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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bristol customs mayor election electoral procedures oath duties ceremony speeches clothing feasts officers sheriff sergeant priests craft guilds regulations judicial administration

Subject: Procedures for electing and initiating a new administration
Original source: Bristol Record Office, MS. 04720 (Mayor's register)
Transcription in: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed. The Maire of Bristowe Is Kalendar, Camden Society, new series, vol.5 (1872), 69-79.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Bristol
Date: ca. 1479


It is the case that there have always been mayors in this respectable town, since the Conquest and earlier. After Bristol castle was founded and built by the noble earl of Gloucester, Robert Consul the bastard son of King Henry Beauclerk, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, each year on Michaelmas day [September 29] the mayors of that time used to go there and at the gate of Bristol castle receive their office and take their oath [of office] before the constable of the castle. This custom continued until the blessed prince King Edward III came [to the throne]; he, among other franchises that he kindly granted, through his charters exempted and exonerated the mayors from receiving their office from the constable at the castle gate; instead providing in the same that from that time forward each mayor would on Michaelmas day receive office and take oath before his predecessor in the Bristol Guildhall, in the presence of all of the community who were there. For which reason it has ever since been the custom that the four sergeants who attend the mayor shall, on St. Giles' day, the first day of September, forewarn all the respectable men of the council of Bristol to come to their council chamber in the Guildhall on September 15, for the election of their mayor and other officers for the year to follow, each of them upon penalty of £10 [for default] (as was ordained in the time of Stephen le Spycer, who was mayor in 1344). Once they – the mayor, the sheriff, and all their colleagues – are seated in the council chamber, the mayor first exhorts each and every one of them, with a Paternoster and an Ave, to pray for the Holy Ghost to influence the election. After which, the mayor is first to declare his vote for some respectable member of the company, and the sheriff follows suit, and so all those present are canvassed, each man giving his vote as he wishes; all being recorded by the town clerk, on the basis of which he reports and identifies the one who has most votes. Which person who has been duly elected mayor gets up from where he is sitting and takes a seat on the right side of the outgoing mayor. And after any further discussions at that time, certain of the company shall provide an honour escort for him when he returns to his home.

All this being done, the person elected mayor shall have opportunity, until Michaelmas day following (on whatever day it may fall that year) to make provision for his household and the respectable decoration of his house, in as pleasing a fashion as he can. The mayor-elect, accompanied by the sheriff and his colleagues of the council, who go to his house to escort him to the Guildhall, shall then proceed to the hall in as solemn and dignified a manner as he can arrange, to his own credit and for the honour and praise of the entire town. Which is to say that if he has previously served as mayor, he is to come in his robe of office – that is, his fur-lined scarlet cloak, with his black velour hood or black velvet cap, and all those who have served as mayor in the same costume and livery, with cloaks. If he has not previously been mayor, then he is to come in his scarlet gown, without a cloak, and all others who have been mayor in the same attire, but their servants may carry their cloaks after them. After the common bell has stopped ringing, the outgoing mayor, standing with solemnity on the high dais of the Guildhall, makes his farewell to his colleagues and all the commoners who are present, in the following fashion:

Honourable gentlemen, my friends, you will recall that on this day, twelve months ago, I, although unworthy, was sworn into the office of mayor of this proud city for the year now past. If, sirs, I have wilfully or through negligence treated any man or woman unjustly or unscrupulously, I beg them to approach me, and I am prepared to put to rights any wrong I have done them, either by compensation if I possess the means, or else by asking their forgiveness with the utmost sincerity, trusting in God that they shall [thereafter] have no further cause for complaint.
Furthermore, gentlemen and friends, I cannot thank you as much as you deserve for your kindness, in that you have at all times respected and obeyed the laws of our liege lord the king and my orders given in his name. For which, since I myself am not in a position to assure it to you, I pray that almighty God will reward you with as much happiness, prosperity and peace as common folk and true Christians ever had.
Furthermore, gentlemen and friends, here is a respectable man, A.B., chosen to be our mayor for the year coming, who – through God's grace and his own great wisdom – will improve and correct all matters that I, with my limited abilities, have not been able to address or bring to a conclusion. Honourable gentlemen and friends, may the Holy Trinity bless you all and long keep you prosperous, peaceful and contented, and be with you always. Amen.

After this is done, still standing on the high dais of the Guildhall, in front of all the commons, the outgoing mayor is to hold a book before the mayor-elect, and the town clerk is to stand up with his book and read out the mayor's oath and the duties of office, in the following manner:

Now hear this, A.B. my predecessor as mayor, and all the good people of Bristol, that I, R.S., shall be true and faithful to King Edward the Fourth, king of England, our supreme liege lord, and to his heirs and successors, and to the best of my ability I shall protect and preserve this his town of Bristol for him and his heirs and successors. I shall preserve and uphold the peace of this town to the best of my ability. I shall reprimand and discipline those who behave badly or commit wrongs, as law and reason require, to the best of my ability. I shall to the best of my ability uphold in the town all those franchises and free customs which are good, while all bad customs and errors I shall put aside and abolish. I shall to the best of my ability preserve, maintain and protect the rights of widows and orphans of this town. I shall well and truly serve the king in the office of escheator of the county of Bristol. I shall work with all my skill and ability to the profit of the king in all things that are my duties require, and I shall faithfully uphold his rights in whatever belongs to the Crown. I shall not consent to the transgression, nor be involved in the concealment, of the king's rights or franchises. Wherever I know of the rights of the Crown being concealed or withheld – whether regarding lands, rents, franchises, or suits – I shall do my utmost to counteract and correct this; and, if I should be unable, I shall inform the king or those members of his council who I know will convey the information to the king. I shall treat the people under my jurisdiction honestly and justly, and give justice to every man – as much to the poor as to the rich – in all duties I must perform. Not for gift, love, friendship, promises, nor hate, shall I do wrong to any man, nor infringe any man's rights. I shall accept nothing as a result of which the king might suffer a loss, or his rights be infringed. I shall hold my inquests in public places, not in private, and then by indenture, as required by the Statute of Escheators. [see note] I shall be painstaking and diligent in suppressing, stopping and eliminating any kind of heresy or erroneous beliefs, commonly called lollardries, within my jurisdiction from time to time, to the best of my ability. And I shall assist the Ordinaries and Commissaries of Holy Church, supporting and siding with them at all times, in all just causes, whenever requested to by those Ordinaries or Commissaries. I shall also help, support and side with the Prior and his brethren, the priests of the house of the Kalendars of Bristol, in all actions I, as its patron, can lawfully and honestly undertake, regarding the verification and protection of the rents, lands and tenements belonging to that house, saving the rights of every man. I shall also uphold, preserve and maintain all commendable ordinances that have been made and enforced in the past by previous mayors, aldermen, sheriffs, and the common council of the town, if not [since] revoked or repealed; [see note] as well as all that shall be made in the future, until the time that they may be revoked or repealed by the mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, and common council of the town then in office, to the best of my ability and well and truly. I shall give justice to every man, as much to the poor as to the rich. And all other things that are part of the duties of the mayor and of the escheator I will perform faithfully. So help me God at the holy doom.
And then he kisses the book.

Following this, the outgoing mayor delivers to the new mayor the king's sword, his [ceremonial] hat, and the casket containing the seal of the office, the seal of the statute of the staple, the seal of the statute merchant, as well as other authentic seals. Then the two mayors exchange places, after which they proceed from the hall. The whole company is to escort the new mayor to his house, with trumpeters and clareners, in as respectable, serious, and joyous a fashion as can be accomplished; and there they are to leave the new mayor, and then escort home the outgoing mayor.

It has been the custom on that Michaelmas day for the greater part of the council to dine with both mayors; that is, a large number of them with the new mayor, and others with the old mayor – in particular, all officials are to dine with the old mayor. After dinner, the whole council is to assemble at the High Cross, from where the new and old mayors, with the whole company, walk in a dignified fashion to St. Michael's church to make an offering. Thereafter they return to the new mayor's house, where they take cakebread and wine. And then, each man bids farewell to the mayor and returns home to evensong.

It has also been the custom that on the day after Michaelmas the new mayor, the sheriff and certain of their colleagues go to the Counter and summon before them the bailiffs, town clerk, steward, and all the sergeants of Bristol, together with the gatekeepers of the town. From the Counter they proceed to the Guildhall, where they take their oaths [of office] in the terms contained in the Red Book made a long time ago by the decision of the community of Bristol and to be preserved forever. Immediately after which, one of the bailiffs is to go, by the mayor's command, to preside over the market court.

It has also been the custom that on the third day after Michaelmas, after oaths have been administered to all other officers, the mayor shall summon before him the most venerable of his colleagues on the council, so that they may accompany him to the Guildhall, where are to be read out publicly the sheriff's commission, the dedimus potestatem, and the writ of attendance. Following which the sheriff is to take his oath, in the terms given in a schedule sent from the king, enclosed within the dedimus potestatem (if it has arrived by then).

Similarly, on the same occasion, the commission of the mayor of the staple is to be read out, together with the dedimus potestatem, and the mayor is to take his oath upon the same, in the terms given in a schedule enclosed within the dedimus potestatem (if it has arrived by then). And the same for the two constables [of the staple].

It has also been the custom for the mayor, on the same day, to summon before him all his sergeants and have them bring their sureties. Who are to be obligated with them towards the mayor, each in a bond of £10 or £13.6.8d [guaranteeing] their [i.e. the sergeants'] good behaviour and faithful execution of their duties during the year, both in the staple court and elsewhere, in regard to conscientousness in levying and honesty in handing over, to the mayor or to such persons to whom recoveries belong as their right, all kinds of fines, revenues, amercements, penalties, and executions [of judgements] made and recovered at any time in the mayor's court.

Similarly, at the same time, they summon before them [sic] the sheriff's sergeants, who are to put up a bond in the same way to the bailiffs, for the year to come.

It has also been the custom, on the fourth day following Michaelmas, that the new mayor has summoned to come before him at the Counter all the chantry priests with whom agreements are registered in the Red Book – that is, the priests [of the chantries]of Everard le Frenshe, Richard Spicer, John Spicer, John Stoke, Walter Frampton, Edmond Blanket, Thomas Halleweye, John Burton, William Canynges, John Shipward, and Thomas Rowley – so that they can take oath to observe faithfully the terms of the agreements. Their oaths are to be taken in the following way; that is, each of them is to lay his left hand upon the book, and his right hand upon his breast, and to swear the oath by the holy gospel and by words used in holy services.

It has also been the custom, on that fourth day after Michaelmas and in the days following, for the mayor to have summoned to appear before him all the masters of the bakers, brewers, butchers and other crafts of the town. Thereafter they go and assemble [the craftsmen] at their halls or other customary [meeting] places, for purposes of electing their masters for the coming year. Then to bring those masters and present them before the mayor, where they are to take their oaths in the mayor's presence, in the terms indicated in the Red Book. Following which, the mayor is to command each of his sergeants – and ensure they comply – to bring before him from each ward of Bristol as many honest and suitable persons as each ward demands and rightfully requires (according to the discretion of the mayor) to be sworn as constables for the year coming.

It has also been the custom in the town that the following Saturday, after the market court session has concluded, the mayor will have proclaimed within the town all the articles of communal regulations concerning victuallers and other [market?] matters ordained in times past by the decision of the community of Bristol. After which, the mayor is to proceed to the holding of his court [to hear] all kinds of actions brought before the mayor and sheriff in person, or before the bailiffs then in office. And then to designate and announce the days for assizes and real actions concerning real estate, in a form that includes that all plaintiffs and defendants, claimants and tenants, who have any litigation before the mayor and sheriff of Bristol, or the mayor and bailiffs of Bristol, regarding any assize or other real actions should appear on the date assigned them at the Bristol Guildhall.

It has also been the custom that within a month after Michaelmas day, the mayor, sheriff and bailiffs of Bristol shall hold a lawday in the Guildhall, summoning thereto (by the town clerk of the town) first the entire council of Bristol, without any amercements, and next summoning all freeholders and common suitors, upon penalty of amercement, and finally to summon the constables of every ward. And then proceeding to the inquests. Once the town clerk has made a record of the lawday, within 7 or 8 days after that the mayor, sheriff and bailiffs are to hold the affeering day, and on that basis the town clerk is to compile his estreats for the bailiffs, keeping a register of the same to remain in the mayor's keeping, as has been the practice and custom since ancient times.


This account was produced by newly-appointed town clerk Robert Ricart, at the request of the mayor then in office, as part of a larger reference work intended to provide guidance to Bristol officials in performing their duties. William Spencer, the mayor in question, had been elected to his third and final (non-consecutive) term in office in 1479 when he commissioned the work from Ricart. This is therefore accepted as the year when the book of "various chronicles, customs, laws, liberties and other memoranda and things necessary [to have recorded]", to be known as the Maire of Bristowe is Register, or ellis the Maire is Kalender was planned out and commenced. The compilation doubtless was made over a period of time, and later clerks made a few post-medieval additions.

The manual for mayoral administration provides a relatively intimate look at the annual renewal of local government, its formalized procedures, and its institutions. This level of detail was not something generally committed to writing until towards the close of the Middle Ages, and cannot be taken as evidence for the early period of local self-government. Ricart goes on, after the account of electoral procedures and the initial activities to re-empower other agencies of local administration, to identify other duties of the mayor. Those included ceremonial events and attending the obits of benefactors of the town, holding the assizes of bread and ale, regulating of the price of firewood during the winter season, supervising commerce in coal, auditing the accounts of William Canynges' chantries in St. Mary, Redcliffe, and presiding over weekday court sessions.

The audacious declaration that Bristol had been governed by mayors since pre-Conquest times is not atypical of urban legend, but even the chronicle and list of officers that Ricart compiled cannot extend the names of mayors before 1217 (and the list becomes increasingly unreliable the further back in time it extends), and there is independent evidence suggesting that Bristol first began to elect mayors ca.1216, even though the king refused for some decades to give official countenance to a mayor answerable to the community rather than to him. However, we must allow for the perception that the mayor was simply the successor of the reeve who had indeed taken a leading role in local government since Anglo-Saxon times. Historians do, on the other hand, concur that the great stone keep was probably built by Robert earl of Gloucester, although possibly to strengthen an earlier fortification.

An illustration of the swearing-in of the mayor-elect was made for inclusion in the mayor's register. I have elsewhere shown and interpreted this (on the hypothesis that it represents events of 1479). It is interesting to compare the outgoing mayor's valedictory speech with the recommendations on this subject by Latini, in section 5 of his treatise on the proper qualities and behaviour of rulers; although there are similarities, we cannot conclude with certainty that there was either a direct or indirect influence. There are other points of agreement between the two documents (e.g. upholding the rights of widows and orphans), but again this could reflect a common medieval attitude, rather than direct influence of Latini on English political thought.



"in the same attire"
The aim here was for the mayor-elect not to be outdressed by his fellows, as well as to indicate unity.

This would probably have been the Bible, although in some towns an unidentified book was kept for the specific purpose of oaths, while in others a register of the town liberties and ordinances may have been used.

An official responsible for investigating cases of escheat (lands forfeitable to the king for various reasons).

"county of Bristol"
Bristol obtained county status in 1373.

"accept nothing"
The inference here is probably to bribery, although the medieval line on this was slightly different to the modern one.

"see note"
The following passage, from "I shall be painstaking" to "the rights of every man" has been placed within parentheses by the editor, without explanation. This type of clause is quite unusual in oaths of urban officers, and possibly represents some kind of interpolation, although the reference to lollardries indicates the passage cannot be earlier than late 14th century, and the way in which the term is used suggests more an early to mid-15th century date. In the post-medieval period, there was a good deal of tinkering with the mayoral oath, and the medieval version is also likely to have undergone changes over time – the final clauses of the oath seem to evidence such.

"Ordinaries and Commissaries"
An ordinary was an ecclesiastical official whose office entailed ongoing administrative or judicial functions, while a commissary was someone delegated with such duties for a temporary period in order to address a specific circumstance (i.e. a commissioner). Both investigated cases of heresy.

In part because of the name Ricart proposed for this book (see above), there has bee speculation as to the nature of the Kalendars gild. Ricart is suspected to have himself been a lay brother of the gild, or otherwise employed by the church (All Saints) with which the gild was associated. The early history of this socio-religious gild is shrouded in legend; it may have had a role in educating converted Jews in Christian beliefs. A set of regulations for the gild, of which we have only a 15th-century copy, were said to have been approved by an early 13th-century Bishop of Worcester; these are remarkable more for their date (if genuine) than for demonstrating roles and activities other than were typically associated with socio-religious gilds. Its early existence, the fact it was primarily for priests but also open to lay townspeople, and its acquisition of property in Bristol may all help explain why local government seems to have taken it under its wing, and why the Little Red Book of Bristol incorporates copies of a number of records relating to the gild. In the 1460s it built a library – presumably to house a collection of documents that had been growing over time – which was open to public consultation. A post-medieval account of the gild stated that it served an archival function, holding the town records and those of other gilds across England, but this appears unfounded and perhaps a colourful misinterpretation of an inquisition of 1318 into the loss of the gild's own records. The application of Kalendars to the gild and to the mayor's register may simply be coincidence; the gild name may have derived from meetings held on the kalends of each month.

"see note"
The passage from "as well as" to "well and truly" has been placed within parentheses by the editor, without explanation, but possibly indicative of some interpolation. The sentence that follows repeats a promise already made.

"statute of the staple" "statute merchant"
The mayor was ex officio the executive officer of the staple organization (certain towns being designated as staples, viz. the requisite points through which certain goods had to be exported or imported, beginning in 1353), and again responsible ex officio for administration of the statute merchant, which provided an official venue before which recognizance could be made of mercantile debts.

The term derives from a wind instrument that was considered a kind of trumpet but perhaps was more similar to a shawm.

The place where the mayor and bureaucratic officers carried on the day-to-day business of the town.

"Red Book"
An extensive series of 14th century oaths of office are recorded in the Little Red Book ff.17-21; the editor of the published transcript, Francis Bickley, believed it to have been begun ca.1344. These oaths reflect the breadth of municipal bureaucracy and municipal responsibilities in a large town of this period; oaths are recorded for the mayor, bailiffs, stewards (financial officers), recorder (legal advisor), town clerk, clerk of the Tundere (the original borough court, its name a corruption of "hundred"), mayor's sergeants, king's sergeants (serving the bailiffs presiding in the Tundere), constables of the peace, coroner, sergeant of marine (supervising the quayside), testament provers (probably ad hoc rather than a formal office), gatekeepers, craft wardens, assayers of weights and measures, woad brokers (supervisors of commerce in this item), woad porters, toll collector, gaoler, wine porter, and common surveyor (supervisor of public works). For comparison with the version given by Ricart, the mayor's oath is as follows: "Now hear this, sir Constable and good people, that I A. de B. will be faithful and loyal to our lord king Edward and his heirs. To the best of my ability I shall faithfully protect and preserve this his town of Bristol for him and his heirs and for my lady Queen Philippa, to which lady this town has been granted for her lifetime. I shall preserve and firmly uphold the peace of this town to the best of my ability. I shall reprimand and discipline those who behave foolishly or commit wrongs, according to law and reason, to the best of my ability. I shall uphold and protect in the town the franchises and free customs that are good. Bad customs and errors I shall put aside and abolish, to the best of my ability. I shall to the best of my ability preserve, maintain and protect the rights of widows and orphans of this town. I shall to the best of my ability do right even-handedly to all folk, rich or poor, citizens or outsiders, without acting contrarily due to love, malevolence, or any other cause. And that I shall not grant the franchise, nor permit it to be granted, to any outsider without a fee of £10 being paid to the community, so help me God and his saints." (The last clause being an evident interpolation, which was later crossed out).

"third day"
Possibly inclusive.

"dedimus potestatem"
A royal writ delegating authority to the sheriff.

"execution of their duties"
This somewhat convoluted sentence (not atypical for documents in medieval legalese or bureaucratese) refers to the role of sergeants in enforcing court judgements via the collection of fines or restoration of goods or moneys awarded to a party; as this type of officer seems to have been particularly susceptible to bribery, it was common to require guarantors of good performance.

Several of the specific agreements are found in the Little Red Book, ff.77-90. Local governments were often given responsibility by testators for overseeing the maintenance of chantries, often in return for material rewards or benefits. Those agreements mentioned here that are in the Little Red Book date to the second half of the fourteenth century, while another on ff.157-59 is dated 1453; two agreements from the first half of the fourteenth century are not mentioned and the chantries were presumably no longer being maintained by Ricart's time.

I.e. the gild wardens, responsible for supervising the craft regulations and reporting irregularities to urban authorities.

"terms indicated in the Red Book"
Oaths of wardens of the weavers, girdlers, tanners, and shoemakers are found in the Little Red Book among the oaths of urban officials (see note above), and may have sufficed as models for the oaths of other craft wardens, mutatis mutandis.

"market court"
Our knowledge of the evolution of medieval Bristol courts is murky, but it is possible that the market court was a special session of the hundred court dealing with mercantile suits (perhaps piepowder) and may even have convened in or near the marketplace, where the Tolsey court was based.

"assizes and real actions"
Disputes involving real estate; assizes being a particular form of legal proceeding, involving a jury, to address certain types of disputes over property.

On a few occasions each year a general court session was held at which were bound to appear all who owed suit, i.e. anyone holding property within the town – unless it were of an independent franchise within the town boundaries, such as (in Bristol's case) the franchises of the Knights Hospitaller (known as the Temple Fee) and of St. Augustine's Abbey; as opposed to more regular court sessions where only parties involved in litigation were obliged to turn up. In some places, these general assemblies provided a convenient occasion for matters such as view of frankpledge, presentment of offences against the community (constables often taking responsibility for ward presentments), and the assizes of bread, ale.

"without any amercements"
This would appear to mean that the councillors (in that role) were not subject to amercement for failure to appear, unlike individuals who owed suit to the court (i.e. were obliged to bring any related complaints before this court, or similarly were answerable to any complaints or actions regarding, or responsible for any dues from, such property).

"affeering" "estreats"
The assessment of fines on the offences, usually undertaken by a jury of affeerors; the town clerk would then add the assessments to the court record, as well as compile a list of offenders and their fines (estreats) that the bailiffs' (king's) sergeants would use for collection and accounting purposes.

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

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