CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bridgwater customs law steward jurisdiction accountability obstructionism market offences slander punishment town-founding William Brewer planned towns topography self-government Chesterfield
Subject: Constitutional provisions at Bridgwater
Original source: Borough archives
Transcription in: T. Bruce Dilks, "The Burgesses of Bridgwater in the Thirteenth Century", Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, vol.63 (1917), 55-56.
Original language: Latin
Location: Bridgwater
Date: Early to mid-13th century


To all faithful Christians to whose attention this document comes, eternal greetings in God from all the burgesses and the community of the borough of Bridgwater.

In order to promote amity and good feelings among our own number, and quell discord and rancour, by our common agreement and assent we have ordained all that follows.

First, we ordain and wish to have among ourselves two stewards of our gild, elected annually by us from our number; and, to assist those stewards, one bailiff elected from our number for the same term.

Also, we ordain, wish and grant that those stewards who are elected for a particular term may have the power to punish every individual among us who commits an offence against the ordinances that follow.

We also wish that if one of us maliciously imputes that any of his peers is a thief, deceiver, villein, homicide, adulterer, or excommunicate, and is convicted of the same before the stewards, he is to be amerced and obligated to our community in [the amount of] twelve pence, and should satisfy the [falsely accused] party according to what his peers consider appropriate.

We also wish and grant that if one of us impleads outside the borough any of his peers for any cause – unless first having the case tried by his peers in the borough (as justice requires for the sake of goodwill) is denied him by an opposing party – he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] twelve pence.

We also wish and grant that if one of us is summoned by the bailiff, at the orders of the steward, to come before them and he does not come, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] six pence; and at any repetition of such disobedience the penalty is to be doubled.

We also wish and grant that if any of us opposes or obstructs the bailiff from executing [his duties] or a distraint which the stewards have ordered him to carry out, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] forty pence.

We also wish and grant that if any of us in any way refuses to cooperate with the bailiff in the performance of his duties, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] twelve pence and, notwithstanding, should [also] make amends according to what his peers consider appropriate.

We also wish and grant that none of us is to buy meat or fresh fish in the town before the third hour, for purposes of reselling by retail. If any of us does so, he is to be obligated to the community for the value of the fish or meat thus bought or sold.

We also wish and grant that is any of us accepts election to the office of steward of St. Mary's or of the [Holy] Cross of the town church, or of keeper of the town bridge, or bailiff serving the stewards, they are to render a satisfactory account of all revenues from the same to the stewards of the gild, whenever and as often as they are forewarned to do so.

We also wish and grant that the aforesaid fines and penalties incurred or due are to be levied by the bailiff at the orders of the stewards and handed over to those stewards.

We also wish and grant that if any of us accepts the office of steward, he is to take responsibility for those revenues of fines and amercements received by him from the said officials, and is to render a satisfactory account of the same to the community each year on 2 January.

And we have made a commitment on behalf of every one of our number and our heirs and successors forever to observe among ourselves and to conserve in perpetuity, resolutely and faithfully, each and every of these [ordinances].

In witness of which, our common seal has been appended to this document.


In Domesday, Bridgwater has the appearance of an agricultural settlement. But, as its name indicates (believed derived from a term either meaning "quay" or "gangplank"), its location on the River Parrett, at a point where that tidal river could still be crossed before widening and flowing into the Bristol Channel, was allowing the location to act as an informal port. Bridgwater was probably the demesne land of a larger manor. The bridge that existed in medieval times, however, may not have been built until borough status was acquired for Bridgwater in 1200.

This was the initiative of William Brewer who, in 1199, had acquired Bridgwater through an exchange. The following year, he obtained from King John permission to build a castle there, and also a royal charter giving the status of liber burgus to Bridgwater, along with a fair there; it was in fact the second place in England to obtain liber burgus status by explicit charter grant. The grant enabled Brewer to endow Bridgwater with privileges of his choice (as far as was within his power) associated with established boroughs; it explicitly included the rights to a market and a fair, to collect tolls and for the burgesses to be free of tolls elsewhere (such being rights only the king could grant). It did not however alter the fact that Brewer and his heirs remained lords of the borough, controlling the courts – although the gild appears to have had its own court to deal with internal matters. The burgesses did not hold the town at fee farm until the fifteenth century; the town was incorporated in 1468, when the gild and borough courts were probably integrated and a mayor became the executive officer.

The nucleus of the settlement lay on the west bank of the river; there were probably only a few hundred inhabitants (313 burgages in 1257). Brewer built his castle in the north-east corner and the topography of the town suggests that some new streets may have been laid out between the parish church and the waterfront, including a marketplace. A bridge across the river – its building associated by local tradition with Brewer – led to the development of an eastern section of the town; the bridge would have been one point for toll-collection, which is the main reason it required a "keeper". Some kind of fortifications were added in the late thirteenth century, but perhaps not beyond stone gates at the main entrances.

Brewer went on, in 1204, to a second "free borough" foundation, at Chesterfield in Derbyshire, part of a royal manor granted him by John, along with licence for a market and fair; his descendants were still lords of the borough at the opening of Edward III's reign. Several years prior to obtaining lordship he had already been active in acquiring property that was on the edge of the settled area and on which a new marketplace had been established, larger than the cramped original of the manor. Whether this new marketplace was an initiative of Brewer or local residents, possibly as far back as the 1160s, is not certain; similarly, since 1195 the king had been paid an annual fee for the right for a fair to be held at Chesterfield. At the least Brewer, who after John's abortive rebellion in 1194 had come into temporary possession of Chesterfield along with Prince John's other Midland estates and the shrievalty of Derbyshire, was capitalizing on what he perceived as a growth in trade. But it seems likely he was fostering that growth from about 1194, expanding the new marketplace and perhaps initiating the fair. The Pipe Rolls following that year show an increase in the revenue expected by the king from Chesterfield, and by 1198 it was being described as a burgus in the rolls. The 1204 charter was simply the culmination of Chesterfield's evolution from village to town.

The motivation for such foundations was financial: to stimulate the commercial development of a settlement, and take a cut of the profits, e.g. through tolls from visiting traders, rents from settlers attracted to a free borough, and larger numbers of court fines or administrative fees that growth in commerce and industry brought with it. In Brewer's case, he may also have had in mind the provisioning of his castle at Bridgwater, whose presence also provided a special clientele for goods and services. But his actual vision appears broader; Brewer seems in fact to have been something of a speculator in commercial growth, and might be considered the most important founder of boroughs during John's reign, which saw the peak for grants of liberties to boroughs. That Brewer witnessed 44 of the 98 such charters has led to speculation [R.V. Turner, Men Raised from the Dust: Administrative Service and Upward Mobility in Angevin England, Philadelphia, 1988] that he may have served as the king's negotiator with urban representatives in such matters.

Chesterfield was not Brewer's first initiative of this type. As early as 1190 he had ensured a weekly market was among the rights when Richard I granted him the royal manor of Somborne in Hampshire. At some point in his reign Richard granted Brewer market rights for the village of Stockbridge on that manor, which John confirmed in 1200; Brewer's eponymous son obtained a grant of a fair there in 1221, and by 1236 the place had borough status, although Brewer had apparently never bothered to invest in a royal charter for it – perhaps he felt lukewarm about its prospects, as he had rejected Stockbridge as the site for a licensed (1200) fortification, in favour of an alternate location. In 1196, as lord of the manor of Torre, he had been granted the manor of Wolborough on which to found the abbey of Torre, and ca.1200 we hear of a new town (later Newton Abbot) on part of the manor. In 1199 he was granted Bakewell in Derbyshire, but surrendered it a few years later; it did not develop into a market town until the latter half of the next century. In 1209 he obtained a royal charter giving borough status to Axminster, Devon – formerly a royal manor, until given to Brewer along with the market customarily held there, in 1204.

A few years after obtaining a further royal confirmation of Axminster's market rights (1215), he was protecting his investment by suing Sidmouth (some 15 miles distant) and Lyme Regis (5 miles away) for having established markets that he considered unfairly competitive. Samantha Letters [Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516, [Devon], 2 August 2004] has indicates that in 1224 another complaint was raised against the canons of Exeter because their market at Teignmouth was similarly competitive with Axminster, but this was being pursued (even though Brewer was still alive) by his son-in-law, William de Braose, or Breuse, member of another landed family with much involvement in town-founding. Like the Brewers, whose surname probably derives from Bruyere in Normandy, the de Breuse family (the surname possibly deriving from another French location, Briouze) had interests in various parts of the country; there is even some evidence the Brewers and de Breuses were linked by marriage. William de Breuse built a castle at Knighton, Wales in 1191/92 and this stimulated the growth of a town there. Ca.1200 he founded the borough of Tetbury, Gloucestershire and in 1202 received the grant of a fair at New Shoreham, which an ancestor had founded to dominate the estuary of the Adur River. It was this William who sued in regard to the Teignmouth market. An Eva de Breuse, as owner of a market at Totnes, in 1233 sued (with some initial success) that it was damaged by the existence of a market at Dartmouth.

To conclude our look at William Brewer ... from Henry III he received the grant of a market at Market Deeping, Lincolnshire in 1220, and in 1221 acquired a 3-year lease of the borough and fair of Great Torrington, Devon. In the year of his death (1226) he obtained royal grant of a market on his manor of Poplesford (later the borough of Newton Poppleford, Devon). This was a man very intent on improving the financial viability of his properties, and awake to the lively development of commerce in England at this period.

But to return to Bridgwater, by the mid-fourteenth century it was Somerset's most prosperous town. Goods such as wine were being shipped between Bridgwater and France (notably Bordeaux), Spain, Wales and Ireland, and the Bardi were using it as one shipping point for their wool exports. Although there was some economic decline towards the end of that century, in the next the town benefited from a steady trade in cloth and from being made a separate port, for purposes of customs collection, from Bristol.

Once the foundations of self-government had been acquired from the lord of a community, local authorities felt themselves empowered and obliged to begin shaping the details of the local constitution. The set of ordinances above, undated but probably from the first half of Henry III's reign, clearly does not represent the initial constitution, for the community already had a fundamental institution of self-government in its gild, and possessed a communal seal. The preamble suggests the document to be more of a constitutional retooling consequent to political disagreements within the community. Perhaps differences of policy between the mercantile interests and those of the rest of the community: the provision for two elected stewards may have superseded a single gild leader, with this duality reflected in two gilds serving the parish church, one for merchants and one for other townspeople (a duality seen at Chesterfield). The constitutional adjustments are typical in their concern for defining town officials and the scope of their responsibilities, enforcing obedience to those officials, requiring accountability for borough revenues, and addressing abuses contrary to the interests of the community.



I.e. slanders.

Fellow townsmen.

Possibly refers specifically to forgery, or more generally to any action involving fraud.

Literally, contumacy: an arrogant resistance to authority.

"refuses to cooperate"
The original is contempserit, hence contempt of court: refusal to cooperate with (by inference, show respect for) legitimate authority. Insulting a town officer was one of the more common ways of offending under this category, hence the need to compensate the officer.

"third hour"
The third hour after daybreak.

"of St. Mary's or of the Cross"
There were apparently two gilds associated with the parish church, presumably serving two different altars in the church. Interestingly, two gilds of the same names were found in the parish church of Chesterfield; that of St. Mary's at least claimed to have been founded in 1218, and its purposes included to protect the rights of the church, to protect the rights of the lord of the borough, and "to guard all their liberties, within town and without town, and to give trusty help thereto whenever it may be needed". It seems likely these gilds associated with the parish church were the socio-religious face of the town gild, perhaps explaining why the latter required two stewards. At Chesterfield, at least by the late 14th century, the Holy Cross gild was for the merchants of the town. Perhaps at Bridgwater the two gilds had memberships that were socially or economically distinct – however, we must beware of inferring too much.

"William Brewer"
A man of ambition and capability, Brewer (or Briwerr, sometimes abbreviated to Briw') progressed from modest beginnings, as a royal forester in Hampshire, an office that was hereditary in his family, to the role of one of the leading administrators and counsellors serving four of England's kings. His roots may lie with a family based at Stoke in Devon. Although often thought of primarily as a member of the Angevin judiciary (e.g. Dictionary of National Biography), in an age before the judiciary was fully professionalized, he was one of many men who were all-round administrators and took on judicial roles as part of their wide-ranging duties. He is first seen in direct association with the king when witnessing one of his charters in 1175. In the last decade of Henry II's reign he was a local administrative agent based in the south-west; a variety of roles led him to the shrievalty of Devon, where he already had acquired a small estate. Although there is no sign of an initial close association with Richard I, someone must have recommended his talents for, when Richard set off for crusade in 1189, he left the kingdom in the care of two senior and four assistant justiciars; Brewer was one of the latter group. He continued to fill shrieval posts, in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. He stood by Richard during the difficult times of his imprisonment in Germany (sending his own son as one of the stand-in hostages when Richard's release was negotiated) and the rebellion by his brother John and, after Richard's return, was transferred to the shrievalties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and made one of the ambassadors to negotiate peace with Philip of France. In modern times he has often been identified as the extortionate and unpopular "sheriff of Nottingham" infamous as Robin Hood's adversary, but this identification is dubious. He was probably no more ruthless an administrator than was called for by his duties, the recognized potential of such offices for peculation, and his close association with the central government of the realm; other holders of the office at that period have equally strong claims to be the legendary sheriff. However, later in his career the men of the south-western counties bribed the king to have him removed as sheriff there. King John, on the other hand, not only bore no grudge for William's loyalty to his brother, he in fact placed more reliance on him than had Richard; Brewer was even more of a familiar of John than of Richard, spending large amounts of time in his retinue and urging him to courses of action that won him criticism from the Church. He remained supportive of John during the interdict and the baronial rebellion, and was a signatory to Magna Carta. John showed his gratitude by giving Brewer many grants of lands, and allowing him to serve at different times as sheriff of almost a dozen counties in the south, southwest and Midlands. In 1209 his multiple shrievalties essentially gave him responsibility for the south coast, an area that John wished to protect against attack from France. During Henry III's minority, Brewer continued to act as a leading advisor of the monarchy against its enemies. Brewer's landholdings were, like his shrievalties, scattered throughout several counties, collectively equalling a baronial honor in their quantity, although Brewer was never given an aristocratic title. Devon was his main base until he acquired Bridgwater, where he financed the building of a castle and residence on a baronial scale. He was evidently a skilled acquirer, exploiter and manager of estates, quite capable of using the law to defend the privileges of his holdings, and was also a businessman with some minor involvements in commerce. His financial acumen had led to his appointment as a baron of the Exchequer under Richard I, and he became one of the senior barons under John. His efforts to secure borough status and/or markets and fairs for his manors reflect his business sense of how economic conditions in England were changing, with the growth of trade offering prospects of greater revenues from well-placed and well-endowed market centres. He used some of the great wealth he accumulated to found:

  • Torre Abbey, which became the richest Premonstratensian house in England;
  • the hospital of St. John at Bridgwater, which was to look after 13 poor sick persons;
  • Mottisfont (1201), an Augustinian house in Hampshire which thereafter served as his treasury and archives, and to which his son gave the church of King's Somborne;
  • Dunkeswell (1201), a Cistercian abbey in Devon, which he endowed particularly lavishly (mainly with lands in east Devon), probably with the intent that he and his wife would retire there – and in 1224 he did indeed take the habit there, where he died two years later.
His nephew, of the same name, was Bishop of Exeter from 1224 and followed in his uncle's footsteps a little, by obtaining the grant of a market for Crediton (1231) and being a benefactor to the abbeys of Torre and Dunkeswell. One of William (the uncle) Brewer's descendants married Henry of Lancaster and was ancestor of Henry IV.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: January 10, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2019