPeter 
And Gabrielof Bristol, The Christopher
And Santa Mariaof Rendry, 
The Thomasof Portsmouth, Michaelof Tynby, 
The Nicholasof Fontraby: whenever
Swanor Hindembarks, old voyagers
Set sail once more in mind and memory.

Hispania, my heart is still with you,
Old ships with ghosts of names still bear me there
But leave me hollow-hearted on the quay;
Maria, full of grace, could I renew
The deeds that in my youth I didn’t dare,
I’d board a Marynow, and seek for thee.

The Merchant Of Bristol
© Gareth Calway 2003


Put Friday February 20 in your 2004 diary as soon as you get it! Dr Evan
Jones, Lecturer in Economic and Social History at Bristol University, and
Gareth will be presenting a talk/ poetry reading that evening on the subject of John
Smyth (1500-1556) at The Lord Mayor's Chapel, College Green, Bristol.
John Smyth was the son of an artisan from the Forest of Dean who became Sheriff of Bristol under Henry VIII and then Mayor (twice) under both
extremes of the Tudor succession - Protestant Edward and Catholic Mary. He
achieved his astonishing success though the Spanish trade, partly through
seafaring enterprise and endeavour of the risky but legal sort, and partly
through wholesale smuggling. The money he and his fellow smugglers made from smuggling (instead of paying it in war taxes to Henry VIII's )
contributed enormously to the wealth and growth of the new City of Bristol
at that time, (including the Ashton Court Estate where he set his family
up.) The evening's presentation combines ground breaking new research about
the man at the roots of modern Bristol with a calculated celebration of his
life and achievements. A must for anyone who wants to increase his or her
appreciation of the city.

The project comprises a performance of a sequence of new sonnets (written earlier this year in a Tudor form appropriate to the period) reconstructing the contradictory life of Bristol Merchant John Smyth. The performance will begin with an historical introduction, based on groundbreaking new research at Bristol University, and be interwoven with music of the Spanish renaissance newly arranged for this performance. It will take place in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel in Bristol. This site is close to the port that features so heavily in the narrative and is a setting John Smyth would have known. Smyth began life as an apprentice to the Spanish trade and his life and fortune – he rose to Sheriff, Mayor and pre-eminence as the richest man in Bristol – is closely identified with Spain, as was that of England at that time. Not least the large scale smuggling that made his fortune and helped establish Bristol as a (major) city.

The project will involve poet Gareth Calway, author of the sonnets, Dr Evan Jones, Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Bristol, the leading authority on Smyth, and Tamburrini, the leading Early Music group in the South west. The latter is a Bristol-based group specialising in music of the Spanish renaissance. Bristolians are very interested in the history of their own city, as are the many tourists who visit it, and popular history is very much in vogue in the various tv histories at present. So the project hopes to draw in a popular audience in addition to the arts audience who attend national performances by the poet and the musicians separately. The combination of poetry and music in a semi-dramatic mode is a further effort to make the two arts more accessible to a general audience. The inclusion of Dr Jones as a historian in role, the Voice of History, combines art with an academic discipline in a more advanced way than normal. 

The project is properly researched and authentically semi-dramatised, uniquely linking a poet with an academic historian and Early Musicians. It offers artistic excellence, a proven track record (including previous arts council support for the poet) and participants who each have a growing national reputation in their respective fields. (Further details and reviews-
The poet, the NAWE website, the Creative Arts East register.
The musicians:
 The collaboration between these three elements should result in some high-quality art, something both new and exciting. It is intended as a pilot for a subsequent tour, bringing the project to a still-wider audience. Some of the unique qualities of the project are in its benefits:

  • Mounting a scrupulously researched high-quality combined arts performance in the city it celebrates to the audience to which it most wishes to speak. 
  • Publication of the poems (with an authentic historical afterword by Dr Jones) for this audience, and a tour. (see under Developments below). 
  • Ground-breaking academic research introduced into an arts environment, accruing the kind of wider community audience it reached via Dr Jones’ Radio 3 and 4 programmes but also making it locally available -and live. The project also contributes to and extends culture by bringing this collaboration to an accessible and historically appropriate venue (The Lord Mayor’s Chapel) at an affordable price to the citizens of Bristol.
  • This particular multi-arts performance is a new artistic experience for all participants. (It gives Dr Jones his debut as a historian in role.)
  • Various arts-related employment opportunities in marketing, publicity-design, publishing, front of house, website-page design, mock up of Smyth’s ledger etc will be created. 
  • The showing of all parties in this collaboration to their existing constituencies in an extended light.
-->This activity explores a less familiar and yet fundamental chapter of the Bristol story.

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