Thomas Chatterton
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.
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