A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.
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The Achievement of Liberties
For a century after the Conquest the town of Gloucester was administered for the Crown by a royal reeve, though the powers of that office were presumably much inhibited by the dominant role played by the family of hereditary sheriffs. (fn. 1) The reeve of Gloucester was mentioned c. 1100, when he was in receipt of a stipend of 40s., (fn. 2) and again in 1139, when his duties evidently included collection of the landgavel. (fn. 3)
Soon after his accession Henry II granted a charter to the burgesses giving them the customs and liberties that London and Winchester had enjoyed in the time of Henry I. (fn. 4) In 1165 the burgesses were allowed to farm the royal revenues arising in the town, Gloucester becoming only the fourth place to be given that major privilege by Henry II. (fn. 5) An agreement made the same year between the burgesses and a man called Ailwin the mercer, for which a fine of 100 marks was paid to the Crown, presumably settled the arrangements for the burgesses' assumption of the fee farm. Ailwin the mercer was probably the wealthiest burgess of the time, being himself responsible for 10 marks of the fine (fn. 6) and paying 7½ marks of a royal aid of 100 marks levied on the borough in 1173; (fn. 7) he may have been the head of the merchant guild, an organization for which there is, however, no definite evidence before 1200. (fn. 8) Following the grant of the fee farm a group of burgesses tried to take fuller political control of the borough by the formation of a commune, or sworn association, which the royal government deemed subversive. Heavy amercements for that action were imposed in 1170, Ailwin the mercer owing £100 and other burgesses, apparently 26 in all, a total of £80 13s. 4d.; another offender fled and suffered forfeiture of his chattels. (fn. 9)
The fee farm, fixed at £55 in 1165, continued to be separately accounted for at the Exchequer by a man called Osmund the reeve (or Osmund Keys) until 1176, (fn. 10) and the borough was later described as having been at that period 'in the hands of the burgesses'. (fn. 11) The collection of the royal revenues, the landgavel, profits of court, and market tolls, implied a considerable degree of control over the borough administration, but it seems unlikely, in view of the fact that Osmund held his office throughout the period, that the burgesses had also gained the important privilege of electing their own reeve. Although certainly chosen from the burgess community—he contributed to the aid of 1173, (fn. 12) held property, including selds, in the town, and was the nephew of a Gloucester lorimer (fn. 13) — Osmund was probably a royal appointee. His responsibilities seem to have included presiding over the hundred court, the chief borough court, for he headed the list of witnesses to a grant made in the court at the period. (fn. 14)
In 1176 the right to farm was revoked by Henry II and returned to the county sheriff, (fn. 15) though separate royal reeves, among them Osmund's son Henry Keys, continued to administer the borough. (fn. 16) The farm was restored by Richard I by charter of 1194, for which the burgesses paid £100 and accepted an increase of the farm to £65. (fn. 17) In 1200, in return for another 200 marks, (fn. 18) they received from King John confirmation of the farm and a new charter which gave them the right to elect two bailiffs and four coroners, confirmed their freedom from tolls, and, among various legal franchises, established their freedom from pleading in courts outside the borough except in cases that concerned land held outside. (fn. 19) The charter marked a very significant advance in the burgesses' liberties, though it did not in the short term free them from the vagaries of royal favour. In 1201 or 1202 John returned the farm to the sheriff; (fn. 20) in 1204 the burgesses paid a fine of 25 marks for the king's protection; (fn. 21) and in 1206, after payment of a further 100 marks, they recovered the farm. (fn. 22)
From that time the borough retained, in theory at least, uninterrupted possession of its liberties, freedom from direct royal administration, and control of its revenues, court, and trade. Its liberties were not, however, secure against future challenges from the Crown or lesser authorities. The two bailiffs who administered the borough still exercised their office in the king's name, being referred to as the king's bailiffs of Gloucester (fn. 23) (or, in the period when Queens Eleanor and Margaret had the lordship, as the queen's bailiffs), (fn. 24) and the extent to which the king felt able to intervene in the burgesses' affairs was a matter for his interpretation rather than theirs. Military requirements could result in a town of such strategic importance having its liberties temporarily suspended, as seems to have happened at least twice during Edward II's reign, (fn. 25) while the proximity of the castle, seat of the county administration, made the townsfolk particularly vulnerable to incursions on their liberties by the sheriff and to acts of petty tyranny by him or the constable of the castle.
The charter of 1200, which was described in 1391 as that which granted the town and fee farm to the bailiffs and community, (fn. 26) remained the basis of Gloucester's liberties for the next 283 years. The liberties it gave were, however, supplemented and clarified by a number of later charters, which reflect in particular the burgesses' concern to exclude the county sheriff from their affairs and to uphold the jurisdiction of the borough court against the claims of external courts. In 1227 they secured from Henry III freedom from interference by the sheriff in any plea in the borough court, and in 1256 another charter confirmed to them the right to return writs and excluded the sheriff from executing summons or distraint in the borough. (fn. 27) The king had continued to use the sheriff on occasion after 1200 for some executive functions within the borough, sometimes in ways which seem to have been a slight on the bailiffs' authority, as in 1216 and 1217 when the sheriff was ordered to give seisin of houses in the town (fn. 28) and in 1247 when he was the agent for dealing with illegal purprestures. (fn. 29) Even after the charter of 1256 there remained some judicial processes in which the sheriff could be involved: in 1276 he presided with the bailiffs and coroners in the hundred court over an inquisition into a felon's goods, (fn. 30) and at the same period he took possession of the goods of any outsiders who abjured the realm before the borough coroners. (fn. 31)
The charter of 1256 also protected the burgesses against being made to answer on any matter concerning their liberties in any but a royal court; a charter of 1312 confirmed that individual burgesses could be convicted only by a jury of their fellow burgesses; and another of 1328 made a special confirmation of the clause in the charter of 1200 concerning external pleading and protected the burgesses against any loss of liberties on the grounds of non-usage. (fn. 32) The last two charters evidently followed some severe incursions on the borough's liberties during the disturbances of Edward II's reign, (fn. 33) and the need to emphasize the borough's status was probably also reflected in the style of 'bailiffs of the liberty of the town of Gloucester' adopted by the bailiffs when witnessing deeds in the late 1320s and early 1330s (fn. 34) but not apparently used at any other period.
Further legal privileges were conferred in 1398 by Richard II who gave the bailiffs the powers of justices of the peace, labourers, and artificers, as well as re-affirming the jurisdiction of the court over all pleas arising in the town. (fn. 35) The borough's liberties in the latter respect were successfully upheld by the burgesses in 1405 when the abbot of Gloucester attempted to bring an action of novel disseisin against two burgesses before the assize justices (fn. 36) and again in 1407 when the Marshalsea court meeting at Cheltenham claimed to hear cases involving Gloucester burgesses. (fn. 37) The importance attached to freedom from external pleading is also reflected by the fact that it was enshrined in a clause in the freeman's oath which was in use in the early 16th century. (fn. 38)
Confirmation of the borough charters was obtained from each king after Richard II on or soon after his accession, (fn. 39) but no further liberties were added until 1483.
Town Government 1200–1483
Although the basic constitution for the government of the borough was created under the charter of 1200, there was a further, but short-lived, innovation. Over a period of at least eight years a man called Richard the burgess witnessed deeds as mayor of Gloucester (fn. 40) and evidently derived his authority from a royal order of 1228 appointing him as 'superior ex parte domini regis' in the town, to hold custody of it during pleasure. (fn. 41) Richard the burgess was a major property owner in the town, (fn. 42) and, if he was the same person who acted as deputy to the county sheriff between 1210 and 1214, (fn. 43) a man of considerable administrative experience; his apparently significant surname was probably acquired by an ancestor who served as reeve of Gloucester in the mid 12th century. (fn. 44) Richard was twice recorded as performing the representative function of the mayor as leader of the burgess community: he led the burgesses in a commoning dispute with Gloucester Abbey in 1236 (fn. 45) and a few years later he advised on arrangements for an endowment made to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. (fn. 46) The order of 1228 evidently envisaged that he would also head the borough administration and his functions probably included presiding with the bailiffs over the hundred court. After Richard the burgess there is no further evidence for the existence of the office of mayor until its revival in 1483, and, though the surviving administrative records are few, the absence of any mention of a mayor as witness to any of the many property deeds seems to preclude the possibility that the office survived Richard. (fn. 47) The fact that his office originated in a royal order and was apparently non-elective, rather than evolving organically from the headship of the guild as seems to have been the case in some other towns, may have made it obnoxious to the burgesses.
The failure of the office of mayor to establish itself left the two bailiffs (fn. 48) in an unchallenged position both as heads of the borough administration and as chief representatives of the burgess community. Under the charter of 1200 the bailiffs were to hold office during the burgesses' pleasure, but the office was made annually elective (at Michaelmas) from that time or very soon afterwards. (fn. 49) Its duties included collecting and accounting for the fee-farm revenues, (fn. 50) presiding over the hundred court, (fn. 51) and taking responsibility for a wide range of executive and administrative functions, such a seisin and escheat of property, custody of prisoners, and summons and distraint, some of which were, however, performed by deputies. The fee-farm revenues were drawn principally from the landgavel, the amercements levied by the hundred court and views of frankpledge, and the profits of trade, which included the market tolls and the annual payments made by unfranchised traders in the borough. (fn. 52) Out of those revenues the bailiffs had to meet the annual farm, for which they were required to account personally at the Exchequer in 1256 (fn. 53) but by 1393 employed an attorney, and various fees and expenses involved in running the borough. They themselves drew a stipend of £4 in 1264. (fn. 54) The bailiffs were also used by the Crown to carry out and fund from the farm various administration tasks not directly connected with the running of the borough. They were sometimes required, for example, to supply provisions for the royal household (fn. 55) or the army, (fn. 56) oversee repairs to the castle, (fn. 57) and convey prisoners across country. (fn. 58) The paramount status of the bailiffs in the borough administration was recognized by the possession of their own seal distinct from the communal seal. (fn. 59)
The office of bailiff naturally devolved on the wealthiest members of the community, many of whom were elected for a number of terms. (fn. 60) As many as seven or eight terms were served by William of Cheltenham and John Payn in the mid 13th century and by John the draper and the merchants Alexander of Bicknor and Walter Sevare in the later years of the century, and many of the other bailiffs had three or four terms. In the 13th and 14th centuries there was none of the reluctance to serve that was later shown by some of the wealthier burgesses: of the 21 highest payers of the subsidy of 1327 14 served the office at least once. (fn. 61) Until the early 15th century men were often re-elected for a number of years, including at that period Roger Ball who (assuming it was the same man throughout) served in 14 years between 1394 and 1422. As the 15th century progressed, however, most of the leading burgesses seem to have become reluctant to take on the office for more than one or two terms. That probably reflects the declining economic fortunes of the town, bringing problems in collecting sufficient revenue to meet the fee farm, the bailiffs of the year being made personally responsible for any shortfall. In 1447 the burgesses claimed that the bailiffs were having to make up £20 of the farm out of their own pockets. (fn. 62)
The impression gained from the lists of bailiffs that town government was oligarchic is reinforced by a complaint to the Crown in 1290 that the potentes of the town were levying immoderate tallages on the other inhabitants, (fn. 63) and by an agreement made with Gloucester Abbey about fishing rights in 1368 which gave preferential treatment to the bailiffs and leading burgesses (valentiores burgenses). (fn. 64) The leading inhabitants may have been embodied in some formal organization under the borough constitution, as at Ipswich, one of four boroughs which had similar charters to Gloucester's from King John in 1200: there the inhabitants assumed under their charter the right to appoint 12 burgesses, including, and as an advisory body to, the bailiffs and coroners. (fn. 65) It is not impossible that such a body existed at Gloucester from 1200, unrecorded in the sparse administrative records that have survived. The earliest suggestion found of such a body is in the later 14th century when on two occasions a group of 12 burgesses — the 2 bailiffs, the 4 stewards, and 6 others — were named as acting for the town. (fn. 66) Those records may be of isolated instances in which the authority of six leading burgesses was thought necessary to support the officers; they may on the other hand record a formal consultative body, convened regularly to act with the officers in actions taken on behalf of the community.
Apart from the bailiffs, coroners were the only borough officers whose election was provided for by the charter of 1200. Four were to be elected by the burgesses and, besides keeping the crown pleas and answering for them before the eyre, their office was seen as a check on the power of the bailiffs: they were to see that the bailiffs treated the inhabitants impartially in their government of the town. (fn. 67) The names of the coroners recorded in the late 13th century and the 14th (fn. 68) show that they were mostly drawn from the class of wealthy burgess that provided the bailiffs and so would presumably have had the authority to act in that way. Election of the coroners by the burgesses evidently gave way to appointment by the justices in eyre; at the 1287 eyre all four were replaced by the justices. (fn. 69) The development of the office at Gloucester in the later medieval period is obscure. Its role was presumably diminished by the bailiffs' assumption of the powers of justices of the peace under the charter of 1398 (fn. 70) and the office may actually have been absorbed in that of the bailiffs; in 1440 one of the bailiffs was also serving as a coroner. (fn. 71)
Other officers who probably existed from 1200, thought not found recorded before 1264, were the two serjeants or under-bailiffs. The serjeants, who were provided with gowns each year, (fn. 72) and by the late 14th century carried official maces, (fn. 73) deputized for the bailiffs in their administrative functions and were involved particularly in performing such tasks for the hundred court as empanelling juries, summoning defendants, and collecting amercements. (fn. 74) In 1287 one is recorded as acting as keeper of the town gaol, (fn. 75) also a function performed by delegation from the bailiffs. (fn. 76) At the beginning of the 16th century and probably from an earlier date the serjeants were required to execute a bond at the beginning of their annual term of office as a guarantee of faithful service to the bailiffs. (fn. 77) Porters of the town gates had existed from at least 1143 (fn. 78) and were receiving a regular stipend from the bailiffs in 1264 (fn. 79) but were later paid by the muragers. (fn. 80) More than one clerk was employed by the bailiffs in the 1260s. (fn. 81) Separate officials were appointed to levy and apply the murage from at least 1298, apparently holding office for the term of the current royal grant. (fn. 82) The office survived until at least 1410 but by the 1390s the muragers had become merely collectors, handing the balance of the fund over to the borough stewards to be applied by them. (fn. 83)
The principal organ of government in the borough was the hundred court, which was so called by the late 12th century, (fn. 84) Gloucester claiming the status of a separate hundred. (fn. 85) The court met, probably weekly, in the building called the Boothall or guildhall, (fn. 86) and frankpledge sessions of the court were held twice a year. (fn. 87) No hundred court records survive until 1502, after the major reorganization of the borough constitution in 1483, so it is not clear to what extent its functions went beyond the hearing of pleas. It certainly had a role in property transactions, many of which were witnessed by the court (fn. 88) and at least some enrolled there. (fn. 89) Regulations for the butchers' company in 1454 and for the cooks' company in 1482 were approved at the view of frankpledge and the former record also implies that admissions to the freedom of the borough took place in the court before the bailiffs. (fn. 90) It seems probable that up to 1483 the hundred court was the main forum for administrative business and that the promulgation of bylaws for the regulation of trade and the general running of the borough, and perhaps also the election of officers, were among its functions.
The court's jurisdiction in purely legal matters was defended and enhanced by the provisions in the various royal charters that protected the burgesses against pleading in external courts and upheld the authority of ancient customs of the borough in determining pleas heard there. Its fullest extent, as defined by Richard II's charter of 1398, included the hearing of assizes of novel disseisin and mort d'ancestor. (fn. 91) The legal franchises claimed by the burgesses in 1287 included infangthief, the use of the gallows being shared with the county sheriff, (fn. 92) but in 1306 they appear to have been claiming to execute justice on all perpetrators of felonies within the borough. (fn. 93) The right to take the goods of felons, together with those of fugitives and outlaws, was not secured until 1398. (fn. 94)
If there was any organ of government apart from the court it may have been some form of guild meeting. At the beginning of the 16th century it was recorded that at a 'merchants' guild' held on St. Thomas's day (21 December) each year the balance of a sum of £500 left to the town by Thomas Gloucester (d. 1447) was handed over by four 'conservators' to their successors. (fn. 95) If such meetings were convened before 1483 they presumably provided another forum for discussion and decision on communal matters, for the terminology employed by the charter of 1200 and by later documents makes it clear that the guild comprised all those inhabitants who had full burgess rights. The charter granted both legal and trading franchises to 'the burgesses of Gloucester of the merchants' guild', (fn. 96) and the common seal of the borough that was in use c. 1240 bore the legend: 'sigillum burgensium de gilda mercatorum Gloucestrie'. (fn. 97) In 1409 and later those acquiring the freedom were sworn in as 'burgesses' to the 'merchants' guild'. (fn. 98)
An important development in the borough administration before 1483 was the emergence of an organization for administering those communal funds which were not appropriated to the fee farm and not therefore the direct responsibility of the bailiffs. A growing body of property and rents came to the community through new buildings, or extensions to existing buildings, on the waste land of the borough, and there were also lands given to it for certain communal purposes or held in trust for the hospitals or for other charitable or pious uses. Four stewards of the borough, apparently elected annually, were recorded from 1357 acting with the bailiffs in administering and leasing communal and trust property, (fn. 99) and there was presumably a separate treasury for receiving the profits from communal property in 1364 when a distinction was made between the landgavel rent owed from a piece of land to the bailiffs and stewards and a rent owed to the stewards alone; (fn. 100) the communal treasury was recorded by that term in 1412 when the filing of deeds was among its functions. (fn. 101) The rents received by the stewards from the communal property amounted to £12 3s. 2d. by 1409, (fn. 102) and by 1455 the property comprised c. 25 burgage tenements and various shops and other parcels of land. (fn. 103) The stewards' other main source of income was the fines paid by those admitted to the freedom. Out of their income they were required to maintain the common property, including the Boothall, and by the early 15th century they were also administering the funds raised by virtue of royal grants of pavage and murage. (fn. 104) Their responsibility for maintaining the pipes and conduits of the public water supply probably dated from 1438 when the community acquired the system. (fn. 105)
The number of the stewards suggests that each had particular responsibility within one of the four wards into which the town was divided. The wards, named from the cardinal points and apparently based on the four main streets, were recorded from the mid 13th century when their inhabitants were responsible for taking felons and for supplying members of coroner's inquests. (fn. 106) In 1327 they were also being used as units for tax assessment. (fn. 107)