There were clearly many avenues to advancement and it is difficult to view the urban upper class as a closed caste. A further socio-economic trend to be considered is the defection of leading burgesses into the ranks of the gentry. In fact this was a two-way movement, with junior members of knightly or armigerous county families taking an interest in towns and trade. George (later Sir George) Felbrigge, of a junior branch of the Norfolk family, farmed Yarmouth and Ipswich petty customs 1362-99. At Yarmouth he was the friend and trading partner of William Elys, his fellow farmer; at Ipswich he had associations with Richard de Martlesham, deputy customer there and his father-in-law, as well as with probable relative John Felbrigge mercer, later coroner and M.P. Lynn mayor Thomas Curson was a member of the Norfolk family that provided a county sheriff in the reign of Richard II; as such, he had interests in manors in Norfolk and Hertfordshire. The Arnulph de Mounteney who was bailiff of Colchester(1319/20) was probably a son of the knight of the same name who held lands in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Hertfordshire, and who granted some in Gyng Mountnessing, to Arnulph junior in 1321; after which time the latter appears no more in Colchester. Veteran Colchester M.P. John de Ratlesden, possibly a member of the family holding estates on the Suffolk and Essex borders, was married to Margery de Mounteney. Thomas Astley esq., the Ipswich bailiff, inherited several Norfolk manors from his father, the knight of the same name, and acquired property interests in Colchester by his marriage to the widow of Andrew Beche. Thomas Wetherby, the central figure in the party conflicts that brought Norwich to its knees in the 1430s and '40s, was probably another of these men. He became a freeman there in 1416 but was already using the city as a base for mercantile activities in 1413 when he bought property at Cringleford. In the same year he is seen as the holder of Hellesdon manor and was a participant in the election of county M.P.s. His brother was established as squire of Wicklewood, but also later became a freeman of Norwich. By 1440 Thomas was lord of the manors of Welborne, Brondale, and Intwood and held land at Swerdestone. He had associations with Sir Thomas Tuddenham, John Heydon, and John Jenney (whose father-in-law he was), won the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Suffolk, and was an executor of Bishop Wakeryng of Norwich. At the end of his life he retired into quarters in Carrow priory, and was buried in Norwich's Augustinian friary - a choice more typical of gentry than burgesses.
More numerous than the gentry-become-townsmen were the burgesses who fraternised with the gentry. In some cases it was a question of the mercantile skills of townsmen being put to use by gentry. Ipswich's Richard Felawe, who himself held lands in both Norfolk and Suffolk at the time of his death (1483) and whose daughter married into the Fastolf family, was the agent in this respect for Sir John Howard the future Duke of Norfolk. Simon Pygot, one of Lynn's foremost merchants c.1440-60, similarly acted as the exporting agent of the Earl of Suffolk. Lynn mayor Henry Thorisby merchant, holder of lands at Ashwicken and feoffee to use for Norfolk esquires, produced as his offspring: Robert Thorisby, who entered the franchise as "gentleman" (1457) and who was trading partner of Simon Pygot; and Thomas Thorisby, who entered the franchise as merchant (1474), kept several sheep-farms in the vicinity of Lynn, held lands in Northamptonshire (possibly once of Henry Thorisby) and was creditor and executor of Lord Rivers. In other cases the links arose out of marriage arrangements. Yarmouth bailiff Roger Gavel married the daughter of Walter de Cain and in 1321 purchased from him the lordship of Kirby-Cane; his heirs put aside their Yarmouth interests, which can be traced back through several generations, to concentrate on building up their county holdings. John Perbroun, merchant, fisherman, admiral, and bailiff of Yarmouth, married his daughter to Sir John le Gros of Sloley. The marriages of Elias fitz John and Thomas de Dedham of Colchester to the widows, respectively, of Henry de Merk and John de Daniswelle brought them county lands and a passport into county society, whilst Thomas Godestone's wife brought to her marriage the manors of Ramsey and East Newland. Robert Toppes, mayor of Norwich, acquired a manor at Great Melton, of which his son subsequently became the lord; his daughter was married first to merchant William Fen of Yarmouth, who held lands at Worstead, and later to Thomas Lovell esq. of Barton Bendish.
But most commonly gentry associations were the consequences of the acquisition of land in the county, although it might be misleading to claim that achievement of the former was the purpose of the latter. We should interpret the building-up of estates, both within and without the towns, as a sensible investment by men who sought a steady source of income to guard against the vicissitudes of mercantile ventures. Investment of trade-acquired wealth in land was a practice stretching back as far as surviving records will show us. The dual interests of the fitz Norman/Beaumes family of Ipswich has already been mentioned. Richard Leu, of a family equally ancient there, was an executor of Bishop Salmon of Norwich in 1325, married one of his daughters to Sir John de Castone, and held ¼ knight's fee in Rushmere, ¼ knight's fee in Parva Bresete, and lands near a dozen other local vills, some once of his father Hugh. Richard's lands were sufficient to qualify him for knighthood, a burden he resisted initially but unsuccessfully. Philip Harneys, the second wealthiest man in Ipswich in 1283, also held several ½ knight's fees and other lands, both in Suffolk and Essex, at a slightly later period. At Yarmouth particularly, the limited real estate available within the borough and the instabilities of trade encouraged investment in external estates. Ralph Ramsey, frequently bailiff and M.P. of Yarmouth, where he had mercantile interests, built his career on his role as esquire to Henry Bolingbroke and other services to him when Henry IV. He held lands in Suffolk and Norfolk and was sheriff of the same in 1403 and 1408. He has more of the gentleman than the townsman about him. The same could be said of Hugh Fastolf who, besides his considerable trading activities, held lands at some twenty locations in Norfolk and Suffolk totalling over 1000 acres. Indeed, the Fastolf family as a whole, whose earliest manifestations are in Yarmouth at the beginning of the reign of Edward I, by the mid-fifteenth century had undergone a quite prodigious expansion, with branches urban and rural throughout East Anglia, at Caister, Oulton, Gapton, Nacton, Okewell, Ipswich, and London. The family had produced numerous esquires, several knights including the famous Sir John Fastolf, and a few high-ranking churchmen; its marriage alliances had brought contacts with gentry families such as the Parks, Tibetots, Felbrigges, and Holebrokes.
Since the men who occupied the highest rank in borough government shared the attribute of being among the wealthiest of the burgesses, it is not surprising that many are found to have sunk capital into property. Of the 1142 office-holders investigated in Lynn, Ipswich, Colchester and Yarmouth, 204 are known to have made substantial investments, 54 of them in real estate within their towns, 124 in lands within the local neighbourhood of the town, 71 in lands further afield. Five of them were knighted, 20 were esquires, 13 were known as gentlemen, 6 as yeomen, most of these titles being found in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Few of these men came from Lynn, where trade remained a more dominant interest than in our other towns. Although in 1434, when all the Norfolk notables were required to take a special oath to uphold the peace, listed together with the knights and esquires of the county are a large proportion of the Lynn and Yarmouth ruling classes. The effect of investment in land, intentional or no, was to draw away leading townsmen - or, more often, their heirs - from the towns into the countryside. John de Preston and his son Robert were among the most prominent Ipswich leaders from 1324 to 1375; but Robert's son John, inheriting lands acquired by his father in Barking, Bramford, Tattingstone, Darmsden, Needham Market, Codenham, and Willisham, abandoned the town to become a country squire and died fighting on the losing side at Shrewsbury (1403). Having inherited his father's manors of Whatefield and Ramsholt, Thomas Denys junior showed no inclination to follow Thomas senior into service in Ipswich's government. This movement was simply part of the upwards trend of migration and, as such, contributed to creating openings for new men in the ranks of the urban upper class. On the other hand, the intermixing of interests of gentry and wealthy townsmen acted as a further wedge driven into the increasing gap between the urban rulers and ruled.
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 31, 2014||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2014|