There is one more aspect of the question of monopolisation that must be considered: what proportion of the population was involved in office-holding? As far as the total populations of our boroughs is concerned, there is no point in discussing in any depth evidence which has been fully exploited by others and which can never be considered satisfactory or conclusive. After Domesday we rely on taxation lists. The earliest is that of Ipswich in 1228, which names 475 inhabitants - even those whose tax was assessed at nil were listed. Taxation records of 1283 listed 275 persons; those of 1327, 210; and those of 1340, 198. Of the Colchester taxations of 1296 and 1301 the latter is more complete, since there are no detectable exemptions; it lists just under 400 residents, 263 being males, but includes the four hamlets within the liberties, most of whose residents should not properly be considered townsmen. In Colchester's 1319 subsidy 168 laymen, and in that of 1332 153 laymen, are listed from the same broad area. The 1332 subsidy also produces figures of 149 persons from Lynn, 281 from Yarmouth, and 417 from Norwich. These numbers contrast starkly with the poll tax returns, although these were counting slightly different things from the earlier subsidies. In 1377 the number of residents over 14 years old was 3,127 at Lynn, 2,955 at Colchester, 1,941 at Yarmouth, 1,507 at Ipswich, and 3,952 at Norwich. The 1381 poll tax is far less reliable, due to evasion; although, for example, the Ipswich return lists 963 persons, the annalist Bacon had seen a local list for the same containing 1,188 names.
Difficulties of interpretation focus on determining what proportion of the total population is represented by those taxed; but there are no clear guides here. Consequently, the 1377 evidence for Lynn was used by Cutts to hypothesise a total population of 4,700, whilst Parker used it to suggest a pre-1349 population of 5,700; on the other hand, Clarke and Carter calculated from it a total population of 5,546 and a pre-1349 population of 9,000. It is evident that we cannot come closer than very rough approximations. The thing to bear in mind is that the populations of medieval boroughs were very small by modern standards. Except at Yarmouth, where space was somewhat limited - producing the curious thoroughfare system of 'rows' - we find plenty of open ground within our towns. At Lynn the residential area was markedly concentrated in that half of the intra-mural territory next to the river. Waste-land was periodically leased out by the borough authorities, but this was often to men who already held a residence in the town, and simply wanted to expand their holdings. No-one would deny that the pre-plague population, the product of a boom period, was higher than that of the post-plague period, but there has not been enough work to allow us to ascertain how fast and to what extent plague losses were made up by immigration.
However, for the purposes of this study, it is not so much the total population as the freeman population which concerns us. Green believed that Lynn was unique in having a community composed of both freemen and non-freemen, but it is simply that in Lynn the inferiores were specified as non-burgesses; since other such groups elsewhere were described as the poorer residents, it is likely that they were the ones who could not afford the freeman entrance fine. The existence of non-freeman groups is evidenced in our other towns too: in Yarmouth's custumal, which required borough laws to be obeyed not merely by every freeman but all inhabitants; in Colchester by the insistence (1373) that everyone living in the town for a year, be he burgess, foreigner having his livelihood in the town, or foreigner who frequented the town to trade, must contribute to local taxations; in Ipswich by various fifteenth century ordinances made by the authority of, or binding upon, bailiffs, portmen, intrinsic burgesses, forensic burgesses, and other inhabitants of the town. The precise basis for entrance to the franchise is not sufficiently clear in the records and may have varied from borough to borough. This makes it difficult to determine what proportion of the population were freemen. At Yarmouth there is no extant record of entrances before the reign of Henry VI; 168 burgess entrances are recorded in the 28 years between 1429 and 1461 from which records survive, an average of 6 annually - not very high. Householding played some part in qualification, since all freemen were expected to be distrainable; if so, then the fifteenth century specifications that freemen were to be householders may not be quite the restrictive manipulation of the electorate as that it is sometimes painted. Nor is it necessarily true that variation in entrance fine indicates similar manipulation to exclude undesirables, since fines were sometimes graduated according to the means of the applicant; whilst in Ipswich, at least, the freeman community had the power to reject applications by persons of poor reputation, without resorting to manipulative devices. At Ipswich the invitation in 1200 to contribute to the Merchant Gild hanse may have been tantamount to entering the franchise, but it was optional; at mid-century the ancient specification of being at scot and lot - that is, contributory to communal finances (which generally involved householding) - was stressed. At Colchester, however, it seem that householding was not initially a qualification, but that all born within the liberty had the right to enter the franchise without fine.
This last case has been the cause of problems, both for the Colchester authorities and the historian. Some townsmen simply assumed the burgess privileges, to which they were entitled by birth, without bothering to take the freeman's oath, forcing the holding of inquisitions to determine whether justified; in 1452 the corporation insisted that those entitled must take their oath or forfeit their privileges. For the historian, the Colchester situation means that records of freeman entrances there are incomplete, since they deal mostly with fine-paying immigrants. The same seems to hold true for our other towns. It would certainly explain the low annual average at Yarmouth. At Ipswich only those purchasing the franchise were recorded until the fifteenth century, the reason being that what the authorities were interested in recording was not so much the identities of freemen as the fines they had paid or owed (i.e. the records were part of the accounting system, more than a legal memory); even the few entrances by patrimony that creep into the documents, if not because of dispute, involved the monetary redemption of the sword of the entrant's father. Even at Lynn, where borough finances were an exceptionally prominent concern, and entrance fines were the second largest regular source of borough income until the late fourteenth century, there seem to be too few entrances by patrimony recorded; document losses cannot wholly account for the fact that almost half the entrances of those officials here studied cannot be traced.
The reason we are so concerned about the size of the freeman body is that most political privileges were restricted to its members. This is not surprising, since it was the freemen who were those residents: capable and willing to support the financial machinery on which independent government was founded; and willing to swear the almost conspiratorial oath of the commune, to support their fellow-freemen and the borough government in all things and to conceal the secret counsels of the assembly. No man could be trusted to lead his community who had not committed himself to such allegiance.
It is possible to draw together various local records to help suggest what approximate size the freemen group may have had. Lynn provides a few rolls recording internally imposed taxations, the foundation of its budget; that of 1298, for example, lists 487 persons. Exemptions are probably few, since even persons paying nothing are named, but we cannot account for the possibility of evasion. However, both freemen and inferiores were taxed, yet not until 1357/8 was a clearcut distinction made, when we find 132 burgesses and 245 non-burgesses. In 1313 just over 200 Lynn men were accused of attacking Robert de Monthalt when his abuse of his powers, as one of the heirs of the Earl of Arundel, threatened the privileges of the freemen of the town. Sample analysis of freemen entrances shows that between 1342 and 1353 145 persons became freemen (annual average 12 persons), whilst between 1445 and 1456 192 persons (average 16); for comparison, Ipswich saw an annual average of 12-15 persons between 1340 and 1351, but an average of only 3 1445-56. The temporary victory of Lynn's reform party inspired unusual interest in administrative affairs on the part of the populace. On 27 August 1412 112 inferiores were made freemen, to ensure the reformers' success in the elections on 29 August, when 148 burgesses and about 100 non-burgesses attended; the large crowds at assemblies, occasionally numbering 200-300, remained in evidence throughout the year, contrasting with peak attendances in the late fourteenth century of 70-110 burgesses. In 1421 119 of the better-off non-burgesses paid fines for trading licences; it should not be assumed that all the inferiores were poor - of the Lynn officials studied here, 65 are known to have been adult residents for some years before taking up the franchise. In 1461 200 of the "more vigorous" residents (those capable of military service) were taxed, but in fact this group included men in their 50s.
Figures of similar size are forthcoming from our other towns. At Yarmouth in 1344 314 townsmen were pardoned for various infringements of the peace that were clearly an expression of organised community aggression. Saul's analysis of jurors 1329-37 has shown 128 separate persons, only 83 of whom are found in the 1332 tax return. At Ipswich in 1429 approximately 190 burgesses swore to uphold ordinances newly made, whilst 79 witnessed a constitutional settlement concerning the election of sergeants in 1436. Analysis of three groups of Colchester men involved in organised aggressions (1319-25), along the lines already noted at Lynn and Yarmouth, shows 187 different men, and this can be raised beyond 200 if we include other lists from contemporary sources. The lists of women fined annually for breaking the assize of ale include numbers of married women fluctuating in the fifteenth century between about 175-225. In 1451/2 216 Colchester men were sworn into tithing, although only a small minority of the officials and electors of the year were among their number, and in 1472 208 "inhabitants" and 371 "foreigners" swore fealty to Edward IV. By contrast, the largest group in Maldon listed together at any one time were the 55 men sued for trespass by the lords of the borough.
We cannot come to specific conclusions from figures such as given above, but we may note that they all fall within much the same range and many derive from contexts suggesting a fairly complete muster of the freeman group. Hoskins has estimated that, in a town the size of sixteenth century Lynn, no more than one-third of the population were likely to have been freemen. Hammer has suggested about the same figure for fifteenth century Oxford. Martin has said of the proportion of freemen in medieval Ipswich that "it is probably a high one of those who are ordinarily in evidence." Here we can only concur that the freemen section was a minority, but large enough and open enough to warrant the description of limited democracy rather than broad oligarchy. Apart from the extreme cases of Maldon and Norwich, it seems likely that the number of freemen in our towns at any given time lay within the 150-350 mark.
Given this fairly small number of qualified men, and the evidence presented at the beginning of this chapter suggesting that there was a fair turnover in executive office and in elected councils, and that even life-membership councils had at least one vacancy annually, one is led to the conclusion that borough politics - within the limitations it imposed, probably by general consensus, on itself - was marked by a higher degree of popular participation than has previously been acknowledged. It is true that decisive power was concentrated in the hands of an elite we have called the executive committee, but power tends to devolve in such a fashion in most political systems. The number of offices to be filled annually in borough government, in executive, financial, and conciliar branches - to say nothing of the bureaucratic posts, the police organisation, and the ad hoc committees - particularly from the late fourteenth century onwards, when the population had shrunk but the ranks of administration were growing, make it likely that a large minority of the freeman population were involved with administrative duties at some time or other in their lives. An almost complete roster of Lynn freemen drawn up in July 1440 lists 253 names. Of these, 51 were then in office (mayoralty, councils, chamberlains' or clerk's offices) and at least 89 others were past or future officers; that is, approximately 56% of the freemen alive in 1440 held office at some point during their lifetimes. This suggests that the real issue is not one of monopolisation of office, but monopolisation of the freedom. How restrictive was it, in terms of the proportion of freemen to the overall population? And, more importantly, whilst we know it was consciously restrictive, was it artificially so - had it become a form of elitism in itself? These are questions beyond the scope of this study.
The evidence that we have seen suggests that election of the same individual to a post more than once, no matter whether successively or with intervals between office-holding, could have owed as much to necessity as to monopoly, in the face of limited candidates (viz. those with appropriate qualifications and with the will to serve). It also suggests that electoral committees could, over the course of time, accommodate much of the electorate. Yet, before we become overly impressed by the degree of participation, we must ask whether there may not be a fundamental assumption in which we are mistaken. It is easy for the modern writer to assume that office was desired and even pursued, for its power, dignity, and opportunities, and that in this race those members of the community who were socially and economically best-endowed were easy victors. But was this the case? Or were office-holders men who had been willing to accept governmental roles only when called upon by others less willing, or even men reluctant to take on the burden but obliged by the default of others and by the pressure of their peers? To this question we must now turn.
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|