As counterbalance to the advantages of office, we may notice several detrimental features that may have served to discourage men from actively seeking office. The performance of official duties occupied time that might have been more profitably spent attending to personal business affairs, although as wealthier merchants increasingly used apprentices, employees, agents, or partners to handle business travel, it must have freed up some time for more involvement in office-holding. The above-mentioned grant of meadow to Ipswich's portmen was intended to compensate them since they "ben more ocupied for the state and for the worship of the toun, and oftyn more travayled and charged thanne other of the toun." It is not easy, however, to estimate precisely how much time administrative duties took up. Presidency of the borough court, the principal task of the executives of most of our towns, was not limited to the one-day-a-week/fortnight which was the common prescription for the regularity of court sessions. As early as the end of the thirteenth century, the aptitude of medieval men for litigation was producing such a volume of court business that it was necessary to extend court sessions into at least a second day each week, or even to divide business between two or more courts. Thus, at Ipswich the petty court developed out of the original great court, and at Colchester the hundredal sessions were supplemented by those entitled simply placita. These judicial sessions were separate from those that dealt with development of policy and making of administrative decisions, of which only the most formal and productive are usually recorded (except at Lynn) during the fourteenth century. In addition to the regular court sessions and the less frequent assizes and leet courts, there were more impromptu ones to deal with pleas requiring haste: fresh force/abatement (the burghal novel disseisin), and cases involving the law merchant in "foreign" or piepowder courts. Furthermore, executive officers could be asked to witness recognisances or apply their seal of office to private documents at other times outside formal court sessions. In 1405 it was necessary to respite the assize of bread, held in Colchester on February 9, to May 11 "causa magne ocupacionis ballivorum." We must also remember that those men occupying the highest offices in their boroughs were generally the same men serving in official capacities in the customs service, staple organisation, and local gilds, and had to devote some of their time to these interests too.
The development of the financial office and of the bureaucracy owes something to the desire to free the executive from his more routine chores, in order to concentrate on more important matters; the fact that most executives comprised more than one official may have been partly intended to permit a division of labour. At Yarmouth in 1491, reference was made to the duty of the chamberlains of spending 2 hours each morning and 2 hours each afternoon of every day in collecting town customs and duties. Private individuals were commandeered to carry messages on behalf of the corporation to out-of-town locations, although it may be that at least some were travelling on business anyway. The same cannot be said of M.P.s, who were often required, in addition to their attendance at parliament, to transact community business at court or with representatives of other interests at the parliamentary location; M.P.s could usually expect to be absent from their own businesses for at least a month - in 1465 the Lynn M.P.s were away for 123 days, due to prorogations. Absences out of town, or in performance of administrative duties in town, might have proved disastrous for the artisan of average means, but the wealthier burgesses' interests did not need such constant personal supervision: hired hands looked after fields and livestock, factors and apprentices the mercantile and industrial concerns. At the same time, some sacrifice was probably involved, as it seems that executive and financial officers were expected to remain within the town during their terms of office, under normal circumstances, or to absent themselves only on community business. In Lynn, at least, the freeman's right to claim a share in mercantile sales was forfeited by community officials if they were not able, because occupied with community affairs, to be present in person or by attorney.
Executive office was also a heavy duty in that its holders were answerable for their conduct of government, both to the community and to the king. The latter required of the borough executive efficient, just, peaceable, and above all profitable administration. If the farm or other dues to the king were not paid, it may have been the community that was theoretically responsible; but in practice it was the executive and their fellows of the wealthy upper class who would have to make up the deficit from their own pockets, or bear the brunt of distraint. It was the same group who paid out when the king demanded loans from the community, or who bore the immediate payment of royal expenses contracted locally, which the Exchequer was often in no hurry to repay. In 1338 the amount assessed on Colchester in a national taxation was paid by the wealthier townsmen who, however, had so much difficulty in obtaining repayment from the other members of the community that the king had to intervene to compel all to contribute. Again in 1373 part of the town's royal subsidy was paid out of the profits of ballival office, although this was said to be voluntary. In the same year, at Ipswich, William Maister and Hugh Walle complained to the king that during their ballivalty they had been obliged to pay part of the cost of a barge, commissioned by the king, from their own money, but now (no longer being bailiffs) could not obtain repayment from the burgesses whose contributions were still owing. On top of this financial responsibility to the Exchequer, the bailiffs were similarly accountable to the community for borough revenues. It was declared at Yarmouth in 1491 that if the annual budget produced a deficit of up to £10 the bailiffs must provide this from their own pockets; over £10 and a special assembly had to be called to deal with the problem. In 1423 it was ordained in Maldon that all officials involved in the collection of borough revenues would be personally liable for the payment of the same, unless they could prove that the amounts could not be levied; the same system may be inferred from the Lynn accounts of the fifteenth century. But ultimately the Maldon bailiffs were responsible for budget deficits, their goods being distrained upon if necessary; accountants were not to be permitted to withdraw from the court of account until all debts and arrears were fully paid. In May 1440 the Ipswich chamberlains of 1438/9 were ordered to produce in court, within a week, £20 that the community had loaned the king during their term, or be disfranchised.
It is a sign of the immaturity of the financial system of the medieval borough that either executive or financial officers were personally responsible for payment of borough expenses from their own treasuries, hoping to recoup from borough revenues that were not always easy to collect; and that they were personally liable for any theoretical (i.e. estimated) surplus of revenue over expenditure. The same is seen in that it was these officers, as private individuals rather than representatives of a corporation whose existence was not adequately recognised by law before incorporation grants, who had to sue to obtain revenues when necessary. To this end, the Colchester receivers are found suing several persons in 1392/3. Matthew Dyer was sued in 1410 by a brewer for the price of victuals sold to the use of the community in 1405, when Dyer had been receiver. In 1396 the Ipswich chamberlains sued the town miller for damage to the town mill resulting from his neglect but, losing their case, were themselves amerced for unjust plea. Lynn's mayors, and presumably the same holds true of the executives of our other towns, sometimes had to bear the expense of domiciling and entertaining important visitors to the town. Under such circumstances it is hardly surprising that we hear not of men seeking office or taking office, but of them being charged (carcantur) or burdened (onerantur) with it. Nor is it surprising that this charge and burden fell upon the backs of the wealthier townsmen.
A less common concern, but one not to be ignored, was the possibility of bodily harm coming to the holders of office. Deterrent ordinances notwithstanding, in an age when men were quick to anger, the person of the executive bore the risk of assault. In 1394 Giles Elleslee was gaoled at Ipswich for assaulting a bailiff; William Rason of Maldon was fined in 1461 for attacking bailiff Robert Burgeys with a club; in 1345 Roger Costyn was in the process of assaulting John Fynch in Colchester's market-place and, when the bailiff and a sergeant tried to apprehend him, he set upon them too. Sergeants were particularly common targets for assault, being much involved in the areas of enforcement, distraint, and collection of revenues. So too were tax-collectors; at Lynn it was ordained in 1374 that anyone slandering or obstructing tax-collectors would have to pay double his tax assessment. In 1327 the chief county taxer of Norfolk was attacked by a mob when he came to Yarmouth to select local taxers. And in the course of the Peasants' Revolt, the house of Ipswich's John Cobat, one of the M.P.s who had approved the poll-tax of 1377, was attacked. Cases are rare, but we do find some executives killed in the course of their duty: a Yarmouth bailiff of the time of Edward I was hanged for killing a bailiff of the Cinque Ports, and an unidentified mayor of Lynn (probably William de Sechford) was killed by a Wyrehale man who subsequently abjured the realm. Others from Yarmouth, Lynn, and Ipswich (as we shall see in chapter 7) were killed or assaulted outside their terms of office but in quarrels or vendettas consequent to political rivalries.
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: October 31, 1998||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|