POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Reading liberties government political disputes jurisdiction abbey seigneurial rights lawsuits merchant guild revenues judicial administration market incorporation property holding burgage tenure guildhall butchery rent arbitration electoral procedures officers police
Subject: Jurisdictional disputes at Reading between burgesses and abbot
Original source: Item 1. British Library, Egerton Ms. 3031, Harley Ms. 1708, Ms. Cotton Vespasian E xxv; item 2. British Library, Add. Ms. 6214, ff.4-7, 16, 18-19
Transcription in: 1. B.R. Kemp, ed. Reading Abbey Cartularies, Camden Fourth Series, vol.31 (1986), pp.86-86; 2. C.F. Slade, ed., "Reading Records (4)," Berkshire Archaeological Journal, vol.61 (1963/64), 52-62.
Original language: 1. Latin 2. Middle English
Location: Reading
Date: 13th and 15th centuries


[1. Settlement of 1254]

This is the final settlement made in the king's court at Westminster, on 3 February 1254, before Henry de Bathonia, Henry de la Mare, Henry de Bratton, and Nicholas de Turry, justices, Ralph fitz Nicholas and Bertram de Curiel, then stewards, and others loyal to the king then being present there; between Henry Wille and Daniel W[o]lveseie, then stewards of the Gild of Reading, and the burgesses of that town, plaintiffs, and Richard, Abbot of Reading, deforciant, concerning the customs and services which the abbot has been demanding from the burgesses. In regard to which the burgesses have complained that the abbot distrained them to answer to justice elsewhere than in their communal gild, and that he deprived them of their merchant gild with its appurtenances. Moreover, that the abbot moved the market of the town of Reading from the place where it had customarily been held since ancient times. And, what is more, he demanded from the burgesses other customs and other services than those they ought to give, or had been accustomed to give in the time of the previous kings of England. Which customs and services the burgesses did not concede to the abbot, with the result of this plea between them in the present court.

Let it be known that the abbot has granted, on behalf of himself, his successors, and his church of Reading, to the burgesses and their heirs that the corn market in the town of Reading is to be held in perpetuity in the location where it previously used to be, and that all other things are to be sold in those locations where they have customarily been sold previously. And that the burgesses may have a hall for their merchant gild in the town of Reading, along with twelve tenements that belong to the gild, together with the meadow called Portmanbrook, for an annual rent of 6s.8d payable to the abbot and his successors and his church at Michaelmas – for which previously it was their custom to pay no more than 1d. And that they may have their gild merchant with all its appurtenances in perpetuity.

For this concession, settlement, and agreement, the burgesses have granted for themselves and their heirs that the abbot and his successors may henceforth appoint, from those burgesses who are in the merchant gild, one burgess satisfactory to the burgesses; who is to be the warden of the merchant gild and take oath before the abbot and the burgesses to faithfully administer all matters within the merchant gild's jurisdiction. He is to be removed on an annual basis and someone else put in his place, through the method described above. The burgesses have also granted for themselves and their heirs that the abbot and his successors may henceforth have from each legitimately-born son of a burgess, when he enters the merchant gild, four shillings; and from each foreign man, half the fee that he ought to pay to the warden. [These payments to be made] under the supervision of a monk assigned to witness these [entrances] by the abbot and his successors; on the understanding that if the fee is declared by six reliable gildsmen to be reasonable, the monk may not reject [the amount of] the fee.

Furthermore, the burgesses have granted for themselves and their heirs that the abbot and his successors may henceforth have, each year on 1 August, 5d. from each burgess in the merchant gild, by way of chepinggavel. Moreover, they have granted for themselves and their heirs that it is perfectly permissible for the abbot and his successors to levy tallages in the town of Reading whenever the king taxes the lands over which he is lord. The burgesses have also granted for themselves and their heirs that it is perfectly permissible for the abbot and his successors, or their bailiffs, to preside in the gildhall over all pleas which can rightfully be tried in the town of Reading, and that they may have all [money from] fines, whether from gildsmen or others; and that the keys of the gildhall shall be in the custody of the gild warden, who is to hand them over to the abbot or his bailiffs without demur whenever they wish to hold pleas there. Should it happen that any burgesses of the merchant gild incur amercements for any offence, they are to be amerced according to the gravity of the offence and their ability to pay.

Furthermore, the burgesses acknowledge that the meadow which lies at the head of that meadow called Portmanbrook belongs to the abbot and his church of Reading. They have in this same court restored it to them and released and quitclaimed [their right therein], on behalf of themselves and their successors, to the abbot and his successors and the church of Reading, in perpetuity.

[2. Legal battle ca.1499]

This is the complaint of the warden and burgesses of the merchant gild of Reading.

The warden and burgesses state that the town of Reading is an ancient borough and that they have been, and are, a corporation under the name of "warden and burgesses of the merchant gild of Reading" from time immemorial. In that regard they were, from the same period, in possession of certain stalls and shops called the out-butchery or the out-fleshshambles in the town of Reading, as part of their demesne as a fief belonging to the merchant gild. Until they were dispossessed by Thomas Hendley, abbot there, one of the present abbot's predecessors. The which wrong the present abbot continues.

Memorandum that the warden and burgesses of Reading claim that the borough is corporate on the grounds that Abbot Richard, one of the present abbot's predecessors, moved the market of the gild merchant there from the place it was customarily held since ancient times, and caused many other injuries and wrongs to the borough of Reading. For which reason the burgesses, in the name of the whole community of the borough, brought a complaint in the king's court at Westminster. Against which complaint, legal action and suit, Abbot Richard presented a defence, as if against a corporate personality, as is shown and set out more fully in a fine of record between the abbot and the burgesses.

These are the arguments presented to prove the borough of Reading is a corporation.

First, the mayor of the borough of Reading and the burgesses of the same, their ancestors and predecessors, from time immemorial had possession in their demesne, as a fief belonging to their gild, of a gildhall with stables, gardens, and other buildings with their appurtenances, to the value of £4.19s.6d in annual income.

Item, the mayor ut supra before this time have had possession of 12 tenements with appurtenances, together with a meadow called Portmanbrook, in their demesne, as a fief belonging etc., to the value of £3.6.8d and more in annual income.

Item, the mayor ut supra have had possession of a wharf and an adjoining tenement assigned to it with the common beam and weights to the value of 8s.4d and better.

Item, of an inn called the Fish Shambles, which attains an annual value of 32s.10d.

Item, the mayor and burgesses have had possession of the flesh shambles called the out-butchery – until recently, when they were wrongfully and without just cause dispossessed – which had an annual value of 26s.8d.

Item, the mayor ut supra have from time immemorial had the advowson, nomination and patronage of a chantry there, at some time granted to the mayor and his successors there by one Sir John de Colley, a knight, and amortized by the king's letters patent.

Item, the mayor and burgesses have always been tasked [with providing], and have provided, 2 parliamentary burgesses, as often as a parliament is held.

Item, the noble progenitors of our sovereign lord the king have by their letters patent under their Great Seal granted, ratified, and confirmed to the burgesses of the gild of Reading and to their successors forever that they be free of toll throughout England and discharged from [summonses to the courts of] all shires and hundreds.

Item, the burgesses have from time immemorial kept within their gildhall a common seal, and have held and possessed it without challenge, and have used the same for sealing [documents] as often as required, without hindrance, etc.

Item, the mayor and burgesses have charge of repairs to the stocks within the borough, as often as need requires.

Item the warden and burgesses ut supra state that they and their ancestors, burgesses of the borough, had possession of the [above] premises belonging to their merchant gild by the service of one penny due to the king, long before the monastery of Reading was founded and built. In proof of which they argue that if the merchant gild, tenements, stables, gardens and other buildings and their appurtenances had remained in the hands of the king at the time the monastery was endowed, that same king as founder of the monastery would have given and granted as endowment the entire town of Reading with its appurtenances. Which merchant gild, tenements, gardens, stables and other premises with their appurtenances the warden and burgesses and their ancestors had, held, occupied and enjoyed peacefully, by the service mentioned above, without counterclaim, challenge, interruption or demand on it, up to the date and time of the making of the fine mentioned above; which according to the terms, force and effecdt of that fine was then altered and changed to the sum of 6s.8d, as is shown and set out more fully in that fine.

This is the response to the complaints of the so-called warden and burgesses of the merchant gild of Reading.

First, whereas the warden and burgesses pretend that they have been incorporate under the name of warden and burgesses of the gild of Reading from time immemorial, this is the response: that there is no formal record nor any other evidence sufficient in law to prove them to be a corporation in any regard. Whereas the warden and burgesses put forward in evidence a fine made, as proof of their corporateness, that fine in no way shows them to have been a corporation at the time the fine was made nor at any time previous. Further to this response, there is no formal record in which it is evidenced that Abbot Richard, [our] predecessor, affirmed that the warden and burgesses are a corporation under the title they have submitted.

The fine, as can be seen, was made between the steward and the burgesses of Reading, plaintiff, and the abbot, deforciant. At which time the town was not incorporated under the name of warden and burgesses; for, were that so, the fine would be invalid, insofar as the warden is not a party to that fine. Also, by the fine that was made the grant is stated to be to the burgesses and their heirs, and not to their successors; therefore these who are burgesses by succession may claim no rights therein.

Item, the phrases in the fine which are claimed as making the warden and burgesses a corporation exist by initiative of the burgesses, and not the initiative of the predecessors of the abbot, through any words spoken or written by them.

Also, whereas the mayor of the borough of Reading and the burgesses of the same pretend that they and their ancestors and predecessors from time immemorial had possession through their gild in a gildhall with stables, gardens and other buildings with appurtenances, to the annual value of £3 and more, and also of 12 tenements and a meadow called Portmanbrook, this is the response to the same: that the titles of the pretended corporations, before and in the article of this claim, are not in accord, and so neither is valid. Furthermore, so that the truth be known, the burgesses have held and occupied the gildhall and the other premises specified in the article for a long time and up to the present day at the indulgence of the abbot and his predecessors, without the mayor and burgesses having any other satisfactory legal title to the premises they have identified.

Item, as to the wharf and tenements, the mayor and burgesses have had no legal possession thereof, but have held and occupied them without any lawful title.

Item, as to the fish shambles, they have been and are placed on the land and freehold of the abbot; and so rightfully the shambles and revenues therefrom belong to him and his predecessors. Albeit that he and his predecessors have allowed, out of their goodwill, the burgesses to receive the revenues from the same.

Item, as to the flesh shambles called the out-butchery, they were and are placed on the land and freehold of the abbot, and have been constructed, maintained and repaired by him and his predecessors. The mayor and burgesses have never had possession of the same, except with the indulgence of the abbot, and they were never dispossessed thereof by his predecessors.

Item, as to the advowson, nomination and patronage of the chantry, it was founded long ago at a date now forgotten, and there is no indication that the mayor and burgesses ever had possession of it, as they claim, except at the indulgence of the abbot.

Item, as to the provision of 2 burgesses for parliament, this is no basis for proof of corporateness, for various boroughs and towns in England which are not corporations do the same, such as "Dowton in Suth' and Ludyarsale" and various others.

Item, as for the burgesses having a common seal, that is no proof of corporateness, for various other towns not corporate have the same.

Item, as for the burgesses alleging themselves to be exempt from suit [of court] to shire and hundreds by right of letters patent etc., the abbot responds to that by saying that long before these letters patent the king's progenitors granted to his predecessors the hundred in question, with all things belonging to the same.

The title of the warden and burgesses of the free merchant gild of Reading to certain stalls and shops called the out-butchery, also known as the flesh shambles, located in the borough of Reading.

The warden and burgesses say that in the 38th year of the reign of King Henry III there was a fine made before the king's justices at Westminster between one Richard, then abbot of the monastery of Our Lady at Reading and predecessor of the present abbot, plaintiff, and one Henry Wall and Daniel Wolvesey, then wardens of the free merchant gild, and the burgesses of the same, deforciant, concerning certain tenements with appurtenances and other free liberties and customs, the subject of the action; of which the warden and burgesses were possessors, by right of their merchant gild, a long time before the fine, and were accustomed to hold as possessions of the merchant gild. Upon the plea and action of the fine that abbot, predecessor of the present abbot, acknowledged in that court on behalf of himself, his church of Reading, and his successors in the same, that among other liberties and free customs the warden and burgesses and their successors should forever have and enjoy without challenge the 12 tenements with appurtenances; and in the same court he turned them over to the warden and burgesses, in return for an annual payment on 1 August to the abbot and his successors, for the tenements and customs, of one penny in place of suits [of court] and customary payments of whatever kind due the abbot and his successors for the same – as in that fine is more fully set out. As a result of which fine and agreement on that matter, the warden and burgesses and their predecessors since the time of the making of the fine have had uninterrupted possession and tenure of the 12 tenements with appurtenances, among other of their liberties and customs, on the basis of that fine.

The present warden and burgesses of the free gild now state that the stalls and shops called the out-butchery are a part of those 12 tenements covered by the fine and are appurtenances of the same; and that their predecessors, as warden and burgesses of the gild, had uninterrupted possession of the same and received the rents, outgoings, and revenues thereof, as the right of the gild and by virtue of the fine, until in the time of Henry VI their predecessors were wrongfully dispossessed by force of the same by one Thomas Hendley, predecessor of the present abbot. In which wrong and illegal possession the present abbot wrongfully persists, maintaining it by force to this day. As proof of the continuous possession of the warden and burgesses therein, they say that in the time of King Edward I, which was that immediately following [the reign] in which the fine was made, their predecessors the warden and burgesses of the merchant gild were in possession and receiving 62d. of rent from certain parts of the tenements with appurtenances, including the flesh shambles. This is set down in a book of accounts made in the 30th year of that King Edward's reign, which they are ready to present [in evidence]. The warden and burgesses add as clarification that the tenements with appurtenances are now of greater value than they were at the time when the fine was made, or for a long time after, because their predecessors as wardens and burgesses of the gild in past times renovated, rebuilt and repaired them at great cost and expense to the gild, something important to consider.

Item, it is evident from various letters and account books from the first to the ninth years of the reign of King Henry V that the warden and burgesses of the gild have, by the hands of their officers, annually collected and paid out the rents and revenues of the flesh shambles or out-butchery, under the name of "the shops of foreign butchers there" (which is the flesh shambles and out-butchery); and no-one else has. These various account books can be presented in evidence.

Item, it is evident from various account books drawn up in various years of the reign of King Henry VI – that is, first to twelfth, fourteenth, eighteenth, twenty-first, twenty-fourth, twenty-fifth, and twenty-eighth – that the warden and burgesses collected and received the rents and revenues from the flesh shambles or out-butchery, under the name of "foreign butchery", without interruption by the predecessors of the abbot, until they were wrongfully dispossessed thereof by Thomas Hendley, predecessor to the present abbot. The warden and burgesses say that it is evident from various of those account books that the shops or out-butchery had been renovated and repaired by the predecessors of the warden and burgesses, [under the section] in the account books called "New rents from the new butchery"; which books they are ready to present in evidence.

Item, the warden and burgesses state that it is evident from old book belonging to the gild, in which is recorded many and various of their constitutions and ordinances – compiled in the [missing] year of King Henry VI in the presence of the then warden (otherwise called mayor) of the gild, William Huntyngford, and with the unanimous consent of the warden and burgesses – among other [things] it was agreed that the mayor then in office should each year collect and receive the rents and revenues of the flesh shambles or butchery to help cover the expenses and costs he incurred in executing his duties; paying [from the same] each year to the warden's officers called the cofferers 2s. for the repair and maintenance of the flesh shambles or out-butchery. Which book they are ready to present in evidence. They further state that there was a time when no accounts were made of the rents and revenues of the same, because the mayors then in office received those revenues in consequence of the grant mentioned above, until Thomas Hendley wrongfully dispossessed them.

The response of the Abbot of Reading to the bill of complaint drawn up against him by certain persons who call themselves the mayor, burgesses, and commoners of the borough of Reading, although they are not incorporated by that name, nor any other.

The abbot states that because there were various issues and court cases pending between him and the so-called mayor, burgesses and community, and for other reasons prompting the king's attention, it was commanded by the king that a friendly discussion be held between the two parties concerning the issues pending in the courts. Accordingly, a discussion was held and, by agreement of the parties and their counsel, they [undertook] to submit to arbitration and settlement of the matters by Sir William Hussy and Sir William Fey, as specified in the bill. At the end of last Easter term, those judges, having spent a great deal of time and effort and having frequently called both parties before them to hear their claims, after much deliberation gave notice to the council of the abbot, wishing the counsel to find out from the abbot whether he would be prepared to accept the so-called mayor having possession of certain fish stalls and other things in Reading. They also said that if the corporation showed determination, the abbot would face a law-suit brought against him by the so-called mayor. Because the abbot was not then in London, the judges wanted his counsel to respond to this in the present Trinity term. The abbot, intending to have further discussions in the presence of the judges, therewith came to London in the present term. But before the judges could arrange a day for further discussion [between the parties], the so-called mayor had initiated a lawsuit with his bill of complaint, thereby refusing further negotiation on the issues pending between the parties or their further consideration by the judges. This without the abbot having gone against the instructions given by the king, or the justices issuing any further recommendations, or the abbot having rejected their recommendations in the way that is claimed in the bill of complaint. The abbot trusts that, if the judges are summoned on this matter, they will confirm the same. Furthermore, [the question of] the corporation and the other matters addressed in the bill are matters in the jurisdiction of the Court of Common Pleas, not this court. The abbot requests this court dismiss the case, awarding him reasonable costs for him having been wrongly harassed.

[The mayor and burgesses responded to the above that they have no objection to the arbitrators conducting a further session between the parties and trying to bring the parties to a final settlement. However, they affirm the accuracy of the information presented in their bill of complaint, which was intended to have the matter settled according to the Common Law.]

The response of the abbot of Reading to the bill of complaint made by certain persons calling themselves burgesses etc.

The abbot states that, to the contrary [of the bill], he and his predecessors from time immemorial are and have been the lords of the town of Reading immediately under the king. Throughout that time the abbot and his predecessors have been accustomed, at their discretion, to nominate and appoint each year one of the inhabitants of the town as keeper of the gild within the town. Which person so named must always take oath to uphold and administer all things within the gild's jurisdiction. He shall be removed on an annual basis and someone else elected and chosen in his place, taking oath in the manner indicated above.

In addition, the abbot states that he and his predecessors have throughout that time always had a day [assigned] for the keeping of the king's peace within the town. So that the town may be well-governed, he and his predecessors and their stewards have appointed as constables such persons as seemed most suitable to them, and have similarly appointed all wardens of the wards and all other officers in the town; and the persons thus appointed have throughout that time been accustomed to take their oath before the abbot's steward. Throughout that time the abbot and his predecessors and their stewards or other officers have been accustomed to remove such persons from their offices of constable, warden, or other offices, at any time if there was reasonable cause, and to substitute others at their discretion, as required, regardless of:

  • whether the town of Reading was incorporated under the name of burgesses and community of the borough and town of Reading, or some other name;
  • whether there was within the town a mayor from time immemorial or that any such mayor had authority to punish those breaking the peace, vagabonds, or other persons misbehaving within the town;
  • whether the burgesses of the town from time immemorial used to nominate or have the right to nominate 3 of the burgesses whom they think best suited to occupy the mayoralty, or that the abbot should nominate, or is obliged to nominate any of those three persons for the mayoralty;
  • whether the burgesses have from time immemorial been accustomed at the annual great leet of the abbot to elect and nominate 2 of the burgesses or anyone else to be constables of the town;
  • whether the abbot has nominated or appointed as constables any persons who were not able to occupy the office;
  • whether the wardens of the town have customarily been chosen or nominated by the mayor or burgesses in their gildhall;
  • whether those wardens have by custom always been chosen from the burgesses of the town or whether the abbot and his officers have appointed any wardens of other officers or persons unable, or that there has been a decline in the good government of the town or misbehaving persons increase, due to any reason such as is proposed in the bill.
All of which matters the abbot is ready to prove in whatever way the court should decide, etc.

This is the reply to the response made by the abbot of Reading against the burgesses of Reading.

Whereas the abbot says that he and his predecessors have been accustomed every year at their discretion to choose one of the inhabitants of the town to be named and accepted as keeper of the gild, the burgesses say that the abbot ought not appoint such an officer in that way. For it is indicated in the fine of record that he should choose a burgess belonging to the gild, with whom we should be satisfied; if the burgesses are not satisfied with that one, the abbot should choose another, and so on until the burgesses are satisfied. It was subsequently decided by the abbot and the burgesses, to reduce the power of the burgesses, that 3 of the most capable burgesses be elected and chosen by the burgesses in their gildhall on the Friday preceding Michaelmas; and on Michaelmas itself they were to be presented by the burgesses to the abbot, in his monastery at Reading, and he was to name one of those 3 to occupy the office for the coming year. And twelve months later another would be chosen and sworn into office, and the incumbent discharged.

Whereas the abbot says in his response that he and his officers have had the administration and keeping of the king's peace in the town, the burgesses say that the mayor and constable along with the wardens associated with the 5 wards within the borough have always had jurisdiction over offenders and punishment of the same, such as [putting them] in the stocks. Which stocks belong to their [gild]hall, and they have made and repaired them at their own cost whenever this was required; the abbot had nothing whatever to do with it, nor did his steward or bailiff, for neither he nor his predecessors were ever asked to pay a single penny for the repairs. If any offender should be taken by them, then they are supposed to deliver the same to the constable or wardens of the borough, to be punished by the mayor and constables as they think appropriate.

Whereas the abbot says that his steward should be able to dismiss and appoint officers as he pleases, they say it is not so, not without the consent of the burgesses. Such are to be presented by them to the steward and he is to administer to each the corresponding oath of office; and none is to hold office unless he takes oath before the master of the gild.

The abbot is empowered to appoint constables.

The king to the sheriff of Berkshire, greetings. If John, Abbot of the monastery of Our Lady of Reading and, on behalf of the monastery, lord of the town of Reading provides sureties for pursuing his legal action, then require that Richard Clech, Cristin Nicholas, John Baxter, William Linacre, Thomas Bye, Richard Lech, Thomas Carpenter, William Lendall and William Baker provide sureties in the form of pledges that they will appear before the King's Bench a fortnight after 24 June, to respond to [the following accusation]. That whereas the abbot, on behalf of the monastery, among other monastery privileges and liberties granted to the abbot and his predecessors, has the right and has been accustomed since time immemorial to appoint a burgess of the town as warden or keeper of the merchant gild in that town, which warden should not be (or have been) removed from office. And whereas the abbot, according to those same liberties and privileges, appointed and decreed the aforementioned Cristin to be warden or keeper of the gild for a year at Reading, and Cristin entered into the office and remained therein for a year. That despite this, Richard Clech, Cristin, William, Thomas, Richard, Thomas, William and William, immediately after that year wrongfully chosen John Baxter as warden of the gild for the year to follow; and John Baxter entered into that office through usurpation, and through that usurpation occupied and exercised the office for a long period, against the will of the abbot and contrary to the liberties and privileges mentioned above, to the abbot's damages of £40 etc.

Another action was brought by the abbot against Richard Clech, Cristin Nicholas, John Norfolk, Thomas Bye, William Lendall, Thomas Carpenter and William Baker. In that the abbot, on behalf of his monastery, among other monastery liberties and privileges granted to the abbot and his predecessors, has the right to appoint and has been accustomed to appoint from time immemorial, at will and whenever it suited him throughout that time, bailiffs, wardens of the 7 wards, constables and all other officers in the town, in order to uphold and maintain peace and tranquillity, good government, and stability in the town, according to the liberties and privileges of the monastery used and accepted throughout that time. The bailiffs, wardens and constables of the town, thus appointed by the abbot and his predecessors, made all kinds of attachments on each and every person breaking the peace, thieves, vagabonds, and others committing offences in the town; and they also had, and were accustomed to have, the custody and keeping of such offenders. And the abbot and his predecessors had, and were accustomed to have, the punishment and correction of the same, on behalf of the monastery, throughout that time; and have had and received all kinds of fines, ransoms, and amercements from each and every disturber, petty thieves, vagabonds, and offenders, on behalf of the monastery according to its liberties and privileges applied from time immemorial. On the basis of those liberties and privileges, the abbot appointed certain persons – that is, Robert Benett and John Baker – as constables at Reading. Notwithstanding that Robert and John had taken possession of the offices, it was against the wishes of Richard Clech, Cristin Nicholas, John Norfolk, Thomas Bye, William Lendall, Thomas Carpenter, and William Baker, who – against the wishes of the abbot and contrary to the liberties and privileges mentioned – wrongfully removed and expelled Robert and John; and, at the instigation of Richard, Cristin, John Norfolk, Thomas Bye and William Lendall, the office of constable of the town was taken over by Thomas Carpenter and William Netter; they usurped this office for a long time, exercising it and wrongfully occupying it to the abbot's damages of £40 etc.

Another action has been brought by the abbot against respondents Richard Clech, Thomas Carpenter and William Baker. The abbot, on behalf of the monastery, among other monastery liberties and privileges used from time immemorial, has appointed at will as often as it suited him a clerk of the market and other officers and ministers of the town to supervise weights and measures and to correct and punish [infringing] victuallers in the town, and [undertake] such other tasks as fall to the clerk of the market, according to the liberties and privileges of the monastery. On the basis of these liberties and privileges, the abbot appointed certain persons – that is, Walter Barton and John Cokkes – to the office of clerks of the market in the town and all powers that belong to that office at Reading. Notwithstanding that Walter and John had taken up and entered into the office and had exercised it for a long time, Richard Clech, Thomas Carpenter, and William Baker, wrongfully expelled and removed Walter and John from their office, against their will and against that of the abbot, and contrary to the liberties and privileges mentioned. Then for a long time in the town they usurped the office of clerk of the market, wrongfully occupied it for a long time, and exercised the powers that belong to it, against the wishes of the abbot and contrary to the liberties and privileges mentioned, to the abbot's damages of £40 etc.

[The response of] Richard Clech to the abbot of Reading.

[...] whereas the abbot states in his bill [of complaint that] Richard Clech has for a long time borne a grudge against and felt malice towards the abbot and his monastery, Richard affirms that he never worked against the liberties and franchises of the monastery, but [...] has been as pleased to hear good news about it as any tenant of the abbot's.

The abbot complains that Richard Clech lately called an assembly of certain persons of your lordship's town of Reading, and took it upon himself to assume the mayoralty of the town, and to dismiss the town constables who were appoited by the abbot and his officers and to appoint others, from among his supporters, to occupy that office of constable contrary to the liberties of the monastery [...] To that, Richard replies that from time immemorial there has been accustomed to be in the town an officer called the master of the gild, also called the mayor, whose purpose has been to assure the good government of the town. Which office known as master of the gild has been vacant for the last 3 or 4 years, in default of the abbot, to the great harm and damage of the residents. Because of that, based on the custom of the town used from time immemorial, on the Friday before last Michaelmas the burgesses in the gildhall elected and named Richard Clech to occupy that office; for which reason Richard took it upon himself to occupy the office, according to that same custom. Also because in the period just before last Christmas the number of offenders was increasing daily – cardplayers, diceplayers, gamblers, vagabonds, with many illegal games taking place both by night and by day – and the constable of the town, who from time immemorial was customarily nominated by the mayor then in office and the burgesses of the town, could not be admitted to the constabulary because the abbot had taken it upon him (contrary to custom) to admit unqualified and deceitful persons to the office of constable, thus disregarding the need for good government of the town. In consequence of which Richard Clech and other burgesses of the town requested certain of the burgesses – that is, Thomas Carpenter and William Netter – to help ensure such offenders were punished during the Christmas season, and until such time as there was a better understanding between the abbot and the burgesses. Richard did not take it upon himself to dismiss any constable made by the abbot, nor did he appoint any constable by his own authority, other than in the circumstances described above.

The abbot states that Richard Clech along with certain of his supporters riotously broke the town stocks and had new keys made for them, and handed over those keys to the constables Richard had appointed. To that, Richard replies that the burgesses of the town had the stocks made at their own expense and thereafter would repair them whenever necessary. Insofar as the stocks and also their fasteners, such as locks and other things, were not adequate for the task, Richard and other burgesses sent a message to those persons appointed by the abbot as keepers of the keys, asking them to bring or send the keys; which they refused to do at that time. Therefore Richard and other burgesses of the town removed the inadequate locks and bolts, and made others that were more secure and keys for the same, as they could lawfully do. They did not riotously break the stocks, as the bill alleges.


The settlement of 1254 represents the culmination of the first (known) phase of struggle of the townspeople of Reading to assert their independence from the control of the abbot of the monastery established there over a century earlier. Its founder, Henry I, had delegated his lordship over the town, which had been a military base of some significance during the wars between the Danes and the English from ninth to eleventh centuries, to the abbey, without any acknowledgement of any earlier liberties or customs of the burgesses; his successors confirmed and expanded the abbot's jurisdiction.

By the time that Henry III came to the throne, the town was very much under the thumb of the abbot and his bailiffs. The community's vehicle for self-assertion was a gild to which the more important tradesmen belonged. Its control of the Portmanbrook meadow, whose name reflects an ancient designation for townsmen (still used in the early thirteenth century, although the use of "port" for market town disappeared quickly after the Conquest), is suggestive of it being more than just a merchant gild. The term "burgess" was normally used to refer to gildsmen, although the references to officers having to be chosen from burgesses who were members of the gild indicates recognition that the two terms were not synonymous at first; by the end of the Middle Ages they were.

The earliest references we have to the gild come shortly before the settlement of 1254. In one the gildsmen of Reading were granted an island near their hall. A second emerged in the context of the dispute with the abbot. The townsmen were resisting the authority of the abbot's bailiffs, and using force and even violence to do so, it was charged. This resistance was defended with the claim that the burgesses had liberties contrary to those of the abbey that were of older lineage (from Edward the Confessor). The claim was improbable, and had been prompted by the acquisition at great expense in 1252 of a royal writ acknowledging that the townsmen held the same liberties they had enjoyed in the time of the king's predecessors; since the townsmen, when summoned before the king, were unable to produce documentary evidence of what the pre-Conquest liberties were, the king ordered the sheriff to ensure the abbot's rights were upheld. Soon after, the king unwittingly issued a charter in July 1253 granting the gildsmen freedom from all tolls throughout England and exemption from subjection to external courts; what the gildsmen had in mind may have been particularly the abbot's court and tolls he imposed on commercial activities. The charter was perhaps as important for its recognition, in the addressing clause, of the merchant gild as a vehicle for local government.

The gildsmen quickly took advantage of this grant to lay the complaints documented in the settlement of 1254, including that the abbot obliged them to answer to justice elsewhere than in the gildhall. In the autumn of 1253, the abbot made his own complaint: that the burgesses were refusing to allow him access to the gildhall (presumably for the purpose of holding a court). However, a separate issue of the location of the market was settled between the parties around that time, and the more comprehensive settlement, as above, followed not long after. The settlement appears at first glance to favour the abbot, by acknowledging his lordship; but this was a sine qua non throughout the Middle Ages, and the gildsmen's intent was rather to whittle away at his scope of jurisdiction rather than to overthrow it entirely. Besides the practical matter of the location of the market, the settlement won from the abbot formal recognition of the gild, as an organization representing the community, and as a body with the right to its own sources of revenue – rents and membership fees (revenues from legal jurisdiction not being available to the gild); such were two indispensable foundations for the development of urban self-government. The charter of 1253 may have been instrumental in giving the gild an advantage that enabled it to negotiate the settlement with the abbot.

Nonetheless, the gild's position was precarious. It had to concede to the abbot the right to make the final choice of its warden, although with the important proviso that the person chosen must be satisfactory to the gildsmen; this became one of the foci of the struggle thereafter. The further clause that the warden be changed annually probably worked more in favour of the gildsmen than the abbot. More serious, however, was the acknowledgement of the abbot's right to a number of revenues, including local taxation, court perquisites, and even a portion of gild membership fees. These entrance fines were a core revenue for borough governments; although not large, they normally represented a source of income exclusively the community's, which did not need to be purchased or wrested away from any other authority. To find part of this income being ceded to the abbot is suggestive of the corner in which the gildsmen found themselves, although they obtained a proviso which ensured that the abbot could not undermine the gild by raising entrance fees to the point where no-one would join. However, throughout the Middle Ages, the gild's limited revenues must have made it harder to fight the abbot; for the gildsmen needed support from the king, and there was generally a price for that.

The efforts of the gild over the next century and a half are not well documented, which we could interpret as an indication of peaceful relations; but it seems likely the events of mid-thirteenth century were only the opening salvo. It may be no coincidence that the title of mayor, for the head of the gild, appears to have been introduced in Reading ca.1301, at a period when the abbey was having financial difficulties and may have been less able to resist encroachment on its jurisdiction. That the first known incumbent, Walter Gerard, was said in 1302 to have been elected by community assent may be indicative of an attempt to bypass the abbot; on the other hand, we cannot rule out that it may have been the practice earlier for the gildsmen to choose a warden and simply present him to the abbot for approval. The same year saw the burgesses resisting the abbot's right to tax the community, and obtaining some support from the Prince of Wales on the question. Although when this was resisted again in 1309, the king (pointing to the 1254 settlement) ordered the burgesses to comply.

Edward III's exclusion, from his confirmation (1344) of the 1253 charter to the burgesses, of the clause freeing them from external courts may also point to a reversal instigated by the abbot in the context of further disputes. The next confirmation came in 1379, a year after the cofferers first appear among borough officers – the introduction of such financial officers often being an indicator of political upheaval or reform. It could also point to an increase in revenues or their sources; possibly the fish and meat shambles were involved here, and/or the communal wharf with its weighing beam (and associated fees), which would explain why they started to become a target of contention. However, the revenues only amounted to a few pounds a year – very modest compared to many other towns – and there was little if any surplus after what was due the abbot, salaries of borough officers, and cost of repairs to gild property. Who would choose the constables, first seen in 1368, became a bone of contention from at least the 1390s; again the gildsmen tried to base their claim on the town having been a royal borough prior to the foundation of the abbey.

From the reign of Henry VI things began to heat up again. The abbey found itself some assertive champions in Thomas Henley and the second of two successive abbots named John Thorne (the first of the pair the townsmen having tried to discredit to Edward IV). It was during John Thorne II's tenure that the second group of texts above illustrate the areas of contention. These texts are undated and appear to be a compilation of elements from various legal cases between abbot and gild, possibly noted down for reference as the conflict moved on to future court battles. The compilation was, however, made in association with that phase of the struggle that took place around 1499. [N.B. these passages are given here in the order presented by Slade, who aimed to arrange them more logically, not that in which they appear in the original source.]

By 1491, the relationship between gild and abbot was under particular strain. Richard Clech was playing a leading role in the town and, during an earlier mayoralty, had been promised by the abbot concessions that were not forthcoming; he intended not to be fooled again. That September the burgesses nominated Richard Cleche, Thomas Bye, and John Langham for the mayoralty; the abbot liked none of these, and Cristin Nicholas ended up being appointed, although he remained in office only for half a year – this probably being the usurpation complained of by the abbot when John Baxter was chosen to replace Nicholas. In September 1492 the burgesses presented the same three choices to the abbot, who refused to accept any of them. The same trio was likewise presented and rejected in 1493. In 1494 and 1495 the burgesses tried a variant set: Bye, John Baxter, and Thomas Pokeruge, but still without result; the 1496 nominees (Clech, Bye and Baxter) likewise failed to tempt the abbot, but the burgesses finally took the initiative into their own hands and elected Baxter themselves. He was succeeded by Cristin Nicholas, apparently in 1497, although the dating of the town diary is a little confused at this point; it is not stated by whose choice, but probably again the burgesses'.

1498, however, saw a return to uncertainty, with no nominee (Clech, Bye, Leche) being selected at first, but in early October, Richard Clech was chosen, again we assume by the burgesses rather than the abbot. The situation was sufficiently tense that in December ordinances were made threatening any gildsman who broke ranks with being kicked out of the gild unceremoniously, and forbidding any burgess to accept an office such as constable or warden unless elected by mayor and burgesses; on the same occasion, Clech dismissed the two constables, Robert Benett and John Turnour (a baker), on the grounds they had been appointed by the abbot and not by the mayor and burgesses. These were the circumstances which appear to have given rise to the court case, or cases, documented above.

With the 1499 election, and thereafter, relations with the abbot had been restored to some semblance of co-existence, and he was once more choosing the mayor from the three candidates. But by 1507 frustration had again reached boiling point, and mayor Cristin Nicholas, Richard Clech and Thomas Carpenter took the lead in complaining to the Lord Privy Seal and Lord Chamberlain about disputes said to have been going on for 19 years. They referred the matter to two justices of the Common Bench who, after having examined the evidence, ruled that Reading's merchant gild was a corporate body. The four dignitaries arbitrated a new settlement [J.M. Guilding, ed. Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation, (London, 1892), vol.1, 105-08] with the following points:

  • The keeper of the gild was to be chosen as per tradition, with the gildsmen nominating each year three of their number, from whom the abbot would choose one and administer his oath of office; provision was made for a backup plan should the abbot be absent for more than a week after the nominees were chosen.
  • All other articles of the 1254 settlement were reaffirmed.
  • Election of other disputed officers was allowed to the town, but with provisos to assure that the gild interests did not dominate:
    "the abbot is to allow the keeper of the gild and those of the town community who are householders, or the majority of the same, to choose one capable and judicious person from the burgesses of the gild to be one constable, and 5 honest burgesses to be 5 of the wardmen of the 5 wards. Also the keeper, burgesses and those of the town community who are householders are to choose another capable person from the community at large, who is not a burgess of the gild, to be the other town constable, and 5 other capable persons of the community at large [to be chosen] by the 5 burgesses of the gild; and those other 5 wardmen are not to include any burgesses. All these elections are to be held at the leet and lawday of the abbot"
    with the officers oaths administered before the abbot's steward.
  • Concerning burgess entrances to the gild, whenever the keeper and gildsmen decided to admit a new member, the abbot was to be given a fortnight's advance notice, to ensure that a monk be assigned to be present when it was decided how much the entrant should pay as admission fee, half of which was to be paid to the abbot and the other half to the gild, with the same stipulations as in 1254 as to 6 burgesses having the final say on the fee, and with regard to what sons of gildsmen should pay.
  • Chepinggavel was confirmed, as an annual payment from each gildsman of 5d, with the additional specification that widows of gildsmen paid 2½d., and the arbitrators thought it advisable to be more specific that the purpose of this licence was so that purchasers
    "may freely buy and sell all kinds of merchandize in their houses and shops in the town, and also buy and sell out of their houses and shops all kinds of merchandize and items saleable at fairs and markets of the town."
    Gildsmen were to be allowed to set up stalls on vacant land in the town (so long as they did not cause a nuisance to neighbours or block any streets), without paying anything beyond the chepinggavel. However, from residents who were not members of the gild, the abbot could continue to take the traditional fees and tolls on any merchandize they bought or sold.
  • Resolution of the dispute over the out-butchery was deferred until further evidence had been examined.

For the next year or two following the implementation of this agreement, we see relatively large numbers of townsmen joining the gild. This was an indication of the gains the gild had made, and strengthened the gild's position further. Although the principle of the abbot's lordship was intact, the gild had continued to succeed in undermining the extent of the abbot's control. The next generation of townsmen would see the end of ecclesiastical overlordship, at the Dissolution.



"Henry de Bratton"
Or Bracton, i.e. the justice of the royal court, later known as King's Bench, to whom was (probably erroneously) attributed the legal treatise De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae.

The party in a fine (final concord or settlement) who is said to be keeping the rightful possessor of property (i.e. real estate and its related jurisdiction) out of possession, hence the action for recovery; this party was thus the defendant.

Easements, rights and privileges; the term could also be used to encompass phyiscal attributes of a piece of real estate.

One is reminded of Portman Meadow at Ipswich.

"foreign man"
This probably means anyone not entering the gild by right of birth; although it could refer, as at some towns, to non-resident burgesses. Later reference to "foreign butchers" again could refer to townsmen who were not in the gild, or to butchers from outside the town bringing animals into town to slaughter and sell the meat.

A licence fee for the right to buy and sell in market.

"Legal battle"
A variant of this document, from a different folio of the same original source, is transcribed (with minor imperfections) in N.M. Trenholme, The English Monastic Boroughs, University of Missouri Studies, vol.2, no.3 (July 1927), 105, and I have also made use of this in my modernization.

For the significance of shambles, see York. The "out" refers to the butchers being outsiders (i.e. non-gildsmen or non-residents). Reading's shambles had been set up in the early 1420s, with a view to controlling the trade better and providing additional revenue, from rents, for the gild.

"Thomas Hendley"
He was abbot from 1430 to 1445.

"corporate personality"
That is, instead of arguing that the burgesses as a group had no standing before the law and could not sue him, the abbot by offering a defence implicitly accepted the burgesses as a corporate body.

"fine of record"
I.e. the final concord of 1254, set down in the court records.

"annual income"
The version given in Trenholme has "£3 and more".

"common beam"
Equipment for weighing cargoes being brought in or taken out of town.

The version given in Trenholme has 36s.10d.

The medieval term has not quite the same application as the modern use; it refers to the granting of a licence for alienation in mortmain – the connection with the modern meaning being that by such a licence the king wrote off certain income he would otherwise have obtained from such property.

"granted, ratified and confirmed"
The charter grants of 1253 to the burgesses were confirmed by subsequent monarchs in 1344, 1379, and 1427.

"service of one penny"
I.e. a seigneurial due; this would appear to have its basis in a hawgable payment for a single property, which was then subdivided over time. However, we have no evidence to indicate whether the burgesses' claim was justified.

"Dowton in Suth' and Ludyarsale"
Slade suggests the former may refer to Downton in Wiltshire; Trenholme read it as Rowton in Suffolk, although I can find no reference to any such place, and Tudgorsall in Wiltshire (in the variant he transcribed, Wiltshire was specified). It is true that Downton was returning parliamentary burgesses in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but Suth' can hardly refer to Wiltshire, although it might by slight stretch of imagination have been meant for Hampshire. The second location is evidently Ludgershall, which was a parliamentary borough.

"suit of court"
The obligation of a tenant to be answerable in the court of the lord of the property, on any legal matter related to the tenure, and to seek justice for any such matters in that same court; the obligation involved compulsory attendance, at least once a year, at a general court session at which broader legal administration (e.g. leet) was undertaken by the lord over his areas of jurisdiction, and at which each suitor might be called upon to play the role of juror.

"paid out"
Probably referring to rents resolute.

The interruptions in the sequence after 1434 presumably reflect the struggle between Abbot Hendley and the gild for control of the butchery.

"William Huntyngford"
A William Hunte was mayor on more than one occasion in the 1430s and '40s, but I doubt this is the man intended. The ordinance referred to must have been from the early years of Henry VI's reign.

"among other"
This may possibly belong to the previous phrase "warden and burgesses", in which case it would suggest that communal meetings dealing with important issues were not restricted to gildsmen but non-gildsmen had the right to participate.

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

"friendly discussion"
I.e. that the parties try to settle the matter amicably outside the court.

"Trinity term"
Essentially, the latter part of June and early part of July.

"a day assigned"
This probably refers to a set date for an annual general court session at which presentments were made, by the constables or by capital pledges, of offences against the community.

"persons unable"
Probably this means persons unsuited for the office.

"Richard Clech"
He purchased membership in the gild in 1475, on the same day as Thomas Bye, and John Baxter was one of his pledges. The following year he was made a warden of High Ward, and in 1478 a constable (replacing Thomas Bye), surrending his wardenship a few months later. He was a mayoral candidate first in 1483, again in 1484, 1485, and 1487 when chosen mayor. He was again a candidate in 1489, and on several occasion during the political impasse of the 1490s, and became mayor once more in 1498. He was mayor again in 1505, and his final roles of responsibility were to represent the borough in Henry VIII's first parliaments (1509 and 1510). He appears less frequently in the records thereafter, and although he and Thomas Carpenter were both mayoral candidates in 1518, Abbot Thorne by-passed them in favour of the third nominee, who had not been implicated in the earlier disputes. We last hear of him in 1520. In the latter part of his career he was described as a draper.

"Cristin Nicholas"
He entered the gild by purchase in 1488, his pledges being William Lynacre and John Baxter. In 1491 the abbot chose him as mayor, although his name was not among the three nominees put forward by the burgesses; he held office only for half a year, before relations between abbot and gild broke down, creating a political impasse. In 1497 he entered a second term as mayor and his third term in 1499, having on both occasions been one of the nominees, and on the latter again selected by the abbot. He was again mayor in 1507. He died ca.1510.

"John Baxter"
He was a member of the gild by 1473, when he stood pledge for another entrant. In 1474 he was elected one of the constables. He was first a mayoral candidate in 1476, again in 1478 and 1479, being chosen mayor on both occasions – consecutive terms being unusual – and again in 1482 and 1483, going to his third term on the latter occasion; again in 1487, 1490 (fourth mayoral term), on several occasions during the '90s and was mayor again in 1496.

"William Linacre"
An elder statesman of Reading's ruling class, he entered the gild in 1449, as the son of a burgess – presumably the Edward Linacre who acted as his pledge; having cut his teeth in the role of tax-collector the following year, he was elected as cofferer in 1451/52, during the mayoralty of Edward Linacre. He was a mayoral candidate himself as early as 1462 and, although not elected, was called on a few months later to serve as a member of the committee negotiating matters with Abbot John Thorne I (1445-86). The following year he was again a candidate and this time the abbot chose him as mayor. His importance in the community is reflected in that he was again a candidate in 1466, 1467, 1468 (when appointed to his second term), 1470, 1471, 1472 (third term), 1474, 1475, 1476, 1477 (fourth term), (i.e. every year eligible between 1468-77). In 1480 he was chosen to his fifth term as mayor. During almost all of his mayoralties we have evidence of his assertive actions in furthering the interests of the gild. In October 1482 he leased from the gild for three years the wharf and wharfhouse, and during this period made improvements by installing a bell and firehooks. He is less in evidence during the later '80s and the '90s, but was identified among gild members in 1497.

"Thomas Bye"
He entered the gild in 1475, a couple of weeks later was chosen as one of the assessors of a parliamentary tax (and again the following year), and towards the end of the year was made a warden of London Ward. In 1477/78 he served as constable. He was a mayoral candidate in 1482, 1483, and 1484, being chosen mayor on that last occasion. Again a candidate in 1488, 1489, 1490, and on several occasions during the political impasse of the '90s. His son Thomas junior was a fuller, so Thomas senior may have been the same.

"Richard Lech"
He purchased membership in the gild in 1477, his pledges being John Baxter and Thomas Bye, and replaced Bye as warden of London Ward a few months later. In 1478 he served as one of the town cofferers. He was a mayoral candidate first in 1497 and again in 1499 and 1500. He attained the mayoralty in 1502. Possibly a dyer.

"Thomas Carpenter"
He entered the gild by purchase in 1488, Richard Cleche being one of his pledges. A few weeks later he was elected a warden of New Ward, and in 1490 chamberlain. In 1494 he was elected a constable, and in 1497 again served both as warden of New Ward and as chamberlain, repeating the latter office the following year as well as being elected constable. He served as mayor in 1504, 1506, 1508, and 1510. In that last year he was described as a mercer. He died ca.1519.

"William Lendall"
He purchased entrance to the gild in 1496, which probably made him the youngest of the group later being sued by the abbot. In 1497 he was a tax assessor, and a few months later was elected a constable, in which office he continued the following year; he is found in the same office in 1508; he appears not to have been considered mayoralty material. Possibly a dyer, if the man of the same name in the next generation was his son.

"William Baker"
He entered the gild by purchase in 1488, at the same time as Carpenter and Nicholas, and a few weeks later was elected both as warden of High Ward and as cofferer (or chamberlain as the post was now to be called). As one of the "usurping" constables of 1498, he was referred to by the abbot as William Netter, Baker being a netter by trade.

"John Norfolk"
I do not find this name in the borough records; possibly an alias for John Baxter.

"John Cokkes"
A John Cox was listed among the gildsmen in 1498, and was serving in 1509 as clerk of the gildhall, when described as a notary.

"unqualified and deceitful"
The terminology in the original is "simple and perjured", the former term referring to intelligence level, and the latter perhaps to deceit in the form of betraying the gild by siding with the abbot.

"leet and lawday"
A general court session, probably held annually (although at some places more frequently) and encompassing presentments of offences against the community, possibly administration of the assizes, and other business.

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: January 6, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2019