No consideration of Thomas Chatterton can proceed without first relating the poet to Bristol, the city of all but the final four months of his brief life, particularly the environs of the St. Mary Redcliffe Church. Born in its shadow, Chatterton was the posthumous son of another Thomas, a sometime schoolmaster, choir singer, and sexton of the imposing edifice. His mother, a colorless woman of whom little is known, struggled after her husband’s death to maintain the household, which also included her mother and a daughter. Poverty haunted the family, and young Thomas was forced to be educated in charity schools.
Judged dull and unteachable at the age of five at the schoolhouse in which he had been born, the child retreated into a private world of his own, haunting the church and yard of St. Mary Redcliffe, to whose legends and corners he was introduced by his uncle, a sexton. He taught himself to read from a huge black-letter Bible and soon became an omnivorous reader. The solitary child early discovered Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and scraps of history books, and they, along with the church building and his family, were his life.
When he was eight, Chatterton was admitted to a charity school at Colston Hospital, a seemingly benevolent yet oppressive situation, especially to one of Chatterton’s sensitivity. At the school, little more than a training prison, success in the mercantile world was the only goal of the exhausting regime, and after seven difficult years, young Chatterton’s nature took logical form as a result: the dreamy, romantic escapist coexisting with the cynical, expedient realist. In the eighteenth century, Bristol physically resembled a medieval city with its walls, gates, winding narrow streets, and primitive facilities. The spirit of the city, however, was far from that of the Middle Ages, for it bustled with industry and the overpowering necessities of mercantilism. The getting and spending of money were the bases of both civic and personal status, and in such a competitive environment, young Chatterton soon realized that he must find a way to secure both fame and wealth as a means of escaping unimaginative, prosaic contemporary Bristol.
At age fourteen, he was indentured for a term of seven years to a local attorney, John Lambert, as a scrivener apprentice. Although the work was not arduous, the youth chafed in his position, his excessive pride suffering as he saw himself a slave. With little to do in the office, Chatterton had plenty of time to pore over what volumes of ancient lore he could find, as well as to write voluminously. It was from Lambert’s office that he sent forth his fabricated history of the old Bristol Bridge as well as the myriad other “antique” manuscripts and other documents that filled both his time and imagination. It was also in Lambert’s office that the mythical fifteenth century priest-poet Thomas Rowley first appeared; Chatterton calculated that fame was far easier to attain for a fifteenth century monk than for an obscure eighteenth century youth.
Also, while serving as Lambert’s clerk, Chatterton found an eager market for his fraudulent historical documents among the tradespeople of Bristol who entertained a taste for antiquity; he palmed off bogus pedigrees as well as manufactured manuscripts that found their way into a history of Bristol then being written. It is important to recognize that eighteenth century Bristol was a provincial, middle-class citadel with few intellectual resources. Even elsewhere in England knowledge of that country’s history was sketchy and legend-riddled, especially of that period before Elizabeth’s reign. Only because true scholarship was practically nonexistent could the amateurish and naïve forgeries of Chatterton go undetected.
Every free moment that Chatterton could escape from the watchfulness of his master, he spent roaming around Bristol, especially in the precincts of St. Mary Redcliffe, with its hidden...
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