We shall turn finally to examine offences relating to abuse of office. A man with the evident force of character of John Halteby did not need to rely on the force of authority to back up his deeds, and he is not found in many offices. However, the backing of an official title, given the belief in the dignity of office and the element of royal authority delegated to the borough executive, could be advantageous when furthering one's own welfare. Yet, if Saul is correct in his opinion that the principal attraction of executive office was the opportunity to use power for personal profit, it is surprising that there is not more evidence of such abuse. We have already noted the somewhat tyrannical government of Stace and le Rente in Ipswich, involving fixed elections to ensure maintenance of power, extortion and favouritism in distribution of services, and application of communal revenues to private ends. Had this been typical governmental behaviour it would have less excited our attentions, and not given rise to such a drastic response by the burgesses of Ipswich. Other examples tend to be scattered. The hundredal inquisitions of c.1275 found that Yarmouth bailiffs of 1273-75, William de Acle and Richard Randolf, had taken payments (whether bribes or extortion is not clear) from foreign merchants for performing their office, and that Alexander Kellock, mayor of Lynn c.1266/7, had taken bribes to issue licences for corn-export against the prohibition of the king. Against this we may place an event of 1433, whereby mayor John Brekrope informed Lynn's council that a ship had offered him "a reasonable sum" for licence to depart with a corn cargo; upon being advised that only the king could authorize this, he prohibited the departure.
Merchants and tradesmen in office may have occasionally put business their own way. An unknown pair of Colchester bailiffs of the late fourteenth century were taken to task for ignoring the royal and local statutes by selling beer and wine during their term, with the result that other taverners, either from fear or to curry favour, agreed to retail the bailiffs' beverages too. In response to this abuse, the community re-affirmed the statute, and the clerk made, in his account of the proceedings, a biblical allusion to the effect that sins were that much more grievous when performed by men responsible for upholding the law. According to the Yarmouth murage accounts of 1342-45, a major supplier of construction materials was in fact one of the muragers, Simon de Halle. However, this may have been a matter of convenience, and the total value was just short of £2 - hardly the stuff from which fortunes are made! Hillen criticised Lynn mayor William de Swanton (1355/6) for claiming 52s.4d recompense from the borough treasury for his horse, which he had presented to a visiting Queen Philippa as a gift. Certainly this was an excessive price for a horse, but we may suspect that it was a fine animal, and decorative harnessing may have been included. The court rolls of Ipswich and Colchester reveal a slight tendency for executives to bring more of their personal legal business - suits and recognisances regarding debt or land transactions - into court during their terms of office than at other times. As bailiff a man could exert special pressure on his debtors to repay: within a few weeks of his election in 1376, Stephen Baron of Colchester had received 4 recognisances of debt. And it was financially sensible to have deeds and other documents enrolled at a time when the customary fees for this service would go towards one's own salary. But there are no extreme cases of this, and the practice varied considerably from person to person. Nor does it seem especially reprehensible behaviour. Minor irregularities such as a bailiff witnessing his own recognisance, even if the other bailiff were not present, were extraordinary yet did not provoke objections from any quarter.
The responsibilities of office seem to have been taken seriously, on the whole, and, despite the leet amercement in 1456 of Yarmouth bailiffs Thomas Fen and John Alman for allowing the gallows to fall into disrepair, it did not require the heavy fines for negligence ordained in 1272 and 1491 to remind the bailiffs of their duties. On the contrary, default of duty or abuse of power are more commonly found at lower levels of the governmental hierarchy. Sergeants in particular were a source of trouble. The custumals of Ipswich and Yarmouth provided for fines, temporary suspension from, or even deprivation of, office in the case of sergeants who failed to perform their duties or who stirred up malice between members of the community. The latter seems to refer to the fact that private quarrels were often brought to the attention of sergeants, or ward constables, before being taken to court. These officers were forbidden to try to settle the quarrels themselves, as this deprived the borough court of revenues; in 1375 a Colchester sergeant was accused of this. In 1464 the Colchester bailiffs dismissed one of their sergeants for concealing private quarrels from the court, settling them himself, and pocketing the amercements, as well as for refusing to obey the orders of the bailiffs. At an unusually well-attended assembly in Ipswich in 1470, sergeant John Newport was dismissed for unspecified injuries and deceptions - doubtless much as above - against bailiffs, portmen, coroners, burgesses, community, and the town franchises; a strict injunction was issued to future administrations never to re-appoint him in any office. And there was a general complaint in late fourteenth century Colchester about sergeants adapting the traditional ceremony of bede-ales into organised extortion meetings, whereby those who came and drank the ale (proceeds from which went into the sergeants' purses) would not be pressed to appear in court cases, whilst those who failed to come would be indiscriminately fined. We also encounter frequent amercement of aletasters or other minor officials in Maldon for unsatisfactory performance of duties, as well as frequent accusations against capital pledges and leet affeerors at Lynn of false presentments, concealment of offences committed by themselves, or of over-fining convicted parties; in 1439 it was demanded that the leet officials pay back the wages they had been given.
One of the growing concerns of the borough government was the problem of maintenance in office. We are not thinking here so much of monopolisation of local office, which lay largely within the powers of the corporation to prevent, or of the influencing of parliamentary elections by local men: there was a markedly high occurrence of the borough executives returning their own names as M.P.s, but it is not clear that there is anything sinister in this. Rather, of intrusion of the influence of external lords in electoral decisions, and thereby the formulation of borough policy as a whole. A fiercely independent spirit - characterised in part by a hostility to neighbouring communities or landlords with rival jurisdictions, and a determination to exclude the interference of external royal officers in internal urban affairs - prevailed during the thirteenth century and climaxed in the first half of the fourteenth. It is therefore significant that it was in the fifteenth century that the greatest fear of maintenance and patronage was evinced, for they were becoming a prominent feature of national politics; the urban families who had led their communities in the struggle for independence had largely disappeared by now, and some of their replacements did not feel the same exclusive loyalty to their boroughs - Thomas Wetherby is an excellent, and notorious, example. As early as 1372 in Colchester, however, we encounter ordinances requiring that officers be elected from residents who were not in the service (taking neither fee nor robe) of any other master, particularly any having interests within the town.
What was to be avoided was evidently a conflict of loyalties. While the king insisted, somewhat ineffectually, in 1413 that M.P.s be residents of their constituencies, local authorities were also struggling to preserve their own integrity. A Lynn ordinance from the first half of the reign of Henry VI set a fine on any burgess supporting, by word or deed, any person acting against borough liberties. The Norwich Composition of 1415 prohibited any mayor, sheriff, or alderman from taking the livery of any lord while in office, upon pain of disfranchisement, and declared that whoever sought royal letters patent granting him office in the city would be barred from office. A Colchester ordinance of 1447 ruled that persons elected as bailiff, J.P., coroner, claviger, or alderman must hold only the livery of the town; the election of any holding the livery of other lords was to be void. At Ipswich in 1455 and 1474 we encounter ordinances against the same abuses (letters of recommendation, maintenance of outsiders in quarrels), affirmation of the exclusive rights of residents in elections, and the same penalties: fines, perpetual bar from office, disfranchisement. It would be misleading were we to try to classify towns, or parties within towns, as Yorkist or Lancastrian. A distaste for political strife, which disrupted trade, was innate to the urban character; passions could usually be roused only over local political issues. The predominantly mercantile influence in towns encouraged the hedging of bets: it was wise to keep in favour with both national parties, but especially in that of the side which was currently in the ascendant. Personal adherences to particular magnates were more in the nature of commercial than political alignments, insofar as we can see. Nonetheless, there was a certain amount of inevitable and irresistible meddling by great men and their lieutenants in borough affairs, which it was safer to tolerate. The best-known expression of this being the election of outsiders as M.P.s; here the boroughs lost out in that such representatives could not be as concerned for borough interests as local men, but they gained from the greater influence of the outsiders in the highest circles of power.
A less happy consequence of the intrusion of neighbouring gentry who supported the leaders of national parties was their disturbance of the course of justice. The most notorious example of this is Gilbert Debenham esquire, servant to the Duke of Norfolk. He had property in and around Ipswich and his belligerent partisan activity in the county earned him sufficient hostility to make him the target for a (thwarted) assassination attempt in Ipswich (but by non-townsmen) in 1468. He used Ipswich as a base for smuggling, and had so much influence over the bailiffs that they arrested and fined a customs searcher who had caught Debenham smuggling. Debenham did not get along so well with town clerks, however. In the 1430s William Bury, who by then had exchanged clerical duties for a lawyer's career, complained that Debenham had brought a false plea against him in Ipswich court, where the bailiffs were abetting him by having false entries made in the rolls. The reason for this was that Bury was defending Thomas Bloys in that court against an accusation of Debenham's; Bloys too complained to Chancery that he would be unjustly convicted due to Debenham's influence over the bailiffs. Ipswich's town clerk of the time of Edward IV, John Balhed, who was heavily in debt to Debenham, resented him sufficiently that he (so Debenham claimed) released another of Debenham's debtors from custody and made a false entry in the court rolls to justify it. Did space allow, other incidents could be related where Gilbert Debenham influenced the bailiffs of Ipswich and of Colchester to arrange miscarriages of justice to his advantage.
Subversion of justice was nothing new, however. Leading burgesses were sometimes difficult to bring to task when their friends and allies were in control of judicial administration. The bailiffs of Yarmouth refused to entertain Margaret Fastolf's plea of dower, regarding borough property, against more influential members of the Fastolf family; the result was that the king had to order an enquiry, with which the bailiffs refused to cooperate. A royal investigation had also been necessitated in 1268, when the Yarmouth bailiffs declined to pressure William Gerberge to pay a foreign merchant, agent for Prince Edward, a debt of £45. And again, in 1339, the bailiffs ignored a royal order to force John Perbroun to restore goods stolen by his servants from Guelders merchants. At Lynn in 1463 a quarrel between councillor William Marche and mayor Simon Baxter, apparently based on the former's rebelliousness against the latter's authority, came to a head when the mayor led the jurats and other councillors in an attack on Marche's residence. Marche then petitioned the royal Council and obtained a subpoena against Baxter. This only further infuriated the mayor, who had Marche thrown in prison. From that location Marche petitioned for and obtained a writ of corpus cum causa; but this the mayor refused to let the town sergeant or the gaoler return. The end of the affair is not recorded; it almost certainly would have been Marche humbly submitting to the mercy of mayor and jurats, although it may have taken a few years of disfranchisement for him to accept the inevitable. We will finally select, from a number of cases among the early Chancery proceedings, that of Colchester bailiff John Bishop, seen abusing justice on two occasions: once in favouring one of his tenants who had brought a plea of account before Bishop; and again in persuading William Stonard, defendant in a plea of account, who had ingratiated himself with Bishop, to counter-sue the plaintiff for debt in piepowder court where, Bishop promised, he would condemn Stonard's opponent.
All this is not to say that the townsmen of the ruling class were exempt from the law on the occasions when they controlled its administration. They were not. The leet court was particularly fearless in accusing such men, and in amercing them heavily when warranted; but then these men were often the heaviest and most persistent offenders. The wealthier men of the borough could more easily afford the risks inherent in illegal activity: payment of fines, purchase of pardons. And, given their wider and more diverse sphere of operations, there was more scope and greater temptation for such activity. Bad apples there were a few; men whose consciences were not overly bothered by breaking the law on occasion, there were more. Yet it is easy to overlook the majority who have not, or do not appear to have, seriously offended during the (relatively?) honest conduct of their businesses and lives. A certain amount of corruption was endemic to medieval society, at all levels, and we do not need the witch-hunt of 1341, purging the local networks of royal administration nation-wide, to demonstrate the fact. For the most part, however, borough rulers seem to have been able to reconcile community, class, and personal interests in a tolerably responsible fashion; to which the usual quiescence of the townsmen at large is adequate, although not unambiguous, testimony. Judgement of the character, ethics, and integrity of the urban ruling classes has been traditionally based on, and does indeed come down to in the final resort, an understanding of the moments of crisis, when discontent was expressed by the masses via political conflict. At the last, therefore, we too turn to this.
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|