Origins of settlement |
The pre-Conquest borough |
Effects of the Conquest
EVOLUTION OF A SELF-GOVERNING COMMUNITY | Power struggles with rivals
A division of interests | Summary/Recap | Information sources
Map of Anglo-Saxon Norwich | Map of Norwich ca.1260
Appendix 1: Calendar of customs of Norwich
|Evolution of a self-governing community
Even before the 1194 charter set the citizens of Norwich on the road to local self-government, "burgess" was not simply someone who lived in the borough; it implied a status with certain privileges. The principal criterion for laying claim to that status was to be "at scot and lot", which entailed the reciprocity of rights and responsibilities that is fundamental to the concept of citizenship in today's society. A burgess was a resident who contributed towards all payments required from the borough by the king, and in return had a right certain advantages in the commerce conducted in the borough (e.g. an equal share to a bargain offered in the market). One particular concern addressed in borough customs (i.e. local laws) was closely to regulate buying and selling to protect the communal rights of citizens. The bordarii carefully distinguished in Domesday from the burgesses were residents who made no contribution to the king's custom. Stephen's reign saw an attempt by unspecified burgesses (perhaps the French immigrants of Mancroft) to refuse contribution to borough taxes, while still claiming mercantile liberties. Henry II ordered that anyone who had vexed the burgesses in this way should "return to being of their society and custom and share in their scot". The precise determination of which residents were at scot and lot continued to cause trouble, necessitating further royal instructions in 1203, 1228/29 and 1256; the tenants of the cathedral in particular were constantly trying to evade contributing to communal obligations.
There were other requirements associated with burgess status. The burgess had to be a free man no lord's serf. The Jews were declared by Edward I not to be at scot and lot, since they were his bondsmen. To qualify this, however: it may not have been necessary for the burgess to be a man; Stigand's sister was identified by Domesday as a burgess. All the borough required was that a burgess be able to pay his or her share of taxes. As guarantee of this, the burgess was expected to own a house which could be distrained in the event of default of payment. When, in 1296, citizen Richard de Knapton sold his house to take up lodging in St. Giles' Hospital, he was accused before the leet court of not being in scot and lot. Burgess status was thus restricted to those residents able to afford its obligations and desiring to trade under privileged conditions.
To what extent there was a sense of "community" within the burgess group is more difficult to say. It appears that the burgesses as a group were responsible for payment of the Domesday custom and for later tallages and aids. In cases of default of payment the king would first require a borough's head official to make up the difference, or sometimes a small group of the wealthier burgesses; but ultimately he had recourse to the seizure of the goods of any burgess, or even withdrawal of the charter-granted community liberties. Further signs of communality are seen in the common ownership of lands and churches in Domesday, in the grants of charters to the burgesses as a group, common assembly in the moot, and common subjection to the same set of customs. As yet, however, the "community" had only an unofficial existence.
This formally changed with the royal grant of "incorporation", although most of the features of communal identity associated with such grants were already operational in boroughs, so that the grants were little more than official stamp of approval to an existing state of affairs. Norwich's incorporation came with the grant to the city of county status, in 1404. Incorporation was later defined according to five particular criteria; we can see indications of the fulfillment of these criteria prior to 1404:
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the citizens of Norwich became increasingly aware of their shared identity and interests. In some ways the "community" acted as though it were already a corporate entity, for it was (in principle, at least) the fundamental source of local authority. For example, in 1285 permission was given "by the community of the city of Norwich" to John de Ronhale to build over a stream; and in the following year, thief Walter Eghe was tried before "the bailiffs and the community of the whole city in the Tolbooth".
We can hardly imagine that the whole community would fit into one building in the city. In practice, of course, the principle of representation was applied. The city sent representatives to parliaments when summoned by the king, who expected that those representatives have full authority to act on behalf of their communities; although in cases of decisions that were likely to prove unpopular (such as the granting of new taxes) the representatives might defer giving their approval by insisting they first consult the community they represented.
To an extent the executive officers of the city, over the choosing of which the community acquired control in 1194, were representatives of the community. On the other hand, they were also answerable to the king. By the 1220s it appears that there were four bailiffs acting each year as the city executive. This was probably associated with the division of the city into four leets corresponding roughly to the old division of separate settlements each with jurisdiction equivalent to a court of a hundred. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the citizens felt the desire to be ruled by a mayor, in emulation of London, the leading city of the kingdom; since Richard II would not grant this, the city supported Henry of Lancaster in his quest for the crown, and was rewarded with the grant of a mayor in 1404. The change does not seem to have brought the city any greater independence for its executive officer; the mayor continued to be responsible to the king for a number of duties, including some new ones (notably, the role of escheator). On the other hand, accountability for the fee farm was transferred to new officers two city sheriffs (a reflection of the city's new county status) who were otherwise subordinate to the mayor. A few years later this new status of the city was symbolized in the replacement of the old Tolbooth, as the home of city administration, with a new, enlarged Guildhall.
The change is also reflective of a general increase in the ranks of city officialdom over time, as new powers were obtained through royal grants and as the business of urban administration became increasingly complex. The city's acquisition of its own coroners, sometime in the mid-thirteenth century, was indicative of growing judicial independence from Norfolk authorities. And the appearance of chamberlains and treasurers (by at least the end of the thirteenth century), evidences the greater complexity of city finances as the sources of revenues diversified and the growing list of communally-owned properties requiring management.
The root cause of this proliferation of officials was the citizens' ambition for freedom from the interference in local affairs of external authorities notably from the county sheriff and other royal officers. This ambition won its first victory in the gaining of the fee farm in 1194. The city's responsibilities to the king did not change; it was simply that accountability was now directly through city-elected officers rather than men appointed by the king. Subsequent charters show the citizens' strategy for gradual increasing their liberties. They obtained exemptions from various judicial obligations and, more importantly, assured that a growing number of types of judicial process would be held in borough courts, rather than courts outside the city's jurisdiction. In some cases, the charters really only confirmed powers that the city had already assumed; such was the case of a city prison (as opposed to the one in the castle), which received royal authorization in the charter of 1305, although the city had already maintained a gaol in its Tolbooth since at least 1274. That the Crown was prepared to turn over to boroughs some of the powers of royal officials is an indication not so much of any royal policy favouring borough self-government as of the Crown's constant need for money and burgesses' preparedness to pay for grants of new liberties. Slowly, but surely, Norwich thus excluded the authority of all but its own officers in most matters with city bounds.
The lowest jurisdictional level in the hierarchy of city courts was the leet system. Its initial objective was to bring offences to light and then decide which court had jurisdiction over them. Thefts were referred to the city court presided over by the bailiffs; homicides were reserved for the coroner, other felonies were held for the attention of the itinerant king's justices. The leet court itself also presided over by the bailiffs dealt with infringements of local custom and common law, such as minor assaults, public nuisance, breaches of the assize of ale and other market offences; all were fineable offences (the fines going towards payment of the fee farm).
The Anglo-Saxon origins of the leet system were related to an approach to maintaining law and order by dividing the adult male population into "tithings" of 10 or 12 men each, responsible for each other's conduct. A number of tithings made up a leet, and a number of leets made up the hundred already mentioned. Norwich had the status of a hundred before the Norman Conquest, and the various settlements that it comprised were treated as separate leets. After the Conquest, the leet courts were held by the sheriff in the castle fee. The burgesses are seen resisting this control in 1184, and probably took over leet administration in 1194. By this time the amount of business the leet courts had to handle was difficult to manage, however, and circa 1223 each leet was given the status of a hundred and divided into sub-leets, each of which made its presentations on a different day. There is some evidence that each leet elected one of the four bailiffs, but all four jointly presided over each leet's court, to emphasize the unity of the city.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the leet system was breaking down. Although a good tool for detecting breaches of the law, it was inefficient for punishing them. Many burgesses were willing to pay the small fines imposed on them periodically in order to continue illegal practices which brought them profits (e.g. breaking the assize of ale). With the constitutional remodelling in the early fifteenth century, many of the administrative and judicial functions of the leets were absorbed by the new officials, and the leets survived only as units in the election of city officers.