Medieval town government


Victoria County History



Elizabeth Crittal (editor)

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'Wilton: Medieval town government', A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6 (1962), pp. 9-12. URL: http://british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=41764 Date accessed: 17 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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In the reign of Henry I the leading burgesses secured the right to organize themselves into a Guild Merchant, but the price paid for the privilege is unknown. (fn. 1) This Guild Merchant then obtained a charter from Henry I granted some time between 1121 and 1133, possibly in 1121. (fn. 2) The grant of a charter was obviously of benefit to the town as a whole, but it was chiefly important at the time for the commercial privileges it conferred upon the trading community, which had been sufficiently powerful to secure the concession.

The charter granted all exemptions and liberties of toll and passage and all other customs enjoyed by the burgesses of London and Winchester. Wilton was thus one of a group of boroughs modelled on London, and in turn Wilton served as a model for the liberties of Andover. (fn. 3) There were to be many future disputes about the exact interpretation of these liberties, and it was often necessary for the borough to specify them when Wilton merchants wanted to trade with other towns, in order to ensure that they were upheld. Some surviving 15thcentury letters patent of the mayor and burgesses of Wilton show, by a recital of these liberties, what exactly was their interpretation of the charter; (fn. 4) they claimed in particular quittance of all toll and passage money levied at fairs and markets, pavage, pontage, murage, and bridge toll ('britholt'), together with the rather different kind of exemptions specified as child-wite, yare-give, coverage and scot-ale.

The early charter was constantly inspected and confirmed by the successors of Henry I. Henry II and John confirmed it in almost the same words, (fn. 5) and for John's confirmation the burgesses of the Guild Merchant paid the considerable sum of 100 marks, together with 700 ells of linen cloth; (fn. 6) subsequent confirmations were made by Henry III, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Edward IV. (fn. 7)

By the late 12th and early 13th century Wilton was already achieving some measure of borough autonomy. The fact that the aid for the ransom of Richard was collected by the portreeve and burgesses of Wilton (fn. 8) shows that at this time they were electing a borough reeve, responsible for collecting royal dues in place of the royal official. During the course of 1205–6 Hervey Portehors, presumably the reeve, began to render the borough farm at the rate of £40, (fn. 9) and thenceforth the same sum was paid into the Exchequer by the men of Wilton direct until the borough was granted to the Earl of Cornwall in 1230, in which year it was reduced to £30. (fn. 10)

In 1288–9 the burgesses interpreted the charter of Henry I as granting the right of electing their own coroners, and they recapitulated the liberties contained in the charter, asserting that all of these had been granted and confirmed by Henry III (1229) except that of having their own coroner. This liberty, it was stated, they had enjoyed from time immemorial. They referred to the eyre rolls as evidence that they had had their own coroners, and they added that the Wilton jurors, who had not specifically mentioned this particular liberty, had been fined. (fn. 11) The assumption of an original grant of an elective coroner by Henry I is certainly false, for it is unlikely that the office existed before 1194, but such instances of retrospective interpretation are not rare, and it is possible that some such grant may have been made by Henry III. It is at all events clear that the right of electing coroners was exercised by the mid-13th century. (fn. 12)

By the middle of the 13th century, and possibly earlier, Wilton had its own elected mayor, for in 1258 William Isembard, a former mayor, was hanged. (fn. 13) Evidence from the later 13th century shows the extent to which the mayor and community of the borough were treated as a legal entity, and on two occasions they were jointly fined for trespass by the lord's bailiff. (fn. 14) The emergence of the corporate community was accompanied by the slow decline of the offices of the Guild Merchant. Guild aldermen were still functioning at the end of the 13th century, (fn. 15) but it appears that the office did not long survive that century. Apart from some of the minor officials, it was only the steward of the Guild Merchant who retained his importance in town government. He did so because he remained the chief financial officer of the borough, (fn. 16) since the guild purse remained the borough treasury until supplanted by the borough chamber in the 16th century.

According to Hoare, the constitution of Wilton was defined in a charter of incorporation granted by Henry VIII, (fn. 17) but no trace of any charter from Henry VIII has been found. Long usage, however, had determined the functions of the greater and lesser borough officials, and established a form of town government. which remained virtually unchanged in the 16th century. Wilton is thus rightly said to have had a constitution by prescription. Although the mayor became the chief borough official he did not invariably take precedence over the steward of the Guild Merchant before at least the second half of the 14th century; up to the 14th century the name of the steward almost always preceded that of the mayor in the attestation of charters, and examples of this appear as late as 1337. (fn. 18) But from the second half of the 14th century the pre-eminence of the mayor was firmly established although in financial matters he continued to be associated with the steward. The election of the borough officials was held on the Translation of St. Edward the Confessor (13 Oct.), one of the two lawdays, and according to ancient custom the mayor was elected in the church of the Holy Trinity (fn. 19) by the whole fraternity from two nominees put forward by twelve burgesses together with the retiring mayor; the elected mayor was sworn on the same day before the steward of the lord of the borough, and the other nominee became mayor in the succeeding year. (fn. 20)

The steward, two coroners, reeve or portreeve, and four auditors were all elected on the same day and were associated with the mayor in the direction of town affairs. The office of portreeve existed at least as early as the end of the 12th century (see above). The portreeve was responsible for the collection of the king's rents in the borough, and was elected from those burgesses and their heirs, who were holders of certain tenements, presumably the original burgages, and the duty was passed on with the tenement. An entry in the General Entry Book, made in 1500, listed all who were liable to election to this office, and the 38 names included the Abbess of Wilton, the Rector of 'Staunton', the Prior of Bradenstoke, the Warden of Winchester College, the Rectors of St. Andrew's and of St. Mary's churches, and the Prior of St. John's Hospital; (fn. 21) many of these paid fines for exemption from the office. The four auditors consisted of the present and past mayor together with two other burgesses, and the audit of the steward's accounts was held in the Guildhall on the first of January each year. (fn. 22)

The office of common clerk certainly existed by 1340, for the account of the steward of the Guild Merchant of this year recorded his stipend. He was a permanent official, for the 15th-century stewards' accounts show the payment of the stipends with the utmost regularity. Although yearly lists of elected borough officials appear in the General Entry Book from 1464 onwards, the office of common clerk was not included there before 1381, and he was thereafter variously styled clerk of the borough, mayor's clerk, or town clerk.

From the middle of the 15th century, when it begins, the General Entry Book records the election of the numerous borough officers. In many cases the election was apparently a mere formality, for the lesser offices particularly, such as those of ale taster, inspector of the markets, and town crier or bedesman, were often filled year after year by the same man. As time went on the duties attached to some offices became amalgamated and were performed by one officer, although the empty titles lingered on without involving the performance of any duties. This trend explains no doubt the confusion and lack of consistency in official nomenclature to be found in the General Entry Book. Thus while 15th-century entries refer to three bailiffs, namely a king's bailiff, a mayor's bailiff, and a bailiff of the borough, in the 17th century a bailiff of the king and of the borough is mentioned. The General Entry Book shows that the elections were followed by traditional celebrations paid for out of the guild purse.

In the late 15th century the government of the borough was in the hands of the mayor and his council of the twelve. Each year the names of the comburgenses comprising this council were recorded in the General Entry Book, although the number usually exceeded the traditional twelve. On occasions the whole body of the burgesses, or community of the borough, and even more rarely the inhabitants as a whole, whether they were burgesses or not, were consulted on matters which affected them. Once at the end of the 15th century it became necessary to secure general consent to conditions of complete secrecy at the time of the election of the mayor, and then the burgesses as well as the twelve were called upon to agree to this; (fn. 23) when, during the reign of Edward IV, a burgess, John Chandler, gave a silver vessel to the borough the gift was made specifically to the mayor, burgesses, and comburgenses. (fn. 24) The resentment of the non-privileged against the oligarchic governing body showed itself in many manifestations of popular discontent. During the reign of Henry VIII the General Entry Book recorded great trouble between the mayor, burgesses and inhabitants when burgesses and inhabitants were summoned by the mayor to the Guildhall to hear proposed reforms for the better governance of the town. (fn. 25)

Wilton, like so many of the 15th-century boroughs, was becoming a close corporation, which filled gaps in its ranks with men of its own choosing. The mayor and the twelve elected the parliamentary burgesses and kept as tight a hold over the trade and industry of the town as the Guild Merchant had done no doubt in the past; they appointed brewing days and punished infractions of 'brewlock'. (fn. 26) They completely dominated the craft guild of the tailors, for their consent to the guild ordinances was necessary, and it was the mayor and his brethren who penalized offenders against these ordinances. (fn. 27)

The long survival of the Guild Merchant created much confusion between guild and borough titles. In 1454, for example, it was recorded that, whereas with the 'common consent of all the community of the borough of Wilton', the mayor's stipend had been fixed at a certain sum, it was now seen to be insufficient by the 'community of the said guild', and by 'common consent of the community of the borough' the stipend was doubled. It was also agreed by 'common consent of all the community of the borough' that the steward should account before the 'auditors of the said guild' for money received by him 'in the name of the brethren of the said guild'. (fn. 28) The distinction was apparent rather than real, for over the distance of time the different origins had no doubt been forgotten, and both conceptions expressed the corporate unity of the burgesses.

The original qualification for burgesship was burgage tenure for which landgable was paid, and the burgess was only allowed to sell his tenement on payment of the customary due to the lord of the borough of the tenth penny on the sale. By 1300. the date of the death of Edmund Earl of Cornwall, the landgable was rendered on St. Andrew's day by 46 burgesses, as well as by the Abbess of Wilton, the Rectors of the churches of St. Michael, and St. Nicholas, West Street, the Prior of St. John's Hospital, and the Warden of St. Giles Hospital. Some of the burgesses also paid assized rent at Michaelmas and Easter in addition to landgable. By this date many of the tenements were concentrated in the hands of a single holder, but at the same time subdivision of burgages was well advanced, with two or three burgesses paying landgable on a single burgage; it is difficult to determine what was the rate of burgage rent, but with one or two exceptions the general rate seems to have been a uniform 2½d. on each burgage. (fn. 29) Further subdivision, which took place in the 14th and 15th centuries, tended often to obscure the landgable as a recognizable rent; the accounts of the steward of the Guild Merchant between 1409 and 1410, and 1466 and 1467 record the payment of only 2½d. landgable by the guild, and this disappeared altogether in 1466–7.

The mayor and burgesses had the right to hold a court from day to day, with power to arrest and punish offenders, but fines and amercements from this court went to the lord of the borough. (fn. 30) In this court the customary law of the borough was enforced. There recognizances of debt were made, (fn. 31) arbitrators in disputes between the burgesses chosen, and cases of trespass heard, (fn. 32) on which occasions the constables were usually present. The 15thcentury accounts of the steward of the Guild Merchant regularly recorded the perquisites of the curia congildanus, (fn. 33) but it is difficult to tell whether this did in fact refer to a separate guild court, or whether at this stage it was simply another case of confused terminology between borough and guild. The piepowder court, which accompanied the grant of a fair to the mayor and burgesses at the beginning of the 15th century, was held before the mayor, comburgenses, and other worthy men. (fn. 34)

The judicial and financial perquisites of the lord of the borough were defined in the course of a three-cornered dispute between the lord, the burgesses, and the Abbess of Wilton in the reign of Edward I, concerning their respective liberties. (fn. 35) On this occasion, the lord claimed the right of distraint of goods, the view of frankpledge, the assize of bread and ale, the rights of pillory, and the profits of the weighing machine, together with weekly tolls of market; the abbess, on the other hand, claimed the assize of bread and ale at market times both in Wilton and for three miles around. Her claim, however, was denied on behalf of the king as ultimate lord of the borough by the sheriff, who stated that this right had been exercised by the king for as long as he had been sheriff. Brewing money (breugabulum, brugeld) was perhaps the most important of the non-judicial monetary dues, and in the inquisition of 1300 it was grouped with the judicial perquisites under an estimated annual value of 40s. (fn. 36)

The customary rights of the lord of the manor remained virtually unchanged throughout the centuries, and they were expressed in much the same terms in the 16th-century Pembroke Survey, although with the disappearance of the abbess's fair of St. Matthew, the lord had lost certain perquisites. He held the view of frankpledge, served by a sufficient jury of residents, at the Guildhall, and the expenses of the court were paid on behalf of the borough by the steward of the Guild Merchant. (fn. 37)

Attempts were made in the 14th century to include the borough within the regard and bounds of Grovely Forest, the bounds of which, at their most extensive, ran close to the west gate of Wilton. These attempts, however, were eventually successfully withstood by the burgesses. (fn. 38)


1 Such grants were as a rule entered on the Pipe Rolls, but the earliest extant Pipe Roll (31 Hen. I) was later than the grant of the Guild Merchant to Wilton.
2 Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, ii, ed. C. Johnson and H. A. Cronne, p. 161.
3 C. Gross, Guild Merchant, iii. 251.
4 Wilton Corp. MSS. Deeds (1416); C. Gross, op. cit. ii. 389–90.
5 R. W. Evton, Court . . . and Itin. of Hen. II, 12; Rot. Chart. (Rec. Com.), 125, and for list of the charters preserved at Wilton see Wilts. Borough Records (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), 89.
6 Pipe R. 1205 (P.R.S. N.S., xix), 165.
7 Cal. Chart. R. 1226–57, 91; ibid. 1327–41, 91; ibid. 1341–1417, 276; Cal. Pat. 1399–1401, 290; ibid. 1413–16, 135; ibid. 1429–36, 284; ibid. 1461–67, 537.
8 Rolls of the King's Court (P.R.S. xiv), 99.
9 Pipe R. 1205 (P.R.S. N.S., xix), 169.
10 Cal. Close, 1227–31, 325.
11 J. I. 1/1006, m. 61 d.
12 The statement about the coroner at Wilton on p. 24 of V.C.H. Wilts. v, should be understood to mean that the first named coroner occurs in 1346.
13 Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 632.
14 S. C. 6/1089/11, 12.
15 J. I. 1/1001 m. 29 d.; E 119/1.
16 The accounts of the steward of the Guild Merchant, of which one has survived for the 14th century, and an almost complete series for the 15th century, give full details of borough receipts and expenses.
17 See p. 21.
18 Wilton Corp. MSS. Deeds.
19 See p. 28.
20 Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk. f. 3.
21 Ibid. f. 581.
22 Ibid. f. 3.
23 Ibid. f. 80.
24 Ibid. f. 13.
25 Ibid. 116.
26 Ibid. ff. 3, 4.
27 Ibid. f. 11.
28 Ibid. f. 3.
29 S. C. 6/1089/10–13; E 119/1; Wilts. Inq. p.m. 1242– 1326 (Index Libr.), 264–7.
30 First Pembroke Survey, ed. Straton, i. 205–6.
31 Wilton Corp. MSS. General Entry Bk., f. 1.
32 Ibid. f. 2.
33 Wilton Corp. MSS. Acct. Stwd. Guild Merchant, temp. Henry IV sqq.
34 Ibid. General Entry Bk., ff. 6, 13.
35 J. I. 1/1006 m. 61d.
36 Wilts. Inq. p.m. 1242–1326 (Index Libr.), 267.
37 First Pembroke Survey, ed. Straton, i. 205–6.
38 V.C.H. Wilts. iv, 432.