To turn now to a closer look at the administrative structure suggested by the archival structure, we must first note that, despite the diversity in titles of office from town to town, medieval borough government may be reduced to the essentials of executive, financial department, conciliar devices, and bureaucracy. The first of these levels to become apparent is the executive, but our knowledge of it is very sketchy before the first royal charter grants. It has already been suggested that the Merchant Gild had a relatively important role during the nascent period of borough self-government. We may suspect that its role was no less in earlier times, for there was no other institution that was both representative of the interests of at least an important part of the community and sufficiently organised to speak for those interests, as in negotiation with the king for taking their towns to fee farm. Ipswich and Yarmouth seem to have had such a gild at the time when they received their first charters, and there is reason to believe this the case with Lynn and Norwich too.
Before these charters the towns were governed by royally-appointed reeves, whose basic duties were: to arrange the collection of revenues with which they were to pay the firma burgi; to preside in the court; and to execute royal commands. Although local men, they were required to put the interests of the king before those of the community. Some of Colchester's reeves are known from the Pipe Rolls and the earliest (1137) from a charter's witness list. There is evidence that a moothall stood on the site of the modern Town Hall since at least the time of the first charter in 1189. Although Swinden claimed evidence of a reeve in Yarmouth by 1108, the first we can be sure of is the Abraham who ran into trouble with the king, in 1198, for overstepping his authority. And the Ipswich reeve Elias probably held office prior to the 1200 charter; we cannot be sure, but he may have been the Elias who complained to the king, in 1212, of the innovations of the now-independent borough government and who was shortly thereafter murdered by a group of burgesses. It may also be that the Thingstead, just outside Ipswich's walls, recalls an early site of the community's folkmoot; but by 1200 the churchyard of St. Mary Tower was the site of that meeting, whilst the moothall was built adjacent to the site of St. Mildred's, itself an ancient dedication with governmental associations.
The effect of royal charters granting self-government was not to alter radically the existing executive structure but to place the executive more under control of the borough community. Whether the size of the executive remained unchanged is less certain. The careful recording of administrative arrangements made in Ipswich, immediately after the grant of the 1200 charter, leave us in no doubt that Ipswich was governed by two bailiffs. In the absence of contradictory evidence we are safe to assume that Yarmouth had, from at least the time of its charter (1208), four bailiffs to correspond to the four leets, themselves administrative divisions rather than a memory of separate original settlements (unlike in Norwich). The evidence for pre-charter reeves in Colchester, already mentioned, suggests that the town was always governed by two bailiffs, whilst the only evidence we have to doubt that Norwich's four bailiffs existed since the 1194 charter is the unsubstantiated statement of Blomefield that the four replaced a single officer in 1223. Where doubt arises is in the terminology of royal documents. That Yarmouth's 1208 charter granted that a prepositus (singular) be elected, and Norwich's of 1194, while granting the election of prepositi, allowed for the execution of withernam by the prepositus, has led scholars to speculate that some or all of the four bailiffs of each of these towns originated as subordinates of the pre-charter reeve, and that even in the post-charter period one of the bailiffs sometimes appears to possess a seniority. Some later royal documents also refer to the provost of Yarmouth or even the 'provost and bailiffs', and a similar division was occasionally made by the locals, as late as 1456 when a royal writ was replied to by Edmund Wydewell prepositus and Alexander Brygate ballivus.
Despite the lack of evidence for a qualitative division of labour between individual members of the executive, and the notorious inconsistency of royal clerks in their use of titles when addressing communications to local officials - they do not appear to have known, or perhaps cared, much about local constitutional arrangements - it is hard to avoid this notion of seniority. Ipswich's 1200 charter specified that two men be elected to govern the town, yet it included the standard phrase granting that the town answer for the fee farm by the hand of its prepositus. In 1349 we find reference to John de Preston as capitalis ballivus. Clerical practice of consistently listing bailiffs (of all those four towns currently considered) in the same name order fuels our suspicions. However, we must not ignore another possibility. When Ipswich elected its first bailiffs in 1200, it was not as prepositi but "ad custodiendum preposituram", a phrase that received royal approval in the charter of 1317. It is just possible that the use of prepositus by royal clerks was, at least on occasion, intended as a generic reference to the executive office, rather than to a specific number of officers.
Discussion of Lynn and Maldon has been left until last since, as already suggested by the architecture of archival evidence, their courses of development are somewhat different, complicated by a division of dominion; whereas our other four towns knew no lord but the king. A further difference - although the significance of it, as regards the executive, is not apparent - is that Maldon and Lynn lack the quadrapartite division of the other towns. The origin of these divisions varies: at Yarmouth it may have been the outcome of leet administration; at Ipswich and Colchester it relates to the town gates and perhaps to watch and ward; at Norwich there was a topographical rationale. Maldon comprised three parishes: All Saints' and St. Peter's being in the diocese of London, and St. Mary's a peculiar jurisdiction of St. Martin-le-Grand (London); within these were scattered four concentrations of settlement. The size of Maldon's population probably did not warrant administrative sub-division. Lynn was made up of four main units: South Lynn and West Lynn, in existence by 1086, but not part of the medieval borough in terms of jurisdiction and administration; Bishop's Lynn, founded in 1101 when the Bishop of Norwich built St. Margaret's at the request (and probably the expense) of the men already settled there; and Newland, a planned town set out by Bishop Turbe at uncertain date in the early part of his episcopacy (1146-74) to accommodate a growing population. Although united about the time of the grant of the first charter of liberties (1204), previously Bishop's Lynn and Newland each had its own church, market, quay, and hall of administration. The chapel of St. James, to the east of St. Margaret's, probably represents population growth before the setting up of Newland. At some time after 1204 Lynn was divided into ten constabularies, reduced in the fourteenth century to nine, perhaps a consequence of reduced settlement in the area of St. James.
The two bailiffs who headed Maldon's government in the fifteenth century, Petchey suggested, represented the dual lordship of the borough, although he later backtracked and proposed that one bailiff represented the king and the other the Bishop. His initial hypothesis appears more consonant with the evidence. Maldon had only one bailiff until 1403, when we are naturally led to associate the institution of the second with the taking of episcopal jurisdiction at fee farm, and to suspect that the original bailiff indicates a similar pre-evidential arrangement with the Fitz Walter lords. Contrary to our expectations, no bailiff is listed among the witnesses to a grant of common soil in 1361. In our search for pre-ballival government we may look to the two constables, who were the king's executives in the town in 1359; once local records appear, the constables are ranked second to the bailiffs, with duties including collection of pre-fee farm sources of revenue.
Lynn's executive development is even more intricate. Arundel and those who preceded and followed him in the lordship of Rising had their own bailiff - an officer sometimes called upon by the king, before 1204, to carry out his commands - and port officials. Episcopal jurisdiction was administered by a steward and his bailiffs, from a hall by the Newland's Tuesday market. Communal interests were presumably represented by the Merchant Gild from its hall located in the Saturday market (originally, adjacent to the parish church), the site in itself suggesting an early gild role. This was certainly the opinion of the gild itself, as represented in the 1389 returns and a document of unknown origin and purpose of which we have only a copy made tempore Henry V. These claim the gild to have been the first form of organisation established by the traders who settled at early Lynn, its hall built on unoccupied land, and its alderman elected by the community (as opposed to the gildsmen alone). Subsequently the alderman shared government of the town with a mayor, though the two documents disagree as to whether this was instituted by king John or by Henry III. Historians can be no more certain. The 1204 charter granted a prepositus, though whether an officer of that title was ever elected or local arrangements substituted a mayor from the beginning is difficult to say. For the former alternative we have only the untrustworthy evidence of addresses by royal clerks, while for the latter we have Howlett's arguments (from bede roll evidence) which do not stand up to criticism. Possibly this executive referred to was simply the officer(s) appointed by the Bishop.
The best our evidence can allow us to say is that, by the opening years of Henry III's reign, the townsmen had decided to commit internal affairs to the rule of an officer representative of community interests in a way the gild alderman or royal prepositus could not be. It is not necessarily the case that this mayor replaced the prepositus, for royal bailiffs are found in Lynn's administrative complex on numerous occasions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Probably the mayoralty developed slowly, gradually usurping the powers of the prepositus. Thus we have the curious order, in 1217, of the king to the men of Lynn to be intendant on Robert fitz Sunolf "as if (tanquam) their mayor." And in the 1230s there was conflict between burgesses and Bishop, ostensibly on the latter's complaint of innovations by the former in creating a mayor and imposing internal tallages; in fact the real issue was that the mayor was assuming unauthorised judicial powers which ought to belong to the prepositus. The agreement of 1234, by which the Bishop formally recognised the mayoralty he could not suppress, was embodied in an episcopal charter (c.1257-66) which the king confirmed in 1268, transferring the powers of the prepositus to the mayor so that, if royal bailiffs remained in the town, their function was little more than to carry out royal orders; at the same time the Bishop preserved his dominion by requiring each mayor to take oath before him or his deputy. The 1268 confirmation may have played a part in the contemporary power-struggle between interests gathered around mayor and alderman, which seems to have resulted in a victory for the mayoralty.
We should not exaggerate the implications of the transfer of power from prepositus to mayoralty. The dogmatic Richards, who declared the medieval mayors to be "the Bishops' head-men, chief bailiffs or slave drivers", may, oddly enough, be closest to the truth in insisting the difference between the two offices to be little more than a gesture to the corporation's pride. The mayoralty may not have much increased the actual independence of the borough - although there is some hint that the Bishop had more control over the election of the prepositus than the townsmen liked - but it was at least a symbol of greater autonomy and self-determination, with its origins in the continental commune. In contrast to Tait's opinion that the mayor was less a royal officer than the prepositus, Hudson had earlier proposed that the mayoralty Norwich was granted in 1404 derived its authority from the king, whereas the previous ballivalty it had partly replaced was based on community authority. Tait is the more correct, but we should see the mayoralty, like other executives, as a Janus acting for and responsible to both king and community, as the practical functions and the oaths of officers show.
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: 28 October, 2019
|© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2019