Precisely how much expertise we can distinguish in the upper levels of urban government, when most of its members remained at best part-time administrators, is questionable. Yet there were a few men who, either by inclination or by training, devoted a greater part of their time than most to a broad range of administrative activities, so that we might be warranted to conclude that they built careers from administrative work. The employment of estate administrators, the use of attorneys, the development of credit, and the formation of syndicates, all contributed to allowing the wealthier townsmen to diversify their interests, which they could control from a central point without the need for constant travelling. If Pirenne's itinerant-chapman-as-proto-burgess was ever a prominent feature of medieval society, by the later Middle Ages he was an anachronism. The same developments drew townsmen into new relationships, and new lines of work open to the capable amateur. We have already made mention of townsmen who engaged in estate administration or legal work in their local courts, as a sideline. Careers in administration or high finance may not have developed in England as quickly and to the same degree of specialisation as on the continent, but we are not bound to follow Thrupp in thinking that "young men of ambition who did not care for trade" had little alternative other than a life on the land.
In fact, there were various alternatives. Of legal work, a role in the Church, and service to magnates, we have already given some indication. But certainly the largest lodestone around which the interest of townsmen polarized was royal service. Some of this was relatively informal, like the ad hoc commissions appointing taxation officials, purveyors, or "king's merchants"; these were essentially only extensions of the mercantile activity normally engaged in. Yet the royal administration network was a hydra, the numerous more permanent officials the heads on tentacular necks stretching back to the central organs of government. Omniverous, almost cancerous, its infiltration of borough administration is not immediately obvious. Only as an after-thought do we realise that the coroners and constables who appear, at first glance, integral parts of the urban administrative hierarchy were employed by the king; or that the town bailiffs were, strictly speaking, royal officers, required to take an oath of allegiance to the king, a technicality not diminished by the fact that the burgesses leased the right to choose the holders of those offices. Thus, on top of their local duties presiding over court and assembly, the bailiffs (and indeed any executive) were required to perform a variety of less regular but not infrequent tasks for the king.
One branch of the royal service was the military, although burgesses - who were on the whole no lovers of war - were rarely active therein, except when they needed to earn pardons for their crimes. However, John Perbroun's best-known role is as admiral of the northern fleet in 1322, 1323, 1327, and 1333, and he captained the Yarmouth contingent at Sluys. Besides being bailiff of Yarmouth 14 times between 1312 and 1340, Perbroun was in the customs service from 1330 to 1341, and on several judicial commissions. His services earned him the rewards of the grant of a royal ship in 1325 and £100 in 1333, yet his story ends on a sour note, with the posthumous seizure of his lands (1343) consequent to debts owed the Exchequer from his accounts as customer. Another Yarmouth man, John Hakon, spent most of the period 1369-77 as master of a royal ship, and afterwards became involved in borough administration (3 times bailiff and 6 times M.P. 1382-96), although he continued to perform mariner's services: transporting pilgrims abroad in 1394 and organising naval expeditions for east coast defence in 1386 and 1398. In 1391 he had been rewarded, at the request of the Duke of Lancaster, with the grant of 6d. a day from Yarmouth customs. It comes as no surprise to find that his residence was adjacent to Yarmouth's harbour. Like Hakon, Ralph Ramsey was a Yarmouth servant of the Lancastrians: esquire to Henry Bolingbroke, he was co-feoffee with Sir Simon Burley in a Herefordshire manor in 1388. After the termination of his esquire's duties he became involved in Yarmouth administration (5 times bailiff, 8 times M.P., and several customs posts between 1384 and 1399), but played an active role in the usurpation of Bolingbroke and was well-rewarded in 1399/1400 with a £40 annuity, a life-grant of St. Olave's ferry (near Yarmouth), and 2 tuns of wine annually. The accession of Henry IV was a boost to his career. Even before 1399 he had occasionally served as commissioner and in 1388 was farming the priory of Toftes (Norfolk) from the crown; after 1399 he was commissioner far more frequently, was appointed in 1406 to supervise expenditure on the crossing of princess Philippa to Denmark, sat in parliament for Suffolk in 1402, was county sheriff in 1403/4 and 1408/9, and in 1415 led his own retinue to fight in France.
Saul has distinguished among the Yarmouth burgesses "a small group of men on whom the king relied heavily and who served him in several capacities over many years," and similar groups may be discovered in Lynn, Ipswich, and Colchester. Just over 50 of our men from these four towns performed services for the king, or for other magnates and prelates, over and above the occasional commission or standard posts in the customs network. We shall not review here the careers of Thomas de Melcheburn and John de Wesenham, some of whose services to the king have already been listed, although a whole chapter could be devoted to their considerable services to Edward III.  Some of the stewards of Lynn were chosen by the Bishop from Lynn men, whilst others appear to have settled in Lynn as a consequence of holding the stewardship. Richard de Rougham was steward 1358-61, and in 1361/2 a John Reed, son of Richard Reed de Rougham, was clerk to the steward. This John was subsequently steward himself (1370/1), by which time he had married the daughter of alderman William de Bitering; he entered the franchise 1371, was chamberlain and jurat later in the decade, and possibly the Norfolk escheator of that name c.1380. Thomas Derham, legal advisor to Lynn 1400-19 and its M.P. in 1406, served as steward in 1406/7 and was on dozens of commissions in Lynn, Norfolk, and Suffolk in and after the same period; a William de Derham, alias Cailly, had been bailiff to the steward 1367-76 and also served as jurat (1376-82), coroner (1380/1), and custodian of the Lynn Tolbooth (1377-80), whilst a Robert Cailly was appointed steward of Lynn in 1384, having held the stewardship of other of the Bishop's manors since 1380, and may conceivably be the Robert de Derham who was chamberlain for Lynn in 1350/1. William de Whetacre, M.P. and jurat of Lynn in 1325, was the Bishop's steward 1326-28 and 1329-31, was in the customs service 1309-35 (in one or other of the posts of collector of wool custom, collector of prisage, and searcher for coin), and was keeper of the king's part of the Tolbooth 1333-40. In the fifteenth century we find members of the Yelverton and Paston families in the steward's office.
A few men followed a legal career into royal service. The Nicholas Fastolf who was M.P. for Yarmouth in 1309, 1313, and 1316 is likely - although the large size of the family makes it difficult to be certain - the man who was commissioned in 1320 to investigate offences against the statutes of the wool trade in Norfolk and Suffolk, and who was subsequently Chief Justice of Ireland (1324-29) and justice/commissioner in several counties 1329-30. The John Arnold who was frequently bailiff, M.P., and coroner of Ipswich between 1388-99, as well as customer 1396-99 and farmer of the subsidy and alnage of cloth in Suffolk for 10 years from 1398 (his mainpernors being James Andrew of Ipswich and Thomas Godestone of Colchester), may tentatively be identified with the sergeant-at-arms/commissioner active in Ipswich, Yarmouth, East Anglia, and Ireland 1400-04. James Andrew, several times M.P. for Ipswich 1410-21 and portman by 1429, also served sporadically in the customs service (1404-05, 1416-17) and held several commissions. But he was principally an attorney, employed on various occasions by Lynn, Yarmouth, and Colchester to represent their interests at the Exchequer; James was well-qualified to do so, having been a clerk of the King's Remembrancer c.1398. Attorney Hugh Fen, member of a Yarmouth family with something of a tradition of service, played a small part of that tradition in Yarmouth, where found as capital pledge in 1448/9 and M.P. in 1450; he also held the post of escheator in Norfolk/Suffolk 1456-57 and several commissions in Norfolk and Yarmouth 1457-71. But his main interests were in London, for he was a clerk of the Exchequer by 1444, and rose through a variety of posts to become Under-Treasurer of England by 1463, his influence at court being much relied on by the Pastons and their friends in the 1450s and '60s.
A legal background was not, however, a pre-requisite to employment by the king, nor was it necessary to specialise in work in the royal administration. With a few select examples we may illustrate the broad range of administrative duties with which it was possible to occupy the time of men so inclined. John de Brunham has already been described in this study as one of the most powerful Lynn rulers: jurat from 1357-1412, he also, in roughly the same period, held the office of chamberlain 3 times, that of mayor 5 times, and represented his borough at 6 parliaments and the Council of 1385. In addition, he served in the Merchant Gild as alderman from 1398-c.1406, was appointed constable of the Lynn staple in 1373, held the office of coroner 1376-79, and was on a dozen occasions commissioner of the peace, of array, or of enquiry. His contemporary Edmund Belleyeter presents a similar case. The former apprentice of Brunham, Edmund succeeded his master as alderman in 1406, holding that office until at least 1411; he had served as scabin of the gild in 1373/4. Jurat between 1370 and 1413, he was also chamberlain 3 times, mayor 3 times, M.P. twice, and coroner briefly in 1390 (a role cut short by his election as mayor). He held a series of customs posts: deputy butler 1382-96, mayor of the Lynn staple 1396-97, collector of customs and tunnage and poundage 1401, and collector of the wool subsidy in 1404. He too was several times a commissioner. Much the same involvement is exemplified, in the next generation, by Thomas de Burgh, jurat 1424-68, chamberlain and mayor once each only, but M.P. 6 times and alderman 1448-57. In addition he was treasurer of Corpus Christi gild in 1427/8 and master of that gild in 1441/2. He served as controller of customs from 1445 to 1447, held various commissions, and was selected by the king to act as his ambassador to Bruges in 1435.
John de Preston of Ipswich has already been described by one eminent historian as a career politician. Rising to power as one of the leaders of the movement which overthrew the Stace/Le Rente clique, he held the (at that time) key office of chamberlain in 1322/3, was coroner the next year, bailiff the year after that, and continued on to 11 more ballivalties and 14 more years as coroner between 1336 and 1356. In the same period he represented Ipswich in parliament some 9 times and was a merchant representative for Suffolk in July 1338; in 1340 he was even appointed to a parliamentary committee to draw up a statute based on petitions of the clergy. He held three different customs posts, at various times between 1323 and 1351, a handful of commissions, and in 1327/8 is found in the unlikely post of constable of Norwich castle.
Particularly notable at Colchester are the Godestone brothers. Thomas, whose commercial activities we have already seen to be slight, entered into the mainstream of borough administration within a year of taking up his franchise (1397), a migrant from Surrey. He gave long service to his adoptive borough, being 13 times bailiff, 13 times M.P., and frequently an alderman between 1398 and 1430. He is also found as master of St. Helen's gild, which he had helped to found (1407), in 1429. His service to his king was no less arduous. The beginnings of this are obscure, for we first see him as customs collector at Ipswich in 1396 (a post held until 1399 and again in 1401), yet in the same year he and John Bernard, the Ipswich bailiff, were granted the farm of the alien priory of Greenwich and Lewisham, as a reward for long service to the king; possibly his service is recorded under some alternate surname to Godestone. In 1399 Thomas was granted, with William Godeman, three years farm of the alnage of cloth in Essex and Hertfordshire. But his service was not restricted to the local area, for in 1397 he was granted for life the offices of high bailiff of Guiennes (Picardy) and victualler of its castle, being superseded in the latter c.1413, however; he also served as commissioner of inquisition in that province in 1397 and 1399. Although his work in the customs service was cut short by an investigation (1402) that convicted him of concealing £249 in customs - largely on the exports of his brother John - and he was implicated, in 1404, in the uprising of the Countess of Oxford aimed at restoring Richard II (believed alive in Scotland), this did not prevent the king from granting Thomas the farm of escheated land in Colchester and of its derelict Middle Mill, which Thomas renovated. He is found again as commissioner, in 1417, 1419, 1423, and 1430. Landed interests may have been the most stable source of Thomas' income, but in the first half of his life administrative work supplemented his income, and in the latter half commerce. His brother John Godestone entered the franchise in 1432 as a consequence of the deaths of Thomas and his son John (probably the M.P. of 1425), making John senior the heir to Thomas' property. Although John senior served as an alderman at Colchester 1434-36, his career lay mainly in the customs service at Ipswich, where he held posts between 1410 and 1437; he was also escheator of Essex and Hertfordshire 1415-16.
From Yarmouth we will take two examples: Thomas de Drayton and Hugh Fastolf. Saul was unwilling to categorize Drayton as a full-time administrator, preferring to see him primarily as a ship-owner involved in foreign trade and the herring industry. His considerable commercial activities are undeniable, but he nonetheless exhibits the same degree of commitment to administration as the men whose careers have been summarized above; this involvement was, for the most part, a natural extension of his mercantile activities. Eight times bailiff and 4 times M.P. 1332-57, he also attended the Merchant Assemblies of 1340 and 1347, and the Council of 1353; he was murager in 1338/9 and possibly until 1341. Thomas was in the customs service for almost the whole period between 1334 and 1359 as collector, controller, or searcher, is described as a "king's merchant" in 1338, was purveying fish for the king in 1348 and for the Black Prince in Gascony in 1356, and is found on several commissions of enquiry. In addition he was part of the Melcheburn syndicate farming national customs in the 1340s, but had the fortune or good sense to extricate himself before its collapse. From 1335 he and John Perbroun had farmed the Yarmouth wool custom for £390 annually and, like Perbroun, he was occasionally appointed admiral or vice-admiral of the northern fleet (1338, 1343, 1352).
Hugh Fastolf's administrative work began in 1351 - and this is the earliest reference we have to him - in the office of controller of customs, held until 1354; Hugh returned to the customs service as collector, 1361-67, and became mayor of the Yarmouth staple in 1369. He too served in the navy, as vice-admiral of the northern fleet in 1362, 1370, and 1381, and he formed his own retinue to serve at sea in the war against France. Naval appointments such as those of Fastolf, Drayton, and Perbroun need not surprise us, given the largely amateur status of the navy and the role of shipping in Yarmouth's history. Hugh's numerous commissions were supplemented by a more permanent appointment as bailiff of the hundreds of Blythe and Waynford, an office in which he is found between 1363 and 1377, and by his deputising for Simon Burley in 1385-86 as constable of Dover castle and warden of the Cinque Ports - an ironical role, given the traditional hostility between the Ports and Yarmouth. His commissions, in Yarmouth, East Anglia, London, and Kent, involved him in such duties as:
It will be apparent even from these few examples that the branch of the royal service which attracted the greatest burgess participation, perhaps for no other reason than that it was most easily within their reach, was the customs service and its adjunct, the staple organisation. In fact 26% of our Yarmouth office-holders were active in one of these two areas. So too 16% of our Lynn office-holders and 29% of those at Ipswich; compare this to only 4% of the office-holders at Colchester, which was not a customs centre, whilst only one of our Maldon men was involved, and that briefly. Length of involvement varied considerably; of the 218 of our men from Lynn, Ipswich, Colchester, and Yarmouth who held one or more posts in either of the aforementioned areas:
There is a marked slackening in the participation of burgesses in the customs service in the fifteenth century, which is not easy to explain. The royal prohibition of merchants being customers cannot be accredited with any serious influence. Nor is there any clear sign that the illicit profits from customs work were any less or that Exchequer vigilance for frauds was any more potent. Perhaps it is a case of other elements, notably the gentry, growing increasingly aware of the career potential of the customs service, or adopting that service into the network of patronage as was the case with parliamentary representation. They might have out-competed burgesses in a bid for customs offices. But we do not know a great deal about how customs officials were actually selected. What we usually see is their appointment by royal writ, but this can have been only the final step of the procedure; we can hardly believe that the Treasurer picked names out of a hat (although stranger things have happened, such as in the selection of sheriffs). It is reasonable to assume that, when the farming of customs became fashionable, the would-be farmers approached the king with a proposition. Otherwise we might expect the king to seek at least nominations from the local communities; this was the case in 1341, when the king required each customs centre to send to Westminster a group of nominees from whom he would select officers. Since such evidence of a local role in selection was rare in Yarmouth, Saul concluded that use of this role was only occasional experimentation and that royal initiative was predominant in the choice of customs officers.
Evidence of local involvement is not common anywhere, but the cumulative evidence from our several towns nonetheless outweighs the unambiguous evidence for direct royal appointment. In 1282 the king instructed the sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk to go to Yarmouth, Ipswich, and Dunwich and arrange the local election of collectors of New Custom. In 1339 the bailiffs and men of Yarmouth were ordered to elect a controller to replace the deceased Thomas Stace. At Lynn in 1340 John de Swerdestone and Adam de Walsoken were elected collectors of the wool custom by the mayor and burgesses, as specified by the king. When Ipswich customer Roger le Mayster died in 1284 his family, in the presence of the other collector Vivian fitz Silvester, surrendered Roger's part of the coket seal to the bailiffs, who elected a replacement. And again, in 1339, it is specifically stated that the appointment of John Irp as Ipswich controller was susbsequent to his election by the bailiffs and townsmen. Even the Colchester authorities thought it worthwhile recording, in one of their volumes of memoranda (manuals of administration), that part of the statute of Cambridge (1388) ordering that any who were given the responsibility of electing J.P.s, sheriffs, escheators, customers, controllers, or other royal officers, were to swear not to be influenced by gift or favouritism to pursue office for themselves or others. This same system is seen in other branches of royal service: Thomas de Melcheburn was appointed as mayor of the Bruges staple, pursuant to his election by the merchant staplers, and borough coroners too were elected by their communities. The role of the king in appointments of customers (or coroners) was threefold:
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|