A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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CITY GOVERNMENT, 1230-1350
By the 1230s it is possible to trace in Chester emergent civic institutions, responsible to the citizens rather than the earl. In the 1230s the dominant figures were still the city sheriffs but by 1300 the mayor was established as the senior civic official. Throughout the period the main institutions of city government remained the city courts and the guild merchant.
The sheriffs and their courts, 1230-1300
The shrievalty appears first to have been divided in the 1220s or 1230s, during the tenure of Stephen Fresnell, and there were certainly two sheriffs by 1244. (fn. 1) Possibly the division of the office marked its transfer to civic control; elsewhere the right to appoint borough officials was linked with responsibility for the farm, a privilege which the Cestrians had acquired by 1238. (fn. 2) One indication that the office had been vested in the citizens, and had perhaps become elective, is the greater frequency with which it changed hands from the mid 13th century; the fact that at least 11 different combinations of holders served during the mayoralty of Richard the clerk. (c. 1251-68), for example, strongly suggests that by then appointments were for one year only. (fn. 3) Indeed, in the mid 14th century the sheriffs alleged that the citizens had been granted the power to elect two sheriffs by the Lord Edward as earl of Chester after 1254. (fn. 4)
Throughout the period the principal city court remained the portmote. (fn. 5) Clearly a court of record, where the principal citizens of Chester witnessed one another's land grants, by the mid 13th century it probably dealt with other forms of civil business relating to property, and with minor criminal offences. By the 1290s, when it met every two to three weeks (occasionally consecutively) on Mondays, with long recesses at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and harvest, it dealt with every kind of action apart from the Crown pleas, but was especially concerned with pleas of real estate, initiated by both plaint and writ.
Business in the portmote remained in the hands of doomsmen, holders of certain properties within the city: such an obligation, for instance, went with the land and buildings in Bridge Street granted by Simon Whitchurch, abbot of St. Werburgh's (1265-91), to David the miller, who thereafter witnessed charters in the portmote, acted as doomsman, and eventually became sheriff in the 1290s. The property so conveyed was clearly large by Chester standards, since David paid £2 a year rent for it. (fn. 6) Presumably all such properties were of some size and standing. Certainly, the only one from the period that can be identified, also in Bridge Street and adjoining St. Olave's church, was a major stone house owned by another prominent citizen, Edward I's master mason Richard the engineer. (fn. 7)
Almost certainly the sheriffs continued to preside over the portmote throughout the 13th century. The position, however, is complicated by the fact that although in the 1240s and 1250s they often headed witness lists recorded in the portmote, (fn. 8) sometimes apparently even when the mayor was present, (fn. 9) from the later 1250s the mayor took precedence. (fn. 10) Moreover, in 13th-century royal records the principal local officials were generally referred to ambiguously as 'bailiffs'. (fn. 11) The term was useful to the Crown: embracing the holder of any bailiwick, it was applied to urban officials known locally by a variety of titles. (fn. 12) When, for example, in 1241 the king ordered that the bailiffs of Chester be paid their expenses for keeping the town and bridge, the officials so designated probably comprised the serjeants of the four main gates as well as the sheriffs. (fn. 13) In the county court, too, the presidents of the portmote were invariably termed bailiffs, (fn. 14) although the same court also referred to the city's sheriffs in a manner which suggests that it regarded them as the officials principally responsible for bringing to justice those offending within the city limits. In cases which involved the citizens' privileges and immunities, however, the mayor seems also to have been involved. (fn. 15)
The shrieval office was still very influential, and in 1264 the St. Werburgh's annalist vehemently denounced one of its holders for urging the demolition of houses belonging to the abbey in order to make the north wall of the city more defensible. (fn. 16) The sheriffs' standing was further enhanced when in the mid 13th century they began to hold a separate summary court, distinct from the portmote and meeting in the Pentice, a structure built against the south wall of St. Peter's church, which seems to have served as the shrieval office. Though the Pentice court apparently dealt with much the same kind of business as the portmote, cases were determined personally by the sheriffs, and there were no doomsmen. (fn. 17) The court, which was well established by 1288, was particularly concerned with the regulation of the markets, dealing with offences such as forestalling and regrating, and also heard all pleas during the fairs, when the portmote was suspended. (fn. 18)
Serious crimes, earlier dealt with by the county court, had by the 1280s become the preserve of separate sessions, presided over by the justice of Chester or his deputy, and known as the king's court in the city. (fn. 19) By then it had been recognized that cases of simple trespass and the fines arising from them were to be left to the sheriffs in the Pentice. (fn. 20) The sheriffs also executed the orders of the king's court and the city courts; within the liberties they were responsible for arrest, attachment, and distraint, for summoning defendants and bringing juries, for keeping prisoners secure and producing them in court, for taking bail, and for taking charge of and accounting for disputed property. (fn. 21)
The king's court in the city nevertheless continued to refer to the presiding officials of the portmote as bailiffs. In 1292, for example, a citizen alleged at the king's court that he had been falsely amerced on the orders of the bailiffs and judgers of the portmote for not answering a plea at the proper hour. It was then established, on the evidence of the mayor and community, that it was customary at the portmote for parties in suits to appear at the third call 'after the horn had been sounded and the bailiffs had taken their seats'. (fn. 22) A further indication of the bailiffs' role is provided by an order of 1293 that they were to bring the record of the portmote into the king's court after a complaint of false judgement. (fn. 23)
Occasionally the county court used the term bailiff to refer to officials performing actions otherwise ascribed to the sheriffs, such as making arrests and taking charge of pledges. (fn. 24) In one instance there was an unambiguous reference to an official as both bailiff and sheriff: in 1288 Hugh Payn as bailiff obtained the release of a load of malt detained at the Dee Mills, and as one of the sheriffs was assaulted in his own court, the Pentice. (fn. 25) Clearly the term bailiff had no very specific meaning in the records of the king's court at Chester. If any distinction was intended between bailiff and sheriff, then the most that can be said is that the former was more comprehensive and could include officers other than the sheriff, in particular their executive officers, the serjeants. (fn. 26)
The records of the portmote itself, which survive only from 1295, generally used the term sheriff, although on at least one occasion bailiff was substituted. (fn. 27) They suggest that until 1300 the sheriffs were expected to preside; in particular, dating seems to have been by shrieval terms as well as regnal years. (fn. 28) The sheriffs' role is further confirmed by the fact that until the early 14th century royal writs enrolled at the court, including original writs, were invariably addressed to them alone. (fn. 29)
The serjeants of the city
Serjeanties occurred in a variety of contexts in 13thcentury Chester. The crucial group was the serjeanties of the four main gates, Eastgate, Northgate, Bridgegate, and Watergate, offices which were initially held of the earl. Although they remained in the earl's gift until the end of the Middle Ages, (fn. 30) they nevertheless acquired civic functions, often exercised by keepers and deputies. There thus developed a body known as the serjeants of the city, charged with policing, supervising the city watch, and servicing the city courts. (fn. 31) Almost certainly, as later, the four gates and the four main streets entered through them were the basis of the city's administrative subdivisions: a serjeanty of Bridge Street, for example, existed by 1340. (fn. 32) The serjeants of the gates thus became responsible for supervising the watch and collecting tolls at the gates (a function which by the 1290s they were already abusing). The serjeant of the Northgate also had charge of the city prison, gallows, and pillory. (fn. 33) They assisted the sheriffs in making arrests, summoning defendants and juries, taking charge of the goods of those found guilty of serious crimes, (fn. 34) and ensuring the security of prisoners. (fn. 35) That association led to their inclusion among the 'bailiffs of the city', and perhaps enabled the more senior among them occasionally to preside over the portmote in the absence of the sheriffs. (fn. 36)
The emergence of the mayoralty
Unlike the sheriffs and serjeants, the mayors originated as representatives of the citizens themselves. As elsewhere the mayoralty was never the subject of a formal grant. The earliest known holder of the office, William the clerk, was first named as mayor c. 1240, though he had been a senior civic figure, attesting documents, since the 1220s. (fn. 37) The sudden occurrence of a clutch of royal letters and orders addressed to the mayor between 1244 and 1251 suggests that his office was a recent creation. The business with which he was required to deal, occasionally alone but more often in conjunction with the sheriffs and other prominent citizens, included a request for a loan, an adjudication on the closure of a lane near the Franciscan friary, overseeing paving and royal works within the city, and disposing of the remains of the king's wine after a royal visit. (fn. 38)
The rise of the mayor to prominence in civic administration coincided with the growth of royal interest in the city, stimulated by Henry III's expeditions into Wales. (fn. 39) Thereafter, in charters of the 1250s, the mayor was accorded a primacy of honour in the attestation of grants recorded at the portmote, yielding precedence only to the justice of Chester. (fn. 40) Gradually, too, he seems to have taken on the role of chief representative and negotiator on behalf of the citizens in a variety of matters relating to the city's rights and privileges. In the 1260s he was associated with the sheriffs in defending Chester's legal privileges in the county court, and by the 1290s he was expected to adjudicate on civic custom and to prosecute the city's claims to immunity at the King's Bench. (fn. 41)
A further responsibility came with the grant of the right to hold the seal of Statute Merchant. The larger portion of the seal was kept by the mayor, the smaller by a new associate, the clerk for the recognizance of debt. Early holders of the latter post, first recorded in 1291, (fn. 42) included the son of a former mayor and a royal clerk. (fn. 43) The grant of the seal made Chester a regional centre for the registration of debt and conditional bonds, some of which involved very large notional sums; by the 1340s proceedings were held before the mayor and clerk and enrolled among the records of the portmote. (fn. 44)
Despite such wide responsibilities, the mayor did not apparently act as a judge within the city or preside over the city's courts before 1300; his involvement in judicial processes was apparently limited to punishing those convicted in the king's court of minor marketing offences. (fn. 45) Occasionally, indeed, the sheriffs were expected to act against mayors who exceeded their role. In 1293, for example, the king's court empowered the sheriffs to attach the mayor, Robert the mercer, on a charge of inflicting the punishment of being drawn on hurdles. (fn. 46)
Such evidence suggests that the mayoralty originated informally as the headship of some association of the civic élite, probably the guild merchant; a local tradition that before the citizens had a mayor, the warden or alderman of the guild was their civic head, although erroneous, perhaps adds substance to that view. (fn. 47) It is also uncertain how the early mayors were chosen. If it was by election, then no term seems to have been put upon the successful candidate's tenure: mayors such as William the clerk, Walter de Livet, Richard the clerk, and John Arneway apparently held the office for uninterrupted periods of 10 years or more. From 1278, however, the mayors changed more frequently, although the same men often reappeared. (fn. 48) That may well suggest a more open method of selection, perhaps accompanying the extension of the mayor's role in the late 13th century.
Civic government, 1230-1300
The emergence of a mayor implies a growing sense of common identity among the citizens, and it is perhaps significant that in contemporary court records the mayor was often mentioned in association with the commonalty. (fn. 49) Royal reference to 'good men' (probi or boni homines) suggests that the men of Chester were regarded by the Crown as analogous to other urban élites in the mid 13th century. (fn. 50) Some sense of common identity was perhaps already apparent in the divisions between the king's men and bishop's men in Chester which flared into violence in 1238; the king's men included John son of Ulketel, probably John Ulkel, later a doomsman and sheriff. (fn. 51) By then, too, the citizens' control of the farm was reflected in its reduction by £30 or £40 from the high sum of £200 originally demanded. (fn. 52)
The men of Chester assumed other responsibilities at an early date, especially the maintenance of streets and defences. Under the terms of the earliest surviving grants of pavage and murage, in 1246 and 1249, they could apparently be called to account for the moneys collected for those purposes. (fn. 53) Similarly, in 1246 their consent was required to allow the Franciscans to breach the city walls to bring in materials for their new buildings. (fn. 54) In 1288 maintenance of the Dee Bridge became a further duty. (fn. 55)
Taxation was the principal means by which the men of Chester were liable to be treated as a community by the Crown. In 1240, for example, the king received £50 as aid from Chester. (fn. 56) Tallages were also levied on the city community as a whole and could relate to local projects. Building works begun at the castle in 1249 were paid for by a tallage levied on the city and on the king's men in the county. (fn. 57) In addition to such taxes the citizens were required to make loans in both cash and kind. (fn. 58)
The 13th-century burgesses also acted as a group in managing the town fields in Newton and Claverton (fn. 59) and their long-standing rights of common pasture on Saltney marsh, where in 1249 a dispute between the 'king's burgesses' of Chester and Roger of Mold over a ditch which Roger had caused to be dug was resolved in their favour. (fn. 60)
The townspeople's main instrument of common action was the portmote, whose doomsmen retained their dominance in civic life throughout the 13th century (fn. 61) and as late as 1305 adjudicated on such major issues as the presidency of the court. (fn. 62) With their power to determine custom, their role in the attestation of local land grants, and their high social standing, they seem to have formed the principal element in the administration of the 13th-century city, (fn. 63) and the main civic officials were chosen from their ranks. The connexion between the portmote and the guild merchant, even in the late 14th century, is obscure. Almost certainly presided over by the mayor, the guild merchant was probably, as elsewhere, much more than a society of private traders independent of the city. (fn. 64) In the 13th century its membership was drawn from the ruling élite, especially the doomsmen and civic officers, as was that of the otherwise unknown and possibly related guild of St. Mary which met in the house of the former mayor John of Brickhill in 1330. Many of the 48 members of St. Mary's guild either belonged to families which had produced senior civic officers or were pledged by such prominent citizens. The record of those admitted on that occasion seems to have been kept with the archives of the city treasurer. (fn. 65)
The membership and privileges of the burgesses were ill-defined, and there is no evidence to identify them as a group with the guild merchant. (fn. 66) Burgage tenure was linked primarily with payment of gavel, the money rent owed to the king or chief lord, (fn. 67) which by the 13th century was perhaps reduced to a quitrent, (fn. 68) and specific civic obligations were attached to certain burgage holdings. (fn. 69) Nothing, however, is known of any council of twelve or twenty-four such as came into being elsewhere. Nor was there any communal seal, although in the early 13th century one sheriff, Richard Pierrepont, had his own privy seal, as did the mayor a little later. (fn. 70) How the men of Chester acted in concert to discharge the responsibilities laid upon them by royal orders is not clear, and there is no indication of how they chose their senior officials. The sheriffs and perhaps the mayors were elected in the later 13th century, the sheriffs presumably in the portmote, the mayors in the guild merchant. Other officials, such as the overseers of pavage and the king's works, were nominated by the Crown, presumably on the recommendation of the portmote or guild. (fn. 71) Some, such as the collectors of murage, were simply required to be two men of the town, and must have been appointed locally. (fn. 72) The cursus honorum for Chester's élite is well illustrated by the career of Richard the clerk. The son of a former mayor, William the clerk, he was probably already active in the portmote of Chester by c. 1250, and soon became sheriff and eventually mayor. (fn. 73) In 1253, however, he paid to avoid service as a viewer, presumably a less desirable office. (fn. 74)
Chester's urban élite formed a tightly knit group. Difficult though it is to be sure whether family names were being passed on from father to son, there are clear indications that the principal civic offices were very largely the preserve of a few prominent families: the same surnames or patronymics occurred again and again among the mayors, sheriffs, and doomsmen. One such family was that of William and Richard the clerk, which may also have included Philip the clerk, sheriff 1277-8. (fn. 75) Another was the Saracens, well established by 1200, when one of its members was a doomsman, and still represented in the portmote in the 1270s, by which time it had produced at least one long-serving sheriff. (fn. 76) Similarly the Hurrell family supplied mayors, sheriffs, doomsmen, a clerk for the recognizance of debt, and a collector of customs between the mid 13th century and the 1330s. (fn. 77) Especially important in the later 13th and much of the 14th century was the Doncaster family, whose fortunes were founded by William, prior of St. Werburgh's (d. 1259). (fn. 78) In the late 13th and early 14th century his relative, William (III), brought the family's prosperity to its apogee with his activities as mayor and doomsman, purveyer to the royal armies, collector of royal customs, and warden and searcher of money in Chester and north Wales. (fn. 79) His son and grandson, both also called William, continued to play a prominent role in civic affairs, William (IV) being sheriff in 1313-14 and William (V) sheriff 1343-4. (fn. 80) Such examples could easily be multiplied, especially for the better documented 1290s and early 14th century, when notable families included the Payns, the Brickhills, and the Dunfouls. The Payns seem to have been especially important in the 1280s and 1290s, when Hugh Payn owned extensive property within the liberties, held the office of sheriff, accounted for the city's amercements at the Chester exchequer, and made a grant of seven messuages which enabled the Carmelites to establish themselves on a permanent site. (fn. 81) A relative, Nicholas Payn, was twice sheriff in the same period. (fn. 82) The Brickhill family also accumulated offices. One Hugh was sheriff in the 1280s, and another many times mayor in the period 1293-1314, while William was three times sheriff and six times mayor between 1306 and 1332, and a third member of the family, John, was mayor in 1320-1 and perhaps in 1321-2. (fn. 83)
The city and the county court before 1300
The city's growing independence was evident in its relations with the county court. In the 13th century the portmote's competence was restricted to civil cases and minor criminal offences. Crown pleas were dealt with by a court under the justice of Chester, which by the 1280s was known as the king's court in the city. (fn. 84) Like the portmote, it met on Mondays, though not usually more than once a month and with recesses at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer, and harvest. (fn. 85) It met within the city, possibly at the castle, (fn. 86) and included judgers drawn, like those of the portmote, from the senior citizenry of Chester. (fn. 87) Increasingly its sessions were distinguished from those of the normal county court. In the mid 13th century its proceedings were included with the rest of the county business, but by the 1280s they were recorded on a separate roll, and indeed included some property transactions of the kind frequently enrolled at the portmote. (fn. 88) At the same time business relating to Chester at such sessions of the county court passed more and more into the hands of civic officials, so that by the 1280s presentments were made by the city coroners or the 12 'jurors for the city', and orders were executed by the city sheriffs. (fn. 89)
The king's court in the city heard appeals from the portmote and Pentice, though by the 1290s in so doing it consulted with the mayor and commonalty about the city's customs. (fn. 90) Equally, however, cases initiated in the king's court could be referred to the city courts, (fn. 91) notably certain minor offences which were referred back to the sheriffs to be heard summarily in the Pentice. (fn. 92) On occasion the overlap between the two jurisdictions gave rise to dispute. The competence of the city courts was restricted to the city liberties, yet many citizens had important interests outside, especially in the immediately adjacent town fields in Newton and Claverton. (fn. 93) There was uncertainty over which was the appropriate court to deal with disputes between citizens about property in such areas. Thus in 1294 a case involving the distraint of eight oxen, presumably working in one of the town fields outside the liberties, was initially determined in favour of the plaintiff by the 12 city jurors, but was deferred when the defendant claimed that he ought not to answer in the king's court in the city for an offence in the county. By then the king's court in the city was recognized as separate from the county court proper, and its competence was restricted to the area covered by the portmote and Pentice. (fn. 94)
Increasingly, the city sought to limit or at least define the court's role. In 1295 the mayor, Hugh of Brickhill, and Roger of Mold's steward appeared before the court of King's Bench to argue that no royal official except the justice of Chester had ever held any plea in the city, but were forced to admit that they had no charter to justify their claim save the king's confirmations of the customs of the county. (fn. 95)
The charter of 1300 and city government 1300-50
The case of 1295 perhaps prompted the citizens to seek a formal definition of their rights. In 1300 they achieved their aim with Edward I's charter, the product of royal interest in the city which culminated during the Welsh wars. (fn. 96) The charter, which confirmed all the citizens' gains during the previous century, recognized the offices of mayor and city coroner and the grant to the citizens of the fee farm, set at £100 a year, only half of what had been demanded in the 1230s. (fn. 97) In one area it innovated. The grant of the Crown pleas to the citizens, at the time a unique privilege, (fn. 98) replaced the king's court in the city with a new court presided over by the mayor and 'bailiffs' (that is, the city sheriffs). The association of the latter with the mayor in a new judicial role affected the standing of both offices. The charter did not specify the nature of the court which was to hear the Crown pleas, beyond implying that it was in some sense the successor to the king's court in the city. Initially, it seems, no separate court was held. The earliest Crown pleas were enrolled with the records of the portmote, and were presumably heard at its sessions, thus giving rise to certain procedural problems. (fn. 99) Because the mayor had suddenly acquired a new role in the ancient city court, litigants began to argue about whether in his absence the sheriffs alone could still determine cases as they had before 1300. When in 1305 the plaintiff in a plea of novel disseisin argued that according to the usages of the city the sheriffs could hear and determine all pleas without the mayor, the sheriffs, by then unsure of their rights, adjourned the case. Clearly the new judicial role accorded the mayor in the charter of 1300 had rendered the presidency of the portmote uncertain. (fn. 100)
By 1305 the mayor had taken over the presidency of the portmote for civil as well as criminal cases. By then, too, the portmote roll was dated by reference to both mayor and sheriffs, instead of the sheriffs alone, as had been customary earlier. (fn. 101) In 1306 a deed was enrolled before the mayor in the portmote, and by 1313 original writs enrolled in the record were addressed to both mayor and sheriffs. (fn. 102) Though by 1316 the city had started to keep a separate record of Crown pleas, as late as 1358 they were still deemed to be held in the portmote. (fn. 103) As a result, by the time that a separate court of Crown pleas, the crownmote, eventually emerged, the mayor's position as president of the portmote had been firmly established. (fn. 104) The long process by which the mayoralty had gradually displaced the shrievalty as the principal civic office was more or less complete.
The growth of mayoral power in the portmote also affected the sole remaining shrieval court, the Pentice. For a brief period, c. 1320-40, it was presided over by the mayor together with the sheriffs. (fn. 105) When once again it became exclusively shrieval, much of its business had been eroded. Fair-time pleas and market offences were dealt with by the mayor in the portmote, and as a result proceedings in the Pentice became more and more routine. (fn. 106)
Inevitably the new arrangements led occasionally to dispute. In 1320, for example, the mayor and sheriffs, grounding themselves on Edward I's charter, refused to produce a man indicted at the eyre of the justice of Chester and committed to prison in Chester pending trial at the next session of the county court. (fn. 107) On the whole, however, in the early period there seems to have been relatively little friction between the two jurisdictions, and it was not until the mid 14th century that fresh controversy arose with the removal of cases from the city to the county court through writs of false judgement and of error. (fn. 108) By then a few criminal cases from Chester seem as a matter of routine to have strayed into the county court, by which means the latter had regained some residual jurisdiction over the city. (fn. 109)