|Subject:||Factors influencing the gradual acquisition of freedoms|
|Original source:||British Library, Harleian Ms.1005, ff.141-143, 147, 149-151|
|Transcription in:||Thomas Arnold, ed., Memorials of St. Edmund's Abbey, vol.1 ("Cronica, by Jocelin de Brakelonde"), Rolls Series, no.96 (1890), 276-81, 293-95, 299-305.|
|Location:||Bury St. Edmunds|
After the death of Abbot Hugh, the keepers of the abbacy wanted to remove the reeves of the town of St. Edmund from office and use their authority to appoint new ones, claiming that this was the right of the king, in whose hand the abbacy was. We, however, sent messengers to Sir Ralph de Glanville, then justiciar, complaining about this. He replied that he was well aware that £40 was payable each year from the town to our sacrist, namely for [providing] lighting for the church; and, he said, Abbot Hugh at his own initiative and privately, without the agreement of the convent, had given the ballivalty to whomever he wished, whenever he wished, while upholding the £40 due the altar. Consequently it was not to be wondered at if the king's bailiffs demanded the same right for the king....
Upon his return, our messenger reported to us what he had heard and seen; we, somewhat reluctantly but with little option, reached a common decision despite the opposition of our sub-sacrist Samson that we would do our best to have the old reeves of the town removed by joint agreement of the convent and the keepers of the abbacy. But when Samson was made abbot he, not forgetful of the injury done to the convent, on the day following Easter Sunday after his election had convened in our chapter-house knights, clerics, and a crowd of burgesses. And, in front of them all, he stated that the town belonged to the convent and to the altar, namely for providing lighting for the church, and that he wished to restore the ancient custom that the reeveship of the town and other things belonging to the convent should be dealt with in the convent's presence and with its consent.
Within the following hour two burgesses, Godrey and Nicholas, were named as reeves; after some debate over from whose hand they should receive the horn, which was called the "moothorn", they received it in the end from the hands of the prior, who (after the abbot) is in charge of all conventual affairs. Those two reeves remained in the ballivalty for several years without interruption, until they were accused of negligence in their duty of administering the king's justice. Following their removal, Hugh the sacrist at the proposal of the abbot himself, so that the convent's concerns over this issue be eased took the town into his own hand and appointed new officers to answer to him for the reeveship. But in process of time (I don't know how), the appointment of new reeves later took place elsewhere than in the chapter-house, and without [consulting] the convent.
[ .... ]
In the tenth year of Abbot Samson's abbacy [1191/92], by communal decision of our chapter, we complained to the abbot in his court, saying that the payments and revenues from all the goods of towns and boroughs of England were growing and increasing to the profit of their possessors and the benefit of their lords with the exception of this town, which customarily pays £40 and this has never been re-evaluated. The burgesses of the town were at fault here, for they held in the marketplace many significant encroachments, in terms of shops, booths and stalls, without the consent of the convent and solely by grant of the town reeves, who were the annual farmers and in essence the servants of the sacrist, removable [from office] at his pleasure.
However, when the burgesses were summoned they answered that they were in the king's assize, nor did they wish to respond, to the prejudice of their charters and the town franchises, concerning tenements that they and their forefathers had held honestly and peacefully for a year and a day without challenge. They stated that it was a long-standing custom that the reeves might, without consulting the convent, grant plots of land in the marketplace for shops and booths in return for a rent to be paid annually to the reeves. This we denied, expressing the wish that the abbot dispossess them of those tenements which they held without warrant. But the abbot told us in private (coming to our council as if he were one of us) that he wanted to uphold our rights insofar as he could, but that he had to act in accordance with judicial process and could not without a court decision dispossess free men of lands or rents they had held, whether justly or unjustly, for several years. If he did so, he said, an assize of the realm would lead to him being liable to amercement by the king.
The burgesses, after discussing the matter among themselves, in the interests of peace offered the convent a payment of 100s. in return for keeping the tenements they had long possessed. We did not wish to agree to this, preferring to postpone the dispute in the hope that, perhaps, in the time of a future abbot we might either recover all our rights or change the location of the market. And so the issue went unresolved for several years.
After the abbot had returned from Germany, the burgesses offered him £40, petitioning for his confirmation of the town franchises under the same terms in which his predecessors, Anselm, Ording, and Hugh, had confirmed them. Abbot Samson graciously gave his approval to this request. Although we moaned and groaned about this, a charter was drawn up for them just as had been promised; since it would have shamed him and caused confusion if he had failed to fulfill his promise, we did not wish to argue with him or make him angry. Once they had the charter from Abbot Sampson and the convent, the burgesses had increased confidence that they would never during Samson's abbacy lose their tenements or their franchises; consequently they were never thereafter inclined to renew their previous offer to give the payment of 100s. mentioned above. But the abbot, finally paying heed to the situation, gathered together the burgesses [before him] on the matter and told them that, unless they made peace with the convent, he would prohibit them from erecting booths in the marketplace of St. Edmund's. They answered that they were willing to give each year a silken cope or some other adornment worth 100s., as they had previously promised, but only on condition that they be freed forever from the tithing penny which the sacrist rigorously exacted from them. But the abbot and the sacrist rejected this, and therefore the dispute was once again left unresolved. Indeed, up to the present we are still deprived of that 100s., just as the old saying goes: "He that will not when he may, when he will he shall have nay."
[ .... ]
On the day after Christmas there took place in the cemetery gatherings, arguments and brawls between the abbot's servants and the burgesses of the town: words led to blows, punches to wounds and bloodshed. When the abbot heard of this he, after calling before him in private certain persons who had gathered at the spectacle but had held themselves apart, ordered written down the names of the offenders, all of whom he had summoned to appear before him on 30 December in the chapel of St. Denis to answer the charge. Meanwhile he did not invite any burgesses to his table, as was previously his custom during the first five days of Christmas.
On the appointed day, having heard the testimony under oath of sixteen law-abiding men men, the abbot pronounced: "It is evident that these wrongdoers have broken the canon latae sententiae. But since both sides are composed of laymen and they therefore do not understand how much of an outrage it is to have committed such sacrilege, I will excommunicate these by name and publicly, to make others that much more afraid [of committing the same]; and, so that justice is seen to be fully done, I will begin with my own domestics and servants." This was carried out, once we had put on our stoles and lit candles. They all went out of the church and, after being advised [what to do], they stripped and, completely naked except for their breeches, prostrated themselves in front of the church door. When the abbot's assessors, both monks and clerics, came to him and tearfully informed him that more than a hundred men were lying naked in that way, tears came to the abbot's eyes too. Although his countenance and his words reflected the rigour of the law, and he concealed the pity he felt, he wanted to be persuaded by his counsellors to absolve the penitents, knowing that mercy is more commendable than punishment and that the Church embraces all who are penitent. After they had all been severely scourged and absolved, they all swore to abide by the judgement of the Church for the sacrilege committed. So on the following day a penance was assigned them according to canon law, and the abbot exhorted them to return to unity and concord, threatening terrible things to all those who instigated discord by word or by deed. He had a public proclamation made forbidding gatherings or spectacles in the cemetery. And so, peace among everyone having been restored, in the days that followed the burgesses feasted with their lord the abbot with great rejoicing.
[ .... ]
Many people were surprised at changes made to customs, at the orders or with the permission of Abbot Samson. From the time when the town of St. Edmund was given the name and liberty of a borough, the tenant of each house had been accustomed to pay the cellarer a penny at the beginning of August towards the [cost of] reaping the grainfields this customary payment was called "repselver". Before the town was given its liberty, all of them used to participate in the reaping, as if serfs; only the houses of knights, chaplains, and servants of the court were exempt from these obligations.
Over the course of time, the cellarer spared certain of the wealthier men of the town, exacting nothing from them. The other burgesses, seeing this, began to say publicly that no-one who owned his own house ought to pay that penny, only those who rented houses belonging to others. Subsequently they all acted together to petition for this liberty, approaching the abbot on the matter and offering him an annual payment in lieu of that exaction. The abbot gave thought to how the cellarer had to go through the town in an undignified manner to collect the "repselver", and how he had to cause securities to be taken from the houses of the poor sometimes three-legged stools, sometimes doors, sometimes other items in everyday use and how old women would come out brandishing their distaffs to threaten and curse the cellarer and his men. Then he announced his decision that every year, at the portmanmoot session just before the beginning of August, the reeve should hand over to the cellarer twenty shillings [raised] by the burgesses, who designated a revenue source for paying it.
It was thus arranged, and confirmed by our charter. They were also given an exemption from a certain custom called "sorpeni", in return for 4 shillings to be paid at the same time of year. For the cellarer was accustomed to receive a penny per year for every cow belonging to a townsman that was led out and put to pasture, except for cows belonging to chaplains or servants of the court, which he was accustomed to impound, involving a great deal of bother.
When the abbot reported this in chapter the convent was at first indignant and disgruntled; the sub-prior, Benedict, gave a response in chapter on the matter on behalf of everyone, saying: "Abbot Ording, he who lies right there, would not have done such a thing for five hundred marks of silver." This made the abbot angry and he postponed discussion of the matter for the time being.
Also, a serious dispute took place between Roger the cellarer and Hugh the sacrist concerning things related to their spheres of jurisdiction, in that the sacrist refused to make available the town gaol to the cellarer for locking up thieves arrested on lands under the cellarer's jurisdiction. This often caused difficulties for the cellarer who, when thieves escaped, would be blamed for a failure of justice.
It happened that a certain free tenant of the cellarer, known as Ketel, who lived outside the [town] gate was accused of theft, defeated in [trial by] combat, and hung. The convent was distressed by the reproaches of the burgesses, who said that if that man had resided within the borough the matter would not have come to a combat, but he would have acquitted himself by the oaths of his neighbours, as is the franchise belonging to those who live in the borough. Once the abbot and the more sensible members of the convent recognized this and considered that that all men, whether [living] inside or outside the borough, are our men, and that the same franchises should be enjoyed by everyone within the banleuca, except for the villeins of Hardwick and their like, after deliberation they took steps to make it so.
The abbot therefore, wishing to lay the disputes to rest through a clear specification of the scope of responsibility of the sacrist and cellarer, seemingly supporting the position of the sacrist, ordered that the servants of the town reeve and the servants of the cellarer should jointly go into the lands under the cellarer's jurisdiction to arrest thieves and other wrong-doers, and that the reeve should have half of the money due from the imprisonment and custody, and for his labour. Also that the cellarer's court should convene in the portmanmoot, and any judgements should be given there by common counsel. It was further decreed that the cellarer's men should come to the tollhouse just like everyone else, there to renew their pledges, be registered on the reeve's roll, and pay the reeve the penny known as "borthselver" of which the cellarer might receive half, although at present he receives nothing from any of this. This was all done so that everyone could enjoy equal privileges. But the burgesses continue to declare that those living in the suburbs should not be exempt from paying market tolls unless they are members of the merchant gild. And nowadays the reeve appropriates to himself the pleas and fines related to the cellarer's areas of jurisdiction, to which the abbot turns a blind eye.
The ancient customs of the cellarer, as we have seen, were as follows:
.... when a certain person had a look at my text and read of so many good acts, he called me a flatterer of the abbot ... saying that I had suppressed or passed over certain facts .... When I asked him what kind of things, he replied: "Are you not aware that the abbot gives to whomever he pleases escheats of land that are part of the demesne of the convent, and [the marriage of] girls and widows who are heiresses to lands, whether in the town of St. Edmund or outside it? Are you not aware that abbot diverts to his own court suits and pleas initiated by the king's writ concerning claims to lands which belong to the convent's fief, especially those suits from which income derives [for the court], while those from which there is no income he leaves for the cellarer or sacristan or other officials?"
To which I replied ... that every lord of a fief from which homage is due ought rightfully to have its escheats when they occur within a fief from which he had received homage. For the same reason, [he has the rights to] a general aid from the burgesses, to the wardship of boys, and to the giving in marriage of widows and girls, in those fiefs from which he has received homage.... However, in the town of St. Edmund the custom exists because of it being a borough that the closest relative might have wardship of a boy along with his inheritance, until [he reaches] the age of majority.
Charters granting franchises are apt to make us see the growth of urban self-administration as an episodic affair, proceeding from plateau to plateau. But it may be that in the absence of other, less formal records, we lack a picture of a more ad hoc, gradualistic emergence of urban independence from external authority. Townsmen were likely lobbying or agitating for, or even usurping, powers in advance of their formal grant.
We are fortunate that, in the case of Bury St. Edmunds, there is a window into this period, in the form of a chronicle written by one of the monks, Jocelin de Brakelond, of the events relating to the abbey in the closing decades of the twelfth century and opening years of the next, a time of change for the abbey during the abbacy of Samson, a capable administrator under whose tutelage Jocelin had been a novice and under whom as abbot he served in several capacities. The chronicle (particularly the passages extracted above), with the surprising amount of attention it gives to everyday matters, throws light in several passages on the way the town was governed, the character of a burgess society under seigneurial control, and the tools and tactics employed by the townsmen at this early period in the process of the struggle for administrative autonomy tactics which included recognition of mutual interest, peaceful negotiation, passive resistance, and outright violence. It suggests how townsmen acquired privileges piecemeal; such advantages might be consolidated later by embodiment in a charter.
The abbey was established in the eleventh century, taking over custodianship of the shrine to national martyr, St. Edmund, a former king. It was given by Edward the Confessor extensive authority over what was equivalent to a shire, with the town once known as Bedricsworth as the administrative and commercial centre (for further information, see "Recognition by an abbot of the customs of his burgesses"). The townsmen thus came under the lordship of the abbey. The Church generally proved a more conservative lord to boroughs than did the king, whose interests were better served up to a point by encouraging the development of local autonomy.
The Abbot of St. Edmund's was a very powerful figure and obliged to protect the rights, privileges and revenues of his house. However, it was less the abbot who was the town's master than the convent, and particularly the sacrist and cellarer of the conventual community. At the risk of oversimplifying, the sacrist had jurisdiction over the intramural population, while the cellarer's jurisdiction was in the suburbs, agricultural in character. The sacrist was responsible for levying the town rents and other local taxes, and the town reeves were appointed by and answerable to him. Since the reeves presided over the portmanmoot and the leet court, supervised the marketplaces and assizes, and collected tolls, this prevented the burgesses from asserting themselves through an elected executive and the town courts. They relied, perhaps more heavily than most other towns, on a merchant gild as an expression of self-regulation and as the voice of that segment of the community with the greatest interest in freeing the town from abbey jurisdiction; the gild became a focus of opposition to the abbey. The cellarer's authority, although focused more on the suburbs, was likewise a source of annoyance to the townspeople: his preoccupation with agricultural activities allowed him to claim precedence when buying in the market, and to provide exemption from borough tolls for those buying abbey produce (giving him a competitive advantage over town merchants, or allowing him to raise his prices above those of the townsmen). As well he supervised the fulfillment of labour services, or collection of payments in lieu of services. The cellarer also had a court, for administering justice over the suburban tenants of the abbey.
It is evident that, by the late twelfth century, Bury's burgesses already had some of the freedoms or institutions that were associated with the development of distinctive and autonomous urban communities:
The dispute over the rents from market stalls indicates how the burgesses were trying to assert independence from the abbey, or rather to buy off the convent's claim to direct influence over the level of those rents. In this matter the abbot opposed the burgesses' ambitions, although he may have later made a private arrangement with the burgesses accepting the money (see below). However, Abbot Samson, aiming to put both the administration and the finances of the monastery back on a firmer footing, was amenable to meeting at least some of the burgesses demands to convert customary dues into an annual payment, similar to in principle if on a smaller scale than the fee farm that other boroughs, subject to the king, were negotiating for at the same period. The precedents he set likely encouraged the burgesses to hope that, after acquiring more economic independence, they could move on to win administrative independence.
Despite the freedoms granted by Abbot Samson, the abbey on the whole fought hard to prevent the borough from acquiring any substantive independence from its lordship. The monks were themselves somewhat at odds with Samson in the concessions he made to the burgesses. Even Jocelin, who knew Samson well and had some respect and admiration for him, became increasingly critical of him during the course of compiling the chronicle. Jocelin held several administrative posts through which he doubtless felt the effects of the rather autocratic Samson's decisions; those posts are believed to include that of cellarer ca.1198-1200, which would explain why Jocelin takes pains to list those of the cellarer's jurisdictions and revenue sources that had been undermined. After Samson's death, the monks appear to have reasserted themselves and presented the new abbot (appointed 1215) with their equivalent of the "Magna Carta" (see Antonia Gransden, "A Democratic Movement in the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol.26 (1975), 25-39). Several clauses of this relate to changes in borough-abbey relations effected by Samson:
The abbey's unwillingness to loosen its leash on the burgesses and, to be fair, we should remember that the abbey's prosperity depended on it scrupulously protecting its jurisdictional rights became increasingly frustrating for the burgesses. They, as the town became a centre of the cloth industry and trade, were less dependent on the abbey as a source of business, but still lacked the administrative autonomy that might help them take full advantage of commerce. Taking advantage of the weakening of national powers during the civil war, the young men of Bury organized themselves into a gild (1264) with the goal of removing the town from the abbey's control. Although abortive, it set the scene for further efforts of open rebellion during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, as a frustrated urban populace formed a commune to strive unsuccessfully to throw off the yoke of ecclesiastical overlordship.
"keepers of the abbacy"
"revenues from all the goods of towns"
"in the king's assize"
"year and a day"
"payment of 100s."
"gatherings, brawls and arguments"
"servants of the court"
"spared certain of the wealthier men"
"only those who rented houses"
"securities to be taken"
"which he was accustomed to impound, involving
a great deal of bother"
"renew their pledges"
"at present" "nowadays"
"one rood per acre without food"
"warrant the servants"
"age of majority"
|Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: September 21, 2016||© Stephen Alsford, 2001-2016|