POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Reading office-holding politics participation citizenship duties election mayor disrespect slander fines disfranchisement merchant guild exemption re-election political conflict abbey seigneurial rights
Subject: Issues of concern relating to duties of political participation
Original source: Berkshire Record Office, Reading borough archives, Corporation Diary 1431-1602, pp.55, 64, 82, 97, 101, 118, 132, 157-58
Transcription in: J.M. Guilding, ed. Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation, (London, 1892), vol.1, pp.26, 32, 41-42, 51, 54-55, 68, 83, 97-98.
Original language: Latin and Middle English
Location: Reading
Date: 15th century


[1. Avoidance of office]

Ordinance [7 October 1446]: By agreement of the mayor and the whole community, if any burgess who is nominated (with the assent of the mayor and the burgesses) for election as mayor leaves, or evades, or absents himself because of that, or otherwise makes representations to any person or persons to be excused from holding office, and this is duly proven, then he is to forfeit 40s. [payable] to the Hall and be disfranchised.

[2. Prohibition of outside influence in elections]

[8 August 1449] The mayor and the whole community enact that none of them is to obtain from any lord or any other outsider a letter [of support] for having any office that belongs to the election of the whole community, under penalty of 100s.

[3. Disciplinary action against critics of borough government]

To be noted [24 November 1453]: William More went into the public marketplace of the town and, in the hearing of outsiders, made threats and tirades against the ordinances and statutes of the Gild Hall of the town. For which reason William Hunt, John Sawyer, Thomas Clerke hosier, John West, and John Chamberleyn, burgesses, who had been mayors of the Hall, decided that because of his defiant attitude William should pay to the Hall within a month the penalty of 40s. sterling in good and legal coin. But because he acts contritely, he is forgiven 40d.

To be noted: On 25 January 1454, John Calman, a brother of the Gild, and John Lynd, a fuller who is not a member, came and publicly acknowledged a slander they spoke about William Rede, mayor of the Gild, said wrongly and untruthfully, and they submitted themselves and acknowledged that what they said was untrue, and swore upon a book to the opposite of their slander and asked forgiveness from the mayor against whom the slander was uttered. For William Rede had brought testimonial letters from the monastery at Evesham, where he was born, sealed with the convent's seal and the seals of the most important men of the town, to the effect that he was free-born and of good character.

[4. Avoidance of office]

To be noted: Memorandum that the writ which John West purchased to excuse and discharge him from his election as mayor on 25 September 1461 was disallowed by Thomas Clerke draper, then mayor, and all the burgesses of the gild, insofar as it was purchased contrary to the custom, rules, and usage of that gild.

[5. Failure to attend community meetings]

Ordinance: On 30 September [1463] a decision was made by William Lynacre, then mayor, and former mayors Thomas Beke, John Sawyer, William Rede, William Pernecote, John West, and John Chamberlayne, with the agreement and consent of all the burgesses then present, that whatever burgess defaults [in appearance] at any of the morrowspeeches it pleases the mayor to call during his term, and [likewise] all of his successors, without having special permission from the mayor then in office, is to be amerced 6d.; to be levied by the cofferers then in office. Should it be that any of such burgesses enter the hall while the mayor is in session, then the burgess may have his 6d. reduced to 4d. And that this will be adhered to they bind themselves by the oath that they have made to the gild.

[6. Spreading the burden of office]

[1474] It is agreed by the mayor and the burgesses of the hall of the Gild of Reading that no man who has been mayor there shall be re-elected within 4 years after the year in which he was mayor.

[7. Avoidance of office]

Ordinance: On 18 October 1486, John Langham, mayor of the borough of Reading, and the burgesses of the same agreed and decided that if any burgess residing in the town stays away or absents himself on the day when the mayor is elected, unless he has been given special permission from the mayor then in office, he is to forfeit 10s. to the Hall. It is also agreed and decided that if any of the burgesses nominated and chosen by election avoids, stays away, or is absent at the time he would customarily be presented before the Abbot, lord of Reading, in the customary place, he is to foreit, lose and pay to the Hall £6.13s.4d, to be fully paid without him being forgiven, released or pardoned from it in any way.

[8. Penalties on those disloyal to the community]

On 10 December 1498, during the mayoralty of Richard Cleche, this enactment and statute was made by the consent and agreement of all the comburgesses of the Gild of the borough of Reading. That if there is any burgess who belongs to the Gild who acts contrary in any regard to what he ought according to his oath [as burgess], and this is duly proven, then he is to be publicly disgraced and expelled from the Gild, driven or flung out – if necessary turned head-over-heels, and a portrait of him made and his name written over it.

Also, that if any burgess decides to accept any office – such as constable or warden or any other office – unless this is by the election and choice of the mayor and his comburgesses, anyone so doing at any time is to be expelled from the Gild, in the manner indicated above.

On the same date mayor Richard Cleche dismissed Robert Benett and John Tornour from the office of constable, they having been elected and chosen by the Abbot and not by the mayor, nor by his predecessors, nor yet any of the comburgesses of the gild.


Although prohibitions or penalties, related to townsmen who sought to avoid their civic duties by bearing office, were not uncommon, at Reading there may have been particular reasons why some burgesses were reluctant to take on the challenge in the fifteenth century. The borough had been engaged, and would be into the next century, in a periodic battle with its lord, the abbot of Reading, over control of local government.

Reading had been a settlement of some importance since the ninth century, and was recognized as a royal borough in Domesday. But Henry I in 1125 granted the borough, as an endowment, to the abbey he had founded a few years earlier; its abbot thereafter had control over commercial affairs in the town, appointment of the borough executive, licencing of retail activities, and administration of justice, among other powers. The townsmen relied on their merchant gild as a mechanism for organization and self-determination, and the abbot tried to suppress this source of opposition. Their struggle with the abbot to wrest away from him control of such matters was protracted and often violent; in 1253, for example, they were accused of ambushing the abbot's bailiffs and obstructing them from performing their duties, while in the following year it was the abbot's servants who were in hot water for killing obstructive townsmen. The contest erupted periodically at points over the next two centuries.

Around the opening of the fourteenth century, the burgesses had created a mayoralty, the first known officeholder dating to 1302 and, as seems not to have been uncommon when this new office was introduced into towns, apparently holding office for several years. The mayor was essentially the warden, or master, of the Merchant Gild wearing another hat, and the first known mayor was said to have been elected by community assent. This may, or may not, indicate that the abbot's right of annual appointment of the head of the gild, established by a settlement between gild and abbot in 1254, was in abeyance. The abbey's hold over the town may have been waning at this time, for it had financial problems, and in 1302 the burgesses were also resisting the abbot's right (again confirmed in 1254) to impose taxations on the town. In that scenario, the mayoralty could have been created as a direct challenge, as appears to have been the case in some other towns where the burgesses were battling for independence from an overlord. The abbot does not seem to have ever formally recognised the mayoralty per se, preferring the term "warden" for the gild officer and in the fifteenth century heaping scorn on the mayoralty.

In 1351, during one of the periodic legal battles, the community sought freedom from the abbot's overlordship by claiming to have long been a royal borough, and to have been electing a mayor as head of its Merchant Gild since before 1125 (a claim we have no reason to take seriously – the earliest reference we have to the gildhall is ca. 1204-15, although it was no novelty at that date). Control over election of the town constables was another of the key issues at that time. That issue came to the fore again in 1417, with some success for the burgesses, who then proceeded to assert themselves by building a new gildhall. A more combative abbot, Thomas Henley, came into office in 1430, and was able to hold the townsmen in check.

After that abbot's death in 1446, the battle was renewed and continued into the sixteenth century. It was important for those leading the opposition to the abbot to protect their interests and to keep their fellow burgesses loyal to the cause, motivating or disciplining them. Some burgesses at least must have preferred to steer clear of trouble, while possibly among the unenfranchised residents there was some support for the lord of the town against a government over which they had no influence, as was the case at Lynn. We cannot know precisely whether the causes for criticizing the mayor and his government in 1453-54 were political or personal, but they could not be glossed over. The battle with the abbot and perhaps with factions internal to the borough called for stout-hearted men to accept the burden of office. The number of townsmen qualified for office was small; Henrietta Haynes has reckoned that there were fewer than 50 members of the gild around this period ["Reading Borough to 1638", Victoria History of the County of Berkshire, vol.3, 1923]. This difficulty may have been compounded by reluctance among some of the members to take on repeatedly the role of mayor, in those challenging times. The 1474 specification limiting re-election was subsequently annulled – both the enactment and the annulment may reflect difficulty in finding men willing to serve. A small number of names were dominating the nominations year after year.

We do not have a satisfactorily clear picture of the contest, but fortunes on either side seem to have waxed and waned. In the 1490s the abbot refused to appoint any town nominee to the mayoralty. At the election just before Michaelmas 1492, three nominees were put forward, but no-one was confirmed in the mayoralty by the abbot, and the same impasse seems to have continued for the following three or four years. In 1497, the election being delayed until late October, from the three nominees it was the burgesses who were said to choose, by "free election", their leader for the next year; this officer was now referred to as master of the gild, the mayoralty under that title having been abandoned, perhaps as a concession to the abbot if the title "mayor" were seen as an irritant, or perhaps because past changes in title of the gild leader had created legal openings for the abbot's counsel in challenging gild efforts to assert independence. The same occurred the following year, when the burgesses were said to have unanimously agreed that they would obey the master in all things, just as they had previously obeyed the mayor. But after peace was restored between abbot and gild in 1499, the title mayor quickly crept back in. By 1511 the quarrel had exhausted itself, and the abbot had once more been conceded the final election from the three nominees, as well as exercising traditional jurisdiction in the borough. The burgesses had to wait for the Dissolution before they could obtain self-government.



At the mayoral election held two weeks earlier, three persons received nominations Whether the ordinance was prompted by one or more of them trying to avoid election is unknown. Three nominees was standard for the mayoral elections at this period; the Abbot of Reading, as lord of the town, picked one of them at Michaelmas. A century earlier the practice had been for the abbot to nominate the mayor.

Evidently part of the slander had been to call the mayor a bondsman, a common insult in towns.

A name applied to assemblies of gild members, held in the morning.

I.e. the financial officers (more usually known as treasurers or chamberlains).

"enactment and statute"
It appears to have been enacted in haste and/or anger, and was later annulled.

"portrait of him"
The transcription here is a little uncertain. However, it appears that the intent was to put up a "wanted poster", identifying the offender, as a further way of shaming him.

"created a mayoralty"
Although Henry III's charter of 1253 was directed to the mayor and burgesses of the merchant gild, it is risky to rely on the royal bureaucracy as an accurate source of information about the details of local government.

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: April 14, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2004