Salisbury: Relations with the bishops, to 1612

Pages 101-103

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 6. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1962.

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As far as is known, no friction arose between the city and its overlord, the bishop, during the 13th century. But in 1302, when Bishop Simon of Ghent proposed to exercise his right of tallage, the citizens refused to pay, thus expressing the first open sign of the struggle which was to last for more than 300 years. (fn. 1) The only known reason for the opposition aroused was that the tallage was an innovation, and as such was resented by the community of merchant citizens, by then thriving upon their commercial activities. In 1305 the matter came before the king in council. (fn. 2) The city was represented by three men who had represented it in recent Parliaments, (fn. 3) and Henry Liswicz, a leading merchant. These claimed on behalf of the citizens that the quit rents paid for their tenements covered all services and demands of the overlord, and that there was no precedent for the proposed tallage. The bishop based his claim upon the charters of Henry III, (fn. 4) and in this he was supported by the council, which ordered the citizens to pay the tallage, and to choose either to retain their liberties and accept the bishop's right to tallage in the future, or to surrender their liberties and be free of further tallages. A few months later, represented by Richard of Ludgershall, mayor since 1302, the citizens renounced their liberties and conceded this one tallage to the bishop.

The city suffered the consequences of this renunciation for a year. But in 1306, on payment of a fine of 40s. and acknowledgment of the bishop's right to tallage in the future, their liberties were restored by royal charter. Master Walter Hervey, Archdeacon of Salisbury, was appointed by the bishop to assist the citizens in drawing up an agreement, which should define the position for the future, and put on record the mutual rights and duties of them and their lord. (fn. 5) The articles of this agreement became the terms of reference in all subsequent dissensions between the bishop and the city. They expressed a complete vindication of the bishop's position as overlord, whose authority and interest took precedence in every aspect of the life of the community. Such terms, particularly those emphasizing the subordinate position of the mayor, (fn. 6) could not fail to be a source of much future trouble, and with increasing prosperity, the civic pride of the assembly must have been constantly irritated and frustrated by the fact that all financial advantages, such as certain tolls, (fn. 7) the profits from the markets and fairs, and fines and amercements belonged to the bishop.

The constitutional struggle between the bishop and citizens continued at intervals throughout the 14th century. In 1315 the bishop evidently felt it necessary to secure from Edward II a confirmation of his charters and at the same time received a grant of a third fair and another weekly market. (fn. 8) Towards the middle of the century discontent was expressed with violence when 33 citizens attacked the bailiff as he was presiding over the bishop's court, locked him in, and completely disrupted the business of the court. (fn. 9) It is possible that these were the transgressions and contempts referred to in 1357 when a fine of 3,000 marks imposed upon the city was remitted at the instigation of the bishop. (fn. 10) Whatever these particular transgressions were, the bishop was prepared on this occasion to use his good offices on behalf of the citizens, but only so long as his rights were acknowledged, and the same year he secured a ratification from the king of the agreement of 1306. (fn. 11) The Revolt of 1381 showed no special manifestations in Salisbury as a result of this local contest between bishop and citizens, and the mayor was included in the commission headed by the bishop, appointed to deal with offenders in the county. (fn. 12) By 1391, however, there were signs of unrest in the city, for a general pardon was issued to the citizens, who, 'in no small number' had risen in insurrection against the justices of the peace and formed unlawful assembles. (fn. 13) Three years later, as part of a general confirmation and extension of his franchises, the bishop's authority in Salisbury was once more confirmed by royal charter. (fn. 14) Serious trouble appears to have followed almost immediately, for in 1395 both parties were summoned to bring their dispute before the king. (fn. 15) The city was represented by eight of its foremost citizens, including John Bitterlegh, William Warmwell, Richard Spencer, merchants, and all at some time parliamentary burgesses, (fn. 16) but it once again failed to win any concessions, and bonds for large amounts were exacted from the commonalty and from 200 citizens to ensure obedience to the bishop in the future. (fn. 17)

Possibly the resentment felt at this action by Richard II determined to some extent the friendliness shown by the commonalty to Henry IV. (fn. 18) In 1406, presumably in return for gifts made by the city, the king granted it leave to hold land and tenements in mortmain to the value of 100 marks a year, (fn. 19) and in 1412 the bishop granted similar permission allowing the citizens in their corporate capacity to acquire property to the annual value of £40. (fn. 20) The interpretation of these concessions proved to be one of the main sources of trouble in the contest between the bishops and the citizens in the 15th century. The question whether the city was holding certain property contrary to the statutes of Mortmain was raised under Bishop Chandler in 1426, and Bishop Aiscough in 1441 and 1443. (fn. 21) It caused extended lawsuits with Bishop Beauchamp, whose careful compilation of records testifies to a jealous regard for all his episcopal rights. (fn. 22) The citizens' right to hold the disputed property was finally settled in their favour in 1473, no doubt as a result of the good relations they had established with Edward IV early in his reign. (fn. 23)

These disputes only served to worsen the relations between the citizens and their lords. The murder of Bishop Aiscough at Edington in 1450 in the course of Cade's rebellion was the outcome of a wider discontent than the strictly local feud between the citizens and their bishop, but it is significant that the murderers were led by a Salisbury man. (fn. 24) Relations with Aiscough's successor, Beauchamp, were undoubtedly strained from the time of his accession. During 1452–3 the commonalty was engaged in preparing a petition for a charter of incorporation, which John Hall (mayor in 1450) was chosen to present to the king. (fn. 25) In 1465 a seemingly insignificant issue arose, which was to stir up even deeper antagonisms, and result in nine years of litigation. (fn. 26)

The trouble began over the question of ownership of a small plot of land in St. Thomas's churchyard, which William Swayne obtained from the bishop to build a house for his chantry priest. (fn. 27) The city claimed that this plot was theirs and not the bishop's. Both bishop and citizens presented petitions to the Crown, the former accusing the mayors of defying his authority during the fourteen years of his episcopate, the latter requesting full jurisdiction over every aspect of the city's life in return for a fee farm rent. John Hall, again chosen to represent the city in London, did its cause no good by his insolent behaviour before Henry VI and his council, for which he was imprisoned. The commonalty was ordered to elect another mayor, which it refused to do, showing the strength of the resistance from at any rate a section, perhaps oligarchical, of the community. The city was then ordered to send at least eight representatives to London to explain its action, and subsequently another deputation to conclude the controversy, but no settlement of the question at issue was reached. (fn. 28) John Hall was eventually released from prison and finished his term of office as mayor. In 1467 the bishop proposed that the differences should be settled by arbitration, but this the citizens declined. They preferred instead to wait until the matter could be put before the king when he came to Salisbury for the trial of Sir Henry Courtenay and Sir Thomas Hungerford, attainted in connexion with the Lancastrian plot. The city, backed by a resolution of the whole assembly, again sought to secure all liberties and privileges in return for a fee farm rent. (fn. 29) The outbreak of civil war in 1470, in which Salisbury played no special part, postponed any immediate settlement. But negotiations were re-opened in the following year, and the bishop apparently took a conciliatory step when he agreed that the mayor should, by virtue of his office, be one of the city's justices of the peace. This, however, was no great concession since it had probably already been agreed nine years earlier, (fn. 30) and by insisting that the mayor should take his oath of office either before himself or one of his officials, the bishop imposed terms which were unacceptable to the city. The citizens capitulated on condition that it was on the king's orders, and on the understanding that the oath was taken before the bishop in person. The matter of the mayoral oath was of the greatest significance in the city's fight for independence, since by it the bishop received an unreserved acknowledgment of his overlordship, and a promise to serve him, as well as the king on the one hand and the city on the other. In 1472 the bishop further strengthened his position by securing letters patent confirming all his rights and giving explicit recognition of his claims in the matters which had been at issue since 1465. (fn. 31) The assembly did not easily accept the situation. At a meeting in 1473, during the mayoralty of William Eston, all 42 members present swore separately to aid him in resisting the concessions to the bishop. (fn. 32) But they had no legal rights and a complete submission over 68 signatures followed in 1474. (fn. 33)

This settlement was followed by over half a century of comparative peace during which the city made some headway by acquiring some of the profits of the fairs and markets. (fn. 34) The assembly apparently continued to discuss a charter of incorporation, for in 1496 the names of seven persons were recorded, who would not agree 'to consent to be made corporate'. (fn. 35) The authority of the mayor was in fact increased during this period by the gradual change in the status of the person actually performing the duties of bishop's bailiff. Gentry, like Sir John Cheyney and Sir Thomas Arundell, began to delegate the performance of these duties to the underbailiff, of whom it was complained in 1537 that he was not of sufficient 'gravity and substance'. (fn. 36) The office of mayor, on the other hand, was often filled by men of the calibre of Thomas Coke, William Webb, and others not only of standing within the city by reason of their wealth, but also of influence in the county through their family connexions and tenure of property. (fn. 37) As a result of this gradual development, in the next conflict with the bishop certain powers were claimed for the mayor as it were de facto, which could not have been supported de jure.

Incidents during the episcopate of Bishop Shaxton (1535–9) roused the commonalty once more to action, and petitions were submitted to Lord Chancellor Cromwell in 1537. (fn. 38) The bishop's religious reforms had caused local disapproval. (fn. 39) There was also anger at the underbailiff's admission to office of a city serjeant without the sanction of the mayor. (fn. 40) The two chief items of complaint were the mayor's position as one of the justices for the city subsequent to the Act of 1535, which was interpreted by the city as freeing him from the bishop's commission, (fn. 41) and the delicate question of the mayor's oath, probably revived by the underbailiff's statement that the mayor was the bishop's mayor and not the king's. (fn. 42) After correspondence with Cromwell, hearings before the Justices of Assize, and the council, the controversy lapsed on Shaxton's resignation in 1539. On the whole, however, the city had taken a step forward in its fight for independence. (fn. 43)

For the rest of the 16th century until 1593 no open contest arose. Bishop Jewel in 1561 obtained a confirmation of the charter of 1472. (fn. 44) Throughout the century, however, the citizens were extending their administrative powers in such business as victualling the city, and remained alert to all matters affecting their dignity. (fn. 45) The possibility of incorporation was always in mind, and it was probably for this reason that the office of chief steward was created, and held in turn by Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Christopher Hatton, Sir Thomas Heneage, and Sir John Puckeridge, all holding offices of state and closely connected with the queen, whose favour the citizens hoped to secure. (fn. 46) Between 1582 and 1591 a charter of incorporation was openly discussed, and resolutions on this subject entered in the ledger book. (fn. 47) After two years of friendly relations, and a certain amount of co-operation with Bishop Coldwell (1591–6), the final phase in the dispute began in 1593. A royal commission for the collection of a subsidy, which referred to the mayor as the bishop's mayor of his city of Salisbury, provoked such opposition that a second commission worded according to an earlier form was granted. (fn. 48) This matter together with other grievances led to the issue of writs of quo warranto, the first challenging the liberties exercised by the commonalty, the second challenging the bishop's franchises. (fn. 49) Once again the mayor's oath was the chief item of contention among lists of other grievances. (fn. 50) In 1594 the mayor refused to take the oath in the form required by the bishop, and two versions of the oath were presented to the council. No settlement had been reached on Coldwell's death, and the dispute continued under his successor Bishop Cotton (1598–1615). (fn. 51) Cotton was less tenacious of his rights, while the commonalty adopted different methods by bargaining with the bishop, and taking advantage of the visits of James I to Salisbury. The main reason given by the citizens during this period with their requests for a charter of incorporation were the lack of effective government through division of jurisdiction, the decayed state of the city following upon the uncontrolled influx of strangers, and the insufficient regulation of the trades. They desired full powers of administration and a standing commission of the peace similar to that in other cities. (fn. 52) Nevertheless it took many more years of petitions, drafting of charters with the help of such men as Giles Tooker, (fn. 53) and negotiations with bishop, dean, and chapter before the charter was finally obtained in 1612. (fn. 54)


  • 1. A detailed study of this struggle is given in Fanny Street, 'Relations of the Bishops and Citizens of Salisbury 1225–1612', W.A.M. xxxix. 185–257, 319–367. The following account is based mainly upon that article.
  • 2. Cal. Close, 1302–7, 242.
  • 3. See p. 104.
  • 4. See p. 94.
  • 5. The agreement is printed in full in Tropenell Cart. ed. Davies, i. 189–98, and see above p. 95.
  • 6. See p. 95.
  • 7. Article 17 of the agreement exempted all citizens accepting it from the payment of city tolls.
  • 8. Cal. Chart. R. 1300–26, 290, and see p. 138.
  • 9. Cal. Pat. 1343–5, 420–21.
  • 10. Ibid. 1354–8, 44; Cal. Close, 1360–4, 48–9, and see W.A.M. xxxix. 225.
  • 11. Cal. Pat. 1354–8, 535–40.
  • 12. Ibid. 1381–5, 141.
  • 13. Ibid. 1388–92, 462.
  • 14. Cal. Chart. R. 1341–1417, 343–5; Cal. Close, 1392–6, 312–14; V.C.H. Wilts. v. 60–1. Further confirmations were obtained in 1399 and 1414: Cal. Chart. R. 1341– 1417, 386, 461.
  • 15. Cal. Close, 1392–6, 354–5; 1396–9, 120–1.
  • 16. See p. 104.
  • 17. W.A.M. xxxix. 226; Cal. Pat. 1391–6, 651.
  • 18. Hatcher, Salisbury, 108–9.
  • 19. W.A.M. xxxix. 227.
  • 20. Ibid. 228.
  • 21. W.A.M. xxxix. 229.
  • 22. It was this bishop who ordered the preparation of a rental of the city in 1455: W.A.M. xxxvii. 66–91.
  • 23. W.A.M. xxxix. 229–231; Hist. MSS. Com. Var. Coll. iv. 204.
  • 24. Hatcher, Salisbury, 129–30; V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 323.
  • 25. W.A.M. xxxix. 233–5.
  • 26. Unless otherwise stated the account of the period 1465–74 is based upon W.A.M. xxxix. 237–57.
  • 27. C. Haskins, Ancient Trade Guilds and Companies of Salisbury, 147–54, and see below p. 149.
  • 28. For the names of the deputies see Hatcher, Salisbury, 167–9. A slightly different list of names is in Sar. Corp. MSS. Deeds J. 13. viii.
  • 29. Hatcher, Salisbury, 762–4.
  • 30. See p. 97.
  • 31. Cal Pat. 1467–77, 371–2; W.A.M. xxxix. 251; Sar. Corp. MSS. Ledger B. ff. 123d., 124.
  • 32. Sar. Corp. MSS. Ledger B. f. 113.
  • 33. Ibid. f. 114; Hatcher, Salisbury, 183–4, and see n. 19 above.
  • 34. See p. 138.
  • 35. Sar. Corp. MSS. Ledger B. f. 194d.
  • 36. W.A.M. xxxix. 322.
  • 37. See p. 128.
  • 38. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xii(2), 308, 389–90; ibid. Add. i (1), 439–40.
  • 39. V.C.H. Wilts. iii. 26–7.
  • 40. W.A.M. xxxix. 323.
  • 41. Ibid. 324.
  • 42. Ibid.
  • 43. Ibid. 326–8.
  • 44. C 56/88 pt. 1 mm. 11–17; Hatcher, Salisbury, 296.
  • 45. W.A.M. xxxix. 329–31.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. Ibid. 331–2; Sar. Corp. MSS. Ledger C. ff. 72, 98, 100.
  • 48. W.A.M. xxxix. 333.
  • 49. Ibid. 342, and for the documents relating to this dispute, see Wilts. Borough Rec. (W.A.S. Rec. Brch.), p. 80, items 148, 149.
  • 50. Hatcher, Salisbury, 298–303.
  • 51. W.A.M. xxxix. 342–45.
  • 52. Ibid. 345–6.
  • 53. C. Haskins, Salisbury Charters and Hist. St. Edmund's Coll., 36.
  • 54. W.A.M. xxxix. 346–51.