Origins of settlement |
The pre-Conquest borough |
Effects of the Conquest
Evolution of a self-governing community | Power struggles with rivals
A DIVISION OF INTERESTS | Summary/Recap | Information sources
Map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich | Map of Norwich ca.1260
Appendix 1: Calendar of customs of Norwich
|A division of interests|
In the previous section, much was said about common purpose of the citizens of Norwich, of the sense of community, and unified action against common enemies. However, we must remember that this was only one side of the coin. The medieval urban community comprised individuals who, like today's communities, had divergent outlooks and attitudes, and whose personal ambitions and interests were not always in harmony with each other. In particular we can see, especially in the later Middle Ages (when our records become more detailed and more intimate), a growing division between groups within the population, along lines which can be described - if not entirely accurately as class interests. Historians have interpreted the internal conflicts of this period as a struggle between democracy and oligarchy, although this is really too dogmatic an interpretation for a society that was more concerned with the practical aspects of government (e.g. was it financially efficient, did it treat citizens fairly, were its actions to the benefit of the town?), than with its political character.
We have seen that Norwich, like most other towns, developed out of simpler communities and that throughout most of the Middle Ages the community was in theory at least considered to be the fundamental source of authority, in terms of decision-making related to purely local matters. Yet in any sizable community whose affairs are sufficiently complex to require constant attention, a general assembly of residents is not a very practical mechanism of day-to-day decision-making. It was natural that this should be delegated to representatives. From Anglo-Saxon times provisions had been made for small groups of senior members of a community to have a special role in judicial administration, and it is generally felt that a town's executive officers would have consulted, if informally, on important decisions with others of the group of prominent townsmen from whom they themselves were chosen.
The identity of these few is not too difficult to determine. As already noted, a key qualification for citizenship was ownership of landed property, as collateral for the citizen's financial responsibilities. Since, in cases such as a failure of a city to pay its fee farm or the amount set for a royal tallage, or again in the event of a breakdown of order, the king would seek redress from the city representatives, it was advisable that they be those citizens most capable of bearing the financial burden. The wealthier citizens were also likeliest to be those with the most experience in administration. The frequency of cases involving commercial transactions in the borough court would prompt the participation of merchants as witnesses or jurors. The need to bargain with royal commissioners concerning tallages, and the ability to divide the assessment among citizens according to their property, also required certain financial ability and knowledge of property values. The "stewardship of the rich" was considered a natural state of affairs by medieval townsmen. The wealth of some of the leading townsmen is reflected in the latter half of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries by the large donations they made to the rebuilding of many of Norwich's parish churches, and the expansion of their own residences (e.g. adding upper storeys) to reflect their socio-economic status.
Those who were expected to bear the burdens of office, because "sufficient" (as the medieval description had it) in experience and wealth, may have felt it reasonable to use their power to further their own interests. The charters they obtained from the king may have benefited the city as a whole, but particularly themselves, by improving mercantile conditions and by acquiring new powers that gave greater control over matters touching the city. As part of this tightening of control, it seems, one of the aims was to replace the unwieldy popular assembly with a more restricted decision-making body.
Abuses of power also occurred, or were perceived to occur; although the exception rather than the rule, it is in the nature of surviving documentary evidence that we hear much of such situations. Complaints by the Norwich community to the king are typical of those of other towns; accusations against the city rulers included levying unreasonable taxes and then putting the money to their private use, and attempts to monopolize trade through private transactions outside designated markets. The ruling class reacted by trying to bolster their privileged access to power. They were assisted in this by incorporation, which gave formal expression to the principle of delegation.
There are various signs of this process of differentiation between rulers and ruled in Norwich. We hear of a group of "magnates" in the thirteenth century: men outside the tithing system because so well-known that they needed no-one to vouch for them. When these men appear in leet records it is often to intervene in cases to persuade bailiffs to pardon offenders. These were likely the probi homines ("upright men", with bones gentz and prudeshommes being alternate terms) who were considered reliable witnesses or suitable choices for cities to send to parliament. The term crops up in a variety of circumstances. In 1213 and 1287 the king addressed documents to the bailiffs and probi homines of Norwich. In 1327 the probi homines of Norwich loaned the king 300 marks. Such references do not necessarily suggest a specific group within the citizenry. More revealing is a reference in the Bull of Excommunication (1273) following the citizens riot against the cathedral-priory the previous year, which was directed to the whole community, but especially to the named bailiffs and 16 other citizens "by whose counsel the community was at that time governed"; most of these were former bailiffs. Ten years later we see the bailiffs and a group of 24 others witnessing an important deed on behalf of the community.
That these and other pieces of evidence (too numerous to list here) suggest the existence of an advisory council, whether formal or informal, of members of the same social strata from which the bailiffs were drawn, is bolstered by later evidence (1344) from the custumal which lists the names of the "24" elected that year by the community. The same group is seen on other occasions in that decade. Its duties were stated vaguely (but therefore, by implication, broadly) as to take action in business concerning the community. In other words, a city council. It may be the same body which is found in the 1360s and later electing the bailiffs. By this time, it had become the practice to summon a few citizens from each leet to attend particular assemblies. Fines were set for those failing to answer the summons, and there is evidence of difficulty in raising a quorum, on occasion. There were different levels of fines for members of the "24" and for craftsmen who were summoned. It is difficult to say whether the goal of summoning specific citizens was to ensure that a representative group be present to give assent to ballival actions, or to respond to pressure from the craft gilds for more say in local government. Probably both. It was also decided at this period, to counter complaints of unjust taxation, that tax assessments would be made only by specially-elected committees made up of craftsmen.
We do not know to what extent the craft gildsmen may be associated with the "middle class" (les menes gentz) who were complaining to the king about unjust taxation by the bailiffs and "the rich men". Separate complaints were made by a "lower class" (pauperes). There is no indication that the burgesses were conscious of any clear-cut, economically-defined class divisions at the time of Domesday. Such arose from property qualifications for purposes of tax assessment, became more marked as economic growth furthered the prosperity of merchants, and took on political implications as the wealthier citizens were accorded the principal responsibilities of local government.
By the late fourteenth century there are clear indications of a sense of class differentiation based on wealth. The Staple organization may have contributed by fostering an elite of merchants, with divided loyalties between their towns and the interests of the Staple. The Black Death (1349) is another possible factor in encouraging elitism. In the pre-plague years agricultural depression, contrasted with Norwich's rising fortunes, encouraged greater migration into the city. The Black Death decimated the longer-established families of the city and was followed by a new influx of migrants from the countryside. Poverty and ambition combined in some of these migrants to produce a measure of lawlessness and disregard for city customs. This, together with ingrained distaste for newcomers, encouraged the surviving urban "aristocracy" to close ranks and assert superior rights. The Peasants' Revolt, in whose local expression some townsmen participated, reaffirmed to this group the need to take a firm hand in controlling "the commons", and an equally-nervous national government was prepared to give local authorities the powers they needed to do so.
The complaints of the middle and lower classes show that they wished to challenge the ruling class' grip on local government, by reasserting the fundamental authority of the community and its right to be consulted in the decision-making process and to have local officers accountable to the community for their actions. Following violent protests against the city government in 1371, the ruling class petitioned the king for an increase of powers; in 1380 they were given the power to make by-laws and to remedy existing local laws which they considered defective. This grant was modelled on one to London in 1341, but was given to the bailiffs and "24", without London's qualification of requiring consent of the commonalty to any legislative action.
The 1404 charter seemed to enshrine class differentiation into the city constitution, by addressing the grants to "mayor, sheriffs, citizens and community". Authority was now vested in the two estates of citizens and commonalty. To work out electoral procedures for the new city officers, a body of 80 persons was created to represent the commonalty. In 1413 this body was instituted as a Common Council, 20 men chosen from each leet (by this time called "wards"), which would elect city officers. Trouble soon arose over electoral procedure, when the ruling class exercised a power of intervention it believed was accorded it by the 1380 charter. Open hostilities erupted, making it difficult to run city affairs and the treasury ran out of money. After a great fire destroyed large areas of the city in 1413, both sides came to their senses and submitted their grievances to the arbitration of Sir Thomas Erpingham, a local landowner who was also an officer of the king and had proven a helpful connection in the royal court for the city in the past. The complaints submitted to the arbitrators reveal the attitudes and aims of each party. The commons, describing themselves as the "greater part of the citizens and community" protested that:
A compromise was embodied in the Composition of 1415. Conditions were laid down for the election of mayor, sheriffs, upper council of 24, and lower (Common) council. The requirement for community consent to ordinances was affirmed, but delegated to the Common Council. The 24 were to be chosen only from "sufficient" men (the mayor having the power to veto unsuitable choices) and were to hold office for life, thus placing them beyond democratic control. This group was to be the pool from which the commonalty could nominate two candidates for the mayoralty, with the decision between them being made by mayor and 24. One of the sheriffs was to be chosen by the commonalty, the other by mayor and 24. Although the commonalty had won back some lost ground, the effect was essentially to entrench the concept of two separate political estates and to limit popular participation in government. This settlement was formalized through a royal charter in 1417. The city rulers attempted to strengthen their ranks through an internal agreement (the Tripartite Indenture) in 1424, by which, the mayor, sheriffs and upper council (now called "aldermen") promised each other that all would present a common front in future.
This, however, was not to be. Many of the wealthier citizens had acquired property outside Norwich and had ambitions to rise in status and join the county gentry. Their loyalties were divided, and their politics pursued interests which were not necessarily those of the city. The city, taking advantage of its new status after 1404, was trying to extend its jurisdiction to lands outside the walls, which made some enemies from local landowners. At the same time, some of Norfolk's landed gentry were taking an interest in commerce and resented Norwich's monopoly of commercial advantages. But they were denied direct influence in Norwich by the stipulation, in the Composition of 1415, that no outsider could hold any city office. So they had to exercise influence indirectly, through political factions they encouraged within the city. It appears this was already a worry for the city rulers by 1415, since the Composition forbade any citizen to take the livery of any lord while holding office. The Tripartite Indenture was also an attempt to close ranks against partisanship from within.
It was to no avail. In 1432, one of the most prominent aldermen and a man with county connections, Thomas Wetherby, supported by the city clerk and some other bureaucratic officials, attempted to engineer the election of his nominee, William Grey, as mayor. Thwarted, the conspirators were deprived both of office and citizenship, but secured a royal commission headed by their patron, the Earl of Suffolk, which restored their citizenship and Wetherby to office. Wetherby continued, unsuccessfully, to try to dominate future elections, then changed tactics and induced local ecclesiastical dignitaries to bring charges over the city's attempts to exert control over lands beyond the walls. The city was convicted, as a result of a betrayal by its Recorder (an officer who gave legal advice, often chosen from the gentry class), John Heydon, another Wetherby supporter; he was then cast from office. Meanwhile, the furious citizens rioted. When the mayor went to London to explain to the situation to the king, he was thrown into prison and a city attorney, acting on Wetherby's instructions, relinquished his plea of defence. The king seized the city liberties, and for a while Wetherby had a free hand in the city.
If the death of Wetherby in 1445 and restoration of the liberties two years later eased the situation, it was only slightly, for Wetherby's policy was continued by Heydon and former Norfolk sheriff Sir Thomas Tuddenham, both followers of the Earl of Suffolk. The city was encouraged in its resistance by William Paston and his friends. It had thus become embroiled in a larger struggle between county factions, which was in its turn one expression of the national power struggle underway that eventually climaxed in the Wars of the Roses.
Wetherby, Grey, Tuddenham and Suffolk were all members of the Norwich-based St. George's Gild (founded 1385, possibly to unite the local upper classes in reaction to the Peasants' Revolt), whose membership included many prominent lay and ecclesiastical figures from the city and countryside. In response to city policy to either suppress or control gilds, St. George's Gild obtained a royal charter in 1417, protecting its existence but also giving the city authorities the power to dismiss gild-members for misconduct. That gild members played an active role in the troubles that plagued Norwich over the next few decades is indicated by Norwich's strategy to try to resolve the disputes by bringing the gild over to its side. In 1452, gild and corporation were amalgamated. By this agreement, the mayor was to follow his year of office with a year as chief officer of the gild; city aldermen were all to be gild members (as might Common Councillors, if they wished); dismissal for misconduct from either gild or corporation meant automatic dismissal from the other.
Again with a view to resolving the disputes dividing the ruling class, the same year saw a further constitutional adjustment, embodied in a royal charter. Additional powers (particularly judicial) were given to the city officers. Significantly, reference to the "community" disappeared from the terms of the charter.
These two settlements, along with new ordinances regulating the crafts in 1449, served to restore solidarity within the ranks of the ruling class, while widening the gap between them and the lower classes. Members of the socially more respectable crafts were made eligible for office, thus broadening the ruling class and weakening its opponents. The way had been paved for the Closed Corporation of post-medieval times.