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POLITICS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Leicester mayor election disturbances electoral procedures voting rights restrictions order assemblies council ruling class solidarity slander political conflict

Subject: Rules for orderly procedure at elections
Original source: Borough archives, Hall Book, p.226
Transcription in: Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1901), vol.2, 286.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Leicester
Date: 1467


The mayor and his colleagues have been informed, in writing and by other means, that our sovereign lord the king and certain of his nobles have learned of various inappropriate behaviours, particularly among the community of this town, that took place in times past at their Common Halls. They have been so displeased by the same that, unless a remedy is found, it is likely to result in the permanent loss and undoing of the principal liberties and franchises of this town, which God forbid! Not only that, but such rumours and talk are spreading throughout the country that, as they grow, are likely to reflect dishonourably on and to the discredit of the body of this town and every member of the same.

To remedy and correct that situation, this act and ordinance was conceived and proposed through the counsel, deliberation, and judgement of mayor Richard Gillot and all his colleagues then [in office] in the town of Leicester, with the general and freely given assent, consent, and agreement of all the commons of the town assembled together.

At a communal assembly held at Leicester on 16 October 1467, during the mayoralty of Richard Gillot, by the assent and agreement of the mayor and his colleagues and all the commons who where present there, it is ordained, agreed, established and enacted in the following form that, if any person or persons enter and remain within the gildhall while any communal assembly is being held, or shall be held, including the day of electing the mayor along with all other communal assemblies, unless they are enfranchised (that is, have entered the Chapman's Gild), then he or they, every one of them, is forthwith to be committed to prison at the mayor's command. To remain there for 40 days, at the mayor's pleasure, paying 40d. to the chamberlains then in office towards town revenues before he can be released from prison, without remission or pardon of any part [of this sentence].

It is also ordained, agreed and enacted that if any person or persons, no matter what his status or authority, calls out the name of one of the mayor's colleagues for the office of mayor, prior to the mayor commanding the [town] crier to cry a "Hear ye!" and to read out the ordinance made previously, and declaring the right to hold an election, and discharging his duties in this regard according to the ancient custom long-time used, he shall pay a similar penalty and fine as indicated above.

If any person, no matter what his status, acts contrary [to proper procedures] at any communal assembly, at every instance he shall be fined 6s.8d [payable] to the chamber and levied by the chamberlain then in office, and shall also be imprisoned for 40 days at the mayor's pleasure.

Should it happen that any mayor, at any communal assembly held during the term of his mayoralty is believed and known for certain to be negiglent in carrying out these ordinances according to the terms specified above, then every time that this comes about the mayor is to forfeit 20s. to the chamber, which is to be deducted by the chamberlains from the mayor's salary, and duly accounted for at the time they present their accounts of the town revenues.


By this period in Leicester's history, the Merchant Gild on which the burgesses had originally relied as an agency for furthering their ambitions, expressing group will, and exercising internal discipline, along with the borough portmanmoot, had long since given way to instruments of mayoral administration, notably to the Common Hall as the local legislative organism. This community meeting was dominated by the mayor and his "Brethren of the Bench" (a reference to their judicial functions), meaning the 24 jurats or comburgesses; it is significant that the titles "brethren", as applied originally to gildsmen, and "burgesses" were now obtaining a special meaning associated with those townsmen of status and power, to whom decision-making was becoming increasingly restricted. After 1464, when Edward IV granted the town the right to choose local justices of the peace, their sessions in their turn began to draw business away from the mayor's court, although this did not disempower the mayor as he was an ex officio member of that Bench; since the J.P.s were to be elected from the "more discreet" of the 24, it simply created a new elite within the existing elite in local government. They also took over functions formerly exercised by the populace through frankpledge juries.

In October 1466, the town authorities ordered that henceforth only residents who were enfranchised (i.e. those who had, by purchase or birthright, membership in the Merchant Gild) could come into the gildhall, or mayor's hall, during a Common Hall session, upon penalty of imprisonment. The remaining portmanmoot characteristic of the Common Hall, allowing any member of the community to attend when the most important items of business were addressed, was thus purged. A year later the ordinance given above insisted and expanded upon this restriction, suggesting that the original may have met with resistance or non-compliance; the ordinance opens with an attempt at a justification, bearing a veiled threat of royal intervention and loss of the borough liberties, perhaps indicating that opponents included enfranchised townsmen more likely to suffer from such an outcome.

Further implication of political disharmony is seen in 1477, when mayor John Reynolde had an ordinance issued requiring "that none of the Brethren should in relation to any matter or issue in any way, privately or publicly, criticize, censure, or slander any of their fellows, by word or by action, but that all of them, whether inside or outside [the common hall] speak well of each other" [Bateson, 298], upon penalty of a fine or, if refusing to submit to discipline, expulsion from the council. If there were a dispute between any of the brethren, they were to submit it to the binding arbitration of the mayor and the masters of Corpus Christi gild. The brethren were also instructed to do their utmost to speak only favourably of the mayor, and to act against anyone speaking ill of him. Furthermore they were ordered not to disclose to anyone the matters discussed privately by the council, particularly as regarded elections of mayor or parliamentary burgesses. It was in this year that the mayor transferred to the brethren the co-optation of new members to fill vacancies in their number, and the earliest Book of the Mayoralty, recording business meetings of mayor and council, was also begun this year – a further indication of changes afoot.

Again in 1484 we hear of troublemakers in Leicester – this time a wide range, including rumour-mongers, vagabonds, brawlers, rioters, and whores – in the context of measures to impose greater order, by dividing the town into twelve wards (a change from the four quarters previously existing) and having twelve of the Brethren given the status of ward aldermen to deal with such offenders. While this initiative can be seen in the context of a disturbed nation, it has its own significance given the general direction being taken at Leicester. The aldermen were given summary powers over anyone breaking the peace and could bring offenders before the mayor without the need to resort to the older, inefficient method of presentment in the leet court; they were also each assigned a constable to enforce their orders. A set of ordinances in 1488 continues the theme with prohibitions against any townsman prosecuting another in any court but the mayor's, and in penalties set for brawling in a variety of circumstances.

In 1489 a further step was taken towards keeping order at meetings of the borough authorities, and towards quashing community participation in assemblies, resulting in the substitution of a lower council in place of public attendance. The Common Hall, as a vehicle for community consultation, completed the transition to what we know today as a town council. At the beginning of that year an act of Parliament had been prompted by alleged disputes in corporate boroughs – Northampton and Leicester being mentioned specifically, and both towns put a copy of the act into their local archives – blamed on the participation of:

"such a multitude of residents who are of little means or self-control and lacking in gravity, judgement, wisdom or reason, who often outnumber in assemblies others who are known to be judicious, serious and well-behaved, [and who] have by sheer numbers and through faction, interjections, and headstrong behaviour carried out in the assemblies caused serious problems, disunity, and discord among themselves."
[C. Markham, The Records of the Borough of Northampton, 1898, vol.1, 101-02]
The act required the creation of a body of 48 of the wiser, more judicious and well-behaved townsmen to participate in elections in lieu of the community at large.

An order from Henry VII in July, perhaps obtained by the corporation to strengthen its hand in implementing the change, stated that:

"We have been informed that at every election of the mayor there, or of burgesses for parliament, or at the assessment of any legitimate taxations, the commonalty of our town, both poor and rich, have assembled at your Common Hall. And that certain persons who are of little means or intelligence and who contribute nothing – or very little – towards the costs incurred in such activities, have involved themselves through their interjections and headstrong behaviour, to the subversion not only of the good government of our town but potentially to frequent breaches of the peace and other nuisances, increasing the misery and causing the downfall and decline of our town, and greatly discouraging you the governors there. To reform the same, with the intent that good government and stable order may be ensured there henceforward, we wish and directly instruct and command you, the mayor, bailiff, and 24 comburgesses of our town, both presently in office and to come in the future, that at all communal congregations and assemblies held there in the future, whether for the election of the mayor, of the justices of the peace, and of the burgesses for parliament, or for the assessment of any legitimate taxations or other purpose, you together choose and summon to join you our bailiff of the town and only 48 of the wisest and most reliable commoners who are residents there, according to your discretion, and no more. And [all of] you are then to deal with and resolve all matters that arise among you, according to what your reason and conscience tell you is most just and expedient."
[Bateson, 324-25]

It must have been at this time that the town clerk revised the ordinance of 1467, replacing "unless they are enfranchised (that is, have entered the Chapman's Gild)" with "except those who are members of the 48". The view that townsmen of lesser status were unfit to participate, in even the slightest way, in local decision-making is explicit here, but implicit in the ordinance of 1467. Furthermore, the 48 were not even to be chosen by the community they were intended to represent, and they probably had little real power, compared to the 24.

As was the case in several if not many towns, when the role of the community at large in local government began to be formally hemmed in or excluded entirely, Leicester experienced an outbreak of popular opposition. We need not see this as an expression of pure democratic sentiment, given that the townspeople had for over a century and longer been quite content to leave most of the power and decision-making in the hands of a relative few of the leading citizens. But the undermining of the principle of community authority, removing the element of choice to participate or not, must have been disquieting to some, who were prepared to excite the populace on the issue. That disquiet could have been occasioned by the concern that a closed corporation might the more easily be dominated by a particular interest group – the group in power at the time; we cannot discount the possibility of faction within the ruling group, as was a factor in the political conflict at London, Lynn and elsewhere.

One of the chamberlains of the 1488/89 year, William Burdet, was a ringleader and was evidently agitating for a renewed communal role in the mayoral election; although disciplinary measures had been taken against him, they had not been effective – he was still seen as a threat a few days prior to the election, when the members of the 24 were obliged to take an oath that they would not accept the mayoralty (or any other office) should the community tried to hold a rogue election, upon penalty of dismissal from the council. The anticipation of trouble was well-founded, for on 21 September 1489 the town council elected a mayor, and the community elected another, Thomas Toutheby, who evidently accepted the election despite the oath taken. This impasse was resolved in a fashion similar to that at Lynn in 1414 and 1415: the king's intervention was solicited, and he appointed someone other than the two rival nominees. Since his choice was to continue the mayor of the previous year in office, Thomas Davy, it was tantamount to a victory for the closed corporation.

That it was not until 21 September 1490 that the corporation moved to expel Toutheby from the council – Davy's final official act before vacating the mayoralty, in which reference was made to Reynolde's ordinances of 1477 – suggests either that a false spirit of reconciliation had been maintained in the interim, or that Toutheby's faction had continued its opposition. At the same time, financial penalties were imposed on anyone who in the future refused to accept election (by the council) as mayor or chamberlain. We know of no further resistance to the closing of the corporation, eliminating the right of participation (however little practised) of the community in local decision-making.



The original has brethren, meaning his peers in government, the councillors.

"Chapman's Gild"
The merchant gild, which was in Leicester the community of freemen.

"ordinance made previously"
Possibly this means the ordinance of October 1466, but more likely the restatement of that ordinance made in the document above.

"Corpus Christi gild"
The gild had a close connection with the borough government; at this period it is likely that most members of the corporation were also brethren of the gild; by the close of the century the Common Hall was being held in the the gild's hall.

Although in 1375 the burgesses had obtained the right from the borough's seigneurial lord to elect each year a pair of bailiffs, this had not been obtained in perpetuity. In the mid-1430s, the lord (now the king) had resumed this right and was appointing a single bailiff for multi-year terms.

"Thomas Toutheby"
He had already held the mayoralty once; perhaps significantly, in the year following Reynolde's term. The prominence this gave him resulted in him being one of the local J.P.s for a few years and among the first aldermen appointed in 1484.

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

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