Pope’s Bulls


Doing the old tall tales & urban legends walk Sunday week for the Bristol Civic Society. Your money goes towards making Bristol more lovely, and not towards making my bank balance more lovely, so cough up. Just for a gratuitous plug, here be one of my favourite Bristol seafaring yarns, yarr, belike (etc.). Even though this one’s actually true.

So it’s the early 1700s, and Britain is in the war of Spanish Succession fighting France and Spain. As was the practice back then, the government doesn’t just use the Royal Navy to prey on enemy shipping, but privatises the war effort by licensing merchant ships to do the same. Which is how come certain businessmen in ye port of Bristol fitted out two privateers, the Duke and the Duchess to interrupt the enemy’s commerce in the hope of profit. This, in other words, is state-approved piracy, and, by the way, some of it was bankrolled by those oh-so-nonviolent Quakers. Just saying.

This resulting expedition was the stuff of legend. Captain Woodes Rogers and his navigator William Dampier took the two ships, crewed for the most part by the dregs and sweepings of the docksides and prisons (few real sailors wanted to go on such a hare-brained romp), and came home with a vast fortune in treasure, plundered goods and ships taken as prizes.

Not only that, but they had circumnavigated the globe and returned with most of their scurvy crew more or less alive. It was the greatest feat of Bristolian seamanship ever.

AND they rescued this bloke from a desert island. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and his adventures became the basis for ‘Robinson Crusoe’, a yarn written up by a seedy and unscrupulous hack named Daniel Defoe.

But here’s my favourite bit … Along the way one of the ships they captured was a  Spaniard called the “Marquiss” (presumably Marqués) which, they were told, carried a fabulously valuable cargo. Eagerly our oak-hearted men broke into the hold, where they found …

Well, let Woodes Rogers explain: “We found in the Marquiss near 500 bales of Pope’s Bulls, 16 reams in a bale.”

What he means is papal indulgences. Certificates which gave the holder a certain amount of time off Purgatory, the place where Catholics believed most people went to be “purged” of their sins when they died before they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Purgatory is not a nice place, and you want to spend as little time there as poss., so if you gave the Catholic Church some money, they would see to it that your time there would be reduced.

Rogers said: “These bulls are imposed on the people, and sold by the clergy from 3 rials to 50 pieces of eight each, according to the ability of the purchaser.”

This is indeed a cargo of immense value to the Catholic Spaniards. But to our Protestant Bristolian cut-throats eager for gold and jewellery?

Rogers: “We threw most of them overboard to make room for better goods, except what we kept to burn the pitch of our ships’ bottoms when we careened them.”

And the moral of the story is that pieces of paper are only as valuable or as useful as consensus agrees them to be. Banknotes are the same, what?

I’ll tell you this one all over again on the walk, and a bit else besides. So cross the Civic Society’s palm with pieces of virtual eight, ye lubbers. If you all manage to keep up with me on the day I’ll also show you where Princess Diana’s assassination was masterminded. No, really.


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