POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Cirencester charters liberties self-government political conflict lawsuits abbey jurisdiction seigneurial rights borough hospitals corruption sexual relationships property values encroachment homicide merchant guild tolls exemption judicial administration
Subject: Suppression of alleged borough liberties and self-government
Original source: Thirlstane House (Cheltenham), Cirencester Cartulary, Ms. Register A, ff.11, 36-39, 188-190
Transcription in: C.D. Ross, ed. The Cartulary of Cirencester Abbey, Gloucestershire, vol.1, London: Oxford University Press, 1964, 9-11, 102-08, 611-15.
Original language: French and Latin
Location: Cirencester
Date: 14th and 15th centuries


Bill delivered to King Edward III by the hands of the men of the town of Cirencester, alleging that in many respects dom. William Hereward, Abbot of Cirencester, and his predecessors as abbot of that place, have usurped [the rights of] the king and his predecessors as kings of England, as appears in the bill written below. [1342]

Let it be remembered that in 1133, when King Henry I who was king of England founded an order of canons in Cirencester, he also founded a hospital of St. John in the town for the infirm poor to pray for him and for his successors as kings of England. To help sustain them he endowed them with one-third of all his tithes from his demesne in Cirencester and all the tithes of underwood from his forest of Oakley, which at that time was wooded and full of deer. He assigned to the poor [residents] a warden-chaplain to celebrate a mass in the hospital before them each day, for his soul and those of his heirs, in perpetuity; and to support that individual he assigned him the allowance equivalent to that a canon would receive in all regards – in bread, ale, and cooked food – which allowance was to be provided by the abbey. Concerning which tithes, chantry and allowance those infirm poor and the chaplain who celebrated their mass were in possession, to support the chantry and prayers for the souls of the kings mentioned above, since the foundation of their house. But in the tenth year of the reign of King Richard, when he had given the canons his manor of Cirencester with the Seven Hundreds, because of the extensive powers that they acquired through this grant, they having complained to the king about the chantry in the hospital for a long time, they then sold [appointments to] the chantry – sometimes to priests for £40 and sometimes to laymen for £60, contrary to the intentions of the royal founders of the hospital. Whereby the king and his ancestors and the infirm poor there were deprived of their daily mass in the hospital; and also the frank-almoign [granted by] the king was sold and the divine services extinguished for lack of support. Furthermore, the abbot then in office established in the hospital a sisterhood of women under an order associated with that of the abbey canons, and they engaged in sex in the hospital with the sisters who lived therein, as a result of which the charitable character of the hospital was badly blemished.

Furthermore, a house of St. Lawrence was founded there in the town of Cirencester for people suffering from leprosy, being endowed with lands for its support and with a warden assigned to assist them. The abbot then in office, having dismissed the warden and evicted him from the house, established in the house a brothel, the women taking their children with them into the house. And thus that charitable foundation was lost, and [the purpose of] the house confounded, and it was continued in sin. Concerning which, may it please the king and his council to order a remedy.

Also, whereas King Richard gave to the abbot and convent of Cirencester the manor of Cirencester with Minety, which is part of that manor, and with the 7 hundreds, the hamlet of Cirencester was not a part of that manor, for it is a borough in its own right, as can be found from the records of the Exchequer. Which town and borough the abbot has annexed to the manor and has treated all the ancient demesne as if it were part of the manor, contrary to the charter which is the proof [of status] and by which the king was accustomed in times past to receive from the abbot £100 annually as the farm of the town of Cirencester. Of which farm of £100 the king now has nothing, but has for a long time lost the rent, to the detriment of himself and his crown.

Also, the abbot has unwarrantedly appropriated to himself the parish church of the town of Cirencester, to the detriment of the king and his crown.

Also, the abbot illegally and unwarrantedly holds pleas of the crown, encroaching on royal jurisdiction, to the disinheritance of the king and his crown.

Also, King Henry had granted by his charter to the burgesses of Cirencester that they hold their land freely, with the same franchises as the burgesses of Winchester; which charter has been lost due to a deceitful warden who had the charter in his safekeeping. Of which charter the burgesses have only a transcript, and they beg you, most honourable lord king of England, that by your grace you will grant them another charter of such freedoms.

Also, the abbot has granted an annual pension of £40 to the sister of the archbishop of Canterbury, to protect him and the evil initiatives he was undertaking contrary to reason and to the rights of the king and his crown.

May it please the king and his council to recall and enquire into how one master Nicholas de Stratton, who pursued the above matters before the king, was killed by the abbot of Cirencester and his council of that time for bringing the suit; so that no man dares sue [him] for fear of death.

Also, when the abbot of Cirencester leased from King Richard his manor along with the 7 hundreds, he had only three carucates of land in demesne and £10 in rents of assize. Thereafter, because of the extensive power he acquired through that grant, he purchased all the tenancies of the people of the king's manor that there were in that demesne. So that he built up: 26 carucates of land in Cirencester, worth £200 annually along with court profits; acquisitions within the town and the 7 hundreds that are worth £100 annually along with pleas of the crown; meadow and pastureland worth £40 annually; the vill of Minety which is part of the manor and worth £60 annually, along with the forest at Minety and the pleas of the crown there – which King Richard had reserved for himself, his heirs and his crown in Cirencester, in Minety, and in the 7 hundreds.

You can see, sire, that the manor of Cirencester, the vill of Minety, and the 7 hundreds all taken together are worth £500 a year.

Inquisition taken upon writ in the king's Chancery, before Robert Parvynke the king's Chancellor, on 8 April 1342.

Robert Barbast and his fellows, under oath, say that the manor of Cirencester together with the vill of Minety, which is part of that manor, with the seven hundreds is one major part of it and pays £30 annually to the Exchequer, as evidenced by the charter of King Richard who, in the ninth year of his reign, gave the manor with its appurtenances of Minety and the seven hundreds, to the order of canons of Cirencester as a charitable endowment in perpetuity.

Moreover, they say to you that the borough of Cirencester is another major part of it and throughout that whole time was in no way an appurtenance to the manor of Cirencester, and was accustomed to pay a farm of £100 to the Exchequer. Of which borough and farm King Henry I was in possession throughout his reign and at his death, and after him King Henry II was in possession throughout his reign and at his death, and after him King Richard was in possession throughout his reign and at his death, and after him King John was in possession of the borough and the farm of £100 in the first year of his reign, just as his predecessors received it. Of which £100 our present king has had nothing, because Abbot Hugh of Cirencester in the tenth year of King John's reign usurped to himself the borough without warrant from the king or any of his heirs, thus disinheriting the king and his crown.

Also, they say that one plot of pasture called Crondles, which is of 60 acres and worth 60s. a year, belongs to the borough. Which piece of land used to be common to the borough, occupied by their beasts, in support of the farm of the borough. Which piece of land Henry Clerebaud, Abbot of Cirencester, encroached on in the eighth year of the reign of King Edward the grandfather of our present king, and had the land enclosed with a wall to the detriment of the king, the borough, and those who had common thereon. And they tell you that Abbot Hugh of Cirencester made an encroachment against King John in the fourth year of his reign, by building houses in the middle of the marketplace of the borough, which are worth 10s. annually; and Abbot Adam of Cirencester made an encroachment against King Edward the father of our present king by building in the same place on the highway ten houses, which are worth 20s. annually.

And they tell you that Abbot Roger of Cirencester made an encroachment against King Henry the son of King John by taking over 20 burgages in the borough which belonged to William Noel, Henry Primat, Nicholas Babbe, Richard Boilond, John Mey and other burgesses, in the fourtieth year of King Henry and thereafter; they are worth 100s. a year. Henry Hamptonet, Abbot of Cirencester, made an encroachment against King Edward the grandfather of our present king in the 30th year of his reign and thereafter by taking over the burgages of Adam de Lewes, William Bisle, William Anbecil, John de Baudynton, William atte Elme, Robert de Cruddewelle and others of the borough; which are worth £25 annually.

They also tell you that Abbot Adam of Cirencester made an encroachment against King Edward the father of our present king in the second year of his reign, by an abatement on the provost's court of the borough, to which the burgesses owed suit; and he used coercion to make the burgesses pay suit to his manor court, to the detriment of the king and the borough.

Also they say that the abbots of Cirencester have encroached against them on the church of St. John Baptist of Cirencester, along with the chapels of Baunton and Wiggold, without any grant from the king who is the true patron; and they tell you that King John had possession of the patronage of that church with the chapels and formerly presented the church and chapels to a Norman, his clerk, master Gauthier de Poundeveske.

As for pleas of the crown, they say to you that Abbot Hugh made an encroachment against King John in the fourth year of his reign, by presuming to have a fair in the borough on the day of the Translation of St. Thomas [7 July], without permission from any king; which is worth 40s. annually.

Also in that same period, Abbot Hugh and his successors held markets in the borough on two days of each week – Monday and Friday – throughout the year; which markets are worth 100s. annually. And it is their custom to have custody of a prison for residents of the borough and outsiders.

Concerning the forest of Minety they made no assart, but they killed off all the deer in the Oakley forest in the tenth year of the reign of King John. Abbot Hugh of Cirencester cleared a hundred acres of Oakley forest by installing Adam Wynesnok and Reinald atte Wode; which is worth 16s.8d annually, at 2d. an acre.

Also, they tell you that King Henry I founded a hospital dedicated to St. John in Cirencester and gave the hospital one-third of the tithes from his demesne in Cirencster and each week of the year three cartloads of underwood taken from his forest of Oakley; and he assigned a chaplain-warden of the hospital to celebrate mass each day in the oratory of the hospital in the presence of the infirm poor, for the souls of the king and his heirs, and he gave the chaplain an allowance from Cirencester abbey in the form of provision of bread, ale and cooked food, in the quantity that a canon receives daily. The present abbot, and others before him, deprived the hospital of those tithes, following the second year of King Henry, son of King John, and for a long time appointed laymen as wardens of the hospital, taking [money] from these wardens for having the wardenship for the term of their lives – for example, £20 from Henry le Chauntur and £13.6.8d from other laymen – contrary to the intent behind the foundation of the house, and in this way they abated the king's chantry for a long time, although in the recent past a widow of Cirencester by the name of Alice de Weston gave £60 to the present abbot of Cirencester to have a chantry in the hospital to celebrate for her, as is demonstrated by a charter which they can present in evidence.

As regards a house of St. Laurence, recently founded in Cirencester for lepers, they say to you that this was founded by one Edith, lady of Wiggold, who held of the king the land on which the hospital was founded. She died without heirs. The lepers were accustomed to be supported in part from the alms of the townspeople, and partly from lands and rents that good people gave to the house by charter; the which [charters] were taken possession of and carried off by Abbot Adam and his council. Friar John de Baudynton who was appointed master of the house by Adam, Bishop of Worcester, in the ninth year of the present king's reign was evicted from the house by the abbot and his council and a sisterhood established in the house. Their lands are worth 40s. a year, with one acre of meadow which lies next to Clerkesmead; on which meadow the abbot encroached, enclosing it in the 10th year of our present king's reign.

Also, they say to you that master Nicholas de Stratton who recently brought a suit for the king against the abbot of Cirencester on the above matters was beaten up in the town of Cirencester by William Clerbaud, John Medford and John Cruddewelle, the abbot's people, and subsequently for the same reason was killed in Wiltshire by them and others who abetted them.

Also, they say to you that John de Denemewe, Richard Gascoigne and Robert de Cornewaille, prisoners of the king were removed from the prison of Somerton by king's writ and taken to Cirencester gaol. From there, chained and tied together, they led out of Cirencester prison and in the highway, without having received judgement, were beheaded by Sir Robert de Astone, the abbot's steward, Philip Batel and Roger le Hattere.

Our lord King Henry I gave to the burgesses of Cirencester a charter of liberties in the following words:

Henry, by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, reeves, ministers, all bailiffs, and his loyal subjects, greetings. Know that we have granted to our burgesses of Cirencester that they be exempt from toll, murage, pontage, pavage, lastage, and all other customary payments throughout all our land in England, Normandy, Wales and Ireland, wherever they and their goods travel to. Wherefore we wish and order that they have all liberties, exemptions, and free customs as fully and honorably as our free and loyal subjects have so far had, free and undisturbed, such as our burgesses of Winchester or others of our kingdom. Wherefore we wish that they be exempt from toll, murage, pontage, lastage, pavage, and all other customary payments, as mentioned above, and we forbid anyone from interfering with that contrary to this our charter, upon penalty of forfeiting £10.
And they say to you, Sire, that John Boylond, a former burgess of Cirencester, had the safekeeping of this charter, and in the 20th year of the reign of King Edward, grandfather of our present king, Henry Clerbaud, Abbot of Cirencester, took the charter from him after giving John Boylond a large gift; and then he had it burned.

We beg you, most honoured lord, for the sake of charity, if it please you, to look into the encroachments thus made by the abbot to suppress the liberties of your burgesses and your borough; and [consider] the distressing action your burgesses have brought against the abbot concerning the awful enclosures and improper encroachments that he and his canons have committed against you in regard to your borough and farm, as mentioned above, to the detriment and disinheritance of your crown. And that it please you, by your grace, to grant and give us a charter of our liberties, as indicated above, in the same tenor of our original charter, which King Henry I gave us.

Note concerning the merchant gild. Which was revoked before Sir William Hankford, Chief Justice of England, in [...]

Henry, by the grace of God King of England and France and Lord of Ireland, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, dukes, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs, provosts, ministers, all bailiffs, and his loyal subjects, greetings. Know that we, giving careful consideration to what we owe our well-beloved subjects, the men of the town of Cirencester, for the sincere devotion they have shown in many ways towards ourself after we took up the reins of government, wish on those grounds to reward our subjects with our gracious favour. By our special grace we have therefore granted to those men, for ourself and our heirs, insofar as is within our power, the liberties and privileges written below.

Viz. that they, their heirs and successors may in perpetuity have within that town a merchant gild, with each and every liberty, privilege, and custom belonging to a merchant gild. The same men, their heirs and successors, may in perpetuity assemble each year on 7 January in a certain place within the town to be defined by them, to nominate and appoint by mutual consent and assent a master and such other governors, officers and ministers of the gild, whatever and however many seems to them best for government of the gild. Also, they and their heirs and successors in the gild are to be in perpetuity free and quit of:

  • all suits to [courts of] shires, hundreds and wapentakes;
  • murdrum and larceny;
  • aids of sheriffs, foresters, of any other of our bailiffs, and all other things pertaining to them, including the guarding and building of castles;
  • toll, pontage, passage, pavage, lastage, quayage, stallage, murage, fossage, picage, carriage, pesage, and cheminage, on all their goods, items, and merchandize throughout our kingdom of England and other places over which we have power, whether [travelling] by land or sea, wherever such liberties can be applied.

In addition, we grant to the same men that the master or governor of the gild and one clerk deputed by them may have full power and authority to take within the gild whatever recognizances of debt are made before them according to the tenor of the Statute of Acton Burnell. The master, or governor, and the clerk may in perpetuity provide certification, under the seal assigned for that purpose, to our and our heirs' Chancery of the names of those making the recognizances following the year the payment is made, as per the recognizances made before them.

In addition, the gild's master, or governor, then in office, whether in the presence of ourself or our heirs or in our absence, may conduct within the gild the testing and assize of bread, wine and ale and any other victuals, as well as measuring and weighing, and all other things pertaining or relating to the office of clerk of the market of the household of ourself and our heirs. He may correct and punish offenders or defaulters in those parts (whether in the presence of ourself or our heirs or in our absence). He may in perpetuity levy, collect, have and hold the amercements and revenues stemming from the same, towards the costs of governing the gild well and to help defray the expenses of those then being gildsmen and their heirs and successors, saving the just rights of anyone.

Wherefore it is our wish and binding command, on behalf of ourself and our heirs, that the gildsmen and their heirs and successors in perpetuity have, in the manner expressed above, all the above liberties and exemptions and may full implement and enjoy each and every one in the way indicated, without interference or hindrance from ourself, our heirs, our justices, escheators, sheriffs, or any other of our bailiffs or ministers whatever. Witnesses: the reverend father Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of all England, Richard, Archbishop of York, primate of England, Robert, Bishop of London, Henry, Bishop of Lincoln, our chancellor, Guy, Bishop of St. David's, our treasurer, Sir William Heron, steward of our household, Thomas Langeley, keeper of our privy seal, and others. Given by our hand at Westminster on 14 July 1403.

Recital of various charters dealing with the manor of Cirencester and its appurtenances [1418]

We have reviewed the written documents and the proceedings of the case which came before us in our Chancery as a result of our writ of Scire facias between the abbot of Cirencester and the men of the town of Cirencester, for the purpose of those men showing what reasons they had or could state as to why the charter made out to them – to the extent that it be detrimental or prejudicial to the liberties, privileges, immunities, franchises, customs or other rights granted or suitable to be granted in whatever way to the abbot – should not be revoked and cancelled. Which case was sent before us for examination shortly after we had summoned it before us in our Chancery through these words:

[Given at] Gloucester. Memorandum that the reverend father Henry, bishop of Winchester, chancellor of the king, by his own hands delivered here in the court, in this term, a certain writ of Scire facias, endorsed by the sheriff of Gloucestershire to whom addressed, as follows: Henry, by the grace of God King of England and France and Lord of Ireland, to the sheriff of Gloucestershire, greetings. Richard I, sometime king of England, our ancestor, by his charter gave, granted and confirmed to God, the church of St. Mary of Cirencester, and the canons regular serving God there, in perpetual almoign freely given, for the soul of his father's grandfather Henry I who founded that place, for the soul of King Richard's own father, and for the salvation of King Richard, the queen mother Eleanor, his brothers, and all the deceased faithful, (among other things) his entire manor of Cirencester with all appurtenances and with the vill of Minety, which is part of that manor, and with the Seven Hundreds belonging with all their appurtenances to the manor and its farm, to be held of King Richard and his successors in perpetuity for thirty pounds a year in place of all services, to be paid each year at the Exchequer. Accordingly, it was his wish and his binding command that the canons might, in return for the aforementioned thirty pounds annually, entirely have and hold forever the entire manor of Cirencester, with the vill of Minety that is part of it, and with all its appurtenances, freely, undisturbed, peacefully, and properly. Along with all liberties and free customs which the manor had in the time of King Richard's predecessors, including sac and soc, tol and theam, infangthef and outfangthef, hamsoken, grithbrich, bloodwite, murdrum, forestalling, "flemenstrit", [trial by] ordeal, [power of] arrest in all locations (both red-handed and after-the-fact), and with all [court] cases which have been or may be; and that they be free and quit of all scot or geld, and of all aids to the king, sheriffs and all their officers, and of hidage, danegeld, horngeld, summage, scutage, military service, [accountability to] shires and hundreds, pleas and suits, and other things mentioned in the charter. And that the chattels of thieves and amercements which may come about through forfeitures for murders or anything else may belong to the canons, along with the judicial jurisdiction that the manor has customarily had. Lord Edward, formerly king of England, our great-grandfather, having approved these gifts, grants, confirmations, liberties, wishes and orders, acquittances and quitclaims, on behalf of himself and his heirs, insofar as he had the power within the limits of the law, accepted, approved, and by his charter granted and confirmed them, among other things. Furthermore, recently the abbot and convent of that place, under the name of the abbot and convent of Cirencester, gave to understand to our great-grandfather among other things that King Richard, formerly king of England, by his charter had given and granted the then abbot and convent of that place the manor of Circencester with its appurtenances, along with the Seven Hundreds and everything else pertaining to the same, in pure and perpetual almoign. And Lord John, sometime king of England, our ancestor, afterward confirmed the gift and grant made by King Richard through his charter. On the authority of which gifts, grants and confirmations by the former kings Richard and John, the abbot and convent and their predecessors always – from the time the charters were drawn up and confirmed, up to the making of the charter of our great-grandfather – had possession of the vills of Cirencester and Minety, which make up the manor of Cirencester, along with view of frankpledge, return of writs, infangthef, and the custody of prisons within the vills and hundreds mentioned, just as belongs to them in the Seven Hundreds (of which the vills of Cirencester and Minety were as if one hundred). Also, the abbot and convent and their predecessors levied a tallage on their tenants in the vills of Cirencester and Minety, just as if tenants of ancient demesne, when our great-grandfather or his ancestors tallaged his demesne and boroughs. They hold two markets each week, on Monday and Friday, in the town of Cirencester and from the time mentioned above have been accustomed to take and receive within the vill, throughout the week, reasonable tolls for all kinds of merchandize sold there.

[The document then reiterates the same rights, in the context of their confirmation by Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV.]

Furthermore, Lord John, sometime king of England, our ancestor granted and confirmed by his charter, which was confirmed by our father, to the then abbot and convent of Cirencester that they and their successors might have in perpetuity a fair each year at Cirencester, lasting from 24 to 31 October, with all liberties pertaining to such a fair. Afterwards, our ancestor Henry III, formerly king of England, granted and confirmed by his charter, likewise confirmed by our father, to the then abbot and convent of Cirencester that they and their heirs might have in perpetuity another fair at their manor of Cirencester, lasting eight days – that is, from 6 to 13 July – with all liberties and free customs pertaining to such a fair. As is more fully set out in the charters, letters and confirmations already mentioned.

And now John, the present abbot of that place, has petitioned us that, whereas the manor is part of the ancient demesne of our kingdom of England, the present abbot and all his predecessors as abbots from the time that the charter of Richard I was drawn up, as a jurisdiction of his church of St. Mary of Cirencester and of his lordship of the manor, vills and hundreds, have had:

  • view of frankpledge in those vills;
  • return of writs and execution of those writs;
  • custody of prisons within those vills and hundreds;
  • a hundred [court] and a court held every three weeks in the vill of Cirencester in a certain house situated in the middle of the vill called the Tolseld;
  • a court for view of frankpledge in that vill held twice a year;
  • the suits of all of his tenants within those vills, the hundred, and the court every three weeks;
  • as well as from each and every of his tenants and other residents within the vills who are customarily obliged by English law, upon advance notice, to perform suit at the view of frankpledge at the biannual court for the view of frankpledge, before his steward, provosts, or bailiffs presiding;
  • pleas of prevention of distraint, defaults of debtors, agreements and other contracts, and personal disputes of whatever kind arising within the vills and hundreds;
  • the testing and assize of bread, wine and ale, along with other victuals of whatever kind;
  • weighing and measuring within the vills;
  • correction and punishment of offences and defaults of the inhabitants in those parts;
  • the fines, amercements and all revenues stemming from the same, to his own use;
  • tallages, villeinage, labour, customs, and the services of each and every of his tenants within those vills who hold by villein tenure;
according to the custom of the manor from the time aforesaid, among other things such as belong to a manor since time immemorial.

Similarly, the present abbot and all his predecessors who were abbots of that place have had and possessed: the markets and fairs mentioned above within the vill of Cirencester; reason toll within the vill throughout the week from whatever merchandize and are things are sold in the town, according to the tenor and effect of the aforementioned charters made to that end; with picage, stallage, and a court of piepowder [held] from hour to hour within the vill of Cirencester, as often as is necessary or whenever convenient, before the steward, provost, or bailiffs of the present abbot and his predecessors at any given time; with all other liberties, amercements, revenues and profits belonging to or associated with the market and fair, since the time that these charters were drawn up, among other liberties, privileges, franchises, immunities, and other customs contained in those charters. And all liberties, privileges, franchises, immunities, customs, correction, and punishments that they shall have fully used and enjoyed; and fines, amercements, revenues, tallages, villeinage, labour, services, and other profits, that they shall have had and received, peacefully and undisturbed, by virtue of the charters and confirmations mentioned.

Until lately, the present abbot, as regards the liberties, privileges, franchises, immunities, customs, correction, and punishments, fines and amercements, revenues, tallages, villeinage, labour, services and other profits, and other of his rights within the vills and hundreds, such as have existed up until now, has in many regards been worried, wearied, vexed, and impeded by the men of the vill of Cirencester on the grounds of a certain charter of our father, by which he granted to those men for himself and his heirs, insofar as he had the power, by the name of the "well-beloved subjects, his men of Cirencester", that they, their heirs and successors might have in perpetuity within the vill of Cirencester a merchant gild, with each and every liberty, privilege and custom belonging to a merchant gild [recites the substance of the grant of 1403]. Particularly because the men of the vill of Cirencester holding land there by villeinage from the present abbot, together with others living in the vill who are obligated to perform suit at the view of frankpledge as mentioned above, have united themselves in the gild and – on the grounds of the charter that our father issued to them – claim to be exempt from paying suit as tenants to the hundred court and the court held every three weeks by the abbot, and those same tenants and other residents [likewise concerning] their suit at the abbot's view of frankpledge held in the vill of Cirencester. They have denied having to perform suit, and so deny to the present day. In a certain court of piepowder there, before the master or governor of the pretended gild, held from hour to hour and day to day, whenever it suits them, they have entertained pleas concerning disputes, personal contracts, and other matters arising within the vill. The amercements and other revenues stemming from such pleas they have, contrary to the will of the present abbot, levied and received to the use and advantage of those men of the vill of Cirencester who have united in that gild. They have taken upon themselves the testing and assize of bread, wine, ale and all other victuals, as well as measuring and weighing within the vill of Cirencester, in regard to whatever persons are admitted into the gild, and the correction and punishment of offences or defaults that occur in those parts; and the amercements and other revenues stemming from the same they have levied and received to the use of their people, and so receive to the present day. Those men of Cirencester admitted into the gild [refuse to render?] the labour and services due from those who are tenants of villein lands and tenements held of the present abbot, or reasonable tolls from merchandize sold in the vill of Cirencester by men of the gild, or reasonable payments for picage and stallage on the ground of the present abbot in the vill [.... the remainder is missing]


Corinium was established by the Romans on the road from Exeter into the Midlands; it was a fortified administrative centre for a tribal area and also served as a market centre for grain and wool produced by the Roman villas in the Cotswolds. Prosperous and successful, by the fourth century it was the second largest town in Roman Britain. After the Romans departed, it continued to serve as the capital for a British princedom, and was later a prize contested between Wessex and Mercia and a base for the invading Danes, the centre of a region subsequently known as the Seven Hundreds of Cirencester. In the eleventh century it was a royal vill, where the king occasionally stayed, and a market was established there. With that kind of heritage, it might have been expected to develop into a borough. But this ambition was to be thwarted.

Like Reading, Cirencester began its transition from royal to monastic overlordship as a result of Henry I's foundation of an abbey. There had in fact been an order of secular canons established there prior to the Conquest, but early in the twelfth century they were superseded by Augustinians, and in 1117 the king began to build a new monastery for them. Progress allowed for the first abbot to be consecrated in 1131, and two years later the king turned over to them the properties the secular canons had once held, which included (among lands in several counties of southwestern and central England) two carucates of land in Cirencester, a one-third share of the tolls from the Sunday market, two-thirds of the tithes from his royal demesne in Cirencester, and the entire tithe of the parish. To this, the king added, from his own demesne, a third carucate and Oakley wood, but kept the rest of his manor in his own hands. The charter effecting this made a passing reference to burgesses living there, although at that period the term was used loosely; the Pipe Rolls also used this terminology when royal taxes were collected there, and there were other indications that the community was on its way to being recognized as a borough.

The character of the community, and the extent of the abbey's jurisdiction over it, had become a sore point during the latter half of the century. The residents complained to the king, who ordered the abbot not to harass the king's men of Cirencester in regard to free tenements they held of him, nor to try to exact customs or services from them beyond those to which the residents were obligated prior to the charter of 1133. However, the abbey had taken the manor of Cirencester from the Henry II at fee farm, and in 1190 this was solidified when the abbey paid Richard I a lump sum of £100 for a perpetual grant whereby it was bound to pay a farm of £30 a year for the town and manor of Cirencester. The townsmen again raised the alarm, but the king now took the abbey's side and fined them for bringing a false charge. Further investigations of their complaints during John's reign likewise failed to reverse the tide, and the abbot solidified his jurisdiction by obtaining a grant excluding the sheriff from intervening in most local affairs and (1222) permission to build a gaol. In 1215 the abbey had been granted a fair each October, and in 1253 a second fair in the summer was granted. At this period the abbot appears to have controlled all sources of revenues and was tapping into the profits of local commerce; the townsmen doubtless felt frustrated, when they saw around them other communities of like size obtaining measures of self-government that allowed the channelling of commercial profits back into the community.

Although the abbot appears to have allowed the king's justices to be advised, in 1221, that Cirencester was a borough, it subsequently became the policy of the abbey to deny that Cirencester was anything but a rural manor entirely subject to the abbot's overlordship. Matters came to a head at the opening of the fourteenth century – again as at Reading, a period when the abbey had been weakened financially by years of maladministration. In 1301 the "poor men" of Cirencester obtained a royal commission to investigate their complaints that abbot Henry de Hamptonet and his officers had been extorting money from them through unjust distraint, had broken into the houses of some and assaulted and imprisoned the tenants or carried off their possessions, and had impounded or driven off some of their livestock. Part of the rationale behind the abbey intrusions had been, it appears, that the townspeople were trying to evade manorial obligations to have their grain ground at the lord's mills, and were using private handmills; the abbey officers had therefore sought to confiscate or destroy that equipment. The commissioners, however, concluded in 1305 that Cirencester belonged to the abbot and he was justified in exercising his lordship; the townsmen were forced to pay a large fine. In 1308, the abbot took a further step, quashing the townsmen's attempts to route legal actions through their own court, and obliging them to attend his own court. The next battle was fought over the abbot's right to tallage the Cirencester residents. In 1312 the townsmen engaged a lawyer, Nicholas de Stratton, to sue the abbot on their behalf on this issue; their representative was subsequently murdered, if we are to believe the townsmen, by the abbot's supporters, the abbot's rights of tallage were eventually upheld in court and reinforced by a new charter obtained from Edward II (1321) confirming the abbey's jurisdiction.

The heavy costs of these losses appear to have quietened the townsmen for a while, but growing prosperity from the wool-trade enabled them to recover. The above list of grievances of 1342 is the next sign of renewed contest. The list begin with what must have seemed a shrewd move to the complainants, by casting aspersions on the abbot's actions that had, it was alleged, adversely affected the health of the souls of the kings of England, by depriving them of the prayers of the poor residents of the hospital of St. John. The aim must have been to immediately demonstrate to Edward III that not only the townsmen's but also his own interests were at stake in this matter. At the same time, the townsmen were casting doubt on the moral character, and thereby the credibility, of the abbot and his monks. The charges of moral depravity were not pursued when the townsmen were summoned to Chancery to put their case; either they could not be proven, or they had done their job in capturing the king's attention. The townsmen instead relied on charges that past abbots had usurped revenues which should be going to the crown. Another political strategem appears to have been to draw the king's attention to Abbot Hereward's association with the family of the archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop, John de Stratford, was brother to Robert de Stratford, the king's Chancellor, who was currently in the bad books of the king, being blamed troubled royal finances. Again, by creating a tie to issues directly of interest to the king, it was hoped to obtain a hearing from him.

The abbot was ordered to respond in the king's court to these charges. At that hearing, in April 1342, the townsmen summoned argued under oath that there existed within Cirencester a borough, which was not the same (as the abbot argued) as the vill of Cirencester that was a part of the royal manor over which the abbot now had lordship. They reiterated charges of encroachments on royal rights, although their account incorporated inaccuracies. The abbot produced past royal documents to support his claims but, despite demands from the king's counsel, refused to produce the 1133 charter making reference to burgesses. Meanwhile, the townsmen were claiming to have received from Henry I a charter which, in its tenor, was the kind of document granted to a borough. The text as cited has errors which indicate it was either an attempt to deceive the king or that, if the townsmen had ever received any such grant (and that more likely a king later than Henry I), the original text had been corrupted or was being misrepresented. Most likely it was a forgery, perhaps inspired by a grant of Henry II to Gloucester.

What chance the townsmen's arguments had of swaying the king we shall never know. Abbot Hereward decided it was politic to tip the balance, by a payment of £300 to the king; this persuaded the latter to suspend the legal proceedings, obtain the verdict of a local jury which supported the abbot's contention, and then confirm the abbey's jurisdiction in more explicit terms, accompanied by a promise that the abbot never need in the future be brought to court on claims that there was a borough in Cirencester. Historians have continued to debate whether Cirencester was in fact a borough or not [for the pro argument, see H.P.R. Finberg, "The Genesis of the Gloucestershire Towns", pp.52-88 in Gloucestershire Studies, Leicester: University Press, 1957; Ross, in his edition of the cartulary, argues for the con side].

Disappointed in their hope for support from above, and with the victorious abbot rebuilding the finances of the abbey, the townsmen turned inwards. They formed the gild of Holy Trinity, ostensibly for socio-religious purposes, but probably as a means to regenerate some solidarity within the community for their political ambitions. We hear of the abbey experiencing difficulties, following the Black Death and the labour shortage it caused, in exacting services from its tenants; and in 1385 some townspeople attacked the abbey. But the townsmen's moment did not come again until the opening of Henry IV's reign. They were instrumental in crushing the rebellion of the earls of Kent and Salisbury, and so won Henry's gratitude. Emboldened, the townsmen began to refuse to submit to the abbot's jurisdiction and raised a fund to fuel a new legal battle. Henry repaid his debt first by entertaining renewed complaints against the abbey, in which it was argued that the town of Cirencester had not been part of the manor until in 1208 the abbot forced the townsmen to perform villein service. Although the king felt unable to act against the abbey on the grounds of old claims, he did, in 1403, authorize the townsmen to establish a merchant gild (or perhaps more likely gave recognition to jurisdictional authority already being appropriated by the townsmen acting communally through the Trinity Gild); this despite an inquisition that declared such a gild would be contrary to the abbot's jurisdiction. The effect must have been to authorize a large degree of self-government; the grant not only gave some control over commerce, it also implied judicial independence and provided the basis for the townsmen to refuse to attend the abbot's court.

The victory was short-lived. The abbot obtained a new confirmation of abbey liberties and territories in 1409, and the following year of the fairs. Although an attempt to further restore his authority in 1413 resulted in a riot and his officers receiving a beating, he was able to capitalize on the accession of Henry V, obtaining a new confirmation of his jurisdiction, and successfully suing 104 townsmen for having withdrawn their services over a period of 13 years; he was awarded £6,000 in damages, but agreed the following year that the king could pardon this. In 1418 he obtained from Henry V a reversal of the grant of 1403, and the abolition of the merchant gild; the final document given above represents the revocation and affirmation of the abbey's control of the powers previously accorded the gild. Subsequent efforts to break free of the abbot's lordship came to nothing; Cirencester was not to gain self-government until the nineteenth century.

Ross states that in a "very limited sense Cirencester may perhaps be regarded as a borough: but few boroughs can have left so faint a mark on English municipal development." [op.cit., xl.]. However, it seems not at all improbable that Cirencester would have developed much as other middle-ranking boroughs did during the Middle Ages, had it not been for its inability to break free of the abbey's overlordship. As a royal manor on ancient demesne, its inhabitants had likely enjoyed at one time certain privileges that are an indicator of evolving borough status. But the intermediation of the abbey, interested in the inhabitants as tenants and men owing them services, established an obstacle. Not all towns felt frustrated under monastic overlordship; Battle, for example, seems to be a case where the situation was acceptable. But a larger number strained against the shackles. Some towns were able to overcome the obstacles, sometimes resorting to near-revolution, others were able to make sufficient headway to establish borough status and some self-government during the course of the Middle Ages. Cirencester was not so fortunate.



General note
Where the text is itemized in bulleted lists, this is my own rendering of the original, for the purpose of improving legibility.

The term in the original is "ville" in the French, villa in the Latin; this is important (bearing in mind that the dispute revolved around whether Cirencester was a borough) since that term did not necessarily imply borough status, but could also be used for "vill". The distinction between "town" and "borough" in this case is particularly significant. Such terms were used imprecisely during the High Middle Ages, apparently meaning one thing on one occasion, something else on another. In my translations here, as regards the status of Cirencester, I render the term as "town" in documents representing the viewpoint of the residents, but as "vill" in the document representing the abbey perspective.

"hospital of St. John"
The townsmen's statement is the only evidence we have concerning its foundation, but it is not unlikely that Henry I may have been the founder. Whether a chantry was founded at the same time is less clear; in 1319 the bishop of Worcester had granted the master and poor residents permission to have a priest to say mass, on the grounds that many were too old or frail to go to the parish church. At that point the abbot also gave permission, stating that his predecessors had built the hospital and that he therefore had full power over appointments to the mastership. Despite the townsmen's claims, in 1348 the king confirmed abbey control of the hospital.

"Seven Hundreds"
A group of hundreds surrounding Cirencester; essentially, the southern Cotswolds.

The grant of an allowance, by way of alms, from the abbey to the hospital chaplain.

"house of St. Lawrence"
The founder identified by the townsmen was Edith Bisset, and the encroaching abbot was names, somewhat ironically given the general context, Adam Brokenborough. In 1348 the king confirmed that the hospital was under abbey jurisdiction.

The original has un sororite des femmes bordel ores et tenent lors enfauns ovesqes eaux. Behind the complainants' deliberately black interpretation may lie the establishment of an almshouse for unmarried mothers.

A ville burgh' as the original has it.

"to protect him"
The original has pour maintener lui, but the implication seems to be that the pension was some kind of bribe to curry favour with the archbishop and his family, so that a blind eye would be turned to the abbot's (alleged) illegal activities.

A measure for land area, also known as a hide, roughly equivalent to 120 acres; like many medieval measures, the amount in practice probably varied from place to place, time to time. For detailed discussion see Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond.

More commonly known in the Middle Ages as a purpresture, this was an act of trespass on the rights, jurisdiction or property of another, by taking possession unlawfully. Blocking public access to communal land, by means of erecting a structure, or creating an enclosure or other obstacle, was a type of nuisance encroachment commonly the subject of complaint in towns. Encroachment on the rights of the king was a more serious matter.

"owed suit"
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 clearing of woodlands, in order to turn it into farmland or pasture; this required a licence from the lord of the property. Henry I's charter of 1133 had reserved assarts to himself.

Possibly Summertown at Oxford.

"lord of Ireland"
John was in fact the first king so styled.

"Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou"
Henry I did not use this set of titles, unlike Henry II (compare to the opening of his charter to Nottingham). Nor did Henry I use the royal "we" (compare to his charter to London).

An ancient administrative unit associated with the Danelaw, essentially equivalent to an Anglo-Saxon hundred.

"murdrum and larceny"
These refer to fines imposed on the community for unsolved crimes, murdrum referring to homicides.

"toll" etc.
These various items dealt with special tolls that could be levied on the transportation of merchandize (e.g. when crossing a bridge, or travelling along a road), to the landing of merchandize (e.g. quayage, or lastage -- a toll per last of cargo), to setting up the merchandize for sale (stallage, picage), or to collections intended to defray community costs on facilities helping foster trade (such as paving streets, or building protective walls or ditches). Further information on the individual items may be found in the notes to documents in the Tolls and customs section.

"recognizances of debt"
Acknowledgements of debts contracted, usually for a business purpose.

"sac and soc, tol and theam, infangthef and outfangthef"
These were kinds of jurisdiction and associated revenues. For discussion see notes to the Oxford charter and Nottingham charter.

Breaking of the peace.

Compensation for an assault in which blood is drawn, paid to the administrator of justice as opposed to that due the victim or victim's kin.

A land tax on the basic agricultural unit, the hide.

A land tax, originating in payments of tribute to the Danish invader, but continued by the Norman kings.

Provision of the service of transport by pack-animals.

A cash payment in lieu of military service (i.e. commutation).

A seat of local administration, the name deriving from the "shop" where tolls were collected. Local government at Norwich and Yarmouth was based in the Tolbooth and Tolhouse, respectively, while at Lynn those elements of administration in the hands of its lord were run from the Tolbooth.

Probably referring to the failure of residents to perform communal obligations or act responsibly towards the community.

"picage, stallage"
Fees associated with the assignment of a location from which to sell goods.

"judicial independence"
Based on the charter of Henry IV, the townsmen claimed before the king's justices in 1418 that the gild's court had "cognizance of all kinds of pleas involving merchants in matters relating to commerce, such as debts, trespasses, contractual agreements, and accounts, as well as any other thing pertaining or relating to merchants and merchandize; those of course relating to servants or apprentices quitting or leaving the service of their masters [before the end of the contracted term]; and also frauds and collusions committed, along with any other deceptions or offences done against the king's peace; together with all personal and other actions, except those in which the Crown has an interest, such as treason, felony, trespasses made by force and arms, murders, rapes of women, conspiracy, and others of that sort." [Charles Gross, ed., Select Cases Concerning the Law Merchant, A.D. 1239-1633, vol.II, Selden Society, vol.46 (1929), xcix; my translation.]

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: September 21, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2016