performance at his house. In order to escape a marriage urged by the king, Canynge retired to the college of Westbury in Gloucestershire, where he enjoyed the society of Rowley, and eventually became dean of the institution. In “The Storie of William Canynge,” one of the shorter pieces of his ingenious romance, his early history is recorded.
“Straight was I carried back to times of yore,
Whilst Canynge swathed yet in fleshly bed,
And saw all actions which had been before,
And all the scroll of Fate unravelled;
And when the fate-marked babe acome to sight,
I saw him eager gasping after light.
In all his sheepen gambols and child’s play,
In every merrymaking, fair, or wake,
I kenn'd a perpled light of wisdom’s ray;
He ate down learning with the wastel-cake;
As wise as any of the aldermen,
He’d wit enow to make a mayor at ten.”
This beautiful picture of the childhood of the ideal patron of Rowley is in reality that of the poet himself—“the fate-marked babe,” with his wondrous child-genius, and all his romantic dreams realized. The literary masquerade which thus constituted the life-dream of the boy was wrought out by him in fragments of prose and verse into a coherent romance, until the credulous scholars and antiquaries of his day were persuaded into the belief that there had lain in the parish chest of Redcliffe church for upwards of three centuries, a collection of MSS. of rare merit, the work of Thomas Rowley, an unknown priest of Bristol in the days of Henry VI. and his poet laureate, John Lydgate.
Among the Bristol patrons of Chatterton were two pewterers, George Catcott and his partner Henry Burgum. Catcott was one of the most zealous believers in Rowley, and continued to collect his reputed writings long after the death of their real author. On Burgum, who had risen in life by his own exertions, the blue-coat boy palmed off the de Bergham pedigree, and other equally apocryphal evidences of the pewterer’s descent from an ancestry old as the Norman Conquest. The de Bergham quartering, blazoned on a piece of parchment doubtless recovered from the Redcliffe muniment chest, was itself supposed to have lain for centuries in that ancient depository. The pedigree was professedly collected by Chatterton from original records, including “The Rowley MSS.” The pedigree still exists in Chatterton’s own handwriting, copied into a book in which he had previously transcribed portions of antique verse, under the title of “Poems by Thomas Rowley, priest of St. John’s, in the city of Bristol”; and in one of these, “The Tournament,” Syrr Johan de Berghamme plays a conspicuous part. The ennobled pewterer rewarded Chatterton with five shillings, and was satirized for this valuation of a noble pedigree in some of Chatterton’s latest verse.
On the 1st of July 1767, Chatterton was transferred to the office of John Lambert, attorney, to whom he was bound apprentice as a clerk. There he was left much alone; and after fulfilling the routine duties devolving on him, he found leisure for his own favourite pursuits. An ancient stone bridge on the Avon, built in the reign of Henry II., and altered by many later additions into a singularly picturesque but inconvenient thoroughfare, had been displaced by a structure better adapted to modern requirements. In September 1768, when Chatterton was in the second year of his apprenticeship, the new bridge was partially opened for traffic. Shortly afterwards the editor of Felix Farley’s Journal received from a correspondent, signing himself Dunelmus Bristoliensis, a “description of the mayor’s first passing over the old bridge,” professedly derived from an ancient MS. William Barrett, F.S.A., surgeon and antiquary, who was then accumulating materials for a history of Bristol, secured the original manuscript, which is now preserved in the British Museum, along with other Chatterton MSS., most of which were ultimately incorporated by the credulous antiquary into a learned quarto volume, entitled the History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol, published nearly twenty years after the poet’s death. It was at this time that the definite story made its appearance—over which critics and antiquaries wrangled for nearly a century—of numerous ancient poems and other MSS. taken by the elder Chatterton from a coffer in the muniment room of Redcliffe church, and transcribed, and so rescued from oblivion, by his son. The pieces include the “Bristowe Tragedie, or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin,” a ballad celebrating the death of the Lancastrian knight, Charles Baldwin; “Ælla,” a “Tragycal Enterlude,” as Chatterton styles it, but in reality a dramatic poem of sustained power and curious originality of structure; “Goddwyn,” a dramatic fragment; “Tournament,” “Battle of Hastings,” “The Parliament of Sprites,” “Balade of Charitie,” with numerous shorter pieces, forming altogether a volume of poetry, the rare merit of which is indisputable, wholly apart from the fact that it was the production of a mere boy. Unfortunately for him, his ingenious romance had either to be acknowledged as his own creation, and so in all probability be treated with contempt, or it had to be sustained by the manufacture of spurious antiques. To this accordingly Chatterton resorted, and found no difficulty in gulling the most learned of his credulous dupes with his parchments.
The literary labours of the boy, though diligently pursued at his desk, were not allowed to interfere with the duties of Mr Lambert’s office. Nevertheless the Bristol attorney used to search his apprentice’s drawer, and tear up any poems or other manuscripts that he could lay his hands upon; so that it was only during the absences of Mr Lambert from Bristol that he was able to expend his unemployed time in his favourite pursuits. But repeated allusions, both by Chatterton and others, seem to indicate that such intervals of freedom were of frequent occurrence. Some of his modern poems, such as the piece entitled “Resignation,” are of great beauty; and these, with the satires, in which he took his revenge on all the local celebrities whose vanity or meanness had excited his ire, are alone sufficient to fill a volume. The Catcotts, Burgum, Barrett and others of his patrons, figure in these satires, in imprudent yet discriminating caricature, along with mayor, aldermen, bishop, dean and other notabilities of Bristol. Towards Lambert his feelings were of too keen a nature to find relief in such sarcasm.
In December 1768, in his seventeenth year, he wrote to Dodsley, the London publisher, offering to procure for him “copies of several ancient poems, and an interlude, perhaps the oldest dramatic piece extant, wrote by one Rowley, a priest in Bristol, who lived in the reigns of Henry VI. and Edward IV.” To this letter he appended the initials of his favourite pseudonym, Dunelmus Bristoliensis, but directed the answer to be sent to the care of Thomas Chatterton, Redcliffe Hill, Bristol. To this, as well as to another letter enclosing an extract from the tragedy of “Ælla,” no answer appears to have been returned. Chatterton, conceiving the idea of finding sympathy and aid at the hand of some modern Canynge, bethought him of Horace Walpole, who not only indulged in a medieval renaissance of his own, but was the reputed author of a spurious antique in the Castle of Otranto. He wrote to him offering him a document entitled “The Ryse of Peyncteyne yn Englande, wroten by T. Rowleie, 1469, for Mastre Canynge,” accompanied by notes which included specimens of Rowley’s poetry. To this Walpole replied with courteous acknowledgments. He characterized the verses as “wonderful for their harmony and spirit,” and added, “Give me leave to ask you where Rowley’s poems are to be had? I should not be sorry to print them; or at least a specimen of them, if they have never been printed.” Chatterton replied, enclosing additional specimens of antique verse, and telling Walpole that he was the son of a poor widow, and clerk to an attorney, but had a taste for more refined studies; and he hinted a wish that he might help him to some more congenial occupation. Walpole’s manner underwent an abrupt change. The specimens of verse had been submitted to his friends Gray and Mason, the poets, and pronounced modern. They did not thereby forfeit the wonderful harmony and spirit which Walpole had already professed to recognize in them. But he now coldly advised the boy to stick to the attorney’s office; and “when he should have made a fortune,” he might betake himself to more favourite