In contrast to the evidence presented above, suggesting that office-holding was generally unpopular, but that the wealthier townsmen accepted office as a responsibility that fell naturally to them, can we find any evidence of men who desire and pursued office? We may quickly point to the minority of office-holders already referred to, in the discussion of monopolisation, who held executive or parliamentary office far more frequently than their peers. We have no direct evidence of their motivations or intentions, but it seems that some men were not averse to holding office more times than their communities might reasonably expect of them. Variation in attitude towards office-holding, from individual to individual, is natural and need not surprise us. Some were likely attracted by the prestige and influence of high position in government, but this is an intangible with which it is difficult to come to terms. For the moment we shall set aside these 'professional' administrators and seek more concrete evidence.
Unfortunately borough records are not so intimate as to indicate whether office was sought, run for, or contested. The procedure of nominating candidates is little evidenced and, when it is, there is no indication of any forethought, although at Lynn mayoral candidates had to be selected from the jurats and those at Norwich from former mayors and sheriffs. In the latter case the assembly nominated, by majority voice, two candidates from whom the upper council would choose a mayor; and we occasionally hear of two candidates for a single seat in Lynn's Common Council. On the whole, however, the impression given is that all candidates for office were nominated by independent parties (whether with or without the candidates' prior approval is uncertain), rather than put their own names forward. We discover rivalries for office only in crisis periods, when parties struggling for control of government supported one of their own members; in these cases we find double elections producing stalemates, as often as one nominee winning over another. Otherwise, in normal, peaceful times, consensus was probably the rule, and not only may the man elected not have stood for office, he may sometimes not even have been present at the election or aware of his own candidacy. We may recall the case of John Asger, absent in Bruges at the time of his election as Norwich's mayor, so that a messenger had to be despatched to locate him. Lynn's ordinances of 1358 specifically provided for the circumstance of a man elected mayor in absentia and not wishing to serve. Those may have been rare cases, but the more frequent refusals and the general distaste for office already noted make it unlikely that men normally stood for office at their own initiative or of their own volition.
A rare explicit case of a local man seeking local office is that of William Reyne, and the very fact that it was entered among the otherwise rather routine records of Colchester's court rolls suggests how atypical the affair was. On 7 September 1360, a few weeks before the town's annual elections, Reyne, a mercer not particularly prominent in the local records during the previous decade, approached the bailiffs in public court and offered to pay £10 to the community if he were elected as one of the bailiffs for the coming year. This was agreed upon (apparently without any offence to political sensibilities - although the typically terse record does not reveal the reactions of the authorities to this unorthodox proposal) and William was duly elected, the start of a career which encompassed 8 ballivalties, 2 parliamentary seats, and several years in the council, between 1360 and 1393. Influenced by the contemporary eulogistic account of the achievements of Reyne's 1373/4 ballivalty - again an atypical record, which opens the Red Paper Book and is likely associated with the creation of that volume - Benham said of the 1360 affair that: "The arrangement seems to be characteristic of William Reyne, who was an ardent public servant .... Apparently he was not indifferent to flattery and love of office." The connection between the two unusual records is curious but, unfortunately, it may be stretching the evidence too far to suggest that Reyne sought office because he loved power and wished to use it to the benefit of the community. What we have in 1360 is actually an arrangement to farm the office of bailiff, with Reyne taking half the profits of the office, notably court amercements and perquisites. This does not make the situation any less unusual, although farming arrangements are found in Colchester, Ipswich, and Maldon quite commonly with regard to lesser offices, generally involving the collection of customs. Reyne's actions were not those of a politician, but (more typically medieval) those of an entrepreneur.
In addition to the Reyne case, we have that of Thomas Botkesham and Thomas Salisbury, mentioned earlier as having refused the Lynn offices of Common Councillors in August 1424. In fact, in November following, both accepted posts as jurats and it seems not at all unlikely that, aware of the imminent vacancies in the jurats (Salisbury's father being one of those about to retire), they turned down conciliar roles to hold out for the higher status. Then there is the case of Ipswich bailiffs Thomas Stace and Thomas le Rente, deposed in 1321 on various charges including that they had been maintained in power by a coven of supporters who conducted borough elections in secret. The control of office by this partnership and a few close friends and allies lasted for more than two decades, and they seem to have well understood how to use power to personal profit. Throughout history there have been unscrupulous men who have sought office for personal gain, and they tend to attract the attention of historians more easily than those who did not offend and so drew less notice to themselves in official records. We must expect to find some of these black sheep in the later Middle Ages, when the rule of law was poorly respected and its enforcement was weak, encouraging individuals to rely on their own resources and to act, in the default of others, in their own interests. It does not mean we should tar all medieval borough rulers with the same brush; nor should we judge those men by twentieth century ethical standards - rather we must understand them according to their own standards, insofar as we can identify such.
It may be that posts in the royal service were more sought after than offices in local government. The potential illicit profits from the customs service were greater than those from borough offices, and customs posts might prove stepping-stones to higher levels in the royal administrative network, where the rewards could be even greater. Thus we find outsiders seeking customs posts in East Anglian boroughs, particularly in the fifteenth century, and competition between men farming customs - the fickleness of royal government, where money was changing hands, making for frequent alterations in personnel in the late fourteenth century and occasional confusion as to who was in what post. Ipswich's John Goldyng decided to secure his position as pesager by forging "for life" in place of "during pleasure" in the letter patent appointing him in 1371; the fraud was discovered c.1379 but (after a temporary suspension from office) the king was persuaded, as usual, by the offer of money to pardon and reappoint John in 1380.
Parliamentary office presents a similar case. It could be the first step in a career, by bringing the ambitious within earshot of the king, his ministers, or other powerful men of the realm. Thomas de Melcheburn attended several parliaments, and may have made important contacts there, before beginning a dedicated career in royal service in the 1330s. Others sought parliamentary office to support the interests of noble masters in parliament; this is, of course, a well-documented feature of the fifteenth century power struggle between national factions. Men like the several John Timperleys, whose careers are difficult to disentangle, but who were retainers of the Duke of Norfolk and who, in his interests, found seats at Ipswich (1455, 1469, 1478, 1483), Suffolk county (1445), Reigate (1453, 1460), Steyning (1467), Gatton (1472), and Bramber (1472). Ipswich also had associations with the series of Gilbert Debenhams of Wenham, two of whom sat for the borough in 1450 and 1455, although they were more accustomed to sit for the county. Albeit that the family ranked among the country gentry by this period, it probably stretches back to the Gilbert de Debenham, son of Richard Child of Debenham, who acquired property in Ipswich between 1339-58 and was buried in Little Wenham in 1361. But, of our towns, it was rather Yarmouth and Maldon that acquired a reputation of non-resistance to outsiders holding its parliamentary seats. At the former John Paston had some influence, his friend John Damme of Southwold procuring a seat there in 1442, and another ally William Yelverton in 1435 and 1437, whilst it was through Paston's efforts that John Russe (M.P. at Yarmouth several times in the reign of Edward IV) obtained a customs post there in 1463. John Lowes, William Willy, John Ulveston, and Richard Suthwell were other outsiders who sat for Yarmouth. In this category at Maldon we may name William Laweshull, Walter Wrytell, William Tuft, and John Worthy. None of the outsiders held any other borough office, and the few who held citizenship in the boroughs for which they sat usually took it out only as a formality to facilitate their election. They do not, strictly speaking, concern us. Yet it is noticeable that the increasing appreciation by the gentry of the value of parliamentary seats was slower to dawn upon individual townsmen - despite Edmund Winter's offer to sit for Ipswich at his own expense in 1453 - and upon corporations as a whole, which seem concerned primarily with evading the payment of wages.
If there is any indication of a change in attitude to office-holding, perhaps it lies in the development of ceremony in the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This may be taken not merely as a visual expression of civic pride, and even civic patriotism, but as part of the growing awareness of the dignity and prestige of office. In fact, ceremony was a possibly vital reinforcement of the sense of identity, of autonomous administration, and of the predominant role of a select group within that administration. And yet this at a time when the identity was being shattered by the widening gulf between classes, the autonomy being undermined as the interests of the urban upper class and non-urban gentry moved closer together, and the powers of the ruling class were coming under challenge from the ruled, who felt they were being excluded from even their traditionally limited role in government. Originally the community's identity was expressed in its chartered privileges, common to all burgesses - the franchise is essential to an understanding of the self-governing borough. But it became increasingly obvious that some townsmen were more equal than others and, in the fifteenth century, we see separate estates evolving within urban society, and political power no longer shared between equals but divided among estates; such is the fundamental reason behind the creation of lower councils. Ceremony provided the means for emphasising, to themselves and to outsiders, the unity of the members of the ruling class, and their wealth-based superiority over the ruled; but it also provided contexts in which all burgesses could act together harmoniously.
It is difficult to ascertain how far back stretched the notion that officers of the community should have some sort of uniform to distinguish them. Colchester's 1372 ordinances provided for the purchase of ballival liveries, and in the following year we find further evidence of civic vanity in the work of bailiffs William Reyne and his junior associate John Clerk in building marble steps up to the front entrance of the town hall, tile steps to the back entrance, and having ornamentations carved into the benches and seats of the hall. These can only have been extravagances intended to impress the onlooker in a town where, a few years later, there was an effort to cut back on parliamentary wages. By 1411 the councillors had the beginnings of a livery in their hoods. By the beginning of the reign of Edward IV, the Maldon bailiffs were each allowed 16s.8d for a livery, but only 13s.4d if they failed to buy gowns of the proper colour; and the chamberlains were each to have 5s. for a hood. We hear of liveries for Ipswich's sergeants, town clerk, and customs collector in the 1446/7 accounts, whilst in 1429 the refusal of a portman to wear his livery was ordained to be an offence punishable by deposition. The liveries of Lynn's clerk and sergeant, which included special hair-cuts, are heard of as early as 1360. Those of Norwich's mayors, ex-mayors, and aldermen are referred to in 1415. Aldermen were to pay a fine of 10s. if they refused to buy and wear livery. This ruling came in the context of the Tripartite Indenture of 1424, an internal agreement between the component branches of the ruling estate, designed to strengthen solidarity within the group by having all pledge to be obedient to the mayor, to be loyal to each other, to submit personal quarrels to mayoral arbitration rather than making them public, and not to resort to demagoguery to gain power. This, more than any other document from our towns, illustrates the separation of the ruling class from its subjects. To what extent the sumptuary legislation of the second half of the fourteenth century, rendered somewhat ineffective by the high degree of social mobility and ambition, influenced the development of livery it is difficult to say; probably both were facets of the growing habit of conspicuous consumption. Margery Kempe, as a young woman, took much pride in the ostentatious fashion in clothing she wore, which she considered a visual indicator of superior social standing. It was of course at the major political meetings, religious processions, and social pageants, in which the general public participated, that the ruling class took care to display its liveries.
For other symbols of political identity we may point to the ceremonial maces and swords, precursors of liveries, carried solemnly before borough executives in procession to indicate the coercive power of those officers. Such rights are maintained now only for the sake of tradition, but were taken much more seriously in the later Middle Ages. At Lynn, for example, when in 1377 the visiting borough seigneur, Bishop Despenser, insisted that the borough mace (tipped with black ivory) be carried before him rather than the mayor, an enraged populace attacked him and he was lucky to escape with his life. In 1446 the Bishop vetoed a grant by the king that Lynn's mayoral sword be carried point-erect (as in London and Norwich) rather than point-down as was customary. Even at Maldon, where the corporation was not terribly prosperous, there was a ceremonial mace, although it may not have been ornamented with gold and silver as were those of Norwich. The enlargement, improvement, and decoration of town halls, particularly in the first half of the fifteenth century, is another sign of civic ego; Dobson has described them as "the material expression of that late medieval transition from urban community to urban corporation." One cannot fail to be impressed even today by the Norwich gildhall (rebuilt at the end of the reign of Henry IV) even though it is dwarfed by the neighbouring modern city hall; and Lynn's gildhall (rebuilt early in the reign of Henry VI), with its chequered flint facing and great south window, remains visually striking. Again, we may recall the procedural regulations introduced in this same period which, like liveries, show the taste for conformity, orderliness, and ceremony; at Lynn this extended to the making of valedictory speeches by retiring mayors: rather formal, if brief, affairs which related nothing of substance but expressed a humility and unworthiness that it is, unfortunately, difficult to take seriously.
To sum up, we may conclude that for most men office-holding was no great ambition to be pursued, but a duty which the wealthier members of the community were best-endowed to perform. For the unscrupulous, office might give access to large profits or the manipulation of power in the interests of self, friends, or family. For the others - and to be fair we should assume this to be the majority in the absence of evidence otherwise - it was a financial burden in its demands upon their time and their private revenues; the wages of office were nothing compared to the profit to be made from a year's involvement in the import or export of merchandise. Not until the fifteenth century, as class consciousness developed, does the sheer prestige of office seem to have outweighed its liabilities, and even then specific offices with accounting responsibilities remained unpopular. Whether the frequency with which individuals held office reflects their personal attitudes is something we can never know for certain. Men who served once or twice may often be men concerned only to do their duty and let well alone thereafter. Men who held office on numerous occasions need not necessarily be those most skilled at exploiting positions of power, but they are certainly more interesting to us, and an examination of the extent of 'professionalism' in borough government must command our attentions next.
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|