It would be wrong to think of medieval borough officials as permanent salaried professionals, devoting their full-time attentions to governmental duties. Yet we need not go to the other extreme and suggest that they were obliged to serve for nothing. Office-holding may well have been considered a duty, to the fulfillment of which the burgess might need to be compelled by threat of fine for refusal to serve, but it was not one which went unrewarded - 'uncompensated' might be a more accurate term. If it sometimes appears that officials served unpaid, it is probable that our information is inadequate. As Saul has noted regarding the Yarmouth customs officers, "a disguised form of wage" is encountered in expenses granted. Yet there is evidence of salaries too. A recently discovered document in King's Lynn archives appears to be a claim made upon the royal government for moneys owed to some 66 townsmen for service in various posts at various times between 1327 and 1341; it is clear from the periods and figures given that what was demanded was not irregular expenses but standard wages. The officers listed therein nicely complement those paid in the chamberlains' accounts, indicating that all services received remuneration; while the corporation was responsible for paying officers of purely internal administration, the royal government was responsible for the various branches of the customs service, purveyors of victuals, coroners, king's bailiffs, constables, and collectors of national taxes. The corporation paid not only its principal elected and bureaucratic officers, but also temporary servants such as collectors of locally-imposed taxes, and the capital pledges of the leet (2s. for view of frankpledge, 15s. for presentment of offences, divided between 18 men). The various officers of the staple organisation - mayors, constables, clerks, sergeants, weighers, porters, boatmen, etc. - were also paid by the royal government. However, what is equally clear is that the salaries were too small in most cases to be, themselves, encouragements to office-holding; deputy butlers, for instance, received 5s. a year, purveyors 10s., king's bailiffs 3s.4d, constables 6d. annually. Compared to weekly wages of skilled labourers, these amounts seem almost contemptible, and should perhaps be thought of as honoraria rather than salaries. Some minor officers were, however, paid what are clearly wages: in 1285/6 the custos of Ipswich paid a sergeant 2½d a day to hold Ipswich's court, and the collector of petty tolls 2d. a day; and in 1347 a beadle was paid 1d. a day to collect the Lynn husting perquisites. On the other hand, annual payments may have been commensurate with the amount of time and effort required by each particular office; we cannot be sure.
Borough governments appear more generous than the royal government as regards wages, but even they paid little more than subsistence level wages unlikely to have had much attraction for the wealthier townsmen whom we have seen to have been the office-holders. Even town clerks, arguably the hardest worked of borough officials, usually supplemented their incomes with private work and often switched careers to more lucrative legal work. Colchester paid its bailiffs an annual salary of 40s. each in the early fourteenth century; this had risen to 60s. by 1372, but was reduced to 50s. in the fifteenth century. Its town clerk was paid £1.6.8d in 1319, and the local J.P.s of mid-fifteenth century 4s. a day during the assizes. The Ipswich ordinances of 1320 prescribed £5 as the salary for each of its bailiffs, £1 for each chamberlain, £2 for town clerk, and 6s.8d for each sergeant. By 1463 the chamberlains' salary had risen to 30s. each, that of the sergeants to £1 each, whereas those of bailiffs and town clerk had remained static. The councillors - exceptions to the general rule of payment of participants in government - were allotted pasture-land, subsequently known as Portmansmeadow (a location remembered by today's Portman Road), for their horses as compensation; this payment of land in lieu of money, found also in several other boroughs, was perhaps prompted by the early establishment of a formal council whose members served for life. At Norwich (1375/6) and Yarmouth (1491) the salaries of the financial officers were each set at £1 (unless possibly the sum mentioned at Yarmouth was a "bonus" additional to salary), whereas in less prosperous Maldon it was 6s.8d (1469). At the same time in Maldon we find the clerk receiving a £2 salary, but the bailiffs and sergeant appear only to have been allowed enough to purchase their liveries. At Lynn, where financial accounts are less rare, we learn that the mayoral fee was £6 in 1271, £9 in 1297/8, but in fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it usually remained at the £10 level (occasionally, but temporarily, rising to £20), whilst the chamberlains' salary remained at £1 each.
In some towns salary was enhanced by various perquisites of office. The mayor of Lynn was exempted from local tax during his year of office; and he, clerk, and sergeant received customary fees from private individuals upon performance of certain duties, such as admission of freemen applicants. The latter is also true of Ipswich, where fines were paid by those wishing to have enrolments made in the town's recognisance rolls; whether these were in fact assigned towards payment of ballival salaries, or more probably were additional (as was certainly the case with the town clerk) is not clear, but the 1320 ordinances indicate that a 6d. fee for application of the ballival seal to private documents was separate from the salary. The Ipswich bailiffs also were allowed all local customs taken on fish, onions, oil, and broom. In 1464 Ipswich's retiring town clerk was granted a pension, but this was not a common occurrence. Occasionally we find a bonus system whereby officers considered to have done a particularly good job during their term of office would be rewarded, at the rendering of account, by the grant of an additional payment. It is sometimes implied that the payment of the basic salaries of the financial officers depended upon them fulfilling their duties honestly and profitably. At Yarmouth it was decided in 1491 that, any year when the budget produced a surplus, up to £4 of it could be divided between the bailiffs. In fifteenth century Colchester it was prohibited that any negligent or lazy officer be paid anything above the basic salary prescribed by ancient ordinance. From the mid-fourteenth century in Lynn, an additional £10 reward was permitted to mayors who had served diligently; but, as tends to happen with ad hoc procedures repeated on a regular basis, this soon became a formality granted even in years when the budget produced a deficit (e.g. 1376/7). Further expenses were also frequently allowed, particularly in the fifteenth century, so that Lynn's mayor might receive as much as £20-£35 beyond his basic salary. In these circumstances, there is some evidence (presented below) that the financial reward could be an incentive to serve.
Parliamentary wages did not always conform to the 2s. a day minimum required by law. Yarmouth paid this amount, plus expenses, but Maldon could afford only 1s. a day to its 1384 representatives, whilst Norwich and Lynn initially paid 3s.4d a day - a fact that helps explain the lack of writs de expensis frequently sought by M.P.s. If the higher wage was due to those towns' relative prosperity in the fourteenth century, and to civic pride, as McKisack argues, then the occasional lowering of the wage to official minimum may reflect years of hardship. Certainly in the tougher times of the fifteenth century there was a general revision of parliamentary wages, Lynn and Norwich resorting to the minimum, whilst wages were often negotiated with individual M.P.s. Some towns were more willing to accept outsiders as representatives since they would serve without wage or at lower rates: Ipswich's Edmund Winter agreed to serve at his own expense in 1452; in 1469 John Tymperley junior sat for 8d. a day, and his colleague John Alfrey of Hadley was content with being made a freeman in lieu of wages; and in 1472 it was arranged that William Wursop esquire have 5s. a week, but John Walworth junior only 3s.4d. Occasionally, location of the parliament was an influencing factor: in 1463 it was decided that William Wursop and John Lopham, Ipswich M.P.s, would be paid 20d. a day if parliament were held at Leicester or Northampton, 16d. if at any town closer than York, 12d. if at London.
By the fifteenth century boroughs were discovering that even the meagre salaries and wages they paid to their servants were a strain on the budget. The £50 that York paid its mayor was well beyond the means of most boroughs' resources. The total of Lynn officials' salaries grew with the burgeoning ranks of officialdom during the fourteenth century, from about £20 at the beginning, to amounts approaching £40 in the 1370s; even the various efforts to cut back, at the end of the century, could not keep down this expense for long. The consequence, at Lynn and elsewhere, was that when fifteenth century accountings produced deficits, the expenses which were left unpaid were usually the fees (or part thereof) of borough officials and M.P.s; the unfortunate chamberlains in office in such years, having paid expenses from their own pockets, failed to recoup these losses at once from the borough. We therefore find special arrangements being made to pay wages - special taxes levied, or specific revenues allotted to creditor officials - or M.P.s being obliged to sue corporations for arrears owing. In February 1430, when Lynn's mayor Richard Waterden died, alderman John Wesenham refused to take on his role as replacement until he was guaranteed that the salary and reward owed him from two previous mayoralties would be paid.
If there was no profit to be made from wages, office-holding offered other pecuniary prospects. With reference to Yarmouth, Saul considered that: "The greatest benefit of being bailiff was the opportunity to use the position to one's advantage." The opportunities for graft in the customs service are easily perceived, and were often realised, judging from the number of prosecutions by the Exchequer. It was perhaps unavoidable, given the conflict of interests: the king found it convenient to use local men as customs officials, to counteract absenteeism, but such men were usually themselves importers/exporters or the friends of others. We may perhaps be so bold as to suggest (if cynically) that it was the very prospect of facilitated smuggling or access to often large amounts of money that encouraged some men to enter the customs service - certainly it can hardly have been for the wages! The potential profits from customs activities, both national and local, lay not only in smuggling, bribery, and extortion, but in the forfeiture system - perhaps instituted with the intent to counteract corruption - whereby customs officials had a right to a part of the goods confiscated from smugglers. This system is visible at all levels, from that of the syndicates farming national customs, through the regular searchers of ships and searchers for coinage, to the local supervisors of markets and crafts. That the profits from customs were attractive at all levels is seen in the large farms the national syndicates were willing to pay, and in the ability of Colchester's farmer of local customs in 1373 to pay £6.13.4d in addition to his usual farm of £35, without raising the borough tolls.
The opportunities for illicit profit from borough office are not so obvious. Embezzlement may have occurred on occasion: Ipswich's 1320 ordinances and those of Colchester in 1372 reveal the suspicion, if not proof, of it. Salaries and perquisites are unlikely to have kept greedy men satisfied enough to prevent it. The executive, financial officers, or others such as Yarmouth's muragers, had the opportunity to put business their own way by supplying borough construction projects with material, or supplying wine and victuals for the numerous occasions required by the corporation. Again, the general influence of a man in office, especially when he controlled judicial or coercive powers, could be attractive and useful. However, the historian would be unreasonably cynical to assume that because opportunities for graft existed they were always, or ever, taken advantage of. Nor is it easy to detect corruption from the regular series of records which form the bulk of borough archives. And, to be fair, it must be noted that customs office had the attraction of being the first step on the ladder of a career in the king's service, leading to more important offices which offered greater (and legitimate) rewards.
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: February 28, 2011||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2011|