The Smugglers' City
Department of History, University of Bristol


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Fust Manuscript: The Chronicle of Maurice Toby, 1565

The Fust MS. is the usual name given to a chronicle of Bristol written in 1565 by one 'Maurice Toby, gent.' The chronicle is best known for the information it contained about John Cabot's 1497 voyage to North America. The entry for Bristol's civic year 1496 (15 September 1496 -14 September 1497) stated that:

'This year, on St. John the Baptist's Day [24 June 1497], the
land of America was found by the Merchants of
Bristow in a shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew;
the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe,
the second day of May, and came home again the
6th of August next following.'
G.E. Weare, Cabot's Discovery of North America,
(London, 1897), p.116

The importance of this entry is that it is the only surviving document to give the date of the departure of the expedition, the date of the landfall and the date of the expedition's return. It is also the only pre-seventeenth century document to give the name of the expedition ship.

The chronicle itself was originally in the private library of the Fust family, who occupied the manor of Hill Court (ten miles north of Bristol) from 1609 to 1841. Following the death of the last member of the Fust family in 1841, the library was broken up and sold. Maurice Toby's chronicle was bought by William Strong, a Bristol bookseller. To highlight the value of the manuscript as a historical source, Strong had his assistant compare the chronicle to the works of William Barrett and Samuel Seyer: William Barrett, The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol (Bristol, 1789); Samuel Seyer, Memoirs Historical and Topographical of Bristol and its Neighbourhood, from the Earliest Period Down to the Present Time (Bristol, 1821-23). Having reviewed these publications, William Strong's assistant transcribed those entries in Maurice Toby's chronicle that contained information not found in them. The original manuscript, accompanied by the volume of transcribed excerpts, was then sold to Sir Hugh Smyth-Piggot of Ashton Court (c. 2 miles west of Bristol). William Strong, however, also retained an additional copy of the excerpts for his own use.

In October 1849 the chronicle was sold at auction, along with the bulk of Smyth-Pigott's library, by Messrs. English & Son of Bath. In the sales catalogue, the chronicle is described thus:

Lot 1554

'A Brief Chronicle, conteyninge the accompte of the Reignes of all the Kings
in this Realme of Englande, from the entering of Brutus untill this present
yeere, with all the notable acts done by dyvers of them, and wherein is also
conteyned the names of all the Mayors, Stewardes, Bayliffes, and Sheriffes, of
the laudable town of Bristowe, nowe at this time called ye worshippfull city of
Bristowe, with all the notable acts done in those days, from the firste yeere of
King Henry ye 3rd, A.D., 1217, untill the present yeere, 1565, a very curious
MS., containing many facts not recorded by the historians of Bristol, from
Sir Francis Fust's library, folio'
Catalogue of the Costly and Highly Interesting Effects of John Hugh Smyth
Piggott, Esq., Comprising the Very Select and Valuable Library, of Several
Thousand Volumes…which will be sold by Auction, by Messrs. English and
(Bath, 1849), p. 108.

[Catalogue from Bath Central Library, Class 016.645 Loc.]

In the event, Maurice Toby's chronicle was bought in and thus remained in Smyth-Pigott's library until his death in 1853. The chronicle was then again auctioned, this time by Sotheby and Wilkinson of London. The sales catalogue description is as follows:

Lot 2040 BRISTOL.

ENGLAND, from the entering of Brutus until this present
yeere (1595), with the names of all the Mayors, Stewardes,
Bayliffes, and Sheriffes of Bristowe (by MAURICE TOBY).
FUST                                                                                         folio
This most valuable Chronicle will enable any future Historian
of Bristol to correct the errors of his predecessors. The
Preface commences, "Maurice Toby, Gent. the Author of
this 'Chronicle, to the Reader.'
" A Modern Collation of
its statement of Facts, with the Histories of Barrett and
Seyer, will be sold with this Volume.
Catalogue of the remaining portion of The Valuable Library of the late John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, Esq., of Brockley Hall, Somerset,.... which will be sold by Messrs. S. Leigh Sotheby & John Wilkinson, on Monday, December 19th, 1853, and five following days, at one o'clock precisely.
[Auctioneer's catalogue, British Library]

Sotheby & Wilkinson's copy of their sales catalogue, now in the British Library, indicates that the chronicle was sold to 'Kerslake', for the sum of £11 5s. This was Thomas Kerslake, another Bristol bookseller and antiquarian.

Maurice Toby's chronicle was destroyed in a fire that gutted Thomas Kerslake's shop on 14 February 1860. An account of the fire can be found in: 'Destructive fire in Park-Street' The Bristol Times and Felix Farley's Journal, 18 February 1860, p.7. Although the manuscript itself perished, the two volumes of excerpts were rescued. One of these was the original volume produced by Strong, which was sold, along with the chronicle, first to Smyth-Piggott and then by Sotheby & Wilkinson to Kerslake. The other copy of the excerpts had, according to George Weare, been retained by William Strong but was later sold to Kerslake after the Sotheby & Wilkinson auction in 1853.

The entry in the Fust MS. that relates to Cabot's 1497 voyage, quoted at the beginning of this page, was taken from one of the volumes of excerpts. This entry from the chronicle was first published in 1876 by Encyclopaedia Britannica. The full and more accurate transcription, reproduced here, was published in 1897 by George Weare. At the same time Weare provided a detailed account of the history of the chronicle from its purchase in the 1840s until its destruction in 1860: G.E. Weare, Cabot's Discovery of North America, (London, 1897), p.115-22. His account was carefully documented and, in so far as it has been checked, appears accurate.

The controversy that surrounds the Fust MS. began shortly after the publication of Weare's book. The controversy started when Henry Harrisse, an American historian, suggested that the original manuscript was a fake, produced by the eighteenth century forger and poet, Thomas Chatterton. Harrisse's desire to condemn the manuscript may have been influenced by the ways in which the 1497 entry contradicted certain suppositions Harrisse had made about the voyage in his own recently published book:John Cabot, the Discoverer of North-America and Sebastian, his Son :A Chapter of the Maritime History of England under the Tudors, 1496-1557 (London, 1896). Whatever Harrisse's motives, the vitriol of his attack on both Weare and the manuscript led to a bitter debate between the two. Their acrimonious dispute about the manuscript's authenticity can be read in the pages of Notes and Queries. The last of these, the title of which contains references to the earlier exchanges, can be found in: G.E. Weare, 'John Cabot and the Matthew. (8th S. xi, 501; xii, 49, 129)', Notes and Queries, 8th series, XII, (1897).

As mentioned earlier, although the Fust MS. was destroyed, the two volumes of transcribed excerpts survived the fire at Thomas Kerslake's shop in 1860. About ten years after the fire these volumes were purchased by William George, yet another Bristol antiquarian and bookseller. William George's decedents, who remained in the booktrade until the 1990s, sold the volumes in 1953. Their catalogue description runs as follows:

632 ----- Collations of an Ancient Manuscript, 64 and 32 folios, 2 vols. sm. 4to, full leather, Early XIX Century
    These are two, the only two, collations of an original manuscript chronicle which was destroyed in the disastrous fire at Thomas Kerslake's, the Park Street Bookseller, 14 Feb., 1860. They give a chronicle history of Bristol, 1109-1565, some years being treated in considerable detail.
    William Strong, the College Green Bookseller, and uncle of William George, had both these collations made from the original manuscript which he had purchased from the Fust Family of Hill Court. He kept one for his own use and sold one to J. H. Smyth-Pigott of Brockley Court. Eventually they were both bought by Thomas Kerslake and from him by William George.
George's, Catalogue, no. 499, 1953 Item 632
[Bristol Central Library, Ref. 18891]

The whereabouts of the above volumes of excerpts is now unknown, although enquires conducted in the 1960s concluded that they may have been bought by an American library or collector: David B. Quinn, 'John Cabot's Matthew', Times Literary Supplement, 8 June 1967, 517.

From the above, it should be clear that much that relates to the Fust MS. has been lost or destroyed. Over the years, further ambiguity has been introduced to the debate by uncertainty among writers about the accuracy of different transcriptions from the manuscript, or even about the descriptions of the manuscript itself. Some commentators, indeed, seem even to have believed that doubt exists about whether the manuscript ever existed.

This page was written to try and introduce at least some measure of clarity to the debate. Digital copies of the two sales catalogues entries that refer to the sale of the original chronicle in 1849 and 1853 can be accessed through the links above. The catalogue listing the sale of the excerpts in 1953 is also given.

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