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Bristows Tragedy, or

The Death of Sr Charles Bawdin

Also known as

The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin

   This is one of Chatterton's most famous and admired poems. There is no doubt that it was written by him in 1768, while he was still at Colston's School - he was 15 years old at the time.

   However, there is a question mark over which of the extant 'copies' is the original, or at least which was copied directly from the original. Why does this matter? Well, if you are not reading the original then you will not, necessarily, be getting the intended meaning, instead you might be getting 'send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance,' rather than 'send reinforcements, we are going to advance!'


   I prefer to use the title from what I perceive to be the original in Chatterton's handwriting, which is accepted as such by Meyerstein, but not by Taylor.  So, in my view, the original manuscript and therefore the correct title for the piece is, Bristows Tragedy, or the Death of Sr Charles Bawdin, as per the Bristol Library 'original,' B20928, (TCMP reference C53-21)


   However, we must also keep in mind that when it was first published in 1772, it was given the title you see in the Catcott transcript (C53-23). Why, you might ask? Well, I believe that including the word 'Execution' makes it that much more dramatic and would draw in more readers.  And then there is the title of the other potential 'original' from which the mysterious Perceval transcript (C53-22) was copied. Perceval has the title as; Bristowe Tragedie or the Dethe of Syr Charles Bawdin, which is also the title preferred by Taylor.


So, for the first time anywhere in our universe (there's hyperbole for you) you can now compare all of the copies below, however the two main contenders are as follows :

  • C53-21 : The Bristol Library MS., B20928 . If this is not Chatterton's writing then who is the scribe?

  • C53-22 : The 'Perceval manuscript', which is missing, but we do have Perceval's transcript of it.

The above could be resolved if we were fortunate enough to find the missing 'Perceval' notebook. I believe that one glance would tell us if it is the original, or perhaps just a copy written by Catcott or Fry.

Bristows Tragedy versions

Chatterton's Handwritten Manuscript
B20928  (C53-21)

Bristol library holds and lists the B20928 manuscript as in Chatterton's own handwriting. Meyerstein agrees that it is in Chatterton's hand. However, Taylor is sure that it is copied by an unknown scribe, from an unknown original by Chatterton.  I have chosen to use this manuscript as the backdrop to this website.

Perceval's Transcript

Thomas Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie Perceval Transcript poem.jpg

Perceval wrote about his discovery of the manuscript in the Bristol Times and Mirror, 1904.  

Perceval claimed that the printed copy (C53-22 : 168 lines, 42 verses) was a transcript of the original poem in Chatterton's handwriting, which Perceval said was in his possession.  Taylor agrees with Perceval.  

When I compared Perceval (C53-22) to Catcott’s (C53-23) handwritten copy,  the very minor differences indicate to me that both the C53-22 and the C53-23 were transcribed from the same copy, or the Perceval copy could be a transcript of C53-23.  I believe that the 'original' from which the Perceval copy was transcribed, was either a Catcott or a Fry transcript. When Perceval realised his error and that he had gone to press too quickly, the Perceval 'original' disappeared, and has not been seen since the day it was published.


The minor differences between C53-22 & C53-23 are as follows: Verse 8 the word ‘Sayde’; Verse 36 the word ‘and’ / ‘but if tis nott’;  Verse 39: ‘blest shall be’ (words in a different order).  Plus the addition of opinions and puffs, in C53-23 about the work at the end of verses 1 & 11, and after verse 42.

The Catcott Transcript

Thomas Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedy Catcott Transcript Poem.jpg
catcott execution charles bawdin 1).jpg

   Why  did Catcott choose this specific poem for such an early printing?  Well, as far back as 30th November, 1770 (only 14 weeks after Chatterton had died), George Catcott received a letter from Dr Francis Woodward, requesting a transcript of “ the Tragedy of Bristowe, [or]…The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin” adding that he would “gladly pay for the transcribing [of] them.”   Woodward was a friend of Catcott’s and had read the transcripts that Dr Fry had in his possession, he is also named in the list of subscribers for the printed edition.  It seems that the general interest in this particular poem and then the request from someone ready to pay for a copy, was enough to convince Catcott that he should go ahead and plan for a printed edition.


   Note the Latin motto on both title pages.  Catcott must have purloined the motto Durat Opus Vatum  from the title page of Percy's Reliques.  I am told that the motto is from Ovid and was adopted by Thomas Percy for use on the title pages of his famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which was printed in 1765. 


   Only five years later George Catcott added the motto Durat Opus Vatum to the foot of the title page of The Execution....  In fact, the layout and wording to Catcott’s handwritten title page is identical to the printed edition, although the editor, Thomas Eagles, never went for the elaborate penmanship of Catcott’s copy.  Catcott’s handwritten title page (C53-23) does not contain the details of Newbery or Goldsmith (the booksellers), which was obviously something to be decided upon at a later time. 

   Some would say that dear old George Catcott had pretensions to grandeur, but I reckon he saw the success of Reliques and was attempting to grab a share of it by appealing to its wide readership. Surely anyone who bought the Reliques would also buy The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin, and, in due course, they would also buy any future editions of Rowley’s works? So George is not as stupid as some Chatterton editors like to make out!  Although, that being said, it seems that the 1772 edition was a failure and did not sell well at all!  


   I have tried to research the motto online and have got a rough translation from Google.  Unfortunately the translation makes no sense and, although I was an altar boy in the days when the Mass was in Latin, I have no grasp of it these days.  So, you clever clogs out there, what did the motto mean when Ovid used it, and what when Percy used it for the Reliques, assuming that the motto can be read to suit different usages.  


As to Catcott's use of the motto, my guess is he was thinking that if it was good enough for Percy's Reliques, it was good enough for his 1772 edition of The Execution. 

And yes, if you were wondering, I do now have a good idea of what the motto means; but I am not saying until I hear the views of my readers.

The Dr. Fry Transcript

Thomas Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedy Dr Fry Transcript Poem

Dr Fry's role in the Chatterton story

Towards the end of August 1770, Dr Thomas Fry visited bristol to investigate Rowley and Chatterton, with a view to patronizing Chatterton - if he deserved it.  Unfortunately Dr Fry arrived too late, as Chatterton had died a few days earlier - so goes the story, which was first printed in Herbert Croft's Love and Madness, eight years after the death of Dr. Fry.   

  • Croft's remarks on Dr Fry's visit to Bristol  :  View

  • Visit our page dedicated to Dr. Fry  :  View 

Bristol School of Printing 1932

Thomas Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedy or the Executionof Sir Chares Bawdin Bristol school of Printing poem

I've included this version as a treat. It's a rather rare copy of the poem 'translated' into English by A.H.Russell (SecRetary of the Chatterton Society, back in the day) . The fact that he chose to 'translate' the work into English is a little surprising considering he was chairman of the Chatterton Society at the time.  I would have preferred this ‘special’ edition to have been as written by Chatterton, perhaps along with a translation - a win, win thing!  I guess his aim was to bring Chatterton’s work to a wider audience? I also guess he missed the point with this translation, although I should add that the simplicity of it makes it a favourite of mine. 

The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin
First Printed Edition 1772

crop Execution Charles Bawdin.jpg

The Execution of Sir Charles Bawdin

Read the volume online at : View

The above title page of the famous edition printed in 1772. It is one of the earliest printings of one of Chatterton's works in book form and has, apparently, many differences to the various extant copies. The question is, how does it compare to Catcott's C53-23 copy, which is shown a little further up the page.

Review of 1772 execution charles bawdin.jpg
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