Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): City government and politics

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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'Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): City government and politics', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester, ed. N M Herbert( London, 1988), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp84-89 [accessed 14 July 2024].

'Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): City government and politics', in A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Edited by N M Herbert( London, 1988), British History Online, accessed July 14, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp84-89.

"Early Modern Gloucester (to 1640): City government and politics". A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Ed. N M Herbert(London, 1988), , British History Online. Web. 14 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp84-89.

City Government and Politics

The institutional arrangements for city government in the late 16th century and the early 17th remained those laid down by the charter of 1483. The charter had effectively concentrated power in the hands of town leaders headed by the mayor and aldermen. No less important was the provision that the city should have jurisdiction over the inshire, (fn. 1) a jurisdiction which steadily poisoned relations between Gloucester and the county in the decades before 1640. Subsequent charters prior to the Civil War made relatively minor changes to the governmental framework. (fn. 2)

Among Gloucester's courts, the hundred court met every Monday, swore in constables, freemen, and officers of the trade companies, and tried civil actions involving citizens. (fn. 3) From the mid 16th century, however, the court was in decline. (fn. 4) More active was the piepowder court held at the Tolsey by the sheriffs on market days. That was the main court of pleas in the city, hearing a good deal of litigation and with a number of attorneys in attendance. (fn. 5) The frankpledge jury continued to meet twice a year, and issue, or re-affirm, detailed bylaws concerning paving and other routine administrative matters. (fn. 6) A new body instituted by charter in 1561 was the orphans' court, which was modelled on the London institution. (fn. 7) Through it the mayor and aldermen administered the estates of freemen whose heirs were minors, checking wills and inventories, loaning out funds from minors' estates to citizens at interest, and reimbursing the 'orphans' when they achieved majority. There were, however, recurrent disputes over the court's working and it had almost fallen into disuse by 1640. (fn. 8)

The most important city institution was the common council, whose members were co-opted from the freemen. By custom the number of councillors was 40, but the figure fluctuated, depending on whether the aldermen were included in the total. In 1605 James I appears to have reduced the number of the council to 30, (fn. 9) but the membership was restored to 40 under Charles I's charter of 1627. (fn. 10) The common council elected certain city officers, such as the four stewards or chamberlains, the town clerk, and the recorder. It also made leases of town lands, regulated the commons, levied taxes, and issued ordinances for the general welfare and good rule of the community. During the 16th century the council expanded its authority at the expense of the frankpledge jury.

By 1600, however, the full council was increasingly overshadowed by the mayor and aldermanic bench. The path to aldermanic power was steep and difficult. An ambitious man had first to enter the council (usually in his late 30s), then serve twice in the costly and burdensome offices of steward and sheriff. After perhaps a dozen years' service on the council he might then be considered for co-option to the bench. Most aldermen were in their late 40s when they were elevated, wealthy men belonging to the top score of taxpayers in the city and frequently associated with the distributive trades, the most prosperous sector of the economy. (fn. 11)

The aldermanic bench increasingly took the initiative in city government. By 1600 it was meeting at least once a week at the Tolsey to deal with pressing administrative matters and also, it seems likely, to agree on policy. (fn. 12) It had a powerful and often decisive voice in city appointments and the award of leases and did its best to manipulate parliamentary elections. (fn. 13) Though the aldermen were ex officio J.P.s under the charter of 1483, James I in 1605 confirmed their authority by granting them the power to hold quarter sessions for the city and inshire. (fn. 14) By 1640 quarter sessions, with its control over poor relief and public order, had become a major force in city and inshire government. (fn. 15)

The growth of oligarchic rule at Gloucester, as in most corporate towns, was encouraged by the Crown, which preferred to deal with small groups of loyal worthies. Under Elizabeth I the Privy Council intervened to support the decisions and orders of the aldermen. (fn. 16) James I's charter of 1605 significantly weakened the position of the ordinary councillors, though their powers were mostly restored in 1627. (fn. 17) Crown intervention was not the only cause of the ascendancy of oligarchy. With the mounting economic and social difficulties in the city, leading inhabitants came to regard restricted civic rule as essential for the maintenance of public order. Gloucester's common council observed in 1584 how 'experience has taught us what a difficult thing it has always been to deal in any matter where the multitude of burgesses have voice'. (fn. 18) No less influential was the enhanced economic importance of leading citizens and the ever-expanding volume of city administration. The central government and parliament imposed more and more duties on local officials, from setting up workhouses and plague prevention to regulating apprentices and suppressing vagrancy. There was an inevitable need for a standing committee of leading citizens such as the aldermanic bench. (fn. 19)

Advising and assisting the city leadership and acting as clerk of the peace, steward of the orphans' court, hundred court, and court of piepowder was the town clerk, who by the early Stuart period was starting to emerge as an important figure in urban politics. (fn. 20) Several of the town clerks before 1640 were barristers, trained at the inns of court, and were leading lawyers in the city and its region. (fn. 21) The choice of a new town clerk was hotly contested on several occasions before 1640. (fn. 22) The recorder, established as the principal legal officer by the charter of 1561, which confirmed in the post the wealthy and influential Richard Pate, was less closely involved in town administration. (fn. 23) Nonetheless the recorder was an increasingly significant figure, as the city became embroiled in legal disputes with citizens, the gentry of the inshire, and later the Crown. In 1638 William Lenthall, the future Speaker of the Long Parliament, was elected recorder of Gloucester. (fn. 24)

In the century before the Civil War Gloucester experienced mounting political problems. City finances deteriorated, moving from an annual surplus for most of the 1550s to an average annual deficit of £150 in the 1590s. (fn. 25) There were continuing deficits up to 1640 together with a large cumulative debt, (fn. 26) caused by inflation and expanded administrative activity: expenditure rose four-fold between the reigns of Edward VI and Charles I. While rental income advanced as well, notably in the early 17th century, other sources of revenue such as freedom fines and tolls were less lucrative. Recurrent deficits forced the city to rely on borrowing, from outsiders, (fn. 27) from members of the bench (fn. 28), and from the city stewards. During the later decades of the 16th century it became established that the four incoming stewards lent the city chamber a sum sufficient to clear the current deficit; they were then reimbursed by the succeeding stewards. (fn. 29) That procedure created major difficulties. In 1579, 1584, and 1598 one or more stewards refused to pay; on such occasions the city came close to bankruptcy. (fn. 30) The heavy burden on the stewards deterred middle-rank men from entering or staying on the common council. (fn. 31)

The financial plight of the city contributed to a second problem, that of political factionalism. City leaders who helped fund the administration with loans or cash from their own pocket sought compensation from sales of office, bribes, and peculation. Corruption and abuse were widespread in city government at the end of the Tudor period. In 1596 and 1597 several aldermen were engaged in the fraudulent management of the municipal corn stock; one of the culprits allegedly made a profit of c. £150. (fn. 32) During the plague outbreak of 1604 the mayor, Thomas Rich, was said to have sold over-priced shrouds and winding sheets for the poor. (fn. 33) Abuse fuelled conflict and division within the ruling élite. It also encouraged mounting popular hostility towards the oligarchy. In the years 1586–7 there was a dispute over the election of a new recorder with a successful attempt by Richard Pate to nominate his successor William Oldisworth, who may have bought the office from Pate. (fn. 34) In the parliamentary election of 1588 the two more populist candidates, Thomas Atkyns and Luke Garnons, were elected. (fn. 35) Political factionalism was recurrent during the late 1590s. At the election of M.P. s in 1597 it was alleged that the bench had deliberately excluded from the poll numerous freemen who were supporters of Atkyns. (fn. 36) The corporation was divided between an establishment group, led by Alderman Thomas Machen and his son-in-law Thomas Rich, which was sympathetic towards puritan ideas, and a more populist faction, led by Alderman Garnons and Alderman John Jones, which endeavoured to mobilize the freeman vote and had stronger ties with the cathedral close (Jones was diocesan registrar under eight bishops). (fn. 37) When Rich became mayor in 1603 it was said he spent 'the greatest part of his time and study that year to be revenged upon his enemies and such as were not of his faction, to weaken, charge, and defame them'. (fn. 38) It was further alleged that he tried to rig the council meetings. The elections to parliament in December 1603 were particularly turbulent. Rich and his allies on the corporation tried to delay the execution of the election writ in order to prevent the return of Jones. In the meantime Jones canvassed freeman support, promising to get more fairs for the city and the redress of various popular grievances. When Jones was eventually chosen Rich tried to hold another poll, though without success. (fn. 39) Disputes continued through 1604, and in 1605 a series of cases involving leading members of the corporation was heard in Star Chamber and the Exchequer. (fn. 40) Further outbreaks of factionalism occurred in 1608 (fn. 41) and the 1610s, (fn. 42) but they were on a lesser scale. During the second half of James I's reign there are signs that the magistracy, by then dominated by committed puritans, sought to curb internal conflict and consolidate oligarchic power by restraining abuses in city government. (fn. 43)

Nonetheless, although civic factionalism subsided in the years before 1640, the city fathers were beset with other problems. Disputes over jurisdiction were commonplace in corporate towns during the late 16th century and the early 17th, particularly in cathedral cities with their ecclesiastical liberties. In the years 1583–4 the city clashed with the dean and chapter of Gloucester over their respective powers in the close. The corporation won a decisive victory, thereafter levying taxes in the precincts. (fn. 44) There were also minor clashes with local gentlemen over the privileges of the castle liberty. (fn. 45) More serious were conflicts with outside bodies. On a number of occasions the Council in the Marches intervened in town affairs. In 1597 the mayor, Grimbald Hutchins, was imprisoned by the Council for flouting its orders and seven years later it acted to secure the restoration of an alderman after his dismissal from the bench. (fn. 46) In the two or three decades before the Civil War, however, the Council was a waning force.

A greater challenge to civic autonomy was posed by the county gentry. During Elizabeth I's reign and later county landowners were busy extending their power and authority in provincial England, frequently at the expense of borough privileges. In Gloucestershire rivalry between the city and gentry was exacerbated by Gloucester's control over the inshire. Not only was that regarded as a humiliating affront to county pride, but there were allegations that the city abused its position by imposing a disproportionate burden of taxes and other levies upon the inshire. In addition, there was anger over the way that the gentry and substantial men of the inshire were denied any voice in city government or in the election of Gloucester's M.P.s. (fn. 47)

There was tension between the city and county over the inshire in the mid 16th century, (fn. 48) but conflict escalated from the last years of Elizabeth I's reign. In 1595 there were disputes with the county over the levying of troops in the inshire. (fn. 49) In the parliamentary election of 1597 the populist candidate Atkyns sought to exploit the grievances of the inshire. (fn. 50) The frustration of the inshire exploded in 1624. Sir William Guise of Elmore held meetings of its leading inhabitants and charged the mayor and aldermen 'with want of good education, with ignorance, partiality, malice, wrong justice, oppression, and with unlawful [taxes]'. Parliament was petitioned to let the inshire have its own M.P.s. (fn. 51) At the same time Sir William, with his son William Guise of Brockworth and Sir Robert Cooke of Highnam, obtained a special commission of association from the Crown, which gave them authority to sit as justices of the peace. (fn. 52) At Midsummer 1624 the new J.P.s tried to take their seats at the city sessions. The city fought back fiercely, bringing actions against Sir William Guise in Star Chamber and trying to mobilize support at Court, albeit with limited success. The corporation protested that the gentry's action threatened 'a settled and constant government' which had continued for many years 'whereby an ill example will be given for knights and gentlemen to infringe and invade the liberties of all the cities of England'. In the end the city outmanoeuvred the gentry, offering concessions which it later withdrew. Charles I's charter of 1627 confirmed Gloucester's jurisdiction over the inshire, (fn. 53) but the issue was far from settled and within a decade there was renewed conflict. (fn. 54)

Controversy over the inshire affected wider relations with the county of Gloucestershire. In the years 1587–8 there was a clash over whether the lord lieutenant, Lord Chandos, could muster troops in Gloucester. (fn. 55) The county reacted by delaying its contribution to the ship money. (fn. 56) In 1595 the gentry denounced Gloucester maltsters for exporting malt during the dearth and banned shipments down river. (fn. 57) When a conference was arranged between the city and county magistrates to resolve their differences, the county magistrates kept the mayor and aldermen waiting and then left town without talking to them. (fn. 58) In James I's reign the corporation refused to agree to leases of rights to gentry. (fn. 59) After further friction in the 1620s and over ship money in the years 1635–6, (fn. 60) the county raised a paltry sum to aid Gloucester inhabitants afflicted by the plague outbreak of 1638. (fn. 61)

With a growing tribe of enemies in the county, Gloucester needed powerful allies at Court to protect its interests. Under Elizabeth I Gloucester had a staunch patron in William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the lord treasurer, who secured the status of a port for the city in 1580 and supported it over the disputes with the county in 1588. (fn. 62) There was some local opposition to Crown levies in the 1590s, but that did not seriously harm city relations with the government. (fn. 63) Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, succeeded his father as high steward of Gloucester. (fn. 64) By the 1620s, however, relations with the Court were becoming more remote. Puritan magistrates were worried by the religious conservatism at Whitehall, by the pusillanimous support they received over the inshire dispute, and by the military levies and other exactions imposed between 1624 and 1628, at a time of severe economic and social difficulty in the city. (fn. 65) In 1629 one of the city's M.P.s, Alderman John Browne, criticized royal attempts to levy tunnage and poundage without parliamentary consent. (fn. 66) The crucial deterioration in relations between Gloucester and the Crown occurred during the 1630s, principally as a result of Archbishop Laud's attack on various aspects of the puritan regime in the city. (fn. 67) In 1639 the Privy Council complained of prolonged arrears of ship money at Gloucester, while about that time leading inhabitants may have had indirect contact with the Scottish rebels. (fn. 68)

By contrast with many boroughs, Gloucester retained control of its representation in parliament during the late 16th century and the early 17th. (fn. 69) Despite its financial problems, the city continued to pay its M.P.s up to 1610. (fn. 70) The aldermen rejected attempts by the earl of Leicester to nominate parliamentary burgesses in 1580 and 1584. (fn. 71) Gentlemen sat for Gloucester on only four occasions in the period 1559–1640; the majority of the city's M.P.s were merchants, with a number of lawyers (generally the recorder or town clerk). The considerable size of the freeman electorate, divisions in the magistracy, and popular and inshire discontent led to several tumultuous elections, particularly in 1597 and 1603. (fn. 72) Afterwards, it seems, the bench kept tighter control. Four candidates stood in the elections to the Short Parliament in 1640: Alderman William Singleton, a moderate puritan and well respected for his work as mayor during the plague of 1638; the puritan recorder William Lenthall; Henry Brett, a gentleman related to several aldermanic families; and the radical puritan Thomas Pury, an attorney. Singleton and Brett were returned. (fn. 73) Later in 1640 Pury and Brett were elected to serve in the Long Parliament. (fn. 74)


  • 1. Above, Medieval Glouc., town govt. 1483–1547.
  • 2. For abstracts of the charters granted in the period, Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 29–45.
  • 3. G.B.R., G 10/2; P.R.O., STAC 5/A 20/11.
  • 4. G.B.R., B 2/1, f. 43 and v.; G 10/2.
  • 5. Ibid. G 6/1.
  • 6. Ibid. G 8/3.
  • 7. Ibid. G 12/1; cf. C. Carlton, Court of Orphans (1974), 13, et passim.
  • 8. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 103v., 160v.; P.R.O., C 3/247/26.
  • 9. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 36–40.
  • 10. Ibid. pp. 40–5.
  • 11. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 315, 317; below, Aldermen of Glouc. 1483–1835.
  • 12. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 188.
  • 13. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 320–1.
  • 14. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 38.
  • 15. G.B.R., G 3/SO 3–4.
  • 16. e.g. Acts of P.C. 1587–8, 291–3.
  • 17. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 37, 41.
  • 18. Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. p. 457.
  • 19. Cf. P. Clark and P. Slack, Eng. Towns in Transition 1500–1700 (1976), 129, 131–2.
  • 20. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 153v.–154.
  • 21. P.R.O., C 2/Jas. I/P 20/55.
  • 22. e.g. 1613–14: G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 252–3, 259v.
  • 23. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 33; G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 196v.; and for Pate, A. L. Browne, 'Ric. Pates (sic), M.P. for Glouc.', Trans. B.G.A.S. lvi. 201–25.
  • 24. G.B.R., B 3/2, p. 88.
  • 25. Ibid. F 4/3.
  • 26. Ibid. 5.
  • 27. Ibid. B 3/1, f. 246.
  • 28. Ibid. H 2/1, f. 16.
  • 29. Clark, 'Ramoth-Gilead', 176.
  • 30. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 67v. sqq., 86v.–87v., 92, 175v.–176.
  • 31. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 317.
  • 32. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 174v.–175; P.R.O., STAC 8/254/23.
  • 33. P.R.O., STAC 8/4/9.
  • 34. J. E. Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons (1949), 264–5.
  • 35. Ibid. 265.
  • 36. P.R.O., STAC 5/A 20/11; Neale, Commons, 267–9.
  • 37. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 321.
  • 38. P.R.O., STAC 8/4/9.
  • 39. Ibid. STAC 8/228/30; STAC 8/207/25.
  • 40. Ibid. STAC 8/4/8–9; STAC 8/228/30; STAC 8/254/23; E 134/3 Jas. I Mich./3.
  • 41. Les Reportes del Cases in Camera Stellata 1593 to 1609, ed. W. P. Baildon (1894), 372–3, 413.
  • 42. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 252 sqq.
  • 43. Clark, 'Civic Leaders', 321.
  • 44. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 86 sqq.; P.R.O., SP 12/171/24; R. Beddard, 'Privileges of Christchurch, Canterbury', Archaeologia Cantiana, lxxxvii. 99–100.
  • 45. P.R.O., E 134/10 Chas. I Mich./55.
  • 46. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 167v., 170, 203v., 206.
  • 47. Ibid. B 8/12.
  • 48. Ibid. B 2/1, f. 228v.
  • 49. Ibid. H 2/1, ff. 79v.–80.
  • 50. P.R.O., STAC 5/A 20/11.
  • 51. G.B.R., B 3/1, ff. 497–498v.; B 8/12; Glos. R.O., D 326/Z 2.
  • 52. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 510v.; B 8/12.
  • 53. Ibid. B 8/12; Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 40.
  • 54. P.R.O., PC 2/45, p. 209; PC 2/46, p. 179; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1635, 470.
  • 55. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 110v.; H 2/1, f. 3.
  • 56. Ibid. B 3/1, ff. 113v.–114; H 2/1, f. 16.
  • 57. Ibid. H 2/1, f. 79v.; B 3/1, f. 152v.
  • 58. Ibid. H 2/1, ff. 79v.–80.
  • 59. P.R.O., SP 14/54, no. 34 (1).
  • 60. Ibid. SP 16/94, no. 57; PC 2/44, pp. 265–6.
  • 61. P.C. Reg. iv, pp. 423–4.
  • 62. G.B.R., B 2/1, f. 79; B 3/1, f. 118; H 2/1, ff. 3, 14v. sqq.
  • 63. Ibid. H 2/1, f. 56 and v.; P.R.O., STAC 8/297/21.
  • 64. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 200v.
  • 65. Ibid. H 2/2, f. 28, et passim; P.R.O., SP 16/94, no. 57; SP 16/77, no. 30; Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. pp. 478–9, 486.
  • 66. G.B.R., G 5/1; Commons Debates for 1629, ed. W. Notestein and F.H. Relf (1921), 201.
  • 67. Below, religious and cultural life.
  • 68. P.C. Reg. v. 205; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1639, 519–21.
  • 69. Cf. Williams, Parl. Hist. of Glos. 189–94.
  • 70. G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 232.
  • 71. Hist. MSS. Com. 27, Glouc. Corp. p. 460; G.B.R., B 3/1, f. 92v.
  • 72. Neale, Commons, 268; P.R.O., STAC 8/228/30.
  • 73. P.R.O., SP 16/448, no. 79.
  • 74. Williams, Parl. Hist. of Glos. 194–5.