Can we conclude from the predominance of merchants in the ranks of government that those ranks formed a plutocracy? The close connection between power, influence and wealth is suggested by Margery Kempe who wrote, of an attempt c.1432 by prominent Lynn burgesses to lobby for the transformation of St. Nicholas' chapel into a parish church, that
The paryschenys whech pursuyd weryn rygth strong & haddyn gret help of lordshyp, & also, the most of alle, thei wer ryche men, worshepful marchawntys, & haddyn gold a-now, whech may spede in every nede.
Strikingly similar assumptions are seen in Norwich ordinances of 1449, permitting craftsmen who were likely "be wisdom and good governaunce to growe to habundaunce of wordely godes and likely to ber worshipp and astate in the said cite" to transfer from gilds ineligible for office to others which were eligible; but here note the element of mobility. Again we see the notion in the titles applied to that one of the three urban classes which is always the target for complaints, by the other two, of misgovernment. They were known as the potentiores in Lynn, both in the early fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and also as "the rich" in the former period. Those of Norwich were described as "les Riches" c.1326 and as "the more venerable citizens" in 1414. The Colchester reforms of 1372 apparently required that councillors be elected from the wealthiest ("de ceaux que plus ount") burgesses, although our towns have nothing to compare with the early requirement in Exeter (1340) that no-one be elected mayor unless he possess lands or rents worth at least £5.
Historians have perhaps a little too readily embraced the interpretation that the principle of the stewardship of the rich, advocated by the church, was the reality which underlay the diverse administrative systems found in different boroughs. In this view, the wealthier townsman dominated the upper ranks of government while the average burgess had little role in administration outside the leet court. This conclusion is indeed hard to avoid. Meyer's analysis of London aldermen 1377-94 and Bristol councillors of 1381 showed a predominance of members of the wealthier gilds. Hammer's study of the Oxford councillors discovered that there was a definite hierarchy of wealth corresponding to the political hierarchy; if certain gilds were better represented in government, it was because their members were wealthier than those of other gilds - fluctuations in the relative fortunes of trade being reflected in changes in the personnel of government.
Analysis of those of the Lynn office-holders who were jurats shows a noticeably higher ratio of merchants than in the office-holding group as a whole: 249 were jurats, 74% of these being merchants, 11% being artisans with mercantile interests, 3% were purely artisans, 2% professionals, 10% unknown. It was in a lower level of government, the financial office, where artisans were more numerous. The same seems to hold in Yarmouth where, of the 10 men designated only by an artisan occupation, 7 served as chamberlain only, while 3 attained the ballivalty. However, we must beware of assuming, without deeper investigation, that because the power-holders were the wealthier townsmen we have a situation whereby towns were governed by a unified merchant class, or that power was monopolised by the rich as their right. For if we condemn government by the rich then we condemn the governments of most historical civilisations.
There were good reasons why office and wealth should have gone hand in hand: office was a liability with heavy financial burdens that not all could bear, nor could the average townsman afford the spare time, away from fields or business, needed to fulfill official duties; whereas part of the daily work of the wealthier merchant or craftsmaster was performed by deputy. Let us not say that the mantle of power was grasped by the rich, but that it fell on their shoulders. If choice was involved it was perhaps as much a question of opting out as of opting in. John de Whatefeld was by far the richest Ipswich burgess of his time: his tax assessments of 1327 and c.1330 double those of anyone else; one of only three Ipswich men to qualify for a national assembly of "greater wool merchants"; and the owner of considerable property in and around Ipswich. Yet he took ballival office only twice - less frequently than many contemporaries of more modest means. He did not pursue power; he merely did his duty to his community. When we recall that probably a larger proportion of merchants than the records show us began their careers in humbler occupations, we may realize that a more crucial question than whether wealth and power were concomitants is how much mobility there was within the political hierarchy.
Before turning to that question, we must take into account another economic factor which might help us in eliminating some of those officers in the 'unknown' category of our occupational classification: landholding. At Lynn, the most mercantile of our towns, investment in property was correspondingly low; yet sufficient to cause "certain rich men and sufficient having most lands, rents and goods" to refuse to contribute towards a national taxation in 1375, on the grounds that it had been the custom in the past to assess only moveables, not real estate. However, this was probably a relatively small group. For only 10% of the office-holders studied from Lynn is there evidence of investment in urban tenements as a source of rents, or in rural lands as a source of agricultural produce, pasture, or rents. Yet in Ipswich and Colchester more men looked beyond commerce for sources of income: some 30% of our Ipswich group and 50% of the Colchester group had landed interests. In 1341 an Ipswich jury listed sixteen neighbouring vills in which many burgesses of that town held lands, complaining of being assessed (in national taxations) on those lands both in Ipswich and in the vills themselves.
In Colchester particularly, land may be suspected as the principal source of income of some of our 'unknowns'. Many of the Colchester 50% held only the odd field, meadow, grove, or the like in the countryside within a few miles of the borough. The income from such would have been slight - doubtless domestic supplies or market-stall stock was all that was forthcoming. But interest in these lands at least suggests the inadequacy of common rights in the borough fields to fulfill the needs of all individuals; leet court records show burgesses being amerced for overburdening common pastures with their animals.
Of course a large percentage of those in the 'unknown' category is simply the result of inadequate evidence. But there are a number of prominent townsmen for whom evidence is not wanting and yet who still cannot be connected with mercantile pursuits. In 1376, just before entering the ranks of Colchester's administration, William Penne made more secure his tenure of 162 acres of lands and woods in Ardleigh and Elmstead and 84 acres in Thorpe-le-Soken; the income from this source he supplemented by serving as estate administrator for other local landlords. William Buk held a 120-acre estate in West Mersea, as well as property in nearby Great Wigborough, and was involved in sheep-farming before settling in Colchester in 1330. There his interests broadened to include the export of cloth and the retail of wine and ale. However, these trade interests remained linked principally with the products of his estate; he owned several grain-barns near Colchester's port, and in 1362 was investigated (posthumously) on a wool-smuggling charge. Like Penne, he appears to have sold his services to the lord of Langenhoe manor. In 1340 Thomas de Dedham and his first wife bought 75 acres of fields, meadow, and pasture in Dedham, perhaps expanding lands already held there; his second marriage some two years later brought with it the reversion of an even larger estate in Great Oakley, and after this we find him fraternizing with county gentry. The only evidence for an involvement in commerce - debts owed him by a baker, a ship-owner, and two merchants - is inconclusive and not incompatible with the occupation of farmer. Like William Buk, Thomas Godestone was already wealthy in land by the time he entered the franchise (1397), his property centered around his birthplace of Godestone, Surrey. After settling in Colchester he wasted little time in finding a propertied wife. She held three manors within a 10-mile radius of the town, as well as several houses and 48 acres of land within its liberties; much of this she bequeathed to Thomas in 1424. Deed evidence shows him still much involved in property transactions in the last years of his life. Evidence of commercial activities is less conclusive: in 1410 he was trading in small quantities of salt and peas, and towards the end of his life (died c.1431) he was retailing wine and showed interest in having a ship built, a plan which may not have been effected. Administrative work was a more prominent element in his career activities, although his landed interests were probably his main source of income.
Similarities may be seen in the Ipswich cases of Thomas Fastolf and Thomas Denys. The former bequeathed (1452) three manors and other lands in Suffolk and Essex, which one would think to have been more lucrative than his work as attorney in Ipswich. Denys, Fastolf's contemporary and fellow-attorney, held two and a half manors in the countryside west of Ipswich, as well as several properties within the town. Mention might also be made of the Andrew family of Stoke-by-Ipswich, several members of which represented Ipswich in parliament between 1382 and 1449; some pursued legal careers, others branched out into trade, but the lands they held in the neighbourhood of Ipswich gives them the appearance more of gentry than burgesses.
There are no clear trends in investment activities that are general to our towns. Britnell demonstrated a change in the character of the Colchester rulers: in the first half of the fourteenth century their numbers were composed of a mix of landlords, traders, and artisans; but in the second half of the century they were predominantly merchants. Even pre-plague families whose interests lay primarily in land switched their attentions to commerce subsequently. This change he attributed partly to uncertainties about the stability of income from land, but more to the improvement (from the 1360s) of trade prospects. By contrast, Saul's investigations of Yarmouth's leading families indicated relatively low investment in property there before 1349 - and even many of these properties were for commercial use - but heavier investment in the second half of the century in houses and lands (both local and rural) although not in rents. This may be explained by noting that Yarmouth's commerce was at its peak in the former period, whereas much of its mercantile fleet was lost in the '30s and '40s because of piracy and war; in those same decades there were problems with maintaining a navigeable harbour, so that the town went into a slump and many survivors of the plague deserted Yarmouth. The fifteenth century is much more difficult to assess because of the introduction, in the late fourteenth century, of devices such as the 'use' and the feofee syndicate, which mist the glass through which we gaze at property dealings. In fact, through the whole of the Middle Ages it is difficult to know precisely what part of a burgess' income came from land, for there is too little evidence on property values. Local circumstances and individual inclinations combined with the overall economic environment to determine whether a burgess would show more interest in land, commerce, or legal and administrative services, at any given stage in his life. This dabbling, this readiness to seek profit from any opportunity that presented itself, might be interpreted as enterprise or, alternatively, as the caution of not putting all one's eggs in a single basket.
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||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|