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Winchester, for example, granted a charter to Weymouth (1252), conferring upon it the status of a free borough together with various rights and immunities 1. But it was rare to find an abbot enlightened enough to adopt, free from constraint, a liberal and progressive policy; and even the more statesmanlike among them were cramped in their efforts by the narrow conservatism of those over whom they ruled. When Abbot Sampson conceded a charter to the town of Bury St. Edmunds, his action evoked a storm of criticism on the part of the monks, and the subprior broke out angrily with the words, "That man, Abbot Ording, who lies there, would not have done such a thing for five hundred marks of silver" 2. Even when a charter was extorted from the fears or pecuniary needs of a monastery, its terms were far from generous. It is worth while to contrast two thirteenth-century charters, one conferred by a secular, the other by an ecclesiastical lord. Alan Basset, lord of Wycombe, granted his burgesses (1237) "all the borough of Wycombe with the rents, markets and fairs, and with all other things to a free borough pertaining, without any reservation "3. The abbot of the monastery at Peterborough released the town from tallage, merchet, carrying and reaping, but he reserved the pleas of the court and the rents of ovens and market tolls, and apparently also restrained his men from selling or alienating their land 4.
The reluctance of the ecclesiastical authorities to tolerate the slightest infringement of their liberties is vividly illustrated in the narrative of the mediaeval chronicler 5: "Herbert the dean built a windmill upon Haberdon. The abbot, when he heard of this, was so wroth that he would hardly eat or speak a single word. On the morrow, after mass, he bade the sacristan send his carpenters thither without delay and overturn everything". The dean therefore came before the abbot and protested that he
1 H. J. Moule, Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Documents (1883), 15. 2 Chronica Jocelini, 73. 3 Charters of Chepping Wycombe, 9.
Vict. County Hist. Northamptonshire, ii. 425.
5 Chronica Jocelini, 43.
The struggle for freedom.
was within his legal rights, but the abbot answered angrily,
On every hand there is abundant evidence to show how complete was the grasp of the Church over the towns on its domains. At Beverley 2 the archbishop controlled the administration of justice, exacted fines for the infringement of the laws, and brooked no competitor in the exercise of his authority. At Reading the monastery chose the mayor, decided the admission of new members to the gild, took from them a yearly tax for the right to buy and sell, and compelled the rest of the townsmen to give tolls. At Faversham the abbot appointed the bailiffs, heard the pleas in town, fair and market, and claimed a pre-emption
1 Registrum Abbatiae Johannis Whethamstede (Roll Series), i.
on all merchandise coming into town by land or sea; similar rights were asserted by the ecclesiastical lord of Bury St. Edmunds 1. The controversy between the men of Cirencester and the Church left the latter supreme in the sphere of trade and justice, while the townsmen were denied the power to sell or bequeath their land, and were burdened with succession duties, merchet fines and agricultural services at harvest-time 2. From generation to generation the burgesses of the towns carried on the struggle for municipal freedom, and the struggle was marked in every stage of its course by extreme violence and bitterness. The prior of Dunstable has left on record3 (1229) an account of his acrimonious relations with the burgesses, who eventually made preparations to abandon their homes. Undaunted by a threat of excommunication, they determined "to descend into hell altogether", rather than submit to the arbitrary taxes of the prior. Although the controversy went on throughout the centuries, the risings of the towns against ecclesiastical domination were specially frequent at times of civil commotion and political unrest. Local history took tone and colour from national history, and the crises that rent the state were made the occasions of municipal revolutions. In 1264 the men of Bury St. Edmunds took advantage of the disturbed relations between Henry III. and his barons to elect their own magistrates and close the town gates against the abbot. Another opportunity 5 came to them in 1327 when the country was torn by dissensions; and a great riot broke out in which the monastery was forcibly entered, its servants beaten and wounded, and the abbot and his monks carried off to prison; the assailants also "mowed the meadows, felled the trees, and fished the fish-ponds of the abbey, taking away the grass, trees and
1 Patent Rolls, 1301-1307, p. 283.
2 E. A. Fuller, "Cirencester: The Manor and the Town", in Trans. Bristol and Glouc. Archæol. Soc. ix. part i. 298, 300, 304.
• Annales Monastici (Roll Series), iii. 122. Se velle potius ad infernum
4 H. W. C. Davis, "The Commune of Bury St. Edmunds", in English Hist. Review, xxiv. 315. It had received a charter from the abbot in 1194: Chronica Jocelini, 57.
5 Patent Rolls, 1327-1330, pp. 213-214.
Triumph of the Church.
fish". These acts of violence were repeated at Abingdon 1, where a multitude of persons "in warlike manner" besieged the abbey, burned the gates, carried away church ornaments and charters, and compelled the abbot to concede to the town its own reeve and bailiffs. The disaffection of the towns formed a considerable element in the Peasants' Revolt (1381), and they availed themselves of the disorder to vent their grievances. The men of Bury St. Edmunds 2 were expressly excluded from the king's pardon on account of their part in the insurrection, although in 1384 they were pardoned on condition of finding sureties for their good behaviour to the abbot. The deposition of Richard II. again divided the nation into rival factions. The men of Cirencester favoured the cause of Henry IV., and headed by the bailiff seized the leaders, the earls of Kent and Salisbury, and beheaded them in the streets without any pretence at legal process 3. This exploit earned for them the commendation of Archbishop Arundel 4, and they proceeded to bind themselves by oath to withdraw their services from the abbot, refusing to send their corn to his mills or to pay his tolls. Protected by the royal favour, they were able to defy the abbot with impunity, and the king granted them a gild merchant, with the control of their trade and market, and a court to settle disputes. But the abbot bided his time, and on the accession of Henry V. obtained the annulment of the gild, and the townsmen returned to their obedience 5.
The towns were not isolated in their struggle to achieve independence. The assailants of Abingdon Abbey in 1327, for example, were drawn from Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and in particular a large number were citizens of Oxford. There appear to be no indications that English towns ever formed confederacies for their mutual support after the
1 Patent Rolls, 1327-1330, p. 222. A narrative of "The Risings in the English Monastic Towns in 1327" is given by N. M. Trenholme in American Hist. Review, vi. 650-670. 2 Rot. Parl. iii. 118 a, 170 b.
3 J. H. Wylie, Henry the Fourth (1884), i. 98.
4 Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. part i. App. 111; he praises the sancta
Trans. Bristol and Glouc. Archæol. Soc. ix. part i. 330, 335, 337.
manner of continental towns 1, but there are signs of sporadic co-operation. We also get occasional glimpses of the process by which their efforts after emancipation forced on the townsmen the recognition of the need for corporate action. The men of Bury St. Edmunds 2 assessed themselves for a sum of money to maintain their contest with the abbey, and we may infer that in other towns also a growing sense of corporate consciousness was fostered by the pressure of like circumstances. None the less it is clear that in the long conflict between the Church and the towns under its control, the former almost invariably gained the upper hand. The towns, with their relatively scanty and feeble resources, were powerless in the face of influential corporations which were fortified by knowledge and experience, and backed by material wealth and spiritual forces. Moreover, the influence of the Crown was often brought to bear upon the side of the Church 3, and the townsmen might well hesitate to disregard the king's injunction to "alter their demeanour and bear themselves otherwise if they would escape his most grievous anger" 4. Everywhere the issue of the struggle was to all appearance in the Church's favour. The disputes between the citizens of Salisbury and the bishop 5 ended in the complete submission of the former (1495), and in praying permission to institute the office of coroner they were constrained to employ the most humble address. A similar fate overtook the men of St. Albans. As early as 1327 they had set up the claim to use their own mills in fulling cloth, and upon the abbot's refusal to tolerate their demand they besieged the monastery for ten days, and extorted a charter conferring the right to hold their own court and appoint their own bailiff. But three years later came the turn of the wheel of fortune, and the Church again entered
1 Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 106; Green, Town Life, i. 384, 385, 416. 2 Patent Rolls, 1327-1330, p. 213.
3 A royal charter to Wells was annulled when found to conflict with the rights of the bishop: Hist. MSS. Comm. Wells, i. 261.
Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. App. iii. 188; writ to mayor of Lynn (temp. Edw. III.). But, on the other hand, even Henry III. threatened the church of York with a "heavy revenge": F. Drake, Eboracum (1736), 557. 5 Hist. MSS. Comm. Various Collections, iv. 206-210.
6 J. Thompson, An Essay on English Municipal History (1867), 21-31.