Given the dangers and detriments of office, we might expect some reluctance to assume that burden. The evidence of it is abundant, but perhaps not all trustworthy. The most obvious indications of a widespread difficulty in obtaining persons willing to serve in office are the ordinances enforcing participation. Those of Yarmouth in 1272 set 6s.8d as the fine for any councillor who failed to attend when summoned by the bailiffs to deal with community business, as well as setting heavier fines for bailiffs and councillors negligent in their duties. In 1491 fines for not answering ballival summonses were 12d. for members of the upper council and 6d. for members of the lower council. The decrease perhaps reflected that, in the fifteenth century, the adoption of majority vote procedures made non-attendance a less serious hindrance to the transaction of business. Chapters in the Norwich custumal dating from about mid-fourteenth century prescribed a fine of 40s. on men elected as bailiffs but refusing to accept the office, and 2s. fine on those citizens summoned to attend assemblies (on behalf of the community) who did not bother to come; this last phrase - "venire non curant" - implies apathy, but the inconvenience of neglecting business affairs is indicated later in the passage, when it is ordered that routine assemblies were to be held only on holy days and non-market days. In 1465 the Norwich assembly set the substantial fine of £40 on those refusing to accept election as aldermen. At Colchester it was granted in 1411/12 that every councillor willing to perform his duties should be provided with 2s. worth of cloth for a hood, but for every default of appearance would lose 6d. of the value of the same; in 1443 fines for default of the aldermen and of the 16 councillors were set at the same levels as those of Yarmouth in 1491 - a further sign of the predominance of the aldermen in the council. It was ordained at Ipswich in 1451 that anyone refusing election to any borough office would be disfranchised in perpetuity; there is no direct evidence of fines for default of appearance at assemblies, but there may well have been such, since promise of attendance was part of the oath of office of the members of the lower council.
At Maldon, where the enfranchised population was particularly small, a strong concern for full participation is evinced. Loss of franchise was the punishment for wardemen who refused to take office. Default in attendance at the regular assemblies by wardemen or the informal council of ex-bailiffs was punished by fines which doubled with every recurrence of the offence; not only these councillors but every burgess was required to attend the courts of election and accounting - the freeman's oath guaranteeing that, were he within seven miles of the town, he would come. At Lynn we discover fines or harsher punishments for persons refusing office, not only in the corporation but also in the Merchant Gild, private gilds, and in such semi-public posts as churchwarden. A £20 penalty was imposed in 1358 upon those refusing mayoral office, although in return for this the unwilling party was granted exemption from being re-elected in the following year. In the fifteenth century there was a complex set of fines dealing with absenteeism, whose roots may be traced back at least to 1358, when any jurat refusing to answer a mayoral summons was to pay 3s.4d, and if defaulting on election day (when every burgess was expected to attend without summons) to pay 6s.8d; every other burgess was to pay 12d. for defaults and chamberlains 3s.4d. In 1372 4d. was set as the fine for anyone summoned to attend an assembly who failed to appear by ten o'clock; those who persistently failed to come to pay their tax were to be penalised 1d. per shilling of their assessment. Elaboration of procedures produced, ca. 1425, a series of fines: latecomers were to pay 4d. or give their excuse; if they did neither before taking their seat in the gildhall, they would pay 8d.; if absent for the whole meeting and then failing to offer an excuse at the next, 2s.; if any refused to sit in a specific place when ordered by the mayor, 4d. It is difficult to tell whether such fines were effective in encouraging attendance and discipline; the revenue from defaults was a fairly regular, if small, item in borough accounts.
Fines for refusal of office, on the other hand, were no deterrent for those determined to avoid the burden and willing to pay to do so, if necessary. This problem is visible not only in those towns that fall within the scope of this study, it is general across the country; although more noticeable in the fifteenth century (largely a function of more abundant and fuller records), it was no less a problem in the fourteenth and even the thirteenth. At Lynn: Peter Lomb in 1292 paid 6s.8d because he refused to take the office of scabin in the Merchant Gild; Thomas Bene refused the office of constable in 1445; Thomas Botkesham and Thomas Salisbury those of councillor in 1424; of the 4 leet affeerors chosen in 1421, 2 resisted being sworn in and the other 2 had absented themselves from assembly, so that the sergeant had to be sent to fetch them. The office of jurat was even more unpopular, partly because it called for more activity than most offices, partly because election was for life and, once in, it was difficult to get out; those wishing to retire had to present a reasonable excuse, proving incapacitation, before a special tribunal. In 1455 three men were elected to fill the gaps that tended to accumulate in jurat ranks; of these, William Pilton and John Adams "nullo modo eorum onera noluerunt sumere" and were fined £10 each, while Simon Baxter was given time to think his decision over and subsequently decided it was prudent to accept the post. Pilton and Adams were again elected jurats in 1456, and offered no resistance on this occasion. John Gedney was more determined: originally elected jurat in May 1437, he refused the office, only to be re-elected in January 1439, but by May he had engineered his dismissal, probably by refusing to join Corpus Christi gild, as was required of jurats; however, at a later time in his life he held the office with better grace (1452-62).
We must beware of taking all refusals at face value. In January 1431 John Muriell accepted an appointment as one of Lynn's ambassadors to Denmark, but at the next assembly failed to negotiate a wage satisfactory to himself and refused to go. In August 1427, John Permonter, elected mayor for the third time, asked to be excused from the office since he had held it twice at burdensome expense to himself; however, he hinted that he might reconsider if guaranteed the additional reward paid and, when he was promised as large a bonus as any previously granted, his reluctance vanished. He used a similar ploy when elected to his fifth mayoralty in 1431, absenting himself from the election and then appearing a few days later to claim illness as an excuse for delaying acceptance of the office, until he had negotiated a reward suitable to himself.
Despite such theatricals, it was universally recognised that certain duties were genuinely burdensome and unpopular. Financial offices were spread widely among the suitable candidates, few men being asked to serve more than twice. It was often difficult to raise juries and there is a noticeable change in jury composition during the course of the fourteenth century, with the more prominent townsmen being increasingly rarely seen as jurors. Twentieth century attitudes towards jury-duty provide perhaps the best comparator for an empathic understanding of reasons for the medieval burgess' reluctance to hold public office. Tax-collection too was very unpopular; in 1445 the Lynn authorities used the duty as a punitive device, by appointing non-burgesses as collectors, but offering to appoint a substitute for any willing to take up the franchise.
The purchase of exemptions from office is generally pointed at as proof of an unwillingness to serve, but this evidence is a two-edged sword; there were not many who sought such exemptions, and they were usually among the townsmen most heavily involved in office-holding. The inclusion of clauses granting exemptions from jury-duty, tax collection, and royal ministries, in the royal charters to Ipswich and Colchester in 1462/3 - in the former case including a prohibition of fines for refusal to serve - may be discounted immediately as referring essentially to service outside the town; this was merely a logical continuation of borough efforts to obtain as much internal independence as possible. The exemptions, acquired in an earlier period by Colchester, from sending representatives to parliament have been taken at face value and interpreted as showing the low interest exhibited by burgesses in parliamentary affairs. In 1382 Colchester obtained its first grant to this effect from king, with a 5-year duration, on the grounds that the money saved in parliamentary wages and expenses would help finance the building of the town wall. The same excuse was used to obtain renewals of the exemption, so that almost the whole period between 1382 and 1422 was covered, and so too 1422-42 if Colchester's petition for extension, in 1422, was in fact granted. It has not been previously noticed that Maldon obtained similar exemptions, to aid the borough's expenses in repairing the Heybridge, which provided access to the town from the north-east, from 1388-99 and 1407-14. Armed with such exemptions, it is difficult to see why both towns continued to elect representatives to the great majority of parliaments in this period and to return their names to the sheriff. The answer is probably that the exemptions were not, or were rarely, used; they were a safeguard giving the boroughs the option of attending or not, according to whether it suited their interests, and perhaps gave exemption from writs de expensis, so that Colchester and Maldon - the poorest of the boroughs studied here - could negotiate with the M.P.s wages that were acceptable to borough budgets. Although parliamentary attendance was not viewed by medieval burgesses as so important as to take priority over local necessities, a growing awareness of the usefulness of access to parliament in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - particularly the need to exercise some influence over taxation - make it unlikely that a borough could afford to absent itself from national affairs for an extended period.
The exemptions granted to individuals must be seen in a similar light. Between 1310 and 1476, from Lynn, Ipswich, Yarmouth, and Colchester, 17 burgesses are known to have obtained exemptions from the king, and 6 others were granted exemptions by their boroughs. This is not a large number, divided between four towns and such a lengthy period; however, there are marked concentrations of grants in certain periods. In 1310 the king granted life exemption from tallages, prises, juries, assizes, and royal ministries to Nicholas de Fakenham of Lynn, who is not known to have held any office. In 1316 Ipswich's Richard Leu obtained a similar grant, yet continued to hold offices in the customs service until 1326. Nothing more is heard until July 1346, when John de Wesenham obtained a grant which added to the earlier specifications exemption from local office, and this became the customary formula henceforth. In September 1346 Wesenham was elected into the ranks of Lynn's jurats, and there is no indication he raised any objection; although only there for a year, this was due to his commitments in the royal administration, he having taken the post of King's Butler in January 1347 (held until 1350). Only after obtaining a second exemption in 1353 - adding nothing to the first, which had been a life grant - did Wesenham retire from his administrative career, although he continued to hold the odd commission. His example inspired a wave of imitators among his fellow Lynn burgesses, nine of whom acquired exemptions between 1352 and 1383, as also did William Faderman of Yarmouth (1371) and John Boyn of Colchester (1380). Faderman is never known to have held any office, whilst Boyn had held no office since 1355. All of the Lynn men continued to hold royal and/or local offices after the dates of their exemptions, although Robert Braunch may have used his exemption to avoid parliamentary duty and Simon de Gunton his to avoid the mayoralty. Edmund Belleyetere's career in a variety of local and royal offices had barely begun when he received his first exemption in 1383; even after his second exemption, in 1406, he served as jurat and alderman in Lynn for several years. John atte Gappe of Yarmouth was bailiff four times after his first exemption in 1396, although he held no office after his second (1408).
In the middle part of the reign of Henry VI we find renewed interest in exemptions. A few were granted by the king: to Robert Toppes of Norwich (1443), John Wydewell of Yarmouth (1447), and Nicholas Peke of Colchester (1448). Peke and Toppes both served as executives of their town later, Wydewell had served only once as bailiff in 1435/6. More exemptions originated from town authorities, relating of course purely to local offices. Norwich had already granted exemption in 1343 to Richard Spynk and his heirs, but this was a special circumstance (not reflective of any general trend), part of a reward for Richard's large donations towards paying borough expenses; it did not prevent Richard's son from holding the ballivalty in 1375 and 1381. Not until 1429 were further exemptions granted by that city: to William Sedman, who had drawn up his will the previous year (perhaps suggesting infirmity), and to John Folcard, neither being subsequent office-holders. Lynn's corporation granted several exemptions: to John Mafey (1433) from the office of jurat, summonses to assembly, and other community burdens; to Edward Mayn (1441) and William Wyth (1447) from all borough office; and to William Pilton (1450) only from the office of constable. Mafey held no further office and apparently died soon after his grant; Mayn, who obtained his grant during the mayoralty of his close friend John Ashenden, continued to serve as jurat until 1454; Wyth also, theoretically, remained a jurat, although he had not in fact attended any assemblies since 1443! At Ipswich Thomas Medewe and John Trotte were exempted from the chamberlain's office in 1472 and 1476 respectively, and indeed never served.
What are we to make of these grants? It seems clear that, although on occasion used to ensure exemption from specific offices, they were not generally intended to obtain exemption from service per se, for the majority of the recipients continued to serve after their grants. In a few cases we have genuine retirements, usually shortly before death; but the excuses for grants which begin to appear from the 1380s - citing infirmity and old age - are no accurate guide to this. These excuses are not always given in cases of genuine retirement, whereas the fact that Edmund Belleyetere was said to be incapacitated by infirmity and disease in 1383, and by old age in 1406 (when in his mid-60s) did not hinder him from years of further service. We frequently find these standard excuses given to justify the king replacing local coroners or other royal officers, and they are no more valid in these cases. It may have come as quite a shock to Walter Brun and Herman Breton of Yarmouth, when removed from the posts of coroner (1305) and customer (1327) respectively, to learn that they were dead. Fortunately for Herman, this was only a temporary setback to his customs career, which lasted until 1333; whilst the king shortly after had the good grace to admit that Walter was alive, although not at all well. Nonetheless, it is evident that exemption grants were not merely pieces of parchment. Essex esquire John Doreward exchanged a £35 annuity for an exemption in 1404, William Sedman paid £20 for his, Edward Mayn £40, and John Mafey promised to bequeath the community a tenement. A clue to the role of exemptions may be found in associated cases from Lynn: in 1462 Richard Dyke was excused from being elected as capital pledge, leet affeeror, or tax collector while serving as churchwarden of St. Margaret's; at his fourth election as mayor in 1474, Walter Cony was promised that he would not be elected again because of the burden of bearing both mayoral and aldermannic (1465-79) offices simultaneously; Thomas de Morton became town clerk in 1373 and, as a deserved reward for his labours, was granted the franchise gratis in 1377, when promised that he would never be elected clerk against his will, nor obliged to pay a fine for refusal - yet he remained clerk until 1396, when he disappears from the records. The phrase "against his will" features in almost all exemption grants, and shows that they were intended and used as optional assets. Medieval burgesses (for the most part) did not seek to escape what they realized to be their duty, albeit a tiresome one; but they did not wish to be overburdened. A small number, largely of those who had cause to fear frequent election or the repeated payment of fines for refusal, were willing to pay a lump sum to obtain a safeguard against having to serve more often than they thought reasonable.
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 26, 1999||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|