The documents which remain as the principal physical evidence of the organisation by which the medieval borough was administered themselves demonstrate the diversity in administrative structure. The prominence of documents produced by the Merchant Gild among the earliest borough records is witness to the important role of that institution in the formative years of self-government. In most towns, however, the gild was gradually superseded as the focus of communal identity by the town court, presided over by an executive prepositus elected by the community; the grant of which privilege was the first step towards independence from an executive appointed by an external authority. This court was an amalgam of ancient institutions: the burhgemot, the hundred court, the leet court, and the folkmoot or portmanmoot as sometimes known. At this stage, government and the exercise of legal jurisdiction were much the same thing, so the court was a natural focus for administration. When regularly kept records appear from the boroughs, outside of the gild context, it is usually in the form of court rolls. Such is the case in Ipswich, Norwich and Yarmouth, where series of court rolls begin in the late thirteenth century, and in the case of Colchester whose 1310/11 roll, although the earliest to survive, is doubtless part of a series begun at an earlier date.
Since the court was not merely a judicial but a general administrative institution, its rolls record more than just legal contests. Documents relating to property transactions, communications from or to outside authorities, accounts of the costs of public services, entrances to the franchise, elections of officers, ordinances, or indeed any memoranda that court or clerk felt worthy of notice, might be enrolled onto the parchment membranes or attached in the shape of schedules. In due course the regular recording of business peripheral to the principal judicial function of the court might produce sub-series. At Ipswich this took the form of entirely separate rolls, which themselves gave rise to a new institution in the petty plea court. At Yarmouth the separate membranes of each sub-series were attached together in a single annual parent roll. At Colchester such a process is only barely perceptible in the fifteenth century. Paul Rutledge, Yarmouth's archivist, has argued, on the basis of the pattern of the Yarmouth rolls, that town government there was structured simply and relatively centralised in ballival hands, but it is difficult to see that this holds any more true for Yarmouth than for Colchester or Ipswich, where the variety of names by which the town hall was known - Tolhouse, aula placitorum, guyhald, moothall - illustrate its multi-functionalism. Strictly administrative, as opposed to judicial, business took some time to produce its own records, for an appreciation of the difference was slow to impress itself on the minds of the burgesses. But in fifteenth century Ipswich the appearance of the General Court, with its registers and rolls, represents the re-emergence of the old portmanmote freed from its judicial role and dealing with burgess entrances, leases of common soil, ordinances, and general administrative decisions. On the other hand, it should be noted that, in the fourteenth century, material either not strictly relevant to normal court business, or too important to warrant such routine recording, was entered into volumes of memoranda usually begun as custumals or as the result of some significant constitutional event such as the election of a town council in Ipswich in 1309, the Colchester reforms of 1372, or Norwich's acquisition in 1345 of jurisdiction over its castle's formerly independent fee.
However, when we look at the records of Lynn and Maldon a different course of development is indicated. In Lynn judicial administration lay not with the burgesses, but remained the prerogative of the town's founders and overlords, the Bishop of Norwich and the Earl of Arundel and his heirs. The Merchant Gild records that survive - bede roll, morowspeche and congregation rolls, gild accounts et al. - by themselves testify to the continued vigour of that institution throughout the later Middle Ages. In the absence of a strong, independent court, a wider spectrum of the community than represented by the gild focused its loyalties on the assembly, in essence a folkmoot. The first regular non-gild records produced by the borough illustrate the workings of the assembly from 1292 to 1320; their title of 'tallage rolls' does not adequately reflect their scope, for they record not only the local taxation assessments that were, at this period, the foundation of the borough's budget, but also community expenditures, entrances of freemen, disciplining of transgressors against borough custom, and other memoranda. In place of the court rolls series of Ipswich, Colchester and Yarmouth, Lynn archives boast a series of assembly records, beginning with the tallage rolls, continued by the Red Register, and then by Hall rolls and books, covering the greater part of fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At the same time, the unusually strong concern with financial matters, in a borough where several important sources of income were in the hands of outsiders, has produced a fine series of chamberlains' accounts. The Norwich administration too was decentralised and we find accounts of financial officers from the 1290s, regular assembly proceedings from the mid-fourteenth century, and a variety of other records.
The growth of independent government in Maldon, as in Lynn, was retarded by the rights of its overlords, notably the Bishop of London. Assessment of the growth is also made difficult by the fact that the passage of time has not been kind to the borough's medieval archives, for even the relatively few surviving documents are in poor shape. To judge from what we have, Maldon's early administration was based on the assembly, meeting as necessary but principally at the January electoral 'court'; records of these meetings begin c.1384. An ordinance of 1389 granting that a court should be held by the community in its own hall is worded as if establishing, rather than confirming, the existence of the Monday plea courts. The more prestigious quarterly General Courts, presumably harking back to the borough's half-hundred jurisdiction tempore Domesday, were acquired at fee farm (with various other privileges) from the Bishop in 1403; it may be significant, therefore that the earliest court roll we possess is of the 1402/3 year.
Since elections of borough officers were the function of the assembly rather than the court-as-tribunal, it is not surprising that lists of officers, fundamental to this study, are better supplied from the records of Lynn, Maldon, and Norwich than from those of Ipswich, Yarmouth and Colchester. In the latter group of towns the student relies heavily on the use of the names of executives as dating devices. It was the general, although not invariable, practice to enter these names at the top of the initial membrane of court rolls alongside the regnal year in the heading; there is some indication that years were popularly thought of in terms of the local officer of the time. At Yarmouth the ballival names headed the various sub-series of the court rolls, whilst chamberlains were also named on the fifteenth century querela membranes. At Ipswich the names of the coroners were usually added to those of the bailiffs, although in the fervour of the reforms of the time the names of the chamberlains replaced the coroners' in the rolls of 1322/3.
Although, as Martin notes, "consular tables do not seem to have been an inevitable or at least a highly-prized feature of early borough records", the situation changes in the fifteenth century. In the context of the development of Ipswich's General Court, the results of annual elections were recorded from at least 1430. The Colchester reforms of 1372 gave impetus to the recording of names of officers, although they were simply tagged on to the court rolls as schedules at first - perhaps from uncertainty as to any more appropriate way of keeping them. Gradually they worked their way into a regular position on the initial membranes of the annual rolls and were supplemented by the barest of commentaries and addition of associated administrative material. Sufficient care was taken to separate these items from the account of the lawhundred, previously the first item entered on the rolls and occurring on the same day as elections, that one is almost given the impression of a sub-series.
It is regrettable that, in the formal records of institutions, intimacy and insight are rarely glimpsed. When something is shown of the actual process of decision-making, of voting procedures, of reasoning, debate and dissent, it is like a voice from the wilderness. And when the records inform us, for example, that the 'whole community' elected an officer, passed an ordinance, or made some other decision, we are not expected to take the statement literally; what is being recorded is the legitimacy of the action taken, by declaring its source of authority, and the binding nature of the action, thereby, on all members of the community.
Structure of Borough Government | Social and Economic Background of Office-Holders
Monopolisation of Office | Attitudes Towards Office-holding | Professionalism in Administration
Quality of Government | Conflict and Solidarity in Urban Politics
|Created: July 30, 1998. Last update: January 3, 2013||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2013|