Medieval 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, 'Medieval Colchester: Borough government', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online [accessed 15 July 2024].

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton, 'Medieval Colchester: Borough government', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Edited by Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online, accessed July 15, 2024,

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton. "Medieval Colchester: Borough government". A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington(London, 1994), , British History Online. Web. 15 July 2024.

In this section


The Development of Liberties

Anglo-Saxon Colchester presumably enjoyed a number of liberties, including burgage tenure, by custom without the need of formal grant. (fn. 1) Its burgesses had developed some sense of corporate identity by 1086 when they claimed 5 hides in Lexden and held 80 a. 'in their common', (fn. 2) but there is no evidence as to who qualified as a burgess at that date. By 1310 'foreigners' were admitted as burgesses in the borough court, taking an oath and finding sureties. (fn. 3) All men born within the liberty, whether or not they were the sons of freemen, were entitled to take up their freedom without any fee, and such admissions were recorded only if there was doubt as to the place or circumstances of the birth. (fn. 4) An ordinance of 1452 required anyone born in the borough who wished to enjoy its liberties and franchises to take his oath before the bailiffs according to the old custom, and lists of those sworn into tithing, which start in 1451, include freemen by birth, (fn. 5) but the list of those admitted to the freedom between 1452 and 1500 contains no men from Colchester. 'Foreigners' admitted to the freedom were required to live in the borough for at least a year, but other freemen, like the rector of Widdington who died in 1382, were non-resident. (fn. 6)

The earliest known charter to Colchester was granted by Richard I in 1189 in return for a fine of 60 marks, (fn. 7) but its close resemblance to the London charter of 1133 suggests that it was a modification of an earlier Colchester charter obtained before 1155, when London received a new charter which served as a model for many other boroughs. Colchester's charter granted the burgesses the right to elect their bailiffs and a justice to hold the pleas of the Crown in the moot hall, a significant step in the growth of the borough's liberties if it was granted in the 1130s or 1140s, and one which was certainly enjoyed from 1178. (fn. 8) Other judicial rights included exemption from the murdrum, from miskenning, and from the judicial duel and the right to acquit the borough by four men before the justices in eyre. The last right does not seem to have been exercised, for in all recorded 13th-century eyres Colchester was represented by 12 men, but it was allowed by the justices in the forest eyre in 1291-2. (fn. 9) No burgess was to be amerced at more than his 'wer', 100s., and amercements were to be affeered by oath of other burgesses. The right to gallows was not specifically granted but was claimed in 1274. (fn. 10)

Colchester's financial privileges included quittance from scot, lot, and Danegeld, and from toll, lastage, passage, pontage, and other customs throughout England. Any toll or custom taken from Colchester burgesses in other towns or vills might be recovered from the town or vill concerned. Debtors of Colchester burgesses were to pay their debts, or else to prove at Colchester that they did not owe them; if any refused the burgesses might distrain on goods in the debtor's county. The charter also freed the burgesses from billeting members of the king's household, gave them the right to hunt fox, hare, and cat within the liberty, and to have their fishery in the river Colne. It also granted them the customs of the river bank, whoever owned the land, towards the farm of the town, and declared that Colchester market was not to be harmed by any unauthorized markets. The last two privileges were unique to Colchester among English boroughs; (fn. 11) the others, with the exception of that relating to the judicial eyre, could all have dated from the reign of Henry I or Stephen.

The charter of 1189 was adduced by the burgesses several times in the 13th century in support of their privileges. In 1227 and 1248 they produced it before the justices in eyre in support of their claim to devise real property by will, (fn. 12) an aspect of burgage tenure not mentioned in the charter. In 1254 they claimed that it gave them the right to make their bailiffs coroners, presumably as successors to the justice granted by the charter. (fn. 13) The only privilege formally added to the borough's liberties in the 13th century was the return of writs, given by Henry III in 1252, the year in which he required such privileges to be warrantable by charter. (fn. 14) The last substantial alteration to Colchester's liberties was made by Edward II in an inspeximus and confirmation of the charters of 1189 and 1252 in 1319. He withdrew Colchester's exceptional privileges to distrain for debt in other counties, but granted or confirmed the profits of St. Dennis's fair. He also granted quittance from murage, picage, and pavage, confirmed that the burgesses should not be impleaded or plead outside the borough for lands or tenements inside it, and declared that assizes, juries, and inquisitions on trespasses, contracts, or felonies committed within the borough should normally be carried out by burgesses. (fn. 15)

Later charters confirmed or clarified the borough's rights, (fn. 16) usually by inspeximus, like the charters of 1362, 1378, 1400, and 1413. Henry VI in 1447 issued a new charter which, among other provisions, defined the geographical liberty as covering the vills of Lexden, Greenstead, Mile End, and Donyland, and granted the borough its own justices of the peace. Edward IV, while ignoring Henry VI's charter, added similar definitions to his charter of inspeximus, and also confirmed that the bailiffs and commonalty of the borough were a perpetual community, able to act in law and to have a common seal, the last a privilege which they had certainly enjoyed since the early 13th century. (fn. 17) In 1484, 1488, and 1511 the Crown inspected and confirmed Edward IV's charter.

The burgesses did not enjoy their rights and privileges throughout the liberty. Even within the walls there were areas outside their jurisdiction, like the castle and the bishop of London's soke in the parish of St. Mary's-at-the-Walls. The bishop's rights, confirmed by Henry I between 1120 and 1133, included jurisdiction over his men, who were not to plead outside the soke unless the bishop had failed to give them justice. (fn. 18) The soke, which had already been leased to three generations of a Colchester clerical family, was confirmed in 1206 to the burgess William son of Benet at a rent of 5s. a year. (fn. 19) Its holder in 1311, the wealthy clerk John of Colchester, claimed a three-weekly court, although the soke was then within the jurisdiction of the borough court. (fn. 20) The last known holder was Thomas Francis (d. 1416), who held in Head Street a demesne called Haymsokne paying 5s. a year to the bishop of London, but there is no evidence that he claimed a court. (fn. 21) In the 12th century the part of the soke outside the walls south-east of the town passed to St. Botolph's priory and St. John's abbey. (fn. 22)

St. John's abbey, lord of Greenstead and West Donyland manors, the FitzWalters, lords of Lexden manor, and St. Botolph's priory all enjoyed extensive legal privileges in their lands within the liberty. In 1272 and 1287 the abbot of St. John's was accused of bringing the coroner of Lexden hundred into the liberty to hold an inquest on St. John's green. (fn. 23) In 1274 the burgesses complained that the abbot's gallows and tumbrel infringed their liberties, and in 1285 or 1286 they further complained that the abbot was distraining burgesses to attend his court on St. John's green, had established gallows and a cucking stool in Greenstead, in West Donyland, and at Bourne ponds (the last perhaps a relic of the jurisdiction of the bishop's soke), and held the assize of bread and of ale. (fn. 24) In 1318 the burgesses complained about Robert FitzWalter's view of frankpledge in Lexden, as well as about the abbot's in Greenstead and Donyland. About the same date they prepared a suit against FitzWalter who was apparently trying to remove Lexden from the liberty. (fn. 25) There was further friction with St. John's abbey in the early 15th century, and in 1413 the abbot was presented in the borough court for several offences, including arresting and imprisoning burgesses and usurping the borough courts and view of frankpledge by holding courts for Greenstead and West Donyland. The West Donyland court, which claimed jurisdiction over the suburb south of the town walls, was particularly galling to the burgesses. In 1414 the prior of St. Botolph's was also accused of holding a court within the liberty, presumably for Canonswick or for his manor of Shaws. (fn. 26)

The Fee Farm and Borough Finances

In the 11th and 12th centuries Colchester's relations with the Crown revolved around the payment of the annual farm. In 1066 Colchester paid a farm of £15 5s. 3d. a year; by 1086 it had risen fivefold, to £80 and 6 sestars of honey or 40s., but by 1130 the farm had been halved to £40. (fn. 27) In 1269 it was said to be c. £41 or £42, but the sum actually paid to the Exchequer was probably only £35, when allowance had been made for the loss of revenue from the moneyers (£4) and from Kingswood (£2), and for alms to the abbot of St. John's (£1). (fn. 28) Attempts by the Crown in 1371, 1397, and 1400 to enforce payment of the full £42 failed. (fn. 29)

The borough and its farm seem to have been held in the Conqueror's reign by Waleram and then by Bishop Walchelin of Winchester, who held them in 1086. (fn. 30) Eudes the sewer held the borough from 1101, and possibly from 1089, until his death in 1120; he was succeeded by Hamon of St. Clare (d. 1150), and Hamon probably by his son Hubert (d. 1155). (fn. 31) Richard de Lucy farmed the borough as sheriff in 1156, and retained it until his retirement as justiciar in 1178 or 1179, accounting annually at the Exchequer. (fn. 32) The burgesses farmed the borough from 1178, and in 1198 they bought the fee farm for 20 marks. (fn. 33) Nevertheless, the sheriff as keeper of the borough accounted for the farm in 1212, and later in the 13th century Stephen Harengood, William of Sainte-Mère-Église bishop of London, and Guy of Rochford, all held the farm as constables of the castle. (fn. 34) From 1269 to 1369 the farm of Colchester was assigned to the queen's dower. (fn. 35) In 1384 it was granted to Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, who presumably held it until his attainder in 1388, and in 1399 to John Doreward, who surrendered it in 1404 for its grant to Henry IV's son Humphrey of Lancaster, later duke of Gloucester. (fn. 36) Humphrey presumably held the farm, with Colchester castle, until his death in 1447, when it was granted to Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI. (fn. 37)

In 1086 the sources from which the farm was paid included the king's demesne in Colchester and a payment of 2 marks a year by the king's burgesses, besides, presumably, the customary dues from houses in the town. The royal demesne was separately farmed by 1280, and was probably removed from the burgesses' control when the castle, with which it was later held, was granted to Eudes the sewer in 1101. (fn. 38) The £4 a year paid by the moneyers was part of the farm before the Conquest, but by 1086 Colchester and Maldon between them owed £20 for their mints over and above their farms. In addition to the farm each house in Colchester owed 6d. a year to the king, a payment originally made to support the army. (fn. 39) The charter of 1189 granted or confirmed the customs of the river and its banks towards the payment of the farm. (fn. 40) In 1254 the burgesses claimed the market tolls also as part of the farm, and it was probably no coincidence that by 1310 the tolls, presumably both from the market and from the river, were leased for £35 a year, the exact amount of the farm due at the Exchequer. (fn. 41) Two sums claimed by the burgesses from the abbot of St. John's in 1285, 3s. a year for his fair and 16d. 'shrebgavel', (fn. 42) may also have been part of the farm. The element 'gavel' suggests that the shrebgavel was a pre-Conquest rent; in the late 14th century land and a house in Shreb or Shrub Street (part of Maldon Road) paid to the borough shrebgavel totalling 11s. 11d. (fn. 43) About 1322 the burgesses claimed to have difficulty paying the farm, and obtained permission to inclose and let out parcels of waste within the borough to the value of 10s. a year. (fn. 44) An agreement between the incoming bailiff William Reyne and the community in 1360 which appears to have been in the nature of a mortgage of half the profits of the hundred court for £10, (fn. 45) suggests that the borough then had difficultry finding cash to pay the farm. By c. 1400 the borough received c. £13 a year in rents, mostly for encroachments on the streets and other parts of the borough waste. (fn. 46) The charter of 1447 gave or confirmed to the bailiffs, towards the farm, chattles forfeited within the vill. (fn. 47)

The farm remained the single largest item of borough expenditure throughout the Middle Ages, but by 1501 fees, allowances, liveries, and stipends to borough officers, including £10 to the bailiffs and £6 3s. 4d. to the town clerk, amounted to c. £27. (fn. 48) By then the chamberlain also paid for the maintenance of the borough properties, and rents and legal charges due from them. The most important sources of income were the tolls and the leases of equipment at the Hythe and of the moot hall cellar. They reached a peak of c. £80 in 1400-1, (fn. 49) but had fallen to c. £41 by 1501-2. In the latter year other rents and farms brought in c. £20, profits of court c. £16, and felons' goods c. £8. Total income was put at £127 8s. 7d. against expenditure initially set at £108 1s. 5½d., a credit balance which seems to have been consumed by further expenses allowed after the account. At the end of the 15th century the borough resorted to paying the expenses of its members of parliament by assigning rents to them, an expedient which reduced the borough's disposable income. (fn. 50)


The first recorded borough officers were the reeves Walter Haning and Benet who witnessed a charter of Hamon of St. Clare to St. John's abbey c. 1150. (fn. 51) Although they were probably burgesses (Walter Haning was a member of a family prominent in 13th-century Colchester), they may have been Hamon's officers, like Hamon's servants of Colchester addressed with him by Henry I between 1120 and 1133, (fn. 52) rather than borough officers. Between 1178 and 1194 ten men, all of whom seem to have been burgesses, accounted at the Exchequer for the farm, usually in pairs; in 1187 and 1188 they were called reeves. The fact that they changed every two years suggests that they were elected by the burgesses rather than being royal appointees. From 1194 to 1198 Walter of Crepping, who may have been a county landowner, accounted for the farm, once with the burgess Simon son of Marcian. (fn. 53) Between 1239 and 1327 (when the surviving list of bailiffs in the Oath Book starts) at least 68 men are known to have served as bailiffs, 22 of them more than once. The number suggests that the bailiffs were being drawn from a slightly larger body of men than they were later in the 14th century. (fn. 54)

The bailiffs were in origin royal officers, and their chief duties were to pay the farm and to hold the borough courts. Their late 14th-century oath emphasized their judicial functions and their duty to the king; significantly it made no reference to any duty to the commonalty. (fn. 55) The close relationship to the king characterized borough bailiffs in the Middle Ages, and encouraged in most English towns the creation of the office of mayor, whose reponsibility was to the community. Colchester's failure to create its own chief officer may suggest a lack of cohesion among the commonalty (possibly related to the absence of a merchant guild or other focus for communal action); alternatively the infrequency of royal intervention in the borough may have meant that the burgesses felt no need for their own officers. In the mid 13th century the bailiffs took office at Michaelmas. (fn. 56) In the mid 14th elections seem to have been held on or soon after 8 September (the Nativity of the Virgin Mary) and to have been made by a group which included the sitting bailiffs. William Reyne's agreement in 1360 to pay £10 if the bailiffs and others elected him bailiff for the ensuing year was made on 7 September with two former bailiffs who were acting for the community. (fn. 57)

In the earlier 13th century the bailiffs were also coroners. (fn. 58) By 1287 the two offices had been separated, although the coroners were usually past or future bailiffs. (fn. 59) There is no clear evidence for a town clerk until c. 1372, and the first named clerk was Michael Aunger who served from 1380. (fn. 60) The farmers of the tolls, who were de facto responsible for the payment of the farm, occur from 1310 and took an oath to collect the tolls fairly for the benefit of the king and the community of Colchester, but how far they were borough officers is not clear. Two or three underbailiffs appear regularly in the earlier 14th century as assistants to the bailiffs, usually in the borough court. (fn. 61) Two of the four bailiffs recorded in 1251 were probably underbailiffs, as was Henry le Parmenter, the bailiff who collected a tallage or subsidy in 1276, and as perhaps were the three leading burgesses, all past or future bailiffs, who ordered the collection of market tolls in 1253. (fn. 62) The common chest, recorded in 1372 (fn. 63) does not seem to have been a new institution then. Its keys may have been held by the bailiffs, but keykeepers, who were usually aldermen, were among the officers elected by the courts from 1392. Three serjeants were recorded from 1310; their duties included collecting toll and making arrests and distraints. In 1380 their number was increased to four, making one for each of the four wards. (fn. 64) No wards officers were recorded, unless Thomas Webbe, in charge of a 'ward' in South ward in 1271, was such an officer. (fn. 65)

The bailiffs sometimes consulted and acted with other leading burgesses, notably in the course of disputes with St. John's abbey. An agreement between the town and the abbey in 1254 was made by the bailiffs and 10 other men including at least one former bailiff and three future bailiffs. (fn. 66) Neither that list nor the witness lists of charters headed by the bailiffs suggests that there was anything approaching a formal council in the 13th century or the early 14th, and indeed Colchester seems to have managed without a council until 1372. Ordinances and decisions affecting the community were made in assemblies of burgesses in the hundred court. In 1311, for instance, 28 burgesses agreed in plena congregatione that the bishop of London's men from Chelmsford and Braintree should be required to pay toll in Colchester, and a similar assembly of 22 burgesses decided later in the year to imprison some thieves until the next gaol delivery. (fn. 67) Such informal arrangements were unusual in 14th-century boroughs, (fn. 68) and may have been workable in Colchester only because of its small size.

The borough government was reorganized in 1372, (fn. 69) apparently as a result of financial irregularities, but also perhaps because the earlier system had been strained by the town's rapid growth in the 1350s and 1360s. The preamble to the new constitutions declared that previously the profits of rents, tolls, fines, and amercements, had been spent by the bailiffs at their pleasure, to the damage of the commonalty and contrary to earlier constitutions. The new constitutions tightened the rules for the election of the bailiffs and created two new officers, the receivers, later called chamberlains, who were to receive all the town's income. On the election day, the Monday after 8 September, one man who had not been bailiff was to be chosen from each of the four wards, 'by the advice of the whole commonalty'. Those four were then to chose a further 20 'of the more worthy and sufficient commons who have hitherto not been bailiffs' and the 24 men thus chosen were to elect the bailiffs and other officers, the receivers being chosen from among the men who had not served as bailiff. The 24 were also to elect eight worthy men as auditors, later called aldermen, and the bailiffs and auditors, or some of them, were to audit the receivers' accounts each year at the beginning of September. It is not clear from the constitutions whether the auditor's was a new office created in 1372, but no earlier reference to auditors has been found.

There was at first some confusion as to which officers should be elected at the same time as the bailiffs and which on the second election day, the Monday after Michaelmas, but by the end of the 14th century the bailiffs, receivers, and auditors were elected on the first day, the town clerk and the serjeants on the second. (fn. 70) The constitutions also created Colchester's first council, laying down that in the week after Michaelmas the bailiffs and auditors should choose 16 of the wisest and wealthiest men in the borough who with the auditors should form a council of 24 which should meet at least four times a year. This innovation too seems to have been designed to end an abuse, for the constitutions forbade anyone to make 'common clamour' in the court before the bailiffs on any matter touching the commonalty, but ordered them instead to present a written bill to the council. The effect of the creation of the council of 24 seems to have been to take the day to day government of the borough away from the borough court. The old assembly of all the leading burgesses was still occasionally held, as in 1489 when it agreed to the arrangements for rebuilding Hythe mill. (fn. 71)

The charter of 1447 gave the burgesses the right to elect four J.P.s to sit with the bailiffs to hear Crown pleas, but the J.P.s were not regularly elected until 1463 after their office had been confirmed by the charter of 1462. That charter also created the office of recorder, and a second council, the common council, composed of four men from each of the four wards. (fn. 72) Although recorders were regularly elected from 1462, the second council was not recorded until 1519. A borough ordinance of 1447 laid down that bailiffs, J.P.s, coroners, and keykeepers must be chosen from among the aldermen, the aldermen from among the councillors, (fn. 73) but it seems simply to have confirmed the usual practice. In the 50 years before 1447, of the 25 men who served as bailiff only two, Thomas Godstone in 1398 and John Ford in 1399, both elected in troubled years at the end of Richard II's reign, were certainly not aldermen at the time of their election, and only six others may not have been. Of the 40 men elected alderman 12 may not have been councillors. Another, undated, ordinance, probably made between 1438 and c. 1449, restricted attendance at elections to self-employed householders contributing to subsidies and tallages. (fn. 74) The two ordinances might seem to reflect a growing tendency towards oligarchy in borough government, but they did not in practice narrow the field of potential bailiffs. Between 1327 and the new constitutions of 1372 a total of 40 bailiffs served an average of 2.25 years each; between 1372 and 1446 only 45 served an average of 3.29 years each, and between 1447 and 1499 a total of 44 served an average of 2.36 years each. Some bailiffs held office for several years, three for more than ten: Warin son of William served 14 times between 1309 and 1334, Thomas Godstone 13 times between 1398 and 1429, Thomas Francis 12 times between 1381 and 1414, and Thomas Christmas 11 times between 1474 and 1499. Others held office only once: 21 between 1327 and 1371, 17 between 1372 and 1446, and 20 between 1447 and 1499. (fn. 75) In 1372 a bailiff's fee was set at 60s. a year, and a livery robe worth 20s; by 1501 it had risen to £5. (fn. 76) Their seal of office, recorded from 1373, may have been made in 1372. (fn. 77) Although 15th-century aldermen increasingly held office until death or retirement, it was not until 1523 that an ordinance decreed that no alderman should be removed by the 24 electors without the consent of the majority of the other aldermen. (fn. 78) The number of chamberlains was reduced from two to one between 1460 and 1463, but rose to two again in 1470. It had been reduced to one again by 1497, presumably because of difficulties in filling an office which could be expensive for its holder. (fn. 79)


The borough court, a hundred court because Colchester was a hundred in itself, (fn. 80) met fortnightly in the moot hall. At three special meetings, called lawhundreds, at Michaelmas, Hilary, and Hock day, view of frankpledge was held, a jury presenting such matters as treasure trove, the raising of hue and cry, bloodshed, encroachments, overcharging the common, breaches of the assize of ale and of weights and measures, and nuisances. (fn. 81) Until 1271 the court appears to have claimed to hear some Crown pleas, including those initiated by appeals, but in that year the justices in eyre ruled that because the court could not conclude the plea without reference to the justices no more appeals should be prosecuted there. (fn. 82) Because the burgesses enjoyed the privilege of not having to answer for their land or tenements outside the borough, the court heard pleas concerning real property in the borough, and because real property was devisable by will, wills disposing of land or houses in the borough were proved and enrolled there. The charter of 1319 confirmed the court's right to hear all pleas, assizes, or complaints arising from land or tenements in the borough. (fn. 83) Some 14th-century land disputes were heard by the central courts at Westminster, although the bailiffs several times successfully claimed their liberty and had the case removed to the borough court. (fn. 84) In the 15th century suits concerning land or houses in Colchester were regularly heard in Chancery, apparently without interference from the borough officers. (fn. 85)

By 1310 the fortnightly meetings of the hundred, almost always on Mondays, could not cope with all the legal business of the borough, and they had been augmented by extra 'pleas' which seem to have been adjourned sessions of the hundred. They could be held on any day of the week, and at times served as a court of pie powder, dispensing quick justice by meeting on successive days or several times in one day. There was no clear distinction between the two courts in the business done, but cases involving real property tended to be heard in the hundred court, where burgesses were normally admitted, wills proved, and deeds enrolled. Cases could be adjourned from hundred to pleas or vice versa. There may have been some difference in the composition of the court; some 14th-century business was done in the 'full hundred', suggesting that attendance at the fortnightly hundred court was greater than at the pleas, its adjourned sessions. In the late 13th century the coroners seem to have sat with the bailiffs in the hundred court; in 1338 they sat in the lawhundred. (fn. 86) Some enrolments made in 'pleas' were made before only one bailiff, but it is not clear that one bailiff could hear pleas alone.

In the later 14th century the adjourned pleas, which were held only occasionally earlier in the century, came to be held more regularly, increasingly on Thursdays or Fridays. From 1411 their proceedings were enrolled as those of a separate court, called the foreign court, (fn. 87) so named presumably because its more frequent meetings made it more attractive to those from outside the liberty, although it was by no means restricted to cases involving outsiders, and outsiders could and did still plead in the hundred court. The two courts continued to deal with the same business, although pleas involving real property continued to be heard more often in the hundred court than in the foreign court. Most cases remained in the court in which they had been started, but some moved from one court to the other. From 1448 onwards courts of pie powder were occasionally held; they followed the same procedure as the hundred and foreign courts, but were adjourned from hour to hour or day to day rather than from week to week or fortnight to fortnight. The charter of 1462 defined the court days as Monday and Thursday. It called both courts the king's court, but laid down that pleas involving real property were to be held fortnightly on Mondays, a ruling which confined them to the hundred court. (fn. 88)

The commonest pleas in both the hundred and the foreign courts were debt and trespass. The court asserted in 1311 its power to hear pleas of debt over 40s., but in practice until the earlier 15th century most claims for sums greater than that amount were made by an action for breach of covenant. Procedure was normally by complaint, originally presumably oral, but increasingly during the 14th century written. The process allowed three essoins after the first hearing of the case; in 1389 the council agreed that if a defendant did not appear on the third day (altered before 1398 to the second) he should be distrained at once, thus reducing the essoins to two and then to one. (fn. 89) Cases were occasionally instituted by writ, either writ of right patent or, in possessory assizes and dower, the appropriate writ addressed to the bailiffs. In 1233, in the course of an assize of novel disseisin, it was stated that the custom of the borough was that the jury should be composed of six burgesses and six outsiders. (fn. 90) In the earlier 14th century several men made their law with one burgess and one outsider. (fn. 91) As in other boroughs, the assize of fresh force was commonly used in the later 14th century. Recognizances of debt were enrolled from 1353. (fn. 92)

The charter of 1447 exempted Colchester from the jurisdiction of the admiral. (fn. 93) The town had probably enjoyed some immunity earlier, and fishing offences, which would otherwise have come within the purview of the admiralty court, were dealt with in the borough court. In 1425 Thomas Rose was accused of summoning Colchester men to the admiral's court, to the injury of the borough's liberty. (fn. 94) In 1493, 1494, and 1495, however, admiralty courts were held at Colchester for an area which seems to have included the whole of the river Colne from the Hythe to the sea. (fn. 95)

Parliamentary Representation

Colchester regularly sent two burgesses to parliament from 1283, except in 1306 when only one member was returned. (fn. 96) In addition, the bailiffs and six burgesses were summoned, with representatives of other east coast towns, to a meeting at Kings Lynn in 1322 to discuss a subsidy for the Scottish war, and in 1327 Colchester was one of 57 towns ordered to send one or two discreet wool merchants to York to discuss the wool trade with the king. (fn. 97) Although the burgesses were exempted from sending representatives to parliament between 1382 and 1425, in consideration of their expenses in repairing the town wall, burgesses were elected throughout the period. (fn. 98)

The M.P.s were chosen by the burgesses without interference from the sheriff. (fn. 99) In 1455 the electors were the 'more substantial burgesses' resident in the town, (fn. 100) a description which implies that the elections, in contrast to municipal elections, were direct, but were made by only part of the freeman body. The burgesses elected to parliament were also burgesses of the 'more substantial' sort. Of the 83 known medieval M.P.s 61 had been or were to be bailiffs, 3 were or became aldermen, and one was a councillor; a further 11 were, or were probably, free burgesses. The remaining 7 M.P.s cannot be identified, but there is nothing to suggest that they came from outside the borough. (fn. 101) Several men served in more than one parliament, notably Ellis son of John who served 12 times between 1294 and 1343, Thomas Francis who served 10 times between 1372 and 1413, and Thomas Godstone who served 9 times between 1401 and 1428; all three also served several times as bailiff. John Rattlesdon, M.P. 13 times between 1312 and 1341, was a wealthy merchant, and John Hall, M.P. 9 times between 1357 and 1369, was a councillor in 1381 and may have held other offices earlier. Most later medieval M.P.s were merchants, but two 15th-century members were lawyers, and Michael Aunger, M.P. in 1382-3, was town clerk. (fn. 102)

The cost of M.P.s' expenses worried the borough in the late 14th century and the early 15th, but how the expenses were paid is unknown until the 1490s, when the rate seems to have been 2s. a day. In 1490 the bailiffs assigned part of the revenue of the Hythe mills to Thomas Christmas to cover his expenses in the parliaments of 1488 and 1489, and in 1494 they assigned other rents to Thomas Jobson for the parliament of 1491. (fn. 103) M.P.s apparently reported back to the bailiffs, and one such report, for the parliament of 1485, survives. That year the M.P.s were also responsible for discharging the annual fee farm at the Exchequer. (fn. 104)


  • 1. A. Ballard, Brit. Boro. Chart. pp. xliv, xlvi-xlvii.
  • 2. V.C.H. Essex, i. 574-8.
  • 3. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1, rot. 4.
  • 4. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr11, rot. 4d.; Cr17, rott. 4d., 17d.; Cr18, rot. 3d.
  • 5. Ibid. D/B 5 R2, ff. 141v.-151v.
  • 6. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr10, rot. 7d.; Cr11, rot. 2d.; Cr22, rot. 29.
  • 7. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 410-11; translated in Colch. Charters, 1-2; Pipe R. 1190 (P.R.S. N.S. i), 111.
  • 8. Below, this chapter, Officers.
  • 9. P.R.O., JUST 1/233, rot. 59; JUST 1/238, rot. 45d.; JUST 1/242, rot. 64d.; ibid. E 32/13, rot. 8.
  • 10. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 163.
  • 11. Ballard, Brit. Boro. Chart. 201, 236.
  • 12. P.R.O., JUST 1/229, rot. 17; JUST 1/231, rot. 33.
  • 13. Ibid. JUST 1/233, rot. 58; R. F. Hunnisett, Med. Coroner, 138.
  • 14. Colch. Charters, 3-5; Trans. R. Hist. S. 5th ser. xvii. 59-82.
  • 15. Colch. Charters, 6-9.
  • 16. Ibid. 10-57.
  • 17. Below, Arms, Seals, etc.
  • 18. Reg. Regum Anglo-Norm. ii, no. 1824.
  • 19. E.A.T. N.S. xiv. 137-41; Feet of F. Essex, i. 39.
  • 20. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr2, rot. 5d.; Morant Colch. Appendix, 3 n.
  • 21. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr40, rot. 45.
  • 22. Colch. Cart. ii. 545-6.
  • 23. P.R.O., JUST 1/238, rot. 59; E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, ff. 46v., 47v.
  • 24. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 163; E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 48 and loose folio.
  • 25. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, ff. 56, 67-8; Britnell, Growth and Decline, 30.
  • 26. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr39, rott. 5, 19.
  • 27. V.C.H. Essex, i. 578; J. Tait, Med. Eng. Boro. 152, 154, 184; Pipe R. 1130 (Rec. Com.), 138.
  • 28. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 311, 358; Pipe R. 1168 (P.R.S. N.S. xii), 48; 1220 (P.R.S. N.S. xlvii), 115.
  • 29. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, ff. 11v.-17; Cal. Close, 1399-1402, 372.
  • 30. V.C.H. Essex, i. 419, 578.
  • 31. Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 26, 29; Reg. Regum Anglo-Norm. ii, no. 552; Pipe R. 1130 (Rec. Com.), 138; below, Castle.
  • 32. Pipe R. 1156-8 (Rec. Com.); ibid. 1159-1178 (P.R.S. i-xxvii); Tait, Med. Eng. Boro. 188.
  • 33. Pipe R. 1179-99 (P.R.S. xxviii-N.S. x), esp. 1198 (P.R.S. N.S. ix), 134.
  • 34. Cal. Pat. 1216-25, 167; Pipe R. 1212 (P.R.S. N.S. xxx), 54; 1218 (P.R.S. N.S. xxxix), 78; Cal. Lib. 1260-7, 34.
  • 35. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 311, 358, 433-4, 460; 1272-81, 439; 1282-91, 368; 1292-1301, 451; 1307-13, 216; 1327-30, 67, 212; 1343-5, 447-8; 1358-61, 238.
  • 36. Cal. Close, 1381-5, 462; Complete Peerage, x. 231; Cal. Pat. 1399-1401, 154; 1401-5, 467-8.
  • 37. E.R.O., D/DRg 1/71; Cal. Pat. 1452-61, 340; Cal. Close, 1447-54, 391; below, Castle.
  • 38. P.R.O., SC 6/1089/7, 17-18; Reg. Regum Anglo-Norm. ii, no. 552.
  • 39. V.C.H. Essex, i. 419-22, 574-8.
  • 40. Colch. Charters, 2.
  • 41. P.R.O., JUST 1/242, rot. 110; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1, rot. 1d.
  • 42. P.R.O., JUST 1/242, rot. 110.
  • 43. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 169v.
  • 44. P.R.O., SC 8/5, no. 238; SC 8/159, no. 7906; Rot. Parl. i. 397.
  • 45. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr12, rot. 18.
  • 46. Ibid. D/B 5. R1, ff. 158-70; Britnell, Growth and Decline, 70.
  • 47. Colch. Charters, 39.
  • 48. Bodl. MS. Rolls Essex 2.
  • 49. Britnell, Growth and Decline, 277.
  • 50. Ibid. 80-1.
  • 51. Colch. Cart. i. 155.
  • 52. Reg. Regum Anglo-Norm. ii, no. 1824.
  • 53. Pipe R. 1179-1198 (P.R.S. xxviii-N.S. ix), passim.
  • 54. Below, List of Bailiffs and Mayors.
  • 55. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 5v.
  • 56. P.R.O., JUST 1/242, rot. 36.
  • 57. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr12, rot. 18.
  • 58. P.R.O., JUST 1/233, rot. 58.
  • 59. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 47v.
  • 60. E.A.T. 3rd ser. xiv. 96, 99-100, which finds no evidence to support the statement by W. G. Benham in Colch. Ct. R. i, pp. viii-ix, that Richard of Layer and Robert Beche were town clerks.
  • 61. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1, rot. 12; Cr2, rott. 1, 4d.; Cr7, rot. 6 and d.
  • 62. P.R.O., JUST 1/233, rott. 36, 37; Sel. Cases in Exchequer of Pleas (Selden Soc. xlviii), p. 82.
  • 63. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 23.
  • 64. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr1, rot. 4d.; Cr2, rot. 1d.; D/B 5 R2, f. 12.
  • 65. P.R.O., JUST 1/238, rot. 59.
  • 66. Colch. Cart. ii. 505.
  • 67. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1, rott. 11, 14.
  • 68. Tait, Med. Eng. Boro. 272-89.
  • 69. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, ff. 22v.-23v.
  • 70. E.A.T. 3rd. ser. xiv. 96-7.
  • 71. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, ff. 188-189v.
  • 72. Colch. Charters, 38, 49-50.
  • 73. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 145v.
  • 74. E.A.T. 3rd. ser. xxi. 104.
  • 75. Problems in distinguishing between men of the same name may distort the figures slightly.
  • 76. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 22v.; Bodl. MS. Rolls Essex 2.
  • 77. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr16, rott. 11, 12d., 13d.; below, Arms, Seals, etc.
  • 78. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 30v.
  • 79. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr71, rot. 1; Cr72, rot. 1; Britnell, Growth and Decline, 229-30.
  • 80. P.R.O., JUST 1/238, rot. 59d.
  • 81. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1-81, passim; D/B 5 R1, ff. 175v.-176.
  • 82. P.R.O., JUST 1/238, rot. 59d.
  • 83. Colch. Charters, 9:
  • 84. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, ff. 171-3, 176v.; D/B 5 Cr20, rot. 7; Bracton, Note Bk. ed. F. W. Maitland, ii. 596-8; Year Bk. 8 Edw. II, 1315 (Selden Soc. xxxvii), 77; Sel. Cases in K.B. (Selden Soc. lxxvi), 105-7; Feet of F. Essex, i-iii, passim.
  • 85. P.R.O., C 1/7-188, passim.
  • 86. Ibid. JUST 1/238, rot. 59d.; ibid. KB 27/312.
  • 87. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr38, passim.
  • 88. Colch. Charters, 49.
  • 89. E.A.T. 3rd. ser. xvii. 133, 135.
  • 90. Bracton, Notebk. ii, pp. 596-7.
  • 91. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr2, rott. 4, 10.
  • 92. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr10, rot. 3.
  • 93. Colch. Charters, 39.
  • 94. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr45, rot. 15.
  • 95. Ibid. D/B 5 R1, ff. 21v.-22; D/B 5 R2, ff. 213v.-216v.; D/B 5 Cr1-81, passim.
  • 96. M. McKisack, Parl. Rep. Eng. Boroughs in Middle Ages, 6-7, 11.
  • 97. Cal. Close, 1318-23, 536; 1327-30, 237.
  • 98. Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 214; 1385-9, 505; 1391-6, 379; 1401-5, 355; 1408-13, 199; 1413-16, 23; list in Morant, Colch. 103-4.
  • 99. McKisack, Parl. Rep. Eng. Boroughs in Middle Ages, 12.
  • 100. Hist. Parl. 1439-1509, Register, 642.
  • 101. Lists in Morant, Colch. 103-4; Hist. Parl. 1439-1509, Register, 642-3; the unidentified men all served in the early or mid 14th century when evidence for both freemen and borough officers is incomplete.
  • 102. Hist. Parl. 1439-1509, Register, 643; E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 257.
  • 103. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, ff. 218-24.
  • 104. Ibid. ff. 87-9; N. Pronay and J. Taylor, Parl. Texts of Later Middle Ages, 177-93.