CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Leicester customs trial combat dues maladministration extortion tolls rents mesne boroughs earl charter merchant guild mayor council
Subject: Origins of some customs at Leicester
Original source: Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives
Transcription in: Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1899), vol.1, 40-44.
Original language: Latin
Location: Leicester
Date: 1253


Inquisition made by the jurors named below, that is, William of St. Laud, Willard de Lincoln, William Baudewin, Alexander Debonere, James Motun, William Gamel, William Hod, Peter Palmar, Nicholas le Burgeis, Robert Drueri, William Loueman, William Balle, Henry fitz Richard, Ralph Fode, William le Chapmon, and Thomas Geram, concerning the payments called gavelpence and pontage, by what right and for what reason they were first given and taken.

Who say under oath that, in the time of Robert de Medland, earl of Leicester, it happened that two kinsmen – that is, Nicholas son of Hakon and Geoffrey son of Nicholas of Leicester – made wager of battle for a certain piece of land, concerning which they were in a legal dispute. They fought from just after dawn until noon and beyond. As they were engaging in combat together in this way, one of them drove back the other as far as a certain small ditch and, as [the other] stood at the edge of the ditch and risked falling into it, his kinsman said to him: "Careful you don't fall into the ditch that is behind you". And there was at once such a great outcry and uproar from those sitting and standing around that their noise was heard by the earl as far away as the castle; he then made enquiry why there was such a clamour, and was told that two kinsmen were engaged in judicial combat over a piece of land and that one had driven the other back as far as a certain small ditch, and as the one stood at the edge of the ditch and risked falling into it, the other warned him.

The burgesses then, moved indeed by pity, made an agreement with the earl that they would pay him threepence a year from each house whose gable faced onto the high street, on condition that he grant them that from that time forward all pleas concerning them be tried and judged by the 24 jurats who had been established in Leicester since ancient times. This was granted them by the earl, and this was how the payment called gavelpence first came to be levied. That Earl Robert was succeeded, after his death, by his son and heir Robert who, for the benefit of the soul of his father completely remitted the payment called gavelpence, and by his charter quitclaimed it in perpetuity. That particular charter, along with many other documents and charters, was given into the custody of a certain burgess and clerk called Lambert, against whom evildoers arose by night, because he was thought to be wealthy, and they burned down his houses and also his feet [sic] together with the aforesaid charter and many other writings.

At a later time there was a certain clerk called Simon Maudut in the town of Leicester who, for a period after the death of that Robert earl of Leicester who had made the charter of quitclaim, was farming the office of provost of Leicester and he extortionately collected, through his own willfulness and personal force, the payments called gavelpence, distraining all those who resisted paying, saying that they should show him the quitclaim that warranted their resistance – for he knew perfectly well that this quitclaim was burnt. And it is for this reason that they are paid to this very day.

This inquisition was held in the presence of Roger de Ekden, then bailiff, Peter fitz Roger, then mayor of Leicester, Ralph Oliver, Richard de Campeden, and many others, on 17 March 1253.

Inquisition made by the same jurors before the same Roger, Peter and others concerning pontage at Leicester:

Who say under oath that, in the time of the same Earl Robert, the forest around Leicester was so large, heavy, and dense, that it was barely possible to travel along the paths through that forest, because of the large number of dead trees fallen down and boughs blown down by wind. By the decision and consent of the earl and his council, it was then permitted to those who wished to go looking for dead wood that they might have six cartloads for a penny, a horseload a week for a halfpenny, and a man's load a week for a farthing. These payments were initially collected at the exit to the woods, but later between the outskirts of the town and the woods, and eventually the money was collected at the town bridges of Leicester; there at first there was a certain warden called Penkrich, at whose request the earl subsequently granted him a plot of land next to the bridge, to build upon, so that it would be more convenient for him to collect those tolls there. For a long time thereafter this Penkrich collected the payments, not only those customarily levied on dead wood but also on green wood and wood for sale, and afterwards this [practice] came to be treated as a custom.

So that the truth of this finding is more apparent and evident, it can clearly be seen from the fact that no outsiders bringing wood or timber – whoever they might be, or from whatever regions they come, whether from the forest of Arden, or Cannock Chase, or Needwood forest – pay nor ever were accustomed to pay any pontage, excepting those [coming] from Leicester's forest.


In historians' perhaps ultimately futile consideration of whether "burgess" had a precise, technical application in the eleventh century, one criterion suggested as a defining feature has been the obligation of some town-dwellers to pay (normally to the king) certain customary dues that had, or had acquired, a distinctively urban character. These included tolls on goods brought to the town for sale and fixed rents for town properties. The former might be collected at various points of entry into the town or its market, including bridges, where such levies had names such as bridge-silver or pontage (a term usually applied to tolls levied to finance bridge maintenance). The latter were typically referred to as landgable or hawgable. "Gable" derives from an Anglo-Saxon term for a gift or tribute, and the gavelpence which was the subject of the Leicester inquest was essentially a version of hawgable; although it is possible to infer from the jurors' story that the original meaning of "gable" had been forgotten and was thought to be associated with the gable of the house from which hawgable rent was due.

Leicester has a long history, as a Roman base and one of the key boroughs of the Danelaw. It was held mainly by the king at the time of Domesday Book but, whereas most long-established boroughs were kept within the king's hand, Henry I turned over his lordship to Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan – probably the Robert de Medland mentioned in this document – who founded a dynasty of the Earls of Leicester, although it is not clear whether he had that title himself. This "mesne lordship" (i.e. intermediating between the community and the ultimate lordship of the king) put Leicester at a disadvantage compared to similarly sized and well-situated towns under the direct lordship of the king. The king saw both economic and political advantages in granting a certain measure of self-government to towns, whereas mesne lords had less to gain and tended to be more conservative with regard to surrendering revenues and authority in return for a fee-farm; Leicester was unable to obtain such a lease of local jurisdiction until 1375 (see "Grant of farm by a mesne lord").

We must view these two judicial inquiries in the larger context of Leicester's efforts to break free from the dominion of the earl.

The purported remission of gavelpence assumes that the interests of the community were being represented by particular individuals; and handing over to Lambert the quitclaim, apparently with other town documents, equally suggests some mechanism for communal decision-making and representation. There was a mechanism in place, in the form of the merchant gild; Robert de Beaumont formally recognized this gild early in the twelfth century, in a charter stating that it gild had existed since the time of William I, although we should not trust too much in such statements. It could simply have been that Lambert (as a resident perceived as wealthy) had a relatively sturdy and secure house, but a more likely reason for assigning important evidences to Lambert's safekeeping would have been that he was an officer of the merchant gild. Although the earliest surviving gild roll does not date earlier than 1196, the character of that record suggests it was neither exceptional nor the earliest in a series. The gild likely had kept records for a much longer period and would have had some approach to archiving them.

Robert II confirmed his father's recognition of the merchant gild in a charter whose principal aim was to grant the burgesses freedom from having to pay suit to any manorial or other court outside the town; instead the earl acknowledged the burgesses' right to have their cases heard in the community churchyard, probably referring to the location of the portmanmoot (reminding us of a similar situation at Ipswich); the church was not named but was possibly St. Nicholas, an early foundation of unusual size which has led to the suggestion it may have been built for a Mercian bishop, and opposite whose churchyard a moothall was built in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The merchant gild, although its principal duty was to protect and support the mercantile interests within the community, remained for some time – rather longer than in most other large towns – an important institution for furthering the aspirations of the community as a whole, not least because the portmanmoot could not be an effective tool in that regard, since the earl's provost presided over it and the revenues it generated went to the earl. The gild had its own periodic meetings at which minor transgressions and some infringements of local custom could be judged.

Unable to obtain control over the election of the provosts (bailiffs) of the town, Leicester resorted, around 1250, to giving the gild alderman a second hat to wear: that of mayor, an office more representative of the community as a whole. The mayor came to co-preside over the portmanmoot, and it is probably in that setting that the inquisitions recorded here were held. Although there is no extant record that the earl officially sanctioned any right to elect a mayor, he acquiesced on condition that the burgesses presented newly-elected mayors to him for confirmation. But there is indication in 1257-58 of some difficulty surrounding the mayoralty, since particular efforts were made to consult the earl on the mayoral elections. Possibly the mayoralty, or the limits of its powers, had become a bone of contention, as was the case at Lynn around the same period. Creation of a mayor was likely part of a broader initiative to commute traditional obligations to the earl into an annual farm. In the year before the inquisitions, a tax had been levied on the community to pay for anticipated costs when the king's justices itinerant came to the town, which may imply that the town was pursuing legal avenues in that forum. And during 1253-54 the merchant gild was displaying particular vigour in disciplining offenders against community interests.

To the modern eye the two inquisitions appear a ploy to establish a legal record registering the burgesses' interpretation of events, which they might then use to their advantage in negotiations with the earl; or perhaps one should rather say the interpretation of a selected group of burgesses among whom numbered several leading citizens possibly associated with the party interested in winning greater independence from feudal lordship. There are clearly elements of historical fact in the events recounted by the inquisition jury. It seems probable, however, that the story of the judicial combat itself was a local legend (although perhaps preserving a memory of some actual occurrence) which later became associated as an explanation for the custom of hawgable; the two elements may even have been tied together, through collusion of the jurors, specifically for the inquest, in order to suggest that the burgesses had agreed – we may infer, under a certain compulsion – to paying hawgable to the earl in return for the right to the medieval equivalent of trial by jury rather than the hated judicial combat. Whether the explanation of pontage by reference to a special toll on dead wood is likewise some kind of confusion cannot be said, but again it reflects a common burgess belief that, over time, legitimate levies might expand into unwarranted exactions. We should remember, however, that while we today might find the connections between, for example, the duel, the crowd's uproar (possibly a riot), and the agreement with the earl, tenuous – even though each individual event may have hold the memory of an actual occurrence – evidently to medieval people the connected sequence was plausible enough. What we may have here is not so much fabrication of events but temporal compression to suggest or emphasize their association.

Despite the possible intrusion of legend into these accounts, they nonetheless reflect some key features of the effort towards urban self-determination. Certainly both hawgable and exemption from combat were both features that historians have considered characteristics of borough status. But the introduction of the story of a specific duel was a device aimed at suggesting to the court that extenuating circumstances had forced them to concede a financial obligation they would not otherwise have incurred. The burgesses' belief that the earl's officers – provost and bridge-keeper – were exceeding their duties to the point of extortion is also a common feature in urban struggles for independence; the stories presented to explain the levies to which the burgesses objected are less important to us than the fact that the burgesses wished to rid themselves of those obligations to their overlord.

Following the findings of the inquisitions, the community authorities levied a special tax on residents to raise money to buy from the earl (ca.1254) a perpetual remittance of pontage, alias "briggesilvir", and gavelpence. The inquisitions may have been held to establish a rationale for such an initiative, or a legal record suggesting that earl's right to gavelpence and pontage was questionable, thus creating a stronger case for the burgesses prior to their entry into negotiations with the earl. The money raised would have been used to pay a lump sum to persuade the earl to issue his charter of remittance, and/or to help buy local properties whose annual rents were handed over to the earl as compensation for his loss of the traditional revenues.



Of the jurors: William de St. Lo was one of the earliest holders of the mayoralty, having previously served as alderman of the merchant gild (1230s) and even earlier as one of the gild councillors (ca.1225); Willard de Lincoln entered the merchant gild in the 1220s, was one of its councillors ca.1225, and was one of the provosts in 1239 and again ca.1250; William Baldwin (d. ca.1258) had likewise sat on the gild council ca.1225; Alexander le Debonair, a member of the merchant gild since 1243, acted as mayor's deputy in 1257 and held the mayoralty himself from 1270-75; Ralph Fode became a member of the merchant gild in 1240; William Balle appears to entered the merchant gild in 1242; James Motun bought a length of cloth from the gild in 1251, and was evidently a gildsman, as too was Nicholas Burgeys who later appears as a member of the town/gild council. It appears almost as though the jurors were listed in the order of their social status.

"earl of Leicester"
Robert de Beaumont acquired interests in Leicester at the beginning of the twelfth century, when one of its lords mortgaged his property to Beaumont to finance participation in a crusade and then died in that venture. He increased his interests through favouritism from Henry I, of whom he was one of the leading counsellors, and by marrying his daughter to the son of another shareholder in the lordship. His son Robert the Hunchback was the first lord of Leicester known for certain to have held the title of earl (1118-1168); since he did not inherit the lordship of Meulan, it is less likely he was the Robert who was lord at the time of the trial by combat. Robert II became Henry I's Justiciar and, as such, regent during the king's absences abroad.

"wager of battle"
Wager of battle refers to trial by battle, a form of judicial determination which burgesses normally preferred to avoid.

"high street"
The principal road through Leicester, leading between the north and south entrances through the wall (and earlier through the burh fortifications; a cross street ran between east and west entrances, but the high street looks like the earliest nucleus of habitation.

"24 jurats"
The existence of a town council of 24 jurats, their core task to administer local laws by judging cases in the town court, is clearly evidenced in the 1270s, and – as the example of Ipswich suggests – such a body may well been around for decades. It was probably the same group as the merchant gild council of 24, mentioned as early as 1225. But it would be stretching the evidence too far to connect either of these 24 with a possible group of pre-Conquest "lawmen" such as are known to have existed in several other towns that, like Leicester, came under Danish control or influence.

"Simon Maudut"
A William son of Simon Maudit joined the merchant gild of Leicester in 1209.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: February 28, 2010 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2010