A word must be said about the office of coroner, which too had something of a dual aspect. Since a franchise independent of the county was being created by town charters, we find coroners - under that title or the more formal title of justiciar or custodian of pleas of the crown - granted by the king at the same time as grant of an executive. Two or four were the common numbers; Ipswich was granted four in 1200, but persuaded the king to reduce this to two in 1317. The coroners were primarily royal officers, appointed (via approval of borough elections) by the king and removed by him, if not first removed by death; an unfortunate consequence of this orientation being the scarcity of coroners' rolls in borough archives. Recent historians of Yarmouth, where coroners are rarely mentioned, have concluded that those officers were no challenge to ballival power. But the intention was probably otherwise, for borough coroners - like their county counterparts - had supervisory functions, to ensure the impartiality of ballival justice, to serve as contrarotulatores, and perhaps to keep an eye on the administration of court revenues. At Ipswich the 1200 proceedings took care to specify the counterbalancing role of the coroners, and bailiffs and coroners were listed side by side in court roll headings and witness lists of thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the cooperation of bailiffs and coroners in Norwich's court is also evidenced. As a check on ballival power we may doubt the effectiveness of coroners, since the two offices were manned by much the same personnel. At Ipswich some of the coroners' duties were subsequently given to the chamberlains, and the slipping of position of coroners' names in fifteenth century witness lists (to behind the names of councillors) is also indicative of their decreasing importance. By the seventeenth century their supervisory role was remembered only in their symbolic act of holding the oath-book from which the bailiffs were sworn annually.
It is not the intention of this study to analyse the minor officialdom of borough bureaucracies that backed up the executive. Suffice to say that they were founded on the town clerks and sergeants, the latter often known as sub-bailiffs or even bailiffs - Yarmouth, at least, provides some hint of seniorities within their ranks. As borough jurisdictions grew and financial affairs complicated, lesser officials proliferated under a variety of titles. Some were appointed, some elected, others farmed their offices. The predominant concerns of borough administrations are sometimes reflected by their ranks: Yarmouth had its murage staff, its herring warders, its water-bailiff; Colchester its farmers of customs and mensurage at the port and in town; Maldon its custodians of market, river and causeway, its bread-weighers and ale-tasters; Lynn its janitors of the town gates and its bedeman; Ipswich its porters and clavigers.
The financial office was too important in the medieval borough to be simply part of the bureaucracy. Borough revenue was the lifeline by which the fee farm was paid annually and the town's liberties were thus preserved; and by which the inevitable and rising expenses of a developing administration were defrayed. Presumably some accounting system was part of the administrative arrangement from the first, but there does not seem to have been a specialised financial officer at that point. To suggest, as Wodderspoon does, that the collectors of local custom instituted in Ipswich in 1200 were actually chamberlains is to stretch the evidence too far; not they, but the bailiffs, were primarily responsible for this income reaching the Exchequer in the shape of the fee farm - as indeed the instituting ordinance implies. Most probably the executive was initially the accounting officer in our other towns too. The earliest borough account known from Lynn (1271/2) is that of the mayor; chamberlains are first mentioned in 1295. Norwich's first financial officer appears in 1293, without official title, handling revenues other than those which went towards the fee farm, for which the bailiffs accounted; this system was maintained throughout the fourteenth century and was reflected in the establishment of sheriffs in 1404 to deal with the fee farm. At just the same period as in Lynn and Norwich, financial officers made their first appearance (1291) in Yarmouth, in the form of keepers of the pyx (the chest containing the town treasury); their importance is suggested by the fact that the few whose names are known were former bailiffs. Again it seems that they handled only a portion of the revenues, the bailiffs and muragers dealing with others; reorganisation of finances seems to have eliminated the keepers before the end of the reign of Edward II. In Maldon too bailiffs were the accounting officers up until the mid-fifteenth century. Chamberlains were introduced in 1404, consequent to the increase in administrative activity brought about by the 1403 charter; they were created to relieve the bailiffs of some of their more routine duties.
Financial officers had no formal or visible influence over the borough's financial policies. They were required to make payments at the executive's command; they were forbidden to deny such command or to pay out any monies on their own initiative, unsupervised. Yet they were not mere functionaries, but watchdogs over the executive in its receipt and spending of community funds; the coroner does not seem to have been considered a sufficient check on misuse of executive power. Financial officers were often instituted in connection with administrative reforms. They were a key feature of the Ipswich reforms of 1320, directed largely against ballival greed and embezzlement. Chamberlains were to be elected annually to have receipt of all town revenues and payment of expenses (salaries were especially mentioned), to be present when the bailiffs performed any duty involving a financial transaction, and to draw up counter-rolls in the town court to prevent tampering with that record of fines and amercements. Ipswich's chamberlains seems to be an entirely new office; although the town's undated, but ancient, custumal refers to untitled persons performing camerarian duties, the reference has the appearance of an addition to the main capitula and the tenor reminds us of the circumstances of 1320. The receivers of Colchester, later known as chamberlains, arose out of that town's 1372 reforms, again the result of complaints of financial maladministration by the bailiffs. And the substitution of two chamberlains for two of Yarmouth's four bailiffs, in 1426, was also part of a reorganisation consequent to popular discontent. Even in Norwich and Lynn there are indications of the watchdog role of the chamberlains. In the former the earliest reference to officers of this title is in a chapter of the city custumal, perhaps the product of complaints c.1326 of unjust taxation; the chapter assigns them a role in tax collection henceforth. At Lynn, ordinances insisted that only the chamberlains receive borough revenues, which they were immediately to put under lock and key in the treasury (1342), and prohibited the mayor from having possession of any community funds unless received from the chamberlains (1448).
The relative importance of the financial officer increased over the course of time. Maldon's chamberlains replaced the bailiffs as accounting officers sometime between 1447 and 1468; from 1465 they were ranked second in the borough hierarchy, displacing the constables. By the end of the fourteenth century Ipswich's sergeants had been assigned to act under the chamberlains in their collection of monies. During the reign of Henry VI we come across both chamberlains and treasurers in that town. Whether these were the same officers by different titles is difficult to say. Norwich too had officers of both titles and, at least in 1414, the treasurers were portrayed as subordinates of the chamberlains. Yet in seventeenth century (and possibly medieval) Ipswich the division was rather one of areas of jurisdiction. There are other indications of the importance of the office. Colchester's fifteenth century ordinances made provision for the foregoing of annual elections of chamberlains in the event (it is implied) that the competence of any of the officers in tenure warranted their continuation therein. We see the same in the Yarmouth reforms of 1491, doubling the number of chamberlains and advising that any found to do a good job should be kept in office for at least one further term. The concern for producing a budget surplus probably was what prompted the farming of the Ipswich office to John Felawe, in 1439, for 12 years; but perhaps someone had second thoughts, as the arrangement did not last its full term if, indeed, ever implemented. In 1447 chamberlains were elected there for a two-year term with a special programme, and henceforth re-election in this office became more common. Similarly, in Lynn, where an ordinance of 1423 required that there always be at least two chamberlains present at every congregation, it was decided in 1449 (perhaps to cut back on salaries) that William Ashill and William Gilbert alone hold the office for 5 years; problems with non-attendance prompted the abandonment of this experiment after the first year.
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: November 2, 2014||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2014|