Medieval Gloucester: Town government, 1483-1547

Pages 54-57

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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Town Government 1483–1547

The charter granted by Richard 111 in 1483 remodelled the constitution of the town and gave it important additional liberties and status. It made Gloucester together with the surrounding parishes and hamlets of Dudstone and King's Barton hundred into a separate county, to be called 'the county of the town of Gloucester', gave the town a mayor and aldermen, and incorporated the burgess community under the style of 'the mayor and burgesses of the town of Gloucester'. The mayor was to perform the offices of clerk of the market, steward and marshal of the king's household, and escheator within the new county, and he and the aldermen were to exercise full magisterial powers there; the two bailiffs were to perform the office of sheriffs in the new county. (fn. 1) The creation of a common council as the governing body of the town was apparently implied by the charter, though not mentioned in it. Such a body existed by 1484 (fn. 2) and comprised 40 members — the mayor and his fellow 11 aldermen, the 2 sheriffs, the 4 stewards, and 22 other burgesses. (fn. 3)

The charter gave formal expression to the oligarchical system of government that had existed previously and laid the basis for the 'closed corporation' that ran Gloucester for the next 3½ centuries. The aldermen were to hold office for life and vacancies were to be filled by the surviving aldermen. Later, and perhaps from the first, new recruits to the bench were drawn from among the senior common councilmen, while new councilmen were elected, also for life, by vote of the full council. Of the annual appointments, the mayor was to be chosen from among the aldermen by his fellows and 12 leading burgesses, who in later practice were all councilmen. The charter stated that the election of the bailiffs should be as formerly accustomed, without giving details. It does specify that a bailiff dying before the end of his term should be replaced by election of 'the burgesses of the town', (fn. 4) so possibly for them a wider electorate was envisaged; but in later practice in their election, too, no one outside the common council was involved.

Although making them sheriffs of the new county, the charter lessened the status and authority of the bailiffs (fn. 5) within the town government. The mayor, before whom they were required to take their oath of office, (fn. 6) took over their role as figurehead and chief representative of the burgess community and joined them in the presidency of the hundred court. (fn. 7) The mayor's status was emphasized in the charter by the right to have a sword carried before him, (fn. 8) and a separate seal of office was struck for his use. (fn. 9) His authority as president of the common council was bolstered by regulations made in 1522. (fn. 10) The sheriffs after 1483 were mainly executive officers, subject to the discipline of the common council which by 1500 had assumed the power to fine them for failure to carry out its ordinances. (fn. 11) The office became a step in the borough hierarchy which councilmen were required to serve for two terms before being eligible for the aldermanic bench. (fn. 12) Its burdensome nature was emphasized in the years immediately following the new charter by the continuing shortfall of the fee-farm revenues: c. 1487 it was said that some recent sheriffs had been required to make up as much as £30 and that some of the wealthier burgesses had left the town to avoid serving the office. (fn. 13)

The common council rapidly emerged as the chief organ of government in the town, diminishing in the process the role of the hundred court and its frankpledge jury. The council was making ordinances for the regulation of trade in the town by 1499, (fn. 14) and in the following year regulations covering a wide range of matters though initiated by the frankpledge jury required the confirmation of the council. (fn. 15) The council was also recorded, by 1494, as authorizing items of the stewards' expenditure (fn. 16) and, before 1509, making regulations for procedure in the hundred and piepowder courts. (fn. 17)

The charter of 1483 provided for a single coroner to be elected by, and hold office during the pleasure of, the mayor and aldermen; (fn. 18) by the 1530s, when the office was annually elective, it was always filled by one of the aldermen. (fn. 19) The period also saw the growth of the office of town clerk, which was restricted to an individual by 1500, (fn. 20) and the creation, before 1534, of the office of recorder. (fn. 21) Of the minor borough officers, the charter increased to four the number of serjeants, who from that time were styled serjeants-at-mace, and assigned two to serve the mayor and two the sheriffs. By 1486 the office of mayor's sword bearer had been created at a salary and an allowance for gowns; in 1493, when the common council appointed to the office, it was decided that it should be held during pleasure. (fn. 22) The office of town bellman was recorded from 1542. (fn. 23) The relative status of the various borough officers at the end of the period is indicated by a scale of fees agreed in 1540 for their attendance at the annual visitation of the Crypt school: the mayor was to receive 4s., the recorder 3s. 4d., each alderman 2s., each sheriff 20d., the town clerk 16d., each steward 12d., the sword bearer 12d., each serjeant-at-mace 8d., and each porter 4d. (fn. 24)

Records of the ordinary sessions of the hundred court which survive for the years 1502–7 (fn. 25) show it to have been by that period concerned solely with the hearing of pleas, pleas of debt predominating. Although some parts of the process, including the requirement to produce pledges de prosequendo, had become a formality, actions in the court still proceeded through the various stages of essoin, summons, plea, and verdict by a rigid process, governed by a body of ancient borough customs such as one recorded in 1503 concerning the disposal of goods taken in distress in a plea of debt; (fn. 26) the correct form of words for making a plea or defence was still insisted on. (fn. 27) Compurgation was still used to an extent almost equal to jury verdicts, but many cases were settled out of court by arbitration. The court sat weekly on a Monday, and every Michaelmas, at the start of the borough year, a special court was held at which all property owners in the town, including the various religious houses, were required to perform suit. (fn. 28) The separate piepowder court, offering litigants a speedier procedure, is first recorded in 1504, (fn. 29) though it had presumably existed from much earlier times.

The increasing complexity of the borough administration at the period is reflected in the volume of records it produced, including the steadily lengthening accounts of the four stewards (called alternatively chamberlains), a 'red book' for common council ordinances kept from 1486, (fn. 30) a roll of admissions to the freedom from 1534 (not, of course, the earliest), (fn. 31) and a book in which deeds and leases concerning corporation property were entered from 1540. (fn. 32)

Among the communal responsibilities for which the stewards accounted were the maintenance of public buildings, street paving and cleaning, the upkeep of the town water supply, the expenses of the members of parliament, and the costs of litigation in which the town engaged with other communities or individuals over such matters as the charging of tolls. (fn. 33) Other concerns of the town government at the period were illustrated by ordinances made by the frankpledge jury in 1500 for the regulation of trade (fn. 34) and for the upkeep of public order and morality. Strumpets were to be carted around the town and, together with those who consorted with them, put on public display in the market place. Only town officers were to wear swords or long knives in the town; no inhabitant of the town was to be retained by any county gentleman, a practice said to have caused much trouble; and beggars were to be registered at the Boothall by the town clerk. (fn. 35) The problem of beggars was mentioned in 1493 when the mayor received a royal command to keep watch for vagabonds, (fn. 36) and in 1504 all paupers were ordered to leave town except for 36 people, mainly women, who had been registered and badged. (fn. 37)

Property management was another growing preoccupation of the officers. The annual rental of communal property in the town had risen to £29 19s. 1½d. by 1494 (though untenanted property then meant that over £7 was not being received). (fn. 38) An outlying estate of agricultural land came to the corporation in 1515 by John Capel's gift of the lease of White Barn farm for the upkeep of the bridge and quay, (fn. 39) and in 1540 it took responsibility for its first large trust estate, Podsmead and other lands given by Joan Cooke as the endowment of the Crypt school. (fn. 40) In 1542 it made a deliberate, and apparently speculative, venture into property, laying out £493 14s. 2d. in the purchase of some former Gloucester Abbey and Llanthony Priory lands around Gloucester and lands in Herefordshire formerly of Aconbury Priory; (fn. 41) the Herefordshire lands and much of those around Gloucester were sold off over the next few years, (fn. 42) though the demesne lands of Abbot's Barton manor were retained.

The first entry in the new council minute book in 1486 concerned the allowances to be paid to the borough officers for the public dinners which then and for many years later marked the main events of the civic year. Dinners were held at the election of the officers, which took place on the Monday after Michaelmas as laid down by the charter of 1483, and twice a year at the 'lawdays', the sessions of the frankpledge jury. Also held were a 'keziard' dinner at Michaelmas and 'drinkings' at Midsummer and the eve of St. Peter. (fn. 43) A procession to the west gate on Easter Day, followed by a banquet, was mentioned in 1527, (fn. 44) and the annual perambulation of the town boundaries by the mayor and other burgesses just before Michaelmas may have been instituted at the period. (fn. 45) Even the annual visitation of the Crypt school by the borough officers after 1540 was made the occasion of a procession, covering the short distance from the Cross to the schoolhouse beside St. Mary de Crypt church. (fn. 46)


  • 1. G.B.R., I 1/22 (the original charter, kept at Guildhall, Glouc., in 1982; it is paraphrased in Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 16–19).
  • 2. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 414.
  • 3. G.B.R., B 2/1, f. 1.
  • 4. Ibid. I 1/22.
  • 5. In all references in this volume to those officers at a period after 1483 they will be termed 'sheriffs', though their full style was 'bailiffs and sheriffs of Gloucester'.
  • 6. G.B.R., I 1/22.
  • 7. Ibid. G 10/1, pp. 21, 58, 72.
  • 8. Ibid. I 1/22.
  • 9. Trans. B.G.A.S. xiii. 390–2.
  • 10. G.B.R., B 2/1, ff. 14v.–15.
  • 11. Ibid. ff. 19v., 22.
  • 12. Cf. Fosbrooke, Glouc. 208.
  • 13. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 61–2.
  • 14. G.B.R., B 2/1, ff. 13, 21v.–22v.
  • 15. Ibid. ff. 16–21.
  • 16. Ibid. F 4/2.
  • 17. Ibid. B 2/1, f. 3.
  • 18. Ibid. I 1/22.
  • 19. Ibid. C 9/6.
  • 20. Ibid. B 2/1, f. 20v.
  • 21. L. & P. Hen. VIII, vii, p. 535.
  • 22. G.B.R., B 2/1, ff. 1–2.
  • 23. Glos. Colln. 28652, no. 4.
  • 24. Austin, Crypt Sch. 155–6.
  • 25. G.B.R., G 10/1.
  • 26. Ibid. p. 36.
  • 27. e.g. Ibid. pp. 6, 14, 45.
  • 28. Ibid. pp. 58, 136, 222.
  • 29. Ibid. p. 89.
  • 30. Ibid. B 2/1; and see ibid. f. 148v.
  • 31. Ibid. C 9/6; cf. ibid. f 4/2.
  • 32. Ibid. B 2/2, f. 16.
  • 33. Ibid. F 4/2–3.
  • 34. Below, regulation of trade and ind.
  • 35. G.B.R., B 2/1, ff. 17, 19 and v., 20v.
  • 36. Ibid. F 4/2.
  • 37. Ibid. B 2/1, f. 233v.
  • 38. Ibid. F 4/2.
  • 39. Ibid. B 2/1, ff. 237v.–239; cf. ibid. f. 26v.
  • 40. Austin, Crypt Sch. 147–58.
  • 41. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 26–9.
  • 42. G.B.R., B 2/2, ff. 33–38v., 85–86v.
  • 43. Ibid. 1, f. 1.
  • 44. Ibid. f. 13v.
  • 45. P.R.O., E 134/31 Eliz. East./15.
  • 46. Austin, Crypt Sch. 155.