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CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London judicial administration police alderman wards moot court jurisdiction frankpledge jury trial offences misdemeanour

Subject: The role of the wardmoot in policing
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, ff. 9-10
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus, Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 36-38.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: late 14th century


What a wardmoot is, etc.

It is called a wardmoot on the grounds that it is an assembly by summons of the whole populace of one ward, there being present its headman, the alderman or his lieutenant, for the purpose of correcting faults, or removing nuisances, and for furthering the benefit of that ward. What we call a "wardmoot" the Romans called a "plebiscite"; it was anciently called a "folkmoot" among the Saxons. The aldermen have been accustomed to hold their wardmoots at least once, or twice, or many times a year, by virtue of a warrant sent to them by the mayor then in office. Through which it has been the practice to enquire into the degree of peace and tranquillity within each ward, and for the alderman to correct faults presented.

The customary process for holding a wardmoot in London is as follows. After receiving the warrant, the alderman is to order his beadle to summon all male householders and rent-payers in his ward to appear before him at a certain date and time – that is, the day following such a summons – at a certain location within the ward, so that a wardmoot may be held. The names of whom, once they have been summoned, the beadle shall have written down on a certain roll; that is, the freemen of the city living in the ward listed together, and the rent-payers who are not freemen listed together. When they have gathered together at the hour assigned, the alderman with the more prominent men of the ward having seated themselves in their places, the alderman's clerk is to order the beadle to call for quiet, on the alderman's behalf. That being done, the clerk should read out publicly the warrant, and then he should read out to the beadle the names written in the roll, with the beadle calling them out again in a loud voice, so that anyone not responding to his name (because of failure to be present) is to be noted down and amerced at least 4d. Then the beadle is to present to the alderman a panel, put together by the ward constables, of reputable men of the ward by whom the inquest ought to be made; which selection the alderman has the power to alter, if he thinks it expedient. Once that is done, all the articles concerning the wardmoot, which have been recorded on folio 30 of Part Two of Book Three of this volume, are to be read out to the jurors. And then the alderman is to assign the jurors a specific date on which to make their presentments [of offences]. On which [day] the jurors are to present their findings in the form of an indenture, of which one part is to remain with the alderman and the other part with the ward [jury?]. The alderman ought to report what is on his part to the mayor at his next General Court, so that, by seeing and picking out those things that fall to the mayor and city to punish, the indenture can be handed back to him for the other matters to be dealt with.

At the wardmoot the alderman and the reputable men of the ward, as well as the jurors, ought to elect constables, scavagers, ale-conners, a beadle, and other officers – who, at the General Court already mentioned, shall take their respective oaths of office, as recorded on folio 26 of Part Two of Book Three of this volume. It has also been the custom for the alderman to have the beadle draw up a special inventory of hostellers, brewers, bakers, cooks, victuallers, and hucksters residing in the ward. Bakers may also obtain their marks there, of which markings there are examples among the aldermannic records; in relation to which transaction, each baker is to pay the alderman 4d., unless it happens that he has – before the alderman, within the ward (and not elsewhere) – previously paid for an exemplification of his mark. It has also been the custom for the aldermen to seal the measures and weights [used] within their wards, and condemn those that are not sealed; taking for the sealing [a fee] for their own use, such as the Chamber of the city now takes. For indeed their measures made of bronze must in each ward accord with the royal standards of the city. And at the wardmoot those who are not freemen of the city and who have not been previously sworn to it should be placed in frankpledge, notwithstanding that they may have been received into it elsewhere, in some other ward. They shall swear the oath, etc., which is required for admittance into frankpledge [as in] folio 26 of Part Two of Book Three of this volume. Each person so received shall give a penny to the clerk for his admission. If anyone to whom this applies stays away from the wardmoot, that person is to pay 4d. to the alderman, unless the person is a knight, esquire, woman, apprentice in the law, or cleric, or someone who does not reside in the city.

The alderman ought personally to preside over and pass sentence on all faults and nuisances in the ward, as presented by the jurors; except perhaps any problematic matters that arise or those falling under the jurisdiction of the Chamber – with such matters the mayor and the chamberlain, in conjunction with the sheriffs and other officers, will concern themselves. If the alderman finds the officers under him to be remiss or negligent, he is to warn them to mend their ways; if they are unwilling to do so, he may within reason reprimand or punish them, or refer the matter to the mayor, who should rectify the problem appropriately.


In a city with as large a population as London, a mass assembly of the residents – in folkmoot – must have been an unwieldy tool; by the time London's local government was producing its own records, the role of the folkmoot had been relegated to a limited number of meetings more for informational purposes than communal decision-making. Most towns of any size were subdivided into wards, to make matters of policing (and to a lesser extent judicial administration) more manageable. From the earliest time that we can see this system in operation in London, it had 24 wards – a 25th being added in 1394, when a particularly large ward was divided in two. The actual number of wards has a symbolical significance, if we may judge from the suspicious frequency with which the numbers 12 and 24 figured in urban administration. However, the wards themselves, which vary considerably in size, may reflect foci of settlement in Anglo-Saxon London, at an early period before the consolidation into a single administration – a situation similar, perhaps, to that of Norwich, evolving from a complex of neighbouring settlements into a single borough; the precise ward boundaries may not have been fixed until around the eleventh century.

Each ward was essentially a hundred, and the wardmoots were the equivalents of the hundred courts elsewhere in the country; just as a hundred court was a subordinate to its shire court, the wardmoot might be considered to have a similar relationship to the folkmoot, except that the latter had been depowered and largely superseded in London by the more efficient mechanism of the husting court. Ancient law specified that a hundred would have an alderman as its head man. Under the Anglo-Saxon kings the title was applied to a nobleman responsible for administering a shire. However, after that official's replacement, under the Danish monarchy, by the earl (with actual administrative duties being taken up in due course by the king's shire-reeve), the title of alderman fell into disuse. It reappeared locally either in a devalued form, or in a generalized form simply meaning "senior man". This re-emergence may in fact have begun in London, at a time when the Anglo-Saxon ealdorman had not been forgotten, to give prestige to the leaders of the local settlements; one of the London wards, Aldermanbury, means "the burh of the alderman". London writers, with their penchant for drawing parallels between London and ancient Rome, compared the aldermen to Roman senators, although noting that the aldermen were advanced more in wisdom than in age; they also, because of the judicial role of aldermen, assumed a link between them and the lawmen (or doomsmen) of pre-Conquest England. There are no grounds for thinking that the office of alderman in any way derived from either senators or lawmen, but the comparisons are not unhelpful.

The offences investigated by the alderman through his wardmoot (referred to in the text as being elsewhere recorded in Liber Albus) were as follows:

  • if there had been, since the last moot, disturbances of the peace or riots;
  • if there were any undesirables residing in the ward: lepers, outlaws, criminals, persons of ill-repute, or those not in frankpledge in that ward;
  • if any women residing in the ward were prostitutes, or of known immoral behaviour, or persistent scolds;
  • if there were any fire hazards, such ovens, hearths or furnaces that were defective (apparently defined as placement near combustible materials), or use of illegal fuels – only wood and charcoal being permitted;
  • (on a related theme) if any house were roofed with flammable materials such as reeds or straw, as opposed to the approved tiles, lead or stone;
  • if there had been breaches of the assize of ale;
  • if keepers of taverns or hostelries were hosting gamblers or other troublemakers after curfew;
  • if there were any hucksters in the ward;
  • if anyone threw out dung into the streets, or put it in front of the houses of others;
  • if the keeping of pigs or cattle on urban property was causing a nuisance for neighbours;
  • if any usurious transactions had been conducted since the last moot (the scope of usury extending beyond simple money-lending to some kinds of brokerage in commercial transactions);
  • if there had been any encroachments in the streets, in the city ditches, on the city walls, on the Thames, or on communal land;
  • if bakers were all baking only the type of bread for which they were qualified;
  • if anyone had been wandering about in a suspicious manner after curfew;
  • if any city officer had abused his powers through extortionate or violent behaviour, or was encouraging parties to sue each other (in order to profit from the fees associated with legal actions);
  • if any employer was paying illegally high wages to workers in the construction trades;
  • if any tavern's ale-stake (which was the sign of business) was longer or projected out further than the law allowed.
Contrast with the articles investigated by the eyre, and offences against the community at Leicester (in preparation).



Strictly speaking, decrees issued by the Concilium Plebis (assembly of the common people), a democratic legislative body organized into tribal divisions; but here the term is used for the assembly itself. It was part of the legends surrounding London that its heritage stretched back to Roman civilization and beyond.

In fact the general folkmoot of Londoners, which at an earlier date met at need in St. Paul's churchyard and was still summoned together by the tolling of the bell of St. Paul's, now met only three times a year for specific items of business: the swearing-in of the city sheriffs at the Guildhall, at Michaelmas; the arrangements for winter watch and ward, at Christmas; and to go over matters related to fire prevention and suppression, on 24 June in anticipation of the dry, hot season. Legislative/judicial business once in the sphere of the folkmoot had long since been transferred to the more manageable institution of the husting.

The beadle performed for the alderman the same types of police duties that sergeants performed for mayor and sheriffs – but with emphasis more on detection than enforcement.

The Latin servientes mercenarios in this context would make most sense as "those owing service by way of rent-paying". However, the alternate famulorum mercenariorum in the next sentence suggests the term could mean "trading agents" (i.e. external lords' representatives, residing in London in order to undertake buying and selling on behalf of their masters).

Inquest is here used in the general sense of judicial enquiry, rather than the more specific sense of coroner's inquest to which the term tends today to be applied.

"General Court"
This would have been one of the principal sessions of the mayor's court.

Minor officials responsible for the city fabric: supervising that pavements were in good repair, that streets were kept clean, and that chimneys or furnaces were not fire hazards. "Scavage" could also apply to the inspection of merchandize brought into London by outsiders.

Minor officials who supervised brewing and fast food trades in regard to their sale of ale, to ensure the quality and fair price of the product.

"special inventory"
These types of occupations were those most likely to be involved in breaches of the assizes, and a inventory of those engaged in the occupations would have been a handy check-list.

Petty retailers (usually women – the noun is the feminine form) – street vendors; the offence perhaps being less their activity but whether they were carrying it out without licence.

The stamps used to identify the bread of a particular baker, to make it easier to identify the culprit if a loaf were found to be of inferior quality or excessive price (it may be noted that, when accused, bakers often defended by claiming that the defective loaf was not of their making).

To ensure their compliance with official standards, weights and measures had to be examined, tested and – if they matched the standards – an official seal was applied to them to show their use was authorized. The fee the alderman charged for this went into his own pocket – a form of compensation (in lieu of salary) for his service to the city.

The Chamber was essentially the bureaucratic core of city government, presided over by the mayor; many if not all bureaucratic officers received user fees to supplement their official salaries.

"made of bronze"
The original de aere facta may perhaps mean "of fixed proportions".

The oath of those received into frankpledge required: allegiance to the king; keeping of the peace; preparedness to assist borough officials in arresting wrongdoers; preparedness to participate in city watches; adhering to the regulations the wardmoot was obliged to uphold; and resisting or reporting any conspiracy uncovered.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: May 10, 2003 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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