The desirability of presenting a united front to the world outside the borough boundaries - a world of "foreigners" - has already been noted. The mask of unanimity is not the visage of a mature democracy, confident in its ability to accommodate dissent, nor need we take literally the medieval declarations of it. Yet, even beyond the internal function of encouraging conformity, it performed the very practical purpose of camouflaging local disagreements, so that they might (hopefully) be settled locally without provoking the intervention of the king or his officers. For independence from external interference is a keynote of constitutional development in the medieval borough. The parochial outlook, with its distrust of outsiders and its various expressions of local identity and patriotism, and the medieval penchant for aggression, contributed towards the production, in an adolescent and competitive socio-economic system, of a network of rivalries between borough and neighbouring challengers to local jurisdictions: judicial, territorial, or mercantile. Whether the borough rulers were conscious of the political value of diverting popular discontent away from internal problems towards common external elements is a matter for speculation, not illustration; but certainly we find them at the head of large bodies of townsmen asserting their claimed - perhaps often usurped - rights against other communities or lordships.
Great Yarmouth was concerned to keep commerce channelled through the area in its own hands, and violently resisted the efforts of Little Yarmouth, Gorleston, and Lowestoft to share in that commerce. Its townsmen also resented the ancient rights of the Cinque Portsmen at Yarmouth's herring fair, as well as the role of Norwich as a port and staple which led to the bypassing of Yarmouth's harbour. In 1272 the Prior of Norwich had no difficulty in procuring mercenaries from Yarmouth for an attack on Norwich, during the dispute between city and priory. In 1343 the Yarmouth burgesses were quite willing to risk offending the admiral, Sir Robert Morley, a man whose favour they might have done well to court, by plundering his ships when he sought to use the harbour at Lowestoft. One of the focal features of Norwich's history is its hostility towards the cathedral-priory, rival for judicial and market jurisdictions within part of the city. The warfare between monks and citizens in 1272, culminating in a devastating attack on the cathedral precinct, is merely the most conspicuous event in a lengthy struggle: the conservative Church trying to preserve its rights undiminished, the citizens determined to obtain control over all intra-mural areas. At Colchester too rivalry with an ecclesiastical potentate was a prominent, recurring theme in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There are interesting similarities between the affairs at Norwich and Colchester, with the summer of 1272 proving a particularly violent time at both locations. At Colchester the enemy was the Abbot of St. John's, and the focus of dispute jurisdiction in the hamlets of the liberties surrounding the borough proper. Despite the accounts of the disputes in both borough and abbey records, it is perhaps the leet presentments, in which the abbot is easily the foremost and most regular offender, that provide the most convincing evidence for borough grievances. In addition, we find large forces of townsmen: attacking a servant of the Earl of Essex, who had arrested cattle within the liberties (1319); attacking the servants of a royal commissioner sent to Colchester to purvey supplies for the army (1319); and breaking into the estate of John fitz Walter at Lexden, hunting, fishing, and felling trees there, as an assertive demonstration of borough jurisdiction in Lexden, and perhaps as retaliation for acts of intimidation by fitz Walter's steward (1343).
The situation at Lynn and Maldon is similar in that the principal rival of each was an ecclesiastic; but in these cases he was the lord of the borough. Too little of Maldon's history is known for us to detect the organised aggression found elsewhere, although there is a hint of it in 1401, when the Bishop of London and Maldon's other lord, Sir Walter fitz Walter, sued fifty-five burgesses for trespass. In addition, there is evidence of burgess objection to the port and market facilities existing at nearby Heybridge manor. The rulers of Lynn made, at regular intervals, an effort to free the borough from the dominion of the Bishop of Norwich, which obstructed the realization of independent government; we shall deal with this in more detail later. Lynn's second lordship, of the heirs of Arundel, was a less recurrent problem, but it climaxed in the disastrous affair whereby the burgesses assaulted and imprisoned one of the heirs, Robert de Monthalt, and his officers of the Tolbooth in 1313. On top of their basic resentment at not controlling port tolls, the burgesses do seem to have been antagonised by the extortionate activities of Monthalt's collectors and by an assault on two Lynn men by Monthalt's servants. However, the resultant seizure of Monthalt, apparently stemming from a hue-and-cry, and the exaction from him of surrender of his Tolbooth rights to the community, was a naive move. It was inevitable that, once released, Monthalt would retract his promises on grounds of duress and complain to the king, with consequent conviction and cripplingly heavy fining of the borough.
Ipswich, on the other hand, had no great lord below the king, nor serious commercial rival, despite its competition with Harwich for control of Orwell haven. Its history is therefore comparatively quiet, although c.1314 bailiffs Stace and le Rente led a force of burgesses to the Bishop of Norwich's manor at Wykes Bishop, disrupted the holding of a leet court there, and rescued a horse that the Bishop's steward had arrested. Again, at the late date of 1451, we hear that the assembly decided that the bailiffs should lead the townsmen in a circuit of Ipswich's boundaries and demolish a dyke of the Prior of Ely, which had enclosed what the town claimed as common pasture.
Judicial and economic rights claimed by neighbouring manors, vills, or towns, by threatening to deprive the borough of income in amercements or to displace its port or market facilities, and thereby damage the prosperity of the community, provoked a commonly-felt resentment that united almost all elements of the community regardless of internal jealousies and hostilities. Yarmouth declared that no rival (herring) market could legally be held within seven leagues; Maldon made a similar claim. After a legal dispute, Ipswich reached a compromise agreement in 1233 with nearby Woodbridge, whereby the former acquired a large degree of control over the market of the latter. If the external rivalries, for the most part, diminished in intensity after mid-fourteenth century, it was largely because the boroughs had been successful with their claims as much as was possible, and a period of expansionism gave way to one of retrenchment. It may be that this new introspective phase contributed to the growth of discontent amongst the less privileged townsmen. Yet it was still possible to obtain solidarity in internal politics: at a Lynn assembly of 1375, 108 burgesses were present to agree to the disfranchisement of jurat Henry de Betele, rebellious against mayoral authority, under the special conditions of excluding Henry from commercial relations with any member of the community; a year later a smaller group, for themselves and for all who were absent, agreed to stand firmly together in the face of any legal actions taken against the community by a rebellious Thomas de Couteshale. In 1423 at Ipswich it was similarly decided that all burgesses should take a special oath to stand together in the legal dispute then underway between the corporation and burgess James Andrew. The spirit of the commune was not quite dead.
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: March 22, 1999||© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2003|