Not only at Lynn, but at Norwich and, less obviously, at all of our other towns, the fifteenth century represents compromises - sometimes gradual, sometimes more abrupt - between the theory and reality of borough government. If these adjustments became increasingly unfavourable to the lower urban classes, we should not blame this entirely on evil intent on the part of the rulers, for it was a mostly gradual and generally subtle development of elitism. Yet, that some measure of conscious policy was involved is suggested in the occasional coincidence of political conflict and alteration in the status of upper councils from elected to life-membership bodies. This alteration was fairly clearly the goal of the potentiores in early fifteenth century Lynn and Norwich, and the period of power of the Stace/le Rente oligarchy in Ipswich was marked in its early stage by something similar - either the transition itself, or the addition to life-membership status of the device of co-optation. The Yarmouth council was life-membership by 1386, and the same ambition may have played a role in the crisis of a decade earlier. The alteration may have been prompted by an increasing awareness of the possibilities for self-interested use of power, although it seems more likely that the ruling class feared (perhaps justifiably) the harmful effects that might result from the intrusion of the less capable townsmen into decision-making. Thus, the Norwich potentiores in 1415 were resisting what they feared, perhaps mistakenly, was a demand by "every person of the smallest reputation" of the city to have as much say in government as "the more sufficient persons". The same fear and resentment was expressed by Lynn's potentiores representative, John Wentworth, in August 1412, when complaining to the Bishop that the new freemen, made to increase the strength of the reformers within the electorate, were mere shoemakers and tailors of whom 20 or so were worth only a penny.
However, it is dangerous to suggest too much uniformity to the characters of the political conflicts occurring in separate locations at different times. Popular objection to the unauthorised use, or more often the unjust and self-interested use, of power may have been a common basis to most of these affairs; but each is complicated by one or more of: personal ambitions, family rivalries, power-struggles between established aristocracies and the nouveaux riches, interference by magnates or other external interests, or even the duplicity of the king wishing to restore peace to local government without upsetting the tradition of aristocratic rule. Would the Ipswich crisis of 1320/1 have arisen without the forceful character of John de Halteby to propel it? Would the popular concerns in Lynn, tempore Henry V, have come to a head if the town had been under the lordship of the king alone? We cannot say for sure. Historical events are what they are, complex causal equations; we can analyze and differentiate the components, but we cannot know whether one or more selected components, if operating independently of the others, would produce the same result. However, one thing we may be more confident of is that the ideals of aristocratic rule and peaceful government were not only held by the king, but also were firmly implanted in the political philosophy (such as it was) of townsmen. This fact helps explain why political crises in English boroughs were not as revolutionary and drastic in character as those on the continent, and why, in the long run, borough governments evolved into closed corporations.
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: December 26, 2010||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2010|