COMMERCE AND ITS REGULATION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval urban commerce taverns inns accommodations vintners wine Ipswich taverners innkeepers brewing licences ale assizes market offences crime curfew disturbances peace conviviality office-holding prohibition


 Alehouses, taverns, hostelries and inns 

Alehouses and taverns were essentially shops (or houses incorporating like elements) that specialized in retailing ale, brewed at the same or another location, and/or wine; in the fifteenth century we see immigrants from the Low Countries introducing brewing of beer, whose inclusion of hops made for a longer-lasting (and so more transportable) drink, but the process required more equipment and dedicated labour. While this drink could be sold on a take-away basis to those bringing their own containers, taverns also offered facilities for consuming drink on-premises, sometimes along with food, on-site – this might be no more than a bench or two outside the building, or an interior space with seating and tables; but most of them did not offer overnight accommodations. Vintner William Marbrer's plans for a new tavern, in 1342, included an elaborate cellar equipped with a privy and fireplaces, one general seating area for clients on the ground-floor, another on the floor above with a bay window offering a view down onto the street, as well as smaller partitioned areas for clients wanting more privacy, and on the upper floor a bedroom (probably not for guests) and food service facilities, the latter perhaps also used for the tavern.

Most villages had some resident operating an alehouse that provided home-brewed ale, basic foods, and perhaps some rough accommodations; but taverns per se seem to have emerged as urban establishments – perhaps in connection with growing importation of wine – with a stronger commercial bent. Taverners were in essence the lowest level of a complex redistribution infrastructure for imported wine, retailing by small measures – gallon, pottle, quart, and pint – though their businesses probably accounted for the consumption of a large percentage of the wine imported into England.

A contractual agreement at London in 1319 between a vintner, James Beauflur, and a taverner with the curious name of Thomas Drynkewatre, created a business partnership of a type that may well have existed in other instances. Having just built a tavern at the strategic location of one end of London Bridge, Thomas leased it for six years to James on the understanding that Thomas would operate it, but use it to retail James' wines, and account bi-annually to him for the net proceeds, once allowance had been made for operating expenses and a gown for Thomas. James invested some capital for equipping the business, while Thomas agreed to provide mugs and certain other desirable furnishings. Drinkewaterestaverne was still there in 1328, and the name persisted up to at least 1361, when the facility is described as a cellar. In other cases, taverners simply purchased direct from importers on a one-off basis, or might engage directly in importing in their own right.

Inns or hostelries were establishments that combined the characteristics of tavern and guest-house, but inns at least tended to cater to a better class of client, which had higher expectations of privacy and security in dining and sleeping. They might range in size from residences setting aside one or two rooms to accommodate a few guests each, to buildings primarily serving guests, with a number of rooms some of which might be private; the largest inns might have a dozen or more bedchambers and more than one dining area. In addition there were facilities for stabling guests' horses and securing their goods. The existence of such a large number and wide range of spaces in inns increased the likelihood that the buildings would continue to serve that role as owners changed. These facilities became an important component of the infrastructure supporting travel, and thereby the development of the commercial network. As such they were a characteristic feature of late medieval English towns and, though less numerous than taverns, there seem to have been two or three inns in all but the smallest and most out-of-the-way towns, while county, and other leading, towns had around ten to twenty each by the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, and the London-Westminster-Southwark nexus – which of course attracted substantial visitation from merchants, gentry, and nobility needing multi-night accommodations – was said to be packed with them [figures are tabulated by John Hare, "Inns, innkeepers and the society of later medieval England, 13501600," Journal of Medieval History, vol.39 (2013), pp.484-85]. Yet the dividing line between taverns and inns could be hazy, and it is not clear whether medieval scribes had clear definitions distinguishing them or used the terms loosely. Similarly, the distinction between inns and hostelries is not clear and may have been only terminological; in 1473 London's company of hostelers obtained permission from the city authorities to thereafter be called innholders, and ten years later the innholders company was seeking civic support for the suppression of small-scale hostelries operated in private houses that had no signage hung out in front. Not until the sixteenth century do we have clear evidence that these various types of refreshment/lodging establishments were being differentiated from one another on some reasonably objective basis. Rather than for historians to try to identify a rigid distinction, however, it might be more meaningful to see them as elements of a spectrum, at whose extreme ends sit the ale-wife and the landlady, or their male counterparts in the medieval precursor to the hospitality industry.

Possibly some distinction between these categories was founded not only on the kinds of services offered but on the scale of operations or size of the establishment; but this would have become difficult to maintain in cases where businesses prospered, expanded, and businessmen crossed boundaries into allied areas of trade. Large, custom-designed taverns, like Marbrer's, with multiple rooms and space for large numbers of patrons, are occasionally evidenced. Some London inns were sufficiently spacious and comfortable to host nobles and their retinues. Although most establishments are referred to in official records by the names of their owners or operators, at least the larger inns and taverns often came to be known by nicknames derived from iconic signs hung outside to identify them to prospective customers (as well as to itinerant officials charged with checking the quality of ale); such signs appear to have been a refinement of more generic signage (called the ale-stake) designating places where ale was available. For example, we hear in 1364 of taverns named The Fleur-de-Lys and The Cardinal's Hat, and in 1412 of a London tavern called The Moon, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was close to another called The Sun; the former had separate entrances off two adjacent lanes in different wards, which was creating an administrative problem.

Such places provided a venue for socializing and consequently gaming, particularly for non-elite members of the community whose homes were small, though they were also patronized by people higher up the social ladder. That some taverns specialized in wine suggests they were targeting an upper-scale clientele; these places needed a cellar to store wine, and a few had more than one cellar, in order to separate different kinds of wine. By the close of the Middle Ages inns and taverns had become as popular and ubiquitous as English pubs were in the twentieth century. Langland [Skeat ed. Piers Plowman, Bk.V, 304-365] has his character Gluttony, en route to attend church in London, encounters Betty the brewster who, after a friendly greeting and brief casual conversation, advises that she has good ale available and invites him to partake. After ascertaining that she also has in stock various spices that would make any prepared food more palatable, Gluttony (who is a frequenter of taverns, loving the food and drink and the idle conversation) needs no further persuasion. He enters the tavern, probably in Cheapside, to find it already bustling with customers chatting and carousing: a diverse group that includes Cissy the seamstress, Walter the warner and his wife, a needle-maker, a ditch-digger, a tinker and his cronies, Clarice of Cocks Lane and Prunella of Flanders (prostitutes), a parish clerk, a monk, a chantry priest, and some dozen others more cursorily identified such as rat-catcher, street-cleaner, rope-maker, dish-trader (female), butcher, sellers of used clothes, and a Welshman. The tavern atmosphere is lively and merry. Some of Gluttony's fellow-imbibers toast him, perhaps hoping he'll buy a round. One pair try to barter articles of their clothing, calling on others to appraise the worth of the items; certain London neighbourhoods (notably Cheapside and Cornhill), taverns, and hostelries being notorious for evechepynges – informal after-hours trading, often in second-hand, stolen or substandard goods – which authorities tried to suppress on the grounds they were magnets for cut-purses, thieves, con-men, beggars, brawlers, and whores. Other patrons are participating in a drinking-song that involves passing round a common cup of ale. Gluttony manages to down well over a gallon of ale by the time he should have been attending Evensong, though he is in no fit state to walk on to church, and has to be carried home. Although Langland's allegorical purpose is to show how easily man can be tempted away from virtuous to sinful behaviour, in the process he gives us a rare look at an alehouse catering to less well-to-do members of London society. The impression given that taverns served as venues for popular entertainment is reinforced by a fifteenth-century book of minstrelsy [reported by C. Evelyn White, "The old inns and taverns of Ipswich", Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, vol.6 (1888), 144-45) that included a number of drinking songs.

Not hard, then, to see why frequenters of taverns tended to create more problems for borough authorities than did the remainder of the population. Taverns were by their nature places where victuals were both prepared and retailed, with customers consequently facing higher prices than those set for the marketplace, and places where drink was sold in smaller measures than approved by the law; hucksters also sold small quantities of ale in the streets, sometimes of their own brew, sometimes purchased from other brewers, and cookshops might also sell ale. Not only were the operators of such establishments thus regrating, but the constant need for supplies of victuals might tempt them to forestall and stockpile to the deprivation of the market. The parliament of 1363 heard a complaint that hostelers bought a bushel of oats for 3d. and sold it for 8d. (despite that a statute of 1349 had prohibited hostellers making more than a farthing profit per bushel), though this was part of general anger over rising wages and prices, and deterioration of the old social hierarchy, following the Black Death. Yet a London ordinance of 1365 authorized the 8d price as a maximum, while at the same time restricting to 2d. the cost of hay provided to a horse over a twenty-four period. Mid-fifteenth century ordinances at Colchester permitted innkeepers to charge a penny over market price for a bushel of provender. Innkeepers dealing in horse fodder – hay, oats, beans – naturally wished to ensure themselves ample cheap supplies for their guests' horses, but this led them to make deals outside the marketplace or to acquire more than their business needs, then sell the surplus from their inns. It was the same situation with provisions for people, and in 1371 the London authorities ordered that hostelers could only re-sell ale to their guests, unless they also operated as brewers.

It was natural enough that inn and tavern operators often did engage in baking, brewing, and other food production for their own business needs, or they might purchase directly from other producers without going through the marketplace; these situations again provided opportunity for undermining of market prices, and made it difficult for market inspectors to supervise the quality of drink and foodstuffs. At London in 1365 (and again in 1371) and at Coventry in 1421 hostelers were prohibited from baking bread and horsebread, but rather required to purchase it from proper bakers whose product quality had better assurance; on the other hand, a London ordinance of 1481 required that bakers of horsebread not let any resellers purchase it, other than innholders, while two years later the innholders obtained a civic ordinance forbidding bakers of any kind of bread from keeping an inn. The proliferation of inns, and other establishments operated by vintners and brewers that had expanded into provision of hot food, was by 1495 putting the London pastelers (a type of cook specializing in pies and pasties) out of business, or so they claimed.

As places where people congregated, inns and hostelries might be used by visiting traders to display and sell merchandize, again subverting the market. In 1463, for example, the London company of bladesmiths complained to the civic authorities that practitioners of their craft from the suburbs and from other towns were bringing into the city lower-quality wares that counterfeited those of the London craftsmen, and were selling them at inns as well as to regrators operating out of private houses, rather than in the open market designated for the purpose (Leadenhall), thus bringing undeserved disrepute on the London industry. The poulterers had made a similar complaint (mutatis mutandis) in 1345, and in 1371 the city pouch-makers likewise complained that some of their trade were selling privately in hostelries rather than openly from their shops, while in 1398 leathersellers and non-resident drapers were prohibited from such activity. Inns and taverns were, in London at least, a target for pedlars aiming to avoid the supervision associated with formal marketplaces; by the close of the Middle Ages inns collectively were becoming somewhat like a black market, where goods that were low quality, refurbished, or stolen could be sold. Altneratively, inns might be used as bases for conspiracies to subvert the marketplace; for example, throughout the 1390s – until the lawhundred jurors complained vociferously in 1399 – two Colchester men, John Caunceler and John Beneyt, used a local inn as a regular meeting-place with non-local fishermen, to arrange deals that amounted to forestalling the latters' catches.

In cases where overnight guests were received – perhaps particularly with establishments located near the port – there was the risk of rowdiness or lawlessness, a concern heightened during periods of civil disturbance within the kingdom. The characters or intentions of such transients were difficult to know and they might prove a source of trouble; at London there was even concern that some operators were themselves criminal elements, or at least foreign exiles whose behaviour was suspect, leading the authorities to restrict the occupation to citizens. Town officers needed to keep an eye on who was being taken in to such guest-houses (which in turn necessitated periodic surveys of such places and even maintaining a written list of establishments). However, some of the onus was put on hostelers to exercise discretion in such matters and apply controls, such as in regard to guests' weapons (e.g. ordinances at Coventry and London), ensuring that any guests staying for an extended period find guarantors for their good behaviour, and advising guests about curfew.

A particular concern was that late drinking in these places resulted in breaches of curfew, whether by drunks or troublemakers, and acts of violence – we know of a number of cases where two imbibers leave together, quarrel, and one ends up dead – or housebreaking after nightfall. Orders that London taverns should close at curfew had to be repeated periodically, and were evidently ignored by some, if not many, drinking-houses. Operators of lodgings were warned they could be held accountable for the misbehaviour of, or damage caused by, their guests; we may see an instance of this in a prosecution at Lynn in 1455. In addition, innkeepers were considered responsible for assuring the security of their guests' persons and possessions. By statute of 1335 they were even made responsible for searching their guests for counterfeit coin imported from abroad, but we may doubt how practicable this measure was, and nothing later is heard of it.

Equally difficult to police were the tendencies of inns, hostelries, and especially taverns to become haunts of undesirable elements and serve as a base for thieves, gamblers, prostitutes, brawlers or duellists, rumour-mongers, stirrers of trouble, political factions, intoxicated vandals or carousers, and that most insidious of social subversives: university students! All of whose activities could lead to infringements of the peace, particularly after curfew. Indeed, taverns that remained open after curfew were (or were believed to be) magnets for night-wanderers of ill intent, sometimes with the complicity of operators. Taverners themselves could sometimes be the troublemakers. In October 1310 Colchester vintner and tavern-owner John Lotoun complained that a tun of his wine had been ruined when Walter Seler, at the instigation of Walter le Taverner, having obtained a quantity of sour wine, broke into Lotoun's tavern overnight and mixed it into Lotoun's stock; it is not clear whether this was a case of competition taken too far, or whether Walter le Taverner was simply the operator of Lotoun's tavern, for subsequent court entries indicate that Walter le Taverner was notorious for mixing poor-quality wine into good, although Walter defended that the corrupt wine was good when he bought it. Both defendant and plaintiff were later among a group of men again charged with the same offence, though acquitted.

This negative image of taverns, inns, and hostelries represents, of course, only that side of the coin with which law-makers and law enforcers were concerned; it is unfortunately the side we mostly see in borough records. We should not conclude that such places were, or were considered, entirely disreputable – for in such an event we should expect attempts by authorities to suppress them. Instead, despite the risks they posed to public order and the challenges they created for regulating commerce, these places were tolerated, accepted as a natural and perhaps even an important part of the fabric of a communal society; most patrons were law-abiding, wanted only to refresh and enjoy themselves, and caused no trouble for the authorities.

These were more than just places to obtain sustenance, become inebriated, or shelter overnight. Their social value lay not only in the opportunities for cheerful conviviality they provided – perhaps particularly in towns, where the high proportion of immigrants needed some sense of community to substitute for the family life they had left in their birthplaces, and poorer residents could not entertain in their cramped domestic spaces; it also lay in their function as places for communal entertainment and for gathering or exchanging news or gossip about matters local, regional, national, or even international. They were useful for informal meetings of interest groups, political decision-makers, and businessmen, reinforcing existing social relationships and sometimes generating new ones. They were a form of socio-cultural institution of contrasting character to other congregational vehicles, such as political assemblies, gild meetings, or church services; as such they catered particularly to the lower strata of society.

The same civic officials who tried to control inns and taverns would also make use of them to provide refreshments while discussing business with visiting dignitaries. Nor were they even averse to corporate involvement in the innkeeping business. At Norwich a tavern on one side of the marketplace, acquired by the civic authorities from a citizen over the course of the 1380s, was in 1407 renovated and thereafter referred to as the Common Inn. This, and the Worsted Seld, which stood on the same property across a courtyard, was a stone's throw from the centre of municipal administration, soon to be rebuilt as a more imposing Guildhall. We should keep in mind that building or owning an inn represented a relatively large investment and that it tended to be prospering businessmen – the same group furnishing personnel of local government – who made such investments, usually building on their existing commercial activities or developing an occupational specialization that combined engagement in commerce and service provision.

For, above all, inns and taverns were one indication of the commercialization of medieval society. Davis [Medieval Market Morality, p.393] estimates that at Ipswich's leet court, during the period 1415-1438 (for which records survive) an average of 71 brewers in breach of the assize were presented annually; since the authorities were only concerned with those brewing to retail to others, this number – perhaps a tenth of the total number of households in the borough – represents those producing a surplus that they would sell to others through taverns, around marketplaces, or in the street. The large number of individuals reported for this, year after year, suggests that the modest fines imposed on them was less a punishment than a kind of licensing fee, or tax.. This approach would enable the authorities to tolerate inordinate profit-making from such activities (which were essential to the community), while complying nominally with national legislation concerning the ale assize, without resorting to undesirable deterrents – impoverishing fines, corporal punishment, or the extreme measure of banning future involvement in the occupation – except in conspicuous cases of flouting of the law that caused, or risked causing, an outcry within the community or damage to the town's reputation. Larger amercements seem to have been imposed on innkeepers who dealt in larger volumes of food and drink and so made greater profits. The same seeming policy, of a form of licensing with fines geared somewhat towards profitable output, was applied in regard to administration of the assize of bread. Bakers presented for infringements included a handful of residents who made it their primary occupation – often referred to as 'common bakers' – and others who sold what was surplus to their domestic needs, and probably deliberately baked a surplus when they could. Again, and not surprisingly, this was an activity we find associated with inn operation. The king occasionally complained about this 'slap-on-the-hand' policy towards repeat offenders, but did not intervene in any significant way in local administration of the bread and ale assizes, although greater interest was shown in regulation of the wine trade, which was a source of royal supplies and royal revenue.

We can see indications of this licensing policy at Norwich, at least in regard to brewers [see William Hudson, Leet Jurisdiction in the City of Norwich, Selden Society, V (1892), p.xxxviii], and as an innovation at Nottingham. It is also suggested at Berwick, in the decision to compile a register of women who brewed commercially, and at Fordwich in the fixed maximum set on fines that could be imposed on ale-wives simply for engaging in brewing, although for sub-standard product or underselling competitors they were subject to a genuinely punitive fine. The same impression is given by Colchester evidence, where the thrice-yearly lawhundreds presented infringers of the assizes. At the October 1382 session, 157 brewsters were presented, in January 1383 the number was 172, and in April 1383 the list numbered 173 (17 of whom were widows or unmarried, while the remainder were wives of the men presented). The order of names of those presented is so similar on each occasion as to suggest a standardized list was in existence (or the previous lawhundred's list was being used as a guide for the next session), with adjustments made for individuals who had ceased or recently commenced operations and for the approximately estimated volume of ale brewed, which would explain differences in the amounts amerced. Richard Britnell [Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300-1525, Cambridge: University Press, 1986, p.89] suggested this en masse approach was taken in lieu of attempting to police adherence to the assizes – there being no evidence of Colchester having any officials, such as aletasters, assigned to such a duty – and that the large number of brewers provided sufficient competition to keep ale prices affordable. At the same October lawhundred twelve men were presented for selling wine contrary to the assize, six the following January, and seven in April (the reduction perhaps reflective of the reduced availability of wine in the off-season for mercantile voyages); most of them are also named among the brewers, so it seems likely they were taverners or innkeepers, and one (Richard Sebern) is elsewhere explicitly described as an innkeeper, while another (Gilbert Burgeys) was also presented because the taverner in his employ watered down his wine with his employer's complicity.

Not all borough authorities opted for this licensing approach to administering the assizes, while in at least one case it seems to have been taken to such an extreme as to suggest something unusual going on. Some towns seem to have followed more the letter of the law, while others acquitted bakers whose product was found compliant with assize requirements.

Inns answered a need in a society where personal travel – particularly business travel – was on the increase; they provided opportunities for profit-making away from the public view and relatively close official surveillance that characterized the marketplace, even though inns and taverns were technically considered public spaces, in that they were to be readily subject to official oversight. Owners of large inns could be among the more well-to-do townsmen, particularly when innkeeping was only one feather in their cap; for catering to the needs of guests and their horses, along with locals who might simply come in for food and drink, naturally drew their keepers into commercial transactions to obtain large enough supplies of necessaries. It might equally be argued that engagement in victualling, especially trade in grain, or even agricultural production, could draw some participants into operating taverns or inns as retail outlets for their surpluses. Provisions for the poll tax of 1379 established different rates of taxation for prospering innkeepers, who were considered mercantile, and those who could not be considered part of the merchant class.

Both the surname and occupation of taverner are, unsurprisingly, well evidenced at London; consequently much of our evidence of that trade comes from London records. In 1309 there were said to be 354 taverners in the city, and 1,334 residents were engaged in brewing, a chronicler's figure that is hard to take at face value; nonetheless, as Sharpe [Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: D, 1902, p.xix] observed, it can well be imagined that administering the assizes of ale and wine there was a demanding duty. In 1331 when new price controls, together with the requirement that patrons have free access to wine cellars, were imposed by civic authorities on wine-taverners, 29 named taverners (two of them women) went on strike, closing their establishments, and a subsequent inquiry, incompletely documented, pointed to the strike having spread to a rather larger number of taverns.

Lesser towns also seem to have been well-serviced, per capita. The number of brewers at Ipswich has already been noted above. Davis estimates that during the period 1415-1468 55 Ipswich households were operating as inns or hostelries, with perhaps 18 in operation at any given time. The innkeepers included several men important enough in the town to be elected to borough office – such as John Joye, John Sudbury, William Whethereld, William Debenham, John Caldwell, and John Wode – and since these exemplify men for whom innkeeping was just one commercial pie in which they had fingers, it is worth looking at some of them more closely.

Travellers arriving at tavern or inn Tavern interior; photo © S. Alsford
In a commercializing society establishments where travelling businessmen could obtain refreshments and accommodations assumed an increasingly important role.
(click on the images for more information)

First, however, for comparative purposes, we will look at an example of an Ipswich taverner from a century earlier. Thomas dil Stonhous first comes to our attention in 1301, when accused of causing bodily harm to a fellow townsman. In 1307 he acquired a property on the boundary of the parishes of St. Mary Elms and St Mildred which included a shop. It is not known what his occupation was at this time, but conceivably the shop may have operated as a tavern.

At any rate, when we next hear of him – not until 1320 – it is as an executor of the will of John le Coteler, a man otherwise undistinguished in the records, but who appears to have been a taverner; he refers to Thomas as his servant, but obviously trusts him and appears to have some personal regard for him. John's heirs are three daughters, the youngest of whom, Matilda, has a husband in whom John shows no confidence. John's will deals only with two assets: a property (later described as a tavern) in St. Mary Tower parish, which he bequeaths to Matilda, and a second tavern in St. Lawrence's parish which he had as a legacy from one Walter le Taverner; it should be noted that these two parishes are located in the commercial centre of Ipswich, being on either side of the High Street and close to Cornhill and other markets. The St. Lawrence property was probably on the north side of Tavern Street, and it had a cellar and an adjoining shop (with its own cellar); John bequeaths a life interest in this to Thomas dil Stonhous, on condition that Thomas operate it as a tavern – supplying it with wine and any necessary equipment from the income the business generates, and paying 20% of the net profits, once maintenance costs and the wages of Thomas and an assistant are deducted, to John's heirs (who are bequeathed the reversion of the tavern after Thomas shall die). It seems plausible to posit that Thomas had previously acted in the employ of John as assistant operator of the tavern – for it would hardly have been possible for a single individual to run something open daily for long hours – and that John felt his daughter's best interests would be served by allowing Thomas to continue to do the job and channel part of the regular proceeds to her.

This new-found independence seems to have been the making of Thomas dil Stonhous (a surname perhaps derived from the tavern he operated?), who thereafter adopted the surname Coteler – whether out of gratitude to his former master, because a distant kinsman, or because he felt the association would be beneficial (in terms of goodwill) to his business, we cannot know; there is no evidence to suggest that either he or John were cutlers. He seems to have been considered by his peers a trustworthy individual, judging from the number of times he was called on to act as executor, coadjutor of executors, or prover of wills; one of the men for whom he was executor (1335) was taverner William le Smyth. His acquisition 1332) of a royal licence to donate a messuage to the Carmelites may have been associated with executorial duties.

That Thomas became prosperous is suggested by his tax assessments in the royal subsidies imposed on Ipswich in 1327 and 1341; for that purpose the valuations of Thomas's goods were several times higher than the town average. He expanded his business interests to become involved in the wool trade; in 1338 he is seen acting as an agent for the Earl of Northampton, exporting the earl's wool, and in the 1340s the company of Thomas de Melcheburn, tasked with financing the war effort through customs collection, contracted a debt of over £30 to him, probably for wool. Thomas le Coteler acquired his own ship; in 1340 it participated in a piratic attack a Flemish ship, for which he won a royal pardon two years later, for having put his ship into naval service for two months at his own expense. Yet he did not abandon the taverner's trade, nor the associated involvement in importing wine. In 1328 he had obtained appointment as deputy butler in Ipswich, and held that post for much if not all of the period up to 1347; to that he added the role of king's searcher for coin 1342-43. His growth in importance in the town is reflected in his election to a term as bailiff (1335/36) and his selection as its parliamentary representative in September 1346; this was a relatively modest involvement in local government.

Alongside his empowered ambitions and his growing prosperity, Thomas' property holdings also expanded. In May 1322 he acquired from the daughter of the late Alexander le Coteler a messuage in St. Lawrence parish, a house with brewhouse in the same parish, and a messuage in St. Mary Tower parish; in September he acquired a messuage on the south side of Tavern Street, adjacent to the churchyard of St. Lawrence. Over the next couple of years he was obtaining quitclaims to clear his rights in the shop adjacent to the tavern he had inherited. He continued to add to his St. Lawrence holdings: by purchases in 1329, 1332, 1338, and 1346, through a bequest in 1331, and through a ten-year lease negotiated in 1343. In 1335 the widow of Gilbert Robert, a prominent merchant who appears also to have been known by the alias le Taverner, bequeathed Thomas two shops in Cook's Row, a shop operating as a tavern in Flesh Market (St. Mary Tower parish), a riverside tenement in St. Mary Quay parish, and a rent from a tavern and shop owned by William Malyn. The last was possibly the Holletaverne in St. Lawrence parish, which in 1324 Malyn had leased out, for five shillings per tun of wine sold, to an operator who however defaulted on the arrangement, or possibly it was Malyn's New Tavern in Cook's Row. Perhaps it was one of these that a royal inquisition valued at 100 shillings annually in 1344, when in the hands of Malyn's son; it must have been a fairly substantial structure, and is described as having a cellar and solar. In 1348 Thomas le Coteler was bequeathed yet another tavern, in St. Mary Tower parish, though this was one that testator Robert de Weston had at some previous date bought from Thomas (though no record of the sale has survived); the bequest to Thomas, who was one of Weston's executors, was on condition he make provisions for celebrations for Weston's soul.

Thomas le Coteler fell victim to plague in April 1349, though he had the foresight to prepare a will earlier in the year. It shows no signs of him having any direct heirs, or indeed any kin at all. The two surviving daughters of his old benefactor, John le Coteler, now became beneficiaries of his tavern in St. Mary Tower parish, and his longhouse (a brewhouse?) with solar, grange, stables, workshop and garden in St. Lawrence parish. His capital messuage in the latter parish went to one of his executors, while two houses in St. Mary Quay parish, four shops and a tavern (with equipment) in unidentified locations were left to other townsmen, and other properties in St. Lawrence parish (including what remained on the ten-year lease) were to be sold by his executors. Here was a man who had worked hard to make himself financially successful, but seemingly at the cost of any family life – though of course we only hear snippets of his story.

Yet the fifteenth-century taverners we know of in Ipswich are rarely better documented, and often not so well.

John Joye was between 1419 and 1430 elected borough bailiff four times, three times as coroner, and when not in one of those executive offices served on the town council of portmen. As well, from 1421 to 1423 he was in royal service as one of the Ipswich customs collectors and also as controller of tronage and pesage, and he served as a commissioner of the peace in 1424 and 1428. He first appears in 1396 as a servant (read apprentice) of Geoffrey Starling junior – a mercer who, along with Geoffrey Starling senior (perhaps an uncle) had just completed his own phase of dominating local politics (one or other held ballival office during 15 of the 20 terms between 1376 and 1396) and a career as customer (1386-96). Joye is described variously in the records as a mercer, vintner, mariner, and fishmonger; between 1410 and 1414 he is seen importing sizable quantities of wine and cloth, and exporting tanned hides, tannin, cloth, and cheese. He had been among a group found guilty of piracy against Hanse merchants in 1405. Although the surname is not very common, it is very possible there was more than one John Joye in Ispwich at that period; the vintner and mariner seem to have been identical, and the fishmonger (who also had citizenship of London and membership in its Company of Fishmongers), was in 1418 trustee of a London cheesemonger. Among his real estate was a property on the riverside, near Stoke Bridge, and he also had a quay there.

It was, however, as an innkeeper that Joye was amerced by the leet court in 1416 for selling food in his hostelry for excessive profit; in that and the previous year he was amerced for breaking the assize of ale at some location in North Ward, and again in 1419 and 1421 though on these occasions in South Ward. Whether one of his establishments was in his property named "Bremys" (perhaps after a man of that surname he was suing for debt in 1415), and on which he spent £200 on renovations, we do not know. He seems to have run into troubles towards the end of his final ballivalty, although his difficulties in Chancery related to an earlier term of office, and in 1431 we hear that the issues from his real estate had been seized, and his pledges fined; this did not, however, prevent him from taking up the borough office of claviger, ex officio ballivi in 1430, and being reappointed for a second term in 1431. Interestingly, a Richard Joye (borough treasurer 1415/16) and another John Joye were bakers of the town – Richard being amerced for breaking both the ale and bread assizes in 1415, and his widow Gundreda for bread in 1421 – though there is nothing to show they were related to the innkeeper.

John Sudbury had perhaps been a friend, neighbour, or business associate of John Joye, for he acted as surety for him in 1431; but the two appear to have been of different ages, Sudbury not holding his first position of public responsibility at Ipswich until 1437/38 as a capital pledge, then the following year served as treasurer; in 1441 he was elected a coroner, and re-elected the following year, serving one further term in 1453/54. He was clearly involved in victualling; it is hard to say what precisely was the focus of those activities, but it was probably innkeeping. In 1421 the leet court had amerced him as a butcher, for exposing corrupt meat for sale, but it was for breaking the ale assize that he was amerced in 1436 and again in 1438 (in a different ward); on the latter occasion he was also convicted of charging excessive prices for food served in his hostelry. In 1443 he was being sued for debt by a vintner.

Like Joye, Sudbury hit a rough patch later in life, being ordered arrested in 1453 so that he could be brought before the King's Council, while in 1455 he was accused by William Whethereld's widow of refusing to hand over an acre of arable land he had sold the couple but of which he had remained feoffee-to-use. Most serious was his disfranchisement in 1459 for unspecified offences against borough ordinances and his oath as a burgess; such an extreme step was not usually taken unless an offender was unrepentant and refusing to submit to discipline. He drew up his will in 1463 – in which year he was accused in Richard Mongomery's will of having embezzled a legacy and deprived him of real estate revenues for fifteen years (suggesting Sudbury had been his guardian) – but it did not require probate until three years later. His heirs were underage children, at least one of whom was his grandchild; his son John junior (whom historians sometimes confuse with John senior) had predeceased him in 1456. Since the will mentions no wife, she was probably also already dead. Which may help explain the generous bequest to a servant, Margaret, of all household utensils and 10 marks. The will mentions his tenement in St. Margaret's parish (although Sudbury resided in St. Peter's) called The Sun, which was probably his inn; if not his housekeeper, Margaret might have been the inn's operator.

William Whethereld was frequently in high borough office between 1421 and 1451 serving seven ballival terms and four as coroner, and acting as a borough Justice of the Peace 1448-53; in those years when out of office, he had a position of influence on Ipswich's council of portmen, alongside John Joye, whom he must have known quite well, for he was named an executor of Joye's will. He served the king as a commissioner of the peace and as a tax collector on several occasions during the same period. In 1421 he was a juror on an inquisition into customs frauds at Ipswich, but did not involve himself in the customs service itself, despite being a merchant; in 1422 we see him as a member of the English colony of merchants based at Middelburg (one of England's overseas staples). This fact may throw a little light on an accusation levied against him in 1439 by Thomas Elys. Elys complained that, he having had one Herman Rollesthorp arrested for non-payment of a debt which had earlier been recognized in the borough court, bailiff Whethereld (whom Elys described, perhaps scurrilously, as "impotent and sore broke with age"), had declined to pass judgement against Herman, a Dutchman to whom Whethereld was acting as host; instead the bailiff had taken him into personal custody, assured Elys that the debt would be paid, then subsequently let Herman return home and refused to satisfy Elys for the debt. This was not the only occasion Whethereld was accused of abuse of ballival office, for at an uncertain date (ca.1449-52) it was claimed, in favour of a man acting as pledge for a debt, he had ordered a false entry made in the court roll to show that the debt had been repaid. Whether either accusation was warranted the records do not show.

Whethereld's mercantile activities are not well evidenced, but in 1414 he had placed woollen cloth and cash, to the total value of almost £318, in the hands of a Robert Shepperde, who was to take them abroad and trade, in return for one-third of all profit made; in 1416 he was suing Shepperde for not surrendering the profits. And that a quantity of herring had in 1413 been distrained from him (to force him to respond to a plea of debt) suggests he also dealt in victuals. He was amerced in 1415, 1421, 1423, and 1424 for breaking the assize of ale, and in 1423 for charging excessive prices for food sold through his hostelry. He was wealthy enough to own property in several Ipswich parishes, and was associated in property ventures with William Debenham, Sir William Phelip, and even the Duke of Buckingham (as co-feoffee in Norfolk manors). He died ca.1454.

The name William Debenham is found on the list of Ipswich bailiffs for ten terms between the years 1403 and 1445, and he was returned as one of the borough's parliamentary representatives five times between 1397 and 1437. This long span of activity, seen in the light of the misleading generalization that average life-span in the Middle Ages was considerably shorter than today, led K.N. Houghton, when writing members' biographies for The History of Parliament to assume there must have been two men of this name, a hypothesis Nicholas Amor accepted, and extended to portray them as father and son. It is certainly possible there were two consecutive Ipswich townsmen of the name, though both Houghton and Amor acknowledged it difficult to differentiate one's career from the other's. However, there is no documentary evidence to show a father and son, nor references to either as senior or junior, and no contexts where two men of this name appear together. The earliest reference to a William Debenham is in 1394, when he was already trading cloth (presumably as an adult), so that a rough birth-date could be ca.1370, and he was dead by April 1445 (interrupting a term as bailiff) and buried in the church of the local Carmelites. Nor is there any other evidence to warrant dividing his biography between two lives; indeed, his career in borough government, which began with a term as chamberlain in 1393/94, looks typical enough for a single individual. He may simply have been a long-liver: 75 years of age being an unusual duration for a medieval man, but not exceptional and certainly not incredible.

In contrast to Whethereld, Debenham's activities as a merchant are relatively well-documented. As mentioned, he is seen trading in cloth on several occasions in the 1390s, both in terms of export and of retail to other Ipswich men. For example, during the safe sea-travel season of 1398 he exported three shipments of cloths, and in May imported salt in his own name, and wine through a partnership; in 1408 and 1413 he was suing various debtors for the price of salt and other victuals sold them. The previous year he purchased a part-share in a cargo of Spanish iron that had been imported by Thomas Godestone of Colchester. More exports of cloth (to Flanders) are documented in 1402, 1411, and 1413, and in 1415 he was involved in a lawsuit over 19 sheep he claimed to own. But like many merchants he did not put all his eggs in one basket: in 1404 and 1428 he was exporting grain, and in 1413 200 lb. of candles. In 1410 he imported 32 tuns of wine, and in 1413, 45 tuns. His work in royal service as the deputy butler at Ipswich during most of the period 1397-1401 was quite in line with someone with interest and/or experience in the wine trade. So that when he is described in 1420 as a vintner (in the context of two of his apprentices entering the franchise), there is no need to think it signals a different individual from the merchant, any more than does a short stint as the king's tronager and pesager later in his life (1420-21), since that was an administrative post rather than one requiring personal manual labour. Furthermore, involvement in the cloth trade seems to have continued throughout, for towards the close of his life, in 1443, he was suing William Onewyn for detention of a quantity of cloths, which may mean he had commissioned Onewyn to do some finishing work on them.

Debenham's own residence seems to have been in St. Mary Tower parish, acquired in 1404 and improved in 1415 by acquisition of the property on its east side, together with a rent from another adjacent property. But his real estate in the town was more extensive; we hear for example of an interest in one or more shops in St. Lawrence parish, and a messuage on the north side of Tavern Street; some of his houses were leased to other occupiers. There was also land just outside the borough, in Thurlestone, Stoke, Whitton, and Soham – perhaps where he kept sheep or grew corn. In 1424, he was amerced for having sold, over the course of the previous year, an estimated 80 gallons of wine at 8d. per gallon, which was 2d. per gallon more than the price set by the bailiffs; this suggests that he was retailing it through a tavern or inn.

Some of William Debenham's Ipswich property came into the hands of wealthy merchant John Drayll – and though this seem to have been by purchase rather than inheritance, there was evidently some close tie between the two (probably through marriage), for Drayll asked to be buried beside Debenham and provided in his will (1464) for celebrations for Debenham's soul, and he was an executor of Debenham's widow Margaret (d.1446). Drayll's bequests included a building called The Bull, which sounds like an inn or tavern, although we do not know whether Drayll operated it himself; but in 1437 he was amerced for breach of the assize of ale, and in 1443 he was suing a beer-brewer for a sizable debt.

Drayll was associated both in borough government and in his duties as executor of Margaret Debenham with John Caldwell, as well as being named supervisor of Caldwell's own will.

Caldwell was a merchant and ship-owner, who in his will (1461) described himself as grandson of William Debenham and also made a bequest for masses that included Debenham's among the souls to be beneficiaries. Another frequent occupier of ballival office from 1425 to 1459, and also alderman of the merchant gild in 1446, he had been amerced in North Ward for breach of the ale assize (1423 and 1424) and for selling food from his hostelry at excessive prices (1424). Possibly he himself operated as innkeeper, for what we know of his mercantile activities do not show him personally travelling overseas. For some while one of his apprentices, Thomas Bradde, was in the Baltic – perhaps representing him on a voyage of the ship Trinity, of which Caldwell was part-owner – and, the apprenticeship term expiring (1443) there, Caldwell sent him a letter of discharge, or so he claimed; we learn this in the context of Bradde being sued by Gdansk merchant Hans Stendell for a loan of £138 6s.8d, obtained (probably after his discharge as apprentice) so Bradde could escape other creditors, and Stendell argued the loan had been made on Caldwell's behalf. Caldwell found it necessary in April 1446 to obtain testimonial letters from the Ipswich authorities (his colleagues) testifying that Bradde had never been authorized to act as his factor nor borrow the money from Stendell. By this time Bradde had already made it back to Ipswich, been required to render account to his ex-master, had been found owing 163;138 10s., and imprisoned until he made a recognizance of the debt to Caldwell. At a slightly later (though uncertain) date, Caldwell complained to the king about fellow merchant and portman William Baldry for owing him £200. He claimed that Baldry, as his factor, took four packs of his cloth to Prussia to sell on Caldwell's behalf, but then used them to trade for his own profit and refused to give any of the proceeds to Caldwell; the petition for justice was prompted by the fact that, since the offence was committed overseas, Caldwell could not sue under English common law.

Caldwell, who outlived three wives, was a wealthy man able to offer, in 1435, to rebuild Stoke Bridge at his own expense (he holding land in Stoke at this period), so long as the borough pay for the support posts at either end; we must understand this as a happy concurrence of personal and communal interests. At his death twenty-five years later he left not only his personal residence near the town ditch, furnished with garden and stables (candidate for an inn?), but also a house by the quayside (which lay in North Ward) , and a manor at Monk Soham, ten miles north of Ipswich; he was survived by four sons: one a priest, one an ex-merchant in gaol for debt, another a successful clothier who inherited his father's residence and was later amerced (North Ward) for selling wine at excessive profit, and the fourth an administrator and country gentleman who built up the manorial property of his father.

John Wode presents only a slightly different picture: a variation on a theme. Despite serving at least five terms as one of Ipswich's coroners between 1419 and 1443, he never won sufficient confidence from his fellow portmen to be chosen as bailiff – although a Robert Wode, possibly John's brother, was elected bailiff five times during roughly the same period. John obtained appointment as the king's tronager and pesager at Ipswich in 1410, but for reasons unknown his tenure lasted less than a full year. In 1404 he, Debenham and others acquired a quitclaim to four shops in St. Lawrence parish, in 1421 he was, alongside Whethereld, a juror on the inquisition into customs frauds, and in 1431 he acted with Sudbury as surety for John Joye (though Joye failed to show up in court and Wode was fined); but these associations do not tell us a great deal and some may only reflect his status as portman. Wode was a merchant who is seen exporting cloth (1402) and corn (1404), and importing wine in 1397 through a partnership, and again on his own account in 1410 and 1414; in 1406 he was referred to as a vintner. He is often seen as a plaintiff (and less frequently as defendant) in suits of debt, but we rarely have details, although on one occasion the debt was for a lighter (a barge used for trans-shipping cargoes) which he had leased out for a year and in the same year (1413) he was suing John Brewer for failing to fulfill a contract to build him a house with a jetty.

John Wode appears repeatedly in leet court records, mostly for breaking the ale assize: in North Ward in 1415, 1416, 1421, and 1423, and in East Ward in 1424, 1434, 1436, and 1437; at first glance this may not appear that frequent, but it represents every year from which leet rolls have survived during that period, with the exception of 1419, for which North Ward presentments are missing. In other words, he seems to have been a constant offender. Furthermore in 1415 he was amerced for breaking the bread assize, in regard to baking carried out in his hostelry, and in 1416 the same offence was said to have taken place in his lodging-house, with the product being sold at various locations. The latter year also saw him amerced for selling meat and other victuals at excessive prices, and he was convicted of the same in 1421 and 1423; by 1423 it seems that either the authorities were becoming exasperated or the scale of his operations had increased, for an unusually large fine of 13s.4d was imposed (one or two shillings being more normal). This appears to have been sufficient deterrent for the same offence not to recur in 1424; but in that year John was reported for having sold 600 gallons of wine at excessive prices. Robert Wode seems to have been more respectable; there is no indication he was ever presented by the leet court jurors, and his numerous lands in the surrounding countryside suggest either that he was more involved in victual production than retailing, or that he aspired to gentry status. Conceivably he may have, from those lands, supplied John Wode with raw materials for brewing; we see Robert dealing in barley in 1440.

With the probable exception of John Wode, most of the men discussed above cannot be described as innkeepers in terms of a full-time or primary occupation, any more than we can talk about 'professional' shopkeepers in the Middle Ages. Inns and shops represented one way of retailing goods in which one traded or which one produced. The owners of inns and taverns may have operated them personally or delegated some or all of that work to wives and/or employees, although on the rare occasion when the records reveal female operators it is usually widows who have probably taken over their late husbands' businesses.

Because survival of Ipswich's leet court records is very patchy, it is hard to tell, but it appears that for the most part townsmen who operated inns managed to stay out of trouble during periods in which elected to ballival office. This would have been in compliance with a borough by-law that required any man operating a tavern or hostelry, if elected bailiff, to forego its operation during his term of office. An undated, but late fourteenth century, ordinance at Colchester, taking its lead and some of its terminology from a royal statute, prohibited the town's bailiffs from selling ale or wine while in office, observing that the statute was widely ignored and that some of Colchester's own bailiffs had been guilty in that regard. The inspiration for this prohibition was probably a law enacted before 1371, when a parliamentary petition of the commons requested that no mayor or bailiffs of a borough operate, personally or through employees, as a victualler, innkeeper, or taverner during his term of office, likewise complaining that the existing statute was ineffective. During the next reign the prohibition against victuallers was re-enacted as part of a new statute (1382), which makes no mention of taverners and innkeepers; this was subsequently echoed in some local by-laws, as at Northampton and Berwick. A similar aversion to combining borough office-holding with hostelry is evidenced at a later period at Lynn and Norwich (although earlier city bailiffs had included a taverner).

What motivated these exclusions is not entirely clear. There are a number of possibilities. It may have been felt that certain occupations were below the dignity of a borough official – sentiment is more in line with attitudes of the fifteenth century than earlier – or (expressed in a different way) that it might bring the borough into disrepute were its administrators men who engaged in generating profit in ways that harmed the common good. There was probably a concern about conflict of interest: borough officials were expected to work to the benefit of the community at large, including through the control of food prices, without showing favouritism; yet many of the townsmen most eligible for office were those who earned their living at least partly from victualling and might be tempted to misuse the authority, formal or informal, of office to further their own business interests. The Colchester ordinance mentioned above indicated that retailers in the town had sometimes purchased wine or ale from bailiffs to curry favour with them. These kinds of problems are probably what underlay the parliamentary petition of 1371 complaining of non-enforcement of a statute that prohibited not just innkeepers and taverners, but also victuallers generally, from holding executive office in boroughs; other Commons petitions in 1410 and 1442 objected to owners of hostelries and taverns being appointed as customs officials, for similar reasons of them using such posts to further their own interests or those of mercantile guests staying in their accommodations. A more particular concern about innkeepers holding borough office could have been that they had privileged access, as hosts, to foreign merchants and the opportunity, plus a good knowledge of local trade, to steer the business of those visiting merchants, if not in their own direction then in that of kin, friends, or partners. To combine such access with a position of authority had the potential to give borough executives inordinate influence over the local economy.

Either John Wode's reliance on innkeeping discouraged him from pursuing ballival office, or his fellow portmen feared that, should they elect him, his persistent and flagrant flouting of the assizes would risk disgracing the office. Whether the earlier Thomas le Coteler had suspended operations as a taverner during his single ballival term, we do not know. In late fourteenth century Colchester a number of those who served as bailiff were on the amercement list of brewers or wine-sellers, notwithstanding the local ordinance reinforcing the royal prohibition. The wide-ranging commercial activities of such men may have enabled them to be considered merchants for the purposes of office-holding. Such appears to have been the case with Richer de Refham of London, who in 1301 was not only described as a taverner but also owned a personal seal that bore his name and the image of a tun; however, he was then already a city alderman and a wealthy member of the mercer's company, and this was doubtless considered his primary occupation at the time he was elected mayor (1310). Interestingly, it was during the reform administration of mayor Refham that Edward II, prompted by rising costs of wine, imposed on the city a set of wine trade regulations that included restrictions pertinent to problems with taverners. One being a prohibition on those involved in collecting wine customs from intercepting shipments of wine before they had been unloaded and stowed in a city cellar, where to be kept for three days then sold to whomever wanted wine. A second being a prohibition on taverners from engaging in wholesale trade of wine – that is, from trading in wine that was excess to the needs of operating their taverns – and from retailing any wine before its quality had been assessed, and a price set, by a panel of experts, with each tun marked accordingly so that buyers could be apprised of the assessments. And a third, that the dregs from containers could only be mixed in with wines of lesser quality.


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Created: October 28, 2014. Last update: June 16, 2016
© Stephen Alsford, 2014-2016