The question of mobility within the political hierarchy, touched upon in the previous chapter, needs to be explored in closer detail. Monopolisation of office by an elite has been a corner-stone in the argument that medieval borough government was oligarchic in character. The records are rarely so explicit as to reveal any conscious policy of monopolisation, despite the restrictive qualifications often placed on candidates for office. Such restrictions might indeed be seen as a manifestation of oligarchy; but they may as easily be interpreted as a desire to have only the most capable men running the administration (which is itself documented) as the expression of oligarchic policy. As most studies of medieval borough history are case-studies of individual towns, errors of judgement are more easily made because of the ambiguity of some evidence; through comparison of evidence from different towns a better perspective can be obtained, with the evidence of each being amenable to interpretation through the insights provided from the combined evidence of all (although this approach too has its pitfalls).
In fact the theory of monopolisation commends itself most to the student upon an initial study of lists of office-holders: browsing through the names, the mind quickly forgets those that appear only once or twice, but remembers those cases in which the same surname appears for several office-holders. The superficiality and dangers of this approach have been hinted at earlier. Although it is usually the case that common surnames indicate a relationship between individuals, this is not always so. There has already been mention of the problems with surnames of Clerk and Smith, whilst Dyer in Colchester is equally commonplace due to the importance of the cloth-fulling industry there. For further example, the relatively uncommon surname of Joye is shared by two Ipswich office-holders - a John and a Richard - for whom there is no evidence of family relationship, and even reason to doubt a relationship; nor is there any indication that the William Debenham and the Gilbert Debenhams, of the same town, were in any way related. We will not waste space with further examples. Again, it does not follow that a single name in lists of officials necessarily represents a single person. Witness Yarmouth's three William de Oxneyes (1350-1427), its three John Elys' (1335-1400), as well as innumerable Fastolfs and Draytons sharing a limited number of Christian names; witness also Colchester's three Henry Bosses (1357-1433) and four John atte Fordes (1312-1467), Lynn's three John Wesenhams (1336-1431) and three Philip Wyths (1331-78). The glancing eye may discern that the wide time-space over which these, and many other shared names, appear indicates more than a single individual; but only close study of the lists and additional data reveals just how many.
Yet, in the end, monopolisation must be a matter of subjective judgement. Certainly we can distinguish a few men who were in office frequently and for continuous periods; but do we judge the whole by the few? And what yardstick does the historian have to say that an individual is monopolising a certain office if he holds it more than once, or twice, or three times ...? Given this, it will be understood that the interpretation presented here cannot help but be open to challenge as personal opinion.
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