The City of Coventry: Local government and public services, Local government to 1451

A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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'The City of Coventry: Local government and public services, Local government to 1451', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick, ed. W B Stephens( London, 1969), British History Online [accessed 19 July 2024].

'The City of Coventry: Local government and public services, Local government to 1451', in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Edited by W B Stephens( London, 1969), British History Online, accessed July 19, 2024,

"The City of Coventry: Local government and public services, Local government to 1451". A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Ed. W B Stephens(London, 1969), , British History Online. Web. 19 July 2024.

In this section


Coventry appears to have belonged to Godiva, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, during the middle years of the 11th century. (fn. 2) The earliest version of the Godiva legend states that on Godiva's return from her ride Leofric freed the people from servitude and confirmed the gift by his charter. (fn. 3) Certainly according to the only genuine charter relating to the foundation of the Benedictine abbey (c. 1043) Abbot Leofwine was granted the judicial and economic rights of sac and soc and toll and team over his lands and men as fully as Earl Leofric had. (fn. 4) There is, however, no historical evidence of a charter granted to Coventry by Leofric, and it seems probable that the whole of Coventry anyway belonged to Godiva in her own right, the abbey being founded in her territories but endowed by Leofric with lands elsewhere. (fn. 5) At all events on Leofric's death in 1057 (fn. 6) Godiva administered the place herself until her death in 1067. (fn. 7) It was then taken into the king's hands and in 1086 was farmed of the king by one Nicholas. (fn. 8) It is not known when the town was granted to the earls of Chester, but it has been suggested that the original recipient was Hugh, second Earl of Chester, for his support of William Rufus in 1088. (fn. 9) Between 1101 and 1113 the town came to be divided into two fairly equal parts called 'halves'. One remained in the hands of Richard, Earl of Chester, who had succeeded in 1101 at about the age of seven; the other was obtained for the priory with the aid of forged charters by Robert de Limesey, Bishop of Coventry, the Benedictine house having by this time come into his hands as bishop and titular abbot. (fn. 10) From the time of the fraudulent creation of the Prior's Half the history of Coventry was profoundly affected by a division of allegiance. The tenants of the southern half, or Earl's Half, owed obedience to the earls of Chester and later to the Crown, and those in the northern half to the prior.


During the 12th century the priory was concerned with the consolidation of its territorial gains, with claims to certain judicial rights, and with obtaining its freedom from too close control by the bishop. Bishop Limesey died in 1117 and c. 1130 the forgeries were extended to include clauses exempting the house from episcopal control. Later advantage was taken of Stephen's presence in the city in 1147 to obtain royal confirmation of the forged charters. (fn. 11)

Meanwhile Earl Richard was succeeded in 1120 by his cousin Ranulf le Meschin who held the earldom for about ten years before being then succeeded by his son, Ranulf de Gernons. (fn. 12) Ranulf (II) played an important part in the civil wars of Stephen's reign, and after his seizure at Northampton in 1146 obtained his liberty by surrendering his castles, but immediately attacked Lincoln and Coventry in order to recover them. In 1149 by a treaty with the king he was reinstated as lord of the castles of Chester, Lincoln, and Coventry. (fn. 13) Within the next four years he granted a charter of liberties to the burgesses of Coventry. (fn. 14)

This charter provides a clue to the system of local government which had been evolving in the Earl's Half during the period of flux just described. Ranulf granted that his tenants should hold in free burgage as in the time of his father, and that they should have the same laws and customs as the citizens of Lincoln. So that they should not be attached to answer in the castle court they were granted their own court, or portmote, where all causes relating to the earl and to the burgesses were to be heard. They were also given the right to elect from their own number a justice (justicia) who would know their laws and customs and who would judge wisely with the earl's advice. Anyone incurring a penalty to the earl was to be quit on payment of 12d. or less at the discretion of his neighbours. Merchants from elsewhere bringing goods into the town were to be allowed to trade in peace, but if they committed an offence they were to be brought before the justice in the portmote. Immigration by men of substance was encouraged by exemption from all financial obligations for two years from the time they began to build houses in the city.

The charter was confirmed by Henry II in 1182, (fn. 15) and a new charter was granted by Ranulf de Blundeville (Ranulf III) between 1200 and 1208. (fn. 16) This confirmed most of the clauses of the earlier charter, but there were differences, some of which imply development within the Earl's Half during the later 12th century. The grant of a justice was confirmed and the jurisdiction of the portmote was more definitely stressed. The earl's constables were forbidden to summon burgesses to plead in the castle court, which suggests that they had been attempting to do so. Any offender was to plead before (per) the earl's bailiff and the burgesses at the portmote instead of depending on the witness of neighbours. The incentive to newcomers to build their own houses was omitted, suggesting that there was less need to encourage the development of the town. A request by the prior in 1205 that pleas concerning tenements should be heard only before the king or his chief justice indicates that he was already suspicious of the powers of the burgesses and the portmote and was preparing to contest its jurisdiction. (fn. 17)

Apart from granting the elements of self government to their own tenants, the earls of Chester confirmed their predecessors' gifts to the priory and defined the relations of the tenants of the two halves. Hugh (II) and Ranulf (III) gave over St. Michael's and its chapels more firmly into the prior's hands. (fn. 18) In a charter of between c. 1161 and 1175 Hugh forbade his officials and tenants to enter the prior's market or to interfere with the priory lands to which he granted immunity from all tolls. He also laid down in some detail the bounds between the two halves. (fn. 19)

In 1227 the priory obtained from Henry III a charter confirming the judicial privileges listed in a forged writ of Edward the Confessor and granting to the tenants of all its lands quittance from suits of shires and hundreds. (fn. 20) As the century progressed the priory made a bid to obtain equality with the Earl's Half and even a position of supremacy in the town. In this it was helped by the waning fortunes of the earldom of Chester. Ranulf (III) died in 1232 (fn. 21) and his Coventry possessions passed eventually, in 1243, to his niece, Cecily, who married Roger de Montalt. (fn. 22) In 1250 Roger and Cecily granted Prior William de Brithwaulton in fee 60 librates of land in the manor of Coventry with certain reservations including the manor-house of Cheylesmore and its park. (fn. 23) It was later claimed (fn. 24) by the priory that the 60 librates represented the whole manor apart from the reservations, but it is not clear how justified this interpretation was.

In 1267, however, the priory obtained perhaps the most important charter of its history. (fn. 25) This confirmed the privileges (fn. 26) accumulated by the priory over the years by means of forged charters made respectable by royal confirmations, including exemptions for the priory and its tenants from all jurisdictions apart from that of the king and his justices. (fn. 27) The forged foundation charter of Leofric, the forged licence of Pope Alexander II, Edward the Confessor's forged charter of confirmation, and the quittance from suits of shires and hundreds, were all confirmed. In addition quittance of view of frankpledge and of the sheriff's tourn was also granted, and the prior's own coroners were to answer for the priory's tenants before the justices in eyre. Finally the priory and its tenants, now called burgesses, were granted a guild merchant with all the liberties and free customs belonging to it. If the priory's guild merchant had actually come into being the monks would doubtless have achieved the supremacy they coveted. They did not, however, reckon either with the reaction of the tenants of the Earl's Half, by now a community with a sense of its corporate importance, or with the unforseeable vesting of the manor in the hands of Queen Isabel.

Moreover, in spite of the apparent achievements of 1267, the priory was in an impoverished state. Indeed it was in danger of dispersion and was calling upon its tenants for an aid. (fn. 28) The townsmen were in a stronger position. They resented the privileges granted to the prior in 1267 and early in the following year obtained from Henry III confirmation of their own fundamental charter of liberties granted by Ranulf (II). (fn. 29) Almost immediately after the issue of this confirmation there was a report that some of the townsmen had prevented the prior's coroners from viewing a corpse and the prior's tenants from enjoying the privileges of their guild merchant. The king thereupon ordered the sheriff of Warwickshire to publish and preserve the liberties of the priory, but some of the inhabitants imprisoned the sheriff's clerk, trampled on the king's writ and rolls, and beat and maltreated the prior's tenants. (fn. 30) No more was heard of the priory's guild merchant.

Nevertheless it was acknowledged in 1280 that the prior was overlord of part of Coventry and mesne lord of the rest of it, holding the Prior's Half direct from the Crown and the Earl's Half from the de Montalts. (fn. 31) Although at this time more services were required in the Earl's Half than in the Prior's (fn. 32) local government as set up in the Prior's Half was distinctly more feudal, (fn. 33) whereas in the Earl's Half something like corporate self-government had been attained. Apart from being burgesses with a portmote and justicia of their own choice, the earl's tenants had a reeve, who became the bailiff of the 13th century, and their own chamberlain. (fn. 34)

During the 14th century important steps were taken towards the unification of Coventry and the long conflict with the priory was eventually resolved. In 1330 Queen Isabel came into possession of the overlordship of the manor of Coventry, (fn. 35) and soon after, in 1336, she was in dispute with the priory before the council in Parliament. (fn. 36) She alleged that while the prior was mesne lord of land which formed part of the manor - the 60 librates granted in 1250 (fn. 37) - this was only a portion of the manor, and the view of frankpledge of the manor had not passed with the grant since it belonged only to the overlordship which remained hers.

The outcome of the case is not recorded. It is clear, however, that from that time onwards the priory's influence in the town began to wane rapidly. Isabel's right to the manor was confirmed in 1337, (fn. 38) and in 1341 it was even declared that 'all the town of Coventry' belonged to her. (fn. 39) She meanwhile proceeded to promote the granting of a series of privileges to the townspeople which culminated in the emergence of Coventry as a self-governing borough.

Between 1334 and 1348, and in particular after 1340, charters, licences, and confirmations followed one another with a frequency partly occasioned by the concurrent struggle with the priory for control of the town, and partly by the fact that the manor of Coventry, which included the Earl's Half, was held by the queen mother only for her life. Thus not only Isabel, but the king and the Black Prince, on whom the reversion of the manor had been settled, also had an interest in the privileges granted to Coventry.

Edward III had already in 1334 granted to the merchants of Coventry exemption from toll, pavage, pontage, and murage throughout the kingdom, (fn. 40) a privilege which was extended in 1344 to cover other specified duties. (fn. 41) In 1340 the king granted to Coventry a guild merchant, (fn. 42) and in the next year judicial rights were added to commercial ones. The king granted that all inquisitions in the town before the king or his justices respecting contracts or trespasses or lands and tenements in the town should be made by Coventry men and not by outsiders, so long as the king or the commons were not themselves involved. (fn. 43) This privilege was resented by the commons of Warwickshire (fn. 44) but the grant was confirmed in 1378. (fn. 45)

In October 1344 Coventry received from the queen mother the right to elect a bailiff. (fn. 46) Soon afterwards, on 20 January 1345, this privilege was superseded by a royal charter which, among other things, declared that the men of Coventry should have a communitatem inter se. (fn. 47) Dugdale declared that the charter made Coventry a corporation (fn. 48) and later Gross considered that this use of the word communitas made the Coventry charter the earliest known formal grant of incorporation to an English borough. (fn. 49) Gross's opinion has tended to be followed. (fn. 50) The clause in question had not, so far as is known, been used before in any borough charter, and no doubt it was intended to have somewhat the same effect as a formal grant of incorporation would have done in the 15th century, but one need hardly go beyond that point. (fn. 51) As Gross himself has shown, boroughs were already acting as if they had corporate existence long before this charter was issued. (fn. 52) What is really important is that from a practical point of view the charter was a landmark in Coventry's history for it greatly extended the rights of the townsmen. The men of Coventry were to elect from themselves annually a mayor and bailiffs, who were to have cognizance of all pleas. They were to have a common seal for taking Statute Merchant recognizances, and custody of a prison for the correction of malefactors. The first mayor, John Ward, was probably elected in January 1346 and the series of mayors is from that year unbroken. (fn. 53)

In 1346 the king extended still further the privileges of the mayor and bailiffs by granting to them the market and fair previously held in the town by Queen Isabel and the right to elect a coroner. Royal grants of the same year gave to the burgesses cognizance of all pleas within the liberty and view of frankpledge of the manor of Cheylesmore (Coventry) as well as the town of Coventry, together with return of writs, chattels of felons and fugitives, and all fines. They were also to have a gaol. Whether this was a second prison is uncertain but it is unlikely. (fn. 54)

It seems probable that the privileges granted in 1345 and 1346 were intended to extinguish any remaining claims of the priory within the Earl's Half. At all events the priory immediately questioned them in the Court of Common Pleas in 1346. (fn. 55) There it not only opposed the claim of the mayor and bailiffs to cognizance of pleas within the manor of Coventry, which included the town, but even denied the legal existence of the mayor and bailiffs. Once more the prior claimed that he was the mesne lord of the Earl's Half and that such grants could not be made by others to his tenants. He was, however, unsuccessful, and, although in 1348 the priory obtained a confirmation of its charters, including Hugh (II)'s definition of the boundary between the two halves, (fn. 56) its position had clearly weakened - so much so that in 1355, in a document known as the tripartite indenture, it finally abdicated its claim to supremacy. (fn. 57) This agreement, between the queen mother, the prior, and the mayor and bailiffs, redefined the boundaries of the two halves and settled conflicting jurisdictional claims. A depleted Prior's Half was in effect to consist of Bishop Street, St. Nicholas Street, the manor of Whitmore, the priory precinct, and a small area just north of it, instead of approximately half the town as it had in 1182. The prior quitclaimed to the mayor and commonalty the portmote throughout the whole town and the other franchises named except view of frankpledge for his own tenants in the Prior's Half and assizes of bread and wine and other victuals, with the proviso that, if the prior failed to keep the assizes in his half, the franchises should be taken over by the mayor and commonalty. The prior was to have all rents due to him. He quitclaimed to Queen Isabel his right in the leet at 'Wolepitelideyate' (fn. 58) and she, in her turn, granted it to the mayor and commonalty. The prior's tenants in the Earl's Half were not to be distrained by the prior but were to be answerable to the mayor and bailiffs. Very important clauses in the indenture were those giving to the prior's tenants in the Prior's Half the right to hold office as mayors, bailiffs, or other ministers, if chosen, to be taxed with the townspeople, and similarly to bear all charges. The prior agreed not to disturb the trade of the Earl's Half. The coroner, who was to be appointed by the mayor and commonalty, was to do his office in both halves of the town. The queen, the mayor, and commonalty, and the people of the Earl's Half agreed to release to the priory Whitmore Park and other lands where they had rights of common. Queen Isabel remitted to the priory £10 of the rent of £107 due to her, with the proviso that, if the priory infringed any of the rights of the mayor and commonalty, this remission would be void. Similarly the mayor and commonalty were to pay £10 a year to the priory so long as this agreement was kept. The hope was expressed that the agreement would bring to an end the disputes between the two halves and, apart from minor bickerings, it did. It was in fact a victory for the Earl's Half and it was the administration which had developed among the earl's tenants which was to govern the town and also the hamlets brought within its jurisdiction. (fn. 59)


With the sealing of the tripartite indenture the quarrel between the two halves was resolved. The way was now open for town government to develop on peaceful and permanent lines on the basis of the charter rights already obtained by the tenants of the Earl's Half. During the later 14th century, the practical details of administration and the principles on which they were based begin to be apparent. Holy Trinity Guild was founded in 1364 for the maintenance of two chaplains to celebrate divine service daily in Holy Trinity Church for the good estate of the king, Queen Philippa, and their children. (fn. 60) With its growing influence in the town, its amalgamation with the Merchant Guild of St. Mary, St. John's Guild, and St. Katherine's Guild by 1392, (fn. 61) the main guild structure in Coventry was laid down. With the death of Queen Isabel in 1358 and of the Black Prince in 1376, the manor of Cheylesmore ceased to play any significant part in the history of Coventry and royal interest became less intimate.

The court leet became the medium through which the town was governed. Each 25th of January at a session of the leet in St. Mary's Hall the mayor, the coroner, and the chamberlains were elected by a jury of twenty-four and took their oaths, and the keys of the treasury were placed in the custody of the mayor, the master of Trinity Guild, and three others, each having one key. (fn. 62) The leet was held before the mayor and two bailiffs, and the twentyfour jurats took their oath before the business of the day began. The leet received and acted on petitions (fn. 63) and held inquests on them if necessary. (fn. 64) To deal with finance and to make ordinances it enlarged itself to forty-eight. (fn. 65)

The mayor's functions were administrative, legislative, and judicial. (fn. 66) He exercised them through the court leet, with the assistance of the other officials of the town (the bailiffs, the chamberlains, the wardens, the serjeant, the master of the Trinity Guild, the coroner, and the recorder), through the portmote or town court, the mayor's court, and the sessions of the peace. By authority of the charter of 1345 the mayor and the clerk appointed by the king took recognizance of debts according to the Statute Merchant; the mayor kept the larger part of the seal and the king's clerk the smaller. (fn. 67) In the portmote, the mayor and bailiffs dealt with petty actions relating to personal affairs and to lands and messuages within the liberties (fn. 68) and as early as 1346 they demanded cognizance of a plea relating to tenements in Coventry being heard in the Court of Common Pleas. (fn. 69) The mayor, bailiffs, and chamberlains were responsible for town lands and made grants of leases to tenants; (fn. 70) in 1403 the mayor and bailiffs were empowered to try a suit of novel disseisin. (fn. 71) The mayor had his own account which was brought in to the leet after his year of office. (fn. 72) Apart from this the chamberlains and the wardens were concerned with the town's finances, rents from lands belonging to the commonalty being paid to the chamberlains. (fn. 73) The mayor's legislative function was exercised through the leet, which made ordinances. (fn. 74) His judicial function was exercised through the leet, the portmote, and the sessions of the peace. The mayor was frequently a justice of the peace and sometimes of oyer and terminer, (fn. 75) until by a charter of 1399 it was declared that the mayor, the recorder, and four lawful men chosen by the mayor should thenceforth form the commission of the peace. (fn. 76) In 1377 the justices of the peace and justices of oyer and terminer for Warwickshire had been warned not to interfere in Coventry, (fn. 77) and this was confirmed in a charter of 1399, when the Coventry justices were granted authority with full powers as justices of the peace except in cases of felony. (fn. 78)

The early history of the coroner in Coventry is not altogether clear. The Prior's Half had been granted coroners in 1267 (fn. 79) and in 1346 Coventry was granted its own coroner (fn. 80) who was elected by the mayor and bailiffs through the twenty-four jurats (fn. 81) and was responsible for taking the new mayor's oath. (fn. 82) His general duty was to safeguard the rights of the Crown and he answered to the mayor rather than to the sheriff of Warwickshire. (fn. 83) Of the recorder in Coventry even less is known. He appears in the charter of 1399 (fn. 84) among those to be justices of the peace; it is therefore presumed that the office already existed.

The bailiffs were the successors of the reeve, (fn. 85) who was almost certainly the successor of the justicia (fn. 86) and as such they exercised a judicial function through the portmote and in this sense were in effect the predecessors of the mayor. In 1344 Queen Isabel had granted to the people of Coventry the right to elect a bailiff to render account of the issues and profits arising to her from the town, (fn. 87) but the position of the bailiffs as members of the governing body of the town was made clear in the charter of 1345. (fn. 88) They were concerned in the granting of town lands to lease (fn. 89) and they dealt with the payment of money from the town's funds. (fn. 90) They were always present at the court leet as the mayor's right-hand men. (fn. 91)

A chamberlain certainly existed in 1268, (fn. 92) and appears frequently in deeds of the later 13th century. (fn. 93) The chamberlains were elected by the twenty-four jurats and took their oath at the leet to render account faithfully. (fn. 94) One of their duties was to be responsible with the mayor and bailiffs for the granting of town lands on lease and they were the officials who were responsible for receiving rents. (fn. 95)

In the Prior's Half the leet continued to function as the 'Bishop Street leet'. It served for Bishop Street, Cook Street, St. Nicholas Street, and Dog Lane, the main part of the depleted Prior's Half within the liberties. In 1411 it was let to farm to Thomas de Bedworth, smith, who paid 26s. 8d. and the toll of horses yearly to the prior's steward. (fn. 96)


Before 1420 lack of evidence makes it difficult to say just how far government by mayor, bailiffs, and commonalty had developed. In that year, however, the leet book begins and a far more complete picture of administration and legislation through the leet and of the duties of the various officials in the early 1420s emerges. (fn. 97) By then the commonalty had initiated its policy of acquiring lands to provide a useful source of revenue. In 1417 the mayor and commonalty obtained a licence to acquire in mortmain lands within the town and its precincts to the annual value of £40 for, until then, they had no common possessions and the building of the walls had proved a costly undertaking. (fn. 98) The ownership by the corporation of large areas of the town was to become a characteristic and longstanding feature of local government in Coventry.

The leet met at Easter and Michaelmas, when the mayor and bailiffs presided over twenty-four jurats to make ordinances on bills submitted to them. It is not known how the jurats were appointed, but they were elected, possibly by the mayor. (fn. 99) The composition of the body of jurats varied slightly from leet to leet and obviously had a very close connection with that of the twenty-four electors who chose the mayor and other officers on 25 January. The jurats consisted of former officers and of those who were later to hold office; they clearly formed a close body of the more wealthy and outstanding members of the community. (fn. 100) Most of the ordinances are recorded in the leet book, but some were endorsed on the bills and never enrolled in the mayor's register; (fn. 101) these are consequently lost for no original bills exist. A number of ordinances regarding administration was made both at the Easter and Michaelmas leets; at Michaelmas 1422 it was ordained that the mayor should choose forty-eight of the most discreet commoners, some from each ward, to hear the chamberlains' accounts and to witness grants under the common seal. (fn. 102) The leet also ordered payments to be made or work to be performed by the chamberlains and wardens. (fn. 103) It was the custom in this period for the bailiffs to be elected at the Michaelmas leet, and to hold office until the following Michaelmas. The Michaelmas leet was also the occasion when the 'great enquest' (possibly the forty-eight commoners) chose the twenty-four constables and when collectors were appointed for each ward. (fn. 104)

The election of all officials except the bailiffs took place on 25 January each year, before the outgoing mayor and the bailiffs appointed the previous Michaelmas; (fn. 105) the new mayor, coroner, chamberlains, wardens, and serjeant-at-mace took up their duties on 2 February (Candlemas). (fn. 106) On the day of election the holders of the city's keys were appointed - the mayor, the master of the Trinity Guild or the recorder, and three others. (fn. 107) Election was by twenty-four electors who, as has been noticed, seem to have had a close connection with the twenty-four jurats, the personnel of the two bodies being strikingly similar. On some occasions ordinances were passed by this body in the same way as at the leet sessions.

The mayor's council first appears in the leet book immediately after the routine business of the elections of the mayor and other officials in 1421. (fn. 108) Its membership is not revealed and it appears to have met for special purposes and not regularly. It seems, however, to have had some close connection with the forty-eight. (fn. 109) In 1423 the chamberlains rendered their account before the mayor and the forty-eight chosen by him for that purpose, and two months later the mayor and his council made ordinances regarding the accounts. (fn. 110) Grants under the common seal were to be made only in the presence of the fortyeight. (fn. 111) In January 1423 it was provided that the mayor should call the twenty-four who elected him and twenty-four wise and discreet men of his own choice, and he and these forty-eight were to order and put in good rule ordinances profitable to the city. Thus in September of that year the mayor made a hall of forty-eight, (fn. 112) of whom twenty-one had been electors in January, eleven had previously been electors or jurats, and fifteen were new names chosen by the mayor, but who later became electors or jurats. In fact the electors chose the mayor and the mayor selected those who were to be electors. Then in January 1424 the mayor chose twenty-four together with the twenty-four electors to form his council. (fn. 113) Four of his choice later sealed the bag containing the common seal and sixteen were witnesses to indentures together with the mayor and the master of the Trinity Guild. (fn. 114) On various occasions the mayor or the mayor and his council made halls of thirty-three, forty-eight, or sixty-nine, or other numbers representing the wards and these were usually made up of the twenty-four electors or jurats, who seem to have been fairly evenly spread over the wards, with a few other names from each ward. This was the nearest approach to a representative body and usually dealt with financial matters which concerned the people themselves and with leases of city lands. In 1421, before the ordinance requiring the presence of the forty-eight for the sealing of grants under the common seal, the mayor, the master of the Trinity Guild, the master of the Corpus Christi Guild, the bailiffs and eleven others met in St. Mary's Hall to witness the sealing of indentures for town lands, but this body (sixteen of the mayor's council or of the forty-eight) did not consider itself sufficiently representative and called in representatives of all the wards - four from Much Park Street, five each from Gosford Street, Jordan Well, Broadgate, and Smithford Street, six from Spon Street, seven from Bayley Lane, ten each from Earl Street and Well Street, and thirteen from Cross Cheaping. (fn. 115) The presumption was that the majority of witnesses to a lease should live in the neighbourhood of the property concerned.

There is some difficulty in distinguishing between the types of business transacted by the leet, the mayor's council, the forty-eight, and a hall of whatever number. Orders of leet were diverse. They dealt with administration, for it was the leet that required the mayor to choose the forty-eight commoners (fn. 116) and ordered the chamberlains and wardens to perform various duties. They dealt with craft matters including settling disputes between crafts (fn. 117) and requiring commodities sold on certain days to be placed for sale in certain places. (fn. 118) They also dealt with wage rates by assenting to the ordinances of the justices of the peace for the payment of artificers and labourers according to the Statute of Labourers. (fn. 119) In addition they were concerned with regulations for the slaughtering of animals, (fn. 120) the cleansing of rivers, ditches, and pavements, (fn. 121) fixing fines for non-performance of the duties laid down, (fn. 122) complaints relating to the water supply, (fn. 123) and with questions concerning the common lands. (fn. 124) In short the leet considered complaints and petitions put before it in the form of bills and made by-laws for regulating the everyday life of the citizens. The twenty-four electors, during the first few years, were also concerned with questions of administration but later their work was complete when the elections were finished.

The mayor and his council also dealt with administration, for it was an order of council which resulted in the keeping of the mayor's register, (fn. 125) although when they ordained that a new extent for murage be made their ordinance had to be confirmed by the leet. (fn. 126) They also dealt with cleansing the streets and they ordered the serjeant or constable to collect any fines due for offences. (fn. 127) They initiated and organized the great survey of the common lands in 1423. (fn. 128) The forty-eight were called to decide how much money should be collected for certain loans and gifts, (fn. 129) while a hall representative of the wards was called when an inquest was taken. (fn. 130)

These early records of decisions of the leet and of the mayor's council clearly show that this was a period of great activity, that the whole pattern of local government was being overhauled and more strictly regulated, and that the city's finances were being organized more thoroughly than ever before. Not only were the mayor and bailiffs acquiring lands, whose revenues were to provide funds for the payment of officials and for repairs to the walls and gates, (fn. 131) but all officials who had the handling of any of these moneys had to account to the body of forty-eight commoners, (fn. 132) and constables were forbidden to take any money for arrests. (fn. 133) John Leeder was one of the more important architects of the constitution. After his election as mayor in 1421 and the making of ordinances by his council, he delivered a proclamation. (fn. 134) This began with the assizes of bread and wine, then made rules for keeping streets, rivers, and ditches clean, forbade regrating, and laid down regulations for the sale of commodities at certain places. It also decreed that no craft should make ordinances without first submitting them to the mayor and his council. The body responsible for authorising such ordinances was to consist of the mayor, recorder, bailiffs, and eight or twelve of the general council. Leeder also required that bills should be delivered to the mayor four days before the meeting of the leet, so that he could take general counsel of the city beforehand, and that every previous mayor and bailiff and every commoner should attend the leet. Here is the mayor in action as administrator, master of the leet, master of the council, and as legislator, making regulations for the social and economic welfare of the city. Lack of records make his judicial function not so apparent.

The mayor and bailiffs, or mayor, bailiffs and commonalty, were recognised as the representatives of the citizens, charters and letters patent being addressed to them, (fn. 135) and they were the central figures of government by leet and council. The bailiffs had an exceptional position since they were the only officials elected at Michaelmas and were thus the only link between the old officials and the new ones elected in January. They would be future candidates for the mayoralty, and either had been or would be members of the jury, of the body of electors, or of the mayor's council, often being included among the electors during their year of office. They also attended all meetings of the leet (fn. 136) and were required to be present at some of the special sessions of the council, when, for instance, craft ordinances were inspected. (fn. 137)

The period shows some important developments in the position and duties of the chamberlains and wardens and their offices become more closely defined; indeed the electors of 1425 made an ordinance that wardens were thenceforth not to be elected as chamberlains and the leet confirmed this the following Easter. (fn. 138) The chamberlains accounted for the money received for murage. Their expenses were recorded on files kept in the mayor's bag and in their account books (fn. 139) and consisted of charges for completion of and repairs to the walls and gates, (fn. 140) for equipment and buildings required by the city, (fn. 141) for care of the common lands, for inclosures where necessary, and for certain measures to keep the city clean. (fn. 142) The wardens accounted for money received in rents from lands and houses held by the mayor and bailiffs; allowances were made to them for reductions in rent in the case of any too poor to pay, as well as for empty houses. (fn. 143) They paid out money for new properties bought by the mayor and bailiffs, for legal advice, for officials' expenses on specific occasions, (fn. 144) for the mayor's fees, for the expenses of the M.P.s, (fn. 145) and for such outstanding items as the new cross to be put in Cross Cheaping. Their expenses were entered on rolls which were kept in the mayor's bag in St. Mary's Hall. (fn. 146)

The office of town clerk seems to have been in existence during the early 15th century, but there is little evidence about his position and duties at this time. The mayor's register was kept under the supervision of the recorder (fn. 147) so that, although a large part of the leet book was the work of two later town clerks, (fn. 148) it cannot be proved that any of the originals from which it was compiled were themselves written or kept by their predecessors. The town clerk occupied a room in St. Mary's Hall for which he paid, from 1430 onwards, a rent to the Trinity Guild. (fn. 149) The leet appointed Symkyn Birches at Michaelmas 1439 to be town clerk for life for the customary salary and fees. (fn. 150)


For at least a century the position of Coventry in Warwickshire was in question; the city was by far the largest and most important place in the county and, although in 1340 certain men of the town pleaded poverty and that the place was neither city nor borough and used to be assessed with the county, (fn. 151) it was the tendency during the 14th century for Coventry to be assessed separately from the county. In 1323 the town was to provide £100 for the expedition against the Contrariants, (fn. 152) in 1335 it was assessed at £40 for service against the Scots, (fn. 153) and in the years about 1380, whenever a fifteenth or a tenth was levied, it was assessed separately from the county. (fn. 154) In 1387 the mayor and bailiffs obtained a grant that neither they nor any tenant of the town should be burdened with the collection of tenths, taxes, tallages, or aids outside Coventry. (fn. 155) This apparently was not fully observed for an order of the leet of 1441 decreed that henceforth no one living in the town should be a collector for the fifteenth in Warwickshire outside the liberties of the town. (fn. 156)

In 1445 the mayor and his council were suing for the grant of a charter to enlarge the franchises and liberties of the city and agreed to levy £100 to cover expenses. (fn. 157) In September 1451 Henry VI visited Coventry. He complimented the mayor and his brethren on their good rule and was apparently impressed by the city's defences and loyalty, for he promised the bailiffs that they should thereafter be sheriffs. This was speedily followed by a visit to London by the recorder, one of the bailiffs, and five others to obtain advice on the terms of the charter, (fn. 158) which was granted at the end of November. Coventry became a county in itself, known as the county of the city of Coventry. (fn. 159) The bailiffs became also sheriffs of the county of the city and the following places were included in the county of the city: Radford, Keresley, Foleshill, Exhall, Ansty, Caludon, Wyken, Henley, Wood End, Stoke, Bigging, Whitley, Pinley, Asthill, Horwell, Harnall, Whoberley, part of Sowe, and Stivichall within the liberties. (fn. 160) The sheriffs were to be chosen as the bailiffs had been and were to take their oath before the mayor, who was to certify their names into Chancery. They were to hold monthly courts within the city; they were to receive all writs, bills, precepts, and mandates formerly addressed to the sheriff of Warwickshire and were to account yearly before the barons of the Exchequer. The coroner of the city was to become the coroner of the county of the city and clerk for the recognizance of debts, when the office fell vacant, retaining the custody of the lesser part of the seal. The mayor and his successors were to be clerks of the market and to have all rights pertaining to the offices of steward or marshal of the king's household. Instead of being assessed with Warwickshire the hamlets were now assessed with the city of Coventry and came within its full jurisdiction and administration.


  • 1. For the local government of outlying parts of Cov., see p. 40 sqq.
  • 2. See p. 2.
  • 3. Roger of Wendover, Chron. (Eng. Hist. Soc.), i. 497; see p. 242.
  • 4. S.B.L., Gregory Leger Bk. pp. 23-24; B.M. Add. MS. 32100, f. 115v.
  • 5. See pp. 1-2.
  • 6. Dugdale, Mon. iii. 177.
  • 7. Bodl. MS. Douce 139, f. IV.
  • 8. V.C.H. Warws. i. 310.
  • 9. J. Tait, 'An Alleged Charter of Wm. the Conqueror', Essays in Hist. Presented to R. L. Poole, 162.
  • 10. J. C. Lancaster, 'The Cov. Forged Charters: A Reconsideration', Bull. Inst. Hist. Res. xxvii. 113-40.
  • 11. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 99. See also p. 2.
  • 12. Handbk. of Brit. Chron. 299; Florence of Worcester, Chron. (Eng. Hist. Soc.), ii. 74.
  • 13. J. H. Round, 'King Stephen and the Earl of Chester', E.H.R. x. 87-91; A. L. Poole, From Domesday Bk. to Magna Carta, 159.
  • 14. B. 2: Hen. II's confirmation of Ranulf's charter. For a discussion of the first extant charter to the burgesses, see J. Tait, 'Two Earliest Municipal Charters of Cov.' (E.H.R. xxxvi. 50-53) and 'Earliest Municipal Charters of Cov.' (E.H.R. xliii. 383-5).
  • 15. B. 2; Pipe R. 1182 (P.R.S. xxxi), 96.
  • 16. B.1; W. Cunningham, Growth of Eng. Ind. and Commerce, i. 615-16. The date is that given in E.H.R. xxxvi. 50-53. A slightly earlier one is probably preferable.
  • 17. Pipe R. 1205 (P.R.S. n.s. xix), 32.
  • 18. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 102; see p. 151.
  • 19. See p. 2.
  • 20. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 6.
  • 21. Handbk. of Brit. Chron. 299.
  • 22. Dugdale, Warws. 137-8.
  • 23. Warws. Ft. of Fines, i, pp. 144-5. See also p. 18.
  • 24. See below.
  • 25. Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 70.
  • 26. First appearing in the forged writ of Edw. the Confessor (B.M. Add. Ch. 28657), and confirmed by Hen. III's charter: Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 6.
  • 27. Forged charter of Edw. the Confessor (B.M. Add. MS. 32100, ff. 114v, 115), confirmed by Hen. III's charter of 1267 (C 53/56), but not recited. Confirmed and recited in Edw. II's charter of 1326: C 53/112.
  • 28. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 32.
  • 29. Ibid. 190; Cal. Chart. R. 1257-1300, 88.
  • 30. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 278-9.
  • 31. S.B.L., Stoneleigh MSS., copy of hundred roll.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. The priory's officials begin to appear in documents, e.g., the bailiff in 1257: corpn. deeds: C. 67.
  • 34. Corpn. deeds.
  • 35. See p. 19.
  • 36. Rot. Parl. Anglie, ... 1279-1373 (Camd. Soc. 3rd ser. li), 240-66.
  • 37. See above.
  • 38. Cal. Close, 1337-9, 287; and in 1344: Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 33; B. 13.
  • 39. Cal. Close, 1341-3, 318.
  • 40. Cal. Chart. R. 1327-41, 305. Confirmed in 1341, 1345, and 1378: ibid. 1341-1417, 4, 240; Cal. Pat. 1345-8, 20- 21.
  • 41. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 33. Granted not specifically to Cov. but to Isabel for the men of the manor of Cheylesmore. Confirmed in 1345: Cal. Pat. 1345-8, 20-21.
  • 42. Cal. Pat. 1338-40, 531; 1340-3, 13; see p. 156.
  • 43. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 4.
  • 44. Cal. Pat. 1343-5, 285.
  • 45. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 240.
  • 46. Hist. MSS. Com. 15th Rep. App. X, 111-12.
  • 47. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 36; C. Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 93n. Confirmed in Dec. 1345, Feb. 1346, and Mar. and July 1348: Cal. Pat. 1345-8, 20-21; Cal. Chart. R. 1341- 1417, 47; Hist. MSS. Com. 15th Rep. App. X, 112.
  • 48. Dugdale, Warws. 140.
  • 49. Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 93n.
  • 50. e.g. J. Tait, Medieval Eng. Boro. 238, 240; M. Weinbaum, Brit. Boro. Charters, 1307-1660, pp. xxv, xxvi; M. Weinbaum, Incorp. of Boros. 45-50.
  • 51. cf. Weinbaum, Incorp. of Boros. 63 sqq., 90 sqq.; F. W. Maitland, Township and Boro. 18-20.
  • 52. Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 95-96.
  • 53. The author is indebted to Miss D. A. Leech for information on the early mayors.
  • 54. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 47-48 (where the grant dated 1 Feb. 19 Edw. III (1345) is clearly correctly 20 Edw. III (1346); Year Bk. 1346-7 (2) (Rolls Ser.), 573-7. Confirmed in 1348 and 1378: Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 96-97, 241. These rights had been granted to Isabel in 1345 with permission to demise them to the mayor and bailiffs: Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 39; Cal. Pat. 1345-8, 20-21. For details of the gaol, see p. 296.
  • 55. Year Bk. 1346-7 (1) (Rolls Ser.), 150-8; 1346-7 (2), 98-112, 573-7.
  • 56. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 99-108.
  • 57. The original is lost, but a roughly contemporary copy of the indenture has been found in the Stoneleigh MSS. at S.B.L. The writer is indebted to Prof. R. H. Hilton and Mr. Levi Fox for bringing it to her notice. A note in 16th- or 17th-century hand dates the document as 1355. For a paraphrase, see A. 34, ff. 98v sqq.
  • 58. In 1336 the prior had alleged that he held a view of frankpledge for 'foreigns' of the manor of Cov. at Wolepitelideyate which was distinct from the view of frankpledge in Cov. itself. Isabel claimed that there was only one view and that the same court was held in two places: Rot. Parl. Anglie, ... 1279-1373 (Camd. Soc. 3rd ser. li), 255-7, 261. For the whereabouts of Wolepitelideyate, see p. 68.
  • 59. For the list of these hamlets, see pp. 3, 40.
  • 60. Cal. Pat. 1361-4, 501.
  • 61. See p. 156.
  • 62. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 63. C 47/82/2/33; Leet Bk. 2-3.
  • 64. Leet Bk. 5-6.
  • 65. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410]. Only 45 names can be deciphered, but it is probable that there are in fact 48.
  • 66. The following account of the functions of officials is based on the introductions to Leet Bk. and to Recs. of Holy Trinity Guild, ii (Dugdale Soc. xix), together with further material as indicated.
  • 67. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 36. See also Stat. Merchant R. of Cov. (Dugdale Soc. xvii), p. vii; Cal. Pat. 1343-5, 440; Cal. Close, 1343-6, 668.
  • 68. Corpn. deeds: there is an instance in 1353 of an oath taken before a notary to enrol a deed in the court of the mayor and bailiffs.
  • 69. Year Bk. 1346-7 (1) (Rolls Ser.), 150-8; 1346-7 (2), 98-112.
  • 70. Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 466.
  • 71. Ibid. 1401-5, 278.
  • 72. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 73. Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 466.
  • 74. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 75. e.g. 1360, Wm. de Yarnemouth: Cal. Pat. 1358-61, 420; 1367, Ric. de Stoke: ibid. 1364-67, 434; 1368, Nicholas Michel: ibid. 1367-70, 194; 1387, Hen. de Kele: ibid. 1385-9, 254; 1395, Ric. de Lychefeld; ibid. 1391-6, 587; 1397, Ric. Clerk: ibid. 1396-9, 230; 1398, John Preston: ibid. 240.
  • 76. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 380.
  • 77. Cal. Close, 1377-81, 88.
  • 78. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 380.
  • 79. Ibid. 1257-1300, 70; and see p. 257. Very little is heard of the prior's coroners except as witnesses to deeds: corpn. deeds; C.R.O., Cal. Gregory-Hood deeds, nos. 38, 46, 52, 58, 63, 70; Cal. Anct. D. i, B. 1074, 1090, 1213, 1218; ii, B. 3726; iii, A. 4278, 4356, 4451, 6049; iv, A. 7081, 8268, 8274; v, A. 10667, 10689, 12037.
  • 80. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 48.
  • 81. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 82. Ibid.
  • 83. Recs. Trinity Guild, ii, 13.
  • 84. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 380.
  • 85. Corpn. deeds. The reeve appears in late-12th- and early-13th-cent. deeds, the bailiff in 13th- and 14th-cent. deeds.
  • 86. See p. 257.
  • 87. B. 14.
  • 88. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 36.
  • 89. Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 466.
  • 90. Ibid. 1396-9, 427.
  • 91. The court leet was always held before the mayor and bailiffs: C 47/82/2/33; Leet Bk. 3; C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 92. Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 190.
  • 93. Corpn. deeds.
  • 94. C.R.O., Courts 1a [1410].
  • 95. See above.
  • 96. E 164/21 f. 187.
  • 97. Leet Bk. pp. xii-xvi.
  • 98. Cal. Pat. 1422-9, 105.
  • 99. Leet Bk. 34.
  • 100. All officials, jurats and electors, appear among those making the largest contributions to the royal loan of 1421 detailed in ibid. 37-38.
  • 101. Ibid. 83.
  • 102. Ibid. 42.
  • 103. Ibid. 83.
  • 104. Ibid. 42.
  • 105. Ibid. 21, 43, 68, and passim.
  • 106. Recs. Trinity Guild, ii, 2; Leet Bk. 68, 98.
  • 107. Leet Bk. 22.
  • 108. Ibid.
  • 109. See p. 260.
  • 110. Leet Bk. 54, 55.
  • 111. Ibid. 42.
  • 112. Ibid. 44, 57.
  • 113. Ibid. 69.
  • 114. Ibid. 73.
  • 115. Ibid. 40-41.
  • 116. Ibid. 42.
  • 117. Ibid. 83.
  • 118. Ibid.100, 104.
  • 119. Ibid. 21.
  • 120. Ibid. 43.
  • 121. Ibid. 21, 58, 59.
  • 122. Ibid. 100, 101.
  • 123. Ibid. 105, 108.
  • 124. Ibid. 100.
  • 125. Ibid. 33.
  • 126. Leet Bk. 106-7.
  • 127. Ibid. 22-23.
  • 128. Ibid. 45 sqq.
  • 129. Ibid. 99, 102.
  • 130. Ibid. 38.
  • 131. Cal. Pat. 1422-9, 105.
  • 132. Leet Bk. 22, 33, 65, 101.
  • 133. Ibid. 58.
  • 134. Ibid. 23-33.
  • 135. Cal. Chart. R. 1427-1516, 38, 116; Cal. Pat. 1422-9, 186.
  • 136. Leet Bk. passim.
  • 137. Ibid. 32.
  • 138. Ibid. 98.
  • 139. Ibid. 65.
  • 140. Ibid. 33, 57-58.
  • 141. Ibid. 83.
  • 142. Ibid. 100, 104.
  • 143. Ibid. 66.
  • 144. Ibid. 67, 68, 83.
  • 145. Ibid. 107. These items had been paid by the chamberlains up to 1426 and were now to be paid by the wardens, by order of the council.
  • 146. Ibid. 68.
  • 147. Ibid. 33.
  • 148. Ibid. pp. xv-xvi.
  • 149. Ibid. 130.
  • 150. Ibid. 192.
  • 151. Cal. Fine R. 1337-47, 190-1.
  • 152. Cal. Pat. 1321-4, 316.
  • 153. Ibid. 1334-8, 133.
  • 154. Cal. Fine R. 1377-83 passim.
  • 155. Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 191.
  • 156. Leet Bk. 197.
  • 157. Ibid. 220-1.
  • 158. Ibid. 265, 266.
  • 159. Cal. Chart. R. 1427-1516, 116.
  • 160. The list of places in Leet Bk. differs slightly from that in Cal. Chart. R. For details, see p. 3.