Before examining the criminality of the ruling class, let us see what good we may say of it. An examination of corporation policies would be unlikely to help us greatly here, for it does not follow that the rulers were acting disinterestedly when they carried out programmes relating to, say, the provision of sewage or fresh-water facilities, enhancement of the town's liberties, or regulation of its trade and industry. Although we should not over-readily interpret regulation of commerce as selfish protectionism in the face of a troubled economy, the welfare of the businesses of individuals was dependent to a large extent upon the welfare of the town as a whole. It may therefore be argued that, since the office-holding class held larger shares in the trade of the borough, it was correspondingly more in their interest to foster and to control urban affairs, of all kinds. Perhaps such a hidden ambition made office-holding more palatable to the wealthy townsmen. However, we may briefly examine two terms of government that stand out simply by the fact that the town clerks of the time took the unusual step of summarising their achievements.
The first is the Colchester ballivalty of William Reyne in 1373/4. One ought to say the ballivalty of William Reyne and John Clerk, but the author of the account of the ballivalty was so absorbed in the role of Reyne, possibly the senior bailiff, as the instigator of reform and improvement that he added the name of Clerk only as an afterthought. So lavish was the praise laid by author on bailiff that Harrod, cataloguing the town records, was shocked by the impropriety:
Reyne certainly had been most active and valuable, and a simple record of his services would have been grateful to our feelings, but when we are told the whole country went into fits because he put in stone steps for brick, ridicule is brought on both parties.
Harrod notwithstanding, the historian may regret that there is not more of this detailed reporting (however biased) of governmental affairs. The identity of the author of the panegyric is not yet known for certain, but it is a fair guess that it was the town clerk. The enthusiasm of the account strongly suggests it to have been written roughly contemporary with the events, for at a later period some of the 'achievements' of the year might have paled; at that time the clerk was Robert Beche. Benham believed that Michael Aunger, responsible for other chronicular passages, was the author; but Aunger does not appear in Colchester until 1380, when Beche (still town clerk) died - his will being proven, significantly, on the same day that Aunger was made a freeman. It is not impossible that Aunger was earlier an assistant to Beche, but there is no evidence for this. No matter; neither Beche nor Aunger exhibit any relationship with Reyne outside of the corporation context, so we cannot attribute the account to personal favouritism. It has been suggested that Reyne himself dictated the eulogy, but this can neither be proved nor disproved. Yet we have already noted that Reyne was that rarity of a man actively pursuing borough office and he may have been equally rare in his energetic efforts to further, rather than simply maintain, the well-being of his town (not least for his own profit, bearing in mind that he was farming the ballivalty). Furthermore, the self-confidence he demonstrated in proposing, to the corporation, the unorthodox method of access to office is not incompatible with the idea that he would have wished to leave a record of his accomplishments. However, a more acceptable explanation for the account lies in the general environment of the time. 1372 had seen major constitutional reforms, revitalising Colchester's government and giving rise to the borough's books of memoranda. The account of the 1373/4 ballivalty was simply part of this programme and its associated enthusiasm, which did not end with that ballivalty, but in fact continued on throughout the decade, in increasingly less detail as the initial burst of energy used itself up.
Reyne's vigorous administration no doubt contributed to the interest in recording the events of his term of office. He is credited with:
The extent to which Reyne's policies were truly innovative is partly obscured by the enthusiasm of the records, but he certainly seems to exemplify the medieval ideal of government for the common good. In 1425 a shorter and slightly less florid, but no less unprecedented, record of the accomplishments of the Lynn mayoralty of John Permonter (1423-25) was entered into the Hall Book. Like Reyne, we have met Permonter before in an unusual context: extorting promises of exceptionally high salaries before accepting mayoral office in 1427 and 1431. Here again, therefore, we have a man with confidence in his administrative capabilities, holding executive office more frequently than might reasonably have been required of him. Possibly the account of his mayoralty was prompted by the fact that, during most of the reign of Henry V, Lynn had been in inner turmoil as a bitter struggle for control of government ensued. Despite the formal settlement of 1420, some embers of resentment still burned; it seems that Permonter strove successfully to smooth over the remaining ruffled feelings. The achievements principally specified, however, were repair of town ditches, construction of a reservoir to irrigate the burgesses' extra-mural fields, and acquisition of land along the route of a water-course intended to supply fresh-water conduits. This last was in fact a project begun by mayor John Spicer in 1421; interestingly, the election of Spicer provides further suggestion of long-term policy, in his post-electoral speech (which has the air of a political platform) relating the intention of amending the abuse whereby butchers had gradually deserted the butchers' market in favour of selling from private shops, to the loss of community revenue.
If the official acts of men like William Reyne and John Permonter were, in effect if not so clearly in intention, to the benefit of themselves and their fellows of the ruling class at least as much as to the benefit of the community at large, a more unequivocal paternalism occasionally appears in attitudes towards the poorer members of the community. A Colchester reform of 1447 was said to be passed by the members of the corporation in protection of "our povere comburgeis." This notion of protection is exemplified also in the ordinance of 1411/2 permitting weavers to refuse acceptance of wages in merchandise and victuals, rather than cash, since their masters would try to pawn off on the weavers goods worth less than the claimed cash value; the bailiffs promised any wronged weaver justice with the speed of piepowder proceedings. In the seasonal lists of women breaking the ale assize at Colchester we find that the poorer women were pardoned their fines, which we must remember were not usually intended as punishments of a practice that was widespread and tolerated. And at Lynn in 1421 William Walden, described as amicus pauperum, proposed to the assembly that the poor (viz. those whose assessments were below 6s.8d) be exempted from the latest tax. In 1382, when repairs were being carried out on Colchester's wall, a house built onto the wall, inhabited by pauper John Hampton and his wife, was obstructing the work. It was necessary to tear down the house, but the bailiffs ordered that it be rebuilt at community expense on a plot of land granted to Hampton at a nominal rent.
Borough corporations, however, were not - nor could they afford to be - charitable institutions. Nonetheless they approved of charity and were inclined to take a hand in fostering and administering leper-houses and hospitals for the old or poor. For example, c.1278 the prominent Yarmouth ruler William Gerberge endowed (perhaps founded) the Hospital of St. Mary with a bequest of rents from 13 properties, totalling 9 marks. In 1386 the corporation assumed control of the hospital, laid out a set of regulations for its administration, and acquired (1392) from the king licence in mortmain for the hospital to hold further property: a messuage, 17 cottages and 100s. in rents, collected by the corporation, and 7 cottages provided by the Stalham family to support paupers. But for the most part charitable activity was left to the socio-religious gilds. It was not uncommon for these gilds, even the poorer of them, to support not only impoverished members with annual or weekly payments, but also non-member paupers. Lynn's Merchant Gild, with its superior resources, was able to expand its sphere of charitable operations correspondingly further. In 1389 the gild declared that it set aside £30 annually for alms. Not only did it support members who had fallen on hard times, but also widows, paupers, the aged, lepers, hermits, and anchorites; it financed the schooling of poor clerics, subsidised the friaries in the borough, maintained the community conduits, repaired and enlarged the town churches, and had its officers visit the sick and poor four times a year.
Charity was also, of course, a private affair; but all too often we must rely on wills for evidence of it. Deathbed repentance, piety and conscience, the stimuli for works of charity, may well have been sincere, but they do not necessarily reveal anything about the charitable attitudes or activities of men earlier in their lives. It was no great hardship to men who worshipped money as much as they worshipped God to make arrangements for the welfare of their souls when their bodies were beyond caring for. When we learn, for example, that William Daniel of Norwich bequeathed £10 to be spent on extinguishing the debts of prisoners in the castle and gildhall, that William Sedman of the same left £20 for distribution to the poor of Norwich and area and £26.13.4d to the poor of other East Anglian towns, or that John Burghard of Lynn provided £50 to be distributed among paupers attending his funeral, £5 among paupers too sick to attend, and £7 among his poor relations and widows in Stoke and Burton, we are unable to assess the extent to which such generosity is guided by sympathy for those less fortunate than the testator, and how much by the doctrine of purgatory. We need not doubt that the poor relied on gifts such as these to alleviate the austerity of their lives, but we are none the wiser to the attitudes of the givers.
Despite the notoriety that medieval towns have acquired as breeding-grounds for heresy, and despite the burgesses' admiration for the communistic life of the friars in contrast to the worldly clergy, it is difficult to discover in the religiosity of the upper classes of East Anglian towns anything other than the Catholic orthodoxy that accepted and even promoted class hierarchy as a natural state of affairs. Tanner's careful study of religious attitudes in medieval Norwich brought him to the conclusion that the city was "remarkably untouched by heresy." Nor is there much trace of it in any of our other towns. It may be that the infrequent public burnings (usually of non-townsmen) were sufficient encouragement to conformity, actual or disguised, in the period of Lollardy. Margery Kempe may have been influenced, unconsciously, by Lollard beliefs - certainly some contemporaries accused her of this - but she is an extreme case, and was viewed with disapproval by her fellow residents of Lynn. At Lynn in 1429 councillor John Springwell, jurat John Wyth, and town clerk Thomas Chevele were arrested by the Bishop's officers on heresy charges, whilst in 1428 William Gant of Colchester was denounced as a heretic and sent before the diocesan court of the Bishop of London. But all these men were able to clear themselves, and all subsequently held borough office. In the case of Gant, at least, there is reason to suspect that the accusation was a machination of the abbot of St. John's, then involved in a territorial dispute with the community.
In addition to being benefactors of the poor, testators might also leave something to the community as a whole, by way of a contribution to its expenses: amounts to repair or maintain town walls, bridges, harbours. For instance: Thomas Pond, bailiff of Yarmouth in the reign of Edward IV, left 6s.8d towards repair of the "great bridge" at Yarmouth; Thomas Aylred, bailiff and coroner of Ipswich, bequeathed in 1301 40s. annual rent, from several properties, to maintain the bridge between Ipswich and Stoke; and John Burghard of Lynn left 20s. to the repair of the road between Lynn and Setchey, 20s. to the repair of the road and bridge of his birthplace Stoke, 40s. to the repair of Lynn bridges, and 100s. to the repair of the road between Lynn and Wootton. While such bequests reveal that the testators were aware of the needs of the community - at Yarmouth the port, so frequently silting up to the great harm of the town's trade, received many bequests - they also reflect the needs of the testator and his peers: the facilities that usually received bequests were those on which the testator had relied in life for the transport of his merchandise or for guaranteeing the security of his investments, just as bequests to extra-urban churches reflect his rural landed interests and the sphere of his local mercantile activities. Furthermore, these civic-minded bequests are one of the more minor features of wills; the testator provided for his soul and his family first, and for his hometown only if there was something left over. It is generally only the wealthiest testators who left bequests of other than nominal sums to civic projects, and then often as secondary bequests to be fulfilled if primary bequests could not be realized. Nor can we entirely exclude the possibility that civic bequests were essentially an extension of charitable bequests, to ease the conscience and provide for the soul.
On the other hand, there are examples of benefaction to the community during the lifetime of the benefactor. To some extent we may include here the rebuilding or embellishment of parish churches in this period, although this phenomenon was a mixture of genuine piety, civic pride, and pride in personal achievements. In fact there is an ambiguity to several of these benefactions. In 1365 Richard de Haveringlond provided Ipswich's government with the money for making of weights and a balance for wool-weighing, Ipswich having been appointed one of the new staples. Ignoring the facts that this was only a loan and that Richard, a former bailiff, had just been elected mayor of the staple, we may note that this was a shrewd move beneficial to no-one more than Richard himself, one of the major merchants of the town who, in 1364, had had to arrange for the Yarmouth weighing equipment to be transported to Ipswich in order to avoid the costs of carriage of his wool to Yarmouth. In 1435 John de Caldwell offered to finance the construction of a new bridge between Ipswich and Stoke, on condition that the community pay for the end posts. In 1449 the same man "inspired by charity took it upon himself to make or have made a town gaol" by the west gates, and on the same occasion offered of his own free will ("spontanee super se assumpsit") to pay the parliamentary wages owing, since 1447, to John Smith - an offer interpreted by the corporation as a loan rather than a gift. Also from Ipswich, Richard Felawe, whom we have already encountered bequeathing property for a schoolhouse there and specifying that children of poorer burgesses not be charged for their education, was earlier benefactor to a previous hometown when, in 1452, he persuaded the king to allow him to apply the customs due from his large export shipment of cloth to the walling of Harwich, of which he had earlier been a burgess, before shifting the focus of his activities to Ipswich.
The most conspicuous civic benefaction falling within the scope of this study was the work undertaken by Richard Spynk upon the construction of the walls of his city, Norwich, between 1338 and 1343, an act that won him the gratitude of his fellow-citizens and of local historians since. His case is most interesting. What he in fact seems to have done was to farm from the corporation the murage grant of 1337, or at least that portion of it which was to be levied from the less prosperous freemen, on the promise of completing the wall construction begun at the end of the thirteenth century. In addition, Richard - a man probably of the humblest origins himself - undertook the same responsibility for the contributions of the "mesne people" of the city to a royal subsidy. This work entailed, as Richard doubtless anticipated, no slight expenditure from his own pockets; but he was wealthy enough to bear the cost, although his fellow merchants had previously shied away from a role in the enterprise. For enterprise is what it was: a calculated financial gamble. We need not gainsay Richard's public-spiritedness to recognise that his expenses were amply repaid by community grants to him, and his heirs, of exemption from all office and from local and national taxes or other community expenses, and freedom from murage and pavage for any merchant who chose to trade with the Spynk family. The document setting out the responsibilities of, and rewards due, Richard Spynk was an indenture and gives the impression of a pre-negotiated contract. Men like Spynk, Reyne, and Haveringlond had no difficulty reconciling civic patriotism with profitable business - a characteristic valued in community leaders.
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: January 8, 2019||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2019|