CONSTITUTION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bristol petition jurisdiction judicial administration county powers mayor election self-government legislation taxation
Subject: Petition requesting county status be granted by charter
Original source: Bristol Record Office, MS. 04718 (Little Red Book), ff.53-55
Transcription in: Francis Bickley, ed. The Little Red Book of Bristol. Bristol, 1900, vol.1, 115-26.
Original language: French
Location: Bristol
Date: ca. 1373


To our lord king and his council, the mayor, bailiffs, and community of the town of Bristol present that the town is situated partly in the county of Gloucestershire and partly in the county of Somerset, thirty miles in distance via mucky and rutted roads from the towns of Gloucester and Ilchester where the assizes, county courts, sessions, nisi prius, and other inquests in those two counties are held, presided over by justices, sheriffs and escheators. To which assizes, sessions, county courts and inquests the burgesses of the town are obliged to make troublesome journeys on a daily basis, keeping them from their commercial activities and reducing them to poverty. May it therefore please our noble lord to grant: that the town with its suburbs, as the boundaries and limits are [at present] defined, be permanently separated and excluded in all regards from those two counties; that they have the power to have and elect annually from among themselves a sheriff and escheator; and that this sheriff and this escheator be explicitly given the same powers, jurisdiction, and independence in regard to their office that other sheriffs and escheators have in other counties.

Also, just as our lord king has confirmed in their charters that no burgess of the town need plead or be impleaded outside the walls of the town, as a county may it please our lord king to specify these general terms, that is: that, in regard either to their tenures within the town and suburbs or to any act committed or to be committed within the town and suburbs, no burgess of the town and suburbs implead or be impleaded before any judge outside the town, nor in regard to any matter of contracts, agreements, debts, trespasses, or other acts. Nor that they may be convicted by outsiders, but only by their fellow burgesses within the town. And that the burgesses, their heirs and successors who are burgesses of the same town, may have cognizance of all types of pleas, both those concerning lands, tenements, rents and tenures within the town and suburbs, and those concerning contracts, agreements, debts, trespasses, other pleas and suits, and anything else done or occurring in whatever manner within the town and suburbs and concerning whatever persons. And to have the power to punish – by amercement, fine or imprisonment – wrongdoers, those who disturb the peace, labourers, workmen, and craftsmen infringing the statutes; to have and to hold before the mayor and bailiffs within the town, forever, and to have executed the judgements made before them in whatever of the abovesaid pleas or cases. So that no justice of the king or his heirs appointed to preside at assizes, juries, certifications, or attainders in the said two counties, of either bench, or any other justices appointed to oyer and terminer, or to keeping the peace, or for holding any other inquest whatsoever, [nor] sheriffs or escheators of the said counties, nor any other minister whatsoever of the king or his heirs, have any cognizance within, or meddle or interfere with, the town or suburbs – not regarding tenures within that town and suburbs, nor regarding contracts, agreements, trespasses, pleas, suits or any other thing whatsoever committed or to be committed, occurring or to occur, regardless of the standing or social position of the parties, claimants or tenants, plaintiffs or defendants – unless the matter directly concerns the king or his heirs. But that henceforth the Chancery of the king and his heirs shall write, by writs of right patent, to the mayor and bailiffs of the town [ordering] that they give proper justice to the parties claimant or plaintiff concerning lands, tenements, rents and tenures within the town and suburbs. And that anyone, claimant or plaintiff, in all sorts of actions for laying claim to lands, tenements, rents or any other kinds of tenures within the town or suburbs may bring a plea by the said writ of right patent, by laying a specific complaint according to the form and nature of any royal writ, as well as [have] an assize of novel disseisin, mort d'ancestor, certifications and attainders, as well as other kinds of writ concerning pleas of lands or tenements to be actioned at their choice. And that all kinds of other pleas of contracts, agreements, debts, trespasses or other personal actions be brought before the mayor, bailiffs, or sheriffs by bills and complaints. So that all kinds of pleas, both real or personal, be held and brought to conclusion before the mayor, bailiffs, and sheriff in the way indicated above, and not otherwise.

And that the mayor of the town then in office may have the power to record the recognizance of deeds and all other kinds of writings relating to lands, tenements, rents and tenures within the town and suburbs, including those consented to by married women who are explicitly examined on the matter in full court session of the Gildhall of the town, as well as by anyone else. And to register in the rolls of the Gildhall such deeds and writings openly recognized as described above, so that from that time forward those deeds and writings are considered to be on record against [any challenge from] any persons whatsoever, forever.

And that the mayor may have the power to take probates of wills relating to bequests of lands and tenements in the town and suburbs, to make public proclamation of such wills and bequests in full court session of the Gildhall, and to register them in the rolls of the Gildhall. So that, after such registration and proclamation of the bequests are a matter of [public] record, the mayor may then have the power to put the bequests into execution.

And that the mayor, bailiffs, and sheriff then in office may be allowed to render account by qualified attorneys, appointed by letters patent under the seal of the community of the town, before the barons of the king's Exchequer regarding all kinds of accounts and debts involving the mayor, bailiffs, and sheriff or the community of the town. And that those attorneys for rendering account, by virtue of those letters, be accepted there by the barons.

Also, provision is made in their charters confirmed by the king that the burgesses of the town and their successors, upon the election of their mayor in the town (except in time of war), shall present the mayor so elected to the constable of the castle of the town, who shall accept him. May it please the king to grant that, in cases where the constable then in office is absent at the time of the mayoral election or, despite being present, refuses to receive the mayor elected, then the newly elected mayor may take his oath before his predecessor in the mayoralty of the previous year, in the Gildhall in front of the community of the town; so that by that oath he may be excused [from acceptance by the constable] for the year.

Also that neither the burgesses nor their successors may be provoked, molested, or in any way troubled before the steward or clerk of the market of the household of the king or his heirs in relation to infringements of the assize or testing of wines, bread, ale, or other foodstuffs in the town or suburbs, or in regard to defective yardsticks, balances, weights or measures of any kind, or for any other kind of trespass or fault committed or to be committed within the town and suburbs beyond the pale, before the arrival of the steward marshall in these parts. But that the mayor and bailiffs of the town may by themselves have cognizance, testing, correction and punishment in all such instances of defaults.

Also that they may have the custody of the town prison and have infangthef and outfangthef, and pass judgements in such cases, and that all prisoners arrested within the town and held in the prison there, for whatever felonies committed within the town and suburbs, may be delivered within the same town, before the mayor, bailiffs, and coroners of the town, and nowhere else. And if anyone is caught in possession of stolen goods within the boundaries of the town and a charge is readily brought against such felons, that such prisoners may then be quickly delivered before the mayor, bailiffs, and coroners, as has been the practice in times past, and that they may put into effect the judgements passed on them.

Also that there be no officers or officials [empowered] within the town except those ordained by the mayor and bailiffs – the which officers and officials are to serve the mayor and bailiffs at their need, well and loyally performing the duties of their office. And that the mayor and bailiffs may have the power to remove such officers and officials when necessary and put other suitable men in their place, without obstruction from the king or his heirs.

Also, if there should be any problem with or defect in any of the customs held and enjoyed from time immemorial in the town and suburbs, or [one] newly arising therefrom, for which no solution has yet been legislated, that the mayor, bailiffs and their successors, with the approval with the most prominent townsmen, may have the power to legislate and put in place a suitable remedy in such cases, consonant with reason and good faith, and beneficial both to the community of the town and to others visiting the town. And that, to meet the needs and requirements of the town, the mayor, bailiffs and most prominent members of the community of the town, and their successors who are burgesses of that town, may by their common consent assess tallages among themselves – on their goods within the town and suburbs, as well as on their rents, on crafts, merchandize, or in any other way, as seems best to them – and raise those [taxes] without any hindrance from the king or his heirs, or their justices or any of their officials. And that the money raised from such tallages be kept in the safekeeping of two reputable townsmen elected by common agreement for that purpose; and that [the money] in their custody be expended for the necessities and requirements of the town when need arises. Those men shall account [for revenues and expenditures] before the mayor, bailiffs, and others elected for that purpose by the community.


This document illustrates how the initiative for charters of liberties came from the burgesses who, by the fourteenth century, were virtually drafting the terms (doubtless with legal advice, as the language of the petition reflects) they wanted to see in a charter. This petition, itself of unknown date, resulted in the royal charter of 8 August 1373; although the petition was in French, the charter was in the more formal Latin of legal records.

Prior to the royal charter granted in response to this petition, Bristol was a town divided, geographically and administratively, by the River Avon. The parishes to the west and north of the river lay in Gloucestershire, while those south of the river were in Somerset. The charter of 1373 gave Bristol and its suburbs jurisdiction independent from those county authorities, making it a county in its own right.

The acquisition of county status was one of the few significant enhancements in status or jurisdiction that towns acquired after the early fourteenth century, by which time the general limits of their powers of self-government had obtained shape. County status was often associated with, or a prelude to, incorporation. London, always precocious, had long had the equivalent of county status. Bristol was the first of England's other major towns to achieve this. York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Norwich and Lincoln took the same route during the decades that followed. County status was another step along the road to excluding external authorities from involvement in borough internal affairs.

Most of what was being sought by the Bristol authorities was the right to exercise certain jurisdictions internally, without the participation or intervention of external officials. Less evident as a motivation for the charter was the need to obtain royal approval for elements of the local constitution, in the context of discord between rulers and ruled; the powers of taxation, legislative reform, and (perhaps) appointment of sergeants, likely stemmed from this.

The Bristol authorities followed up on royal consent to the charter with a definition of the boundaries of the "county" under their jurisdiction. The process of definition was known as a perambulation, because it was supposed to involve a survey made by walking or riding the course of the boundaries; being able to traverse the bounds without challenge was in essence an assertion of control over territory extending up to those limits. This definition was given sanction by embodiment in royal letters patent on 30 October 1373. To obtain further security for this important expansion in jurisdiction, the city representatives at the next parliament, convened in November, petitioned successfully for ratification by parliament of the charter and the letters patent. Having the assent not only of the king but also of parliament reflects the growth in the significance of the latter institution, and may have been imagined as a potential protection against past practice of kings to rescind urban liberties at will, if the townsmen gave offence.



"nisi prius"
A legal term, representing the first two words of a certain type of royal writ initiating a court proceeding; the words thus became associated with a particular kind of royal judicial commission which the writ authorized to operate locally, instead of cases being referred to the central courts at Westminster. Today the term is used to refer to almost any court of original jurisdiction (as opposed to an appeal court).

Officials responsible for investigating cases of escheat.

"either bench"
I.e. King's Bench or Common Bench.

"oyer and terminer"
A royal judicial commission given power to "hear and determine" cases locally.

"mort d'ancestor"
The assize of mort d'ancestor (established 1176) provided legal relief for an heir whose claim to a real estate inheritance faced a challenge; the assize aimed at determining whether the ancestor was in possession of the disputed property at the time of his death – if so, the heir's claim was validated until the challenger could take other legal measures to uphold his own rights.

"consented to by married women"
Regarding the wife's consent, see for example the Ipswich custumal.

"accept him"
Take his oath of allegiance to the king and confirm him in office.

"take his oath before his predecessor"
In course of time, this became the practice, of which an illustration survives from a century later.

"infangthef and outfangthef"
Infangthef was the right of a court to try thieves caught within the region of its jurisdiction, notably those caught red-handed (and, since the punishment was hanging, in effect the right to a gallows). Outfangthef, on the other hand, was the right to pursue thieves beyond the region of jurisdiction, and was a liberty accorded to few boroughs.

Turned over to judicial hearings.

"officers and officials"
The reference here is primarily to the town sergeants, in contrast to similar officers of external authorities.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: March 2, 2014 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2014