As Reynolds has pointed out, "Medieval townsmen ... thought that government by the few best men - that is, the more prosperous and able as well as the more virtuous - would be good and benevolent: it would be aristocracy and not oligarchy." In this we see a watered-down version of the notion of professionalism discussed in the previous chapter. The electors of Colchester were enjoined to choose as borough officers "the most abyllest, the most wysest, discretest, and the most profytabylest persons." The same expectations of merit and capability are implicit in the use of the title probi homines and its variants, often applied to the urban rulers. These multi-faceted terms could equally be interpreted as "law-abiding men", for good government depended not merely upon the supposed innate qualities of the governors, but upon their adherence to the rule of law. Thus, the establishment of self-government at Ipswich in 1200 concluded - one might even say climaxed - with the communal decision:
quod leges et libere consuetudines ville predicte ponantur in quodam rotulo vocabitur le Domesday. Et quod ille Rotulus semper commorabitur in custodia Ballivorum eiusdem ville, qui erunt pro tempore, ut possint scire et cognoscere modum qualiter agere debent in suo officio,
whilst a second roll containing the statutes of the Merchant Gild was to be in the possession of the alderman, to guide his government of that institution. And, when the loss of the original Domesday necessitated its reconstruction from memory, the task was assigned to a special committee "des plus sages e meuz avisez ... qe meux se conussent en les leys e en les usages." At Lynn and Colchester, and perhaps commonly but unexpressedly elsewhere, certain ordinances of constitutional significance were read out at the annual electoral assemblies, as reminder both to the community and its officers of their duties.
However, the clearest expression of expectations of the quality of government are found in oaths of office. Above all we find the demand, both on the part of the community and of the king, for impartiality. When selecting officers, electors were to ignore personal friendships or enmities, and were not to be influenced by persuasion of gifts from others. Those officers, for their part, were to deal with rich and poor as if equals. This reflects not merely the belief that government should be just, but also that borough officers were representatives of the whole community, not just some special interest within it. The other central themes of oaths of office are diligent and honest fulfillment of duties, and placing the good and the profit of the town before all other interests (those of the king excepted - in form at least, but perhaps not in spirit). The functions of the oath of office were various, we may posit:
On the other hand, oaths of office also show a realistic appraisal of the opportunities available for misuse of power; as the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire. Officers involved in judicial administration were warned not to show favouritism, for love nor money, to any party and were not to sit in judgement on any case in which they were plaintiff or defendant. All officers were expected to take their duties seriously, so that the town not suffer from their negligence. Financial officers were required to account for all monies which had passed through their hands, without concealment, and town clerks to make record of the same without any fraud. Whilst the executives, although not to meddle with town finances or have in their possession money which ought to be secure in the town treasury, were expected to ensure the honest performance of duties by clerks and financial officers. Collectors of tolls and taxes were likewise not to exempt those who should pay, nor demand from anyone more than they should pay. That the community depended for good government not so much on the character of its officers as on the solemn commitment placed on those men by their oaths we may infer from a chapter of the Ipswich custumal regarding the ballival duty of hearing recognisances: while bound by his oath of office, the word of a bailiff was sufficient to prove that a recognisance has been made; but, once out of office, the word of the ex-bailiff, if unsupported by written record, was worthless.
It was in the interest of every officer to adhere to the standards imposed by their oaths, for upon such the legitimacy of their rule rested. If the authority of the ruling class was to be upheld, it was in its interest to punish any members who transgressed. In their default, the community reserved the right to act for itself and, although we lack precise evidence, this appears to be what happened when the greatly erring Ipswich bailiffs Thomas Stace and Thomas le Rente were deposed in 1321. Deposition was but one of the weapons in the armoury of the community when it came to disciplining dishonest or negligent officers. Disfranchisement or withholding of wages were alternative or additional threats; at Yarmouth a heavy fine of 40 marks was the penalty on councillors. It was not uncommon for officers, particularly those handling borough revenues, to be required to find manucaptors or put up bonds for the faithful fulfillment of their duties. It was amply clear to office-holders that their governmental behaviour was to be, as the king told the Norwich rulers in 1380, "congruum bone fidei et consonum rationi pro communi utilitate civium": the "common good" was central to the goals of medieval borough government.
But we must not mistake this theory of government for its practice. Oaths had more than symbolic implications in the context of Catholic society. Thomas Fraunceys of Colchester petitioned Chancery that he had been imprisoned on a trumped-up charge in an attempt to coerce him into surrendering certain lands, of which he was trustee, to a wrongful claimant; he had refused to disinherit the rightful heirs, avowing that he "had lever abyde in prison term of his live then to dampne his sewle." The opportunities for abuse of office must nonetheless have been sorely tempting when service was underpaid and when wealth was built from enterprise and the exploitation of opportunity. When medieval government failed to meet up to its expectations, the failure was blamed not on the constitutional arrangement so much as on "lak of good and vertuous governance." In consequence, disciplining or replacement of leaders of government was normally considered sufficient to rectify the problem. Perhaps they were right: human failure is undeniable. Yet the historian, with the advantage of perspective, may perceive in the system of government underlying inadequacies not so easily dealt with.
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|