At the close of this study, if one thing is evident it is that there is no simple, or single, label that will serve to categorise the government of boroughs in the later Middle Ages. We can certainly find examples of oligarchies in the boroughs: the period of power of Stace and le Rente in Ipswich is a clear case, assuming the charges laid against them to be accurate (as they seem); and there is at least a suggestion of oligarchic ambition in the behaviour of the rulers of Norwich and Lynn in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Yet it would be dangerous to assume that these, the more conspicuous affairs in the boroughs' political history, were other than interludes in a normally more restrained, more harmonious relationship between rulers and ruled. It is precisely in the context of extreme political developments that we find the most forceful expressions of popular objection. Study of the governing personnel - for government itself is an abstract when separated from the men who interpreted and directed it - reveals a diversity which makes categorisation difficult: such is the stuff of history. At this point in historiographical time, the historian must be concerned, not with attempting to characterise borough government generally, but with the nature of the governments in individual boroughs. Some general suggestions and conclusions may be offered here, but it must be borne in mind that they depend largely on the evidence from only a handful of examples not necessarily 'typical'.
Evidence has been presented to show that the political hierarchy may be overlaid with hierarchies of wealth and age. Yet an attempt to classify the borough rulers as a plutocracy or a patriarchate would swiftly founder on presentation of contradictory examples which cannot be dismissed as exceptions to the rule. Occasionally, relatively young men attained high position in the political hierarchy, and men of apparently only moderate means mixed with the richest townsmen in the same positions. Nor would it be difficult to point to burgesses, qualified by wealth and by the experience of age, whose participation in government was negligible or non-existent. Even were either or both of the above labels applicable, this would not necessarily be helpful in understanding the character of borough politics. If men in executive office or in the upper levels of the conciliar structure tended to be the older members of the community, this owes much to the time required to work one's way through the hierarchy of offices - a hierarchy that became increasingly elaborate and formal as the ranks of officialdom grew - combined with the comparatively low average life-expectancy. In a community where the number of qualified (i.e. enfranchised) persons was quite small to begin with, the group in whose hands the real power of decision lay seems more a class of survivors than a senatorial elite monopolising government to the unjust exclusion of others. Historians often suggest a direct correlation of socio-conomic status and political power in medieval towns, but little attention has been given to a less direct relationship: that wealthier townsmen had more comfortable accommodations, reduced exposure to some of the risks of urban conditions, better quality food and drink, and better access to health care information (in part through greater education) and resources; all these things giving many of them an improved chance of survival long enough to make a mark in local government.
Similarly, wealth was no formal pre-requisite for office, but there were good practical reasons why the wealthier townsmen were the heaviest participants in government. Wages of service were not commensurate to the outlay in terms of personal expense and, more importantly, time which would otherwise be spent in making a living. Illicit profits from service were not as great in borough as in royal office, and the risks involved in taking such profits could be borne only by those already wealthy enough to buy their way back into favour. There is a good measure of truth in the medieval saying that "Pore be hangid by the neck; a rich man bi the purs." Ample evidence remains to indicate the unpopularity of office-holding, although precisely how general was this attitude it is difficult to say. There was certainly a small number of townsmen who actively courted office; and a somewhat larger group may be said at the least to have acquiesced in their repeated election to high office. These were the backbone of urban government. It may be that they did desire and pursue office, but this can remain only a hypothesis when our records are not so intimate as to reveal the behind-scenes machinations of politics. And, on the whole, it is not a hypothesis that one is inclined to accept readily. Office was probably seen by most as a burden; although the growing consciousness, towards the close of the Middle Ages, of its enhancement of social prestige and of the advantages of manipulating justice and administration alleviated this to an extent. However, it was recognised that the duties of administration must be borne, and it was clear enough that the wealthier townsmen were best able to shoulder the burden. It may even be, as Dobson suggests, that the accumulation of great wealth by individuals, in the face of corporations barely able to balance their budgets, was tolerated by the community only because those individuals bore the heaviest responsibilities of protecting and preserving borough liberties and prosperity. It is reasonably clear, at least, that no man was required to serve in a position the liabilities and responsibilities of which were greater than he could manage, although every burgess was expected to participate in government to some degree - even if no more than in tithing or tax collection roles, or simply in attending assemblies.
If wealth and age were not, as such, qualifications or pre-requisites for office, a greater importance seems to have been attached to experience, skill, and wisdom. This we may conclude from the political hierarchy, structured to ensure that men who attained positions of greatest authority and responsibility had been tutored in administration and versed in the needs and resources of the borough, through holding a series of subordinate offices. We could reach the same conclusion from the specifications that officers be chosen from men of capability, faculty, and sufficiency. Clerical and legal skill was taken into consideration, for some posts more than others, but even merchants or prosperous tradesmen and artisans were believed to be qualified: worldly-wise, familiar with the workings of the courts, successful in negotiations with their fellows, able to speak for the borough to external authorities. It is not insignificant that town councils evolved, in all probability, from more hazy groups already associated with advisory functions and with rendering of judgements in some court context. We may trace professionalism back this early, in that the customary law by which the towns were largely administered was retained in the minds of these men, from whom, subsequently, executive officers were chosen to preside over newly-independent borough courts. It does not appear that all towns committed their customs to writing from the beginning; and, when they did, the lists seem not so much comprehensive as representative of the more intricate cases. Again, the single, professional town clerk particularly responsible for advising the corporation on matters of borough law - a role that sometimes specialised to the point of mutation into the office of Recorder - is not generally manifest until the early fourteenth century.
What we must always remember is that medieval men desired, above all, efficient government that promoted the well-being of the whole community while adhering to the principles of justice, consensus, and harmony. The history of medieval Italian cities shows the extremes to which townsmen might be willing to go to obtain this. Be it democracy, oligarchy, or dictatorship: the end was more important than the means; in this at least Machiavelli was well-attuned to the mainstream of lay political thought. Indeed, it is to Italy that we must look for the most explicit theorising about the qualities of government, such as to Brunetto Latini's Trésor. Lest we think that Italian city-state politics have no relevance to English urban history, we should note that extracts from Latini were included, only one generation after his work was written, in the compilation of the Liber Custumarum of London (tempore Edward II), a work that may well have been consulted by other towns seeking constitutional guidance from the mother of English cities. The extracts included a list of twelve qualities Latini held to be desirable in a good ruler, and the London scribe of the book of customs declared them worthy of being taken into consideration when mayors of London were elected. This revealing, if idealistic, list indicates that a man chosen to rule his peers should:
Even if it was too much to expect that any man match up to such standards, the combination of experience and of the element of paternalism in corporation policies might lead us to characterise borough government as a meritocracy. Yet somehow this seems too approbatory a title for a group motivated, arguably, as much by self-interest as by concern for community welfare. Aristocracy may be the most acceptable description, so long as we take 'government by the best' to refer not to moral character but to capability, and we might cautiously qualify the title as 'aristocracy of wealth' to avoid presumptions of hereditability of power, which the facts do not justify.
If this is considered the nearest we can come to a classification, however imperfect, we must nonetheless return to the terms democracy and oligarchy, with which this study was begun. It is difficult to doubt that democratic principles were the foundation of the borough constitution: popular election (direct or indirect), consultation or consensus, and the accountability of officers - with the ultimate right of the community to depose officers guilty of maladministration. All these express the basic tenet of borough politics, that the community was the ultimate source of authority. This is well expressed by John de Viterbo, who was no political philosopher but rather an administrator of Florence in 1228; in his treatise on urban government he wrote (concerning consultation) that "The principle to be followed is that all shall approve matters which concern all: let the judgement of all decide the future of all." This was as true for English as for Italian cities, and as true for the fifteenth as the thirteenth century, but let us not forget that the translation of principles into reality tends to be modified by issues of practicability. Professor Reynolds was right to doubt that urban political history displays any great trend towards or away from democracy over the course of the later medieval period. Any search for so blatant a transition will be liable to blind students to the real significance of the actual changes, subtle, for the most part gradual, an interaction of various influences. Elements of democracy and oligarchy co-existed in urban government throughout, not uneasily, yet a measure of tension between them necessitated periodic readjustment of the constitution to find a workable balance. Modification took the form of circumscribing executive power through the elaboration of constitutional checks and emphasis on accountability, while at the same time restrictions were being placed on direct popular involvement in decision-making. Yet to interpret this latter trend as the growth of oligarchy would be to ignore the larger numbers, drawn from a broader social spectrum, participating in government in the fifteenth century. Perhaps, in the last resort, the changes reduce to a growth in consciousness of the classes composing the urban populace: consciousness of their relationships, their differing interests, and the role of government in shaping and reconciling the same, as well as of government itself not merely as a necessary function but as a corporate entity. Experimentation and more detailed, precise definition are prominent features of urban constitutional development.
If democratic principles were modified - even consciously subverted in some cases, it might be possible (although not easy) to argue - the aim was to bring the theory of borough government more in line with the equally long-established practice. The reconciliation of democratic and aristocratic elements in government was not to the medieval townsman the incongruity it might seem to the modern mind; indeed, it was felt that government at its best combined aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Latini's list of desirable attributes of rulers suggests a realization that the quality of government depended more on the character of leaders than on the soundness of governmental institutions (whereas in the Church the opposite theory held sway). Aristocratic and democratic elements both had long traditions, the latter in the folkmoot, the former in the informal proto-conciliar groups that we posit as influential in administration even prior to the epoch of self-government. The crystallisation of those groups into formal councils may have been intended to bring the men of influence in the borough under some degree of popular control. On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the possibility that, in some cases at least, councils evolved by expanding the sphere of operations of existing bodies. Within the borough council lay the seeds of change. The achievement of life-membership status, when combined with co-optative electoral methods, removed what was effectively the decision-making section of the community from popular control (short of revolution). And it ruined an original purpose of the council in representing the community-at-large in government; although it is difficult to believe that early councils could ever have been genuinely representative, given the conditions mentioned above favouring office-holding by the urban upper class. The consequence of this change, distancing the original council membership from popular control, was the creation of second councils to represent the community. The model of the two-tiered parliament, with its estates of lords and commons, was perhaps not so far from the minds of the ruling class, and terminology of the fifteenth century seems to reflect this somewhat. Although two councils served to institutionalise rather than heal the division between classes/estates, while the lower council remained under popular electoral control the effective role of democracy in borough government remained pretty much at the level it had been before. Since the executive was selected from the personnel of the upper councils, the change also increased his independence from popular control, particularly given the division of electoral authority (in Norwich and Lynn) between the two enfranchised estates.
Equally important in undermining democratic principles was the evolution of the executive committee, a feature even more common to our towns than change in the status of the upper council. This elite had no formal place in the fifteenth century constitutions and was therefore not subject to direct control. Yet there seems no doubt that it was the most influential group in government: at it, rather than the council generally, was aimed the Lynn reform movement of the early fifteenth century; at Colchester it came to control the aldermannic positions in the council, and at Maldon it had completely displaced the wardemen as the decision-making body by the mid-sixteenth century; at Ipswich it formed the majority in the comparatively small council of portmen. Since experience was valuable in borough government, it is easy to see how the executive committee, which dominated assembly meetings in terms of visibility, could have dominated decision-making. It is not as easy to judge how important a contribution to this development were the judicial powers accorded to the elite by the king in his expansion of the royal network of local administration. What we see therein is another of the contradictions in the urban constitution: the application of both ascending and descending theories of authority; the strong role of the monarchy in England checked not only the degree of urban independence, compared to continental towns, but also the application of populist theories to borough government.
When we look beyond purely political developments for causes of change, the waters grow murkier. Economic and demographic deterioration from the late fourteenth century have been used to explain seemingly oligarchic developments. However, the so-called 'urban decline' is itself a questionable phenomenon, not necessarily general; East Anglia perhaps weathered the storm better than most areas, although even the fortunes of the towns studied here varied widely. Yet if the gulf between classes was not still widening, certainly an awareness of the gulf (of its size, rather than its existence) was awakening in the consciousness of townsmen. In the growth of ceremony we see not only the formal expression of social superiorities, but also the whole gamut of social relationships; ceremony, while it pointed out the differences, also attempted to demonstrate the binding ties that made the notion of community a reality. The segments of this community were interdependent: the rulers were relied on for benevolent and efficient government, and the ruled for obedience, since the power of urban administrations was less coercive than consensual. Had class antagonisms been as intense as some have claimed, there would surely be more evidence than we find of violent conflict in the boroughs?
The normally peaceful course of borough politics suggests that government largely conformed to expectations of aristocracy rather than oligarchy. It is difficult to justify charges of monopolisation of office when we look closely at the evidence. The component families of the urban upper class were linked by intermarriage and common interests - not least, admittedly, the desire to preserve the status quo - but there was a good deal of rivalry and of diversity in backgrounds too. Merchants the wealthier and older of whom tended to be men of experience, judgement, and with more free time than most businessmen may have predominated, but artisans and professionals were not meagrely represented, and we have also the more nebulous land-owning interest. Furthermore, individuals tend not to fit so neatly into any of these individual categories to the point where we might hypothesise a clearly delineated division, and conflict, of interests. To try to identify an elite of families monopolising government would produce a group so large that, when compared to the enfranchised population, it would hardly appear an elite at all. Besides, such a task would be quickly frustrated by the mobility within the ranks of the ruling class. For the many reasons enumerated elsewhere in this study, the ruling families were not even coming close to maintaining their representation in government from one generation to the next, and there was plenty of room for new men, either immigrating in a generally promotional pattern from smaller communities, or rising from lower ranks of the borough community. For a man of capability and ambition, no matter what his background, there was no serious obstacle to him rising to the pinnacle of borough society and government. The structured promotionalism of the administrative hierarchy, with promotion dependent partly on popular will, is itself a sign of the open character of medieval urban government.
If the effective exercise of power devolved upon a relatively small group, this is a feature common to political systems and not incompatible with democracy. It is too easy to condemn the past by using as a yardstick the standards of modern western democracies. Yet, in fact, one might be hard-pressed to find a fundamental difference between the political systems of the medieval borough and the parliamentary democracies of western nations of the twentieth century. Consider the following characteristics:
If we are hardly in a position to criticize the fact of power devolving to small groups of borough rulers, nor should we assume that efforts of governmental elites to strengthen their hold on power were necessarily inspired by corrupt motives. The pressure imposed by the community for profitable government, and pressure from the king for peaceful and orderly rule, likely provided sufficient impetus in themselves. A number of factors, more naturalistic than sinister, might be suggested to explain why, as the later Middle Ages progressed, there was a clamping down on democratic impulses inherent in the concept of the borough as a community of peers. In part it was a perhaps inevitable consequence of the general formalising, legalising, and bureaucratising of government: a tendency to emphasise structure and procedures. This encouraged a 'closed shop' approach which favoured orderliness. At the same time, government is, by its nature, a response to problems facing society. If life went on entirely harmoniously, we would need government for very little. As borough governments faced problems and crises, their members doubtless felt the need to exercise greater control over the course of events - not least in order to protect themselves from blame if things got out of hand and came to the king's attention. So they wished to concentrate power in their own hands, and subdue the unruly power of the community. A further factor might be that at the beginning of independent borough government, in the early thirteenth century, burgesses looked inward - at the commune - for the answers about how to govern themselves. By the fifteenth century, there was a growing sense of the larger sphere - the development of parliament and the war with France perhaps playing significant roles here - of nationalism; in the national sphere the dominant model for government was King and Council, with a representative assembly to petition and assent.
Since the proof of the pudding was in the eating, constitutional change was not obnoxious even to the conservative townsman. We need not resort to burgess apathy to explain changes apparently detrimental to popular rights; apathy is never easy to gauge, but it seems that the townsmen's interests were aroused when occasion warranted. Voluntary acquiescence seems a better explanation, although it is true that an otherwise unorganised populace may have relied on the appearance of leaders before underlying discontent could find forceful expression. How far we may trust those expressions for an accurate picture of misgovernment is uncertain, for popular complaints are complicated by personal ambitions, group rivalries, and perhaps also misunderstandings of administrative procedures. We must also factor in the possible effect of rising public expectations of the behaviour of government personnel. Furthermore, our understanding of such vonflicts is blunted by the fact that resolution of them too often is not recorded, or was forestalled by the purchase of pardons (not in themselves a certain admission of guilt), or produced settlements so moderate in nature as to suggest that problems were not perceived as being deep-rooted in the constitutional arrangement. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, complaints were directed at erring rulers more than at the system itself, for the error was seen as basic human failing. Perhaps it was, for our investigation of the illegal activities of the ruling personnel shows, if not a prevalent, then an unfortunate degree of opportunism, corruption, and disregard for the law and for the principle of rule by law. Yet, in a society where self-interest and self-help were almost essential to success in life, governmental failings were not to be eradicated by the exchange of one set of ruling personnel for another. The temptations towards abuse of office were greater than many could resist; even the best-intentioned were susceptible to the corrupting influence of power or, by association with others less reputable, were entrapped in a web of events beyond their control. One who had cause to know left this poignant epitaph for the medieval politician:
Who meaneth to remove the rock
Owt of the slimy mud
Shall mire himself, and hardly scape
The swelling of the flood. 
Structure of Borough Government | Social and Economic Background of Office-Holders
Monopolisation of Office | Attitudes Towards Office-holding | Professionalism in Administration
Quality of Government | Conflict and Solidarity in Urban Politics
|Created: July 30, 1998. Last update: May 8, 2015||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2015|