POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London election mayor sheriff alderman office-holding citizenship duties scot and lot conspiracy factionalism political thought careers
Subject: Reluctance to do one's duty in accepting office
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office: Letter Book I, ff.157, 176
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed., Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 601-03, 635-37.
Original language: Latin (translation by Riley)
Location: London
Date: 1415-16


[1. Imprisonment for refusing to serve as alderman, 1415]

Forasmuch as a laudable custom which has hitherto prevailed in the City of London, has so prescribed and ordained, that the inhabitants of each of the Wards of the said city are at liberty to elect an Alderman whensoever they need one, to rule them in their own Ward; provided always, that the person so elected is presented to the Mayor and Aldermen, for the time being, and by them is deemed worthy to be admitted and approved. And whereas, on the 3rd day of January, in the 2nd year of the reign of King Henry etc., one Ralph Lobenham, late Alderman of the Ward of Farndone Without, having voluntarily resigned the rule of that Ward, the inhabitants of the Ward thereupon, according to the usual custom, met together at the usual place within the Ward, for the purpose of electing an Alderman thereof, and there unanimously chose one John Gedeney, citizen and draper, to hold the office of Alderman of the Ward aforesaid, and presented such choice to Thomas Fauconer, the then Mayor, and the Aldermen, in the Chamber of the Guildhall; the said Mayor and Aldermen, holding such election to be good and ratified, confirmed the same, and admitted the said John to the office, and approved of him as sufficient unto the same, and deserving thereof, as well as to the worldly goods as to the requisite discreetness. After which, the said Mayor and Aldermen commanded John Pickard, Common serjeant-at-arms of the said city, whose especial office it is, according to custom, to attend to the performance of duties and services of that nature, to warn the said John Gedeney to appear before the Mayor and Aldermen on the 17th day of January then next ensuing, to take the oath, and to do such other things as upon him on behalf of the Court should then be enjoined.

By virtue of which warning, the said John Gedeney appeared before the Mayor and Aldermen, in the Chamber aforesaid, and after the reason for his being so summoned had been first stated to him, precept was given to him forthwith to take his seat there in Court, that he might take the oath the pertains unto the office and rank of Alderman. Whereupon, the same John Gedeney, after first setting forth his excuses on the ground of his inability, and his insufficiency for the office, wholly refused to accept it: upon which, he was informed by the Court that he could not refuse this office, to which, as being a fit person, he was admitted by the Court, without breach of his freedom, and of the oath which by him, when he was admitted to the freedom of the City, had been made; and this the more especially, as every freeman is bound to be a partaker in Lot, which is liability to hold office, and in Scot, which means contribution to taxes and other charges, by reason of such oath.

But all and singular the matters before stated notwithstanding, he altogether refused to accept the office, like a person who was utterly obdurate. And hereupon, the matter having been considered by the Mayor and Aldermen, because that it appeared to them that if any one, when elected to such office, should be at liberty at his own will and pleasure to refuse the post, and pass it by, not improbably the City before long would be left destitute, as it were, of all rule and governance whatsoever; the same John Gedney was by the said Mayor and Aldermen committed to prison, there to remain until the Court should be better advised what to do as to the matters aforesaid. And in the meantime, precept was given to the Sheriffs of London to shut up the shops and houses of the same John Gedeney, and to sequestrate his goods and chattels, until the Court should be better advised thereon.

And afterwards, on the 18th day, through the mediation of many reputable men of the said city, who intervened, word being brought that the same John Gedeney was willing, if the Court should think proper, to undertake the duties of the office aforesaid; he was therefore brought here on that day before the Mayor and Aldermen, and, having first obtained dispensation for breach of his oath made by him when he was admitted to the freedom of the City, he was admitted and sworn, as the usage is.

[2. Ordinance against efforts to avoid office, 1416]

Forasmuch as it is not consonant with reason that those who for their own purposes dwell within a city, and there enjoy many advantages in so doing, should refuse the charge of the offices of such city when they devolve upon them: and then besides, as it is the fact that many citizens of the City of London, who are blessed with affluence and sufficiency of property and means, not at all bearing in mind the oaths which they have taken in the Chamber of the Guildhall of the said city, with a secret malignity, do not fear at present to infringe upon the good peace and concord of the City; and in this way more particularly, that, whereas according to the custom of the said city, laudably prescribed and followed for the healthful rule thereof, the Mayor and Sheriffs ought each year to be freely and indifferently elected by the more sufficient and more discreet men thereof, in the usual manner specially summoned to Common Council for making such elections, and for treating of other business of the said city; at the present day, a thing to be lamented, some who are citizens thereof, although themselves deemed worthy, upon faithful testimony, to bear the offices aforesaid, still, striving manifestly against the tenor of their said oath, before the time of the election of such officers, as well in their own persons as through others interposed, do diligently go round to many other citizens and other persons in the said city, and influence them, and prevail upon them to come to the Guildhall of the City, together with their apprentices and serving-men, and, there collecting a great crowd, to shout and make an uproar, to the effect that such a one must be Mayor or Sheriff, about whom perhaps there has been but little or no mention before; it being their own end and object that by the prevalence of shouting they may gain exemption from such offices for themselves.

By reason of which crowding also, and division into parties, various dissensions and contumelies are daily occurring and arising; and to a much greater extent in future will arise, unless there be a speedy stop put thereto: in consequence whereof, not only the general peace of the people dwelling within the said city, and the true and free election of the Mayor and Sheriffs, have been oftentimes disturbed, but also, sudden destruction, it is feared, will overtake the same people, a thing that must result in still greater mischief, beyond a doubt; seeing that such partisanships and meetings must tend manifestly as well to the contempt of our Lord the King, as to the desolation, division, and destruction of the said city, if upheld.

Therefore, on Thursday, the 24th day of September, in the 4th year etc., Nicholas Wottone, now Mayor, and the Aldermen, with the assent and consent of very many of the more reputable and more sufficient men of the said city, in Common Council of the same city, in usual manner, for the consideration of these and of other matters, especially assembled, for augmenting the quietude of the said city, which with especial zeal they desire, and in order to defeat the malicious covin of parties and confederacies of this nature, and of the adherents thereof, have ordained and established that no one of the said city in future, upon whom the election to the office of Mayor or Sheriff is likely to fall, shall form any parties or hold any meetings for the purpose of avoiding such office; seeing that through such meetings or parties a real and free election of such officers may be disturbed or impeded; and this, under a penalty of £100, to the use of the Chamber of the Guildhall to be paid, so often as and when any one may be lawfully convicted of the same, etc. And that no other person than a freeman of the City, and one especially summoned to such election by the custom of the said city, of whatsoever estate or condition he may be, shall presume to hold such meetings or to make such parties, or to do other things which redound to the breach or disturbance of the peace, or of the free election of such officers; on pain of imprisonment, and of making fine, at the discretion of the Mayor and Aldermen, so often as and when any such person shall be lawfully convicted of the same.


Although we have reason to believe that some men actively pursued aldermannic office, the example of John Gedney in the first document above and the general regulation in the second show that there were also those who did not desire office. The attitude expressed on behalf of London society by a chronicler some 140 years earlier – that anyone who sought power was by that fact unsuited to govern – if not simply a position of political convenience, may well have reflected one perspective of that period. But it is equally clear that some men did then see advantage, to themselves and to the interests they represented, of wielding decision-making authority. This appears even more true by the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. By that time political office had become even more intimately tied with social status. We should not assume that either outlook was dominant; probably there was an attitudinal spectrum much as there is today. We must beware of playing down, or ignoring, the feeling of many that office-holding was burdensome, yet a duty for those best able to shoulder the burden. Few of those who did their duty to the community were professional politicians.

Gedney's reluctance to serve was clearly no feigned modesty; after attempting to escape by excusing himself as unsuitable, and this having no sway with a group that had already examined and approved his qualifications, he flatly refused to take office and was prepared, initially, to suffer imprisonment so strong was his unwillingness. Given this strength of feeling, we must conclude that his initial election by ward residents was contrary to his will or perhaps in his absence; certainly we cannot imagine he had put himself forward as a candidate. This case illustrates how administrative duties were perceived not as a privilege, bringing power (although doubtless some saw them thus), but as a duty, an obligation of citizenship; the reference to scot and lot points back to the concept of citizenship that was already well over two centuries old, though whether the meaning of "lot" has here been interpreted as originally intended, or whether a distortion (or a specific application) of that meaning, is a matter for debate. Indeed the council's deliberation on how to deal with Gedney's refusal suggests, if we can take it at face value, that the majority of those called on to serve in city government did so because it was their obligation.

What Gedney's reasons were for refusing we cannot know. The office of sheriff had long been perceived as burdensome and, to counter reluctance to serve therein, it had been made a pre-requisite for election to the mayoralty. In the 1390s there was increased reluctance to serve as alderman, because of troubles the city was having with Richard II, which made the aldermen a particular target for his wrath and extortions. Perhaps Gedney's reasons were purely personal: he simply did not wish to devote part of his time to political office at this stage in his career, feeling it might adversely affect his business – in this context, we can appreciate the preference to put in office men of a certain affluence, whose livelihood need not be jeopardised by them giving time to political affiars. In this regard we may note that to exert pressure on him, the city authorities closed down his business operations. Or perhaps his objection was to the ward of which he was made alderman: Farringdon Without was by far the largest of the wards – and had been even larger until 1394, when Farringdon Within was split off – and was an area becoming increasingly built-up; so it might have made particularly onerous demands on an alderman's time. The fact that the previous alderman had resigned (whereas, at this time, it was more common to hold the office until death) may indicate something. Possibly these two reasons were interlinked. Two weeks of imprisonment, plus the involvement of arbitrators, was sufficient to change Gedney's mind. Yet Gedney did not long remain alderman of that ward, but early in 1416 transferred to Coleman Street ward, where he remained until 1435, then switching to Cornhill ward, in which he remained until his death in 1449.

Nothing is known for certain of John Gedney's family background. The surname is derived from a group of Lincolnshire villages, but from here migrants had spread out widely. There was a relatively prominent family of that name in Lynn at this period, for example. The draper John has been associated with a Cambridgeshire family and with a Middlesex man of the same name but previous generation who had an interest in the cloth name. In neither case can a relationship be demonstrated, nor between this John and another John Gedney living in London at the same time, a grocer. The draper is first distinguished when purchasing the reversion of a City property in 1407. Between 1412 and 1422 he was the principal supplier of cloth to the Grocer's Company, for members' liveries – possibly suggesting kinship with his namesake who was one of the Company. The royal household was also among his clients, both in the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI. He also dealt in luxury items, obtained from Italian suppliers. His business was doing well enough by 1415 for him to have an apprentice, and clearly the city authorities considered that he possessed the financial means to make him a suitable candidate for an aldermanry. He was sufficiently prominent in the Drapers' Company to serve as a warden (1427/28) and, after it obtained its charter of incorporation, he was the first to be elected to the new position of master of the Company (1439/40 and again in 1447/48). Gedney was twice married, his first wife having borne a son who, however, predeceased him. His second marriage in 1444 was to a woman who had already been widowed three times, Gedney having been a friend and executor of her previous husband, the mercer and ex-mayor Robert Large; she brought additional wealth, in cash and real estate, to Gedney, who already held numerous properties in the city and in Middlesex. Joan had taken a vow to become a nun and Gedney had to do penance for persuading her otherwise. On his manor at Tottenham, Gedney built a fulling mill and set up a brick-making industry. Gedney leaving no heirs of his body at his death, most of his property, held by his widow, passed along to her son by a former marriage.

Whatever the reason for his initial reluctance to become an alderman – this being the first responsible role assigned him in London's administration, except that he had been chosen as a parliamentary representative in 1414 – once he had accepted the inevitable he went on to serve as sheriff (1417/18) and as mayor (1427/28, 1447/48), two terms being unusual and generally a sign of a citizen wealthy enough to bear the extra burden, as well as capable enough to warrant another tour of duty. Other than during his mayoralties, however, his name was not regularly on the attendance lists of aldermannic meetings; Carole Rawcliffe [History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1386-1421, II, 172] estimates he attended only about one-third of the meetings, suggesting his business interests outside the city kept him away.

The ordinance of 1416 suggests that Gedney's case was not isolated, for we can hardly imagine such an ordinance being the consequence of a single problem. It presents the picture, almost alien to modern political perspective, of persons running against office; that is, canvassing 'voters' to participate in elections in a fashion aimed at preventing one from being elected! The document indicates both that informal nominations might be mooted in advance of an election, and that other nominations might come out at the election itself; while neither case rules out an individual engineering his own nomination, the impression given is rather that nominations were proposed independent of what the nominee's wishes in the matter might be. This also follows logically from the official philosophy expressed in the preamble to the ordinance: that bearing office was a duty for those of the wealthier citizens, and part of the obligations of freeman's status: the reciprocity of sharing in common advantages and shouldering one's share of common burdens. The size of the fine is indicative of how seriously the authorities expected this obligation to be taken.



"Farndone Without"
That section of Farringdon that lay outside the walls.

This is probably a reference to the oath taken upon entering the franchise.

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Created: May 27, 2003. Last update: March 2, 2010 © Stephen Alsford, 2003-2010