Thomas Chatterton ~ The Boy Poet 1752 – 1770
St Mary Redcliffe Church provided the primary inspiration for Thomas Chatterton, from its magnificent Gothic architecture to its memorials to Bristol’s dignitaries. He wrote about the church in his quasi-medieval poems and prose, and he also composed modern poems, satires and social sketches.
Chatterton was born in the writing-master’s house of Pile Street School just a stone’s throw from St Mary Redcliffe Church. His father, the writing-master, sadly died before Chatterton himself was born, but among his belongings were various medieval documents (considered worthless) he had rescued from a chest in the muniments room above the north porch of the church. It is thought that these ancient documents encouraged Chatterton to imitate medieval language and literature which he attributed to a fifteenth century monk, Thomas Rowley.
Chatterton’s fictional Thomas Rowley was portrayed as a friend of William Canynges (1399-1474) benefactor of Saint Mary Redcliffe and five times Mayor of Bristol. Chatterton presented his poems, some inscribed onto genuine ancient parchments, as if they were actual antiquities. Although close scrutiny of the poems by antiquarians of the time pronounced them to be modern, few believed that they could be the work of a mere fifteen-year-old boy.
So it was that, after his untimely early death, there was a fierce literary controversy over the authorship of the work. After years of dispute, the Rowley poems were accepted as the work of Thomas Chatterton, and it is upon this work, as well as his satirical verse and anti-slavery poems, that Chatterton’s literary legacy now rests.
Here you can watch the BBC documentary Myth of the Doomed Poet, read Chatterton's famous Rowley poems and take a look at our Chatterton gallery.
Finally, The Thomas Chatterton Society website is well worth a visit.
Lines on St Mary Redcliffe Church (Oure Ladies Chyrche)
By Thomas Chatterton
STAY, curyous traveller, and pass not bye,
Until this fetive pile astounde thine eye.
Whole rocks on rocks with yron joynd surveie,
And okes with okes entremed disponed lie.
This mightie pile, that keeps the wyndes at baie,
Fyre-levyn and the mokie storme defie,
That shootes aloofe into the reaulmes of daie,
Shall be the record of the Buylders fame for aie.
Thou seest this maystrie of a human hand,
The pride of Brystowe and the Westerne lande,
Yet is the Buylders vertues much moe greete,
Greeter than can bie Rowlies pen be scande.
Thou seest the saynctes and kynges in stonen state,
That seemd with breath and human soule dispande,
As payrde to us enseem these men of slate,
Such is greete Canynge's mynde when payrd to God elate.
Well maiest thou be astound, but view it well;
Go not from hence before thou see thy fill,
And learn the Builder's vertues and his name;
Of this tall spyre in every countye telle,
And with thy tale the lazing rych men shame;
Showe howe the glorious Canynge did excelle;
How hee good man a friend for kynges became,
And gloryous paved at once the way to heaven and fame.