DEFENCE AND SECURITY Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Coventry Winchester defences security regulations gatekeeper police organization guard duty night-watch recruitment wards administration peace preservation officers duties crime arrest constable oath Norwich sergeant alderman militia siege warfare midsummer watch Exeter
Subject: Constables and the watch
Original source: 1. Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book; 2. British Library, Add. MS.6036, ff. 24-25
Transcription in: 1. Mary Dormer Harris, ed., The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 253-54; 2. W.H.B. Bird, ed. The Black Book of Winchester, Winchester: Warren & Son, 1925, 58-60.
Original language: 1. Latin and Middle English; 2. Latin
Location: Coventry, Winchester
Date: 15th century


[1. Coventry's night-watch and gate guard, 1450]

They order that 40 suitable men, of good and upright behaviour and physically sound, are to serve in the night-watch, nightly keeping guard and watching over the town from nine o'clock until the ringing of the bell called the Day-bell; during which time, they are to well and truly guard this town, as per the[ir] customary oath. Every night those men are to be properly and adequately equipped with jacks, sallets, poleaxes or glaives and the like. The further disposition of those 40 men during the watch they [i.e. the leet] leave to the discretion of the mayor and council.


It was also ordered at this leet, at the request and wishes of the chamberlains, that 4 persons be appointed in every ward to have custody and management of the town gates; which 4 in each ward are to choose one person who would keep the keys of each gate – he to open the gate each morning and lock it at nine o'clock at night. The keepers of the keys of the New Gate, Spon Street Gate, Bishop Gate, Friars Gate, and Gosford Gate are to receive 4s. yearly apiece, for their labour; those who keep the keys of all the other gates are to receive 2s. apiece, to be paid by the chamberlains then in office.

2. Concerning the king's night-watch in the city of Winchester [1423]

At a common assembly a debate took place between John Veelle the mayor and the whole community of the city of Winchester at the communal burghmoot held at Winchester on the Thursday following Hokeday in the first year of the reign of King Henry VI [April 15 or 22, 1423] on the subject of various harms and financial losses that the citizens and inhabitants of that city daily suffer as a result of various obligations, not least at those times in the year when a night-watch is mounted in the city, from the festival of the Ascension, as per the Statute of Winchester. Because of which custom of the city of Winchester it always was, and is, that certain aldermanries within that city are to provide four men, and certain others two men, and some one man from within the aldermanry, suitable for keeping watch throughout the night, on the night of which they are given advance notice, or otherwise they are to pay 2d. per night for a watchman to keep watch. This has been to the great impoverishment of the poor people of that city, as the mayor and the community well know. Therefore now, by the common consent of all the citizens of the city, it is ordained and enacted – for the ease and relief of the citizens and particularly all the poor folk of the city – that at the next festival of the Ascension when the watch begins it is to be undertaken by the aldermanry of the High Street, Winchester, [beginning] at Newbridge on the south side of that street. On any given night six men are to be assigned from six houses or as many houses as necessary that six complete watches can be mounted every night on the king's behalf. The seventh consecutive house is to be applied to the labour of the beadle: 2d. from that house, taken in whichever aldermanry they [the other six?] are tasked or assigned. Thus proceeding westwards and assigning every night seven consecutive houses from the south side of that street, until its end; and then reversing eastwards along the north side of the street, assigning there seven houses, as indicated above, as far as the eastern end of that street until the extent of the aldermanry is reached. Then turning to the Tanner Street aldermanry, assigning men from that aldermanry to the watch each night, and proceeding through all the aldermanries of the city, down one side of the street in the manner stated above, lineally or in some other fashion depending on whether the aldermanry is aligned westwards, eastwards, northwards or southwards. Should it happen in any aldermanry that [only] three men remain for the last watch of that aldermanry, then [the selection process] should move on to another, and there the beadle of that aldermanry is to assign the other three men to keep watch for the king; the aforementioned 2d. from the seventh house, for the beadle's labour, should be taken by the beadle of the newly-begun aldermanry, but with one beadle keeping 1d. for [assigning] the three men from the previous aldermanry and the other beadle receiving the other penny for the three men of the subsequent aldermanry. Should it happen that four or five men are taken to keep watch for the king from one or the other aldermanry, then that beadle to whom this falls shall have the entire benefit of the 2d.; and in whichever aldermanry one or two men are taken for the watch, then whoever is the beadle of that aldermanry may not receive any of the 2d., only he who finds the four or five men. Excepting always that the mayors, the bailiffs, the city recorder, the 4 sergeants, the aldermen and the beadles of the city are exempted from keeping watch on behalf of the houses in which they live, during the terms in which they hold office. And in this way the night-watch should be mounted within the city each year, sequentially from individual aldermanry to aldermanry. And in whichever aldermanry the season of the watch comes to a close, there the watch is to begin the following year with the men next in the sequence. And this for the relief and support of the poor of the city, until some better way of doing it can be devised.

(Suspended in the time of T. Webbe.)
(Restored and confirmed in the time of Thomas B., mayor of the city.)


The twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England were punctuated by civil wars and a high degree of lawlessness. When Edward I came to the throne in 1272, among his principal concerns were to regularize national administration, particularly in the judicial sphere, and to assure himself of armed forces on which it could call at need; with these tools he aimed to forge a unified nation with a secure monarchy at its head. The preservation of the king's peace was thus a two-sided coin: the identification, apprehension and punishment of criminals, and the protection of the realm and its communities from organized armed threat (whether internal or external). Consequently police and militia functions were not greatly distinguished, and both were responsibilities – burdensome and costly – placed in part on the shoulders of local authorities.

The Statute of Winchester addressed both sides of the coin, as a unity. It is generally pointed at as the foundation stone of legislated policing in England – indeed, the only significant legislation related to law enforcement prior to the nineteenth century. However, Edward I was not so much an innovator as a judicious administrator, able to grasp the necessary scope of reforms.

The role, during the Anglo-Saxon period, of the kinship group in policing the behaviour of its members had been compromised by social differentiations (e.g. the relationship between lord and vassal); but like kinship, lordship was not securely under state control, and was subject to abuse. Other associations of men who kept an eye on each other – the gild, the tithing, and the hundred – came to be used to make everyone responsible for preserving the peace; some of these associations were under the supervision of officials answerable to the crown, and so could be directed to undertake tasks such as the pursuit of thieves. The heads of these units had become, by the thirteenth century, in essence the predecessors to constables. There was thus a solid grounding for personal and communal obligations to keep the peace, ensure others did so, and assist officials to apprehend those who broke it. In the last regard, the posse (essentially a call-up of local militia for a non-military purpose) and the hue and cry were mechanisms for engaging local residents in police duties.

Henry II had, by the Assize of Arms (1181), enhanced the value of the long-standing militia obligations of Englishmen, by requiring that militiamen be adequately equipped. Henry III, in an ordinance issued in 1242, improved the administration of the Assize and added to it provisions for law enforcement. The former was done by making existing urban executives (mayors or bailiffs), together with constables in rural vills and a chief constable in each hundred, responsible for mustering the militia when needed for preserving the peace or for the periodic view of arms, through which the Assize was administered. The latter was accomplished through the mechanism of the watch, an institution which is evidenced earlier in some towns and was probably of long standing. Henry had taken a stab at regularizing it through definition in a writ of 1233, ordering each borough to have at least four watchmen to prevent crime, raising hue and cry if they needed assistance in arresting criminals.

The 1242 ordinance required a night-watch to be kept in every town or vill between the Ascension and Michaelmas; that is, the summer months, when troublemakers were more likely to be abroad. The watch's composition was to be: six armed men to guard each gate of a city; twelve men to guard each borough (apparently defined here as an urban entity without fortifications pierced by gates), and smaller numbers for the vills. The watch was to be mounted from dusk to dawn and it was to arrest any strangers who tried to pass by during this period – pursuing them if they fled and raising the hue on them if they resisted; if a person arrested could give a good account of himself in the morning, he could be released; otherwise he was to be turned over to the sheriff. Communities that failed in their duty to mount a watch would be subject to an unspecified punishment.

The Statute of Winchester, issued in September or October of 1285, consolidated these developments by addressing the various aspects of keeping the peace. Edward I had taken advantage of a seizure of London's government into his own hands, earlier that same year, to draft his ideas on the subject in a set of regulations to guide his warden of the city in the duty of preserving the peace – London being notorious as a hotbed of crime and immorality. Some of those ideas found briefer expression in the statute.

The statute's preamble justified new legislation by claiming an increase in crime levels and pointing to a weakness of the tithing and jury systems: that, calling on judgement to be passed by those who belonged to the same association or community as the accused, there might be a reluctance to convict one's fellow-citizens or neighbours, or a tendency to turn a blind eye. With a view to changing this, judicial inquests into felonies were to be held regularly; local communities would be held responsible for damages resulting from crimes for which they failed to bring offenders to justice (ignorance of a crime not being accepted as an excuse). To further combat the problem of crimes committed after dark, particularly by indigents or strangers who took lodgings in the suburbs as a base for night-time mischief, the statute reiterated that walled towns should close their gates from dusk to dawn, and that night-watches should continue to be mounted as laid out in the 1242 ordinance; it additionally required the keepers of lodging-houses to be accountable for the actions of their guests, and for urban executive officers to enquire, at least once a fortnight, into the identity and character of lodgers. A tendency for criminals to secrete themselves in unoccupied areas outside towns, in order to set upon unwary travellers, was tackled by the requirement that roads be widened by clearing their verges of cover (brush, buses and ditches) for two hundred feet on either side. The Assize of Arms was confirmed, and it was ordered that two constables be elected in each hundred to hold the view of arms, and report to the itinerant justices (who would in turn report to the king in parliament) freemen not meeting their obligations under the assize. Since the constables were also to report failings with regard to the watch, to keeping the highways safe, to the lodging of strangers, and to local officials having the means and equipment to pursue criminals with hue and cry, they evidently had some supervisory role in those matters too.

As the royal judges focused on the trial and punishment aspect of preserving the peace, in the evolving role of justices of the peace, constables took on the executive duties associated with the militia and law enforcement, in collaboration with local officials such as urban bailiffs and mayors; but the fundamental obligations lay with local communities as a populace. Most townsmen may not have been equipped suitably to act as professional soldiers, but they could certainly act as policemen. The purpose of the watch may originally have been policing urban communities during what were supposed to be the quite hours, but it was likely adopted quite quickly for the duty of keeping an eye out for fires at night, an ever-present danger.

As a nationally legislated responsibility, watch and ward, not surprisingly, is at least touched upon in the medieval records of many towns. There is evidence from some towns of a night-watch in place before the ordinance of 1242, and it may well have been a widespread practice, perhaps stemming from earlier royal orders or as a customary liability associated with burgage tenure; for instance, a charter of liberties granted to Bury St. Edmunds ca. 1121-1138 refers to a custom there of enlisting four pairs of men for a night-watch to guard the town, and at particularly lively periods (Christmas and the festival of St. Edmund), twice that number, so that pairs of guards could be on duty both day and night. The watch was mounted at the four town gates; in addition, the townsmen had to appoint 'janitors' to keep each of the gates throughout the year. But for most towns we know little of any early practice, and royal charters dry up as a source of information once the ordinance is in place.

After 1285 the methods of recruiting, organizing, and deploying the watchmen varied from place to place and at different periods. But it seems likely that, both before and after, that the wards into which larger towns were subdivided provided the basis for the system. For example, the London regulations of mid-1285 specified that watchmen be chosen from each ward, in quotas dictated by the size of the ward, and be administered their oath by the ward alderman; also that the wards should bear the expense of purchasing weaponry issued to the watchmen.

At Lynn the town sub-divisions were called constabularies, although they could also be referred to as wards (even in the same document). These were used for various administrative purposes, such as taxation and trying minor offences (as were the leets of Norwich and the wards of London and York). But in the constables' oath of office it is their police duties that are emphasized, including organizing the night-watches; the office was not a political one. Both their oath and the earliest known by-law at Lynn on the subject of policing make an explicit connection with the Statute of Winchester; there each constabulary took its turn mounting a watch. A later by-law indicates that it was householders who were obligated to stand their turn; possibly they, like the constables, could participate by substitute, but all watchmen had to be at least 21 years old (though we cannot be if these conditions held at an earlier period). Perhaps by extension, the constabularies were involved in defensive arrangements for the town.

At York the duties of the officers for each of the six wards, sometimes called constables and at other times sergeants, seem primarily related to defence: they raised and arrayed troops, supervised the view of arms, collected taxes to pay the expense of troops sent outside the city, and were responsible for the opening and closing of the city gates. Both Colchester and Maldon were divided into four wards, although each elected only two constables; their oaths of office at both places indicate peace-keeping as a primary duty, but are otherwise unenlightening, if their duties involved the night-watch and militia it would appear those functions were not ward-based. At Colchester a sergeant for each ward dealt with arrests, distraints, and collection of court fines. Ipswich likewise had four wards, also referred to as leets; they served for judicial administration: view of frankpledge (a periodic check to ensure that every qualified person was in tithing, but augmented with the reporting of minor offences) and the assizes of bread and ale). As at Colchester, they were named after the compass points; yet their boundaries were marked in part by the defensive ditch and gates, which could suggest an association with the military obligations. Ipswich too had four sergeants, with duties probably much like their Colchester counterparts, but they appear not to have been associated with the wards until a relatively late date; the rare references to the town's single constable occur in contexts that do not support any confident generalizations about the office.

The development of urban wards is sometimes attributed to the administration of police and militia duties. Certainly there is an association, but it is not necessarily causal. Before such duties were well developed, Domesday Book evidences administrative subdivisions in four towns, and these were not necessarily exceptions. The development of a ward system likely came about due to an interplay of factors which differed to an extent from town to town. The wards of London and at the leets at Norwich bear a relationship to foci of early settlement, although Norwich's sub-leets were created for administrative reasons.

It seems that Norwich originally had a single constable for the entire city; in 1267 he killed a sergeant who defied his orders to call out the militia (fearing an attack by rebellious baronial forces). In 1288 we encounter a constable of a leet (later, ward), so there were presumably four from about the time of the Statute of Winchester; yet we also hear of a citizen fined for refusing to accept election, by a sub-leet jury, as subconstabularius, indicating that the lesser divisions had their own deputy constables. By the middle of the next century, we find, in the records of views of arms, two constables identified for each of two of the leets, and four for a third (although none for a fourth, perhaps due to a defect in the document); since those three leets had at that period the same number of sub-leets as constables, it looks as though the sub-constables had now become full constables. The first half of the fifteenth century saw adjustments to the number of sub-divisions and an increase to two constables per sub-division. Their oath of office at around this time is relatively detailed (although it has no reference to view of arms):

The mayor of the city charges you, on the king's behalf, that you shall securely keep the peace within the ward of which you are constable. And that you will not, without special instructions from the mayor, permit within your aforesaid ward, by night or by day, any assemblies or insurrections that may prove detrimental to the king's rights or authority. If any man presumes to act in defiance of this command, you are to use all your power to arrest him as a rebel against the king and the good peace of the city, and bring him to the king's prison. If you are not powerful enough to make that arrest, you are to come to the mayor and entreat him to give you the means against all such rebels within the city. You are to carry out your charge conscientiously, upon penalty of forfeiture of your possessions and imprisonment of your person at the king's pleasure. You are to arrest – at the suit of complainants or on your own authority – night-walkers, rabble-rousers, troublemakers, common tennis players, and gamblers [acting] against the king's peace. You are to administer their oath to the men who are to keep watch in your ward, as soon as you can [i.e. following the constable's own swearing-in?] and continue [on a nightly basis?] as is customary, under the penalty prescribed in the city [for failure to do so]. And you shall carry out all commands and orders given you by the mayor, whether concerning the peace or anything else. You will endeavour to perform duly and truly all the aforementioned duties. So help you God.
[William Hudson, ed. The Records of the City of Norwich, vol.1 (1906), 124-25. My modernization.]

By the 1450s the dozen sub-divisions were regularly being referred to as aldermanries, although the term is in evidence a century earlier. The term ward continued to be used to refer to the former leets and even (later) to the sub-divisions. Following constitutional adjustments, crystallized in the royal charter of 1462, the aldermen became the principal officials of the wards (nominally, at least) and the 24 constables acted as subordinates to the aldermen as a group, whereas their oath suggests they were previously answerable directly to the mayor. It will be noted that the constable’s oath has no reference to view of arms. Nor does a muster roll of 1457 mention constables; it mentions the aldermen elected to represent a ward in the city council, but whether they had any authority over the muster is not evident.

A change in responsibility for the watch is, however, visible from two ordinances on the subject, each passed on 28 May (several weeks after the watch season commenced), but 48 years apart. The earlier, in 1423, required the watch to comprise 8 men in each of the four main wards, specifying the deployment in each of the sub-divisions, except in Mancroft ward, where it was left up to the mayor and the ward constable to decide. The constables were responsible for informing whichever householder had to send a man for the watch on any given night, and had to report defaulters to the mayor, and would receive half of any defaulter's fine; anyone sending a person unsuitable for the task (too old or too young), was liable to a fine of 4d., with which the constable could hire a substitute. The later (1471) placed responsibility for the watch in each aldermanry on the shoulders of one of each pair of aldermen, one of each pair of constables, and eight suitably armed watchmen. But since it was recognized that keeping watch every second night was burdensome for the constables (although apparently not for the aldermen), an additional 24 constables were chosen to take a turn; clearly the alderman was in charge of each watch unit.

By the thirteenth century, and probably earlier, Winchester was divided into wards, usually called aldermanries after the officer in charge of them. Their number fluctuated, nine being recorded in 1340 (one of them suburban), but only five by the close of the Middle Ages, after depopulation had led to amalgamations. Each was named after one of the main streets of the city, although some of the wards encompassed groups of streets. For most of the Middle Ages the aldermen of Winchester do not seem to have been on a par with London's aldermen, in terms of having a role in city-wide administration (judicial and legislative), but were more akin to Lynn's constables. Although they must necessarily have been men of some standing and influence in the community, the Winchester aldermen appear localized in their authority and most were not so prominent that they rose to the mayoralty.

Most of the range of duties they are found exercising could be considered associated in some way or other with defence or law enforcement: each reported to the city court responsible for frankpledge the offences committed within his aldermanry; they took sureties from those who committed infringements of the peace; they had overall responsibility for mounting the watch, including selecting its members; they were involved in the collection of murage, and perhaps some other revenues (unless this was a different official with the same title); they authorized and supervised procedures for the eviction of tenants who were in arrears of rent; they also supervised transfers of real estate (bearing in mind that households were the basis for various kinds of taxation, including labour for the watch). The aldermen were assisted by beadles. Aldermen were superseded by constables in the performance of certain duties, notably overall responsibility for the watch, at some stage – perhaps around the time of the change to the system of recruiting watchmen.

The watch was one component of a set of resources for protecting the city and citizenry. Winchester had been largely abandoned after the Roman forces withdrew from Britain. But thanks in large part to the circuit of Roman walls it inherited, it survived as an episcopal seat and administrative centre of a Saxon kingdom. Around the late ninth or early tenth century the walls were repaired and a new (rectilinear) street layout planned; settlers and commerce were drawn back, and Winchester took on a more urban character. The walls and the four main gates through them defined the boundary of the city (although suburbs developed beyond several of the gates), and their depiction on the thirteenth-century city seal indicates them as a symbol of civic identity. Like London, Winchester had a gild of cnihts; but, beyond the existence of their hall, still remembered in the twelfth century, we know almost nothing about them. The Normans built a palace and castle within the city. As the capital of England, Winchester was one of the wealthiest English towns during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and attracted a large population; but as it was eclipsed by Westminster/London and as economic changes shifted commerce to other centres, Winchester slowly declined in prosperity and population size, although it remained important in the region.

The city's defences did not prevent it from being burned and pillaged in the civil war during Stephen's reign. In 1141, after the empress Matilda's supporter, the earl of Gloucester, had captured King Stephen, she was able to win his brother, the Bishop of Winchester, and thereby the city, into her camp. London also agreed to consider her claims, after she approached it with an army, but she subsequently alienated the Londoners, who sounded the city bells, gathered up their weapons, took to the streets en masse, and forced the empress to flee the city in haste; after which they reaffirmed their support for Stephen (who had shown himself willing to entertain some of London's ambitions) . The bishop likewise switched sides again and besieged the empress' garrison in Winchester castle. Matilda's army arrived and broke the siege, besieging the bishop's supporters in his fortified palace; but then Gloucester arrived with his forces, bolstered by some of the London militia, and placed a siege around the entire city. A few days later fires were set within the city, and Matilda had to make another escape. Winchester fell into the hands of the royalists and the Londoners sacked it, destroying buildings and executing some of the citizens.

Winchester was besieged again in 1216-17, necessitating years of repairs to the castle and the city walls. This work dragged out, despite grants of murage or other financial aid from the king and periodic efforts to bring the defences to a satisfactory condition. These efforts tended, in the fourteenth century, to coincide with periods of threat to the south coast during the Hundred Years War. Nonetheless, by the 1370s the defences had – the citizens claimed, in asking the king for more financial support – fallen into ruin; the plea to the king declared, doubtless with some exaggeration, that much of the city had become deserted, as the heavy expenses borne by the city had impoverished residents and forced them out (we should keep in mind that this was the period following the worst onsets of plague). The civic authorities had already, in the 1350s, introduced property taxation aimed at financing wall maintenance. In 1378 the king, fearing the city's impotence to resist any French invasion force, authorized Winchester's authorities to fund repair of the defences by taxation of all who owned property or worked in the city (excepting the poorest); in 1385 the order was repeated, and over the next couple of decades the king granted assistance in the form of sums of money to be deducted from royal revenues due from the city. 1406 saw the civic authorities again empowered to tax residents to pay for wall repairs. A survey of 1417 shows 839 houses in the city, and it was continuing to decline at that period and into the sixteenth century.

The survey was the outcome of the city authorities' decision in 1416 to reassess all the terrage (landgable) rents, and impose such rents on all properties in the city (not just those that had traditionally paid it). The income from this source was almost doubled, but without solving the city's financial difficulties and doubtless at the expense of greater discontent among residents, who were already suffering from the decline in the city's commerce. The survey preceding the reassessment took place in a fashion similar to the system for impressing night-watchmen:

"They tackled the city aldermanry by aldermanry.... began by working eastwards along the north side of High Street from West Gate. At each entry to a side street they followed the properties in sequence round the corner and sometimes along the back lane parallel to High Street before proceeding to the next block.... The surveyors then tackled each of the side streets within the walls to the north of High Street, working from west to east, then the streets on the south side from east to west... up one side of the street and down the other."
[Derek Keene, Survey of Medieval Winchester, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985, 27]

Conceivably the survey suggested the new approach to manning the watches. But even where there is no explicit relationship between wards and the recruitment system, the duty seems clearly linked with households. At Southampton, although the earliest surviving arrangements for the watch are not until 1522, they doubtless reflect earlier practice in indicating that the duty fell by rotation on houses in the town. There being a limited number of householders, and the wealthier doubtless not finding this duty to their taste, the watch was limited to six men – two of whom were to patrol along the walls, while the remainder were to patrol the streets and periodically to mount the castle hill in order to overview the town – and substitutions were allowed, so long as no foreigners (who were distrusted) were sent.

It is in the context of economic hardship and population decline that we must view the reform of the city watch at Winchester in 1423. The watch was doubtless seen as a tiresome duty that exposed watchmen to danger in trying to apprehend armed criminals; hence fines set for those trying to evade their duty. For instance, in 1299 the city court ordered distraint on three townsmen to cover fines imposed "for refusing to take the great horn for the watch" [J.S.Furley, Town Life in the Fourteenth Century, Winchester, 1946, 147.]. The aggravation of individual evasion, which shifted the burden onto the shoulders of others, was compounded by larger-scale evasion by the tenants of the precincts of urban-based religious communities which obtained exemptions from the obligations of other residents. At Exeter, for example, one of many bones of contention between the civic authorities and the bishop was that the latter's tenants had been summoned to participate in the watch but failed to do so, having been instructed, under threat of a fine of 40s., not to join it, and that if any city officer ordered them to do so "they should break his head". [Stuart Moore, ed., Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter, 1447-50, Camden Society, n.s., vol.II (1871), 45]

Selection of watchmen by the aldermen could easily have given rise, or have been suspected as leading, to favouritism, arbitrariness, or bribery. The earlier system at Winchester of each ward providing a set number of watchmen a night was now replaced by one apparently intended to spread the burden among all householders, and in an objective fashion, capable of being administered by the beadles rather than requiring decision-making by superior officers. This was part of a larger trend at this period in which some of the more mundane duties of the aldermen were being transferred to their assistants. It is difficult to say whether this was occasioned by dissatisfaction with the ward aldermen, by rationalization of civic administration in the context of depopulation and economic decline, or by a general trend across municipal England in the fifteenth century for the office of alderman to acquire, in imitation of London, greater dignity and authority. As regards the last we may note that under the royal charter of 1442, four aldermen were associated with the mayor as justices of the peace (whether these were the ward officers, or a new elite, perhaps ex-mayors, is uncertain); during the reign of Edward IV aldermen were exercising limited judicial power within their wards.

Whether the new system of 1423 made the watch any more palatable to the townsmen is open to question. For on 23 June of that same year, the date of the Midsummer Eve watch, resistance was encountered:

"Thomas Coteler, one of the constables of Winchester in the first year of Henry VI, completely refused to assume his duties; nor was he willing to participate in the watch on the eve of St. John the Baptist, and he disturbed and obstructed it by inciting many men not to accompany or march with mayor John Veelle. Consequently a fine of forty shillings was imposed on the said Thomas by the mayor and his fellows; of which he paid 20s. and 20s. was respited. So that if Thomas Coteler hereafter fails in his duty, creates a disturbance, or is in the future in any way irreverent to John Veelle or [any] mayor then in office for the same cause, then the aforementioned 20s. may be levied for the use of the community of the city of Winchester.... And on the same date Thomas Bole, the other constable there, in similar fashion refused, nor would he carry out his duties. Furthermore the said Thomas Bole broke the arrest of John Veelle, mayor at that time. Consequently, a fine of one hundred shillings was imposed on him by the mayor and his fellows; of which he paid fifty shillings to the use of the community and fifty shillings was respited under the conditions indicated above."
[Bird, Black Book of Winchester, 118. My translation.]

Whether this resistance represents an objection to the watch per se is not clear, since Thomas Coteler had given the authorities trouble before: in 1418 a common assembly found him guilty of having sown discord by spreading lies and rumours, fostering disputes between the city authorities and unidentified magnates, and breaking his oath as a citizen by bringing lawsuits against fellow citizens in external courts (rather than the city courts). Coteler was punished by disfranchisement. Just over a year later he successfully petitioned the authorities for the restoration of his citizenship, in return for paying a fine of 100s., and after a trial period in which he showed good behaviour, most of the fine was pardoned or respited. The difficulties Coteler caused in 1423 may therefore have stemmed from his character or from distaste for the city government in general, rather than have concerned the watch specifically. That Coteler was supported, in his refusal to support the watch, by his fellow constable and by the alderman of Tanner Street, could suggest genuine objection to the new system, but it might equally evidence factionalism within city politics.

The obligations of the Midsummer Eve watch may have been that much more resented because a few days after, on St. Peter's Eve (28 June), the ritual was repeated. From 1539 the constables were excused from responsibility for the watch on that date; although it remained their duty to bring 12 equipped men (6 per constable?) to escort the mayor to the place where the watch was set, and to put on a banquet, all at their own expense. Within a few years some of that responsibility appears to have been transferred to the mayor, and in 1551 the mayor was discharged of the duty and expense of keeping the Midsummer Eve watch and its banquet.

Coventry's wards, like those of Winchester, were named after their principal streets. In 1421 and thereafter there were ten wards, which were the basis for taxation assessments and political representation on the city council; but we do not know if this number was the same at earlier date. In fact, until the fifteenth century there is little surviving evidence of local police arrangements, whose development may have been retarded by the jurisdictional division of the city into the Prior's Half and the Earl's Half prior to 1355, when they were amalgamated and Coventry could develop administratively as a unit.

In 1422 the leet court, the core institution of local government, ordered that at one of its major meetings, at Michaelmas, should be elected 24 constables (and no more), who should be qualified, and of good character; it is hard to imagine that this was the initiation of the office, but we have no earlier evidence of them, nor do we know what may have been their relationship to the wards. Possibly the intent of the order was to restrict the number of constables; if so, it had only temporary effect, for in 1477 36 constables are identified by name. In 1430 their selection was delegated to the mayor and bailiffs, again with insistence that those chosen be upright and judicious. The following year the mayor was given prime responsibility for ensuring the creditable character of those selected.

Among their duties was to make arrests (probably referring to distraints), and to collect fines imposed on those who failed in their civic duty to keep the streets clean, which would suggest a possible territoriality. It seems reasonable to expect that the constables had some involvement with the watch at this period, yet in 1431 it was the town sergeants who selected the watchmen. The repeated references to the need for constables of good character reflect a concern for the venality of officials involved in law enforcement. In 1423 the leet ordered that the constables should not take any payment (other than what the law allowed) for carrying out their duty of arrests. In 1431, in conjunction with the mayor being made responsible for the choice of creditable constables, it was ordered that the sergeants limit the size of the night-watch to 16 men; those summoned had the legitimate option to pay for a substitute to be hired, or the illegal option of bribing the sergeant to summon someone else, and the sergeants were threatened with a fine (proceeds going towards town wall maintenance) if they accepted bribes or pocketed the money given them to hire substitutes. Perhaps the sergeants were padding the ranks of the watch in order to obtain more pay-offs.

Incidental references in 1451, in a document making defensive arrangements for the city, suggest that the method of selecting recruits for the nightly watch may then have been similar to the geographical rotation system introduced at Winchester in 1423. In April 1450 the watch comprised 40 strong men, armed by the authorities, and a four-man guard for each city gate; but this was in response to anticipated trouble (Jack Cade's uprising followed shortly thereafter) and may not have been typical. At a less anxious time (1431, as noted above) it was felt that 16 was an adequate number for the night-watch.

The 1451 arrangements reveal concerns at Coventry similar to those at Winchester over the financial burden of watch service on the poorer residents (while Northampton's custumal, in a chapter insisting that the burden of watch be distributed fairly, seems to exempt labourers from the duty). In association with the Coventry arrangements, it was proposed that the aldermen – the mayor's council of peers – be appointed for each ward, and this was done at that time or within the next few years (although not until the following century would their number and the number of wards be harmonized); the change was also likely connected with city efforts to obtain an upgrade to county status, achieved later in that year. In 1489, in response to orders from the king, concerned about reports of gamblers, vagrants and other troublemakers frequenting the city, arrangements were made for a sweep of the streets: the sergeants were to shut the city gates at ten o'clock on a particular evening, as inconspicuously as possible, and each alderman was to call up ten or twelve men from his ward and, as soon as the gates were shut, conduct a search of that ward and arrest any suspect persons; the sheriffs and other officers were to do the same in the suburbs and outlying hamlets. At a later date (if not an earlier one) the aldermen were responsible for the regular night-watch, and the constables were their assistants in this and other duties, and had probably been so for some time.

For a detailed statement of the scope of duty of a night-watch, we must look to Exeter and John Hooker, whose description in the sixteenth century of the duties of watchmen and their wardens (among other officers) would likely have rung fairly true for the fifteenth century and even much of the fourteenth. He writes:

The watchmen are officers of trust, for the safe custody and preservation of the city, as well in times of troubles and wars as in the days of peace, when ordinary night-watches by the laws of the realm are kept.
Also they shall all night be watchful, walking abroad in their divisions, leaving always some one at the least at the gate.

Also they shall view and look whether all things be quiet, and in good order; and if they find any candle-light in any house late and out of season, they shall cause the same to be put out, unless some cause be to the contrary; and if they find any fires perilous, or houses adventured, they shall rouse and call up the scavengers and constables, and other the officers for quenching thereof.
Also, if they find any night-watchers, players, quarrellers, drunkards, suspect persons, whatsoever, they shall apprehend them and bring them either to the ward or to some convenient place, as where the parties may be forth-coming before the magistrate the next morning.
Also, if any post or stranger come, they shall receive him, if his errand and coming be honest, and shall bring him to his lodging, or present him to the magistrate, according as his cause shall require.
Also they shall attend the mayor, upon every Monday, at the Guildhall Court, and then and there to present what faults have been done and committed in the nights of the watches."
[A pamphlet of the offices, and duties of euerie particular sworne officer, of the citie of Excester : collected by Iohn Vowell alias Hoker, gentleman & chamberlaine of the same. ... - London: Henry Denham, 1584.]



"They order"
They being the citizens serving in the leet court.

"nine o'clock"
The original literally translates as the ninth hour. This was when the city gates were closed (the reference to the time in the passage referring to locking the gates actually uses the phrase "9 of the clock").

(or jakke) Body armour in the form of a padded doublet, popular in the fifteenth century; described by Anthony Goodman [The Wars of the Roses: Military Activity and English Society, 1452-97, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, 143] as a "reinforced tunic, not unlike a modern flak jacket". Many common soldiers seem to have preferred such soft armour (cloth or leather) to plate armour, it being cheaper, lighter, not prone to rust, and yet offering quite good protection against sword-strokes or arrows. However, sometimes jacks could incorporate small metal plates.

A type of light helmet, common at this period, incorporating a tail to protect the rear neck.

A weapon bearing an axe-blade counterbalanced by a hammer-like feature, and with a spike on top.

A pole topped by a broad, knife-like blade.

"festival of the Ascension"
From 1520 the date for the beginning of the watch season at Winchester was pushed back a couple of weeks to the night of Corpus Christi, with 23 July being the end-date. It seems that at least some towns felt they had leeway to adjust the statutory specifications for watch season to their particular needs or circumstances. The Norwich authorities for example, in 1423, decided that the watch would operate from Easter (presumably meaning Easter Day or Easter Week) to Michaelmas; a watch was to begin at curfew (9 p.m.), when one resident of each ward was to go around the streets proclaiming that householders should ensure their fires or lights posed no safety risks, and to end at 3 a.m.

"High Street"
The backbone of Winchester's street layout, it ran the length of the city, connecting the east gate and the west gate, while the streets or lanes running off it at right angles led to the north and south gates or provided access to the defences encompassing the city. High Street rents, or licences to trade there, tended to be higher than in the lesser (narrower) roads. The High Street ward was the largest and, particularly in its central stretch, the most heavily populated of the city. As the fifteenth century progressed it increasingly attracted as residents the wealthier citizens.

It appears that women were also liable to serve, for in 1365 the alderman of High Street reported Matilda Red for failing to answer a summons to duty on the night-watch, and the court fined her for this default; however, it is possible, even likely, that Matilda received the summons as a householder and was expected to send a male member of her household to do the duty.

hostiatim capti might more literally be translated as "taken as victims". but the connotation seems to be impressment (although to the medieval mind the action would more be one of distraint).

"consecutive house"
This would seem to be the meaning, given the context. However, domus integra could mean "complete house", conceivably referring to a capital messuage (by the fifteenth century many of the original tenements from which landgable was owed had been subdivided). But I think this less likely.

"Tanner Street"
A north-south route (now partly renamed Lower Brook Street), terminating at the High Street.

"T. Webbe, Thomas B."
These notes are later additions. Thomas Webbe was mayor 1511/12, and Thomas Baker 1513/14.

"predecessors to constables"
In parts of England where this frankpledge system was not in operation (the north and west) there was an organization involving sergeants of the peace.

"watch and ward"
It is generally supposed that the first element refers to the night-watch and the second to guarding the town during daytime, although I have yet to encounter significant evidential support for this supposition.

"customary liability"
On this see James Tait, The Medieval English Borough, Manchester: University Press, 1936, 97.

"London regulations"
Recorded in Liber Albus (f.203). Those chosen for the watch were to be able-bodied and with capable of wielding their weapons. They were threatened with imprisonment should they fail to keep watch, or neglected (because of favour, bribery, or personal relationship) to arrest any suspicious character.

"minor offences"
Those punishable by amercement. More serious offences, such as felonies, could be reported, but were referred to a higher court.

However, Pamela Nightingale has suggested that the ward system at London could have originated in part for organizing defence against Viking attacks ["The Origin of the Court of Husting and Danish Influence on London's Development into a Capital City," English Historical Review, vol.404 (1987), 563].

The term in the document itself,baratours, refers to those who created a disturbance or hubbub, with a view to fomenting disputes; I have chosen to interpret this as rabble-rousers in view of the preoccupation of the oath with rebellious behaviour. Barratry originated in the context of legal administration, to refer to the bringing of unwarranted, frivolous, or vexatious lawsuits which wasted a court's time and were perhaps only intended to harrass an opponent or force an out-of-court financial settlement; those who persistently brought such trouble-stirring suits, on their own behalf, or lawyers who did so on behalf of clients, were described as 'barrators'. But that term came to be applied more broadly, to persons who stirred up trouble or encouraged disorder within a community, and even to public officials guilty of corruption (Dante had a special place reserved for these in his vision of Hell).

In Winchester's case this refers to a local tax on residents, imposed from the fourteenth century, to support maintenance of the defences. Winchester had also received royal murage grants, as customs on trade, for much of the period between 1228 and 1323.

"heavy expenses"
The cost of maintaining the defences was only part of this. With a declining revenue base, Winchester had been, for some time, finding it difficult to pay its fee farm and repeatedly petitioned the king for concessions in that regard. Complaints about decaying defences became such a routine rationale for seeking financial concessions from the king that it is hard to know how honestly they reflect the state of fortifications.

"repair of the defences"
This was part of a broader royal initiative to stimulate bolstering of defences in southern England.

"march with"
The Midsummer Eve watch was, at Winchester as elsewhere, in process of becoming one of the key ceremonial events of the civic year. By 1543 the city maintained special equipment to be worn by a set number of townsmen chosen by the mayor to accompany him on the parade from his house to the place where the night-watch was set; the constables (with their watchmen) were also to participate in the parade, or face a fine of 6s.8d. This transition from functional to ceremonial also explains why at Worcester, in a set of ordinances compiled in1467, every craft gild with a responsibility for presenting the yearly pageants also had the obligation to provide itself with a cresset (a metal fire-container fixed atop, or suspended from, a pole) that its wardens and members, armed and armoured, would carry in the parade that accompanied the bailiffs to the setting of the Midsummer Eve watch (or face a 40d. fine for non-appearance). Similarly, at Coventry by 1445 the crafts provided the manpower for the processional Midsummer Eve watch.

"his fellows"
The aldermen.

Not pardoned, but held in abeyance, so as to be used as a lever to discourage future recurrence of the particular offence; in essence. treated as a bond for good behaviour.

Literally, blasphemous, but in this case it means to be disrespectful towards the mayor.

Coteler went on to hold the mayoralty himself in 1430/31 and again in 1438/39/. Bole served as a city bailiff in 1424/25. Coteler is not found on the list of known bailiffs, having at a date unknown (possibly ca.1428) paid 70s. to be exempted from holding that office.

"named after their principal streets"
This would have been a natural approach and was likely common enough, but not universal. At Lynn, each ward took the name of its constable then in office (ward names therefore changing periodically), although each was focused on a particular street or fleet (a water highway), or section thereof, and represented clusters of settlement incorporating that street and lesser ones branching off it. At Norwich it was more of a mixed bag. The original four wards, or leets, were based on historical foci of settlement (most pre-Conquest). In part due to changes in population density within the leets, it became administratively desirable to sub-divide them, ensuring that each sub-leet contained enough tithings to furnish a jury of twelve capital pledges. Some of the new divisions were named after the principal parishes within their boundaries, some after streets, and some were simply given geographical distinguishers.

"earlier evidence"
Records not having survived from the earlier period of self-government at Coventry, the only references to a constable we have prior to the fifteenth century are to the constable of the earl's castle. There were also wardens among fifteenth-century Coventry's officialdom, but they were responsible for aspects of financial administration, not law enforcement.

"scavengers and constables"
The scavengers (or, in London, scavagers) were concerned with public safety, primarily in terms of the physical fabric (e.g. paving and cleanliness of the streets, condition of buildings, safety of chimneys and ovens, good repair of conduits). The constables were agents of arrest of those who breached the peace or of suppression of those likely to do so, and, like the Winchester aldermen, were to intervene in landlord-tenant disputes (to prevent these escalating into breaches); but they were not directly involved in the watch.

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Created: December 31, 2007. Last update: August 2, 2016 © Stephen Alsford, 2007-2016