The troubles in early fifteenth century Lynn have received less detailed attention from historians than those in Norwich, with the consequence that they have been easily misunderstood. The history of political conflict at Lynn, like its constitutional history, is complicated by the lordship of the Bishop of Norwich. Periodically, the borough rulers made attempts to break free of this dominion, notably by seeking to usurp episcopal rights of judicial administration. In this they were encouraged by the willingness of the king to grant them liberties which, despite disclaimers insisting that no grant be implemented to the damage of the Bishop's prerogatives, subverted episcopal initiative in Lynn's development. Dissatisfaction on the part of the burgesses with the power of the Bishop's officers in the town finally found expression in 1236; the accusation of that date was essentially extortion, and the same charges were laid against the Bishop's bailiffs and his Tolbooth custodians at the hundredal inquiry of c.1275. If we conjecture that burgess resistance rallied around the mayoralty, this would explain why the Bishop left it until 1234 to complain about the creation of that office, which had been in existence in Lynn for some two decades. Although the focal points of this dispute - which had led the Bishop to excommunicate the townsmen - were ostensibly the appropriation of the authority to impose external taxations and the election of mayors, the Bishop's concerns really seem to have been the independence of the mayoralty and, as later renewals of the dispute suggest, mayoral arrogation of judicial administration. For the time being, the Bishop - always the defender rather than the aggressor in these disputes - was content to settle for each mayor, upon coming into office, taking oath to respect episcopal rights in Lynn.
Discord between Bishop and community is again discovered in 1295, and in 1298 a cause is specified in that the burgesses' enlargement of the town ditch and building of sluices to keep water therein had resulted in encroachment on episcopal territory. The objection was probably not to the action itself, but that it was taken without seeking the Bishop's permission; furthermore, this was only one of a number of usurpations, as the composition of 1309 between town and Bishop showed. This compromise, and the complaints which preceded it in the same year, suggest that the main source of dispute was the town courts. It is not quite clear how many of these there were. The leet court was evidently judged to belong to the Bishop, since he farmed it out to the burgesses by the composition. The husting court (granted in 1204), it was arranged in 1309, would be presided over by the steward, but the mayor would act as controller regarding pleas of burghal tenure, and the court profits would belong to the community. This court, apparently the principal bone of contention, does not appear to be the same as the "steward's court", rolls from which survive from 1317/8 and 1448 under that title, whilst a cathedral account roll for the manor of Lynn from 1331/2 lists the revenues from the steward's hall and husting separately. The steward's court dealt only with petty pleas of transgression and debt, but was largely boycotted by the ruling class, who brought their pleas of debt before the husting; the latter also dealt with pleas of land and was conceded in 1309 the power to deal with probate, for borough purposes, although enrolment of testaments was subsequently transferred to other records which further symbolised borough authority in this area.
The most determined effort by mayor and community to gain sole control of the courts was made just before mid-century. The path for this was paved by: seeking constitutional advice from Oxford, Lynn's model town, and from the royal government; bolstering the rights of Lynn's administration to levy taxes and enrol wills in the town hall; and acquiring the farm of the king's part of the Tolbooth. Having probably usurped control of the husting in the mid-1330s, to which the Bishop responded (as traditionally) by threatening to abolish the mayoralty, the burgesses, by wilfully misinterpreting the 1309 composition, convinced the king in 1346 that the Bishop had in fact acquired the leet and husting by their grant in 1309, and had then leased the former back to the community. On the grounds that this supposed grant in mortmain was unlicensed, the king was persuaded to seize the courts into his own hand; the fact that the Bishop of that time was out of favour, for other causes, doubtless did not help his case. It was then a simple matter for the burgesses to arrange to farm the courts from the king. This brilliantly simple plan fell through after the Bishop was restored to favour and his appeal was heard by the king, who had not entirely trusted the arguments of the Lynn burgesses. The result was a definitive restoration of judicial jurisdiction to the Bishop in 1350. A new composition in 1352 restored the status quo, the Bishop again recognising the mayoralty and the burgesses bowing to the terms of the 1309 agreement.
Although the physical attack on Bishop Despenser in 1377, which led that haughty prelate to discomfit the townsmen with a sentence of interdict, does not properly belong to this sequence of conflicts, it shows the continuing resentment of episcopal lordship. The borough had recovered from the repercussions of this misdemeanour by the last decade of the century, when seen acquiring property left and right, to enhance borough revenues; in 1392 the Bishop granted the corporation land on the banks of Mayor's Fleet on which to build a watermill. The amity did not last long. Argument arose in 1401/2 over whether the Bishop was responsible for repairing the Bishop's Staithe, the deterioration of which was detrimental to the port as a whole. In 1402 mayor Thomas atte Brigge was complaining of extortions by episcopal officials. And in 1404 the Bishop was suing the burgesses for disseising him of 120 acres of land and for intimidating members of his Council. The corporation fought an expensive and unsuccessful legal battle against the Bishop, ending in a new composition in 1406 which, however, only enforced that of 1309; it is hinted that the old dispute over control of the courts had once again reared its head. The corporation was distracted from further efforts against episcopal rights by internal political troubles, after the settlement of which the struggle against the Bishop was largely abandoned, despite the trouble in 1447 over the method of carrying the mayoral sword.
The failure of the corporation in its battle with the Bishops was partly due to lack of unity within the ranks of the townsmen. There was perhaps always a measure of support for the Bishop in the ranks of the ruling class, or at least a cautious sentiment of not wishing to provoke the lord of the town. In the struggle between the factions led by Robert de London and Alexander Kellock, at the close of the reign of Henry III, the latter was an anti-episcopal party so perhaps the former was loyal to the Bishop. Although it is going too far to suggest that the Bishop and Lynn's lower class, the inferiores non burgenses, were allies in a constant struggle against the ruling class, an alliance partly stemming from the landlord-tenant relationship and partly from a shared hatred of the potentiores, it is true that the inferiores, particularly after 1309, looked to the Bishop for protection when they had grievances, just as the corporation sought the king's assistance in its efforts to weaken episcopal dominion; there is some indication that only the freemen section of the population was involved in the 1377 attack on Despenser.
The earliest complaint from the Lynn community against its rulers was in 1277 and (matching the pattern in our other towns) related to forestalling. At the end of Edward I's reign we find a wider range of charges. In 1304 the "poor men of the community" complained of excessive taxation and misappropriations, and soon after of forestalling again, by the rich burgesses. The latter, guilty or not, thought it safer to buy a pardon from the king (1305) for levying tallages without community consent, embezzlement of murage, and other financial and market crimes. Yet in 1311 further complaint resulted in a royal commission to audit the accounts of Lynn collectors of taxes, murage, community rents, and court profits, to as far back as 1296. Perhaps consequent to the 1305 pardon, the complainants evidently appealed to the Bishop to step in, and he used the occasion to assert his own rights. The 1309 composition included a clause requiring that internal taxations be levied only at need and then assessed fairly "after the faculte, myght & power of every man", with tallage accounts to be audited by a committee composed of men from each of the three classes. It also acted against another abuse, or rather an unwarranted assumption of power, which has generally been interpreted as a prohibition of forcing residents to take up the franchise. Despite the attractive, and differing, justifications for this interpretation, and the fact that such recruitment pressure was indeed exerted in the fifteenth century, in 1309 it seems that what was prohibited was rather the requirement that non-burgess residents buy annual licences if they wished to retail or wholesale goods.
That the Lynn accusations are much the same as those from other boroughs leads one to think that financial maladministration must have been a crime general to borough rulers. Perhaps it was so, but it must be said that we have little or no evidence outside the charges themselves to back up this conclusion. Lynn is a rare case in leaving us records of the local taxations. These documents give no clear evidence - nor should we expect them to - of abuses at the turn of the century. Yet they do show two things. First, that the taxation process was not simple, for the local taxes were then the core of the borough budget; the tax exemptions of mayors, and the system of paying community debts (usually to potentiores who had provided loans, goods, or services during the year) via tax exemptions or allowances, were susceptible to misunderstanding by the uninitiated members of the community. Second, that when, in 1302, the community asserted its right to assess the tax itself, rather than by the usual committee, it proved incapable of so doing and resorted simply to repeating the assessment of the previous year - hardly a fair method, given the ups and downs of mercantile affairs.
Again we hear complaint of unjust taxation in 1337 and 1375. It may be that these new taxation grievances centered on the fact that, tempore Edward I, only moveables and not realty were subject to assessment, whereas in 1375 the complaint was that the rich burgesses were refusing to pay their taxes because realty was now being taken into consideration. Complaint, by John Blower and others unnamed, to the Chancellor and subsequently to the Bishop that they had been excessively taxed in a royal subsidy, so that others could be under-assessed, resulted in disciplinary measures by the corporation: Blower was fined £20. This was a trying time for Lynn: the residents of South Lynn, jealous of their privileged neighbours, were resisting demands that they should contribute to the expenses of common defence, and complaining about the Merchant Gild's monopoly of the sale of stoneware; a faction amongst the burgesses was agitating for the promotion of St. Nicholas' from chapel to parish church - possibly a separatist movement; hostage rights were causing problems; and the community was becoming restless over the growing expense and extravagances of administration.
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: September 21, 2016
|© Stephen Alsford, 1998-2016