Turning first to the executive office, analysis of the executive personnel of Colchester, Ipswich, and Lynn, indicates that the average number of times mayoral office was held in Lynn was about twice, ballival office in Ipswich a little more than three times, ballival office in Colchester three times. At Lynn the average decreased over the course of the later Middle Ages, at Colchester it increased, at Ipswich it remained about the same; none of the changes is very great. These figures do not appear (to the author) to be excessive, but it must be remembered that averages are artificial statistics. About 45% of the 301 persons subject to this analysis held executive office only once, and they are balanced by a much smaller group whose members held office six, ten, a dozen or more times. There is no discernible pattern and certainly nothing that might suggest that an elite was shuffling around executive office between its component members over the course of the years. Individual inclination appears to be a greater factor in determining the number of times office was held. If we are to search for any elite, then it must be thus: in Lynn those who held executive office 3 or more times form a small group of 25 persons (27% of the Lynn group) who occupied 51% of the office-spaces; at Ipswich those in office 6 or more times form a group of 20 persons (19%) occupying 48% of the spaces; at Colchester those in office 5 or more times were a group of 19 persons (19%) occupying 52% of the spaces. But these statistics are hardly grounds for any charge of conspiracy to monopolise: this 'elite' was distributed over many generations, fairly evenly between the three periods adopted for analysis in Lynn and Ipswich, although at Colchester the members of the 'elite' are markedly more in evidence after 1349. We should bear in mind that Lynn had only a single mayor, whereas there were two executives in each of Colchester and Ipswich. It is therefore interesting that approximately the same number of persons held the executive office in each of these three towns - perhaps hinting that, in these towns of similar population size, there were a limited number of suitable candidates for mayoralty or ballivalty. Maldon presents a slightly better case for monopolisation. The list of bailiffs there is complete between 1416 and 1450: 70 office-spaces held by 17 persons, an average of about 4 times each; 6 of these men also held the ballivalty outside this period and, were we to take their whole careers into consideration, the average would be 6 times - conceivably reducible if we knew how many others were executives in the same period. However, in Maldon the choice of candidates was even more limited than in our other towns, partly due to population size, partly to constitutional peculiarities which shall be mentioned later.
Frequency of office-holding was sometimes compounded by pluralism. The case of the Ipswich administration of 1200 has been cited as an example of pluralism and, thereby, a closed corporation: the bailiffs were also coroners, portmen, customs collectors, and clavigers; the other two coroners were also portmen, and one was a claviger; other portmen served also as gild alderman and scabins. We must beware of taking this initial, experimental arrangement as typical of later times or as representative of any philosophy of government. Judging from later evidence, the bailiffs were ex officio members of the town council, as was the case with Lynn's mayor in the fifteenth century and its alderman throughout. In the time of Henry VI it was a deliberate policy that one of Ipswich's bailiffs act as one of the clavigers (with the other usually taking on the escheator's duties) - again this was the case with Lynn's mayor; it was simply part of the system of constitutional checks and balances. The bailiffs were also ex officio customs collectors, in their role as borough accountants. It was not, after 1200, the practice for bailiffs also to be coroners, although it occasionally came about; these exceptions may have constituted a genuine abuse of principle, given the supervisory functions of the coroner, and it is interesting that in 1364 the king ordered that Huntingdon's coroner be replaced on the grounds that he had just been elected bailiff of the borough. There is insufficient information about Ipswich gild officers to ascertain whether they continued to be selected from the portmen; in Lynn, at least, there was a clear separation of the gild and borough offices and in 1469, when alderman Walter Cony was elected mayor, he accepted the office only on his insistence that the doubling of office not set a precedent for future electors to follow.
There are some suspicious cases combining monopolisation and pluralism in Ipswich. Thomas Stace was bailiff during 18 of the 26 years between 1295 and 1321 and was also coroner in one of the years when bailiff, as well as ten times M.P. in the same period. His effective partner in office, Thomas le Rente, was bailiff during 12 of the 24 years between 1297 and 1321, coroner during several other of those years (one when bailiff), and twice M.P. When this pair was thrown out of office in 1321, one of the charges against them was monopolisation via the device of secret elections. Their opponents and successors were little better: John Irp was coroner continuously from 1329 to 1343, yet held the ballivalty 5 times during this period and on 6 other occasions; John de Preston was 12 times bailiff and 14 times coroner between 1325 and 1356, often holding both offices in the same year. At Colchester one John atte Forde was bailiff 8 times and M.P. 5 times (on each occasion returning his own name on the writ of summons) between 1350 and 1375. It is possible that his example was one of the factors prompting the 1372 reforms, after which we find no further examples for a while of men re-elected bailiff in consecutive years. But apart from these few cases there is no evidence of deliberate self-perpetuation in power. This is not to say that it did not occur on other occasions, but we cannot ignore the possibility that lack of suitable (or willing) candidates is sometimes responsible for apparent monopolisation and even pluralism.
It may be suggested that ordinances restricting the frequency of office-holding represent a response to excessive monopolisation; but again there is more than one interpretation that can be given to this evidence. It is not clear whether Colchester's 1372 ordinance, that bailiffs should be changed every year, actually falls into this category or merely emphasises the constitutionality of annual election. Receivers were also to be replaced annually, but only if the community wished to do so. At Ipswich it was specified in 1320 that different men be elected as chamberlains from one year to the next; but, apart from insisting on public elections, no steps were taken to limit the frequency of holding ballival office - not until the ordinances of 1429/30 established a 2-year interval. It may be doubted that such a limitation on ballival office-holding would have suited the underlying ambitions of the reform party leaders. In the complaints of 1414, the Norwich prudeshommes charged that the popular party had maintained William Appleyard in the mayoralty over consecutive years, whereas custom required that there be a 4-year interval between office-holding. This may not reflect the original idea behind the custom, which was once capitula 53 (the main text now missing) of the city custumal and which was probably ordained about the same time as chapter 50, which forbade men elected as bailiff to refuse the office; the interval between offices was perhaps intended to lessen the burden of duty - although had the order of these chapters been reversed, another interpretation might suggest itself. The same reason must lie behind the fact that no man was elected as sheriff - the office with the heavy responsibilty of ensuring payment of the fee farm - more than once in his lifetime. A 3-year interval between ballival office was set in Maldon, but not, apparently, until the 1555 charter in the context of creating a closed corporation. Nor is there any regulation to this effect in Yarmouth until 1491, when a 5-year interval was prescribed; the hefty fine for transgressing candidates suggests that, here at least, the target was monopolisation. A 5-year interval is also seen in Lynn, imposed on the mayoralty in 1455, but ordinances of 1358 set a 2-year interval. In the latter case it was clearly specified that the interval was not a prohibition but an exemption in consideration of the burden and expense of office; at the same time chamblerlains were permitted a 2-year exemption. This 1358 ordinance, like that (roughly contemporary) which was put into Norwich's custumal prescribing a four-year interval, was similarly associated with penalties set for refusal of office; the Lynn assembly subsequently voided these ordinances (c.1395). On the whole, the evidence suggests that intervals between office-holding were intended as a protection of those liable to be elected rather than a check against monopolisation, at least until the late fifteenth century. As the latter, the setting of intervals would have had little effect anyway, since other offices or a role in the council were generally available to former executives in interim periods.
Parliamentary elections, and re-elections, have attracted the notice of many historians and, although it has been suggested (probably correctly) that they were not as important an issue to medieval townsmen as to modern scholars, we may look at them briefly. But we need not enter into the arguments as to how 're-election' should be defined, nor whether all those who were elected actually attended parliament; it is sufficient here to know which burgesses were considered suitable to represent their boroughs. Again the subject is one in which it is easy to look at lists of M.P.s and then jump to conclusions. McKisack was the main proponent of the theory that experience was a major factor in the choice of M.P.s, as indicated by re-elections and by the prevalence, in the ranks of M.P.s, of men familiar with local administration. Lawson and Roskell went on to conclude that this showed that oligarchic closed corporations were controlling borough elections to ensure that their own selfish interests were represented; Houghton has declared that, tempore Henry VI and Edward IV, the Yarmouth bailiffs monopolised one of the borough's seats; and Rickword (pre-McKisack) asserted that every Colchester M.P. was selected from the corporation.
Such dogmatic conclusions are not forthcoming from an analysis of the parliamentary personnel of the six towns studied here. In fact the conclusions therefrom are much as those drawn from our analysis of the borough executives. Just over half the M.P.s sat only once, whereas a smaller group of around 10%-20% (a little higher in Colchester) were re-elected several times. In the fourteenth century town clerks were among the burgesses most frequently elected, for parliamentary attendance was generally seen as a routine affair of observing and reporting - a task for which trained clerks were particularly suited - not involving much initiative. One is inclined to suspect that Maldon's William de Pakelesham, who attended 14 parliaments 1332-44 (all but one in which Maldon was represented) may have been town clerk just from this evidence alone. There is no common pattern in the development of this elite of veterans. In some towns there was a lesser, in others a greater, tendency for re-election as the later Middle Ages progressed. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards the majority of M.P.s were indeed men who had previously served at a policy-making level of borough government - natural enough choices, since their familiarity with borough problems, goals, and resources allowed them to be intelligent observers and, if necessary, participants; but this majority was not as high in Ipswich and Yarmouth as in Lynn, Colchester, or Norwich.
There remains a surprisingly large number of M.P.s - mainly in the pre-1349 period, but also visible later - who did not participate in borough administration during their parliamentary 'careers'; most never had any role in borough government. This is only partly explicable by gaps in the records and by the fifteenth century influx of outsiders into borough parliamentary seats. There was probably no consistent policy concerning selection of M.P.s. A careful study might throw light on whether the status of men elected was influenced by the perceived importance (that is, relevance to borough affairs) of the business anticipated or conducted at each parliament. An added complicating factor is that M.P.s sometimes were tasked with the conduct of other town business at the place where a parliament was held, although not necessarily connected with parliamentary matters; this might also influence the selection of a representative (and certainly did in many cases when town clerks were selected). Although present or former bailiffs and mayors were popular choices as M.P.s - as the wealthier townsmen they could better stand the shock of returning from parliament to discover that their boroughs could not pay their expenses! - there is no sign in any of our towns of an arrangement such as that at Northampton; there it was ordained in 1382 that every mayor should serve as M.P. to the parliament next following his mayoralty - again perhaps suggesting the burden of service.
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: January 26, 1999||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|