In early 17th Century Petworth, it would seem, that was about the worst thing you could say to anyone. In fact, it was so offensive in the fair Sussex town to imply that a woman came from Greenwich that it was considered worth going to court over.
I don’t know. First it was Greenwich geese, then barbers, and now, thanks to the marvellous Julian Watson and his friend Peter Jerrome from the Petworth Society, I have a new insult to add to the Greenwich cannon of execrable terms – “Greenwich Bird.”
The court case 0f 1603 centres around an innkeeper’s wife, Margaret Goodman, (presumably quite used to some choice language in her line of work) who was so offended by one Thomas Westdeane accusing her, in the open streets of Petworth, of coming from Greenwich that she took the trouble to gussy up a case against the bounder.
Actually, as Jerrome points out, this would have been a church court, and it was, in those days a bit of a case of ‘accuse or be accused’ – if you didn’t do something public about a slur on your character, it was not only assumed that the remark was apt, but it might mean a case against you from the very bishop to whom you should have gone to complain in the first case.
Goodman prepared for the case, by lining herself up three stellar witnesses who had heard Westdeane call her a “Greenwich Birde” outside the mercer John Bywimble’s shop.
Before we go any further I guess I should explain the insult – though I doubt it takes much imagination to work it out. Greenwich at the time was a busy port, full of sailors – and ladies who enjoyed entertaining them. Margaret had been accused of whoring.
Joanna Curtyes was inside the shop at the time, “buying of wares,” and heard the plaintiff and the accused coming along the street. They were clearly having a right old ding-dong, and Joanna heard “angrie words betwixt them.”
Westdeane told Goodman that she was not honest. “Oh yeah?” she said (or words to that effect.) “How’s that then?” He replied she was a whore.
The storm in this particular teacup getting splashier by the moment, Margaret Goodman called over the good mercer, Joanna and William Mose, a yeoman who just happened to be around at the time, and dared Westdeane to repeat what he’d just said. Which he did. “Thou art an arrante whore and came from Greenwiche.”
A bit later on Westdeane made things worse for himself when he asked Joanna if she was going to bear witness at the court and what she would say. She told him she’d tell what she heard, and he replied that he would teach a whore to spit in a man’s face. Joanna reckoned that, in her view, the slander would mean that Margaret “amongste grave men within the parishe of Petworth…is of lesse estimacon than before she was.”
William Mose agreed that the barney between the accuser and accused took place, and he thought the original argument had been about Margaret’s brother, but he know hear any more details. He also heard Westdeane call Margaret a whore and a Greenwich bird, and what’s more, John Bywimble had heard it too.
Bywimble himself (don’t you just love that name?) didn’t appear, but a tailor, Mark Upfield, confirmed that the pair had been “walkinge togeather verye discontentedlye and brawlinge one with another.”
Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be an outcome recorded from this suit, though given the weight of witness evidence and the lack of anything coming from Westdeane himself, it’s probable that Margaret won her case and he would have faced a fine or possibly paid public penance in white sheets for his “incontinence”.
So there we go – an example of someone else’s local history having a direct message about our own. The image, by the way, is part of the testimony of William Mose. In the middle of the fourth line down, if you’re sharp-eyed, you’ll see the insult that started it all, still, outrageous today in some parts of Sussex, I understand…