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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval King's Lynn indirect election mayor office-holding qualifications exemption re-election pilgrimage electoral procedures ruling class monopolization

Subject: Mayor-elect requests to be excused from holding office
Original source: Norfolk Records Office, Kings Lynn archives, KL/C10/1, f.173
Transcription in: Holcombe Ingleby, ed., The Red Register of King's Lynn, vol.2 (1922), p.175-76.
Original language: Latin
Location: King's Lynn
Date: 1354


Election of the mayor of the town of Lynn on Monday, 29 September 1354 by John Wythe, John de Brunham, Hamon de Cokesford, Geoffrey Hautboys, William de Swantone, John de Thiersforde, Thomas de Botkesham, Thomas Cooke, Laurence de Reppes, Thomas Baret, Reginald de Sisterne, and Nicholas de Swerdestone, under oath. Which men so sworn elected: William de Biteringe as mayor; Simon de Guntone, William de Elingham, Henry Elys, and John de Bokenham as chamberlains; Richard Frere as clerk; Stephen Cooke as bailiff; Geoffrey Drewe, John de Cokesforde, William de Bruntone, Robert Braunche, Thomas Drewe, Thomas Rythwis, John de Couteshale, Anselm Braunche, Robert de Cokesford, John de Sustede, John de Fyncham, and Clement de Aldeburgh as councillors. But William made the point, in front of the community, that he was weary from having held the mayoralty for the last two years; he added that, if God kept him alive, in good health, and worry-free, he planned to proceed with a pilgrimage to St. James in the coming year. He requested that the community excuse him for this year from the burden of the mayoralty, which it wished him to assume. Subsequently, that is on the Wednesday following, the community having assembled for this matter, it was agreed and decided that another reputable man might be elected to the office for the coming year, allowing that whichever burgess should be elected to the mayoralty for this year, he should have £20 from the community as his salary. The sworn men indicated above elected John de Couteshale as mayor. Who has been administered the oath related to the performance of his duties.


We can see from this instance that, at this period in Lynn at least, men did not run for office in the way that we would understand it. While some might desire and seek positions of power, others might be nominated and elected contrary to their preference, to offices perceived as an obligation to the community but potentially burdensome. Although it was not uncommon in Lynn during the fourteenth century for a man to be re-elected to the mayoralty for a second consecutive term, a third term was unheard of and Bitering had cause to seek to be released, whether or not his pilgrimage excuse was true or not. It was more likely he felt he had borne the burden of public duty long enough, or perhaps he was even concerned about arousing political jealousies among his peers. He did not shirk future duty, however, serving in the mayoralty twice more before his death.

Bitering may not have been alone in his wish not to be subjected to re-election. A week before the 1358 elections, ordinances were passed exempting any man from being re-elected to the mayoralty within two years after a term of office – it would be twenty years before a single infringment began a slippage, and at an unknown date (possibly 1395) it was cancelled. On the other hand, the same ordinances imposed a fine of £20 upon anyone refusing election to the mayoralty. A fine of 40d. was imposed for any councillor who failed to come, when summoned, to offer advice and assistance to the mayor; the reason for this was because of defaults in attendance, themselves a reflection of the burdensomeness of office-holding.

The 1350s were a period of experimentation that stretched into the reign of Richard II; the electors would sometimes choose the full complement of 24 councillors (or jurats) and sometimes would choose only 12, to whom either the electoral committee would be joined, or the 12 would co-opt 12 more, to form the 24 jurats for that year. The combining of councillors and electors was almost certainly, but not explicitly as in some years, the case in 1354. The variations within these themes require more detailed study before we can fully understand the staffing and character of the town council. How the electors were themselves chosen in this period is not addressed in the terse records of proceedings at electoral assemblies. But just two years earlier a settlement between the bishop of Norwich, lord of the town, and the townsmen over the question of the right of the latter to elect a mayor, stated that the mayor would be elected by the burgesses; whether or not the electors were chosen by the assembly, it seems likely that the electoral committee originated as an efficient device to represent the burgesses at large, rather than any attempt to limit popular participation in elections. Townspeople were less concerned with the character than with the quality of government.

As can be seen from the biographies, most of the electors and jurats were drawn from the same group of middling or prosperous townsmen, a group repeatedly in those roles in this period. Political office was restricted to those who had entered the franchise or the merchant gild – that is, those who had taken an oath of loyalty to the community. Within that select group only some had the strong sense of community responsibility, the positive inclination (as opposed to acquiescence) to exercise authority, the level of wealth and support (e.g. servants and apprentices) that would allow them to take time away from their businesses, and the monetary reserves that would allow them to bear the financial risks attached to certain offices. There must have been a relatively small pool of candidates – men who in addition had demonstrated their ability and/or reliability through past service in lesser roles such as capital pledge, tax assessor and collector, and particularly chamberlain – from which jurats could be chosen. The pool was large enough to allow for some variation in the list of jurats from year to year; but those willing to serve repeatedly and particularly those whose accumulated experience (notably ex-mayors) was invaluable to the borough were usually re-elected as a matter of form. For mid-fourteenth century Lynn, it is risky to resort to the argument of conscious monopolization of office to explain the repetition in the lists from year to year. And yet the effective monopolization may, during the course of the second half of the century, have become a habit and in time perceived as a right, paving the way for constitutional change and consequent political conflict at the beginning of the fifteenth century.



"John Wythe"
Jurat for most of the period from 1357/58 to 1375/76, but often because the 12 electors were associated, as councillors, with the 12 men they elected; i.e. a junior jurat.

"Geoffrey de Hautboys"
A vintner and ship-owner, he was jurat in 1350/51 and 1353/54, but his career was cut short by his death in 1355 during a visit to Southampton.

"Thomas Baret"
Chamberlain in 1349/50, he was an elector on several occasions in the '50s and '60s, but never a jurat. He had purchased membership in the merchant gild in 1334, but was a trader of modest means.

"Clement de Aldeburgh"
Jurat in 1346/47, 1350/51, and 1354/55, he also served as bailiff in 1348/49.

"pilgrimage to St. James"
The sepulchre of the apostle St. James in Compostella, Spain, although its authenticity is today doubted, was one of the principal pilgrimage destinations in the Middle Ages.

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

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