It was suggested in chapters 2, 3 and 5 that there was no lack of mobility in urban society and politics. Transfer of power was normally a gradual and peaceful process; but on occasion, where a group of townsmen clung to power, it was sometimes necessary for the excluded and frustrated nouveaux riches to resort to more forceful means to obtain a share in power. This may have been the case at Ipswich in 1320/1, and less clearly at Colchester in 1372. We seem to perceive the same process at Yarmouth, where a good deal of the visible conflict was centered around family rivalries, perhaps intensified by the decline in the town's prosperity in the second half of the fourteenth century. The reign of Edward I saw a struggle between factions, with the one led by the Draytons succeeding in ousting the longer-established Gerberges from their position of prominence in the borough. Further violent outbursts occurred 1357-59, following swiftly on the heels of a royal investigation into monopolisation of hostage by the town's leading families (1357). The violence featured the Draytons and Fastolfs ranged against the relatively newly-established families of Elys and Stalham. The former families were apparently backed by a London faction whose interests at the herring fair were obstructed by the latter families, prominent in the 1357/8 administration.
On top of these family rivalries were the troubles between rulers and ruled. Events surrounding the promulgation of Yarmouth's 1272 ordinances are rather obscure, but there is some evidence that tempers were rising dangerously in the preceding period, so that the king ordered arrests to be made. The establishment of a formal town council may have been intended as a check upon ballival government, but the principal concern of the ordinances seems more with market abuses and establishment of law and order. The rich and poor burgesses of Yarmouth were again in contention regarding fair market practices in 1281. In 1297 we hear of fresh disturbances of the peace. And a complaint by the poor men of the community, of forestalling by the rich men, was partly responsible for a royal prohibition of forestalling and brokerage at Yarmouth in 1306. The constitutional reforms of 1426 and 1491 also appear the consequences of disputes and complaints of misgovernment, with typical solutions of counterbalancing ballival power, ensuring fair elections, and restricting the bailiffs' access to community revenues. The best-documented outburst of popular discontent, however, does not seem to have produced any reforms. In 1375 the commonalty was employing organised force to express its resentment of financial maladministration, and of the market abuses (particularly regarding the purchase of herring) of the leading families, to the derogation of the equal rights principle of the borough liberties. The town rulers in turn were responding to violence with violence. The "poveres Communes" petitioned parliament for relief from oppression and injustice in 1376, and the king intervened to prohibit unlawful popular assemblies and to order the offending "rich men" to appear before him to explain themselves; but there is no sign of a satisfactory settlement to the dispute. Again, there is some indication of a London interest involved on the side of the rich, and we may note that Hugh Fastolf, who later moved permanently to London, was prominent in both the 1358/9 and 1375/6 affairs.
If at Yarmouth the grievances of the townsmen focused on monopolisation of trade by a few of their number, at Norwich constitutional problems are more to the fore. The first grievances we encounter relate again to financial malpractices of the city rulers. The complaint about forestalling in 1304 was joined, in the following year, by one concerning misappropriation of the proceeds of excessive taxations. Whether the clause in the 1305 charter granting that the city government might levy tallages on the community, so long as they were reasonable and approved by common consent, was the outcome of this complaint (and whether the clause should be construed as authorizing or restricting taxation) is not quite clear, since the investigations were still going on in 1308. It is also difficult to say whether the petitions, undated but probably from the reign of Edward II, embodying the grievances of the poor and middle people of Norwich, were connected with the 1305 affair or later disputes. These petitions speak of tallages levied without common consent, and of a royal commission that had been appointed to investigate earlier complaints, but which had been deceived by an inquisition manipulated by the bailiffs and by promises from the upper class of future good behaviour. The consequence of these repeated complaints was chapter 47 of the city custumal. A compromise solution, it provided for public accounting by tax officials and chamberlains, so that the community should know how taxes were spent by the city rulers, and for the "more discreet" of the crafts gildsmen to be the assessors; but no reference was made to the principle of common consent.
That omission seems more significant in the light of what was to come. Although we have no explicit indication of further class-based political conflict until the early fifteenth century, the disputes of that period stem partly from an earlier event. In 1371 there were violent disturbances in the city, seemingly popular protests against its government. At this period Norwich's council was crystallising into a formal institution and the city rulers were experimenting with restricted participation at assemblies, notably the representation of the community by selected craft gildsmen who would take over the role as electors. Whatever the reasoning behind this - be it consolidation of the ruling class' hold on power, the elimination of unruly behaviour at assemblies, or the desire to guarantee some community participation - the petition of 1378, whereby the rulers sought from the king the power to make by-laws without consulting the community, appears somewhat sinister, particularly since the reason given for seeking this power was that the rulers wished to combat the contrarious behaviour of the commons. Yet if the grant of this petition, in 1380, was the triumph for the oligarchy as which it could be interpreted, strange that it was not the subject of popular criticism until the complaints issued by the "greater part of the citizens and community" against the "more venerable citizens" (viz. the ruling class) in 1414. It is difficult to believe that, having obtained so potent a weapon, the city rulers would leave its use to the next generation.
The divergent ambitions of rulers and ruled resurfaced only with the substitution of mayoralty for ballivalty in 1403. Almost instantly the populace asserted its right to elect the executive, by keeping William Appleyard, the architect of the constitutional change, in office for three consecutive terms - a move of dubious legality, and against which the ruling class reacted by superseding Appleyard's election to a fourth term and appointing their own candidate. That Appleyard acquiesced in this suggests he was no more than a figurehead for the democratic faction. The charges laid, after several more years of contention, indicate that the community objected to its gradual exclusion from such little control of government as it had - that is, electoral rights and the right of consent - and that it feared it was losing authority over the government personnel, a fear sharpened by the continuing (it was claimed) financial abuses and market crimes of those personnel. The counter-charges of the ruling class confirm their goal of gaining a stronger grip on power, for the sake of efficient government, at the expense of what they considered to be the less capable section of the population. The Composition of 1415, given royal blessing two years later, confirmed the principle of common consent. But it was really a victory for the ruling class, in that it allowed only a controlled popular access to decision-making, via the Common Council, and it guaranteed their independence by making the upper council a life-membership body. This division of authority, best reflected in the system of divided control over elections, was contrary to the original constitutional principle, but was the only settlement acceptable to both sides.
Indeed, the new system seems to have satisfied. A subsequent outbreak of political conflict was not class-based, but the result of factions within the ruling class - something the Tripartite Indenture of 1424 fearfully anticipated but failed to prevent. The affair, named after its central figure, Thomas Wetherby, has been discussed by many historians and we will not unravel its intricate details here. Suffice to say that Wetherby tried to dominate city affairs by having his protegés elected to the mayoralty, when not himself therein, or to other offices. Thwarted in this, he stirred up old quarrels between the city and the Prior of Norwich and other local ecclesiastics, promising to assist the cause of the churchmen; he also stirred up factionalism at city elections. The resultant disturbances of the peace were sufficiently serious for the king to set up investigations, appoint arbitrators from magnates whose favour Wetherby had obtained, and eventually (1442) to seize city government into his own hand after the citizenry vented their frustration in an insurrectionary protest. The suspension of the powers of the local rulers gave Wetherby a free hand to pursue his will in the city. Evaluation of this lengthy and complex conflict, which did not fully end until some years after Wetherby's death (1445), is complicated by the fact that our knowledge of it is primarily from records drawn up by Wetherby's opponents, the city government. Precisely as a consequence of this, he has been severely criticised by Hudson and equally ardently defended by Blake. Here we may suggest a slightly different perspective. It is not important to us whether Wetherby was an unscrupulous, self-seeking troublemaker, or an upholder of the cause of right in the face of the city's unjust claims against local religious institutions. What aggrieved the city government was that Wetherby, as a freeman and as an alderman bound by the Tripartite Indenture, owed unswerving loyalty to the city, right or wrong. Instead, he chose to promote dissent and division in aldermannic ranks, support the city's enemies, and compound his errors by obtaining the maintenance and intervention of the Earl of Suffolk and the Duke of Norfolk. We cannot entirely blame Wetherby for this. He was one of a new breed of townsman, whose roots came from the gentry and who retained strong gentry links even while pursuing an urban career in commerce. Whether he actually represented the county wool-growers in their desire to obtain influence in Norwich, which controlled wool-marketing, must remain a matter for argument; but there can be no doubt that his interests and his loyalties were divided, with disastrous results for the city.
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|