POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London politics corruption bailiff sergeant maladministration extortion farm tolls butchers stalls jury trial eyre customs gratuities laws prohibition
Subject: Alleged extortionate practices of officials
Original source: Item 1: Public Record Office, Eyre roll, JI/1/546, m.58; item 2: Corporation of London Records Office: Letter Book I, f.238
Transcription in: 1. Helen Cam, ed. The Eyre of London, 14 Edward II, A.D. 1321, vol.1, Selden Society, Year Books of Edward II, vol.26, (1969), 265-66; 2. Henry Thomas Riley, ed., Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 670.
Original language: Latin (translation of 2. by Riley)
Location: London
Date: 1321, 1419


[1. Bailiff convicted of extorting licence fees from butchers]

Goscelin le Serjaunt, an officer of the sheriffs of London and their farmer for collecting tolls on grain and poultry in the city, was attached to answer a charge brought by Henry Rous, butcher of East Cheap, as to why on 4 October 1316, at Henry's shop in East Cheap, London, he used the authority and excuse of his office to take two shillings from Henry, by extortion and distraint. Afterwards, Goscelin levied from Henry two shillings every year, so that he has levied six shillings [altogether] prior to the present. Concerning which he says that he has suffered damages to the value of ten shillings. For that reason he has brought this action etc.

[There follow a series of like charges brought by other East Cheap butchers, 5 for exactions beginning on the same date, 12 for exactions beginning in 1304 (with a total over the years of 36s., and claim of 100s. damages), 3 for exactions beginning in 1314 (16s. levied, damages claimed 40s.), and 2 for exactions beginning in 1315 (12s. levied, damages claimed 20s.).]

Goscelin comes and denies the force and injury in each case of these several offences. He says that Henry and the others have unjustly laid all these accusations. For, he says, he was appointed by the sheriffs of London to collect certain tolls belonging to the farm of the London shrievalty; and because of that office Goscelin, and others who held the office before him, from the time that the shrieval revenues were granted to the community of the city by John former king of England, the great-grandfather of the present king, have taken two shillings annually from each butcher who wishes to have a stall outside his house from which to display and sell meat, for the city sheriffs to put towards the farm of the shrievalty. He says that the sheriffs of London similarly, in the same way, took two shillings annually from each butcher's stall at the time when the shrievalty was in the hands of King John and his predecessors who were kings of England. He also says that because Henry and each of the others had a stall outside their houses for selling meat displayed there, he took from each of them 2 shillings annually for the use of the sheriffs of the city, just as other sheriffs' bailiffs before him took and and were accustomed to levy from that time. And this he is ready to prove.

Henry and each of the others individually say that the two shillings levied from each of them by Goscelin was something new, and that Goscelin levied those two shillings from Henry and each of the others by his own wrongful action and under guise of his office. Each of them individually requests a public enquiry, and Goscelin makes the same request. Therefore a jury is to be convened etc.

The jurors – that is, Thomas de Wyntone, Roger Sterre, Robert Austin, Robert Swote, William de Braie stockfishmonger, Geoffrey Beauflur, Walter de Mor, William Haunsard, John Freishfish, John de Mockynge, Adam Inthelane, Walter de Stebenhithe, say under oath that the bailiffs and officers appointed by the sheriffs of their time first began to levy and take two shillings from each butcher of London about 24 years ago. They add that prior to that period it was never the custom to levy 2 shillings in that way from each butcher, as Goscelin claims etc.

Upon this the king sent an order to his justices, by a writ, in the following words:

Edward, by the grace of God etc. to his justices in eyre at the Tower of London, greetings. The mayor, sheriffs and community of our city of London have informed us that they and their ancestors, citizens of that city, have previously always received and had as part of [the revenues towards] the farm of their city, paid by them to us and our ancestors, 2 shillings annually from every butcher of the city for each stall set up in our streets outside those butchers' shops, to be levied by the city sheriffs. But that a certain Goscelin le Serjaunt, who was farming from the sheriffs the two shillings annual toll, has recently submitted himself to an inquest on the matter, [having been accused] before you in eyre by Henry le Rous of East Cheap and other butchers of the city of unjustly and extortionately levying from each of them that two shillings, at his own initiative; he not having called in his defence the mayor, sheriffs and community (who are particularly capable of defending those tolls), but having entirely ignored them. By which inquest, it is said, Goscelin has been convicted. So that, if this goes further, it clearly may be to the permanent detriment of the mayor, sheriffs and community and to the rights that they claim belong to them in this matter. Because we do not wish it to be prejudicial against the mayor, sheriffs and community in that way, we command you to suspend passing judgement on this case, and to send the documentation of the legal process before our council at Westminster on 13 October next, arranging with the parties to be there on the same date to hear and obey whatever decision our council might reach on this matter. You are also to have this writ there. Witnessed by myself at Westminster, 3 July 1321.

[2. Sergeants prohibited from demanding gratuities from city businesses]

Forasmuch as it is not becoming or agreeable to propriety that those who are in the service of reverend men, and from them or through them have the advantage of befitting food and raiment, as also, of reward or remuneration in a competent degree, should, after a perverse custom, be begging aught of people, like paupers; and seeing that in times past, every year at the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity [25 December], according to a certain custom, which has grown to be an abuse, the vadlets of the Mayor, the Sheriffs, and the Chamber of the said city – persons who have food, raiment, and appropriate advantages, resulting from their office – under colour of asking for an oblation, have begged many sums of money of brewers, bakers, cooks, and other victuallers; and in some instances have more than once threatened wrongfully to do them an injury if they should refuse to give them something; and have frequently made promises to others, that in return for a present they would pass over their unlawful doings in mute silence; to the great dishonour of their masters, and to the common loss of all the City: therefore, on Wednesday, the last day of April, in the 7th year etc., by William Sevenok, the Mayor, and the Aldermen of London, it was ordered an established, that no vadlet or other serjeant of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City, should in future beg or require of any person, of any rank, degree, or condition, whatsoever, any moneys, under colour of an oblation, or in any other way, on pain of losing his office.


The sergeants (a term derived from "servant") and bailiffs attached to the principal city officers and to the bureaucratic arm of government, the chamber, were responsible for executing tasks set them by their masters and so were frequently out and about in the community, enforcing court orders and collecting fines or other revenues. This provided ample opportunity for venality to those so inclined, and sergeants appear to have been chosen in part for their brawn, enabling them to be forceful in the execution of their duties. However, it does not follow that all cases in which such officials are accused of extortion under colour of their office represent a straightforward matter of corruption.

The first case above, although presented initially as an act of extortion by one of the sheriffs' staff, is in fact concerned with whether the city would be able to impose fees for trading licences on the butchers. The city authorities recognized the importance of this case when the record of it was copied into one of the volumes of city memoranda and precedents, the Liber Custumarum, along with other proceedings of the London eyre of 1321. Although the jury verdict went against the city, it may be that the jury membership – which included fishmongers and likely other victuallers – saw in the two shilling annual fee the thin end of a wedge that might later be used against them. Goscelin is here the scapegoat in a political battle, with the butchers making a concerted attack on an unpopular levy on their trade; a levy the city authorities, far from disowning Goscelin, were eager to protect. We need not believe Goscelin's claim that the levy had been in effect since the beginning of the thirteenth century, but nor need we see it as a personal initiative of Goscelin at extortion. We may also note that Goscelin was one of several bureaucratic officials dismissed for abuses of office, as a result of a royal investigation of London government in 1319; but without placing too much emphasis on this, for the investigation was part of another political battle, as a populist party led by victualling interests sought successfully to overthrow a faction of professional administrators that had held power for several years.

The venue for the accusation of Goscelin must also be taken into account, for the 1321 eyre was an attempt to challenge many of the powers of the city government. The bakers complained at the eyre about a fee the city had imposed for weighing grain at the time they purchased it. The men of Billingsgate, a ward associated with the fish trade (and also containing East Cheap), accused Goscelin le Serjaunt of having, when in the office of bailiff of the queen's river, taken 1 fish per basket from a fish cargo brought to the wharf by foreign merchants, on the grounds of a toll, although no such toll ever existed; the jury placed the blame for this innovation on a previous bailiff, and the court banned further exactions. The bailiff of London Bridge and Old Fish Street (one of the locations of a fish market) was also indicted for taking unwarranted tolls from residents of the street; he was imprisoned, and the exaction banned. Another man was likewise condemned for levying a new toll on boats transporting rushes and other goods.

On the other hand, the description of Goscelin as the farmer of this revenue source may indicate that the sheriffs had either contracted out the collection to someone not one of their regular officers, or had assigned to one of their officers a specific target that had to be collected towards the city fee farm, payment of which was one of the fundamental duties of the sheriffs. In either case, it would have been left to the collector to raise this sum as he thought fit, and pocket a surplus, if any. Such an arrangement was an incentive to extortion, but in this case the butchers' target seems not to have been Goscelin's behaviour, which may not have exceeded his mandate, or any profit he may have been making therefrom, but the toll itself. It is not clear what the resolution of the dispute was; however, just before the attention to Goscelin's case, the justices had ordered the butchers' stalls in East Cheap torn down, after a complaint by the men of Candlewick ward (into which the street of East Cheap led). The mayor protested that this would result in the butchers selling meat from within their houses, which would make the trade harder to police; he did not mention, but may have had in mind, that it would also deprive the city of licence fees from the stalls. Just possibly the complaint was a desperate ploy by the butchers to rid themselves of the toll.

As the second text above indicates, there were certain long-standing customs involving small gifts, and it was widespread in medieval society to grease the wheels of administration, or to curry favour with men of in positions high and low, through small payments. Clerks in the employ of urban governments often charged small fees for the undertaking of official acts on behalf of private citizens; this was not seen as improper, so long as the fees were modest. However, such practices were open to exploitation; gifts could easily turn into bribery or blackmail. One example of this is seen at Colchester, but examples can also be found in other towns.

It may have been not that the situation had greatly worsened by 1419, but that this year saw in the mayoralty a man not inclined to tolerate such abuses. William Sevenok has been described as "A pious, even puritanical man" [Carole Rawcliffe, History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1386-1421, IV, 340], and a generous benefactor to several city churches, as well as founder of a grammar school at Sevenoaks, Kent, where his father or step-father had been based. This prominent citizen had served in a wide range of capacities in London, before going into semi-retirement six years before his death in 1432. For the city he was an auditor of accounts (first in 1399/1400 and on two later occasions); a tax collector (1402); warden of London Bridge (1404-06); a post that brought him the reputation as an expert on bridge maintenance; alderman (1411-26); sheriff (1412/13); parliamentary representative (1417); and mayor (1418/19). For his community he was a churchwarden of St. Dunstan's in the East around 1400 and was called on to act as arbitrator in various disputes between private citizens. For the king he served on various commissions relating to recruitment of troops, judicial proceedings, and victualling of the army; as regards the last, in his capacity as alderman he assisted the mayor to set prices for the ale to be supplied, the containers they were to be sent in, and for costs of transporting them. For his fellow merchants he was warden of the Grocers' Company in 1404/05, having begun his career in 1394 as an ironmonger, but shortly afterwards paid a large sum of money to transfer to the grocers; in the years that followed he is seen exporting wool and salt, and importing wine and cloth, as well as buying large quantities of wheat in northern England, for sale in London. During his mayoralty, in addition to forbidding the sergeants to seek perks at Christmas time, he took action to suppress mummery and other rowdy behaviour at that season. He also prohibited the fraudulent abuses of adding artificial colouring to lower-quality wine in order to pass it off for better wine, or of mixing different types of wine, at the encouraging citizens to inform on any trader adulterating wine in that way. Furthermore, he closed down Ludgate prison, on the grounds that citizens convicted of debt were choosing to go there rather than repay those debts and, once inside, were using their money to make themselves comfortable and continue their bad habits (including bringing false charges against members of the city elite); the inmates were transferred to the harsher conditions of Newgate. His successor as mayor, Richard Whittington, however, reversed this because the transfer resulted in the deaths of several prisoners.

Sevenok's severity, if a feature of his administrative career as a whole, may be guessed to have made him some enemies. In 1413, during his shrievalty, he was informed that an elderly scrivener, John Askwyth, had let escape (whether from custody or sanctuary is unclear) a priest caught in the act of fornication; he summoned Askwyth to answer the charge. During the interrogation, Askwyth became angry, took hold of Sevenok and insisted he show him justice regardless of any personal prejudice. Sevenok had him thrown into one of the Counters, and complained to the court of mayor and aldermen. Askwyth confessed and threw himself on the mercy of the court but, despite his age, it was decided to make an example of him, and he was stripped of citizenship and put into Newgate for a year (itself a likely sentence of death for an old man). Two years later Sevenok was interrogating grocer Thomas Maynelle, a resident of Tower ward of which Sevenok was alderman, about unspecified "irregular and sinister doings and sayings" [Riley, op.cit., 605]; Maynelle became angry with what was being laid at his door and warned Sevenok to act honestly, or he would suffer the same fate as Nicholas Brembre, a former mayor. Maynelle was again sentenced to a year in Newgate, but in this instance Sevenok intervened and obtained leniency.



"officer of the sheriffs"
Whether he was, strictly speaking, one of the sheriffs' sergeants at this time is unclear; it is his surname rather than a specific reference, that leads one to that conclusion. In the official record he is referred to as a bailiff, which could be used generically, while in an independent report of the proceedings he is referred to as a beadle and as the sheriff's bailiff.

"East Cheap"
The smaller of the two shopping ("chepe") areas, or markets, of London dedicated principally to foodstuffs.

"two shillings"
Collected quarterly, 6d. a quarter.

"he says"
Not literally; the arguments for the defence were made by a lawyer, not Goscelin personally, but the lawyer is of course assumed to be speaking with Goscelin's voice.

"certain tolls"
The original term is custumas, as opposed to the theolonio mentioned in the opening sentence. However, these were not customs duties in the sense that we would use the term today, but rather customary payments such as, but not necessarily restricted to, tolls on commerce.

An independent report of the process indicates that the stall took the form of a framework or overhang (perhaps attached to the shop) from which carcasses or cuts were hung.

"public enquiry"
The original inquiri per patriam ("to be enquired by the countryside") is a request to bring together a jury from the locality to give its opinion on the facts.

An offering (i.e. something of a theoretically voluntary nature, rather than a required payment); the term is more commonly found in a religious or charitable context.

Even after the jury's verdict was that the toll had only been in effect 24 years, Goscelin's lawyers demanded he be exonerated, on the grounds that the innovation had taken place during a former administration, and he was simply continuing a practice previously (even if wrongly) established. Since sheriffs held office for only a year, Goscelin clearly served under several sets; the accusations suggest Goscelin was in the office by 1304, but less likely he was so since ca.1296, although the court itself was uncertain on that point and proposed to make enquiry. Prosecution made the rebuttal that, even if the wrong had been initiated by others and even if Goscelin himself had no profit from the exaction, he was equally in the wrong for continuing it. There was some debate over whether it was the sheriffs who should have been charged.

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Created: May 27, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003