Class awareness in the boroughs seems always to have taken a tripartite form, not only in England but in continental towns too. We have noted that the highest of the three classes was described by its attributes of wealth and power. Titles of the other two are not very revealing: mediocres or menes gentz were the middle class, while the lowest class was the inferiores or poveres gentz. In Lynn the latter were the non-freemen residents, but there is no evidence as to whether this was the case or not in our other towns, although a group of pauperes burgenses is seen in 1086 in Ipswich and Colchester, whilst the Norwich bordarii of that time were former burgesses who had fallen on hard times. The three classes were not merely a local perception, for the royal government acknowledged their existence too: in 1378 defining the Norwich upper class as citizens with merchandise, chattels, or lands worth £10 or more. The early fifteenth century Colchester ordinances prescribed that the headmen of the electors should possess real estate worth 40s. annually, or goods to the value of £40. And in the same period at Lynn the jurat qualifications are revealed as being possession of a good character and real estate worth 100s. annually. The same distinction by wealth is suggested in Ipswich in 1452 when the expenses of parliamentary business were assessed on the burgesses, with portmen being assessed at twice the rate of others, and in 1457 when the purchase of a barge was to be made via obligatory contributions of £20 from the bailiffs and portmen and £20 from the remaining burgesses. Behind the setting of wealth qualifications we see a fear of administration falling into the hands of men not capable of the responsibilities and demands of the task, to the ruin of all. In an age when little formal education was available to laymen, capability was judged by success in business - the acquisition of wealth.
In this we see the notion of 'sufficiency', a concept as vague as probi homines. It found expression in constitutional powers of executives or councils to reject candidates thought unsuitable for office. The growing class consciousness, of which conspicuous consumption and the taste for ceremony were symptoms, impressed itself strongly in the belief in the dignity of office. At least as far back as the thirteenth century, to commit an act of violence upon or in the presence of the executive (or even lesser officers) was considered particularly serious; it incurred heavier punishment than normal assault. This may have been partly related to the fact that bailiffs, as officers upholding royal law, were delegated some measure of the privileges of the 'king's peace'. This sacrosanctity came to include verbal attacks on the administration. Public criticism of the character or actions of the town officers was not tolerated, since it was liable to bring disrepute on them. An act of vilification in 1439 resulted in the culprit, Thomas Couper, being expelled from Lynn's Common Council, thrown in prison, and fined 40s. upon release. The poll tax of 1379 assessed mayors at the same rate as knights and the "dom." prefaced to the names of the Ipswich bailiffs of 1284/5 may have been a mark of respect rather than a literal title.
It was certainly in the interests of the ruling class to strengthen the status quo of the social hierarchy. One way of doing this was to introduce liveries: different designs or colours for each grade of the political hierarchy. Care was also taken not to allow persons of undignified occupations to enter the ranks of the ruling class. Bakers, victuallers, taverners, hostelers, and sometimes attorneys were disqualified from election as mayor or bailiff in the fifteenth century. The royal statutes prohibiting election of such men may have been a guard against conflict of interest or the use of office to line one's own pockets. But local ordinances confirming them certainly had in mind that there was something distasteful about these occupations. In Colchester most of the occupational titles so banned were prefaced by the word "common", whilst in 1438 hosteler William Wyth of Lynn was permitted to become a jurat on the understanding that he would, within one year, have acquired an honest house where no common hostelry was held. In 1463 Thomas Antyngham was forbidden to take up the office of Common Councillor of Norwich, to which he had been elected, on the grounds that he was a shoemaker. Tingey believed that, until 1449, only mercers had been permitted to hold the Norwich mayoralty; in fact a hosier was mayor in 1415 and a butcher in 1422. To be fair, we must note that in Norwich provision was made in 1449 for persons elected to overcome ineligibilities by transferring from one craft gild to another; John Aubrey butcher took advantage of this, moving to the drapers gild and subsequently becoming an alderman in 1461. In Colchester and Ipswich it was sufficient for victuallers or taverners to abstain from exercise of their businesses during their terms of office. This state of affairs is in marked contrast to the situation we have already noted a century earlier, when someone like victualler and tavern-owner Thomas le Rente could be a dominant force in Ipswich politics for decades.
The dignity of office was in turn applied to the class that provided office-holders, to the point of creating an urban patriciate, a separate estate. The Norwich rulers were described as venerable citizens and gentz destat; 'venerable' was a term also applied to Lynn's mayor, alderman and jurats (although not to councillors); the most prominent of the jurats were known as the "nobiles de banco". An example of the snobbery that this could engender is seen in Margery Kempe, the proud daughter of John de Brunham of Lynn; she felt she had married beneath her, chiding her husband "that sche was comyn of worthy kenred - hym semyd nevyr for to a weddyd hir, for hir fadyr was sum-tyme meyr ... and sythn he was alderman of the hey Gylde of the Trinyte." The constitutional settlements in Lynn and Norwich in the time of Henry V formalised the separation of the ruling class from the rest of the community by a division of powers; in effect, they recognised that the solution to the previous decades of internal conflict was to be achieved not by reconciling interests but by balancing them.
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