The unlawful behaviour of men whose principal concern in life was the pursuit of profit is not restricted to crimes of cupidity, however. Quick to anger - and perhaps quick to forget (if not forgive) - medieval townsmen inhabited environments that bred violence, both on private and public levels. The relative instability of social and political relationships in the town has been put forward to explain the high incidence of homicides perpetrated by the urban upper class, and crowd psychology partly explains the eruptibility of the burgesses en masse against rival forces. Many of the latter type of incident occur in the first half of the fourteenth century, when East Anglian boroughs were, on the whole, at the peak of their prosperity and local patriotism was most keenly felt. Some were clearly organised excursions against local landlords with whom there was a jurisdictional rivalry. Others were not so obviously under conscious control. The seizure of Robert de Monthalt by the Lynn burgesses in 1313 has some appearance of mob proceedings, but the concessions he was coerced into agreeing to were carefully drawn up, and the list of those guilty is headed by the mayor and town clerk. The attack by citizens on Norwich's cathedral-priory in 1272 may have degenerated into uncontrolled plundering and violence, resulting later in a number of citizens being hung; but, in its early stages, it was likely directed by the city rulers who appear among the accused. Regarding the attack on Bishop Despenser in 1377, the leading burgesses of Lynn, fully aware of what was liable to happen, made a point of excusing themselves beforehand from any complicity.
It is the Yarmouth burgesses, markedly more than those of our other towns, who provide examples of group aggression. In their pleas for financial relief from the crown, they described Yarmouth as a frontier town, and certainly frontier lawlessness prevailed there at times. Periodically, small armies of burgesses would sally out into the surrounding countryside with some malicious intent. In 1314 pardons were issued to 314 townsmen accused of having: ridden "with banner displayed" in Suffolk; taken and imprisoned men until they made ransom; perpetrated homicides, arsons, and other breaches of the peace; and sold weapons and victuals to the king's enemies. The king refused to include in the pardons piracy or smuggling. At the former the seafaring men of Yarmouth were, naturally, rather adept. The king was prepared to overlook piracy when conducted against enemies of the realm - although the sailors of Yarmouth discriminated against no nationality - or when raids produced Scottish hostages. But it could prove politically embarrassing to him to have his subjects attack those of his allies. Yarmouth is of course well-known for its rivalry with the Cinque Ports; a rivalry that at times, particularly when the king's attention was elsewhere engaged, erupted into virtual civil war, with battles at sea or raids on the town of the rival side. And during the interludes in this hostility, Yarmouth could always direct its aggression against the closer rivals of Gorleston, Lowestoft, and Norwich. Piracy, we may note, was a two-way affair, with Yarmouth mariners being on the receiving as well as the giving end. In 1307 William de Goseford was among the townsmen charged with abducting ships that had tried to unload merchandise at Little Yarmouth and Gorleston (to the prejudice of Great Yarmouth's tolls); in 1317, 1328, and 1340 his ships were involved in piratic acts, and in 1337 he was permitted to keep a Flemish ship he had captured. But in 1333 we find him complaining of the seizure of one of his ships at Bremerhaven. Robert de Gimingham is also found complaining of the loss of his ship to Flemish pirates in 1317, just a few months before he was charged with attacking a ship off the Sussex coast and carrying off its wine cargo.
The more serious cases of personal violence often appear to be connected with political rivalries or inter-family disputes. In all, 23 of our office-holders participated in homicides, and 9 themselves met death by foul play, whilst 2 died in prison accused of manslaughter. Lynn jurat John atte Lathe's complicity in the murder of John Toth, at the instigation of the latter's wife, daughter of Geoffrey Tolbooth, seems a calculated act. We may read vendetta into the murder of Lynn's Robert de Waltone in 1316, by several members of the Lomb family, some of whom had already been imprisoned and subsequently pardoned (1316) for the death of William de Waltone (father of Robert). Yarmouth in particular was a hotbed of family rivalries, probably with a political foundation - we have already noted the unusual prominence of a limited number of long-lasting families there. A bitter feud in the late thirteenth century produced, among other crimes, the death of John de Drayton at the hands of William Gerberge junior, who took refuge in a Cambridge friary and obtained a pardon in January 1302, only to meet his own end later in the year at the hands of members of the Drayton, Goseford, and Fastolf families; in 1303 we hear of the killing of another Drayton, by persons unknown. In a fresh outbreak of family hostility in 1359, the Draytons and Fastolfs led an attack on Stephen de Stalham.
At Ipswich we see a not dissimilar situation: violence in the context of power-struggles between established cliques and the nouveaux riches. The families in control of the borough government at the end of the thirteenth century provided a legacy of violence for their up-and-coming rivals. John Clement, Hugh Leu, and Philip Harneys had taken part in a mob killing in 1263; Nicholas le Clerk and Thomas le Rente in another in 1283. John Leu had found his way into the Tower, crime unknown, in 1285. Thomas le Rente and Thomas Stace, during their period of power tempore Edward II, led groups of burgesses in violent excursions against local estates; prominent in these groups were their allies: the Roberts, le Fevres, Maisters, Malyns, and Goldings. In 1289 Gilbert Robert was imprisoned for assaulting John Costyn armed with daggers. The reformers were no more restrained when they fought for power in 1321: one of Thomas Stace's sons was killed and Thomas le Rente's house was plundered and his wife and servants assaulted. But the men who came to power after the fall of Stace and le Rente soon developed new alignments and fell out among themselves. Geoffrey Costyn, one of the reform leaders, sued reformer John Baude in 1331 for building a windmill to the damage of his neighbouring tenement, and forced the demolition of the mill. In 1338 John's son Roger murdered Costyn in what was claimed to have been a drunken brawl. In the previous year Roger had mortally wounded the wife of William Malyn senior, who is found prosecuting Roger for an unspecified transgression in 1336.
John de Halteby, the principal leader of the Ipswich reform movement, was also one of our worst offenders. Despite occasional forays into the realm of crime, none of our men seem to deserve the title 'villain' so much as Halteby. He and his father were participants in the raids led by his subsequent enemies in 1312 and 1315. In 1317 he, with Geoffrey Stace and others, assaulted Thomas de Veer's miller at Bramford and intimidated de Veer's tenants so that they dared not grind their corn there. Again he led an attack, in 1318, on the estate of minor Thomas de Shaldeford at Rivenhall (Essex), probably at the instigation of a relative of Shaldeford, and carried off young Thomas and much of his property. In the events which led to the supplanting of bailiffs Stace and le Rente, John de Halteby seems to have been the prime mover; his name consistently heads the lists of those accused of rebellious activity, and of plundering le Rente's residence. Indeed, so prominent was he in affairs at this time that he was known in the local countryside as "the King of Ipswich". There is strong suspicion that he was acting in this as agent provocateur of Hugh Despenser junior and that the despoliation of le Rente's messuage was, under guise of political hostilities, really related to the large debt (£200+) in which le Rente was held to Despenser. This connection would help explain why he was, in 1330, accused by the Archbishop of York of having tried to procure the latter's involvement in the misguided conspiracy of the Earl of Kent to rescue Edward II. It probably also explains how he came to be in the office of undersheriff of Suffolk, and his lieutenant John de Preston in that of constable of Norwich castle, posts from which they were removed in March 1328 when accused of the death of the parson of Bramford. And again it makes sense of the general pardon Halteby took out in April 1327. The pardon was, of course, a political safeguard, not a prelude to behavioural reform. In 1336 he was acccused of breaking into the estate of the archdeacon of Suffolk at Debenham, and carrying off goods therefrom. In the 1340s he is found fraternising again with Geoffrey Stace, son of his former enemy, who by now had married the widow of Geoffrey Costyn and had already spent a bout in Marshalsea for failing to pay the £250 damages awarded against him when convicted of kidnapping (c.1328-30). In March 1343 Halteby and Stace were summoned to Chancery to receive the king's instructions (i.e. a royal reprimand). In February 1344 they took out general pardons, covering the reigns of Edwards II and III, and in July they were accorded a royal protection against enemies who threatened them for prosecuting certain business before the Suffolk justices; this probably related to the Malyn smuggling ring, since Halteby and Stace had acted as king's commissioners in arresting Malyn's lands and chattels in that year. Halteby had made himself so obnoxious to his fellow townsmen by his thuggery that, when he was murdered in the summer of 1344 by Malyn and associates, a large proportion of the burgesses "quam de maioribus quam de mediocribus et minoribus" rejoicingly condoned the crime, provided supplies for the conspirators who had taken sanctuary, and so disrupted the royal investigation that the guilty parties could not be brought to justice, with the result that the king was obliged to seize town government into his own hands.
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