TOLLS AND CUSTOMS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bury St. Edmunds market tolls trade disputes London charter exemption abbey jurisdiction retribution
Subject: Dispute over the payment of tolls by Londoners at Bury St. Edmunds
Original source: British Library, Harleian Ms.1005, f.142
Transcription in: Thomas Arnold, ed., Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey, vol.1 ("Cronica, by Jocelin de Brakelonde"), Rolls Series, no.96 (1890), 278-79.
Original language: Latin
Location: Bury St. Edmunds
Date: 1180s


The merchants of London wanted to be exempt from toll at the market of St. Edmund's; however, many of them paid it reluctantly, being given no option. In consequence, there was great uproar and outcry among the citizens of London in their husting. Having discussed the matter among themselves, they informed Abbot Samson that they ought to be exempt throughout England, on the authority of the charter they had received from King Henry II. To which the abbot replied that he was quite prepared, if necessary, to bring in the king to warrant that he had never drawn up a charter for them that was to the prejudice of our church nor to the detriment of the franchises of St. Edmund's, to which the saintly Edward [the Confessor] had, prior to the conquest of England, granted and confirmed toll and theam and all regalian rights. And [he said] that King Henry had given the Londoners exemption from toll throughout the lands over which he had dominion – where he was able to give this; he could not give it in the town of St. Edmund, since it was not his [to give].

When this was reported to the Londoners, they communally decided to decree that none of them should frequent the market of St. Edmund's. For two years they stayed away, to the consequent great loss of our market and significant reduction to the offerings made to the sacristy. Finally, through the mediation of the Bishop of London and many others, an agreement was reached between them and us to the effect that they should come to the market and some of them should pay toll, but it would straight away be returned to them, so that through this pretence the franchises of both parties would be upheld.

But after a time, once the abbot had reached an agreement with his knights and had almost settled down in peace, see what again happened: "The Philistines are upon you, Samson!" For the Londoners, in unison, threatened to raze to the ground the stone houses that the abbot had built that year, or else to take a hundred times as much from the men of St. Edmund's by way of withernam, unless the abbot promptly redressed the wrong done them by the reeves of the town of St. Edmund, who had taken 15d. from the carts of the citizens of London when they passed through our town carrying herring from Yarmouth. The citizens of London declared that they had been exempt from paying toll in all markets throughout England, wherever and whenever, since the time of Rome's foundation. And that the city of London had been founded at the same time and ought to have this franchise throughout England on the grounds that it was a privileged city that had once been a metropolis, and on the grounds of its antiquity.

The abbot, however, asked that the dispute be put on hold for long enough for the king to return to England, so that he could consult him on the matter. After receiving advice from legal experts, he restored the 15d. to the claimants [on the understanding that] this not prejudice the question of which party was in the right.


This is an early example of the type of dispute that arose frequently in the following century, as the chartered rights of exemption from toll of one party came in conflict with the chartered rights of another party to collect toll. The abbot's claim was based on an unusually extensive jurisdiction given the abbey by Edward the Confessor, which did in some regards place the abbey's lands – the size of a small county – outside the mainstream of the realm within which the king could grant exemption from tolls. However, such grants were terse and took no account of exceptions, paving the way for disputes and hostilities.

The first source of dispute seems to have been tolls payable on goods being brought for sale in Bury St. Edmund's market. The face-saving compromise was acceptable to both sides. It suited the Londoners in that they did not have to cut into their profits by paying toll, while for the abbot it avoided establishing a precedent of exemption that might encourage other towns to claim the same. However, the powerful and assertive Londoners were bound not to let matters lie there, when it concerned privileges impacting on their profit margins.

The second source of aggravation came about when the Londoners simply wished to transport their goods through the town en route to London; the town lay on the most direct road from Yarmouth to London, so it would have been difficult to by-pass. From the perspective of the reeves the goods were being imported into the town and tolls were therefore payable; or rather, it was a toll on the passage of the carts, not on the goods they carried. It is not clear whether the 15d. was the total amount exacted from the London convoy, or whether it was per merchant; since London's own toll was a halfpenny per cart of herring, the former is probable, unless the St. Edmunds' tolls were truly extortionate.

The way in which the affair developed reflects the range of methods used to resolve toll disputes: beginning with communication between the corporations whose conflicting privileges were involved; proceeding to negotiation if an initial claim was rejected; turning, if negotiation failed, to stronger-arm methods of persuasion, such as boycott and/or retaliatory measures (usually reciprocation in kind, but sometimes more aggressive actions); and finally (although this step might precede the strong-arm tactics) resorting to the intervention of a mediator or superior authority to decide where right lay.



nundinas might here be translated as fair, Henry I having granted (ca.1124/29) the abbey a 7-day fair surrounding St. James' day (25 July). However, in other contexts in Jocelin's Chronicle, the term seems to be used for the weekly market and here it is used in regard to a right dating back (it is claimed) to before the Conquest; Henry II's charter of ca.1123/35 had confirmed the abbey's right to a market and the tolls collectable there, as fully as in practice under previous kings and in the time of abbot Baldwin (1065 to ca.1100).

"toll and theam"
See the notes to the Nottingham charter of ca.1157.

"founded at the same time"
The legend of London's antiquity, with comparison to Rome, is also mentioned in FitzStephen's description of London and can be traced back to Nennius' genealogy of the legendary Trojan fugitives, in which the supposed founders of London are of an older generation to that of Romulus.

The same legend, that London had once been the seat of an archbishopric, before this was transferred to Canterbury, is also mentioned in FitzStephen's description of London. Such a promotion to metropolitan status had been mooted by the papacy centuries earlier, and in the twelfth century some of London's bishops campaigned for it, but the ambition remained unfulfilled. However, medieval chroniclers occasionally referred to London as a metropolis, in the sense of being England's chief city, and Londoners themselves seem to have considered that their city's importance, commercially and militarily, made it the capital, in fact if not in name.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: March 14, 2012 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2012