A paternalistic attitude to the truly needy - those not as fortunate or capable as the men in power, although not perhaps those whose destitution was the result of their own character defects - evidently was a feature of both corporate and individual outlooks of the urban rulers, but it is often difficult to extricate it from elements of self-interest. Examples of illegal behaviour are less ambiguous; here the problem is rather that we may assess criminal activity only by that portion of it which has been detected. Like the iceberg, much remains beyond direct perception. Yet even that part, of unknown proportion, which is revealed to the historian is not insignificant. Of the total number of office-holders here studied from Lynn, Ipswich, Colchester, and Yarmouth, 16.3% were either accused, convicted, or pardoned of some crime or other, not a few being multiple offenders. We are not speaking here of petty misdemeanours, the everyday quarrels and brawls to which medieval townsmen were easily provoked, or the common abuses of breach of assize or of borough customs such as hamsoken or forestalling. Rather, a range of more serious offences is meant, from grievous assault to treason, from fraud to grand larceny. In a society where self-help was a more reliable source of protection for one's interests than was royal justice, and where self-interest, closely followed by family interest, usually over-ruled any sense of responsibility to one's fellows or community (local or national), we should not expect other than an attitude towards the law that it was something to be evaded or else manipulated to one's own advantage.
The men we have seen to display public-spiritedness and sympathy for the poor were not immune to the temptations of law-breaking. William Reyne was investigated on a wool-smuggling charge in 1362. And he used the experience of court procedure he had gained as bailiff to his profit: between March 1379 and January 1382 he introduced several dozen pleas of debt, against different persons, mostly for relatively small amounts. It has been suggested that such litigious activities were a form of business speculation, the profits to be gained from favourable verdicts outweighing the risk of amercement for false accusation. At very least it exerted pressure on one's debtors for swift repayment. John Permonter was accused, along with John Wesenham and Robert Permonter, of waylaying the gauger of Lynn by night with intent to kill, and subsequently so threatening him that he dared not perform his office (c.1427). Besides one or two examples of William Gerberge's fraudulent business practices, we also know that he sojourned, with a few other leading Yarmouth burgesses, in Norwich castle gaol during part of 1264, a precautionary measure by the king to stem renewed violence at the upcoming herring fair. There is some suspicion of foul play in William's death. Richard de Haveringlond was convicted of wool-smuggling in 1372. John James was disfranchised in 1459 for unspecified offences, whilst John Caldwell was in trouble with Chancery in 1430, although again the nature of the crime is not clear. Caldwell and Richard Felawe were required, in 1442, to put up a £100 bond guaranteeing that they would not hinder a king's commissioner in his naval duties. Felaw was twice accused of fraud, once in relation to his sale of Harwich property that he may not have owned, and again in persuading a partner to sell him a share in a ship under false promises. Circa 1455 a Harwich woman complained that Felawe was suing her for debt in Ipswich's court where he, as bailiff, would judge the case.
At the beginning of this study it was noted that the application of selfish policies is an integral element in the definition of a government as an oligarchy. Some historians have readily - one might say, enthusiastically - perceived such a characteristic. Of the Lynn rulers, for example, Hillen declared that "Their programme, as may be seen, was a disgraceful exhibition of unflinching selfishness", perhaps being led to this conclusion by the more scholarly studies of Gross, who concluded that:
If, in viewing the past, one's vision is not impaired by the rose-hued glasses of sentimentality, one must perceive that the medieval gildsmen were not always animated by lofty motives of brotherly love and self-abnegation in their behaviour towards their fellow-men. Indeed, the desire for gain or self-advantage, which from the outset was the raison d'etre of the Gild Merchant ... degenerated at times into the most reprehensible forms of selfishness,
and by Mrs. Green, who was more explicit in her statement that the jurats:
ruled without restraint, and with a high hand assessed taxes, diverted money from the common treasury, profited by illegal trading, used customs contrary to common or merchant law, and bought the king's forgiveness if any complaint was made of their crimes.
We, however, must put aside the demanding moral standards of the Victorian era and the more ambiguous values of modern culture, in favour of viewing illegal activity in terms of its contemporary societal environment. Some, at least, of the charges laid out by Green are true enough. But we must appreciate that in the competitive urban conditions - where the instabilities of international relations, the fluctuations of the economy, and the uncertainties in entrepreneurial activity wreaked havoc with men's nervous systems and with the membership of the wealthy families at the apex of borough society - we find a natural breeding-ground for self-interest, self-reliance, aggression, and distrust of one's fellow man. The temptations to corruption were great, the legal prohibitions and personal inhibitions too often inadequate barriers. Enforcement of the law was weak and the royal government overly inclined to forgive crimes in order to add to its revenues through the sale of pardons. This in itself was an encouragement to the wealthy to act as they pleased without fear of incapacitative retribution. Essex gentleman Lionel de Bradenham, in the course of his quarrels with Colchester in 1358, besieged the town with an armed force, plundered the suburbs, laid ambushes for any burgess attempting to travel out of town, and extracted a £20 ransom from the town. He also broke open the town gaol, meddled with local water-courses (resulting in four deaths), and interfered with the duties of the local coroner. When finally arrested by the king's officers, he broke out of Marshalsea and took sanctuary. For all these crimes, which Lionel himself admitted, the king pardoned him. When examples of lawless and corrupt behaviour were set in the highest levels of medieval society, it is difficult to criticize too harshly the townsmen, aping their betters.
It is hard to judge the extent to which morals or laws were breached. The man who becomes rich by fair and honest business, without taking advantage of those from whom he buys or to whom he sells, indeed owes his wealth to good fortune. Occasionally the consciences of merchants are revealed on their death-beds: Walter Daniel, frequently bailiff and mayor of Norwich, requested in his will that masses be celebrated for the souls of carpenters or tradesmen he had knowingly or unknowingly cheated in his business dealings. Indeed, few of the urban rulers whose wills survive did not show considerable concern for lightening the burden on their souls as much as within their power. As in life they had spread their risks by the diversity of their profit-seeking ventures, so too in death: they paid for parish priests, private chaplains, monks, nuns, friars, and paupers, to intercede with Heaven on their behalf. The borough customs setting standards for trade practices, in their attempt to permit equality of participation, may have been appropriate to an early era of urban development, but were not to the late Middle Ages, when free trade was more desirable as the economy (at first) expanded and a greater share of international commerce came into the hands of Englishmen. The constant repetition of custumal prohibitions itself shows how commonly they were ignored. Leet jurisdiction, and the assizes it usually encompassed, had largely been turned into licensing proceedings, amercements generally being accommodated by the profit-margin of the offending activities; even with nuisance offences we find the same charges being presented session after session. Between 1367 and 1382 Henry Bosse of Colchester was repeatedly amerced for anti-social offences such as: obstructing the road at the Hythe with posts; building dungheaps in Eld Lane and Wyre Street, the blockage causing the latter to flood; detaining rent due the community; excavating sand from the highway near the Hythe; enclosing part of a lane near Dedham; and encroaching on common land at Hakeneys Lane and diverting a water-course there. In addition, he was presented on numerous occasions between 1373 and 1392 for charging excessive toll on the corn of townsmen brought to his mill to be ground, and in 1406 his forestalling activities caused a shortage of cheap fish in the town. After his death, one son continued his father's corn-toll offences, and another tried to monopolise the town's fulling industry via 'protection racket' tactics. The millers, as well as the vintners, of the town were regular performers at the leet cabaret; in 1382 the former were amerced en bloc for conspiring to grind their corn before that of others of the community at the times of the fairs.
Forestalling, arguably the worst breach of market ethics, was occasionally punished with severity, but was nonetheless widespread and not to be discouraged. Brokerage and hostage, the one illegal, the other abused, were also recurrent problems that (by their nature) were restricted to the merchant class. The latter practice, of placing each foreign merchant visiting the town under the supervision of a freeman host, who took as his fee a percentage of the foreigner's merchandise, is found at Lynn, Yarmouth, Norwich, and Ipswich. It had been intended originally as a device for guaranteeing local men a role in the trade of foreigners and for controlling the commercial activities of those merchants. It can easily be imagined how this left the visitors and local marketing largely at the mercy of the hosts. Borough governments fluctuated between policies of stricter regulation and abolition of the practice; in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries we also find provision for bargains to be made before the town officers or special witnesses. A more exceptional problem was the discovery, in 1429, that several Lynn merchants had engaged in the slave-trade of Icelandic children. The record does not make it clear whether English morals were offended - certainly the affair did not prevent one of those guilty, John Boston, being elected to the Common Council a few days later - but Icelandic authorities were none too happy, and Lynn's trade with that country had been jeopardised. Lack of scruples was not always an asset for the businessman, however. Thomas le Rente, exploiting the cumbersome and lengthy judicial process, managed to delay or even avoid repaying his debts by simply neglecting to make court appearances; but this device worked against him in 1321, when his absences facilitated his removal, by political opponents, from the office of bailiff. In 1316 Robert de Fordele contracted to buy salt and timber from Zeeland merchants for £169, but reneged on the agreement when the market price of salt dropped; subsequently, his own financial arrangements with the Count of Zeeland fell through, to his considerable loss, partly due to the resistance of Dutch merchants to the repayment scheme. And Philip Wyth's eagerness to get his hands on the property of a female relative who had gone mad, perhaps as the result of the death of her husband, which led him (it was claimed) to bribe a jury investigating her state of mind, served only to make him unpopular with his fellow townsmen.
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, 1998||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|