Pages i-xii

Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London: A, 1275-1298. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1899.

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The series of volumes preserved among the archives of the City of London at the Guildhall under the name of "Letter-Books" —so called from their being severally distinguished by a letter of the alphabet—have already been introduced to public notice by the late Mr. H. T. Riley in 'Memorials of London and London Life in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries,' edited by him in 1868 on behalf of the Corporation, under the superintendence of the Library Committee.

The series comprises just fifty volumes—lettered from A to Z (with two odd volumes marked respectively "&c." and "AB") and again from AA to ZZ—and in point of time extends from the early years of the reign of Edward I. almost to the close of the reign of James II. The earlier volumes (from which the 'Memorials' were compiled) possess the greater interest, inasmuch as they contain (inter alia) the chief, if not the only existing, record of the proceedings of the Court of Common Council and Court of Aldermen prior to the fifteenth century, when they were first entered in separate volumes, known respectively as Journals and Repertories. (fn. 1) The later volumes contain much that is also entered in the Journals and Repertories, (fn. 2) but the concluding volumes of the series are almost wholly devoted to orphanage matters. The Letter-Books are of vellum, whilst the Journals and Repertories are of paper.

Besides being known by distinctive letters, the earlier Letter Books originally bore other titles. Thus we find Letter-Book A referred to in the 'Liber Horn' and elsewhere as the 'Lesser Black Book' (Parvus or Minor Liber Niger (fn. 3) ); Letter-Book B as the 'Black Book' (Liber Niger (fn. 4) ); Letter-Book C as the 'Greater Black Book' (Major or Maximus Liber Niger (fn. 5) ); Letter-Book D as the 'Red Book' (Liber Rubeus (fn. 6) ); and Letter-Book E as the 'White Book' or 'New White Book of Writs and Memoranda' (Liber Albus or Liber Albus novus de brevibus et memorandis (fn. 7) ).

These titles were no doubt derived from the comparative size of each volume and the original colour of its binding. (fn. 8) The value of these earlier records was fully realized by Andrew Horn, the well-known jurist and sometime Chamberlain of the City, no less than by John Carpenter, the City's famous Town Clerk, both of whom drew largely upon these volumes for their own respective compilations of City customs and ordinances, viz., the 'Liber Horn' and the book known par excellence as the City's 'Liber Albus.' Later on these books of "Remembrances" (as they were sometimes called) were utilized by Fabyan, by Stow, and others.

Like other volumes of the City's records, the Letter-Books appear to have had their vicissitudes. Thus on the fly-leaf of Letter-Book E we find the following statement written in a hand of the sixteenth century :—

"Memorand' that this Boke of E was lost & was lackyng of a long seasoun untill the viijth day of July in the xxxijth yere of the reign of Kyng Henry the viijth that Robert Broke coen' seriaunte (fn. 9) espied out the seid Boke and caused it to be redemyd unto the Chambre of London &c. die et anno predictis."

This is corroborated by the record of the proceedings of the Court of Aldermen. The volume had fallen into the hands of a "gentilman"—an acquaintance if not a friend of the Common Serjeant—and on the 1st of July, 1540, that distinguished lawofficer was instructed by the Court to make an offer of 20s. for its surrender (fn. 10) :—

"Item yt ys agreyd that Mr Broke Coen' Seriaunt shall make an offree of 20s. to a gentilman of hys acqueyntaunce for a boke belongyng to thys Cytie called the boke of E whiche the seyd gentilman hath & to make report therof to thys Court &c."

Broke appears to have had an easy task, for a week later he brought the book into Court, with a solemn asseveration (provocative of a smile) that he had expended the whole of the money entrusted to him for the purpose, and had himself reaped no pecuniary benefit out of the transaction (fn. 11) :—

"Item Mr Broke Coen' Seriaunt brought in the boke of E belongyng to thys Cytye whyche boke had been longe myssyng. And reported to thys Court upon his honestye that yt cost hym no less then 20s. whiche he before receyvyd of Mr Chamberleyn for the redempcon' therof."

How the book went astray and what length of time it had been missing we shall probably never know. It might have been borrowed, as other books of the City have been borrowed, and for a time, if not for ever, lost. (fn. 12) But there is no need to suppose the Letter-Book to have been borrowed to account for its loss, if we consider the lax manner in which the City's records were written up by the four clerks or attorneys of the Mayor's Court prior to 1537, when stringent regulations were promulgated for future practice. (fn. 13) Hitherto each clerk had been in the habit of keeping in his own custody the books or calendars upon which he happened to be engaged for the time being. This would sufficiently account for the irregular, and at times haphazard, manner in which entries have been made in (at least) the first two Letter-Books, and for their overlapping each other in point of chronology. Thus Letter-Book A comprises the period from circa 1275-1298, and Letter-Book B from circa 1275-1313.

The character of the Letter-Books in general must not be judged from these two books, the pages of which are chiefly concerned with recognizances of debts. (fn. 14) These recognizances, however, have their value as illustrating the commercial intercourse of the citizens of London with Gascony and Spain in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, more especially in connexion with wine and leather. Hence the appearance of the names of those sworn as "correctors" (coretaru), or licensed brokers, of those commodities on the first page of Letter-Book A.

Another prominent feature of both these books is the record of the Assize of Bread, (fn. 15) as set from time to time by the municipal authorities. Here, too, as will be seen on p. 207 of this volume, the record has been irregularly kept, and little respect is paid to chronological order. The mode of fixing the price of bread was of so intricate and technical a character that it was deemed advisable to give no more than a passing notice of it in this Calendar.

To return to the Recognizances.

By the Statute of Acton Burnel (Stat. 11 Edward I.) it was enacted (inter alia) that recognizances of debts should be taken before the Mayor and a clerk appointed by the King. Nevertheless, within a very short while after the passing of this statute, and notwithstanding its express provision to the contrary, we find the Mayor, Sheriffs, and Aldermen declaring that such recognizances should be made before the City Chamberlain, (fn. 16) who might, if he liked, receive (as he frequently did) the recognizances at his own house instead of at the Guildhall. (fn. 17) A fee in proportion to the amount involved was charged for the enrolment of each recognizance, but an Alderman was exempt, just as he was also exempt from payment for enrolment of any kind of charter or deed. (fn. 18)

It was frequently a stipulation of these recognizances that the money should be paid in good, round, unclipped coin, whether pence or halfpence. This was especially the case about the year 1278, and was due to the fact that for some time past the coin of the realm had been so abominably clipped as to lose half its weight and value. The price of every commodity had in consequence become enhanced and foreign commerce had been reduced to stagnation. The Jews were the chief culprits, having taken to this method of recouping some of the loss they had sustained by a recent enactment which forbade them altogether to exact any kind of usury in future. (fn. 19) But the Jews were not the only offenders. There were not wanting goldsmiths and money-changers ready to take a hand in the ignoble game of "sweating" coin, or at least to aid and abet those engaged in the nefarious practice.

The evil became so great that in November, 1278, the King determined to put a stop to it, and gave orders for the immediate arrest of all suspected Jews and their Christian accomplices. Those taken in the City were brought to the Guildhall and there held to bail (vadiati). (fn. 20) Early in the following year they were brought to trial before Stephen de Penshurst, Walter de Helyun, and John de Cobham, the King's Justiciars sent to the Guildhall for the purpose. The trial lasted until Lent began, when the judges rose, and was resumed after Easter.

There seems little doubt that it was owing to these proceedings taking place at the Guildhall that Hugh Motun, the City Chamberlain (or one of the City Chamberlains, for at times there seem to have been more than one), found it con venient to take recognizances at his house or shop instead of at his official place of business. (fn. 21) At the close of the trial nearly three hundred Jews were condemned to be hanged, and three Christians, nearly all the goldsmiths and moneyers arrested on suspicion escaping the death penalty, even if they did not get off scot free. About Whitsuntide proclamation was made withdrawing from currency all clipped money, exchanges being set up at the Tower of London and in various other cities and boroughs, where the bad money might be brought in and, on payment of the deficit, be exchanged for good. The exchanges throughout the realm were placed in charge of one who figures largely in the City's history, viz., Gregory de Rokesle, who was at that time filling the Mayoralty chair for the sixth year in succession. (fn. 22)

To add to the discomfiture of the Jew in the City, a series of ordinances had recently been passed under Rokesle's rule, the first being to the effect that the King's peace should be kept between Christians and Jews; but this ordinance had been afterwards altered (probably in consequence of the King's action against the Jews over the clipped money business), and Jews were struck out of the ordinance. They were in effect not to be considered in the King's peace, although at all times regarded as the King's chattel. (fn. 23)

Another ordinance forbade "foreign" butchers (i. e., butchers not freemen of the City) buying meat from Jews to resell to Christians, or meat slaughtered for Jews and by them rejected. The meaning of the concluding words of this ordinance is best illustrated by certain proceedings which took place before the King's Council at Westminster in 1274, during the King's absence abroad, whither also the Mayor, Henry le Galeys, had gone. The proceedings are recorded in the City's 'Liber de Antiquis Legibus,' (fn. 24) where it appears that shortly before Mid summer the Sheriffs and certain discreet men of the City appeared before the Council, and the following questions were put to them:—

"It is notorious that the Jews kill with their own hands all beasts and fowls whose flesh they eat. But some beasts they consider of their law, and some not; the flesh of those which are of their law they eat, and not the flesh of others. What then do the Jews do with the flesh of those which are not of their law? Is it lawful for Christians to buy and eat it?"

In reply, the citizens declared that if any Christian bought any such flesh of a Jew, he would be immediately excommunicated, and if convicted thereof by the Sheriffs of the City or by any one else he would lose such flesh and it would be given to the lepers or to the dogs to eat, and he would be heavily amerced by the Sheriffs. They further expressed their willingness to visit such delinquents with heavier punishment if the Council thought fit. To this the Council replied that seeing the matter concerned the Jews, who were the property of the King, they would not advise a severer form of punishment for the Christians in his lordship's absence, but they straitly commanded the citizens in virtue of their fealty to cause the custom rigidly to be observed. Hence, no doubt, its appearance among these ordinances. One other ordinance was directed against this ill-fated race, and this forbade the letting or hiring of residential houses to or from Jews, who were to be strictly relegated to the Jewry—the London Ghetto. (fn. 25)

The recognizances in Letter-Book A terminate in 1294, (fn. 26) and are immediately followed by a series of deeds extending from 1281 to 1293, the recognizances and deeds being the chief feature of the volume, the rest being occupied by miscellaneous matters and additions of a later date, inserted wherever space permitted. Thus on fos 89 b-92 we find ordinances touching the fishmongers of the City, in French, with another set of ordinances regulating the seasons for fishing, the size of nets to be used, &c., in English, and between the two an account of the burning of a "false kidell" of a considerably later date, written in Latin. On fo. 101 and following folios we have the names of the various Sheriffs elected between 1278 and 1293 (roughly speaking), and again between 1298 and 1302, together with the names of their respective sureties sworn to see that they paid the City's ferm. Sometimes they are set down as Sheriffs of London, and sometimes as Sheriffs of London and Middlesex. On pp 75-6 will be found what appears to be a unique instance of a Sheriff of Middlesex recorded eo nomine in the City's archives, as distinct from the Sheriff (or Sheriffs) of London, prior to the passing of the Local Government Act of 1888. The date of the record is 1283, and it purports to be an acknowledgment by Nicholas de Winchester of a sum of money due to the King on his accounts during his Shrievalty in 1280-1, and an acquittance to Anketin de Bettevile and Walter le Blound, the then Sheriffs of London, and to Gerin, then Sheriff of Middlesex, who held a writ of distress for the money. The explanation of this seems to be that the Sheriffs of London, who held the Sheriffwick of Middlesex at a ferm (under charter of Henry I.), had, so to speak, sub-let it; for, in the same year, we find a formal judgment given by the Mayor, Aldermen, and Sheriffs to the effect that thenceforth (as if the practice had been, or was likely to become, common) the Sheriffs of London should not deliver the county of Middlesex to ferm. (fn. 27)

An early copy of the Statute of Westminster the First— almost a code by itself, covering, as it does, the whole field of legislation—is recorded on fos. 118-125 b, but has not been set out by the Editor for the reason that with the exception of two short paragraphs, each commencing E si viscuntes ou coroners ou autre Bailifs, &c (fos. 119-120), the whole is printed in the 'Statutes at Large' (ed. 1758, vol. i. pp. 40-57). This is followed (fos. 125 b-126) by extracts from the Statute of Gloucester passed three years later, viz., A D. 1278. (fn. 28) It was based on the returns of a great commission of inquiry instituted on the King's return from the Holy Land after the death of his father, with a view to correct various abuses and usurpations of Crown rights that had arisen during the turbulent reign of King Henry III. The results of this searching inquiry (to which the City of London like the rest of the kingdom had to submit) are recorded in the Rotuli Hundredorum or Hundred Rolls, (fn. 29) and formed the basis of articles known as Capitula Itineris, delivered by the Justices in Eyre on going circuit, and were the immediate cause of the first chapter of the Statute of Gloucester. The chapters set out in the Letter-Book are those which more particularly affected the citizens of London, viz., caps. 11-15.

We learn from the City's 'Liber Custumarum' (fn. 30) that chapter 12 had been inserted in the statute for the express purpose of removing a grievance of the citizens. Before the Act the custom had prevailed in the City that when any one impleaded in the Husting vouched to warranty a stranger (forinsecum), the matter was adjourned until the next Iter at the Tower. This occasioned oftentimes much delay and hardship, and the citizens had in consequence appealed to the King for a remedy. Accordingly, it was enacted by this twelfth chapter of the Statute of Gloucester that if a man impleaded for a tenement in the City vouched to warranty a stranger, he should come into the Chancery and have a writ to summon the warrantor on a certain day before the Justices of the Bench, and another writ to the Mayor and Bailiffs ordering them to stay proceedings in the Husting until the plea of warranty should be determined before the Bench. The remedy proved little better than the disease, for the King's Chancery being in those days a movable Court, it was not always an easy matter to sue out a writ, and thus default in appearance frequently took place and all was lost. Further representations were therefore made to the King, and in 1282 the chapter was amended. It was no longer to be necessary to sue out a writ in Chancery; but the Mayor and Bailiffs were themselves to send the matter direct to the Justices of the Bench, the rest of the proceedings remaining much as before. (fn. 31) For thirty-three years and more this procedure, we are told, was followed, the Justices of the Bench always receiving the records sent in by the Mayor and Sheriffs, and thereupon summoning the stranger called to warranty to appear before them, until in the seventh year of Edward II. exception was taken to the practice as being contrary to the Statute of Gloucester. The Justices examined the statute and examined the terms of the chapter as amended (or article, as it was called) sent to the Mayor and Sheriffs by the King, and, finding them not to agree, forthwith quashed the proceedings. Matters began to look serious, for if the amended chapter were to prove of no effect, all the proceedings that had been taken under it, whether before the Justices of the Bench or in the Husting, would be null and void. The civic authorities, with John de Gisors at their head, instituted a search among the Rolls of Chancery and the Rolls and Writs of the Justices of the Bench in each year since the amendment of the "article," in order to see what procedure had been used. The records for two years and more were thereupon carefully examined, and nothing being found to throw light on the subject, a Writ of Certiorari, addressed to the King's Treasurer and Chamberlains of the Exchequer, was sought for and obtained. This was in April, 1316. A second search, officially carried out, proved successful, a record being discovered of a case in 1290 to which the amended "article" was annexed. A return to the writ being duly made to that effect, the King's Council agreed that a warrant under the royal seal should issue to the Justices of the Bench, enjoining them to follow in future the procedure set out in the article in all cases of strangers being called to warranty in the Husting of London, notwithstanding such article being at variance with the statute. A writ was accordingly issued on the 2nd of May following. (fn. 32)

The year 1285 was a memorable one in the City's annals as marking what was little less than a civic revolution. The City lost its franchise, and for thirteen years was "in the King's hand," being governed by a Warden of his selection and appointment, instead of by a Mayor appointed by the citizens. Many fresh regulations were made, as we know, upon this change of government, (fn. 33) and it is to this crisis in the City's history that we are indebted (I venture to think) for the earliest extant record of the names of the Aldermen and their respective Wards, as well as of the names of those appointed to assist them in the government of the City, as set out on folio 116 of Letter-Book A. (fn. 34)

Among the regulations just mentioned were some for keeping watch and ward in the City, (fn. 35) and in the volume before us we find Ralph de Sandwich, then Warden of the City, in conjunction with the Aldermen, allotting the several gates of the City to the custody of certain Wards. (fn. 36) This was in 1287, or two years after the City had been taken into the King's hand. The list is interesting as showing a transition state, when the Wards were becoming known by their territorial designations instead of by the names of their respective Aldermen for the time being. It gives us also the names of the gates then in existence, and under the denomination of "Danes" mentions the merchants of the Hanse of Almaine, whose duty it was not only to keep Bishopsgate in good repair, but also to take their part in guarding it whenever necessary, in accordance with the terms of a "composition" made between them and the citizens in June, 1282. The "Danes" were to occupy the middle portion of the gate (in medio), the men of the Ward being above and below them. (fn. 37) In return for their undertaking the above duties, the Hanse merchants were to be for ever free from payment of murage, a tax which the civic authorities were permitted by the King to levy from time to time on goods entering the City, to enable them to keep the City's wall and gates in a state of efficiency. (fn. 38)

R. R. S.

The Guildhall, London, March, 1899.


  • 1. The Journals commence in 1416, the Repertories in 1495. Before the commencement of the latter the proceedings of the Court of Aldermen were recorded in the Journals.
  • 2. The entries in the Journals and Repertories are often roughly made, whereas those in the Letter-Books appear fair copies.
  • 3. 'Liber Horn,' fos. cclxii et seq.
  • 4. Id., fo. cciiijxxvij.
  • 5. Id., fos. cciiijxxx b et seq.
  • 6. Id., fos. cccxvj et seq .
  • 7. Id., fos. cciiijxxvij b et seq.; Letter Book B, fo. xxx.
  • 8. The present bindings are quite modern, and (with the exception of Letter-Book D, which, by a curious coincidence, has a red leather covering) are of white vellum.
  • 9. Afterwards Recorder of the City and Chief Justice of Common Pleas.
  • 10. Repertory 10, fo. 166.
  • 11. Id., fo. 166 b.
  • 12. Instances of the kind are cited by Riley in his Introduction (pp. viii, ix) to 'Memorials,' and they might be multiplied. Thus at Fabyan's death we find Walter Smith, who had married the widow of the famous chronicler, returning to the Court of Aldermen a valuable City manuscript known as the 'Chronicles of France,' which had long been in the deceased's keeping (Repertory 3, fo. 93 b).
  • 13. Repertory 9, fo. 251 b.
  • 14. The extracts from Letter-Book A appearing in the 'Memonals' scarcely number a dozen all told.
  • 15. The curious reader will find the subject exhaustively treated in a book entitled 'Artachthos, or A New Book declaring The Assize or Weight of Bread,' &.c, London, 1638, reprinted 1748.
  • 16. Infra, p. 79.
  • 17. See 'Liber Horn' (fo. cclxiv b): "Memorandum quod Cameranus Gildaule London recepit recogniciones debitorum ubique in civitate extra Gildaulam sicut patet in parvo nigro libro Gildaule inter recogniciones bene in principio libri et illi libro A litera intitulatur in xv folio et deinceps, etc."
  • 18. "Aldermanni etiam nihil solvere solebant pro irrotulationibus chartarum sive factorum ad ipsos pertinentium qualitercumque, sicut pluries patet, et specialiter Libro C, fo. cxxiiii°." — 'Liber Albus' (Rolls Series), i. 35.
  • 19. 'Chron Thomas Wykes' ('Ann. Monast.,' Rolls Series, No. 36), iv. 266, 278.
  • 20. Vide infra, p. 27.
  • 21. Vide infra, pp. 26, 27, 225.
  • 22. 'Chron. Thomas Wykes,' iv. 278-280; 'Chron. Edward I. and II.' (Rolls Series, No. 76), i. 88; Aungier, 'French Chron.' (Riley's translation), pp. 238, 239.
  • 23. Vide infra, p. 215. In the copy of the ordinances to be found in 'Liber Horn' (fo. cclxv) the ordinance appears in its amended form.
  • 24. Ed. Camd. Soc., p. 171; 'Chron. Mayors and Sheriffs,' pp. 176, 177.
  • 25. "Notwithstanding this ordinance, it is difficult to identify any one house in Old Jewry as belonging to a Jew in 1290, the year of their expulsion from England." See lecture on 'The London Jewry, 1290,' delivered by Mr. Joseph Jacobs at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, Royal Albert Hall, 5 May, 1887.
  • 26. They are continued in Letter-Book B, fos. 25b et seq.
  • 27. Vide infra, p. 206.
  • 28. Writ to the Mayor and Sheriffs bidding them see that the statute was published in the Husting, dated 14 Aug., 6 Edward I. Infra, p. 224.
  • 29. See 'Rotuli Hundredorum' (Record Com., ed. 1812), i. 403-433.
  • 30. Rolls Series, i. 169-170.
  • 31. Writ to the Mayor and Sheriffs notifying the amendment, dated 10 June, 9 Edward I. (Letter-Book A, so 126 b, cedula).
  • 32. A record of the whole of these proceedings is preserved in the 'Liber Cust,' i. 169-177. Cf. Husting, Common Pleas, Roll 40, membr. 20.
  • 33. The ordinances set out in the 'Liber Albus' (Rolls Series), i. 280- 297, have the following introductory words in the 'Liber Custumarum' (fo. 217): Ceux sount les establicementz qe le Roi Edward fist qant il prist en sa main la fraunchise de la cite, et sount les uns usez en temps qant ilad sa fraunchise .
  • 34. In support of the conjecture that the list should be ascribed to either 1285 or 1286 may be mentioned the fact that all the Aldermen in the list are named in two deeds dated January, 1286, and enrolled in the Husting —Roll 19 (19), (20)—with the exception of Stephen Aswy, whose absence may be accounted for by the fact that he had been committed to prison for the part he had recently played in the well-known incident which led the King to disfranchise the City. See 'London and the Kingdom,' i. 120- 122. Moreover, by February, 1286, John de Norhampton appears no longer as Alderman of Aldgate, his place being taken by William de Hereford. See Hust. Roll 17 (22).
  • 35. 'Liber Albus,' i. 284.
  • 36. Infra, pp. 227-229.
  • 37. The position assigned to the Hanse merchants in the "composition," for the purpose of defence, was the upper part of the gate ('Liber Albus,' i. 485-488; Letter-Book C, fo. 30 b).
  • 38. The nature of the goods on which the tax was levied will be seen infra, p. 223. The King's licence was usually granted for a term of three years Cf. 'Chron Edward I. and II.' (Rolls Series, No. 76), i. 88.