If there is any trace of policy in customs appointments, it is perhaps in favouritism shown to men with special training. From 1354 to 1375 all the men appointed as controllers, an office entailing only the keeping of a duplicate customs roll, were clerks. These include Henry Talliser, Yarmouth's town clerk circa the 1330s-'50s. It is not uncommon to find town clerks active in the customs service, either as a sideline to supplement their borough-paid salary, or after they had left the borough post. At Lynn we have various examples. Benedict de Massingham, acted as a junior clerk under his father Thomas (town clerk c.1312-38) in the early 1330s, and succeeded him briefly as town clerk in 1338/9, before going onto the controller's office 1339-41. Thomas de Morton not only served as clerk to the borough (1373-96) but also, like Thomas de Massingham, to the Merchant Gild (1385-87), in addition to holding simultaneously the post of controller (1378-89). And Roger Raulyn, who was town clerk c.1397-1401 and briefly controller in 1401. John Tilney, a lawyer who performed clerical work for Lynn's reform administration, was also a controller, from 1425-32, and held other customs posts in Yarmouth and Lynn 1432-35, whilst Geoffrey Costyn and Adam de Brandeston, who performed similar clerical duties for Ipswich in the reigns of Edward II and Edward III respectively, are also found in customs posts. Other clerks to be found in the customs service include: William Whetacre of Lynn (see above); John de Acle of Yarmouth (see above); Ipswich's John Bernard alias Stathe (searcher 1392, controller 1395-1401), who was also an administrator of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene and St. James; and Nicholas le Clerk (controller 1296-98, collector 1302-07), also of Ipswich. A number of other customs men were amateur or professional attorneys.
Although the clerks and lawyers in the customs service were outnumbered by merchants - a sort of specialisation being seen in the number of vintners serving as deputy butlers - the not infrequent choice of men whom we may expect to have been able to read and write is interesting. When the king required that controllers write their counter-rolls with their own hand, what he was concerned with was not professionalism but a safeguard against fraud and absenteeism. Nonetheless, the stipulation may have encouraged the employment of trained men - although, when we read Geoffrey Starling junior's declaration (in 1387) that he wrote his counter-roll personally, we remain uncertain, for there is no other evidence of Geoffrey's literacy and so many medieval official statements cannot be taken at face value; here, Geoffrey's concern is to certify the accuracy of the information in the role.
We really have no adequate understanding of how many laymen could read and write, and to what extent, in the later Middle Ages - a period renowned for the 'spread of literacy'. These abilities appear to have been uncommon amongst the urban classes, because non-essential in a society where commercial calculations were worked out on the English equivalent of the abacus and recorded by carving notches in wooden sticks, where the wide use of signet-rings precluded even the need to sign one's name, where the notion of recording everyday affairs in writing was itself relatively novel (outside of ecclesiastical institutions), and where a class of professional scribes existed to cater to the occasional need for documentation. The ability to read was still considered proof of training in the Church, the test of maturity was still the ability to count money and to measure, and education for most burgesses lay in the apprenticeship system, sometimes followed (in the case of merchants) by a 'graduate course' as factors serving overseas. Grammar schools begin to be heard of more frequently in the fifteenth century, often when their schoolmasters, a troublesome lot, appeared in court; such men are seen in Colchester by 1424 and Ipswich by 1412 - in the latter, Richard Felaw bequeathed in 1483 a house in which to hold the school and others to support the master. But precisely what effect this optional education had on burgess literacy is difficult to gage. Occasionally we come across special individual educational arrangements, such as the case of Robert Beche, town clerk of Colchester (1349-80), who bequeathed property to a probably illegitimate son, Andrew, the profits from which were to pay for Andrew's maintenance and education at Cambridge for five years. Britnell suggests that Robert's intention was to provide for a successor to his profession but, if so, the plan did not materialize; Andrew may have gone to Cambridge, but on his return he showed no great interest in borough administration or clerical service generally, although Robert's legitimate son John, a notary public, followed in his father's footsteps as attorney in Colchester court, and possibly town clerk c.1393, whilst a great-grandson of Robert, another John Beche, was very prominent in Colchester's administration 1428-57. Although we know little of it, the passing of skills and education through family ties is not to be underestimated as a factor in the spread of literacy.
Books were rare and valuable and few burgesses are known to have owned them. The widow of Norwich mayor Richard Purdaunce bequeathed an unusually large collection of books in 1481; Yarmouth bailiff Robert Cupper bequeathed a psalter, a primer, and three epilogues (1434); and Ipswich bailiff Robert Drye left at least one book-case, although his will is surprisingly silent on the subject of books. Possession of such objets d'art is no proof of reading ability. More interesting is the "quemdam librum vocatum le papir de debitis suis et aliis libris" belonging to, and one suspects drawn up by, Ipswich bailiff and customs collector John Rous; the book was stolen from his house in 1414. A private volume of John Lawneye of London embodies copies of all deeds, wills, and other documents (carefully listed in chronological order) relating to the descent of certain property in Lynn; although the script is too fine for us to suppose that Lawneye drew up the book himself, the purpose was very personal and the direct appeal it contains to his heirs to recover the said property, of which he had been defrauded by his mother-in-law, suggests not a book for public reading but rather a family memorandum. Private documents rarely survive from medieval boroughs, and for the most part were not intended to; unlike Liber Lynn, most were draft documents often on cheap, perishable paper. It is difficult to believe, for example, that the disordered and somewhat scrawled memoranda of some Lynn officer - probably one of the town's legal counsellors - on two small membranes were intended to outlive their use in obtaining repayment of expenses from the corporation. Not a few medieval records survive quite fortuitously.
Perhaps a rudimentary reading/writing ability was more common than our evidence can reveal. That only a minority of customs officers were trained scribes meant the occasional slipping of standards. In 1457, during a smuggling enquiry at Lynn, Lord Scales ordered controller John Herman to produce his book of controlment; to which Herman replied, one imagines with some embarrassment, "that he had non Book yer of excepte oon litell scrowe whiche was of his owne hande writing". And in 1357 the king had to reprimand the Yarmouth customers for sloppy practices in making out letters of coket: failing to enter their names, the date, or the type and value of merchandise. That some ability to write was possessed by men who did not expect to have to use it in official capacities is suggested by two cases: at the 1416 election in Lynn a list of names of those elected was drawn up personally by one of the electors, John Alger, a mercer of little administrative activity; and the first draft of Margery Kempe's memoirs she dictated to her merchant son (during his visit from Prussia, to where he had emigrated), although the priest who was asked to write the final copy found the son's draft "so evel wretyn ... it was neithyr good Englysch ne Dewch, ne the lettyr was not schapyn ne formyd as other letters ben." Maybe there were other merchants, like Margery's son, whose script was good enough for their own eyes.
Besides the customs service, the other area in which professional training may have been an asset - although, again, not a pre-requisite - was parliamentary representation. The occasional prohibitions of lawyers being returned to parliament do not seem to have had much effect, and the presence of a sizeable number of men with legal or clerical training has been noticed by several historians. From Lynn, Ipswich, and Colchester, between 1295 and 1406, 39 men categorised as professionals in our occupational analysis (i.e. 70% of that group) served as M.P.s. In addition, 18 other men known to have had clerical skills or to have acted as amateur attorneys were also M.P.s. As the table below shows,
|% of professionals in
|% of parliamentary seats
held by professionals
|% of same held by
other skilled men
The ability to write and some understanding of the law may therefore have been influential when the borough electors selected M.P.s. There is good reason for this: one of the principal functions of M.P.s was to report on parliamentary business to their communities, and memory (which was wont to be faulty) could be supplemented by written notes; in 1413 John Tilney presented to Lynn's assembly 18 folios written by him reporting on parliament's decisions on the Hanseatic trade. In addition, boroughs took advantage of sending their representatives to where the seat of government lay, to have them deal with town business in the Exchequer or other branches of the central administration of the king; such duties were at other times allotted to town clerks or attorneys retained by the borough for that specific purpose. Besides attending the 1413 parliament, Tilney and his colleague were instructed to prosecute the claims of the reform administration at court, seek repayment of loans made to the king, present the grievances of Lynn merchants regarding their treatment in Prussia, and treat with Southampton representatives on the question of freedom from tolls; at the second parliament of that year the same pair were also charged with trying to obtain a confirmation of the borough charters. It was precisely such needs, perhaps combined with a reluctance of others to serve, that prompted boroughs to make use of their town clerks in fourteenth century parliaments. At Lynn, Thomas de Massingham was elected to 20 parliaments (although one was prorogued and another revoked) and 2 Councils between 1318 and 1338, Richard de Skyren to 2 (1340, 1344), Thomas de Morton to 11 parliaments and one Council (1377-94). At Ipswich, John Lenebaud was sent to the parliaments of 1318 and 1319, Geoffrey Costyn (although no longer town clerk) to 4 between 1328 and 1332, Adam de Brandeston to that of 1355, John de Lyng to another in 1384, and William Bury (again after leaving the clerkship) to one in 1423. At Yarmouth we know the identities of few of the town clerks, but one, William Ambrose, attended 11 parliaments (1307-30), whilst Henry Talliser and Godfrey de Colney - who were either town clerks or town attorneys - attended 5 parliaments between them (1322-44), and Geoffrey de Somerton attended 6 (1378-84). At Colchester Robert Beche and his successor Michael Aunger were each sent to one parliament, whilst Warin atte Welle, who was employed as a scribe by St. John's Abbey and whom circumstantial evidence indicates to have been town clerk c.1310-26, sat 4 times between 1329 and 1340.
As with the customs service, merchants outnumbered clerks and lawyers as borough representatives. Yet even this was a sort of professionalism if we consider that the parliamentary business with which boroughs were primarily concerned, and on the subject of which they might wish to present petitions or arguments, was largely that concerning commercial or other financial affairs. Occasionally the king specifically requested that the boroughs send representatives who were particularly knowledgeable in maritime matters, mercantile affairs, or even special branches of trade. A similar interest in expertise is seen in the arrangements for affeerors of arrested chattels, witnesses to commercial transactions, and even sometimes men assessing taxes, to be chosen from those with the best knowledge of the value of goods - in other words, merchants. Also in the development of a group of untrained para-professional attorneys, essoiners, and perhaps even executors - Colchester's Simon Clerk is regularly found in this last role between 1377 and 1403.
Legal or clerical training was no pre-requisite for the elected offices in borough administration; indeed, the business experiences of men pursuing careers in commerce or land-holding, which entailed some familiarity with aspects of the law, was probably a more important grounding. Nonetheless, the town clerks, the lawyers who involved themselves in borough government, the men who built careers from service to the king, and the burgesses who dedicated much of their lives to holding borough offices: between them, they provided a solid if narrow backbone of experienced administrators whose devotion to their towns guaranteed a stability to borough government that the annual elections, combined with the general unpopularity of office, otherwise might have disrupted.
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|