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|Subject:||Constitutional provisions at Bridgwater|
|Original source:||Borough archives|
|Transcription in:||T. Bruce Dilks, "The Burgesses of Bridgwater in the Thirteenth Century", Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, vol.63 (1917), 55-56.|
|Date:||Early to mid-13th century|
To all faithful Christians to whose attention this document comes, eternal greetings in God from all the burgesses and the community of the borough of Bridgwater.
In order to promote amity and good feelings among our own number, and quell discord and rancour, by our common agreement and assent we have ordained all that follows.
First, we ordain and wish to have among ourselves two stewards of our gild, elected annually by us from our number; and, to assist those stewards, one bailiff elected from our number for the same term.
Also, we ordain, wish and grant that those stewards who are elected for a particular term may have the power to punish every individual among us who commits an offence against the ordinances that follow.
We also wish that if one of us maliciously imputes that any of his peers is a thief, deceiver, villein, homicide, adulterer, or excommunicate, and is convicted of the same before the stewards, he is to be amerced and obligated to our community in [the amount of] twelve pence, and should satisfy the [falsely accused] party according to what his peers consider appropriate.
We also wish and grant that if one of us impleads outside the borough any of his peers for any cause unless first having the case tried by his peers in the borough (as justice requires for the sake of goodwill) is denied him by an opposing party he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] twelve pence.
We also wish and grant that if one of us is summoned by the bailiff, at the orders of the steward, to come before them and he does not come, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] six pence; and at any repetition of such disobedience the penalty is to be doubled.
We also wish and grant that if any of us opposes or obstructs the bailiff from executing [his duties] or a distraint which the stewards have ordered him to carry out, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] forty pence.
We also wish and grant that if any of us in any way refuses to cooperate with the bailiff in the performance of his duties, he is to be amerced and obligated to the community in [the amount of] twelve pence and, notwithstanding, should [also] make amends according to what his peers consider appropriate.
We also wish and grant that none of us is to buy meat or fresh fish in the town before the third hour, for purposes of reselling by retail. If any of us does so, he is to be obligated to the community for the value of the fish or meat thus bought or sold.
We also wish and grant that is any of us accepts election to the office of steward of St. Mary's or of the [Holy] Cross of the town church, or of keeper of the town bridge, or bailiff serving the stewards, they are to render a satisfactory account of all revenues from the same to the stewards of the gild, whenever and as often as they are forewarned to do so.
We also wish and grant that the aforesaid fines and penalties incurred or due are to be levied by the bailiff at the orders of the stewards and handed over to those stewards.
We also wish and grant that if any of us accepts the office of steward, he is to take responsibility for those revenues of fines and amercements received by him from the said officials, and is to render a satisfactory account of the same to the community each year on 2 January.
And we have made a commitment on behalf of every one of our number and our heirs and successors forever to observe among ourselves and to conserve in perpetuity, resolutely and faithfully, each and every of these [ordinances].
In witness of which, our common seal has been appended to this document.
In Domesday, Bridgwater has the appearance of an agricultural settlement. But, as its name indicates (believed derived from a term either meaning "quay" or "gangplank"), its location on the River Parrett, at a point where that tidal river could still be crossed before widening and flowing into the Bristol Channel, was allowing the location to act as an informal port. Bridgwater was probably the demesne land of a larger manor. The bridge that existed in medieval times, however, may not have been built until borough status was acquired for Bridgwater in 1200.
This was the initiative of William Brewer who, in 1199, had acquired Bridgwater through an exchange. The following year, he obtained from King John permission to build a castle there, and also a royal charter giving the status of liber burgus to Bridgwater; it was in fact the second place in England to obtain that status by explicit charter grant. The grant enabled Brewer to endow Bridgwater with privileges of his choice (as far as was within his power) associated with established boroughs; it explicitly included the rights to a market and a fair, to collect tolls and for the burgesses to be free of tolls elsewhere (such being rights only the king could grant). It did not however alter the fact that Brewer and his heirs remained lords of the borough, controlling the courts although the gild appears to have had its own court to deal with internal matters. The burgesses did not hold the town at fee farm until the fifteenth century; the town was incorporated in 1468, when the gild and borough courts were probably integrated and a mayor became the executive officer.
The nucleus of the settlement lay on the west bank of the river; there were probably only a few hundred inhabitants (313 burgages in 1257). Brewer built his castle in the north-east corner and the topography of the town suggests that some new streets may have been laid out between the parish church and the waterfront, including a marketplace. A bridge across the river its building associated by local tradition with Brewer led to the development of an eastern section of the town; the bridge would have been one point for toll-collection, which is the main reason it required a "keeper". Some kind of fortifications were added in the late thirteenth century, but perhaps not beyond stone gates at the main entrances.
Brewer went on, in 1204, to a second "free borough" foundation, at Chesterfield in Derbyshire, part of a royal manor granted him by John, along with licence for a market and fair. Several years prior to obtaining lordship he had already been active in acquiring property that was on the edge of the settled area and on which a new marketplace had been established, larger than the cramped original of the manor. Whether this new marketplace was an initiative of Brewer or local residents, possibly as far back as the 1160s, is not certain; similarly, since 1195 the king had been paid an annual fee for the right for a fair to be held at Chesterfield. At the least Brewer, who after John's abortive rebellion in 1194 had come into temporary possession of Chesterfield along with Prince John's other Midland estates and the shrievalty of Derbyshire, was capitalizing on what he perceived as a growth in trade. But it seems likely he was fostering that growth from about 1194, expanding the new marketplace and perhaps initiating the fair. The Pipe Rolls following that year show an increase in the revenue expected by the king from Chesterfield, and by 1198 it was being described as a burgus in the rolls. The 1204 charter was simply the culmination of Chesterfield's evolution from village to town.
The motivation for such foundations was financial: to stimulate the commercial development of a settlement, and take a cut of the profits, e.g. through tolls from visiting traders, rents from settlers attracted to a free borough, and larger numbers of court fines or administrative fees that growth in commerce and industry brought with it. In Brewer's case, he may also have had in mind the provisioning of his castle at Bridgwater, whose presence also provided a special clientele for goods and services. But his actual vision appears broader; Brewer seems in fact to have been something of a speculator in commercial growth, and might be considered the most important founder of boroughs during John's reign, which saw the peak for grants of liberties to boroughs. That Brewer witnessed 44 of the 98 such charters has led to speculation [R.V. Turner, Men Raised from the Dust: Administrative Service and Upward Mobility in Angevin England, Philadelphia, 1988] that he may have served as the king's negotiator with urban representatives in such matters. As early as 1190 he had ensure a weekly market was among the rights when Richard I granted him the royal manor of Somborne in Hampshire. In 1199 he was granted Bakewell in Derbyshire, but surrendered it a few years later; it did not develop into a market town until the latter half of the next century. In 1209 he obtained a royal charter giving Axminster, Devon, borough status, along with a market and fair, and a few years later was protecting his investment by suing Sidmouth (some 15 miles distant) and Lyme Regis (5 miles away) for having established markets that he considered unfairly competitive. In 1221 he acquired a 3-year lease of the borough and fair of Great Torrington, Devon, and in the year of his death (1226) the king granted him a market at Newton Poppleford, Devon.
By the mid-fourteenth century Bridgwater was Somerset's most prosperous town. Goods such as wine were being shipped between Bridgwater and France (notably Bordeaux), Spain, Wales and Ireland, and the Bardi were using it as one shipping point for their wool exports. Although there was some economic decline towards the end of that century, in the next the town benefited from a steady trade in cloth and from being made a separate port, for purposes of customs collection, from Bristol.
Once the foundations of self-government had been acquired from the lord of a community, local authorities felt themselves empowered and obliged to begin shaping the details of the local constitution. The set of ordinances above, undated but probably from the first half of Henry III's reign, clearly does not represent the initial constitution, for the community already had a fundamental institution of self-government in its gild, and possessed a communal seal. The preamble suggests the document to be more of a constitutional retooling consequent to political disagreements within the community. Perhaps differences of policy between the mercantile interests and those of the rest of the community: the provision for two elected stewards may have superseded a single gild leader, with this duality reflected in two gilds serving the parish church, one for merchants and one for other townspeople (a duality seen at Chesterfield). The constitutional adjustments are typical in their concern for defining town officials and the scope of their responsibilities, enforcing obedience to those officials, requiring accountability for borough revenues, and addressing abuses contrary to the interests of the community.
"refuses to cooperate"
"of St. Mary's or of the Cross"
|Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 15, 2002||© Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003|