The most common source of illegal profits was the customs system. Of our men who served as customs officials, 18 were caught embezzling customs money or taking bribes to ignore smuggling, whilst 26 of our office-holders (again, many customs personnel) were involved in smuggling. It is highly likely that smuggling was far more widespread than our records show, due to the inefficiency of the detection system, given the large amount of coast-line it had to cover, and that the crimes of customs officials were mostly disguised by falsified accounts and collaboration between the various departments of the local headquarters. Bribery was undetectable except when an informer came forward: in 1408 Yarmouth collector Geoffrey Pampyng was accused by Peter Savage of smuggling out 5000 woolpells, embezzling £15 in customs paid by two Dutchmen, and taking bribes from members of the Spitlyng family to turn a blind eye to their smuggling activities; Geoffrey had been trading partner of John Spitlyng in 1404, when John was a customer, and in which year John was caught smuggling wool. That Savage's motives in informing may not have been public-spirited is suggested by the fact that he took over the customs post from which Pampyng was dismissed. In 1396 Yarmouth customers Hugh atte Fen and Thomas Grimesby complained to the Exchequer that their controller had been: countenancing smuggling; embezzling customs money; absenting himself from office, so that merchants had been able to bring goods through the port without paying custom; and extorting additional imposts. All this had been done in their absence and without their consent, they added. The complainants seem unaware that the scandalous affair is an indictment of their own negligence, for it was their job - not the controller's - to be present to collect customs money. Again, William Elys, another Yarmouth collector, and his clerk William Savage were accused by two Lowestoft enemies of extorting money, under the guise of customs, on separate occasions from Prussian and Scottish merchants whose ships had been forced by storms to harbour at Yarmouth. The accusers laid their charges from prison, where sent (to prevent them testifying, they claimed) by Elys' partner George Felbrigge on a questionable charge of having tried to ambush Elys en route to London. Despite Elys' defence, some of which was proved true by later investigation, he was impeached before the Good Parliament of 1376 and spent a few months in the Tower. It is hard to determine where truth lay in this case. His conviction owes something to the political attack of that parliament on customs farmer Richard Lyons, whose deputy Elys was; whilst his release and pardon similarly were largely the result of John of Gaunt's cancellation of the acts of the Good Parliament. On the other hand, Morey at least believed that the major attention given to relatively minor crimes may have been because Elys was suspected of graver, but unproveable, offences. In 1382 Elys complained that an East Anglian contingent of the Peasants' Revolt had broken into his houses and carried off the money he had collected as customer, as well as private possessions; this may have been true, but it could also have been a very convenient excuse for embezzlement. It did not, however, prevent the posthumous seizure of his goods in the following year, on the grounds that he had not rendered account as customer.
Money collected as customs was potentially useful capital that might be invested in private commercial ventures and repaid from the profits; delays in accounting may well be explained by such practices. The often large amounts of money passing through customers' hands must have been a great temptation, and the competition for the farm of national or local customs indicates that collecting was considered a very profitable activity. Farms offered sometimes exceeded the annual yield of customs, suggesting that amounts answered for to the Exchequer were only a portion of the true yield; the advantage of farming was that one had a relatively free hand to extort what one could from merchants. For all who operated the customs system, farmers or not, it seems likely that the opportunities for illicit profit were one of the major attractions of the service. General investigations into customs collection, nation-wide in the 1340s, 1365, and 1402, and at Yarmouth in 1357, as well as the parliamentary complaint of 1449, suggest that popular opinion held the customs service to be rotten to the core, and that "avarice was widely viewed as the worst defect of local government." Even if local appointees were, due to conflict of interests, responsible for more of the graft and corruption in the customs collection than were officials selected from outsiders, as Morey thought, the latter raised the spectre of absenteeism. Caught between devil and deep blue sea, the king chose (at least during the fourteenth century) to forgive corruption and re-appoint offending ministers to the same or different posts in his service.
The somewhat belated insistence on personal attendance, and the prohibition of ship-owners from holding customs posts (1390), had an effect as yet uncharted but not obviously great. Conflict of interests was inevitably endemic in the customs service: wool merchants or growers sought posts as collectors of the wool custom, vintners as deputy butlers; borough officials could not be relied upon to keep a check on the honesty of the customers, since the personnel of both groups was much the same, or the former were merchants who profited from the corruption and inefficiency in the customs network, or were themselves profiting from confiscated goods, which the king sometimes had trouble retrieving from them. Obstructionism and bureaucratic red tape conspired to confound judicial investigations. Robert Pynne, searcher of ships at Yarmouth in 1440, was accused by the controller there of failing to record most of the forfeits of one arrested cargo, since he intended to keep the goods for his own profit. In 1447/8 he and kinsman John Pynne were charged with complicity in a wool-smuggling operation, and Robert was also said to have used his position as bailiff to obstruct the commission of enquiry.
The Godestones of Colchester were also tied up in various activities of dubious legality. John Godestone and John Rous, collectors of customs and subsidies in 1410/11, were also partners in the wine trade in the same year, and were otherwise heavily involved in wool export. John Godestone had taken advantage of his brother Thomas holding the customer's post at Ipswich, in 1397/8, to export 5 shipments of wool through the port, the customs on which went, not into the record, but into Thomas' pocket. In 1421, John was again subject to investigations regarding customs frauds, over a period of years. Thomas' concealments, not only on his brother's wool, but on that of others, were discovered in 1402 and he was convicted of having profited to the sum of £249. His controller, John Bernard, who had business associations with both Godestones, was convicted of complicity, and of having received £120 in customs money. John Arnold, co-customer of Thomas Godestone (who also mainperned for Arnold's farm of the Suffolk cloth subsidy in 1398) was convicted in the amount of £155. Arnold was fined less heavily than the other two, however, in consideration of his having informed on them; in fact, it was he, as king's sergeant-at-arms, who was ordered to arrest Bernard in 1401, who loaned Bernard the money to repay the Exchequer, and then had to sue him for the debt in 1403. Rous, Arnold, and Bernard were among the more prominent Ipswich rulers in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV, and Thomas Godestone was heavily involved in Colchester's administration.
At Yarmouth John Perbroun and William Elys were among the foremost of the burgesses, both in terms of political position and of wealth, and both died owing large amounts of customs money to the king from their terms as collectors. Those two great financiers from Lynn, Thomas de Melcheburn and John de Wesenham, inevitably made the odd faux pas in their lengthy service careers. In 1333 Melcheburn was charged with trying to evade the wool-tax. Purveyor of wool himself in 1337, he was accused four years later, by various Norfolk men, of having taken more wool than his instructions had permitted. In 1342 he was pardoned a fine for "oppressions" committed in various roles of purveyor, customer, commissioner, and vice-admiral. Shortly after his death, all his lands were seized by the king for debts of farmer of customs Walter Chiriton, for whom Thomas had stood pledge. Wesenham was convicted of smuggling victuals to the Scottish foe in 1337, only shortly after his release from the Tower for unspecified felonies. In 1340 he was charged with piracy, in 1342 with contempt of the king's court. And in 1352, a year after his appointment as changer of the king's moneys in London, he was pardoned his impeachment for importing false coin, using false wool-weights, and smuggling wool; in 1364 he was ordered arrested as mainpernor for the king's minters, who had got into hot water.
From Ipswich we may select the example of a smuggling ring that apparently encompassed several leading families. In 1347 John Cobat cleared the way towards a lengthy career in borough administration by purchasing his release from Marshalsea, where he had been imprisoned from uncertain date for: smuggling wool out of Ipswich, bribing the king's officers not to search a ship departing from Orwell, and being involved in a smuggling plot hatched at the house of William Malyn. This last charge refers to a case of 1344, whereby William Malyn junior, probably the wealthiest Ipswich man of his generation, was convicted of detention of the king's wool and money, wool-smuggling, and trading with the king's enemies. Also apparently associated was William Kenebroke, town clerk (in the 1320s) turned bailiff (1341/2), whose abrupt disappearance from the office of coroner in October 1344 signals his commitment to prison on the charge of embezzling wool he had been commissioned (with Malyn?) to receive for the king; within two years he was dead, as far as we know still imprisoned. Malyn was more fortunate, taking his ship into royal service to win a pardon which, despite his desertion, he achieved in 1346 by paying a fine of 300 marks. By this time he could add to his crimes the murder of John de Halteby (1344), leader of the reformers in the 1320s and very probably the man who informed on Malyn's smuggling ring. Several other members of the Malyn family, as well as Kenebroke's wife and quite likely Kenebroke himself, were involved in the killing.
Embezzlement of borough revenue was far less common. The complaint of financial maladministration was the foundation of the Colchester reforms of 1372, but it is not clear whether the bailiffs were accused of dipping into community funds for private purposes, or simply of authorizing borough expenditure without common consent. The Ipswich reformers of 1320 were more explicit in charges laid against Thomas Stace and Thomas le Rente (not named but obviously intended) and their clique: market abuses of forestalling, hostage, and brokerage; receiving fines and amercements privately, in order to keep the money out of the communal treasury; and charging exorbitantly for application of the ballival/community seal. Le Rente's not inconsiderable wealth was built up not only by commercial enterprise, but by the disinclination to repay debts already noted above, and by embezzlement of customs money - he was convicted of £333 in 1322. In 1316 a German merchant complained to parliament that le Rente, Stace, and others had bought a cargo of fish from him, value £156, in the previous year but, to avoid payment, had him imprisoned on a trumped-up charge. Another example of embezzlement charges comes from Yarmouth. It received its first grant of murage in 1261, yet foreign merchants complained in the following year that although murage was being collected they could see no wall-building. Again in 1279 there was complaint that the Yarmouth officials were applying murage to private ends rather than construction on the walls, with the result that the king appointed external auditors of the murage accounts; a record of 1285, however, suggests that the officials had been cleared of the charge. At Colchester in 1357 a sub-collector of borough tolls was convicted of pocketing a percentage of his weekly collections. At Lynn we find examples of abuse of tax-collection: in 1412 the collectors were accused of embezzling tax revenues over a four-year period, and in the 1357/8 tax the assessors are almost all markedly under-assessed. No wonder that it became common practice for a separate committee to be appointed to assess the principal assessors. However, no great attempts to reform the system, to eliminate embezzlement, were made, beyond the introduction of chamberlains to handle revenues (or at least supervise the executives' handling of them) and, at Ipswich, the warning that any chamberlain caught embezzling would be fined 4d. for every 1d. concealed (1429).
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 updated: October 30, 2014||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2014|