The selection of candidates in Norwich by 'loudest voice' procedure was contrary to the general trend in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to sophisticate procedures so that assembly meetings were more orderly and dignified. At Lynn the right of any member of the community to attend at least the more important assemblies was not diminished by the constitutional compromise of 1420. On one occasion it was declared impossible to proceed with co-option of a jurat replacement because the community had not been forewarned to attend that particular meeting. On another, when the crowd in the gildhall was so dense that the clerk was unable to record the names of all present, the mayor replied to complainants that he was not empowered to deny anyone entrance to the hall because the day's business (parliamentary report and grant of expenses) affected every townsman. On the other hand, a penalty was set for anyone present at an assembly who spoke after the mayor had called for silence; and it was recommended that the mayor attend the constabulary elections of Common Councillors, to maintain discipline and prevent argument. At Maldon only the councillors and parties involved were permitted to participate in discussions of private business. A further feature of the 1372 reforms in Colchester was the prohibition of "comune clamour" in assembly - if a burgess wished to put a matter before the council he must do it only in a written petition.
Although the right of the community to attend important assemblies such as elections and the giving of accounts - for the accountability of borough officers was another of the controls exercised by the electorate over its representatives - was acknowledged, some attempt was made to restrict participation by re-defining who was eligible to attend. The rulers of Norwich, replying in 1414 to the charge that they were trying to make governmental decisions without obtaining the assent of the community, objected to their accusers' implicit claim that:
chescun persone de la pluis meindre reputation de dite Citee davoir a taunt dauctorite et poair en toutz les eleccions et autres affairs ... come avount les pluis sufficiantz persones dicell Citee.
It may be that in omitting the phrase concerning community assent in 1380 the Norwich rulers had planned to exclude all but the selected representatives of the community from assemblies, as had been done in Exeter in 1345. Undated electoral reforms in Colchester, whose tenor suggests them to be from the early fifteenth century, were the consequence of
parlous discordes and inconveniences ... by cause of the multitude concurrent to such eleccions, and presumying and usurpying enteresse in the seid eleccions, wher in dede they owe noon to have.
These reforms insisted that only freemen householders could participate; at the same time the four headmen of the electoral committee, who co-opted the other twenty, were required to be men owning property worth 40s. annually, so that "simple persones" incapable of the responsibilities would not be chosen to that office henceforth. Even Lynn's reform administration, the backbone of whose support was the non-freemen section of Lynn's population, saw the need to restrict voting rights to freemen - although they had largely circumvented this potential problem by enfranchising a large number of their supporters.
For what was desirable to the medieval mind was not democratic government so much as orderly government, free of the influence of the mob, conducted with justice and impartiality towards goals that were for the common good of all townsmen. Not direct popular participation, but controls - such as the electoral committee, financial accounting, and representation in government - were viewed as the means to ensure this end. It is not clear whether the stipulations regarding voting qualifications, just noted, were a narrowing of the electorate or merely a confirmation of the special privileges of the freemen. The fact that only the latter were sworn to conceal town counsels suggests that non-freemen may never have been allowed access to routine assembly meetings, and even at the electoral assemblies the permitted presence of any and every resident did not necessarily mean that non-freemen had a right to participate actively. Disregarding the Ipswich electorate of 1200, at which time the sworn franchise had not been created, only in the case of Lynn's Common Council is there clear evidence that non-freemen had electoral rights. Much revolves around the use of the term 'community' - whether in a technical or a general sense - and we rarely have sufficient evidence to be certain.
Borough records pay homage to the theory of governmental authority deriving from the community throughout the medieval period. It may be that this theory was, in practice, little obstacle to the local governors pursuing their own chosen course of action, but the theory remained. Yet it was undermined. Not by indirect election, for that was merely an expression of the representation principle. More by co-optation and the associated life-membership status of councillors, which removed them from electoral controls. The Common Council was an inadequate substitute for a representative assembly, and eventually provided the excuse for creating closed corporations in which elections were an in-house affair. Initiative and the real power of decision-making remained with the upper council, which had begun to think of itself as a separate estate bound by the controls of the written constitution but not by the intangible authority of the community. This change, running counter to the original concept of the pares, lay at the roots of the development of borough government. It was a human, not an institutional, factor; and towards this, via a study of the men who held office and their attitudes towards office-holding, our attentions shall henceforth be directed.
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||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|