Interestingly, we find at Ipswich a dispute similar to that at Colchester. The two common sergeants ordained in 1200 had, by the reign of Edward II, been supplemented by two other officers apparently intended as ballival sergeants and possibly appointed by the bailiffs rather than elected by the community. In the fifteenth century the bailiffs were showing such favouritism to their own pair that jealousy and hostility had arisen among the sergeants. In 1434 therefore the community persuaded the bailiffs to allow them to elect all four sergeants as equals. This may seem a minor matter, but it required the mediation of the Duke of Norfolk before a final settlement in 1436, and shows the concern that ballival government not become too independent of community control. However, this is the only sign of popular discontent after the reign of Edward III, unless we care to read anything into the ordinances of 1429 and 1474, the initiative for which one suspects came from above, not below.
Political unrest at Ipswich centres around the events of 1320/1, much of which we have touched upon already, and the key feature of which is the replacement of one power clique by another. The rise of the fortunes of Thomas Stace and Thomas le Rente, although it did not begin in 1291, may be said to have reached its first plateau in that year, with their inclusion in the committee appointed to reconstruct from memory the lost codex of borough laws; it is unnecessary to elaborate upon the importance of such a role. Stace and le Rente were doubtless among the more junior members of this committee, neither having held any important post previously, and both probably representing the second generation of migrant families, le Rente's father having been fairly well-to-do, although not politically active, but Stace's only a tailor. The ranks of their committee colleagues well illustrate the changing personnel of the ruling class. The families who had manned the incipient government at the beginning of the century had mostly disappeared, although Vivian fitz Silvester was on the committee (approaching the end of his career), and the long-lasting Maister and Leu families were represented. There were also representatives of families that rose to prominence in the reign of Henry III: the two Haraud brothers, William le Mayden, Laurence Cobbe, Alexander Margaret (his family coming from London), and three members of the Clement family. Even more recent arrivals to the borough were several men who, by the time of the 1283 subsidy, had already risen into the ranks of the wealthiest burgesses and were just beginning to participate in administrative work: Thomas Aylred, Philip and John Harneys, Arnold le Peleter, Elias le Keu. Finally, there were the newcomers who, along with Stace and le Rente, had not yet entered government: Nicholas le Clerk, John de Whatefeld, and Gilbert Robert.
It was particularly from the younger and newcomer members of the committee that le Rente and Stace built up their clique of supporters. Thomas le Rente's daughter was married to Richard son of Gilbert Robert (whose wife was a Harneys), whilst Thomas' eldest son had married a daughter of John de Whatefeld. Stace, le Rente, Whatefeld, and Gilbert Robert were, in 1312, partners in a scheme to lease Horswade Mill from the community for ten years. Thomas dil Stone, a member of the Clement family, was a business partner of le Rente in 1281. Nicholas le Clerk was associated with le Rente in a homicide in 1283 and was a business partner of Gilbert Robert in 1305. Alexander Margaret and Laurence Cobbe can also be connected with le Rente in contexts outside borough government. Richard Leu was co-collector (and co-embezzler) of customs with le Rente, and was a business associate of Thomas Stace in 1291. Thomas le Maister chose Stace as one of his executors in 1301. This was essentially the group involved with Stace and le Rente in the monopolisation of ballival office from 1295 to 1321. Further support for this charge, laid in 1320, is seen in the personnel chosen as M.P.s: when not selected from the 'in-group' we have defined, they were men not previously associated with borough government (except for town clerk John Lenebaud) but who were associated with Stace and le Rente, either in business, legal, or other contexts.
Popular discontent with this state of affairs is first revealed by the royal letters of protection that Stace, le Rente, their families, and various supporters found it necessary to take out in October 1320; two of these supporters were charged with unspecified crimes against the community in November, a fortnight before the issuing of the reforming ordinances. The accusations laid in these ordinances, resembling in several respects the London reforms of the previous year, were: that market laws were being broken; that the bailiffs were augmenting their salaries with extortionate fees charged for the use of the common seal, with burgess entrance fines, and with the proceeds of excessive taxations; and that they were being maintained in power by a clique holding elections in secret. It is difficult to determine whether these charges were justified, or contrived by a rival group of power-seekers. Maintenance cannot be proved, but it is certainly suggested by the evidence we have already reviewed; the reference to secret elections may indicate that the portmen, a group dominated by Stace, le Rente, and friends, had taken over the role of electors. The absence of records of burgess entrances between 1308 and 1321 (not due to any absence of records as a whole) also looks very suspicious and may hide embezzlement of fines. And, in May 1323, charges relating to market offences were brought against a number of supporters of Stace and le Rente, although this may partly have been the bringing to bear of pressure for submission to the reformers' authority. The solutions offered by the reformers were much the same as those in Colchester in 1372:
It is probable that these efforts, as in Colchester, would have satisfied the reformers, had not Stace and le Rente fought back, by trying to secure the intervention of the king on the complaint that their opponents were rioting, resisting ballival authority, and obstructing the collection of tolls. This sealed their fate, and at some point in the spring of 1321 Stace and le Rente were deposed from ballival office. This was a drastic, but not a revolutionary, act: provision for it had been made in the 1320 ordinances, and even this rested upon a statement in the 1200 charter that the borough executive "non amoveatur quamdiu se in balliva illa bene gesserit nisi per commune consilium predictorum burgensium."
We need not dwell on the subsequent clashes of the oligarchic and reform parties in a struggle for control of government which gradually faded away as the foci of controversy died - le Rente in 1323 and Stace c.1329. We must turn rather to look at the nature of the conflict. The 1320 ordinances are undeniably democratic in tenor, in their emphasis on community authority and the public performance of governmental duties. Apart from the removal of the principal offenders, Stace and le Rente, from power, and the disfranchisement of Richard Robert - largely due to his own obstinate resistance to the reformers - the oligarchs were not made political outcasts, however; this no doubt helped ensure no prolongation of hostilities. Most of them continued to serve in government. What was achieved, however, was the breaking of their exclusive grip on office. The former oligarchs were henceforth joined in governmental ranks by a number of new faces, many of them from the reformers.
Yet of those who benefited from the defeat of the old guard, none did more so than the leaders of the reform movement: John de Halteby, John de Preston, and Geoffrey Costyn. Costyn was four times bailiff and four times M.P. between 1326 and 1332. Preston has the appearance of a career administrator, monopolising office in Ipswich to a greater degree than his old enemies had done. Halteby, working primarily behind the scenes, used coercive tactics to dominate Ipswich up to his murder ca. July 1344. Costyn and Halteby were business partners in 1322, whilst Halteby and Preston both appear to have been protegés (or tools) of Despenser. As sincere as the grievances and reforms of 1320 may have been, one is inclined to suspect that the main goal of the reform leaders was to oust the Stace/le Rente clique in order to obtain power for themselves. It is questionable whether the quality of government much improved with the change of personnel. The counter-accusations of the oligarchs in 1324, although not entirely trustworthy, suggest that financial maladministration and abuse of justice were either inextinguishable problems or were standard charges against political opponents which must never be trusted without substantiating evidence.
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