3/03/2011 Trussel’s Benefactors of Winchester, By Robert Smith

The third of March we attended to the Hampshire Record Office. We got there without even knowing who the so-called Trussel was, or what was the talk about. The mystery was though revealed by Robert Smith, who introduced us to an unknown aspect of the history of our own city. Robert Smith is currently at the University of Southampton doing an MRes course under Ros King. He is currently working towards upgrading this interest in Trussel into a PhD.

For many of us, the figure of John Trussel  might be unfamiliar. Trussel was an antiquarian and an important figure in Winchester between 1600 and 1648, although little of him is now remembered. His work ‘the Benefactors of Winchester’ was the most important document that he wrote and one of the main sources that R. Smith has used whilst undertaking his research. Despite of the fact that he is not a well-known figure, some people have studied him before. The most relevant, and who produced more useful material about him was Thomas Atkinson.

John Trussel was originally born in London and lived between 1575 and 1648. He might have been a scholar at Westminster. He was a poet that especially wrote ‘old fashion love’ verses. We know that he came to Winchester before 1603 and was recorded in 1606 in the civic records as being a freeman of the city. The evidence suggests that he was a Roman Catholic, since he attacked Puritanism in his work and was a Royalist during the English Civil War. In one of his longer declaration poems, the city of Winchester narrates the horrible damage which has been done to her during the Civil War. This reflects Trussel’s own anger about the fact that the city was sacked two times and the extensive damage done to the cathedral such as destruction of saint’s relics and the stained glass window in the West of the building. There are also references to doing good works in some of his poems, which plays a part in the Catholic faith, as well as pointed silence over executions of Catholics who were locally executed in 1603. However, it is hard to verify this as he would not be able to overtly make this clear in his work; in fact he tends to avoid religious issues, and could just have been a High Anglican instead. He served as a bailiff in 1616-7 and was elected as mayor of Winchester in 1624 at Michaelmas and again in 1633-4 before later being debarred from standing for office again in 1646. It was the fact that he was from an old gentry family and married into the Colley family, who were among the social elites of Winchester, that he was able to come into these positions of power. As well as being a history enthusiast and a civil servant, Trussel also wrote poetry such as ‘The First Rape of Fair Helen’ as well as longer poems that reflected his sentiments about political ongoing circumstances.

Trussel & The City

For us it is interesting and quite remarkable the love that Trussel seem to have towards the city of Winchester. This could be identified as some sort of patriotism or romanticism ‘avant la lettre’. Winchester, although it was not his motherland, was his home. In his writings about the city some influences from Virgil could be found. This is shown by the way in which he sees the city from the point of view of the past, of the days of glory before this terrible decadence. The way it refers and describes the details embrace the classical style from the Aeneid.

In fact Winchester was “an ancient city, like a body without a soul”.When Trussel came to Winchester, the city was in a diminished state, its population only numbering about 3,120 in 1904 and many of its areas going back to nature; gardens and orchards being prominent. This meant that there was a significant need for poor relief, which included poor relief and charitable donations.

Trussel & Charity

Fitting into a trend of Christian charity at the moment, despite the fact that good works were no longer officially needed, it still meant that people were still able to try to curry favour with the divine. The kinds of people who made these charitable donations were varied; from noblemen to people from more modest backgrounds who just paid what they could. Some were given to provide people with certain things, while others were an annual sum that was paid for a certain period of time. Some of these alms were to be delivered in the public eye or sermons were said on a certain day, and R. Smith suggested that this served as a way wherein their names and acts could be recorded and remembered. However, this generosity could ultimately give rise to jealously and have other political consequences.

Trussel & Political Issues

Trussel wrote letters concerned with who politics should be conducted, and it is likely that they were meant to be read aloud to a combined audience or were in circulation. They detailed complaints about how people were not observing the proper hierarchy as well as touching on the issue of corruption. He seems to have been in an intellectual conflict with his fellowmen. He had one idea in mind, that contrasts with this environment of corruption: the Public Good, following the steps of Cicero. In addition, poems were written, in an often sharp and formulaic manner, sometimes being in rhyming couplets, and effectively put forward the point that Trussel was trying to make. These included observations about local well-known figures in Winchester such as Edward White, but there is also one that Trussel has addressed to himself, which demonstrates a certain sense of humour. He demand general higher standards of the conduct of the Corporation (to which R.Smith refers as a ‘mafia/mob alike institution’), and thought that advice that he had given on this subject was not properly realised until it was too late for it to be taken. Apparently, he thought about himself as a victim. He had the feeling that the whole world was against him. This paranoid attitude was not totally wrong; the people did not understand completely his way of doing and seeing things.

Trussel & History

Trussel was considered to be the last of a dying breed of historians by the 1640s, and is described by R.Smith as being ‘combative, crotchety [and a] loner’ and who was also not afraid to rock the boat and try to make his opinion about this subject known. He was a defender of older historical thought, such as the myth that England was formed by Brutus. Trussel can also be identified as belonging to an older school of antiquarians, due to the fact that he did not recognise that historical thought that progressed, and equating myth and popular thought on the same level as modern research that had been carried out. Furthermore, he also put undue weight on older sources which other historians at the time were rejecting or criticising. He also had a narrative conception of history, believing that historians would continue to write out the story of history without analysing it further or rewriting it in light of new sources which have been found.


Trussel was a proud resident of Winchester who, as he stated in a letter written in 1636, wished write something that would prove as a monument to Winchester itself and to preserve the names of the Christian benefactors who provided some much-needed aid in the city. Nonetheless, this seems to mean nothing nowadays. We have indications and details about his life and his career, and his connection and importance in Winchester. But it seems that he did not have any sort of impact, that he did not make a difference. Is this true? Maybe he has this recognition but in a more local or regional way? Whatever the answer is, he though deserves all our respect. He might not have been a very important man in the making of history…But R.Smith has made him some justice by telling us the story of his battle. And he has also remind us the importance of the lost causes in history. History is written by the winners, it is popularly said. But we cannot forget, that those that failed, those that had not been recorded are ALSO part of history…And maybe without them History would not be the same.

Caroline, Sophie, Lillian and Scott

2 thoughts on “3/03/2011 Trussel’s Benefactors of Winchester, By Robert Smith

  1. Mr. Trussel, being ‘combative and crotchety’, sounds like a bit like Henry Manship, a – perhaps less accomplished – proto-historian/antiquarian – who wrote a history of Great Yarmouth for the town corporation at a slightly earlier date. They would have made very grumpy and volatile pair of book-end!



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