The Men Behind the Masque: Office-holding in East Anglian boroughs, 1272-1460

About the title illustration

The title was created using an illustration from 15th century Bristol and images of two leading townsmen of 14th century Lynn, reconstructed (i.e. images inverted and colourized) from their memorial brasses.

Swearing-in of mayor
Swearing in the mayor of Bristol

This is one of the illustrations from "The Maire of Bristowe Is Kalendar" a leather-bound paper volume among the Bristol archives, begun in 1479 by town clerk Robert Ricart, at the instructions of mayor William Spencer and the town council, and was intended to serve as a custumal and register of important "remembrances", although it is more commonly known for the chronicle it includes, covering events in national and local history throughout the Middle Ages. It is commonly known as Ricart's Kalendar.

The illustration above precedes the "Fourth Principalle" [part] of the volume, intended to describe the borough government and its duties, including electoral procedures and the oaths of officers. It shows the administration of the oath of office to mayor William Spencer at Michaelmas, 15 days after his election; it was at this point that the ceremony of transition of power took place. The illustration is a rare example of a contemporary depiction of borough government; the original is coloured.

With the Guildhall windows behind them decorated with the emblems of England, the Crown, and the borough behind – reminders of loyalties – the leading members of the corporation are gathered on the dais in the Guildhall. The five figures most prominent in the picture, and are shown by their dress – scarlet gowns trimmed with fur, and cloaks – to be former mayors (Spencer having served in the office twice previously). Spencer has his hand on the Bible while taking his oath of office. Technically the oath is administered by the man holding the Bible, outgoing mayor John Shipward, who had immediately before this given the traditional farewell speech which included an introduction of the new mayor. However, it was the town clerk (immediately in front of Spencer) who read out the text of the oath from one of the borough registers; whether the mayor repeated this or merely assented to it is unknown, but at its close he kissed the Bible to show that he took the oath seriously. Since Ricart was first elected town clerk in 1478, probably at the same time as Spencer's election, he may be the individual here depicted holding the open book; however, as officers other than the mayor did not take their oaths of office until the day following Michaelmas, this might be Ricart's predecessor Thomas Osney.

This scene and ceremony was probably being repeated in many English towns around this time. For example, on Michaelmas day 1420, at Lynn, a congregation in the Guildhall witnessed outgoing mayor John Wesenham make a farewell speech in which, while declaring his unworthiness for the high position to which he had been appointed, he stated that he had done his best during his year in office and thanked his colleagues and the burgesses in general for their support. Mayor-elect John Spicer was then administered his oath of office by the town clerk, after which the jurats and chamberlains took their oaths.

The other ex-mayors of Bristol shown on the dais probably include John Bagod and Robert Strange. Flanking them, at either extreme of the picture, are unknown officers who might, however, be the outgoing and newly-elected sheriffs of the city, or perhaps they are the Steward and the Recorder, whose presence (as the city's chief legal adviser) at this ceremony would likely have been considered desirable. Two lesser officers are also in evidence, standing in front of Shipward; these are the sergeant-at-mace and the sword-bearer. At the conclusion of the oath-taking, the outgoing mayor handed over to the new mayor the sword (representing the dignity and power of the mayor as a lieutenant of the king), the hat of office (also seen here held by the sword-bearer), and a casket bearing the common seal and other official seals. The parchment scroll, pen and ink-pot, and bag of money on the table seem to symbolise the legal records of the city and its treasury, while the remaining (right-most) item is probably the case in which the Bible was kept.

The arrangement of the crowd in the hall reflects socio-political status. The group equivalent to Lynn's nobiles de banco have the place of honour on the dais, with the bureaucratic servants of the borough immediately at hand but not apparently on the dais. Surrounding the table or chest in the centre of the room are the aldermen (town councillors) at right and town sergeants (judging from their liveries and the staffs of office), some possibly seated on benches. Further back from events, and apparently separated from them by a wooden barrier as well as the row of sergeants, are the members of the community who have come to witness the proceedings of this key ceremony in communal life.

Adam de Walsoken Adam de Walsoken

Walsoken was a village on the Norfolk border, near Wisbech, ten miles to the southwest of Lynn. Whether it was Adam or a descendant who emigrated to Lynn is unknown; the family name is not much in evidence in Lynn and the Geoffrey de Walsoken who held a tenement in Briggegate in the late thirteenth century need not have been an ancestor, although Adam is found with property in the same street.

If we may trust the evidence of the national taxation of 1332, Adam was the wealthiest man in Lynn at that time; the assessment of his goods – £20 – was the highest in the town (the average being £2.19s.1d). He was a merchant who dealt in wool and who served as collector of a royal tax in wool in 1338 and collector of national wool customs for a brief stint in 1340; like most other merchants he also dealt in other goods and in 1333/34 the community bought two barrels of sturgeon from him.

His beginnings may have been more humble, if he was the cobbler who became a freeman of Lynn in 1302, although the valuation of his goods for purposes of a local tax in 1305 (£13.6s8d) indicates he was already fairly prosperous. In 1309 he was amerced by the leet court for using non-standard measures to sell goods.

By the end of his life he had acquired substantial property in Lynn. His residence was in Damgate, probably at the northwest corner; 5 adjacent shops were part of this property. He also held other property in the same street, in Finneslane (later Tower Street) with a quay on the Purfleet, on both corners of Wingate where it ran into Briggegate, shops on the Stone Bridge (where Briggegate crossed the Purfleet), and a concentration of property at the north end of Briggegate where it entered the Tuesday Market – including 11 shops and tenements in Cook Row, Jews Lane and Gresmarket. Possibly he was also the Adam de Walsoken who acquired a messuage in Norwich (St. Mary Coslany parish) in 1333.

Adam served on the town council of jurats in 1325/26 and frequently as one of the ward constables between then and 1341 – Jewslane ward was where he lived. By that time he had already been elected as mayor of Lynn (1335/36) and was so again in 1343/44; during the 1340s he was one of the leading jurats.

The Black Death brought an end to his life at the beginning of the summer of 1349, survived by his second wife Margaret and daughter Joan. No sons are mentioned in his testament (although this is not unusual); a Walter Walsoken who was jurat in the 1370s might perhaps have been an underage son, although this is unlikely given Adam's advanced age at his death (at least 60). Thomas atte Bek of Cley-next-sea, another recipient of property in the testament and one of Adam's executors, may have been a son-in-law; he moved to Lynn in the 1350s. The brass over Adam's tomb in St. Margaret's church shows him with his first wife, also named Margaret, who may have been a daughter of John de Merlowe (several times mayor between 1294 and 1311).

Robert Braunch Robert Braunch

Robert Braunch represents the next generation along from Adam de Walsoken, although their lives overlapped and they certainly knew each other. Robert joined Adam on the town council during the 1340s. As a survivor of that initial, most devastating strike of the plague, Robert's existing experience in borough administration – he having also twice served as chamberlain and, very soon after his initial terms as chamberlain, was called on to serve a couple of years as the equivalent officer (scabin) of the Merchant Gild – was doubtless a factor in his election to the mayoralty in 1350/51. He was again mayor in 1360/61; between those two terms, and thereafter until his death, he had a permanent seat among the jurats.

Unlike the case of Adam, Robert's family name is well represented in Lynn, from late thirteenth to late fifteenth century (although we cannot of course be certain that all with this surname were related). John Braunch, a wool merchant of the generation preceding that of Adam de Walsoken, was already prosperous before he became a member of the Merchant Gild in 1293; he too served as chamberlain, gild scabin and jurat in several of the years during the period 1304-1323. His son William was manucaptor for (brother?) Thomas Braunch, when the latter and John were among a large number of townsmen charged in connection with the attack on Robert de Monthalt. Possibly one of these, or the Hugh Braunch who was jurat in 1325/26 and scabin 1327-30, might have been Robert's father. Robert's nephew, of the same name, entered the franchise in 1348 under his sponsorship, and an Ancelm Braunch entered the franchise two years later (and later in the decade served as chamberlain and jurat). Although this entrance took place only days after Robert had begun his first mayoralty (a suspicious sign), since Ancelm, a merchant trading in grain and ale, paid for his entrance – rather than receiving it by patrimony – and has no mention in Robert's testament (although Ancelm's own last appearance in the records was three years previous – he may have been a victim of the first revisitation of the plague in 1361), we cannot be certain of a relationship. The family name reappears in the fifteenth century, when we hear of a William Braunch, son of another Robert Braunch, selling off Lynn property in 1428; by 1446 he had moved into the ranks of country gentry, with the epithet "esq." and lands in Lynn, Wiggenhall, Islington and Terrington. Tempore Edward IV, a Thomas Braunch was settled in South Lynn.

The Robert Braunch depicted here is first seen in 1328, when he purchased a membership in the Merchant Gild. As a merchant, he is found trading in cloth, iron, leather, cotton, wax and silver ca. 1337 (when he and others complained to the king that their merchandise, to the value of £360, had been arrested in Bruges); and in the 1350s was exporting large quantities of wheat to the Low Countries. In 1333 he and associate John de Massingham (whose widow Ancelm Braunch later married) were described as "king's merchants" when licensed to take corn to Norway to trade for stockfish.

Robert was twice married; his second wife, Margaret, died after he had drawn up his will (April 1361) at the time of the second outbreak of plague. Surviving this too, he adjusted for his wife's death by making a codicil a few days before his own death on 15 or 16 October 1364. His executors were his apprentices, his only visible heir was his daughter Joan. A tenement on the river bank was to be sold to cover the costs of his funeral, obit and charitable works, while another (acquired by him ca. 1356) situated on Wingate near St. Margaret's church was to go to Joan; associated with this property was a ferry-boat right, which she arranged in 1378 would, after her death, pass to the Lynn community, in return for the borough celebrating the anniversary of Robert, his wives, sons and daughters. Robert was buried in the choir of St. Margaret's, where his brass shows him flanked by his wives Leticia and Margaret.

Created: July 26, 1998. Last update: March 14, 2012 © Stephen Alsford, 1998-2012