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
|Summary / Recapitulation|
A variety of influences, national and local, played a part in moulding the course of Norwich's development. The beginnings of the city lay in an aggregate of several village communities, loosely bound together by the geographical and commercial advantages of their location. The Danish immigration was a catalyst in uniting these, and the subsequent reintegration of East Anglia into the English kingdom was a further stimulus. The new settlers filled in the gaps between the Anglo-Scandinavian vills, the trade links across the North Sea with continental Scandinavian colonies enhanced local prosperity, and this in turn prompted the king to endow the community with the official attributes of a burh/portus. Royal interest in the borough also served to limit the authority of other lords who might have proven a greater hindrance to borough self-determination.
Commercial pursuits, furthered again by the effects of the Conquest, gave rise to a distinctive burghal character. As the burgesses became increasingly conscious of this, they sought recognition of special status and accommodation of the needs of their lifestyle. Aware of the financial advantages to itself and of the political value of patronage of towns, the crown conceded what the burgesses desired, in such a way as to integrate the borough into its own developing system of national administration. While a traditional view is that medieval towns were the bastions of English freedom, it is unlikely that such sentimental ideals had any great part in the thinking of practical, business-minded burgesses. They were motivated rather by a pragmatic assessment of the harassment potential of unsympathetic and self-interested royal officials, and the advantages of direct relations with the king. Far from seeking to set themselves up as independent communes (as was happening with some cities on the continent), they were prepared to take on heavier responsibilities within the national administrative system in return for greater control over local affairs.
Local conditions dictated the rate and extent of the development of self-government in different boroughs. The imposition of a French settlement in post-Conquest Norwich may have delayed the impetus towards self-government, by temporarily inhibiting the united effort necessary for successful pursuance of common goals. On the other hand, the emergence of the Mancroft market as the new focus of the town suggests that the newcomers contributed a new vitality to Norwich. However, we should not ignore the fact that Norwich's development continued to be shaped by Anglo-Saxon precedents - in legal procedure and in the use of the old settlement divisions as the basis of the leet system. For a long time the leets served as the foundation of local administration. When political reorganization became necessary in the fifteenth century, the leet division still proved useful.
By the close of the Middle Ages, Norwich had become one of the largest, wealthiest and most influential cities in England. But this prosperity also undermined its democratic roots. At its medieval peak in the first half of the fourteenth century, with trade booming and the city's physical and jurisdictional limits largely defined to its satisfaction, the rot was already setting in. The old communal assembly and the leet courts were no longer effective mechanisms for handling administrative and judicial affairs, in the face of the increasingly complex governmental responsibilities and the pressure from above to ensure the maintenance of law and order in a society where men appear to have been more inclined to resort to violence to redress perceived wrongs or to achieve their ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of recognition of the community as an entity in the eyes of the law left it vulnerable in ways inconsistent with the advantages accorded it by royal grant (e.g. in the inability to profit fully from the lands now within its jurisdiction). But perhaps above all, the growth in prosperity was concentrated in the hands of a small section of the population.
The solution to the problem of outdated institutions was the development of a political system which favoured, instead of the potentially unruly character of communal assemblies or to the influence of interest groups outside of the constitution (i.e. the craft gilds), administrative mechanisms characterized by delegation and representation, and the acquisition of greater police powers to control dissent. The political representatives were almost inevitably drawn from the wealthier townsmen, a group which, as time went on, became increasingly differentiated along class lines from the rest of the townsmen. This separation and sense of social and economic superiority was likely furthered by the effects of the Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt, and the ruling class came to desire a corresponding political superiority which ran counter to the original concept of the burgesses as a community of equals.
While alterations in the political theory underlying borough government might not have greatly bothered the majority of the burgesses, they were concerned about the conduct of their rulers; whether the charges of abuses of power, made periodically through the fourteenth century, had foundation is less important than the fact that such abuses were believed to take place. Popular discontent found a means of organized resistance through the craft gilds. But a period of struggle over the constitution ended only in a compromise; which itself was undermined by incorporation, increasing the powers of the city rulers and limiting democratic expression to representative institutions (which themselves became not much more than an extension of the ruling class), and by the impact of bastard feudalism, infecting the community with internal faction and interference from outside interests. The resolution to these problems pushed the city further away from its essentially democratic roots and towards the oligarchic form of government that characterized the post-medieval city.