To determine the extent to which these differences were reflected in the character of borough government, the occupations of the principal governing personnel (as referred to in the introduction) have been analysed. The object of this analysis is not the usual detailed breakdown into types of product/service, but a more behavioural approach intended to suggest type of activity; it is loosely based on the divisions advocated by John Patten.
Problems encountered with socio-economic classification of medieval burgesses are basically twofold. The first is that the distinction between craftsmen and merchants, professionals and gentry, or other combinations, is often a fine line in what was a relatively unspecialised economy. This was what Gross really had in mind when he made the statement quoted in the chapter introduction. The medieval burgess of means was likely to be a jack-of-all-trades. He was a farmer, perhaps no more than to the extent of raising crops and livestock for domestic use, but sometimes on a grander scale, holding extensive fields and grazing-lands outside his town. This alone was enough to draw a man into trade, for a surplus of grain, wool, or other fruits of labour had to be marketed locally or exported. The exporter inevitably imported too; but the merchant was also a tradesman, since goods produced or imported could be retailed for further profit: from shop, market-stall, or tavern. The same holds true of the artisan. The chandler, for example, not only manufactured wax- or tallow-based products, but retailed them and might also himself import the raw materials, financing this by exporting other goods; was he merchant, craftsman, or shop-keeper? Similarly, taverners were almost always vintners and brewers too. It is impossible to ascertain from existing evidence whether a tavern-owner became increasingly heavily involved in brewing ale and importing wine in order to stock his establishment, or whether a vintner acquired taverns in order to retail his merchandise; most probably the three activities went hand-in-glove. We may note also that the trader often provided his own transportation for his trade goods, in the form of carts and ships. Men such as Robert atte Forde of Colchester, whose commercial experience made them wise in the ways of the world - and (consequently) those of the law court - were sometimes disposed to market their knowledge by acting as attorneys, whilst trained lawyers were not disdainful of investing in mercantile ventures. Thus, for example, John Creeke, attorney in Ipswich court c.1451-67, was also a shop-keeper, and the Gilbert Debenhams who represented Ipswich in parliament in the 1450s (the father a prominent member of the Suffolk and Essex gentry, and the son a companion of Edward IV) were both involved in exporting cloth.
An unusually well-documented example of the diversity of activities of the medieval burgess is Thomas le Rente, prominent in Ipswich's government c.1297-1321. Besides his activities in local and national (customs) administration, he was a rentier owning (c.1315) 7 messuages and 12 rents in Ipswich and area; he held substantial lands in the local countryside on which he raised sheep and grain; he owned 6 shops, the probable outlets for his victualling activities; and he was a merchant who owned a cart, a ship and a quay, and perhaps began his career as a fisherman. Enough is known of Joseph Elianore of Colchester, although his career is not as detailedly documented, to illustrate a similar breadth of interests: described as a clerk, he frequently acted as attorney in the town court, but his principal source of income seems to have been from landowning; much of this land was arable but he also had a large sheep flock and may therefore have exported wool; there is also evidence of his involvement in tile-making. How should one classify men such as these, who sought a livelihood and profit from any avenue open to them, striving for as much self-sufficiency as there was scope for in the medieval economy. This same theme is seen in the ubiquitous home-brewing activities, the keeping of livestock within the borough, and the leasing of common pastures, meadows, mills, and ditches. The use of factors was a necessary evil; partnerships were largely precautionary measures prompted by the unstable environment of international trade.
The second problem with classification is that its static character fails to reflect the realities of historical development. A few examples, selected from Lynn, will illustrate this. In one of his earliest appearances in the records, in 1378, John White was paid 3 months' carpenter's wages for work on the construction of a barge for the community; by the 1390s he was regularly involved in importing not only timber and other construction materials, but also wax, linen and ashes, in return exporting cloth. Richard Cosyn entered the franchise in 1428 as a dyer; he is found exporting cloth in 1441. Similarly, Simon Baxter was said to be a brewer at his entrance (1449), but a decade later was known as a merchant, exporting primarily barley, malt and ale, but also cloth and hardware, in return for fish; a namesake, probably his son, entered the franchise as a brewer in 1479. A less logical progression is the case of Laurence de Fordham, the first reference to whom (1313) is as a tailor; but by the time he entered the Merchant Gild in 1335 he had acquired his own ship which he used to import wine. "Cobbler" was the description appended to Adam de Walsoken's name when he became a freeman in 1302; plague-stricken in 1349, he described himself in his will as "merchant" - an enhancement of status witnessed by his two mayoral terms, his involvement in the wool trade and the royal administration thereof, and by the substantial borough real estate he had amassed. This progression from tradesman or craftsman to merchant is invariable, when traceable; but the tendency for documentation to focus on mercantile activities and on individuals at the peaks of their careers doubtless obscures the process in many cases.
In the light of the problems noted above, no sensible classificatory system can accommodate every individual neatly within one of its compartments. It is felt therefore that the basic three divisions used here - of mercantile, artisan, and professional services - are not palpably more misleading than a more discriminating division would be. 'Mercantile' is intended to denote those whose primary interest lay in wholesaling or in furnishing retail outlets with materials requiring a minimum of adaptation by the seller before the sale. The evidence has warranted the inclusion - along with men specifically designated merchants - of vintners, mercers, grocers, spicers, and taverners (but not, generally, brewers). By contrast, 'artisan' indicates, whether it be the labour or the product that is sold, a manufacturing service that alters a material from one form to another; commercial activities, if any, being so slight as to suggest them a mere sideline or being necessary only to supply industrial needs. At the other end of the spectrum, 'professional services' indicates the marketing of an expertise (legal, clerical, medical) without the association of a tangible product. A category of merchants/artisans has been added to show the percentage of office-holders who exhibit involvement in both spheres at some time in their lives. Also a category of gentry, men who on the whole do not concern us, being primarily outsiders serving as M.P.s. In allotting individuals to these categories, use of any inflexible yardstick has been eschewed. It has not been considered sufficient to rely solely on designations found in wills or records of franchise entrances; rather, the whole of the available evidence about each person has been weighed before placement in a category.
The results, as shown in table 1, are a little disappointing in that a large number of office-holders remain of unknown occupation. As regards Yarmouth, a more thorough search than the author had time to perform would improve the statistics; but it is doubtful that any reduction could be made in the unknowns of Colchester, Ipswich, and Maldon. Only in Lynn is that category sufficiently small as to pose no serious threat to interpretation. Nonetheless, some tentative conclusions are readily apparent. There is a more marked preponderance of merchants over artisans in Lynn and Yarmouth. In Ipswich and, particularly, Colchester a more even spread of the three main groups in governmental involvement is suggested. Whilst in Maldon the artisans outnumber the merchants. It should be noted that most of the Lynn artisans identified are from the post-plague period, especially the fifteenth century; this could be interpreted as a mitigation of the hold of the merchant class on borough government, but it is just as likely due to the proliferation of borough records and the increasing tendency to specify trades (a reflection of growing class consciousness?). Occupational analysis by period might therefore prove exceptionally misleading. The biases of the records as a whole make it likely that artisans are under-represented in our calculations.
Having made those provisos, however, it may be added that the results of the analysis should not surprise us, for they conform to conclusions that could be drawn from other evidence about the towns in question. The prominence of merchants in Lynn and Yarmouth seems appropriate for towns which were major ports, foci for international trade, customs centres, and occasionally staple towns. At Yarmouth, which at its peak was probably more prosperous than its larger and more important neighbour Norwich, the herring fishery and the role of the carrying trade meant that shipping was a major interest of the wealthier burgesses. Indeed, as the townsmen petitioned the king in 1347 (seeking a reduction in taxation), Yarmouth, being founded on a sandbank, had no arable lands and the townsmen relied entirely on the profits of commerce. As early as 1298 the crown granted Yarmouth a special exemption on its ships being included in tallage assessments. A few of the wealthiest Yarmouth men owned small fleets, but ships were expensive and it was more common to own just one, or to share ownership with fellow-burgesses. At Yarmouth 54 of our office-holders owned at least one ship and 4 others had shares in ships; at Lynn there were 31 owners and 10 joint-owners, at Ipswich the ratio was 21 and 5, at Colchester 7 and 5.
Yarmouth and (even more so) Lynn are also distinguished by the presence of men whose commerce-acquired wealth led them into the field of financial speculation. One thinks particularly of Yarmouth's Robert de Fordele and William Elys. The former hoped to make a profit from arranging, in 1309, to assume £1213 in debts owed by the Count of Holland to various English merchants (including Robert), but spent the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to recover this money through special tolls on the Count's subjects. Elys, with his trading partner Sir George Felbrigge, farmed Yarmouth's petty customs and subsidies from the crown between 1362 and 1382; his customs activities resulted in his impeachment before parliament in 1376.
Two examples from Lynn are illustrative. Thomas de Melcheburn, with his brother William, built a fortune from huge exports of victuals, made the king indebted to him (in gratitude and in coin) by his many mercantile and other services, and became involved in several syndicates in the 1330s and '40s farming national customs or making a profit from dealing in wool purveyed for the king. John de Wesenham, who began his career as a cutler, similarly became rich from victual exports and won the king's favour through mercantile services; he stepped in to take over the farm of national customs when the Melcheburn syndicate failed to meet its commitments (1345). The careers of Melcheburn and Wesenham parallel again in the attainment of important positions in national economic administration: Thomas as mayor of the Bruges staple (1343-48) and searcher of ships throughout the realm (1345-46), and John as King's Butler (1347-50); and again in involvements with royal purveying and administration of the coinage. They number among the foremost capitalists of medieval England. The lesson learned from the disasters that often befell such financiers, combined with the shrinking economy, resulted in a greater levelling of wealth amongst the merchant class of the later fourteen and fifteenth centuries, so that no fortunes were suddenly made and suddenly lost, and no merchant stood head and shoulders above his fellows.
But these speculators were a small minority. It is clear enough from our figures that merchants were the backbone of the ruling class in all of our towns except Maldon, the smallest and least involved in the network of international trade. None of its officers is known to have owned a large ship and there is little evidence of exporting abroad. Yet even Maldon merchants could run up sizeable debts: John Burgeys owed a total of £26.6.8d in 1412, and £129.6.8d in 1429, mostly to drapers, fishmongers, and ironmongers of London and Essex. Ipswich and Colchester were more important ports (although only the former was a customs centre), but not as close to the coast as Lynn and Yarmouth; it may also be significant that their markets were on land-based routes, whereas those of Lynn and Yarmouth were (originally) adjacent to the ports. Ipswich and Colchester show a very similar occupational division, except for a slightly greater bias towards artisans in Colchester, an early centre of cloth manufacture (notably russet). Of the 33 artisan office-holders, two-thirds were involved in this industry. Analysis of the trading activities of the office-holders also indicates the prominence of cloth, not only of the export trade but also of the cloth-finishing industries in the town, since cloth was also imported. Of the 67 members of the Colchester group for whom some record of trading activities has survived, 51% dealt (in part) in cloth; of these, 19 are seen specifically in exporting contexts and 6 also in importing contexts. By contrast, at Lynn - where cloth was the most common, though not necessarily the largest, item of trade - of the 233 office-holders whose trading activities are evidenced, 54% dealt in cloth but almost all were exporting. At Ipswich cloth was no less important as an item of trade - 53% of 57 traders handled it - but again primarily as an export item. The artisanal group of office-holders is more diverse than at Colchester, only 29% being in crafts handling cloth.
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: October 30, 2014||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2014|