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, 1550-1642
Chester was governed under its charter of 1506 by an Assembly comprising the mayor, two sheriffs, 24 aldermen (the Twenty-Four), and 40 common councilmen (the Forty), unofficially augmented in the earlier 16th century by the sheriff-peers (former sheriffs not yet promoted to the rank of alderman). (fn. 1) The annual election of aldermen and councillors had been undermined before 1550, elections being held only when vacancies occurred. The right of freemen to vote even on those occasions was gradually eroded, despite a lawsuit in 1573, though the Assembly managed to prevent mayors from simply nominating new councilmen. The irregular position of the sheriff-peers was questioned in 1599-1600, but in 1606 it was agreed to follow custom, irrespective of the literal sense of the charter. As there were usually between 15 and 20 sheriff-peers, the Assembly sometimes comprised more than 80 members who served for life. (fn. 2)
Limited popular participation survived in mayoral elections, which took place annually in October. Under the charter the freemen were to select two aldermen, from whom the aldermen and sheriffs elected one as mayor, but by 1567 the initiative lay with the aldermen, who presented two or more candidates to the freemen for approval and chose one as mayor themselves. By 1600 the first choice of candidates was made by the senior aldermen (former mayors, known as aldermen J.P.s); four separate votes were made by the other aldermen and the sheriffs, the sheriff-peers, the councilmen, and the freemen; and finally the aldermen alone elected as mayor one of the two candidates who had gained most votes in the earlier stages. Usually the man favoured at the first meeting of the aldermen J.P.s was successful, but the freemen took a great interest in the proceedings: 905 voted in 1629, 928 in 1634, and more than 1,000 in 1638. (fn. 3) By contrast, the freemen played little or no part in electing sheriffs: one was usually nominated by the aldermen, the other by the whole Assembly. (fn. 4)
The mayor and aldermen J.P.s dominated the Assembly, initiating measures and determining policy. From the early 17th century they met privately in the inner Pentice to discuss matters such as the mayoralty and financial affairs, (fn. 5) though councilmen were consulted on important questions, including finance, and some business still went to a vote of the whole Assembly. Membership of the latter was confined to freemen, and from 1583 vacancies were to be filled within a week in order to circumvent external pressure. (fn. 6) Fines were levied, though rarely, on absentees, and the Assembly kept a strict order of precedence and insisted on the wearing of tippets and gowns. (fn. 7) Meetings were summoned by the mayor and normally held on Fridays, but their frequency varied greatly, averaging seven a year during the 17th century. (fn. 8)
By 1600 a regular order of business had developed: the filling of vacancies in the Assembly and civic offices; financial matters; business introduced by members; the award of charitable funds; admissions to the freedom; and the consideration of petitions, presented in increasing numbers by guild officers and individual citizens. (fn. 9) The Assembly often defended its corporate rights and privileges, (fn. 10) co-operated with central government in implementing statutes and orders, supervised city officials, devised and enforced local regulations, and upheld civic dignity. The last was bolstered by ceremonies which involved displaying the civic mace and sword, as well as the coat of arms granted in 1580 and confirmed, probably with the motto, in 1613. (fn. 11) The book of civic memoranda begun in the mayoralty of Henry Gee (1539-40) was continued in an increasingly systematic way until it became during the 1570s the Assembly minute book; by then arrangements had been made to preserve the city's other records. (fn. 12)
Aspirants to civic office normally moved through a cursus honorum which could lead from common councilman through leavelooker, sheriff, and alderman to the mayoralty. A councillor had perhaps only a one in three chance of becoming an alderman, after 10 or 15 years in most cases, and as aldermen were elected for life but sheriffs served for only a year many failed to reach the highest offices. At least 18 men bypassed the shrievalty and were appointed aldermen because of their social standing. Little more than attendance at the Assembly was required of councilmen, who at first represented the wards. Two each year were elected as leavelookers, responsible for collecting tolls, and were thereafter senior members of the Forty. Two more served as murengers (another subsidiary financial office) and two as coroners. (fn. 13)
The two sheriffs, also appointed annually, had usually already served as leavelookers. Their most onerous duties were legal: they held the Pentice, passage, and county courts, collected fines and forfeitures, served writs, and had custody of prisoners in the Northgate gaol. They also had a general responsibility for public order, especially during fairs, and after 1543 conducted parliamentary elections. Two treasurers were elected from among the aldermen. (fn. 14)
The mayor's wide-ranging duties involved much detailed administration and paperwork. He led the Assembly and had considerable judicial powers in the portmote and crownmote courts and the city quarter sessions. He was ex officio clerk of the market, and was usually appointed by the government as a commissioner for taxation. (fn. 15) A small allowance, £13 6s. 8d. in the 1620s besides some casual fees, did not meet the heavy expenses incurred. (fn. 16) In the 1550s fines were imposed for refusal to serve as mayor, sheriff, or leavelooker, but by 1566 it was possible to decline the mayoralty or resign an aldermanship. (fn. 17)
Most influential men willingly undertook civic office, (fn. 18) and 62 of the mayors between 1550 and 1642 came from only 26 families. In general the aldermen were drawn from the wealthier occupations, notably drapers, merchants, mercers, ironmongers, and vintners. Merchants were mayors more often than any others, but tanners, glovers, shoemakers, innholders, and brewers also held the office frequently. Many, for example Henry Hardware, William Goodman, and the Gamulls, owned property in the city; the Gamulls, William Glazier, John Cowper, John Brereton, and others had rural property, mostly near by. (fn. 19)
Some leading civic families made marriage alliances with the county gentry, among them the Alderseys, Duttons, and perhaps most mayors. Partly as a result the gentry were increasingly willing to accept civic office, including (as mayor) Sir Laurence Smith, Sir John Savage the elder, Sir Randle Mainwaring, Sir John Savage the younger, and Sir Thomas Smith. Many aldermanic families were linked by marriage, like the Smiths and Mainwarings, Brerewoods and Ratcliffes, Gamulls and Bavands, and Thropps and Cowpers, (fn. 20) and some served for long periods over several generations. The average length of aldermanic tenure was more than 15 years, and 10 mayors served in the Assembly for more than 30 years. One of the most prolific officeholding families was that of Brerewood: Robert I was sheriff, Robert II mayor three times, his son John sheriff, and the latter's son, Robert III, recorder and alderman. At least six other families, Aldersey, Smith, Dutton, Hardware, Goodman, and Ratcliffe, had similar records.
The mayor's principal officers were the swordbearer, the serjeant of the peace (who was macebearer), four serjeants-at-mace, the yeoman of the Pentice (a janitor), and the city crier. All received small wages, partly from the mayor, partly from city funds, and the swordbearer also received meat, drink, a gown, and extra payments at Assembly elections. (fn. 21) The serjeant of the peace was responsible for attachments (seizure of goods) and at first shared with the swordbearer tolls of the malt market and fees at admissions to the freedom. The serjeants-at-mace had the exclusive right of acting as attorneys in the city courts, and initially were also paid out of the market tolls and received food and drink. Income from tolls was replaced in 1589 by annual wages. (fn. 22)
The sheriffs' main officers were the four serjeants of the Pentice, who could only attach 'strangers' (noncitizens) and were not permitted to act as attorneys. They took fees for attachments and tolls at the fairs, over which they squabbled until the 1630s, when fixed wages were substituted. (fn. 23) All the offices were normally filled on petition to the Assembly, sometimes accompanied by attempts to use outside influence, since they provided both status and a livelihood. (fn. 24)
The professional offices of recorder and clerk of the Pentice (or town clerk) were far more important. The recorder, always a lawyer and an alderman, was elected by the Assembly, his primary duties being to provide legal advice in the city courts and informally, and to act as a J.P. (fn. 25) The recorder was also an almost automatic choice as one of the city's M.P.s. (fn. 26) In 1606 James I tried to have his own nominee appointed, but the Assembly stood on the charter of 1506 and the king withdrew. (fn. 27)
The clerk of the Pentice was central to the city's administration. Always a lawyer, he was clerk of the courts and the Assembly, and served as the sheriffs' attorney at the Chester palatinate exchequer. By the 1620s he employed three under-clerks. (fn. 28)
OFFICE AND FACTION
Clerks of the Pentice seem to have been appointed by the recorder and sheriffs, not the Assembly. In 1587, however, Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham and the earl of Derby, Henry Stanley, blatantly sought the reversion for Peter Proby, a Cestrian lawyer. The interference caused much ill-feeling and the matter was not settled until 1590, when Proby was offered an annuity as a solicitor for the city. (fn. 29) When the incumbent died in 1598 the Assembly appointed his successor, (fn. 30) but on the latter's death in 1602 the mayor, John Ratcliffe, intruded a nominee of Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Egerton, Robert Whitby, by simply giving him the keys to the Pentice. In retaliation 40 members of the Assembly, including six former mayors, pressed for a free election, though they were not personally hostile to Whitby, whom they elected to the clerkship in the same year. (fn. 31)
Prolonged factional division in Chester's civic life followed. (fn. 32) Within five years Whitby had become a common councilman and clerk of the peace for Cheshire, and had his son Thomas elected as joint clerk of the Pentice, a position previously unknown. In 1612 Robert was elected mayor, Thomas became sheriff, and another son, Edward, was appointed recorder. The bishop and dean of Chester, George Lloyd and Thomas Mallory, openly alleged corruption, and during the next five years growing opposition to the Whitbys was orchestrated by Robert Brerewood. The Assembly was divided, and detailed evidence of the Whitbys' misconduct and maladministration was forthcoming in abundance. After the privy council insisted on a local resolution of the matter Robert and Thomas Whitby were examined formally in the inner Pentice in 1618, and the Assembly then dismissed them as joint clerks and appointed Robert Brerewood in their place.
The dispute spilled over into the parliamentary election of 1621, for which Edward Whitby, still recorder, was a candidate; after much intrigue he was returned with Alderman John Ratcliffe, evidently an ally. (fn. 33) The recorder remained actively hostile to Brerewood, and in 1627, with the help of Sir Thomas Savage, Mayor Nicholas Ince manipulated the Assembly into suspending Brerewood and appointing an acting clerk. They then sidestepped any counter-move by Brerewood's supporters, usually a majority in the Assembly, by secretly persuading the privy council to assume jurisdiction. The privy council at first committed the case to four commissioners, but after a disorderly mayoral election instead appointed Savage, one of Brerewood's adversaries, to examine the allegations against him. They included extortion and neglect of duty over three years. Brerewood resigned and was replaced in January 1628 by Savage's nominee.
The rivalry continued through the parliamentary election of 1628, when Recorder Whitby and John Ratcliffe were again returned, but differences were resolved by 1633, when (at the third attempt) Brerewood was made one of the city's counsel. Six years later, on Whitby's death, he was elected recorder.
LEGAL ADMINISTRATION (fn. 34)
Administration was often hampered by strained relations between the mayor and sheriffs, as amateur judges of the portmote and Pentice respectively, and the recorder, who was a professional lawyer. From the late 16th century a dispute developed about the recorder's fee, payable by the sheriffs, (fn. 35) and there was repeated argument about the fees charged to litigants by the clerk of the Pentice, at its height during the joint clerkship of the Whitbys. After their dismissal the Assembly confirmed a fixed scale of fees in 1621. (fn. 36)
A more serious jurisdictional conflict with the palatinate arose in part because the exchequer court of the chamberlain of Chester (the palatinate court) had long served as a court of equity for the city, valued by the citizens even though the Assembly tried to discourage resort to it. (fn. 37) In the early 1560s the vicechamberlain of Chester, William Glazier, an alderman, tried to collect customs duties in the city and took cognizance of an action for debt brought against Alderman Thomas Green, who had the mayor's support. (fn. 38) Both sides pressed their claims at Westminster, and in 1563, almost simultaneously, the chamberlain of Chester (Edward Stanley, earl of Derby) obtained the right to remove cases from the city to the Chester exchequer, while the corporation secured a change of wording in its charter which exempted the city from the exchequer's jurisdiction. The exchequer continued to assert its rights, and in 1568 disposed of another rival by obtaining a ruling which freed both the county palatine and the city from the authority of the Council in the Marches of Wales. It persisted in accepting actions entered by citizens and in issuing writs to remove cases from the city courts. City officers retaliated by ignoring the writs and disfranchising the vicechamberlain and two others. (fn. 39)
In 1574 the privy council upheld the exchequer's claims, ordered the reinstatement of those disfranchised, and confirmed the city's charter without the wording which excluded the exchequer. (fn. 40) Some time before, the new chamberlain, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, had urged compromise, (fn. 41) and thereafter open strife gave way to mutual respect. Occasional clashes still took place, but the city benefited from the exchequer's involvement in several important cases, including the protracted arguments about the clerkship of the Pentice and about liberties in the city. (fn. 42)
The corporation's finances were mainly administered by the treasurers, two in number and elected annually, other revenues being managed by the sheriffs, murengers, and leavelookers. (fn. 43) Before 1584 the mayor could authorize payments independently of the treasurers, and from 1573 the accounts of all four sets of officers were drawn up annually and submitted to auditors elected by the Assembly from its senior members. (fn. 44) The most important sources of income were rents from property, fees for grazing and haymaking rights on the Roodee, and payments for admission to the freedom, which between them normally accounted for over half the total. In addition there were receipts from tolls at the gates, miscellaneous fees, the prisage of wine, and surpluses from charitable endowments and occasional trading deals. (fn. 45)
Income from property grew absolutely and as a proportion of the total, from £25-£30 a year in the later 16th century to c. £65 by 1640, through higher rents, stricter leasing arrangements, and new building on city-owned land. The number of tenancies rose from 68 in 1573 to almost 370 in 1642, though arrears remained a problem. Payments for grazing animals on the Roodee at 10s. a head normally produced c. £30 a year. Fees paid by entrants to the freedom were more variable. New freemen admitted by patrimony paid only 3s. 4d., and those qualifying by apprenticeship £1 3s. 4d., but the corporation could exact what it chose from others. The total yield was rarely less than £20 a year and occasionally could be over £60. (fn. 46)
In the early 17th century the prisage on wine, farmed by royal patentees, brought in only c. £30 a year, but in 1639 the city secured the exclusive right to collect it, and during the first 15 months raised over £352. (fn. 47) The endowments of charitable funds under corporation control were administered by the treasurers, who used surpluses for civic purposes and could on occasion (in 1634, for example) borrow capital from the loan charities to meet deficits in their accounts. (fn. 48)
The city's expenses included salaries, wages, fees, administrative costs, and the maintenance of its properties. Annual payments to office-holders amounted to c. £30 during the later 16th century but had almost doubled by 1640. The recorder's fee, for instance, was raised in 1611 from £1 6s. 8d. to £13 6s. 8d., largely to compensate for increased legal business in London, and after 1618 a muster master was paid £10 a year to train the militia. (fn. 49) The other large increase was on the city's own lawsuits. (fn. 50)
The finances of the other accounting officers are more obscure. The sheriffs collected court fines, customs duties, tolls at fairs, and other lesser dues, amounting to little more than £25 a year in the early 17th century; from that they were required to pay the fee-farm rent of £20 and some minor fees. (fn. 51) The sheriffs were frequently at fault from the 1570s in both collecting and accounting, and clearly avoided their financial duties whenever possible. Eventually, in 1621 the Assembly ordered them to pay the fee-farm rent from their official income or their own pockets, allowing them to keep a quarter of any surplus. (fn. 52)
The murengers continued to collect murage, imposed on merchandise entering the city by sea and used for repairs to the walls, gates, and streets. The leavelookers took tolls on goods brought in for sale by non-freemen, and had to pay, among other things, for the crier and the chimes at St. Peter's church. (fn. 53) Even before 1600 the funds of both were insufficient, and the problem was not resolved until 1627-8, when the Assembly ordered them to collaborate, the leavelookers collecting all the duties, and the murengers dealing with payments. (fn. 54)
Before the 1580s the treasurers usually handled £50- £60 a year; thereafter the figure regularly reached £160, and from the mid 1620s was almost four times greater than in the 1550s. Nevertheless the accounts were in surplus perhaps only one year in two. (fn. 55) There seems to have been no stock of capital, and whenever the regular income proved insufficient the authorities had to make a special assessment. During the later 16th century such levies were required for the house of correction, the waterworks, and especially the New Haven at Neston; (fn. 56) in 1605 the renewal of the charter needed a general assessment of £100; (fn. 57) and from that date to 1642 there were no fewer than seven assessments for the murengers' works. (fn. 58) The levies were burdensome for the constables and aldermen of the wards who collected them, and sometimes aroused argument about liability. The corporation was thus usually reluctant to undertake costly new projects.