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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval King's Lynn social control disrespect authority slander leet court assault offences fines

Subject: Offences against order and authority
Original source: Norfolk Records Office, Kings Lynn archives, KL/C10/1, ff.142, 173
Transcription in: Holcombe Ingleby, ed., The Red Register of King's Lynn, vol.2 (1922), pp.73, 177.
Original language: Latin
Location: King's Lynn
Date: mid-fourteenth century


[1. 1355]

William Heyward senior came here into the gildhall that day [18 December] and admitted that he had committed an offence against the mayor and community and the leet affeerors, in that he imputed that the leet affeerors and others of the town of Lynn had falsely and maliciously assessed fines in the leet that were unreasonable beyond measure. Upon which he offered to the mayor and community compensation of £10. Of which, at the instance of Sir John de Ufford, £9 were remitted to him and 20s. were paid. And he found pledges for his [future] good behaviour, viz. Reginald de Sisterne and Thomas de Bukworth, under penalty of paying £10 to the community if William offended against the mayor and community or their officers on a future occasion.

[2. 1363]

William Heyward senior came here into the gildhall on 13 January 1363 and admitted that he had committed an offence against the community, in that after an argument had arisen between William and a certain servant of John de Bokenham, Thomas Drewe the town mayor of Lynn, intervened to calm down the dispute, setting a date for them to effect a reconciliation, to which the parties agreed. And mayor Thomas, by authority of his office, ordered those parties that neither of them do any harm or injury towards the other before that date, to which they likewise agreed. [But] before that date William came with force [and armed] etc. and insulted John's servant and aimed to beat him. For that offence, he offered the community £20. And because, on another occasion of an offence against the community – that is, in during the term of William de Swanton – he had pledged to the community £10 should he offend again, the community consequently now took 40s. from William and he became indebted to the community in the sum of £7, payable to the community without any [prospect of] it being reduced or pardoned. The whole community was in agreement that if he ever offended against the community again, nothing of the fine would be remitted. [His] pledges: Reginald de Sisterne and Roger de Byntre.


Criticism of even lesser officials could be little tolerated in a political environment where authorities depended much on consensual submission to rule, rather than coercion, and social control involved promoting a belief in the communal good and loyalty to the community. Cases such as this show that submission to the authority of local officers could not be taken for granted, and that firm action was needed to reinforce authority by public submission of penitent offenders or stern punishment of the recalcitrant. A balance between severity and clemency was what Latini recommended as the surest way to establish authority while keeping the goodwill of the people.

Spreading gossip in the streets or taverns could shape neighbourhood opinion and give a focus to underlying dissatisfaction among the ruled or bring about disharmony with the community. To ensure no disruption to the normally peaceful status quo, it was advisable to deal with criticism severely. Extreme cases in which an offender showed no contrition nor preparedness to submit to disciplining could be punished by disfranchisement, or even imprisonment where physical assault was involved. Anticipating this risk, most offenders chose to show themselves repentant by admitting their fault and voluntarily offering a fine, typically a monetary payment or a volume of wine. As submission was what the authorities most wanted, a contrite offender would usually be required to pay only a portion of what he offered, with the right to collect the remainder held over the offender's head as security for future good behaviour.

A man with as low a temper threshold as Heyward appears to have been was fortunate to have had the patronage of Reginald de Systerne, an elderly burgess who had on a number of occasions served on the town council between the 1340s to 60s. This may have influenced the authorities towards leniency.



These were a jury appointed to assess fines on those convicted by the leet court of an offence against the community.

"term of William de Swanton"
Swanton was mayor in 1355/56.

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Created: May 27, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003

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