The Men Behind the Masque: Office-holding in East Anglian boroughs, 1272-1460
Although the character of government has been one of the most frequently addressed subjects in the field of the history of later medieval English towns, approaches to this sensitive issue have tended to focus on constitutional development and internal power-struggles between rival factions and classes. I use the term 'sensitive' because the absence of consensus amongst historians derives partly from the fact that interpretations centre on the value-charged concepts of democracy and oligarchy. The earliest studies tend to be the most obviously partisan. Brady, in 1690, set out to justify the closed corporations of his day by tracing their ancestry back to the first royal charters of liberties. Merewether and Stephens fuelled the reform movement of the 1830s by portraying borough governments as democracies thwarted by the device of incorporation at the close of the Middle Ages.
Later interpretations, while conforming to the general historiographical environment emphasising development and transition, continued to diverge widely from one another. As a consequence of his emphasis on the rising influence of the Merchant Gild (as opposed to the diminishing role currently attributed to it) Gross concluded that an originally democratic community came to be dominated by a select group of merchants who monopolised power, a process he described as "the great municipal revolution", albeit a silent and gradual one. Colby simultaneously arrived at much the same conclusion. But within a few years Alice Green, refusing to believe that history could be anything but an upwards progress, reinterpreted the evidence; she described the modification of an originally oligarchic form of government as the result of often forceful assertions by a populace inspired by democratic sentiments (which underlay the realities of practical administration). Even such a scholar as Tait found that the evidence could be made to fit both interpretations. Initially favouring that of Gross and Colby, his study of the rise of the Common Council led him more towards the Green thesis, although he remained skeptical of how truly democratic that institution was.
These disagreements are only partially explicable by pointing to the diverse routes of constitutional development taken by different towns, for even students working on the same individual town have put forward opposing interpretations. Thus, prompted perhaps by Strutt's insistence on the inalienability of community authority, W.G. Benham (to whom the historian is indebted for the publication of a substantial part of Colchester's medieval records) held that "From an unknown period ... Colchester enjoyed local liberty and self-government on singularly democratic lines." Geoffrey Martin, on the other hand, has denied that the popular assembly in Colchester ever had a significant share in power, whilst by the end of the Middle Ages "the governing body wears the look of a self-perpetuating oligarchy with only the sketchiest elements of popular election." Again, Gray and Potter declared that Ipswich and Norwich had unusually democratic constitutions and never became closed corporations, although more careful studies by Weinbaum and Martin emphasised the strictly limited role of the Ipswich community compared to the initiative in the hands of the office-holding body, and Hudson portrayed a transition from democracy to oligarchy in Norwich.
Current orthodoxy, reflected notably in the Oxford History of England and in Colin Platt's work summarising our knowledge of English medieval towns, is that democratic elements held, from the first, little real power in urban government. That government was, rather, controlled by an elite - or a succession of elites, since the sporadic popular upheavals served only to replace one set of rulers with another - characterised by social and economic prominence in the community, for wealth and authority were natural concomitants. These rulers - that is, office-holders - increasingly monopolised ('usurped' would be a more prejudicial term) participatory access to decision-making and eventually evolved into the notorious closed corporation. The opposing view, along the lines laid out by Green, now finds few proponents, although Bridbury has argued that, socially and politically, greater flexibility and accessibility were features of the fifteenth century town, and a recent study of Oxford's town council in that period has stressed the same open character.
Modification of the oligarchic interpretation has also been advocated by Susan Reynolds; while Platt's book may be seen as the summation of an era of research into medieval borough history, Reynolds' cautious and balanced study, appearing in print immediately afterwards, points to the problems on which historians must now focus. She points out that:
The trouble with talking in terms of oligarchy and democracy is that oligarchy is a pejorative word: it traditionally implies not merely government by the few, but selfish government by the few. Modern writers tend to assume that all governments of the few must be selfish.
'Democracy' too conjures up in the modern mind much more than it is likely to have done in the mind of the modern townsman. Green's belief that "if the towns had been called on for a confession of faith, the declaration of a pure and unadulterated freedom would have been in every mouth" is perhaps more reflective of the sentiments of her own time than those of the medieval townsman, although it has some validity for the latter. Practical government, not political philosophy, was their prime concern. If we seek to discover that philosophy from the records they left, it is rarely forthcoming except from inference and deduction.
There are, then, two areas upon which this study proposes to focus. First, whether the terms democracy and oligarchy, although imperfect, are the most satisfactory that we possess to apply to borough government; part of the problem here is that these labels were not used by the participants in such government, but were the preserve of clerical political theorists adapting Aristotelian thought to the medieval context. Effective rule by an elite (not in itself incompatible with democracy) is not so much at issue. But was the behaviour of this elite self-interested, as that of an oligarchy must be? Was it paternalistic, an aristocracy, fitting the expectations of the medieval townsmen themselves? Does the apparent association of wealth with power allow us to use the term plutocracy? Or does the less commonly noticed predominance of the longest-living, most experienced of the leading townsmen in the upper ranks of government suggest that we are dealing with a patriarchate - or, to use Hammer's term, gerontocracy? Secondly, whether constitutional theory harmonised with the realities of day-to-day government, whether they developed along the same lines, at the same rate, or whether a divergence between the two may help to explain the contradictory interpretations that have plagued the historiography of this field.
It is intended to approach these questions through an examination of the governmental systems of several East Anglian towns: in Norfolk, (King's) Lynn, Norwich, and Great Yarmouth; in Suffolk, Ipswich; and in Essex, Colchester and Maldon. This examination will rely chiefly on prosopographical analysis of the group of men who held the more important borough offices between the reigns of Edward I (in which period the regular keeping of borough records becomes widely established) and Henry VI. Biographical data on almost 1300 office-holders has been compiled. It is not suggested that prosopography is the only nor necessarily the best approach. Yet, if justification were elicited, it might be noted that government is essentially the making of decisions and enforcing of the same via the exercise of power, and that both processes are strongly influenced by the human factor. As Meyer noted: "the folk of the later Middle Ages, like those of today, were governed by men and not laws, despite legal or political pronouncements." If borough government never managed to measure up to the high standards expected of it - as complaints of the time suggest - or if it mutated from its originally intended form to another, the fault may lie with human behaviour as much as weaknesses inherent in the administrative machinery. With that in mind, this study will use simple prosopographical statistics and individual biographical examples to throw light on six particular topics:
Prosopography has its own particular problems, as well as sharing others common to all types of research. Perhaps the most grievous is the lack of information. Richards, having entered biographical accounts of eminent local men of religion into his history of Lynn, desired to do the same for laymen, but lamented: "alas! we look and search for them in vain: hardly can one be found whose name deserves to be recorded, or remembered by posterity." Even the better-informed May McKisack, in her study of parliamentary burgesses, complained that of a large number: "There is little to be said of them as individuals, for most of them have left no memorial save a few sparse references." Others have been more optimistic, preferring to emphasise the information we still have, rather than that now lost or never recorded.
As regards the compilation of lists of officials, this has been achieved, for those towns addressed by this study, with few gaps during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; only for the reign of Edward I are data unsatisfactory. Although few townsmen figure so prominently in the records as to permit the reconstruction of whole lives and careers with some confidence, enough may be learned to render a good majority susceptible to statistical analysis relating to most questions posed by this study. Of 843 office-holders identified from the three principal towns researched, only 3% yield no more information than their tenure of office. However, because records tend to focus on the affairs of the wealthier townsmen, it is rarely possible to examine more than one side of the coin: that section of the urban community generally described as the oligarchy.
One or two specialised problems must be noted. By the fourteenth century the hereditary surname was fairly common in towns and long enough established to be no longer a reliable indicator of occupation, parentage, or place of birth; indeed, there is ample evidence to show that they were highly misleading in this respect. Some surnames continued to fluctuate during the later Middle Ages, obscuring pedigrees, whilst not a few men went by more than one surname: for example, John Ashenden of Lynn was occasionally called not only by his occupational surname of Brouster, but also by the name of Taylour (although there is no evidence for his participation in the craft); and William de Causton of Ipswich was also known as le Clerk and as Hering. The greater the amount of biographical data collected, the greater the chance of making these identifications, not always explicit in the documents. This, it is hoped, is the case with the individuals falling under this study; but it cannot be ruled out that information has been missed because of a failure to make an identification, or that two office-holders included in analysis might in fact be a single person under different surnames.
More difficult to distinguish from each other are different men of the same name, a problem intensified by the very common occurrence of a limited number of Christian names in this period, and the tendency to name children after other members of the family. An extreme case: in 1331 Thomas de Debenham, in claiming before Ipswich court a hereditary right to three shops, revealed that he was the sole survivor of seven brothers, five of whom had been named John! For further instance, the name Henry Bosse may be found in frequent occupation of Colchester offices between 1357 and 1433; this resolves into three individuals, but where the career of each ends and begins is a matter for speculation, for none has left a will. The same may be said of the two Geoffrey Starlings of Ipswich, whose careers overlap in the 1370s. It may be appreciated, therefore, that when the researcher is faced by a John Clerk or a John Smith, he is inclined to despair at ever disentangling the numerous individuals of those names, or determining if there is any family relationship with others of the same surname. The John Clerk who was bailiff of Colchester in 1373 was probably the merchant of that name, but he may have been one of the others who entered the franchise as "king's retainer" (1350/1) or weaver (1354). There is a list of candidates for the John Smith who sat in parliament for Ipswich in the 1440s: John Smith chandler, John Smith fuller, John Smith barker, John Smith atte Cay merchant, John Smith atte Cross, John Smith junior mercer, John Smith of Stoke, John Smith "recently of Akenham", and others all living in Ipswich during the reign of Henry VI. Given these uncertainties, one cannot expect precision from statistical analysis.
This study has even more serious limitations. No definitive conclusions on the underlying theme of the character of borough government can be drawn from a few case-studies; but to investigate every town, or at least every major town, in the depth required would involve a vast amount of time. As far as this work is concerned, the records pertaining to Lynn, Ipswich, and Colchester have been carefully searched and their fruits have been the foundation of the study. Varying degrees of work have been done on Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Maldon: the Yarmouth records have been sampled, but much information has been gathered from secondary sources; the Maldon records, although not plentiful, have all been read through, but secondary material on the town is scarce; time has permitted Norwich records to be consulted only in their printed version and office-holders have not been studied individually. The history of each one of these towns has benefited from the attentions of scholars, both antiquarian and modern. Prosopographical data relating to prominent townsmen has been compiled and used effectively by several of the more recent studies. Where this study hopes to profit is not merely from concentrating on particular aspects of urban administration (as opposed to attempting the overview found in pioneering researches), but also from comparison. The towns under investigation, all in the prosperous and populous eastern part of the country, all with strong links to maritime trade, existed in a broadly common economic environment. Some problems in administrative and political development were also common, others the product of peculiar circumstances, and the solutions were likewise. By contrasting these towns we may perhaps learn something that is not easily perceived from isolated studies.
A further limitation has been the grades of officials studied. The permanent officials of the bureaucracy - clerks, sergeants and minor officers - whose annual election disguises reappointment, and who had no voice in decision-making, have not come under scrutiny. The personnel of the town councils have not been directly analysed either, due to the infrequent recording of memberships in most of those towns studied. However, in effect, a large proportion of the councillors will be found to fall under the categories that have been analysed. These include the most commonly studied groups: the executive (mayors and bailiffs) and parliamentary burgesses. The latter are not town rulers per se, but the importance of their role to the town they represented makes worthwhile an examination of their relationship (supposing there to be such) to the urban ruling class; henceforth they will be referred to, for brevity's sake, as M.P.s, although this term is not to be thought of with its modern connotations but purely meaning a representative of a constituency at a single meeting of parliament. In addition, partly to enlarge the size of the group, partly in an attempt to deal with a broader social range than has been investigated by others, this study encompasses other important elected officers: financial officers (from those five towns whose personnel have been analysed) and also the coroners of Ipswich. The Colchester records suggest a justification for this selection of offices. There, two elections were held annually: bailiffs, town council and chamberlains were elected in early September; other officers were not so vital to the government and their election was left until just after the new administrative year began at Michaelmas.
This study was originally undertaken to fulfill the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy at the University of Leicester, 1978-1982. The present text represents an expansion of my thesis, based principally upon work conducted at that time but excluded (largely for reasons of space) from the thesis, yet also with some additions deriving from subsequent research. I benefited greatly, in the course of my original research, from discussions with my Leicester colleague David Wykes and former colleague (from my time at Carleton University, when I was studying the government of medieval Norwich) Rudi Aksim - both involved in prosopographical studies of their own; also with the late Helen Sutermeister of the Norwich Survey. However, my perceptions of borough history were most deeply influenced by my M.Phil. supervisor, Professor Geoffrey Martin. Needless to say, the errors that I do not doubt exist in this study - which is but a way-station on the journey towards a better understanding of borough government - are due entirely to my own failings. A debt of thanks is also owed to the staffs of local and national archives who dealt with my many and sometimes unreasonable demands with much patience and kindness. In particular I think of Mr. David Lee of the Public Record Office and Ms. Susan Maddock, King's Lynn archivist at the Norfolk Record Office, who managed to produce documents for my perusal under the most trying circumstances. Finally, I must acknowledge the kindness of His Grace The Duke of Norfolk, E.M., C.B., C.B.E., M.C., in allowing access to his archives at Arundel Castle.
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: 24 September 2011
|© Stephen Alsford, 1998-20011