Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Borough government

A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.

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A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton, 'Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Borough government', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) pp. 110-121. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp110-121 [accessed 24 May 2024].

A P Baggs. Beryl Board. Philip Crummy. Claude Dove. Shirley Durgan. N R Goose. R B Pugh. Pamela Studd. C C Thornton. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Borough government", in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994) 110-121. British History Online, accessed May 24, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp110-121.

Baggs, A P. Board, Beryl. Crummy, Philip. Dove, Claude. Durgan, Shirley. Goose, N R. Pugh, R B. Studd, Pamela. Thornton, C C. "Tudor and Stuart Colchester: Borough government", A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, (London, 1994). 110-121. British History Online. Web. 24 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp110-121.

In this section


Colchester's judicial liberties were established by its medieval charters, confirmed by inspeximus in 1488, 1547, 1553, 1559, 1605, and 1629. To earlier privileges was added exemption from service as sheriff or escheator and from the jurisdiction of the county coroner, given by the charter of 1535 granting Kingswood heath to the borough. (fn. 1) In the late 16th century, however, the town lost its immunity from purveyance. The bailiffs acquiesced in a demand for fish in 1587 although some townsmen resisted the purveyor, but when in 1593 the town was assessed at £12 a year composition for purveyance, the corporation determined not to pay. In the ensuing dispute the purveyor seized cattle from the town's commons. (fn. 2) The town seems to have accepted defeat by 1597 when the bailiffs unsuccessfully petitioned Sir Robert Cecil for a reduction in their assessment. (fn. 3) The dissolution of St. John's abbey and St. Botolph's priory removed two rival liberties within the borough, but the claims of St. John's to exemption from the borough's jurisdiction were inherited by the Audleys and the Lucases. In 1565 Thomas Audley of Berechurch tried to exclude borough officials from his manor. (fn. 4) His widow Catherine refused to muster with the borough in 1580, and the following year she and Francis Jobson of Monkwick had themselves assessed for subsidy in Lexden hundred instead of in Colchester. An attempt by the borough sub-collectors to distrain on cattle in Berechurch in 1581 led to a riot. (fn. 5) In 1582 and 1583 the borough was in dispute with Sir Thomas Lucas, owner of St. John's abbey, over waste ground in Greenstead and other matters. (fn. 6)

Extensive privileges were granted to the Dutch congregation established in 1570 or 1571. (fn. 7) The Dutch were allowed their own church, although they had to pay church rates in the parishes in which they lived, and were responsible for the maintenance of their own poor. Most important, they controlled the trade in bays and says, which they were allowed to carry on without becoming freemen of the town. The two governors of the Dutch Bay Hall and their 22 assistants made and changed regulations for the bay trade, and their officers inspected and sealed all bays made in Colchester whether by Dutchmen or, increasingly in the 17th century, by Englishmen. (fn. 8) Although the Dutch contributed to subsidies and other taxes laid on the town, and were subject to the borough courts, their economic privileges placed them apart from the English and led to friction, particularly in the early 17th century, when they were supported by the Privy Council. (fn. 9) The governors of the Dutch Bay Hall retained their control of the bay trade until 1728. (fn. 10)

The composition of the freeman body, Colchester's governing class, became a matter of increasing concern to the borough officers in the 16th and 17th centuries. The medieval practice whereby all men born in the borough were entitled to enter the freedom without fee survived until c. 1550 when that right was apparently restricted to the sons of freemen. (fn. 11) In 1565 all those claiming the freedom by birth were ordered to be sworn in the borough court at the age of 20, paying no more than 2d. to the clerk and 4d. to the serjeants. Non-resident freemen were ordered to come to elections. (fn. 12) An order of 1523, repeated c. 1550 and in 1583, allowed the admission of a freeman's former apprentice for a fine of 3s. 4d., provided that the apprenticeship of seven or more years had been registered at its start, and the order for such registration was repeated in 1660. (fn. 13) In 1637 the fine for the admission of 'foreigners' was raised to £10, and they were required to be approved by representatives of their craft; in 1654 the consent of the borough assembly was required. (fn. 14)

The number of active freemen fluctuated, but seems to have increased overall in the earlier 17th century, from perhaps c. 450 in 1619 to c. 900 in 1646. Numbers seem to have fallen in the later 17th century, but rose rapidly at its end, perhaps reaching c. 1,100 in 1704. (fn. 15) In the early 18th century freedoms were sold to raise money, and the system was also blatantly manipulated for political purposes: 234 men were admitted by birth or apprenticeship in 1700-1, and 39 bought their freedom from Ralph Creffield, mayor 1702-3. In 1705 the practice of admitting large numbers of men either by purchase or on dubious grounds was said to be 'an invasion of the rights and privileges of the honest free burgesses', but the sale of freedoms was complained of again in 1711 and 1713. (fn. 16)

Officers and Politics 1485-1635

Until 1635 Colchester was governed under the provisions of the charter of 1462. The principal officers were the 2 bailiffs who with the 8 other aldermen, 16 members of the first council, and 16 members of the second council, formed the common council of the borough, known by the 16th century as the assembly. The bailiffs and 2 aldermen, with the recorder, were J.P.s; 2 aldermen served as coroners, and 2 aldermen and 2 councillors as keykeepers, responsible for the common chest in which the borough seal, plate, records, and money were kept. (fn. 17) Those officers, with the chamberlain who was responsible for the borough's day to day finances, were elected annually. In the early 16th century the method and dates of election were those laid down in 1372. At a meeting of the borough court early in September the free burgesses elected 4 headmen, I from among the wealthier burgesses in each of the 4 wards, and each headman chose 5 other substantial burgesses from his ward, making a total of 24, who elected the officers. At the end of September another college of 24, similarly chosen, elected the town clerk and 4 serjeants at mace. (fn. 18) Despite the annual elections, by the 15th century aldermen and councillors normally held office for life, or until ill health or removal from the borough caused them to resign. When a vacancy occurred, new aldermen were chosen from among the first councillors.

The path to civic office started with the second council, although a few wealthy men went straight into the first council, from which their promotion was usually rapid. Of the c. 200 men known to have entered the first council in the 16th century, 79 became aldermen and 2 refused that office; a high proportion of the others served only a few years as councillors. There was only a small group of men like Winkin Greenrice, a Fleming, who were councillors for many years and served as keykeepers without becoming aldermen. Service as, or refusal to serve as, chamberlain seems to have been irrelevant to a man's later career in the 16th century: 34 of the 79 aldermen are known to have served as chamberlain and 11 refused, compared with the 39 chamberlains and 18 refusers who rose no higher than the first council. In the 17th century, however, service as chamberlain was more important. Only six of the 16th-century aldermen failed to reach the rank of bailiff, and that failure was probably due to premature death or retirement; only one of them, William Thompson (alderman 1594-7) served for as many as four years.

In 1591 it was claimed that by 'ancient order' aldermen should serve as bailiff only every four or five years, and on average they did so throughout the 16th century. Those who, like John Christmas between 1516 and 1547, Benjamin Clere between 1541 and 1575, and John Best between 1547 and 1571, served seven or eight terms as bailiff, did so because of their long tenure of office as alderman, 32, 35, and 26 years respectively. There is no evidence for a ruling clique within the ranks of the aldermen. (fn. 19) Most bailiffs were clothiers or merchants; one of the few who was not, Henry Osborne, was abused in 1610 as a man who lived by cutting leather and selling gloves, and a fool whose name had been 'in question for light behaviour'. (fn. 20)

Aldermen and councillors provided their own livery gowns, which were worn for council meetings and sermons and when the corporation officially visited the midsummer and St. Dennis's fairs. The aldermen wore scarlet gowns, the councillors purple until 1598 when they were ordered to provide themselves with black gowns faced with lambskin and with black and scarlet hoods, like the London livery gowns. (fn. 21)

Three incidents in the early 16th century led to attempts to strengthen the officers' position. In 1514 about 40 men, including a councillor, disrupted the annual elections. (fn. 22) In 1520 the retiring bailiff, William Debenham, refused to attend the swearing in of the new bailiffs or to serve as alderman, and the following year he, with others including the councillor Christopher Hammond, indicted two aldermen and the town clerk, Thomas Audley, at the county sessions at Chelmsford for attacking a house in Colchester. (fn. 23) Debenham took no further part in borough government, but Hammond became bailiff in 1525 and served as alderman until 1530.

Ordinances in 1523 confirmed the existing practice that no alderman could be removed from office at the annual election without the consent of a majority of the other aldermen. More detailed constitutions in 1524 repeated that ordinance, and abolished the second election day, providing that the bailiffs should appoint the serjeants at mace, and the bailiffs, aldermen and common council the town clerk. (fn. 24) In 1529 the 24 electors were given a voice in the appointment of serjeants, being allowed to choose four men from eight nominated to them by the bailiffs and aldermen. (fn. 25)

When disputes between the officers, councillors, and free burgesses reached parliament in 1549 commissioners, among them Francis Jobson, confirmed and defined the 'ancient and laudable' custom of the town. Only free burgesses who were householders and were not victuallers, attorneys in the courts, or 'loose journeymen' might vote for the headmen, who were to be worth 40s. a year in lands or £40 in goods; the 20 electors chosen by the headmen were to be similarly qualified. There were to be two election days. On the first, the Monday after the beheading of St. John the Baptist (29 Aug.), the 24 were to choose the aldermen, bailiffs, J.P.s, recorder, and chamberlain. On the second, the Tuesday after Michaelmas, a new electoral college of 24 was to chose the coroners, keykeepers, town clerk, and serjeants at mace. The 16 first councillors were to be chosen by the bailiffs and aldermen on the Monday after Michaelmas, and they with the bailiffs and aldermen were then to chose 16 others, 4 from each ward, to serve on the second council. The bailiffs, aldermen, and chamberlain were to be sworn in in the moot hall on Michaelmas day. (fn. 26)

There was an unusually high turnover of councillors in the decade 1550-9, and John Beriff and two other aldermen were removed at the elections in 1559. That year William Beriff, a clothier and servant of Sir Francis Jobson, was deprived of his freedom for attacking an alderman and libelling a councillor. (fn. 27) Richard Thurston's initial refusal in 1574 to serve as alderman, an office to which he had been elected after apparently retiring from the first council, seems to have led to a series of ordinances tightening the rules for the swearing in of officers and prescribing fines for those who tried to evade office or failed to carry out its duties. (fn. 28)

Serious disputes broke out between different factions in the town in 1575 and 1576. (fn. 29) The immediate cause was the excessive punishment for adultery meted out to the mariner John Lone, but the underlying one was opposition to Thomas Upcher, rector of St. Leonard's, and other Calvinist clergy, and to their supporters, alderman Benjamin Clere and the recorder Sir Thomas Lucas. Townsmen presumably remembered Clere's cruelty to protestant martyrs in Mary's reign, and he was also accused of enriching his family at the town's expense, notably in making his teenage son master of St. Mary Magdalen's hospital. (fn. 30) In the summer of 1575 a series of increasingly scurrilous libels, directed first at Upcher and his associates then at Clere, circulated in the town. At first they seem to have generated sympathy for Clere, and that autumn he and his friend Robert Mott were elected bailiffs. John Hunwick, apparently an opponent of Lucas and the only alderman who had opposed Lone's punishment, (fn. 31) was removed from office. Their pursuit of the libellers, however, appears soon to have swung public opinion against Clere and Lucas. In the winter of 1575-6 the dispute reached both the Privy Council and Star Chamber, and the collection of an aid to defray the town's expenses added to Clere's unpopularity; both he and Lucas were removed from office at the elections of 1576. The electors chose their opponent John Hunwick bailiff, but the Privy Council declared the election void because Hunwick was not then an alderman. (fn. 32) In the course of the year 1576-7 Hunwick was restored to his place as alderman and was elected bailiff in 1577. The following year Clere and his son John were accused of campaigning for office, (fn. 33) but if they did so, they were unsuccessful. Despite further libels in March 1579, the corporation was able that autumn to assure Sir Francis Walsingham, the recorder, that the controversies were over, and that the last borough election had been 'so peaceable as to be soon finished'. (fn. 34)

Further troubles and dissension in the 1580s (fn. 35) led to new attempts to control elections. In 1585 it was agreed that there should be only one election day, the Monday after the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The following year the rules for the election of the first council by the bailiffs and aldermen and of the second council by the bailiffs, aldermen, and first councillors were re-issued. (fn. 36) In 1587 ordinances restricted the number of freemen entitled to vote by excluding those convicted of adultery, fornication, drunkenness, or swearing, besides victuallers and those who were not householders. Only one man from each ward was to nominate the headman, the others were to agree or if necessary to choose between two candidates by show of hands. The financial qualifications for headmen and electors were raised to land worth £4 a year although the value of goods needed to qualify remained at £40, and at least two of the five electors from each ward were to be members of the common council. The practice of having two election days was restored, but the second was to be for the serjeants at mace only. (fn. 37) In 1588 provision was made for a deputy town clerk, to be nominated and appointed by the corporation. (fn. 38)

In 1593 John Hunwick was again elected bailiff, although he had retired as an alderman in 1586. His election was declared void, but within two days he was elected a member of the first council, an alderman, and bailiff. (fn. 39) In 1595 the town was split on religious lines; the electors refused to proceed to an election and the bailiffs, aldermen, and common council elected the officers for the following year. (fn. 40) In 1603 a shoemaker, claiming that the headmen had not been properly chosen, tried to prevent the electors getting into the court room for the election. When it was held, Thomas Hazlewood was elected bailiff although he had been removed as alderman in 1596 and had only just been re-elected to the first council. (fn. 41)

Those and other disorders and 'tumultuous assemblies' reflect a dispute between the free burgesses and the officers which led to two attempts in 1612 to reform the method of election. The first, which would have increased the number of freemen eligible to vote, failed because the bailiffs, aldermen, and common council would not subscribe the new orders; the second, which would have reduced the number, because the free burgesses refused to accept the proposals. In 1615 the orders of 1587 were confirmed. (fn. 42) The same year a dispute over the removal of two aldermen and seven common councillors at the annual election reached King's Bench. In a comprehensive settlement, Sir Francis Bacon ordered that the officers, with a third alderman who had been removed in 1608, be restored to their places. He repeated the ordinance of 1523 forbidding the removal of aldermen without the consent of the rest of the bench, and extended the rule to common councillors, thus confirming existing practice. (fn. 43) In 1624 one party in the corporation apparently wanted to exclude the free burgesses from borough elections, restricting the electorate to aldermen and councillors. (fn. 44)

A quo warranto brought against the borough charter between 1625 and 1631 was successfully resisted, and seems to have led to the confirmation of the borough's privileges by inspeximus in 1629, but further disputes resulted in a second challenge in 1633 and the resignation of the charter. (fn. 45) In 1635 a new charter reorganized borough government. The bailiffs were replaced by a mayor, the 16 first councillors were renamed assistants, and the 16 members of the second council common councillors. The mayor was to be chosen by the aldermen from two of their number nominated by those free burgesses entitled to vote under the 1587 ordinances. Aldermen, assistants, and common councillors were to hold office for life unless removed for bad behaviour by a majority of the officers and free burgesses; when a vacancy arose aldermen and councillors were to be chosen in the same way as the mayor, aldermen from among the assistants, common councillors from the free burgesses; assistants were to be chosen from among the councillors by a majority vote of the free burgesses. The recorder was to be elected by the officers, councillors, and free burgesses, and was to nominate the town or common clerk. The mayor was to have a casting vote in elections. He and the recorder might each appoint a deputy if they were unable to carry out their duties. The mayor, the recorder, the previous year's mayor, and two other aldermen were to be J.P.s. The officers to serve until the elections in 1636 were named in the charter, the aldermen, assistants, and common councillors being those elected in 1634. (fn. 46) Officers whose method of election was not specified in the charter (2 J.P.s, the coroners, keykeepers, and chamberlain) continued to be chosen by the electoral college. The assembly made special arrangements for the 1635 elections, which were not covered by the charter. (fn. 47) The charter gave the free burgesses a more direct say in the choice of mayor, aldermen, assistants, and councillors, but by finally abolishing annual elections except for the mayoralty it made more difficult the removal of serving officers.

The Civil War and Interregnum

By the 1640s there were divisions among the aldermen between those, headed by Robert Buxton, who had supported the king and Archbishop Laud, and those, led by Henry Barrington, who favoured parliament. The first mayoral election in 1647, of the royalist John Shaw, was annulled under pressure from a troop of parliamentarian horse, and the next man elected, John Cox, refused to serve. (fn. 48) After the siege of 1648 three aldermen (Robert Buxton, Thomas Laurence, and John Shaw), four assistants, and six common councillors who had supported, or were alleged to have supported, the royalists were removed, and the following year the moderate presbyterian recorder, Sir Harbottle Grimston, resigned. (fn. 49) Nevertheless two parties continued within the corporation, Henry Barrington's Cromwellian party being opposed by a more moderate group led by Thomas Reynolds. At the elections of 1654 Reynolds's party succeeded in removing Henry Barrington and his son Abraham, an assistant. Both sides petitioned Cromwell, who, after the 1655 elections had returned a majority of the Reynolds party to office, sent Major-Gen. Hezekiah Haynes to Colchester to oversee new elections. (fn. 50) They were made in December 'with great difficulty': the removal of 'malignants' left only c. 100 free burgesses entitled to vote, only 74 of them 'honest', and the other party tried to elect John Shaw as recorder. (fn. 51) In 1656 a new charter abolished the 16 assistants and increased the number of councillors to 24, thus reducing the size of the corporation. It excluded the free burgesses from borough government, providing that all elections be made by the corporation alone. (fn. 52)

The Cromwellian charter was annulled in 1659. John Radhams, removed from the mayoralty in 1655, replaced Henry Barrington as mayor, and shortly afterwards Abraham Barrington and 3 other aldermen, 7 assistants, and the whole common council were removed or demoted. (fn. 53) In 1660 a further 4 aldermen, including John Furley the elder and Henry Barrington, 8 assistants, including the younger John Furley and Abraham Barrington, and 10 common councillors were replaced. John Shaw was restored to his place as alderman, and his son, another John Shaw, became recorder. (fn. 54) In 1661 an assistant and 3 common councillors, including the chamberlain, were removed. (fn. 55) The final purge of the corporation took place in 1662 under the Corporation Act. Four aldermen, including the mayor John Milbank and Jeremiah Daniell, 5 assistants, and 9 common councillors were removed. (fn. 56) Most of their replacements had little experience in borough government: Ralph Creffield, appointed alderman, was not even a common councillor. (fn. 57) A new charter of 1663 confirmed most of the provisions of the charter of 1635, but increased the number of aldermen from 10 to 12 (including the mayor), and the number of assistants and common councillors from 16 to 18 each. It also created the office of high steward. (fn. 58)

Borough Government and Politics 1663-1714

The controlling influence in the Restoration corporation seems to have been the younger John (later Sir John) Shaw, a supporter of the established church, (fn. 59) but opposition to his party grew during the 1670s. 'Scandalous' verses against Shaw and alderman William Moore circulated in 1673, and at the elections of 1676 the opposition, led by the aldermen Ralph Creffield, Nathaniel Laurence, and Thomas Green, all nonconformist sympathizers, succeeded in having Shaw removed as recorder. The resulting dispute lasted until the end of 1678, by which time Shaw was deputy to the new recorder, the duke of Albemarle. (fn. 60) In 1684 the 'loyal' aldermen John Rayner and William Boys accused Laurence, then mayor, Creffield, and Green of being covert dissenters, and 3 other aldermen and 15 assistants and councilmen of supporting them, enabling them to monopolize the office of mayor. The petition led to a threat of a quo warranto and to the surrender of the town's charter. (fn. 61)

The charter of 1684 reduced the number of assistants and common councillors to 15 each; it also excluded the free burgesses from elections which were to be made by the aldermen, assistants, and common councillors only. All officers were to be communicants of the Church of England and to subscribe the declaration under the Corporation Act, and all could be removed by the king or Privy Council at will. Nevertheless, the officers named in the charter were those elected in 1683; Creffield, Laurence, and Green remained aldermen, and John Stilman, accused of being 'factious' in 1684, continued as mayor. (fn. 62) Further attempts by the 'loyal party' to purge the dissenting party failed. (fn. 63) There was some difficulty in filling vacancies in the assembly in July 1687, but only one man, a common councillor, refused to take the oaths. (fn. 64)

In January and February 1688 the Privy Council ordered the replacement of the mayor, Alexander Hindmarsh, 6 aldermen, 10 assistants, 12 common councillors, the chamberlain, the high steward, and the recorder. (fn. 65) Those purged came from both parties in the borough and included aldermen Ralph Creffield and Nathaniel Laurence as well as the 'loyal' alderman William Moore. In May the high steward and recorder were again replaced, the recorder by Sir John Shaw. In September a new charter reduced the number of aldermen to 10 (including the mayor) and the numbers of assistants and common councillors to 10 each. The purges and the charter between them replaced the entire corporation except for two aldermen, Thomas Green, who had left the town in 1687, and John Rayner. (fn. 66)

By the end of August 1689 all the officers appointed in 1688 except John Rayner and 2 other aldermen, 3 assistants, and 2 common councillors had resigned, making borough government virtually impossible. Elections in which the free burgesses participated as they had before 1684 filled the vacancies in the offices created by the charter of 1688. Most of those elected, including all the aldermen, had served before 1684 and most had nonconformist sympathies, but Nathaniel Laurence, Ralph Creffield, and William Moore, the leaders of their respective factions, were not re-elected. (fn. 67) As negotiations for a new charter started, the 'nonconformist' party was accused, probably falsely, of trying to ensure that it excluded the free burgesses from elections. (fn. 68) The 1693 charter confirmed by inspeximus that of 1663; it also nullified the surrender of 1684 and all subsequent acts of the corporation, except demises of lands and farms. (fn. 69)

The two parties, by then aligned with the national Whig and Tory parties, dominated borough government in the late 17th century and the early 18th. At first the Tories seem to have had the upper hand. In 1695 alderman Samuel Mott, a former mayor and one of the dissenting faction in the 1680s, was removed from office and from his freedom after 'several allegations of misdemeanour'. (fn. 70) In 1696 Isaac Rebow, who was to become the leader of the Whig party, and seven other men, supported by Edmund Hickeringill, rector of All Saints', and by the aldermen Nathaniel Laurence the younger and John Seabrook, protested at the refusal of the senior alderman, William Moore, to proceed to the election of a new mayor to replace John Bacon, who had died in office. (fn. 71) Rebow was later accused of manipulating borough elections by treating free burgesses, (fn. 72) and in 1703, supported by the mayor Ralph Creffield the younger, he succeeded in defeating the Tory candidate, Prince George of Denmark, for the office of high steward, although the prince's supporters alleged that he had at most 146 votes to the prince's 170. (fn. 73) There was trouble at the borough elections in 1713, and in 1714 Sir Isaac Rebow was rushed through the offices of councillor and assistant to that of alderman in two or three days. (fn. 74)


The main sources of the borough's income were rents from its estates, tolls from the Hythe, and profits of court, augmented in the 17th century by the farm and other profits of the Dutch Bay Hall. The acquisition of Kingswood (later the Severalls estate) in Mile End in 1535 and of the lands of Barwick's and Heynes's chantries in 1550 greatly increased the borough estates, but some of the chantry lands were sold almost immediately and the rest were mortgaged or let on such a long lease that the rents became insignificant. (fn. 75) Total income rose from £127 in 1501-2 to £161 (excluding the proceeds of a special rate for the repair of the harbour) in 1548-9, and to £537 in 1624-5. (fn. 76) It seems to have fallen in the later 17th century, and in 1667-8 there was a deficit of £78 as receipts totalled only c. £420, almost all from rents. Income remained well under £500 for the rest of the 17th century, enough to cover ordinary expenditure, but not such extraordinary costs as lawsuits or the acquisition of new charters. (fn. 77)

The main items of regular expenditure were the fee farm, which fell from £38 in 1596 to £24 by 1695 as allowance was made for 'taxes', (fn. 78) the fees, wages, and liveries of borough officers and servants, and the repair of town buildings and bridges. From 1557 the borough also assumed some responsibility for poor relief. (fn. 79) Dinners were provided for the officers and their guests at elections and major court days, and gifts of oysters, candied eryngo, or wine were sent to the borough's patrons and friends at court. In the 17th century freemen were given 8d. a head on election days, in lieu of dinner. (fn. 80)

Signs of financial problems appear in the mid 16th century. There was a deficit of £17 on the year 1548-9, and the assembly agreed that no leases or sales of land should be made, or any money paid by the borough, without its consent. (fn. 81) That 12 men refused to serve as chamberlain between 1553 and 1557 may be significant; (fn. 82) their fines of £3 6s. 8d. each were probably a source of extra income to the borough. Similar fines raised £23 in 1573 and £18 in 1574. (fn. 83) In 1577 chamberlains were forbidden to appoint deputies, and each was ordered to make his account at the moot hall on 2 January after the end of his year of office. (fn. 84)

In the 17th century the borough was increasingly involved in expensive lawsuits, arising either from the defence of its liberties or from quarrels within the corporation. In 1615 the money in the keykeepers' custody in the town chest was given to the chamberlain to pay for a suit in King's Bench over the town's liberties, and in 1629 a rate was levied to pay the expenses of the suit against Sir Roger Townsend of Wivenhoe over the borough's rights in the Colne. (fn. 85) The seizure of 12 pipes of rape oil in 1630 led to a suit against Henry Barrington which cost £220, and in 1632 the borough resorted to mortgaging lands to raise £300 to cover that and other expenses. (fn. 86) Thereafter the borough regularly mortgaged its estates, and in 1655 mortgaged Archbishop Harsnett's library. (fn. 87) By 1643 at least part of the capital of one of the borough charities had been spent, (fn. 88) probably to cover extraordinary expenses.

After a period of relative stability in the 1660s the borough entered a prolonged period of financial difficulty when it was forced to pay Sir John Shaw £356 compensation for his removal as recorder in 1677. (fn. 89) The charters of 1684 and 1688 added to the borough's expenses. Already in 1680, in an effort to improve its regular income, the assembly had set up a committee to oversee the collection of rents, and in 1688 the chamberlains for the previous 16 years were all ordered to produce their accounts. (fn. 90) In December 1687 the profits of the Dutch Bay Hall were assigned to the chamberlain as security for his expenditure in a time of political uncertainty. (fn. 91) The £328 spent on the charter of 1693 was advanced by Sir Isaac Rebow, on the security of the Dutch Bay Hall. The hall was mortgaged for £100 in 1696, a sum increased to £150 in 1699 and to £500 in 1701. (fn. 92) In 1697 efforts were made to recover 'ancient fees, tolls, and duties'. (fn. 93) Despite further attempts between 1703 and 1709 to increase the efficiency of rent collection and to audit the chamberlain's accounts carefully, the interest on a £300 mortgage on Borough fields was unpaid in 1705. (fn. 94) In 1706 the borough's creditors were asked to present their demands in writing; money to pay them and later creditors was raised by further mortgages, and by the sale of freedoms. (fn. 95) In 1712 the assembly mortgaged the Severalls estate at Mile End for £1,000 to cover the costs of a lawsuit, and raised a further £70 from other borough lands for 'necessary expenses'. (fn. 96)


Courts were held by the bailiffs or mayor and the aldermen on Mondays and Thursdays, the Monday court known as the hundred until 1522 and the lawhundred thereafter, the Thursday as the foreign court. General lawhundreds, courts leet, were held three times a year until 1589. (fn. 97) The Monday court was apparently for freemen, the Thursday one for 'foreigners', but otherwise there was little distinction between them. The Monday court heard a few pleas concerning real property, and officers were elected there. Regulations were made in 1559 to speed the court process, and in 1574 the assembly drew up a rota of aldermen, four a week, to hold the courts. (fn. 98) In 1592 regulations tightened the court rules to provide quicker justice and to make the collection of fines and amercements more efficient. (fn. 99) By 1587 the court usually adjourned for the whole of September, presumably because of the borough elections, but might be held that month if necessary. (fn. 100) Attorneys were formally admitted to practice in the courts. (fn. 101)

The 1635 charter confirmed the borough's cognizance of all pleas, real, personal, and mixed, including the possessory assizes, and pleas of debt, covenant, detinue, account, and trespass, (fn. 102) and the provisions were repeated in all other 17th-century charters. In the later 17th century, however, business in both the Monday and the Thursday courts declined, perhaps because of their cumbersome procedure. Although both courts could hear pleas of debt, in 1689 the borough attempted unsuccessfully to acquire a 'court of conscience' for the recovery of debts under 40s. 'according to the rules and methods used within the City of London'. (fn. 103)

From 1516 or earlier sessions of the peace were held by the borough J.P.s. From 1521 their proceedings were entered on the borough court rolls, but from 1576 there were separate sessions rolls. The borough sessions had all the powers of a quarter sessions court, and dealt with felonies and other offences committed in Colchester. (fn. 104)

The 1635 charter confirmed the mayor's right, exercised from 1493 or earlier, to hold an admiralty court weekly on Thursdays, but also confirmed the admiral's jurisdiction in the borough. (fn. 105) In 1588 the bailiffs had disputed the jurisdiction of the newly appointed admiral over the town and its liberty, and although by 1594 they seem to have accepted at least his rights to goods washed ashore, during a dispute with the Colne fishermen in 1630 they again claimed exemption from his jurisdiction. (fn. 106) The Colchester admiralty court dealt mainly with fishing offences and with forestalling the oyster market at the Hythe. (fn. 107)

Parliamentary Representation

The two M.P.s were elected by the bailiffs, aldermen, and councillors (fn. 108) from the 1550s or earlier until 1628 when, after a disputed election, the House of Commons opened the franchise to all free burgesses. (fn. 109) The small size of the Tudor electorate made control easy, but nevertheless one M.P. was usually a local man. In 1529 the earl of Oxford procured the election of his councillor Richard Rich; in 1555 the bailiffs, as instructed, elected Sir Francis Jobson. (fn. 110) In 1584 the assembly agreed to give Sir Francis Walsingham the nomination of both the borough M.P.s, and duly elected the two men he wanted. (fn. 111)

The opposition of the freemen seems to have prevented Robert Radcliffe, earl of Sussex, and Henry Hobart from getting their candidates elected in 1625. Despite the extension of the franchise in 1628, Robert Rich, earl of Warwick, was able to establish his control over the borough that year, but Henry Rich, Lord Holland, was unable to arrange the election of his friend Sir Thomas Ingram in 1640. (fn. 112) Later in 1640 the sitting M.P.s, Harbottle Grimston and Sir William Masham, with Robert Rich, Lord Rich, successfully urged the borough to elect Sir Thomas Barrington, who would otherwise have caused a contested election for the county seats. (fn. 113)

In 1654 the election was contested for the first time, John Maidstone defeating Col. Goffe by 102 burgesses' votes to 98. Attempts to reduce the electorate to the corporation led to a double election in 1656 when the mayor, aldermen, and councillors elected Henry Laurence, Lord President of the Council, and John Maidstone, steward of Cromwell's household, while the free burgesses elected John Shaw and Col. Biscoe. (fn. 114) In 1659, after another double election, the assembly petitioned the Committee for Privilege and Election for election by mayor, aldermen, and council only. (fn. 115)

After 1660, when Harbottle Grimston and John Shaw were returned, the free burgesses' vote was not disputed. The elections of 1679 and 1681 were contested, and polls were taken. (fn. 116) By 1706 the creation of freemen had become an issue at parliamentary as at borough elections. In 1710 the election of Sir Thomas Webster was overturned on petition, and in 1714 William Gore and Nicholas Corsellis successfully petitioned against the election of Sir Isaac Rebow and Sir Thomas Webster, claiming that 235 of their opponents' votes had been invalid. (fn. 117)


  • 1. Colch. Charters, 56-9, 76-80.
  • 2. E.R.O., D/Y 2/6, pp. 17, 21, 23; D/B 5 Gb1, 29 Mar. 1593; 14 Mar. 1594; 2 Sept., 10 Nov. 1595; B.L. Lansdowne MS. 73, f. 118.
  • 3. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1595-7, 162; Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, vii, p. 332; ix, p. 396.
  • 4. E.R.O., D/B 5 R5, f. 66v.
  • 5. Ibid. D/B 5 Ab1/2; D/B 5 Gb1, 30 May, 8 Nov. 1581; D/B 5 Sb2/4, ff. 4v.-5v.; D/DRg 1/117; Acts of P.C. 1581-2, 124.
  • 6. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb1, 13 July 1582; 27 Aug. 1583; D/Y 2/7, p. 205.
  • 7. Immigrants and Minorities, i. 266-70.
  • 8. V.C.H. Essex, ii. 388; Reg. Baptisms in Dutch Ch. at Colch. (Huguenot Soc. xii), pp. i-xxvii, xli.
  • 9. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/6, ff. 93, 440; B.L. Lansdowne MS. 157, ff. 101-102v.
  • 10. Below, Georgian Colch. (Econ., Decline of Bay Trade).
  • 11. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 231v.
  • 12. Ibid. D/B 5 R5, ff. 107v.-108.
  • 13. Ibid. D/B 5 R2, ff. 31, 232; D/B 5 Gb1, 27 Aug. 1583; Gb4, f. 230.
  • 14. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb3, f. 172; Gb4, f. 125.
  • 15. Ibid. D/B 5 Aa1/1-26: number of election dinners paid for.
  • 16. Ibid. Boro. Mun., 'Colch. MSS.' 1620-1770, ff. 4 and v., 19v.-28; D/B 5 Sr75, rot. 5; D/B 5 Gb6, pp. 423-4; Gb7, f. 13.
  • 17. Colch. Charters, 40-54; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, f. 147v.
  • 18. E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, pp. 17-20.
  • 19. Ibid. D/Y 2/8, p. 157; Boro. Mun., Ct. R. Transcripts 1510-1600; J. R. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62: Politics, Religion and Officeholding in an Eng. Provincial Town' (Brandeis Univ. Ph. D. thesis, 1980), 479-80.
  • 20. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/6, f. 200v.
  • 21. E.J. xxiii. 65.
  • 22. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr86, rot. 5.
  • 23. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr92, rot. 18d.; Cr93, rot. 3.
  • 24. Ibid. D/B 5 R2, ff. 30-32v. Other ordinances seem to have remained in force for only a year.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 33.
  • 26. Ibid. D/Y 2/2, pp. 17-20.
  • 27. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr125, rott. 1-2d.
  • 28. Ibid. D/B 5 R7, ff. 256v.-257v.
  • 29. M. S. Byford, 'The Price of Protestantism: Assessing the Impact of Religious Change on Elizabethan Essex: the Cases of Heydon and Colch. 1558-1594' (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1988), 194-258.
  • 30. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sr2.
  • 31. Acts of P.C. 1571-5, 41, 61.
  • 32. E.R.O., D/Y 2/7, pp. 119-20.
  • 33. Ibid. D/B 5 Sb2/3, f. 123.
  • 34. Acts of P.C. 1578-80, 78; E.R.O., D/Y 2/9, pp. 257, 297; D/Y 2/7, p. 195.
  • 35. Byford, 'Price of Protestantism', 279.
  • 36. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb1, 1 Nov. 1585; 20 Sept. 1586.
  • 37. Ibid. 11 Aug. 1587.
  • 38. Ibid. 14 Sept. 1588.
  • 39. Ibid. 17, 19 Sept. 1593.
  • 40. Ibid. 19 Sept. 1595; Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, v, p. 394.
  • 41. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2 f. 37; D/B 5 Sb2/6, f. 85v.; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 130.
  • 42. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 109v.-112v., 115v.-118v.; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', pp. 131-3.
  • 43. E.R.O., D/Y 2/7, pp. 23-4, 241; D/B 5 Gb2, ff. 142v., 147v.
  • 44. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 36, 38 and v.
  • 45. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1633-4, 298, 313; P.R.O., PC 2/44, pp. 230-1. The first challenge was by Sir Robert Heath, attorney general 1625-31.
  • 46. Colch. Charters, 81-103.
  • 47. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 141-2.
  • 48. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 7v.-8; Hist. MSS. Com. 27, 12th Rep. IX, Beaufort, 22-3; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 337.
  • 49. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 22 and v., 31.
  • 50. Ibid. D/Y 2/7, p. 189; Bodl. MSS. Rawl. A 29, pp. 690, 692; Rawl. A 34, p. 125; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 343-60.
  • 51. Bodl. MS. Rawl. A 34, pp. 121, 129.
  • 52. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1655-6, 253, 371; 1656-7, 71, 79; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 361; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, f. 147v.
  • 53. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 192v., 194v.-195; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 60, 364-5.
  • 54. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 208 and v., 225, 226v.; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 365-6.
  • 55. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb4, f. 362.
  • 56. Ibid. f. 363v.; Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 370.
  • 57. T. C. Glines, 'Politics and Government in the Borough of Colch. 1660-93' (Wisconsin Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1974), 77.
  • 58. Colch. Charters, 104-26.
  • 59. Davis, 'Colch. 1600-62', 372-3.
  • 60. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sb2/9, ff. 205, 209v., 214; Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 142-9.
  • 61. Bodl. MS. Rawl. Essex 1, ff. 113-22, 126-31; Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 198-9.
  • 62. Colch. Charters, 128-48; Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 201-5; B.L. Stowe MS. 835, f. 37.
  • 63. Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 200-5.
  • 64. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 270, 272-274v.
  • 65. Ibid. ff. 288, 290, 296v.-297; Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 227-37.
  • 66. Colch. Charters, 149-69; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 293, 294 and v., 297v., 298v.; Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 229-36.
  • 67. Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 256-9; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 315-316v.
  • 68. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb6, p. 9; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1693, 296, 344.
  • 69. Colch. Charters, 170-5; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 360v., 361v.
  • 70. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb6, p. 36.
  • 71. Ibid. Boro. Mun., 'Colch. MSS.' f. 7.
  • 72. Bodl. MS. Rawl. C 441, f. 2.
  • 73. Ibid. ff. 1-4; ibid. MS. Rawl. Essex 1, f. 123; E.R.O., Boro. Mun. vol. of Misc. Papers; cf. ibid. D/B 5 Gb6, p. 275.
  • 74. E.R.O., D/B 5 Sr103, rot. 36; D/B 5 Gb7, pp. 20-4.
  • 75. Morant, Colch. 158; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb2, f. 45v.; D/B 5 Cr118, rot. 20d.; Cr138, rot. 10.
  • 76. Bodl. MS. Rolls Essex 2; B.L. Stowe MS. 829, f. 26v.; E.R.O., D/B 5 Aa1/5.
  • 77. E.R.O., D/B 5 Aa1/1-26; Aa1/35, ff. 1-90.
  • 78. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1595-7, 162; Bodl. MS. Rawl. Essex 1, f. 137; E.R.O., D/B 5 Aa1/35, ff. 32v., 67, 78.
  • 79. Above, this chapter, Soc. Structure (Growth of Poverty).
  • 80. E.R.O., D/B 5 Aa1/1-26; Aa1/35, ff. 1-90.
  • 81. B.L. Stowe MS. 829, f. 26v.; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, pp. 19-20.
  • 82. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr120, rot. 1; Cr.121, rot. 1; Cr.122, rot. 1; Cr.123, rot. 1.
  • 83. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr137, rot. 1; Cr138, rot. 1.
  • 84. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 20 Sept. 1577.
  • 85. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb2, f. 147v.; Gb3, f. 84.
  • 86. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb3, ff. 93, 108v., 111v.-112.
  • 87. e.g. ibid. ff. 154, 229v.; Gb4, f. 135.
  • 88. Ibid. D/B 5 Ab1/15.
  • 89. Glines, 'Politics and Govt. in Colch.' 147-8, 164-5; E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, f. 134v.
  • 90. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 172v., 299-300.
  • 91. Ibid. ff. 283v., 285.
  • 92. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb6, pp. 12-13, 97, 176, 237.
  • 93. Ibid. p. 111.
  • 94. Ibid. pp. 280, 307-8, 318, 385, 550.
  • 95. Ibid. pp. 341, 420; D/B 5 Gb7, ff. 8-10, 13.
  • 96. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb6, p. 436.
  • 97. The following section is based on E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr82-160; D/B 5 Cb1/2-23; D/B 5 Cb2/3-34; ibid. draft catalogue of Ct. R. and Ct. Bks.
  • 98. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr124, rot. 16; D/B 5 R7, f. 261.
  • 99. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 7 Aug. 1592.
  • 100. Ibid. D/Y 2/7, pp. 227-8; D/Y 2/8, p. 339.
  • 101. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 17 June, 1591; 7 Aug. 1592; 25 Sept. 1598.
  • 102. Colch. Charters, 98-100.
  • 103. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 313, 319.
  • 104. J. Samaha, Law and Order in Hist. Perspective, 103 n.
  • 105. Colch. Charters, 99-100; above, Medieval Colch. (Boro. Govt., Courts).
  • 106. B.L. Lansdowne MS. 157, f. 305; ibid. Add. MS. 12505, f. 424; ibid. Stowe MS. 835, ff. 83-4; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 157; D/Y 2/8, pp. 341-2.
  • 107. E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 153; B.L. Stowe MS. 835, f. 91.
  • 108. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 26v.; D/B 5 Gb1 4 Nov. 1588; B.L. Stowe MS. 841, f. 55.
  • 109. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb3, f. 70; D. Hirst, Representative of the People? 199-201.
  • 110. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr99, rot. 1d.; D/Y 2/7, p. 11.
  • 111. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb1, 26 Oct., 2 Nov. 1584.
  • 112. Ibid. D/Y 2/4, pp. 26-7, 35-9; Hirst, Representative of the People? 134; J. K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections 1604-1640, 11, 158.
  • 113. E.R.O., D/Y 2/8, p. 73; D/Y 2/9, p. 53.
  • 114. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb4, ff. 51v., 112v.-114v., 145v.- 146.
  • 115. B.L. Stowe MS. 636, ff. 78-82.
  • 116. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 156, 181.
  • 117. Ibid. D/Y 2/2, pp. 341-3; Boro. Mun., 'Colch. MSS.', ff. 4 and v., 19v.-28.