Before leaving the subject of the role of commerce in the development of a ruling class, we must examine whether the dominance of merchants suggested by our occupational analysis indicates the crystallisation of a ruling merchant class in the fourteenth century - particularly in Lynn, where the Merchant Gild remained a vigorous institution. So much so that most students of Lynn's history have claimed that borough government there was little more than the gild under a different name. Only Gross stands out against this view. But then he believed that trade played but a minor role in the thirteenth century borough and that the Merchant Gild therefore had not then reached the height of its power, and he also maintained that thirteenth century borough government was democratic; these views could not (as we have seen) be accepted today without considerable qualification.
The main points in the argument of those who have claimed Lynn's government was controlled by the gild are:
These points are, for the most part, true enough. But they are liable to lead to over-interpretation: Hillen painted a picture of the gild as an ultra-conservative closed elite; Ingleby concluded that non-gildsmen were excluded from any say in town government and that jurats, councillors and M.P.s were chosen by and from the gildsmen; Parker declared that mayor and alderman were the same person and that there was a similar identity of other gild and town officers. All this is patently false. Except in the special circumstances provided for by the constitution, the alderman was almost never elected to the mayoralty, and such pluralism was more unpopular with the incumbent than anyone else, because so burdensome. To the contrary, new aldermen were generally chosen from ex-mayors - so one might as well argue that the corporation controlled the gild! It was almost equally rare for gild scabins to serve simultaneously as borough chamberlains. Although most corporation members were also gildsmen, this was not invariably (and therefore not inevitably) the case, nor should we read anything sinister into it; most of the moderately well-off freemen joined the gild, merchants or no. There is no evidence whatsoever that membership was a pre-requisite for borough office. The pre-requisite was rather membership of the franchise and there is positive evidence that this and gild membership were not synonymous. We have already, in chapter 1, dispelled concerns about the manipulation of elections via electoral committees. The use of the gildhall for assembly meetings was a straightforward rental contract and a logical utilisation of a suitable venue already in existence when Lynn obtained self-government. As for the gild's financial influence, some jurats were indeed occasionally debtors of the gild, but their debts were contracted as gildsmen not as jurats. Analysis of the chamberlains' rolls shows that the corporation was seriously indebted to the gild only in 1372/3 (£73, repaid in 1374/5) and in 1404/5 when the debt became a political issue and was repudiated a few years later by the reform party. In the fourteenth century the corporation generally kept its head above water, whilst in the fifteenth it preferred to remain indebted to individuals rather than cover deficits by borrowing from the gild. In fact the gild treasury was semi-public property, the keys to which were held by alderman and mayor. Apart from the special constitutional role of the alderman, who had been the leader of the community in pre-mayoral times, the gild had no formal role in Lynn's administration and there is no evidence that, as an institution, it influenced corporation policy. Meyer was nearer the truth when he said that the "Gild consciousness was official consciousness." The fact that the corporation was dominated by merchants, who also happened to be gildsmen thereby, produced an inevitable identity of interests of gild and corporation. Whether they were inimical to the interests of the rest of the community remains to be seen.
It is the visibility of the gild in Lynn that excites proponents of the gild-corporation theory; yet it is that very visibility which disproves the theory. Had the two merged then we would almost certainly have lost sight of one or the other. This seems to have been the case in some of our other towns, where the gild as an administrative institution in decline was absorbed by the youthful, expanding corporation. Whereas in Lynn the gild was stronger, in a town where commerce was so vital, and it managed to remain independent. In Norwich records a Merchant Gild is barely seen at all; none of the city's charters grant (or recognise) such a gild and in fact that of 1256 prohibits any gild from being held in the city, although this may have been aimed at craft gilds. Norwich has consequently been used as proof that a Merchant Gild was not an indispensable nucleus of the borough in its early days of independence. However, in 1285 Adam de Toftes, one of the most experienced city leaders (8 times bailiff since 1265), was elected alderman of the Hanse, a reputedly ancient city institution in which we almost certainly see the remnant of the gild, its original functions now largely absorbed by the corporation and itself reduced to protecting the interests of Norwich merchants in external fairs and markets.
This theory is strengthened by the Ipswich evidence of 1200, when alongside the machinery of self-government was created (or confirmed) a gild machinery controlled by alderman and four scabins. All burgesses were given the opportunity to join the gild by making a payment to its hanse. To support its treasury, the gild was given a monopoly on the sale of stoneware; Lynn's gild too had a monopoly on millstones from at least the 1280s. It is interesting that gild officials were all portmen, but we should not make too much of this isolated piece of evidence occurring in extraordinary circumstances, nor of the fact that the courthouse was also the gildhall. Parallelism of gild and corporation is further seen in an apparent division of freemen entrants: forinseci, outsiders who were allowed only the commercial privileges of the franchise, paid their entrance fines to the gild; whereas intrinseci, residents of the town, paid not only to the gild hanse but also a fine to the community. Entrances were apparently recorded in gild documents at first, but in the second half of the thirteenth century were transferred to the court rolls and forinseci were said to pay their fines towards the town fee farm. The diminishing importance of the gild is also suggested by its infrequent appearances in later records. In 1325 it transmuted into the socio-religious gild of Corpus Christi and its subjugation is clearly indicated in that gild officers were required to render annual account before bailiffs and portmen. By 1479 the impression received from surviving evidence is that the gild's principal - perhaps sole - function was to organise an annual feast to which every burgess was obliged to come and to contribute towards the costs; this was a memory of a time when the gild was more intimately connected with the concept of community. In connection with this we may note that in 1446 the alderman and scabins were elected by tota villata.
Yarmouth's gild seems to have followed a similar course. By the time that local records appear, in the late thirteenth century, the gild granted in 1208 had declined into obscurity. There is some indication that its hall, in the marketplace, was used by the corporation; although the principal building of the latter was elsewhere. It is possible that a vestige of the Merchant Gild reappears in the fifteenth century in the guise of the Magna Gilda Sancte Trinitatis of which, by the following century, every councillor was required to be a member, and the alderman was the previous year's bailiff. Circa 1435 it was ordained that all Lynn jurats belong to Corpus Christi gild, whilst in Norwich St. George's gild from 1452 (and possibly the gild of the Annunciation previously) took the same role. None of these were Merchant Gilds, although their memberships had always been elitist. In none of our towns is there evidence that office-holding was restricted to members of a Merchant Gild, as was the case in Southampton and Oxford. The service of the gilds was most valuable rather in the nascent borough, before self-government and while an independent administration was in the process of establishing itself.
There were other less obvious legacies of the gild: as the earliest organisational form in the borough it established a tradition of recording routine business and perhaps too machinery for financial administration (treasury, financial officers, an accounting system) subsequently adopted by the corporation. Perhaps most significantly, the concept of the community (defined by membership acquired through explicit application) as a fellowship of peers with mutual loyalties and obligations is an influence that might be traced from gild to borough franchise.
Yet, whatever embryonic sense of a special mercantile interest may have been engendered by the gild - particularly in Lynn - was enhanced by other institutions. First, by the 'estate of merchants' which arose in the first half of the fourteenth century as a rival to parliament, almost threatening to displace it, but declining after the failure of the English customs syndicates, and merging with the Commons by the end of the century. Second, by the staple organisation that was set up in various English towns in the second half of the fourteenth century, and had police and judicial powers over its membership; although independent of borough corporation jurisdiction, its officers were much the same men who dominated borough government. Both of these institution involved wide geographical associations and created the danger that merchants' loyalties (expressed in freeman's oaths) would be drawn away from local to national community, thereby undermining the integrity of the borough. Thirdly, in Lynn, by the merchant assemblies that developed in the fifteenth century; these were to discuss purely mercantile business and only merchants might be present - perhaps symptomatic of a conceptual (and insidious) differentiation of interests of the merchant 'class' and the town. It may be noted that Lynn's constitutional settlement of 1420 provided that the three keys to the chest containing the common seal be kept one by the mayor, one by a jurat, and the third by a councillor elected by all who were merchants. A mercantile interest would no doubt have existed without these institutions, and we should not impose on them too great an impression of unity, for Lynn merchants were divided into parties according to the countries with which they traded - sometimes these groups clashed. But the fact of institutionalisation may have enhanced the awareness of interests separate from those of the non-mercantile members of the community.
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