Perhaps it is an invalid issue to try and distinguish mercantile and landed interests in the ranks of borough rulers. What we are searching for is the source of political authority and this seems to be, at least in part, wealth - whether that wealth came from land or from trade. Yet the question of burgess land-holding takes on added significance when we look further back in time. The origins of the urban ruling class - whether from Pirenne's itinerant chapmen, Lopez's moneyers, or Hibbert's enterprising landowners and feudal officials - is one of the key unresolved issues of urban historiography. Unfortunately the earliest period of borough independence is poorly represented in the records, whilst before the twelfth century glimpses are rare indeed and historians must rely on Domesday more than they might wish. This problem is not simply one of survival of records, but of the only gradual growth of medieval awareness of the value of a formal archive. Professor Lopez's theory need not detain us, since it is applicable primarily to the continent; the last vestiges of the local minting network in England disappeared in the course of the thirteenth century. But we must address ourselves to the opposing theories of a landed patriciate and a ruling class of traders, remembering that the thegn-worthy sea-crosser of Anglo-Saxon times suggests a merchant class (using that term loosely) to have been present then.
The case of Colchester has been one of the principal battlegrounds of those contesting whether the character of the borough was originally mercantile or agricultural (as though it had to be exclusively one or the other). Arguments have focused partly on Domesday evidence: Round suggested that Colchester at that period had not evolved into a trading community like other boroughs but remained dependent on farming activities; the relatively small population of 276 burgesses shared 1,297 acres of arable or pasture between them, whereas at Ipswich 538 burgesses held only 40 acres. He also pointed to features of charters granted by the king, such as the absence of reference to a Merchant Gild, but instead the grant of hunting and fishing rights. To this Rickword added his interpretation of the evidence of taxation lists of 1296 and 1301, that 80% of the population were involved in growing crops or raising livestock to some extent, and 50% of the population exclusively so. Both sources have since received different interpretations. Tait replied to Round that in fact almost half of the Colchester burgesses of Domesday held houses but no private land, while most of the remainder held small plots of land adequate only for subsidiary income; it was therefore likely that a majority of the burgesses relied on trade for their livelihood. And Britnell has pointed out that the taxation evidence is misleading since it ignores commercial possessions of residents in the hamlets, while the goods of residents in the walled centre of the borough are distinctly more commercial in nature. To this we may add that the Ipswich comparison may also be misleading since, as already noted, the burgesses there customarily had strong landed interests in the vills surrounding, but not technically within the liberties of, the borough. Besides which, the most recent definition of a town holds that occupations of its inhabitants will be variegated, but that a significant proportion - although not necessarily a majority - will live off non-agricultural occupations.
The evidence from the towns here studied cannot hope to solve the question of the origins of the ruling classes of those towns, but we may review it for the little light it sheds. The evidence of the Colchester taxations, referred to above, as well as Ipswich's lay subsidy of 1283, is inadequate due to the bias of those assessments towards agricultural and domestic goods, and other problems traditionally associated with taxation evidence. But there are no other sources for analysing the whole populations; we shall therefore turn to the evidence of individuals. Four prominent Colchester men of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century appear to have been particularly reliant on land as a source of income. Three of them - Warin fitz William, Hubert Bosse, and Elias fitz John - are listed in one or both of the subsidies mentioned above, assessed only on grain and livestock (except for the gown that Elias was fortunate enough to own!). All four not only served as bailiff but also sat in parliament; in fact Elias (16 times M.P.) and Warin (10 times) were among the foremost of the borough's parliamentarians. Part of the landed interests of Elias fitz John Elys derived from his wife's dower rights in manors at Marks Tey and Latton, interests subsequently expanded into Elms Tey and Belchamp St. Paul - his tax assessments there in 1327 being much higher than his Colchester assessment. Britnell has even suggested that Elias may have been only a part-time resident of the borough. Warin fitz William fitz Warin held, in 1306 222½ acres of fields, woods and meadow in Colchester, Lexden, and Milend (most of it held by his father before him), in addition to the land he leased in the borough fields. His listing in the 1307 subsidy strengthens the impression of that of 1301, in accrediting him only with agricultural goods. In 1310 Hubert Bosse was renting a field from Elias fitz John and may have held pasture in Bromfield too. In 1315 he gave up his legal battle with St. John's Abbey for control of land in West Donyland. Family interests remained rooted in the land over the next century, although they broadened into the victualling trades via baking and mill-owning. Our fourth Colecestrian, Joseph Elianore, lived slightly later than the other three and is perhaps the best-known, thanks to his foundation of a chantry in St. Mary-at-Wall church (1341), which he endowed with 100 acres of arable land and woods within the liberties and 100 sheep; granting to the bailiffs, for maintenance of the chantry, further substantial property in town. On various other occasions we encounter references to his property (not inconsiderable) in Greenstead, Ardleigh, Great Wigborough, Salcott, and Layer Breton, and to his orchard in the suburbs.
None of these men exhibit much sign of commercial activity, although Elianore's tilekiln was evidently put to use, and fitz William had a shop in Colchester market. We must expect that land-holding burgesses would at least market part of their own produce. On the other hand, the four share an involvement in administrative or legal work beyond borough office-holding. Fitz William, whose father was a clerk, acted as attorney for his community in a plea brought against it by the abbot of St. John's. Fitz John also appears in the contexts of clerk and attorney. Elianore, yet another clerk, often acted as pledge and attorney and was bailiff of the Colchester properties of the rector of Tendring, John de Colcestre, in December 1312 when he (Joseph) and Hubert Bosse acted together as pledges for dom. John. Bosse was retained as a counsellor to the Abbey of St John's. Nor do the coincidences end here. Elianore held lands of fitz John and fitz William, whilst Bosse held land of fitz John. Even more curious, all were at one time or other referred to by the surname 'de Colcestre', and it is not impossible that all were distantly related members of a single family of long-standing importance not merely in the borough, where their common surname would have been meaningless, but also in the local countryside. It is interesting that their usual surnames are all patronymics or matronymics, rather than the locatives that would be more likely were any of the four from immigrant families. Support for this theory also comes from a tantalising piece of evidence in the document recording the foundation of Elianore's chantry, whereby he required the chantry priest to celebrate for the souls of himself, his parents, (his wife?) Philippa, John (de Colcestre?), Hubert (Bosse?), and Elias (fitz John?).
In Ipswich too, many leading townsmen supplemented their shares in the large areas of intramural and suburban arable and pasture with land-holding further afield. In the case of Thomas le Rente this may have been a way of increasing trade stock, for Thomas was already involved in the victualling trade (notably fishing) when he first appears in the 1280s. He acquired, principally during the reign of Edward II when his political career was at its peak, 142 acres in Stoke-by-Ipswich, 80 acres in Wherstead, 220 acres in Little Wenham, and 142 acres lying around several villages to the north of Ipswich. In 1324 an extent of his property, taken posthumously, revealed that 54 acres of his land in Stoke was sown with crops of barley and rye worth £37, whilst the pasture there doubtless hosted his 80 sheep. The extent paints a fine picture of his business activities: he had in storage quantities of wheat, barley, malt, pork, and beef worth £11.5.3d, and his business equipment included the articles that we would expect to find in the brewery and bakery which are mentioned, as well as several fish-traps, containers for salting meat, and numerous seats, tables and plates, suggesting that one or more of his shops may have been taverns. What the document cannot tell us is whether local farming and retailing activities drew le Rente into the wider sphere of commerce (as Thrupp has noted was a natural progression), or whether originally mercantile interests prompted him to self-supply of merchandise. There is no evidence that any of le Rente's lands were inherited, although his father was also in the victualling trade. A similar, if less well documented, case is that of Robert de Orford, several times bailiff of Ipswich during the last decade of the reign of Henry III and the first of that of Edward I. Like the Colchester cases already looked at, his tax assessment (1283) was on little more than grain and livestock; he is known to have held lands in Caldwell, Tudenham and Rushmere. Referred to as a clerk, there is no evidence of any mercantile activity, although he was overseas in 1271 on business unknown; but, like le Rente, he owned a bakery and brewery along with several rented properties. His daughters received, when Robert died, bulls, sheep and malt as their inheritance.
More interesting is Robert's contemporary Vivian fitz Silvester, since his family was of long-standing prominence in the borough. As bailiff (10 times 1270-95) he was following not only in the footsteps of his father Silvester fitz Wakelin fitz Norman (bailiff at least 3 times around the middle of the century), but also of Wakelin's brothers John fitz Norman and William de Beaumes, Ipswich's first two bailiffs in 1200, and of other members of the family John de Beaumes and Geoffrey fitz William de Beaumes (bailiffs during the second quarter of the thirteenth century). Although the evidence for the pre-Edwardian period is scant, a little is discoverable of this family, which we may suspect played a helmsman's role in directing the course of Ipswich's constitutional development at a crucial point. Wakelin fitz Norman was also known as Wakelin de Bramford and a Sir Hubert de Bramford, justice of assize in Suffolk and Ipswich in 1200 and 1223-24, witnessed (together with Wakelin's afore-mentioned brothers and his sons Nicholas and Silvester) a land transaction of Wakelin; Hubert and the sons of Norman appear together as witnesses on other occasions too. Peter Norman held land in Bramford c.1255. The sons of Norman had a joint interest in 30 acres in Sprouton in 1206, whilst it seems that their mother had held three-quarters of a knight's fee in Leicestershire. The fact that Geoffrey de Beaumes was knighted suggests land-holding in the county, yet he also held a tavern in Ipswich. John de Beaumes was an attorney on behalf of county land-owners in 1229 and 1230; both men were benefactors of Ipswich's Priory of SS. Peter and Paul. William de Beaumes, on the other hand, was a ship-owner active in the coastal trade of grain and herring (1226). Another member of this most interesting family, a further son of Wakelin fitz Norman, was known as Ianusius Mercator, although whether he was in fact involved in commerce as his name suggests, is unknown. There is no direct evidence of land-holding for Vivian fitz Silvester, although his father held land in Thurston and Surneston, and a family with the surname Vivian was settled in Bramford in the first half of the fourteenth century; on the other hand, he was taxed in 1283 only on clothing, domestic utensils, a horse and malt, and his only known association with commerce was the butcher's stall he held. The evidence is inconclusive, but at least suggests that the prosperity and authority of one of the earliest traceable families prominent in Ipswich were founded on land-holding.
It is far more difficult to trace the lineage of Colchester families back through the thirteenth century. A large number of deeds are preserved in the cartulary of St. John's Abbey but, due to the prevalence of patronymics in a period when surnames still tended to change from one generation to the next, it is rarely possible to determine whether the bailiffs of Edward I's time came from families long-established in the borough. Elias fitz John appears to have been the son of the John fitz Elias who, with his brother Oliver, were prominent townsmen in the 1250s. Whether this line can be traced back to the beginning of the century in the persons of a Thurstan and his son Elias, as Benham claimed, is less certain; whilst to suggest that the Oliver family (which provided Colchester with officials in the early fourteenth century in the persons of Robert Oliver and his brother's son John Jordan) might be a branch of the same tree would be pure speculation.
At Yarmouth we may reasonably suspect (but no more) that William Thurkild, bailiff in 1316, was one of the later members of a family that provided the town with at least three other bailiffs in 1221, 1269, and 1270, and lasted there until mid-fourteenth century. We may similarly suspect that the Drayton family, very prominent from the time of Edward I to that of Henry IV, may have a forebear in shipowner Robert de Drayton, seen in 1230. A William Rose captained, with Robert Turkil, the Yarmouth fleet in 1242 and may be the shipowner of Little Yarmouth mentioned in 1230. We may have more confidence in associating the Yarmouth family of Gerberge - a name not derived from 'Yare bridge' or 'Yarmouth burgh' as some have hypothesised - with Gerberga, a townswoman of sufficient prominence that the king awarded her custody of rebels' lands in 1216. From her descended two notable lines: the Charles family, founded by her son Charles fitz William, alias de Jernemuth, whose interests lay as much in the county as in the town; and the Gerberge family, which provided several bailiffs (the first being William fitz Gerburg' c.1208) during the course of the thirteenth century, but gradually moved into the ranks of the Norfolk gentry.
Ipswich's Leu family is traceable through its earliest visible member, Roger fitz Lyu. Coroner and portman in 1200 and subsequently bailiff (date unknown), Roger was one of the wealthiest townsmen in 1228 thanks to his trading activities in his two ships. His son Hugh was bailiff in 1255 and 1269 and had one of the highest tax assessments in 1283, principally on a large trading stock of agricultural produce, some of which he may have raised on his lands in the vicinity of Ipswich. The several members of the family who appear in borough office during the fourteenth century were Hugh's descendants.
There is less indication of long-standing families in Lynn. The Belvaco family produced a number of officials. The earliest, Michael de Belvaco, appears to have been alderman of the Merchant Gild in 1223. Another, Stephen, was scabin of the same in 1249 and c.1265. Two others were mayors: Bartholomew in 1257, James in 1268 and c.1271. The family of Alexander Kellock, mayor c.1266 and alderman 1268, may be traced back through gildsman Ralph Kelloc, who lived in the reign of John, to Richard Chelloc, resident of Lynn in 1165. However, there is nothing to connect it with the chamberlain of 1428, William Kellowe. The family of John Lamberd (M.P. 1312) may be traced back to the early thirteenth century; Richard Lambert, probably John's father, was alderman c.1271 and earlier family members were also associated with the Merchant Gild. It is curious therefore that in 1302 John was exempted from paying local tax (assessed only on trade goods) when he took oath that "nullis catallos habuit in mercandisa".
In chapter 1 it was suggested that the men who took the reins of borough self-government at its initiation were those who had already acquired influence and administrative experience. Their influence doubtless derived from a social status dependent on wealth, but whence this wealth we cannot say. Land-holding and commerce both seem to have played roles from the time of our earliest evidence. In Ipswich and Colchester land may have been a more important foundation of wealth and social prestige at first, whereas in Yarmouth and Lynn trade was more probably the prominent factor; even Lynn's first mayor, Robert fitz Sunolf, appears as a merchant, exporting grain as an agent of the Bishop of Norwich. Lynn's case may owe something to the strong foreign immigrant element in its upper class. But it would be dangerous to assume that a cohesive merchant class existed in thirteenth century Lynn, just as it would a yeoman or rentier class in Colchester or Ipswich. The correlation between prominence in civic government and a landed power-base, in terms of ownership of large blocks of urban property, particularly when concentrated in a particular neighbourhood, is something on which closer study might throw more light, in regard at least to Lynn and Ipswich.
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 27, 2010||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2010|