The most difficult institution to trace in the borough hierarchy is the town council for, even more than the executive and financial offices, it has a history of gradual, almost imperceptible evolution; ordinances seeming to create such councils more often merely mark a stage in a process already underway. It is convenient to begin with the case of Ipswich, since the proceedings there in 1200 include the earliest establishment of an upper council of any of the towns under consideration here. Unlike the bailiffs and coroners, Ipswich's council was not provided for explicitly by its charter, nor indeed do the first charters of our other towns mention such institutions; the royal government was not concerned with the internal arrangements of borough government and the terms of charters were sufficiently vague to give plenty of scope for local nuances. Significantly, the setting up of an administration, which took place in a series of stages between 29 June and 12 October 1200, began with the election of the officers granted by the charter and the decision to elect:
duodecim Capitales Portmenni iurati, sicut in aliis liberis Burgis Anglie sunt, et quod habeant plenam potestatem pro se et tota villata ad gubernandum et manutendum predictum Burgum et omnes libertates eiusdem Burgi, et ad iudicia ville reddenda, Ac eciam ad omnia ordinanda et facienda in eodem Burgo, que fieri debeant pro statu et honore ville memorate.There were two features of this passage that bothered Tait. First the title Capital Portmen, which he believed was not used until a later date and thus threw doubt on the passage's authenticity. The title means the leading members of the burgesses (alias portmen); 'capital jurat' or simply 'jurat' was a more common term for the councillors before 1325. But, as we may notice, they are referred to as jurats in the passage too, and portmen is an old term; the personal names in this document can be confirmed from other sources and there now seems no good cause to doubt the events themselves. Secondly, Tait was suspicious of the suggestion that bodies such as the portmen were common to English boroughs; although he himself is the principal proponent of the notion that town councils are foreshadowed in a number of cases, including that of Ipswich, by bodies of 'wise men' acting in official capacities. Having noted that the troublesome phrase may be no more than a justificatory repetition of the terminology of the charter clause granting that Ipswich might assume the liberties and customs of other free boroughs, we can nonetheless appreciate the rationale in Tait's suggestion that pre-chartered boroughs were likely to have leading townsmen consulted by the reeve and bargaining for the fee farm - perhaps as Merchant Gilds, perhaps as informal associations. The men of Ipswich, like modern scholars, perhaps assumed that any self-governing town would have some consultatory mechanism.
Possibly Tait's underlying worry was with the broad powers accorded the portmen, though this may have related to the fact that bailiffs and coroners were members of that body. Tait would not have agreed here, since his evaluation of the nature of ballival office led him to conclude that governmental power lay with the portmen whilst the bailiffs' powers related only to fulfillment of their duties towards the king. If so, then it is strange that the portmen do not figure more prominently in later records. We see them again in 1256, present in court to hear a recognisance of right, but this is an exceptional mention. They are dealt with in the custumal, which elaborates on the 1200 account only to the extent of indicating that the office of portman was held for life and election of replacements was by co-optation; we may note that the custumal was a reconstruction (the original having been stolen) by a committee composed partly of men who, a few years later, are revealed as portmen themselves. That revelation comes in the surprising circumstance of the election of all twelve portmen in 1309, by the same method of parish representatives as in 1200. On this occasion we again hear of the principle of co-optation and it may be, if the earliest recension of the custumal dates from 1309 as Martin hypothesises, that this year marks the change in electoral practice.
There is little evidence by which to assess whether the role of the portmen at this period went beyond counselling, to the active exercise of power. Ipswich's custumal refers to the setting of fines on certain offenders and the disfranchisement of others by the bailiffs, coroners and bones gentz of the community; these may be the portmen, as thought Twiss and the fifteenth century clerk who translated the customs into English and gave the rendering "goodemen", a single word as if an institution. It is not the intention of this study to become embroiled in an argument concerning terms such as bones hommes or probi homines, which are vague and used without any apparent consistency of application. However, we may notice that the complainants (whom we shall later see to be the town council) against the reform movement of 1411-14 in Lynn identify themselves as "the good burgesses"; whilst, at about the same period, Margery Kempe provided the mayor of Leicester with character references by describing herself as the daughter of a "good man" of Lynn, formerly mayor, and wife of another "good man", a former chamberlain.
During the fourteenth century we have no certain indication of the portmen membership; they receive no attention in the 1320 ordinances. It has been suggested that the portmen were named directly after bailiffs and coroners in lists of witnesses to court recognisances. This is likely, but hard to prove. Sample analysis of all such witnesses appearing between January 1338 and December 1340 identifies 53 individuals of whom only 4, besides bailiffs and coroners, were present at more than 50% of the recognisances; one of the four was a professional attorney. The portmen are named more often in the fifteenth century, seeming to have consolidated their position: offenders against the franchise threw themselves on the mercy of the community in 1323 but on that of the portmen in 1394, and the ordinances of 1361 were passed by bailiffs and community whilst those of 1429 by bailiffs and portmen. The records begin to relate the practice rather than the theory of government.
Yarmouth's council is first seen in what appears to be the act of its creation, in 1272. Another institution arising from reform ordinances consequent to internal conflict, the council comprised 24 jurats who were elected to support the bailiffs and administer the ordinances. Tait at first suspected that this was merely an ad hoc body, but later decided that not only was it a permanent council, it was perhaps preceded by a more informal body. On neither point do we have any evidence other than the examples of conciliar development in other towns. Yarmouth's council does not appear again for more than a century - as in Ipswich, there was perhaps no occasion for its behind-the-scenes role to receive credit in routine records; then it makes a flurry of appearances. In 1386 24 jurats were elected pursuant to the prescription of the 1272 ordinances, to strengthen the bailiffs, uphold the ordinances and make new ones; as with the portmen, life office and co-optation were now features. Earlier in that same year, the bailiffs and a group of 24 burgesses - almost the same personnel subsequently elected jurats - issued ordinances for the running of St. Mary's Hospital. Bailiffs and 24 issued orders for constructing a new haven in 1392 and disfranchised a burgess in 1395. The 24, who remind us in more than one way of Ipswich's portmen, had added positive powers to what seem in 1272 only negative powers, although their fifteenth century oath of office still stresses only the latter duties of supporting bailiffs and maintaining town ordinances.
In the case of Colchester we are yet again led to associate the establishment of a council with a wider scheme of reforms, but a century after those of Yarmouth, in 1372. Here eight auditors were to be elected by community representatives and they, together with the bailiffs, would choose sixteen councillors; the bailiffs and their 24 counsellors would serve as the legislative organ. This is a curious division to which the clue lies in the title auditores. Round claimed that this was no more than the Latin version of the title 'aldermen' by which they were later known, but the reforms clearly indicate that the auditors had special functions: to authorize expenditures, to audit the receivers' accounts, and other duties relating to supervision of borough revenues. Their alderman's oath of office too stressed financial supervision and implied that the office was originally intended as a check on ballival mis-spending. We may infer from the reforms that the auditors were to deal with day-to-day business, whilst the councillors were to be present at the four major annual assemblies (lawhundreds and election), and at other times if circumstances warranted.
The election of auditors is recorded from this time forward, but that of councillors not until 1381; this is probably a clerical rather than constitutional quirk. The ward of residence of each of the 24 was often recorded, but there was no consistent division and no evident representational significance. The change in the auditors' title, c.1404, may indicate an enhancement of status, the receivers being known from the same time by the more dignified title of chamberlains; but we cannot say for sure. Tait was of the opinion that the name-change amplified the distinction between aldermen and councillors, but this was partly because he thought the change occurred closer to 1443. Analysis indicates that there was no qualitative difference between the personnel of the two groups. Augustine Bonefaunt, for example, first became councillor in 1392 and was re-elected in 1395; he was auditor 1398-1400, councillor 1404-07, alderman several times again between 1411 and 1426, and ended his career with terms as councillor in 1428/9, 1432/3, and 1434/5. At least two dozen other cases of similar alternation, or of men serving as councillors after serving as aldermen, could be given; most occur before the 1440s, but a handful afterwards. On the other hand, the summoning, in 1417/8, of "discretioribus concilii ville predicte tam majoribus quam minoribus" may indicate some perceived distinction in rank. On the whole, however, it will be less misleading to view aldermen and councillors as a single body, certain members of which made a greater commitment of time and had special duties, rather than as two separate conciliar levels.
Neither Tait nor Round were willing to believe that Colchester had no town council until 1372. Tait hypothesised an earlier council, on the grounds that the reform ordinances were made "by all the commonalty and by the more worthy sworn men of the town." This is slim proof of a permanent council, especially given the sparsity of earlier evidence for groups that might be candidates for a conciliar body. What we have to work with are six groups of burgesses, of varying numbers, listed between 1311 and 1318 in important contexts: as pledges for the farmers of town customs; leet jurors; inquisition jurors laying charges against the abbot of St. John's and other local dignitaries; and persons attending town assemblies (meetings rarely recorded). If we think of each name listed as a 'position', then 57 individuals occupied 102 positions; 21 of these individuals are known to have held office in the borough and several more were from families of which other members were office-holders. Twelve individuals, most of them past or future officers, were involved in 3 or more of these affairs, occupying approximately 40% of the positions. This evidence is not strong enough to indicate the existence of a permanent council, but does suggest that the group most frequently in attendance at court was much the same group as that which aspired to borough office. Perhaps there was a less formal council at this time, for in December 1310 a man was tried "before the Bailiffs and other Burgesses associated with them" for selling corrupt meat, whilst even in 1373 the bailiffs consulted with selected auditors, rather than the group as an institution, regarding the raising of a tax.
Hudson has carefully traced the development of the upper council in Norwich and no new evidence will be presented here. In the same year that Yarmouth's council appears, a papal letter complaining of an attack by Norwich's citizenry on the cathedral-priory blamed the bailiffs, town clerk and 15 citizens "quorum consilio eadem universitas tunc temporis regebatur." Chapter 47 of the city custumal, apparently a response to complaints of taxation abuses c.1326, required that tax-collectors and chamberlains render account before the "24", a group also referred to in chapter 46 as acting in conjunction with the bailiffs. The earliest assembly records (1344-47) show the election of the 24, whose function was to make decisions regarding the performance of city business. When these records re-emerge after 1365 we find a group of 24 electing the bailiffs and, a little later, 24 citizens elected to attend every assembly. Whether these three groups were different, as Hudson thought, or the same body in different roles, as I have elsewhere argued, is largely speculation. By 1417, when the 24 were transformed into aldermen, in imitation of London, they had established a firm and powerful position in the constitutional hierarchy.
Two institutions performing different roles, yet essentially the same body, is what we again discover if we examine the council of Lynn. Tait, obliged to rely on the published transcript of Lynn's Red Register, noted the references to 24 men sworn to come to the gildhall whenever summoned "ad consulendum cum maiore quociens opus et necesse fuerit pro communitate" (1322), their functions elaborated upon in 1326 as "pro custodia ville de Lenne facienda per preceptum domini regis et pro omnibus aliis necessariis communitatem tangentibus ordinandis et perficiendis". In fact, in 1324 the mayor refused to give a decision on a certain problematical issue because not all his consules were present to advise him. The editor of the Register automatically associated the 24 jurats with the Magna Jurata, a 24-man jury serving in pleas of land, although there is no explicit connection made in the Register, the only evidence being a close correspondence of memberships. It is not until the fifteenth century that the records clearly indicate that the jurats and Magna Jurata were a single set of personnel acting in two distinct roles - the distinction upheld by the fact that each jurat was administered two oaths, one as mayoral counsellor, the other as juror for the view of land.
Whether one of these roles developed out of the other, or whether they were once performed by separate groups, we cannot tell from surviving evidence. However, there are earlier references to a council than those in the Red Register. The membership of a group whose role was described much as in 1326 is listed in the 1305 tallage roll; and in 1301 tax due from Ralph le Keu from that and two previous years was pardoned him "per consideracionem xxiiijor burgensium", on the grounds of his expenses incurred on behalf of the community. In contrast to our other towns, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Lynn's jurats were elected annually throughout the fourteenth century. In a pattern of development similar to that at Norwich, the jurats consolidated their position in the later fourteenth century. Annual election did not produce a very high turnover of personnel and the apparent re-election in August 1365 of jurat Robert Braunch, who had died almost a year before, must make us suspicious. In the early fifteenth century the process reached its conclusion: the jurats officially became a council characterised by life membership and co-optation; popular election was remembered only in the annual renewal of oaths of office. This move was quickly opposed by the reform party in Lynn, who sought to dupe the king and overthrow the jurats by obtaining (1411) royal confirmation of the ancient custom of annual election of the Magna Jurata, mentioning to the king only the judicial, not the political, aspects of this body. The reformers' efforts were ultimately frustrated and a settlement (1420) formalised what the jurats had won.
So far our efforts to trace the roots of town councils have been inhibited by the paucity of documents. In Maldon we encounter a town whose constitutional development was retarded until a period when record-keeping had become an established practice. What we are shown, in consequence, is most interesting. The first folio of Maldon's earliest Court Book includes, among the list of officers elected in 1384, the wardemen - not individually named but said to be the same personnel as in the previous year. Thenceforward, however, 18 names are given annually and the group frequently appears in the records: described as "auxiliatores et coadiutores" of the bailiffs; summoned to consult with the bailiffs whenever town business required it; ordaining that the bailiffs must account for all borough revenues; making other ordinances; granting leases of common soil; and appraising distrained goods. In none of our other towns is the balance of power between executive and council more nicely expressed: in 1427 the bailiffs rented out a community tenement to Thomas Judde by consent of the wardemen; in 1430 the wardemen, with ballival consent, permitted Richard Lyon to extend his property onto common soil; the wardemen passed an ordinance in 1463 with the consent of the bailiffs; in 1423 they ordained that no bailiff might remit any court amercement without their consent.
The name 'wardemen' does not seem to have any connection with territorial divisions; although on one occasion they were elected 6 per parish, there is otherwise no hint of this and it may simply have been a transitory experiment. The name would be better interpreted in the light of the later alternative 'guardians'; for they were the custodians of borough custom and the presenters of offences against that custom in the leet court. This was not, as apparently the case with Lynn's jurats, one head wearing two masks; in Maldon the roles of capital tithingmen, or headboroughs, and of councillors were integrated. Their ordinances were often framed as leet presentments; thus, for example, they present (charge) that one of their members has defaulted in his duties (1434), they petition (ordain) that butchers slaughtering in the market must clear up the blood and entrails (1414), they present (order) that it is the will of the community that the bailiffs proclaim in town that butter be sold only in the market (1416), they present (ordain) that every resident over 12 years of age must swear allegiance to the king (1420), they present (instruct the bailiffs) that they wish to have their royal charter of 1171 renewed (c.1416). In other words, the by-laws that they made were disguised as proposals for the bailiffs to take action on, a method illustrating immature development of the legislative organ. Although, by the time of the chapter in the 1444 custumal dealing with their election, the wardemen were transforming into a life-membership (but not co-optative) body, the group never did become a fully-fledged council in its own right. In the 1554 charter of incorporation it was subordinated to the six aldermen, a group that had developed informally out of ex-ballival ranks, and the 24 men formed a Common Council.
The notion of a town council arising out of the leet court has been proposed before. Leach speculated, without any direct evidence it seems, that Beverley's council evolved from the leet jury. Easterling notes that the first use of the term 'the 24' in Exeter appears in the thirteenth century applied to a jury which interpreted and amended borough custom. Bacon suspected (probably unjustifiably) that Ipswich's portmen were originally headboroughs. Gross believed that select councils superseded popular-based leet administration as a general principle. Tait, although rejecting Maitland's theory of a council developing out of the borough court via a process of differentiation of functions, conceded that leet juries might sometimes have set the tone for conciliar development. The essential purpose of councils was to formulate and interpret borough custom and to advise the executive on its application in particular cases; they were thus a check on the executive to prevent abuse of power via misapplication, neglect or ignorance of borough law. In this we see the inquisition jury, the witnesses to recognisances in court, Lynn's Magna Jurata giving judgements in pleas of land (a duty of Maldon's wardemen too), the reference to Lynn's leet court being held by the 24 (1309), the Colchester auditors advising the bailiffs on legal procedure, and the election in 1291 in Ipswich of 24 men (most of them former or subsequent office-holders) "des plus sages et meuz avisez de meime la vylle qe meuz se conussent en les leys e en les usages" to reconstruct from memory the lost custumal. Perhaps Maitland was not so far wrong. The formation of councils seems to have been a gradual process: from semi-formal counselling by those members of urban society most familiar with borough custom and consequently called upon to act in a variety of judicial or semi-judicial contexts; to a more crystalline institution specialising in legislative work in a governmental system where the difference between the judicial and the administrative had become more clearly defined. If we seek the training ground of men who would assume this leadership of their communities, we must look not only to the gilds but to the courts.
The lower council is another matter entirely. Where it appears it is as a deliberate act of creation, although occasionally foreshadowed by earlier selective representation devices. This was so at Norwich, where a Common Council of 60 persons was written into the constitution in 1417 - perhaps preceded by an earlier version 80-large in 1414 - to represent the interests of a community which had lost its electoral control of the upper council, now aldermen. The lower council shows no sign of positive powers but it had the right to block legislation proposals (which it was permitted time to debate) by witholding assent. The assembly roll of 1372 and the custumal both show that specific persons, besides the 24, were summoned to attend assemblies in the reign of Edward III on pain of fine for refusal. However, there is a fundamental difference between this form of representation, enforced from above to ensure that decisions made would receive popular consent, and the Common Council, representation enforced from below to ensure some measure of control over a government that was becoming independent of the will of the governed.
As at Norwich, Lynn's Common Council was a counter-balancing feature of a settlement after a period of constitutional strife. Although its inception is generally accredited to the tripartite indenture of 1420 theoretically dictated by the Bishop, in fact the council had been in existence since at least the 1418 elections, probably the result of a less formal accord of c.1417. Again as in Norwich, representation and voting was on a ward system (3 councillors from each of 9 wards); the names of the jurats are conspicuously absent from the lists of voters participating in elections. The role of Lynn's lower council was more limited than that of Norwich, in that it was expected to attend assemblies only when business touching upon community finances was on the agenda. Furthermore the mayor and jurats could exercise some control over the choice of personnel for the lower council, although it is never seen to be invoked. It is curious that, during the period in which the reform party held power, they arranged that the will of their supporters be expressed in assembly by a prolocutor rather than a second council; perhaps a council was not the inevitable resort of a populace trying to maintain some position in the constitution.
Yarmouth presents much the same picture. A lower council of 48 came to represent the community-at-large in the wake of a diminution of control over the original council; this was part of the constitutional readjustment in 1426, already mentioned. There is no reason to believe, with Palmer, that the 24 wise men "to have syght of merchandizes" chosen by the upper council, dealt with in the 1386 ordinances, was a prototype Common Council. This second 24 was the descendant of a specialised, long-established office provided for in the 1272 ordinances. Fresh ordinances in 1413 make reference only to the upper council.
Colchester's lower council of 16 became a formal part of the constitution as a result of the royal charter of 1462, granting incorporation in the form of the bailiffs, aldermen (now more clearly the superior branch of the upper council) and their 16 colleagues, and the new council. Election of each of the groups of 16 was in the hands of the higher levels of the corporation, but bailiffs and aldermen continued to be elected by the traditional representative committees. The lower council shows no sign of having existed before the 1462 charter; but since its election was not recorded (at least, not in the court rolls) for some time thereafter, we cannot be sure of this.
The inception of a Common Council in Ipswich is harder to pinpoint. The first explicit references are in 1473, when the preamble to a set of ordinances states that it has been the custom in the past for the bailiffs, 12 portmen, and 24 burgesses to govern the town through the General Court; taxes were to be assessed in Ipswich by the bailiffs, 2 portmen, and 2 of the 24 (a type of arrangement also found in Lynn), suggesting that portmen and 24 represented different interests. The register and rolls of the General Court occasionally list the names of burgesses, besides portmen, present at those assemblies; although rarely higher than 24, the number of names does vary and we do not know that the men listed were specifically summoned or obliged to attend. More interesting is a list in the White Domesday of bailiffs, portmen and burgesses "pro communi concilio"; undated, this list was probably copied in c.1453 from an earlier document made before 1445, when the person at the top of the list died. The list is divided into two groups: the first of 17 names, most identifiable as portmen; the second of 23 names. Ordinances in 1447 and 1451 were passed by bailiffs, portmen, burgesses, and the whole community; we might interpret 'burgesses' in the sense of a representative council, but this need not necessarily be so. Ordinances of 1429, on the other hand, were made only by bailiffs and portmen, an arrangement justified by reference to the 1200 proceedings. It therefore seems that a Common Council came into being in Ipswich at some point in the 1430s or '40s, though whether as a specific act of creation perhaps recorded in a now-lost volume, or as a process of evolution from less formal attendance procedures, we cannot say. Nor is there any evidence from that period to show whether twelve of the 24 were the headboroughs who served in the leet court and in property disputes (like Lynn's Magna Jurata), as was the case in the seventeenth century.
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: March 5, 2010||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2010|