A possible date for The Bull at Stony Stratford

Documents that refer specifically to The Bull begin to appear in the late 17th century. These have been noted in the Hyde-Markham book on the History of Stony Stratford in the appendix. From that time the Bull is fairly well documented but because of its destruction by fire in 1742 there is no way of identifying an earlier building until some archaeological work is undertaken on the foundations.

Marion Hyde’s map of Stony Stratford circa 1680, drawn over 50 years ago and much reproduced, shows a date of 1609 against The Bull. I cannot trace any documented reference to this date unless it is in one of the several versions of Michael Hipwell’s will and I have missed it. The date 1609 most probably comes from that source. I should also note at this point that the same map suggests a date of 1480 for the Rose and Crown. This does fit in with the belief that many people held 50 years ago that the inn was there when the two Princes were abducted by Richard of Gloucester in 1483. Modern research is less supportive of that idea today.  Much of the present building at 26-28 High Street  is 18th century although it does contain some 16th century elements.

Back to a date for The Bull. I have come across this document in the Nottinghamshire Archives which was prepared in 1710 for the prospective sale of the Wolverton Manor.

The Bull Inn has been lett for as much this 80 years, no land about the Town of Stoney Stratford but what letts for forty-fifty shillings an Acre, when any to left; several are Courting for it their being not Ground anough to supply the Occasions of ye Towns people.

The italics are mine, but this figure allows us a start date of 1630. By comparison the same writer refers to the Three Swans inn has been lett time out of mind. We know that at the very minimum the Swan  was in business in 1526 when it appears in Bradwell priory records, and Browne Willis in the 18th century was of the view that it was this inn where the royal party were staying in 1483. (I have discussed this question in an earlier post.)

If we take this reference as an approximate foundation date for The Bull Inn this does raise the question of what may have been there before? The medieval burgage plots (long strips of land going back from the Watling Street) do continue southwards to approximately where New Street now sits, so there would have been something on the site of the Bull. Was it an inn under a different name? Possibly.

However the innholder lists of 1577 indicate that there were 4 innholders on the east side. If, as I argued in my earlier post about 1577 innholders. we take the Cock, The Three Swans, the Red Lyon as three we know were there in the 16th century and we accept the Rose and Crown as the fourth, then there would have been no place for the Bull in that list – which may support the idea that it was indeed a 17th century foundation.

Nothing is absolute here, but on the basis of what I have showed, you could make a case for The Bull  dating back only to 1630

A Cock and Bull Story

I once told a friend that the phrase “cock and bull story” originated in Stony Stratford. He didn’t believe me. He went further; he refused to believe that a phrase that had world wide currency could have begun in a small place like Stony Stratford.

The Cock Inn and the Bull Inn (now hotels) are on the same side of the High Street, not too far apart. They are more or less equal in size and importance and their rivalry goes back a long way, but competition was at it keenest during the great coaching years that preceded the Railway. Local legend has it that the rivalry extended to the telling of traveller’s tales, bragging rights going to the Inn that could boast the most entertaining tales. Naturally this encouraged the tellers of “tall tales” which may have started with a vestige of truth but ended with something so fanciful as to be implausible. Thus the phrase “Cock and Bull story” came to be applied to any story that you might doubt the truth of – “That’s a bit of a Cock and Bull Story!”

However, my friend may have been right not to believe this version of the origin of the phrase. Robert Burton writes in 1621 in his Anatomy of Melancholy:

“Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot.”

And we have to take into account the American use of the word “bull”, meaning rubbish or purely fanciful. Again we can’t be too sure if this has an older meaning in the English language or if this may be a polite abbreviation of “bullshit”.

Whereas, about the same time, the poet John Taylor is using the word “bull” to mean a joke or jest:

“Wit and Mirth … Made up, and fashioned into Clinches, Bulls, Quirkes, Yerkes, Quips, and Jerkes.” 

The Cock has an older tradition in story telling and features in Chaucer and other medieval writers. Usually the tales were told in a comic tradition.

So it is hard to come to a definite opinion on the matter. The Burton quotation, while within the period of travelling and staying at Inns, and when both Stony Stratford Inns were certainly in business, tells us that men are telling stories about cocks and bulls rather than in The Cock or The Bull.

We can make the argument both ways. A Cock and Bull story could be an outlandish and funny story that comes from an older tradition of storytelling, or, it could have its origins in the two  coaching inns in Stony Stratford. Take your pick!