Although townsmen were capable of closing ranks against a threat to their common privileges and prosperity, whether from an external enemy or a rebellious voice from their midst, they were also capable of divisions and dissensions within the community that could sometimes be difficult to reconcile. If the surviving evidence is an accurate indicator, outbreaks of internal hostilities were not common in any given town. Harmony, in the sense of the populace acquiescing in the just governmental decisions of those they chose to rule them, appears as the predominant theme of borough politics. Machiavelli's definition of politics as change and conflict was not characteristic of medieval English boroughs, but was rather the product of an historical environment in which those features were predominant. The rarity of crisis periods in any individual town, however, does not mean that we can lightly dismiss them as aberrations. It is from the aggregate evidence of towns across the country that we sense political conflict to be a recurring theme in the history of medieval urban development. Yet it is not easy to understand what lies behind this internal strife. Part of the problem is that the incidents take place over a large chronological span, from the late twelfth to the fifteenth century. There does seem to have been a concentration of expressions of discontent in the second half of the thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries; but even this is a lengthy period and, if the momentum was begun by the national discontent expressed in the civil war of Henry III's reign, no historian has yet given a convincing explanation of how the latter phenomenon might have inspired the former. Unfortunately, evidence from borough archives for most of this period is slight and unhelpful. Although we do encounter complaints of unjust monopolisation of office by cliques, complaints more commonly centre not on the constitutional arrangement so much as on abuses of government: unfair taxation, embezzlement of community funds, evasion of market laws. Green concluded, from a comparison of complaints from Lynn in the early fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, that the townsmen of the latter period possessed a greater political awareness. But we cannot be sure that this impression is not merely a consequence of richer records in the later period.
Both the political and financial aspects of the complaints are reflected in the identities of the parties in conflict. The rich/powerful are invariably the targets for complaints, while the complainants are the "middle people" and, less often, the "lesser people". The memberships of these groups, their relationships to one another, and the precise role of each in the borough community, are not usually specified by the records; and so the description of these groups as 'classes' is rather tentative - we must not read too many modern connotations into the term. A wealth difference and the association of the upper class with the families providing government personnel may be inferred with reasonable confidence, but not much else. It would be dangerous to suppose that a rigid stratification existed since, as this study has tried to show, there was a fair amount of social mobility. On the other hand, we need not go as far as Morey in suggesting (with regard to Lynn) that the simplified tripartite structure of urban society obscures the real nature of conflicts. His point that the personnel of the opposing parties do not neatly fit into the divisions is well taken but, if we dismiss the medieval insistence on those divisions as the basis of conflicting forces, we may ignore an important clue.
The theory that the three classes were merchants, craftsmen, and unskilled labourers, and that political conflict was essentially a struggle for power between gilds representing mercantile and artisan interests, was long ago sent to the historiographical graveyard, as a continental theory inapplicable to English conditions. With the exceptions of London and a few particularly important industrial centres, there is no real evidence for a formal gild role in power struggles. Despite Norwich's system of popular participation at assemblies via crafts representatives (1372), in those towns with which this study is concerned, craft gilds begin to become a factor in the political structure only in the fifteenth century. Our occupational analysis of office-holders suggests that craftsmen were not excluded from borough government at any period; if they were more prominent in the fifteenth century, it was largely due to the introduction of lower councils and the elaboration of the hierarchy of offices. The tripartite class division is not one of occupation but simply of wealth (and associated socio-political status). Inequality itself does not seem to have been questioned - it is notable that the urban lower classes, for the most part, did not feel that the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 had anything in common with their own grievances; but the wealth gap was a source of resentment when increased by the rich misusing positions of trust and responsibility to line their own purses with money intended for the benefit of the community as a whole.
If it is not easy to relate borough conflicts to national political events or economic trends, neither has any historian yet been able to argue that outbursts of discontent relate to specific stages in urban development, the different rates of development then explaining the lack of simultaneity in the outbursts. To a large extent, historians' interpretation of moments of urban crisis has been inextricably bound up with the theories of democracy vs. oligarchy discussed in the introduction to this study. Gross rejected Brentano's theory of craft gilds rebelling against merchant gild tyranny, on the grounds that (as he believed) borough government was originally democratic and therefore not dominated by the merchant gild. Green, however, from her thesis that originally oligarchic government was overthrown, or at least modified, by democratic revolutions, suggested that this was facilitated by the training in self-government given lesser townsmen via gild administration. Bridbury's emphasis on the open character of society from the late fourteenth century onwards similarly forced him into the extreme interpretation of the preceding period as one of closed corporations maintaining a strict monopoly of power and privilege, through restrictive control over entrances to the franchise; he therefore interpreted political strife as the product of the "mortified pride and stifled ambitions" of the non-enfranchised craftsmen. Meyer better reflected the historiographical mainstream of his time in suggesting that, although the craft gilds did gradually come to dominate borough governments, the former were institutions as oligarchic in nature as the latter. It is clear that the subject of urban conflict must be tackled carefully, with each incident examined first in isolation and in local context, not just as part of a wave of seemingly identical occurrences sweeping across the country. Tingey's observation, for example, that grievances concerning financial maladministration at Norwich and Lynn are closely related, chronologically, to murage grants, although not in itself a sufficient explanation, is an hypothesis more helpful to the historian at this stage than speculations as to whether the governments of those towns were oligarchic or democratic at that time. Here we will look in detail only at the troubles in early fifteenth century Lynn, partly from considerations of space, partly because that is the best documented of such events from any of our towns.
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|