Although it can therefore be argued that a genuine elite existed at the top of the borough political hierarchy - certainly by the close, and perhaps throughout, the later Middle Ages - it must be remembered that this elite was not entirely independent of the lower ranks of government, since it was recruited from those lower ranks. It can also be demonstrated that there was some degree of mobility within the lower ranks. Furthermore, we cannot describe the elite as a patriciate in the sense of power being monopolised by families and passed down from one generation to the next. The majority of office-holders were not followed into office by sons, grandsons, or other heirs, and there was certainly no impairment of electoral rights by sons replacing fathers who died in office; Lynn's Merchant Gild legislated against such an occurrence, but the possibility does not even seem to have been considered elsewhere. When John de Cavendish died in the office of Lynn chamberlain in 1348/9, his place was taken by John de Manegrene, who happened to be Cavendish's executor; but this was an exceptional circumstance and, besides, we do not know that Manegrene was not duly elected as replacement. The co-optation of John Wesenham junior into the ranks of Lynn's jurats in 1435 was probably strongly influenced by the fact that his father, who had just died, had previously been jurat, alderman, and mayor, and the unwarrantedly swift promotions of John Style and John Waryn into that upper council may also owe something to heredity; but such moves were not popular and Wesenham at least did not remain a jurat for more than a few months. Individual character and capability were more important considerations than family when men were elected to office; yet it is likely that one whose progenitors were of known and respectable reputation would be accredited with the same respectability, in the absence of proof to the contrary. General family prosperity also was a boon to its younger members, in their political aspirations; yet the other side of this coin is that family prosperity relied on the establishment and maintenance of wealth by individual members, and so could not substitute indefinitely for ability.
It is not difficult to find examples of families which were active in borough government over a lengthy period; but these are nonetheless a small minority. In Norwich the Butt family provided officials between 1260 and 1475, but few others could come close to rivalling this longevity, and one would be hard-pressed to argue for family monopolisation of office in Norwich. At Colchester there were several atte Fordes in office 1312-1467, but the surname is not an uncommon one and we cannot be sure that all these men were related. Very few other families there extend beyond two generations in office, although the Bosse family ran to at least four generations covering the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. At Ipswich we can point to the prominence of the Starlyngs from the mid-fourteenth to the early fifteenth century, but most examples are from an earlier period. The fitz Norman/Beaumes we have already documented. So too the Leu family, which produced office-holders up until the end of the fourteenth century; but they are more notable for their wealth in lands and merchandise than for political prominence - only Richard Leu was much involved in local government (1292-1322). The Golding/Mayden family is also much in evidence in the second half of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, when quite wealthy; but members showed little interest in politics, although William Golding was a portman in 1309 and John Golding coroner 1381-87 (however, by this time the surname appears little in borough records). The Maister family could trace its ancestry back to a portman of 1200, John le Maister; Roger le Maister, the third richest burgess in 1283, was bailiff 1279/80 and evidently a ship-owning merchant dealing in grain, malt, wine, and stone; his sons Thomas (who likewise had a part-share in a ship) and John were also bailiffs at the end of the thirteenth century. It was probably a different John le Maister, a nephew of Roger, who was coroner 1324-28 and who held lands in Great and Little Wenham, Halstead, Sprouton, and Stoke. The Thomas le Maister who was several times bailiff 1356-65 was a grandson of the earlier Thomas, and also a ship-owner, grain-merchant, and local land-owner. The next generation was represented by cloth-merchant William le Maister (several offices 1372-99). Although members of the family are found in Ipswich in the fifteenth century, none aspired to office.
At Lynn we find a large number of families remaining in government for three or more generations. However, one must normally beware of assuming family relationships from surname evidence alone. The several Massinghams in office 1292-1349 may belong to two or three unrelated families, and there is no evidence to link the Wesenhams of the early fifteenth century with the financier of the mid-fourteenth; nor can we prove that the Thomas de Botkesham who was mayor in 1433/4 was descended from the family that supplied several mayors and jurats in the second half of the fourteenth century. Braunch, on the other hand, is a sufficiently uncommon surname in Lynn to imply relationship between the three merchants who held office at times between 1304 and 1364. The Drewe family appears in Lynn at the end of the reign of Henry III and perhaps finds its roots in a servant of John Chaucer, one Dreu, who was nonetheless a member of the Merchant Gild. Geoffrey Drewe was mayor in 1305/6, and his (probable) sons Geoffrey junior and Thomas were, respectively, alderman (c.1349-56) and mayor (on three occasions between 1345 and 1368); each in turn produced a son who entered borough government. All five were among the wealthiest merchants of the town. Five members of the Ryghtwys family were jurats 1342-71, but only one occupied the mayoralty. The Swerdestone family was more powerful. It first appears in the person of wealthy wool-merchant Alan de Swerdestone, who held only the post of chamberlain. His sons Thomas and John were both jurats and the latter 7 times mayor and 7 times M.P. 1323-47, as well as alderman 1340-49; John was one of the great wool-merchants of the town and also exported large quantities of grain and ale. His sons John junior and Nicholas became jurats a few years after John senior's death, but never acquired as much power as their father. John senior married a daughter to his trading partner Hugh de Betele, mayor 1342/3, whose brother was a jurat and whose son also rose to the mayoralty (1382/3). The fifteenth century saw far fewer families of longevity, although the Nicholassons and Thoresbys each ran to at least three generations in power; the same is the case in our other towns.
Of the six towns studied, only Yarmouth shows clear evidence of a small number of families dominating borough government, in terms of the provision of personnel. Between 1270 and 1460 44% of the bailiffs belonged to one or other of 18 of Yarmouth's wealthiest dynasties. About half of the ballivalties of the period before 1350 fell to members of a dozen or so of these families. In the second half of the century a slightly different group of families of the same size held two-thirds of the ballivalties. Only in the fifteenth century did this situation change, both in terms of the number of families and the proportion of offices they held (one-third); and in this period the substitution of two chamberlains for two of the bailiffs also served to increase the variety amongst the names of office-holders. A few families were particularly long-lasting: the Draytons, Elys', and Fastolfs each produced a dozen officials spanning all three of these periods. The Elys family was in fact an offshoot of the Fordele family, deriving from Elias de Fordele, whose son Robert Elys de Fordele has already been mentioned; taken together, the Elys/Fordeles provided 12% of Yarmouth's bailiffs between 1270 and 1460.
The evidence from our towns seems sufficient to permit the general conclusion that the families prominent in borough administration in the fourteenth century had mostly disappeared by the time of Henry VI, which reign is marked by an influx of new surnames. It is difficult to find clear-cut causes for this; there seems no reason, for example, to explain it at Lynn as the outcome of internal power-struggles in the reign of Henry V. It may be sufficient to put it down to natural attrition and migration, for the process was gradual, not a sudden, cataclysmic disappearance. What then of the other basis for periodization, the Black Death? One might expect that here would be a case of cataclysm. But again it is not easy to demonstrate such a proposition. The huge increases in will registrations 1348-50 that the student encounters in Lynn's Red Register, Colchester's Red Parchment Book, or the court rolls of Yarmouth and Ipswich, are grounds enough for suspicion; after all, wills were drawn up primarily by the wealthier townsmen. Among the list of the dead there are names already mentioned in this study: Thomas le Coteler, Thomas de Dedham, Anselm de Fordele, Laurence de Fordham, Thomas Leu, Thomas de Melcheburn, John de Ratlesden, John de Swerdestone, Adam de Walsoken. Lynn's Betele family suffered the loss of Hugh de Betele, his wife Margery de Swerdestone, Hugh's brothers Henry and Richard, and Henry's son Robert. Between them, the epidemics of 1349 and 1361 are known to have carried off 53 of the office-holders who fall under the scope of this study from Yarmouth, Colchester, Ipswich, and Lynn; more than two dozen others, who leave no wills or other documentation of death-date, disappear from the records after these times. Of personnel actually in office 1348/9, Colchester lost only its town clerk, Yarmouth lost one bailiff and possibly two, Ipswich a bailiff and the town clerk, Lynn its mayor, its alderman, its town clerk, and two or possibly three of the chamberlains. Obviously such a quantity of deaths - the plague particularly felling the elder members of the community, from whom upper administrative ranks were largely formed - provided openings, but not a wholesale change of ruling personnel. Plague survivors remained in government, junior members of established families filled some of the gaps, while others were filled by new men - both immigrants and members of local families not prominent previously (e.g. the Ipswich Starlyngs). Not even in Yarmouth did the plague break the grip on government - insofar as there was any firm grip - of the leading families, but it certainly gave an artificial boost to the natural process of attrition.
By this 'process' is meant a series of factors that influenced the survival of urban families. That they rarely lasted for more than two or three generations has been attributed largely to the failure of male heirs, from the accidents of fertility and mortality; but this is neither a completely adequate nor a completely accurate explanation for the fact that established families could not by themselves maintain the size of the ruling class, so that immigration was essential. The spectre of infant mortality in the Middle Ages is undeniable. Margery Kempe claimed to have had 14 children, although only one appears to have been alive in her old age, and he had moved out of Lynn. She, at least, had the fortune to be of a compatible age with her husband; that many husbands or wives lost their spouses and subsequently remarried suggests that often there may have been an age difference between marriage partners that limited the period of fertility. Thrupp's analysis of Londoners has indicated that the average number of male heirs who survived their fathers' deaths and their own attainment of majority was rarely better than 1; to which Platt has added that the fourteenth century epidemics may have played a particular role here, with children prominent among its victims. However, the practice in fifteenth century Ipswich of recording the names of the children of freeman entrants notwithstanding, children do not feature very much in medieval records, with the exception of wills, and it is disputed whether wills are an accurate indicator of male heirs. The automatic inheritance of patrimony by the chief heir may mean that one (sometimes the only) son is not mentioned in his parent's will; for it was not always the case that even adult sons were among the executors. Furthermore, wills survive for only a minority of the men studied here. It is therefore impossible to ascertain with any precision the ratio of adult sons to fathers. Of the 843 office-holders from Lynn, Ipswich, and Colchester, only 295 are known to have had one or more adult male heirs of direct descent. On the other hand, only 31 are definitely known not to have had any.
What is important for our purposes is that, of the 295, only 91 had sons who followed them into borough government in any capacity. This is evidently not just a case of survival, and it is notable that, in each of the three towns, the proportion of men who had sons in government to the total of men known to have sons is about the same (roughly 30%). We have already dealt with the tendency for a few families, particularly sons of borough officials, to desert urban in favour of gentry society. Yarmouth bailiff Henry Rose had 5 sons, none of whom followed him into office, for they seem to have moved out to their father's country estates. Others may have moved abroad, like Margery Kempe's son, or to other English towns. A few sons became clerics; Tanner's analysis of Norwich wills showed that about half mentioned children and that 10% of the sons mentioned were clerics. Of the office-holders from Lynn, Ipswich, Colchester, and Yarmouth, 22 are known to have had sons who were clerics; this group had 44 (known) sons in total, 23 of whom joined the clergy, while only 5 entered borough government. It will be noted that in the majority of cases these clerics were not the only sons of the family; Margery Kempe's attempt to persuade her apparently sole surviving son to become a monk is not likely to have been typical, especially given her own extreme religiosity. The number of clerical sons is surely underrated, for we rarely hear of them outside the context of wills; we would not, for example, have known that Joseph Elianore had a son, had he not founded a chantry and appointed his son its chaplain. Omitted from the list of 22 office-holders with clerical sons is the Fastolf family of Yarmouth. Here is one family that was prolific in its production of male heirs and that maintained its influence in the borough throughout the fourteenth century, despite the departure of several branches to country estates or other towns. We know of several members who had only female heirs, or no heirs at all, and several others who entered the clergy: two were monks at St. Benet of Holme, another had a living at Gaymerston; two were Cambridge graduates, one (the brother of a Chief Justice of Ireland) becoming a king's clerk and holding several notable positions; one became Bishop of St. David's.
It seems likely that there would have been enough male heirs to maintain the size of the ruling class from established families, had all those heirs been inclined so to follow in their fathers' footsteps. But we are unreasonable to expect them to, for there was no compulsion upon them, and they were faced with a variety of choices of careers: legal or administrative work for the king, a life in the church, the role as country squire, or concentration on trade activities in their home town or elsewhere. Indeed, compared to these options, service in borough administration should hardly be considered a career (in terms of its direct rewards) at all - it was more of a sideline. The competing attractions, together with the deaths of sons before their time or the failure of some men to produce sons at all, combine to explain why there was plenty of room for new men in the ranks of government. We need not emphasise any one of these factors to the exclusion of the others.
Yet there is a further factor, not so readily apparent. The 'failure of male heirs' theory is partly founded on an inability to trace dynasties beyond more than a few generations. In some cases, however, it is possible to discover that dynasties do continue, but are simply not as conspicuous as once they were. We have noted that fortunes, political and financial, were founded on individual abilities rather than family traits; it does not follow that all sons should surpass or even equal the achievements of their fathers. For example, of three generations of Henry le Rotouns in Ipswich, the father and grandson both held the ballivalty, but the son does not figure in local government, nor do son or grandson evidence the ship-owning and mercantile activity of the first Henry. Gilbert Robert served Ipswich in various official capacities between 1291 and 1328 in addition to occupying several posts in the customs service (1323-27); he was one of Ipswich's three great wool-merchants of 1322 and according to the 1327 subsidy the second richest burgess, holding lands in Bentley, Gosbeck, Whitton, Thurleston, and Stoke. He married a daughter of John Harneys senior - possibly his second wife - and left three, or perhaps four, sons (probably all adults). Yet no subsequent member of the family held office in the borough. Possibly some of the sons left town. One, Richard, son-in-law of Thomas le Rente, was disfranchised in the course of the political conflicts of 1323; his line remained in Ipswich but its decline is seen in that his son Gilbert was merely a clerk to Henry Brikoun (bailiff 1340/1), a later member of the family was a sailor, and not until the early fifteenth century do we find again a merchant in the family.
There are a various reasons why the fortunes of individual families fluctuated. Wealth built up by successful men of business was not always passed on to the principal heir, who sometimes was left only with patrimony while property and goods acquired during the testator's life were divided amongst other heirs, or became entangled in disputes often the consequence of the widow re-marrying; bequests to religious and charitable purposes could occasionally be very large too. Simon Mate, the third generation of a line of Colchester bailiffs, died c.1439 leaving as his heir a daughter; but her inheritance of real estate was mortgaged by the widow to pay Simon's debts and bequests, and the mortgagee forged deeds to defraud and disinherit the daughter, who died penniless in prison. Even when the heir inherited a firm foundation of wealth on which to build, it did not follow that he was inclined to or capable of building. Of the two known sons of Colchester bailiff Roger le Belch, one engaged in piracy but later settled down to legitimate commercial pursuits, although he and his own son predeceased Roger, victims of the plague; Roger's second son sold quitclaims to his late father's property to finance his gambling. In a legal battle over custody of a propertied but lunatic relative (the widow of Edmund de Beeston), former Lynn chamberlain Philip Wyth was described in 1382 by his opponents as
an evil man and needy, having foolishly wasted the goods which were his, so that he is become overwhelmed in poverty and debts to many men and goes about any means of gaining goods, caring not how or from whom so long as he gets them.
The historian must of course be wary of such statements, yet this one seems to have some foundation, judging from other evidence as to Philip's financial difficulties. He had, at the time of the legal battle, a heavy financial commitment in the £112 he had contracted to pay the king annually for the farm of Lynn petty customs; and in 1391 he persuaded his father, who was retired, to reduce the rent that Philip paid him for various properties. Philip was allowed no role in local government after losing the custody case, and in 1385 was imprisoned for unspecified trespasses and disobediences, resisting arrest, and bending the town sergeant's mace. His sole surviving son became a cleric, and his daughter married a London man and was subsequently defrauded of her inheritance by Philip's widow.
As in the case of Philip Wyth and Richard Robert, political or other misdemeanours could end the careers of prominent families in their towns. Lynn's powerful Swerdestone dynasty ended with the disappearance of John junior about the time of the recurrence of the plague in 1361, and the disfranchisement and social excommunication of his brother Nicholas "sine aliqua gracia reconciliacionis imposterum" in 1380 for intriguing to obtain sacramental rites for St. Nicholas' chapel; the family is not heard of again. Jurat Walter de Dunton was similarly punished as an accomplice of Swerdestone; although reconciled in 1386, he was not permitted back into the council and his son never held more than a minor bureaucratic post. John James and John Sudbury, former Ipswich office-holders, were disfranchised together in 1459, for breaking town ordinances and their freeman's oaths; we have no further specification, although both had been in various troubles in recent years, including James having been accused of minor embezzlement when chamberlain (1447/8) and Sudbury being ordered arrested and brought before the King's Council in 1453 (although he became coroner at Ipswich later that year). The former appeared no more in the records, the latter only in death; neither's descendants had any role in borough government. Adam de Brandeston, once M.P. and deputy butler in Ipswich, was outlawed for felony about the time of his death (c.1362) and his lands escheated, after which the surname is not seen in the town records.
More often, however, personal fortunes were subject to the dangers of commerce: loss of merchandise through storms at sea, piracy, or confiscation by foreign governments, unprofitable ventures, or simply bad management. Ipswich bailiff Thomas Andrew mercer left no long will; it was necessary only to state that all his goods and chattels should be sold to pay his debts. At Lynn the Merchant Gild allotted £30 annually to alms for members who had fallen into poverty, and even ran a crude insurance scheme. Edmund de Fransham, mayor 1374/5, was one recipient of such alms in 1386, his career possibly damaged by his participation in the violent attack on Bishop Despenser in 1377. Merchant and jurat William de Snoryng was another; he survived the Black Death only to be ruined by £100 damages awarded against him in a suit brought by Sir John de Gannok. A third was draper Philip de Staunford, chamberlain and jurat in the 1380s, who in 1396 was pardoned for failing to appear in suits of debt, totalling £43.6.8d, brought by various parties; he is not seen again until 1411, when receiving alms. Grain-merchant Thomas Bubbe (jurat 1372-80) lost goods worth £73.6.8d in the general seizure of English merchandise in Prussia in 1385; in the following year the Merchant Gild paid out £20 to aid his release from debtor's prison, but too late to save his life. James atte Brigge, twice chamberlain, does not appear in borough government after 1412 (despite his election as jurat in 1411) in which year he lost one shipment of merchandise to pirates and another to the raging sea.
The above were all individual misfortunes. At Yarmouth we see how the general economic environment damaged the ranks of the ruling families. At various times in the fifteenth century the king granted aid to the townsmen, in the shape of reduction of the fee farm and grants of money towards building a new, navigable port. This was the consequence of repeated complaints (1378, 1397, 1409, 1442, 1463, 1471, 1502) that the town's commerce had declined considerably from its level in the early fourteenth century, so that the financial obligations of the community could not be met, and some of the more substantial burgesses had left or were threatening to leave - even going so far as to pull down their houses to rebuild elsewhere - with the result that Yarmouth was considerably weakened as a coastal defence. In the post-medieval period the decline was said to have begun with the Black Death, but in fact the plague had only worsened the situation, for the first plea for assistance was made in 1347. This petition blamed the French war - long periods of arrest and impressment of the ships of local merchants in peak trading seasons, and the losses of ships in royal service - and inclement weather for the depletion of its mercantile fleet. Only a small portion of the once-proud fleet that proved itself at Sluys remained seaworthy, while other ships lay damaged on the beach, their owners too poor to repair them, it was claimed. Several named merchants, impoverished, had left town, including former bailiff Richard de Walsham, who had lost his ship and £200 in merchandise. Others of the the formerly leading townsmen were now much reduced in means, including members of the office-holding families of Child, Rose, and Catfield. John Perbroun, arguably the major figure in Yarmouth history in the first half of the fourteenth century, lost one of his ships in royal service; of his three sons, one entered the church, one was among those listed in 1347 as impoverished, and the third is seen only in the act of selling his father's property.
At Lynn the commercial opportunities of purveying and victualling royal forces were a factor in the rise of financiers John de Wesenham and Thomas de Melcheburn, but at Yarmouth these 'benefits' of the war were outweighed by the loss of shipping on which that town was more dependent. Yet even great wealth was no guarantee of the establishment of a powerful urban dynasty. Melcheburn's son Peter inherited his father's wealth but lived only three years longer than his father. Wesenham's son Hugh married into a Midlands gentry family and was himself knighted. Neither family is found in borough government in the second half of the fourteenth century. Lynn merchant-mayors John de Burghard (d.1339) and Adam de Walsoken (d.1349) both left substantial property in Lynn, but the latter had only a daughter to inherit, whilst of the former's three sons one became a cleric, one had died by 1352, and of the third we hear nothing. Available evidence suggests it to hold true for all towns studied here, with the possible exception of Yarmouth, that, as Martin concluded regarding Ipswich, "it seems to have been rare for a son to succeed his father in his interests in the town."
On the other hand, whilst Power's declaration that, in mid-fourteenth century conditions, "great men rose like meteors and, like meteors, disappeared into the night" may hold true for men like Melcheburn and Wesenham, for most leading townsmen such a conclusion could only be the result of inadequate records or insufficient research. Old soldiers never die, they only fade away. Lynn jurat William Brycham left four adult sons, but they show no signs of their father's administrative and mercantile activities and, indeed, are barely visible in the records at all. John de Couteshale was five times mayor of Lynn, frequently jurat 1342-71, grain-merchant and ship-owner, and personally owned much of the Jews Lane ward of which he was constable. His son Thomas inherited some of this property and also rose to the mayoralty, although he shows no signs of commercial activities; of Thomas' sons, one disappears entirely and another was a skinner who played no role in Lynn's administration. John Pod, sometime bailiff, son of bailiff Alexander Pod, and veteran of Colchester's council (1398-1437) was one of the more prominent merchants of the town, dealing in a variety of goods. His son John junior, although tolerably wealthy, held no borough office and described himself in his will as a weaver; there is no sign that he added at all to the property left him by his father. Thomas Stace, one of the most powerful of Ipswich's rulers, was the son of a humble tailor and is known to have had 5 sons of his own. Of these: John was murdered in 1321 in the course of the political struggles focusing around his father; Thomas junior moved to Yarmouth (sitting as M.P. for that town in 1332) and his branch of the family gradually severed its ties with Ipswich and sank into relative obscurity in its new home; Henry disappears from the records; Nicholas remained in Ipswich and himself produced sons, but this branch was only of moderate means; Geoffrey served as bailiff and M.P. (but on nowhere near the scale of his father), spent more of his time getting into mischief and debt than trying to restore the family's fortunes, and left no known heirs.
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 8, 2019||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2019|