The Com­mune of the City

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Ian Stone

On 28 Oc­to­ber 1272 King Henry III (1216-72) lay dy­ing at West­min­ster Palace. His el­dest son, Ed­ward, re­turn­ing from cru­sade, was about to land in Si­cily. True, there was no cred­i­ble chal­lenger to this fear­some prince’s suc­ces­sion, for which prepa­ra­tions had al­ready been made; how­ever, there were, too, grounds for concern. Only one el­dest sur­viv­ing son, in the two cen­turies which had passed since the Nor­man Con­quest of Eng­land, had suc­ceeded peace­fully to his father’s throne. More­over, from 1263 to 1265 Eng­land had been torn apart by a civil war in which Henry and his brother Richard of Corn­wall, and their two el­dest sons, Ed­ward and Henry of Al­main, had been cap­tured and held prisoner by Si­mon de Mont­fort. As we shall see, the wounds from this war had yet fully to heal. Any me­dieval suc­ces­sion was an un­easy process and it must have been an anx­ious time for those on the king’s coun­cil.

But there was to be no peace that day for the fad­ing king. A great crowd of Lon­don­ers had chased their al­der­manic gov­er­nors from the London Guild­hall and had burst into West­min­ster Hall. From here their shouts that ‘we are the com­mune of the city and to us be­longs the elec­tion of the city’s mayor, and we def­i­nitely want Wal­ter Her­vey, whom we have elected, to be mayor’ eas­ily reached the royal cham­ber. In re­sponse, the al­der­men and their sup­port­ers claimed the right of elec­tion be­longed to them as they were the head of the body politic who sat in judge­ment in all le­gal cases heard in the city, whereas the pop­u­lace were just the limbs of the metaphor­i­cal body. They added, more­over, that be­cause many of the mob did not have lands or prop­er­ties within the city, or even that they were ‘sons of divers moth­ers’ and of servile sta­tus, they cared lit­tle or noth­ing for the city’s well­be­ing. The al­der­manic can­di­date for mayor was Philip the Tailor. No doubt pre­oc­cu­pied with the suc­ces­sion, fear­ful lest the king be fur­ther dis­turbed, and re­luc­tant to take sides in what to them was an in­ter­nal mu­nic­i­pal dis­pute, the king’s coun­cil sent all of the Lon­don­ers away, warn­ing Her­vey

and his sup­port­ers not to come to West­min­ster in such large num­bers again.

The ap­pear­ance of a mul­ti­tude of con­tend­ing Lon­don­ers at West­min­ster must have been par­tic­u­larly un­wel­come. The last time a great crowd of an­gry Lon­don­ers had come to West­min­ster Palace had been in the spring of 1267, when a mob had burst in, bro­ken doors, win­dows and chairs, and car­ried off what­ever they pos­si­bly could. West­min­ster, the site of his beloved abbey, was Henry’s favourite res­i­dence and the ab­bot of West­min­ster was a reg­u­lar re­cip­i­ent of royal pa­tron­age. This had led to fre­quent clashes be­tween the king and the Lon­don­ers through­out Henry III’s Per­sonal Rule (1234-58), as the cit­i­zens saw the king’s pa­tron­age of the vill out­side of the me­dieval city as a threat to their author­ity and priv­i­leges. Trou­ble had most com­monly arisen be­tween Henry and the Lon­don­ers, how­ever, in re­sponse to royal de­mands for sup­ply. The most shock­ing of these in­ci­dents had oc­curred in Jan­uary 1255 when the king had de­manded a tal­lage of 3,000 marks (£2,000) from the Lon­don­ers. Ralph Hardel, the mayor of London, sim­ply re­fused to pay and in­stead of­fered the king an aid of 2,000 marks (£1,333). More im­por­tant to the Lon­don­ers than the money was the prin­ci­ple: tal­lage was a tax which the king could levy at will, whereas an aid car­ried with it an im­pli­ca­tion of tax­a­tion by con­sent.

Fol­low­ing a two-week stand­off, the Lon­don­ers had backed down in 1255, but grudges were borne on both sides and in 1258 matters came to a head. In Fe­bru­ary of that year Henry sought his re­venge and re­moved all the al­der­men from their po­si­tions; he even had eight of them, in­clud­ing Hardel, charged with malfea­sance in the col­lec­tion of the 1255 tal­lage. Three months later, how­ever, Henry’s barons forced him to agree to re­forms more am­bi­tious even than Magna Carta in their scope, and it is no sur­prise that the Lon­don­ers, on the whole, sup­ported the re­form­ers. In 1263 civil war broke out and the Lon­don­ers, led by their pop­ulist mayor Thomas fitz Thomas, wel­comed the ba­ro­nial army into the city. In­deed, as Henry’s queen, Eleanor, at­tempted to flee the Tower of London for Wind­sor, she was pelted with stones, filth and eggs by a mob of Lon­don­ers atop London Bridge.

A year later the com­mune of London was joined by oath with the ba­ro­nial op­po­si­tion to Henry, led by Mont­fort, along­side whom at the Bat­tle of Lewes hun­dreds of Lon­don­ers fought, in which bat­tle Henry, his brother, son and nephew had been cap­tured. In re­turn for their sup­port, Mont­fort re­warded the Lon­don­ers by sum­mon­ing four rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the city to his fa­mous par­lia­ment of Jan­uary 1265, the first par­lia­ment to which lords, barons, knights and towns­men were all sum­moned. How­ever, on 4 Au­gust 1265, Mont­fort’s army was de­stroyed at the Bat­tle of Eve­sham and the Lon­don­ers im­me­di­ately felt the king’s wrath: lead­ing rebels were ar­rested and lost their prop­er­ties, a great many fled the city, and the cit­i­zens were sad­dled with a huge fine of 20,000 marks (£13,333).

It would be wrong, how­ever, to think that ev­ery Lon­doner had sup­ported Mont­fort. One who seems not to have done is Wal­ter Her­vey, the pop­u­lar choice for mayor in 1272. Her­vey’s ori­gins are ob­scure and it is hard to find ev­i­dence of his ca­reer prior to 1265. Nev­er­the­less, it seems cer­tain that Her­vey had been a mem­ber of the roy­al­ist party, for when London’s mayor, Thomas fitz Thomas – who could have had no ex­pec­ta­tions of mercy from a venge­ful king – was ar­rested and de­posed as al­der­man of the ward of Cheap in 1265, he was re­placed by Her­vey. There­after, be­tween 1265 and 1271, Her­vey was re­warded with a se­ries of royal ap­point­ments as bailiff, re­ceiver, es­cheator, sher­iff, and king’s cham­ber­lain (and there­fore ex of­fi­cio coroner) – all of London. Be­sides these roy­ally-ap­pointed of­fices, Her­vey had, too, ob­tained the high­est mu­nic­i­pal of­fice in the land, when he was elected, seem­ingly with­out any tur­moil, as mayor of London on 28 Oc­to­ber 1271. Her­vey had also re­ceived some mod­est gifts from his royal mas­ter: in 1267 two robes for him and his wife, Is­abelle, and the grant of a prop­erty in the parish of St Peter of Wood­wharf, in re­turn for a pay­ment of eighty marks; and in 1268 £10 from the mer­chan­dise of a con­victed felon and a £30 gift ‘of the king’s es­pe­cial grace and for losses sus­tained dur­ing the dis­tur­bance of the realm’.

Ev­i­dently, then, Her­vey was a man whom the king trusted ab­so­lutely. It is, there­fore, un­sur­pris­ing that be­tween 1267 and 1272 the king re­peat­edly charged Her­vey, along with oth­ers, to as­sess his fel­low cit­i­zens for the fine

of 20,000 marks. As es­cheator Her­vey ad­min­is­tered land that came into the king’s pos­ses­sion through the fail­ure of a line or when the heir was a mi­nor; as as­ses­sor he clearly had a great deal of power to pur­sue his fel­low cit­i­zens for money. Her­vey en­thu­si­as­ti­cally ex­e­cuted both of­fices. It was most prob­a­bly his zeal­ous ap­pli­ca­tion in these roles which saw the ma­jor­ity of his fel­low al­der­men turn against Her­vey. One of those now op­posed to Her­vey, and per­haps even one of those chased to West­min­ster in Oc­to­ber 1272, was the seventy-one-year-old al­der­man of Billings­gate Ward, Arnold fitz Thed­mar. Arnold was a wealthy mer­chant of Ger­man de­scent who held sev­eral mu­nic­i­pal of­fices, in­clud­ing as spokesman of London’s Ger­man mer­can­tile com­mu­nity and keeper of the city’s char­ters. He was also the au­thor and com­piler of a book which was the first book of its kind pro­duced in the Bri­tish Isles. This book is most fa­mous for its ‘Chron­i­cle of the May­ors and Sher­iffs of London’, which cov­ers the years 1188-1274. In a great age of monas­tic writ­ing, Arnold was the first lay­man in Bri­tain to com­pose a his­tor­i­cal ac­count of his times. In­deed, it is only thanks to Arnold’s 1600-word re­port of the 1272 may­oral elec­tion that we know any­thing of the events of that au­tumn in London.

Arnold recorded Her­vey’s first elec­tion as mayor in 1271 with­out any en­mity, which may sug­gest that at that point Her­vey had yet to arouse Arnold’s ire. Cer­tainly, Her­vey was ap­pointed to an­other com­mis­sion to pur­sue the ar­rears of the fine in July 1272, and it may well have been Her­vey’s be­hav­iour in that round of in­ves­ti­ga­tions that prompted Arnold to set down a 1700-word ac­count else­where in his book, in which Arnold showed that he had paid a to­tal of 132 marks and had been dis­charged from the obli­ga­tion to make any fur­ther pay­ments to­wards this orig­i­nal fine. Not­with­stand­ing his ex­emp­tions, Arnold then claimed that be­cause both Wal­ter Her­vey and his suc­ces­sor Henry le Wa­leys had sought to wring more money from him, he had twice been forced to ob­tain royal let­ters or­der­ing his fel­low cit­i­zens to de­sist from pur­su­ing him for money.

Arnold was far from the only lead­ing Lon­doner of the pe­riod to ob­tain royal im­mu­ni­ties from mak­ing fur­ther pay­ments to­wards the fine. How­ever much the wealth­ier cit­i­zens claimed to have paid, it must have riled the

poorer Lon­don­ers to wit­ness the richer cit­i­zens ob­tain­ing ex­emp­tions in this fash­ion. It is also clear that these ex­emp­tions cut lit­tle ice with Her­vey. His po­lit­i­cal man­i­festo was clear: use the dis­sat­is­fac­tion and anger of the poorer Lon­don­ers against their richer masters. Ac­cord­ing to Arnold, Her­vey promised the com­mon sort in 1272 that:

he would pro­tect each of them, through­out the en­tire term of his may­oralty, ex­empt from all tal­lages, ex­ac­tions and tolls, and that he would dis­charge all the city’s debts, owed both to the queen and to all oth­ers, out of the ar­rears [of the richer cit­i­zens] con­tained on the rolls of the city’s cham­ber­lain.

Arnold’s claims can be cor­rob­o­rated. In 1276 a ma­jor royal in­quiry known as the Hun­dred In­qui­si­tions saw ju­ries be­ing sworn in each of London’s wards to an­swer spe­cific ques­tions about tax­a­tion, juris­dic­tion and priv­i­leges. Jury-af­ter-jury de­clared that the al­der­men of London had op­posed Her­vey be­cause he had sought to pro­tect the poorer Lon­don­ers and to clear the ar­rears of the fine by chas­ing the ‘richer and more pow­er­ful cit­i­zens’. No won­der, then, that at the may­oral elec­tion of 1272, the ‘more dis­creet cit­i­zens’, in Arnold’s words, lined up against Her­vey.

The events of 28 Oc­to­ber were re­peated on an al­most daily ba­sis for the next three weeks. Dis­re­gard­ing the or­ders of the coun­cil, Her­vey ar­rived with an ‘in­nu­mer­able crowd’ both ‘on horse and on foot’ on 29 Oc­to­ber, and in­deed, each day un­til 11 Novem­ber. Ac­cused of seek­ing of­fice only for its own sake, Her­vey replied that mu­nic­i­pal of­fice was in fact a bur­den that he was will­ing to shoul­der in or­der to:

sup­port the poor cit­i­zens against the rich, who wanted to op­press them in tal­lages and ex­pen­di­tures in the city, for the love of God and char­i­ta­ble mo­tives.

On 11 Novem­ber an ex­as­per­ated royal coun­cil sug­gested set­ting aside both Her­vey and Philip the Tailor in favour of a royal cus­to­dian un­til the cit­i­zens could unan­i­mously agree upon a can­di­date. An at­tempt was then made to

find a con­sen­sus by elect­ing a panel of ten men, five from each party. Its ef­forts were in­ter­rupted on 16 Novem­ber, when King Henry died. On the next day the earl of Glouces­ter, the arch­bishop of York and many other mag­nates went to London to pro­claim the new king’s peace. Upon en­ter­ing the Guild­hall, they found Her­vey with a huge crowd of sup­port­ers. Shocked by the dis­cord and fear­ful of the con­se­quences for the peace of the city, the earl of Glouces­ter sug­gested that Her­vey should be ad­mit­ted as mayor. The al­der­men ob­jected and asked that the panel be al­lowed to com­plete its work. But the mag­nates had seen enough, and on 18 Novem­ber, in front of a host of Lon­don­ers out­side St Paul’s Cathe­dral, the arch­bishop and the earl of Glouces­ter, to­gether with sev­eral other mag­nates and coun­cil­lors pro­claimed that Her­vey should be mayor for one year only lest any­thing worse hap­pen in the city. One year later Her­vey was suc­ceeded peace­fully by Henry le Wa­leys.

But Her­vey’s en­e­mies were in no mood to be rec­on­ciled with their foe and now that Her­vey was no longer mayor, they could move against him. Arnold had al­ready ac­cused Her­vey of turn­ing a blind eye to the mis­deeds of London’s bak­ers, of ac­cept­ing bribes and of sus­pend­ing London’s court of Hust­ing to avoid an­swer­ing an ac­tion bought by Is­abella Buk­erel for a prop­erty which Her­vey had been granted. In De­cem­ber 1273 the al­der­men an­nulled char­ters which Her­vey had is­sued in favour of sev­eral of London’s crafts; they also had Her­vey at­tached by writ. In May 1274, a charge sheet against Her­vey de­tail­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of bribe-tak­ing, malfea­sance, the levy­ing of un­fair tal­lages, seal­ing false mea­sures and il­le­gal ac­tions in court was read out in the court of Hust­ing. Her­vey fought back in the man­ner he knew best. He en­gaged London’s lower or­ders and in June 1274 he brought the busi­ness at the Hust­ing Court to a halt. ‘ Wal­terus Hervy venit cum mul­ti­tu­dine max­ima’ recorded the scribe be­fore in­ter­rupt­ing his work. On this oc­ca­sion, how­ever, the king’s coun­cil sup­ported the al­der­manic party. Her­vey was de­feated. He was stripped of his al­der­manic of­fice and given a life ban from hold­ing of­fice within the city.

Was there any truth in the ac­cu­sa­tions against Her­vey? Cer­tainly, in 1276 a few of the Hun­dred ju­ries an­swered that Her­vey had acted un­fairly when

he ob­tained the prop­erty in the parish of St Peter of Wood­wharf; there were, too, ac­cu­sa­tions that he had favoured alien mer­chants. At an­other ju­di­cial in­quest of 1276 he also de­fended him­self against charges of seal­ing two false mea­sures. But there is no ev­i­dence that Her­vey was ever con­victed of any these charges. Per­haps he was a man who did in­deed ful­fil the du­ties of his of­fice ‘for char­i­ta­ble mo­tives’? What­ever the truth of the ac­cu­sa­tions against him, what is clear is that af­ter 1276 he dis­ap­peared not just from pub­lic life in London but also the his­tor­i­cal record. He was, per­haps, still alive in April 1279 when an al­lowance to Her­vey of £32 16s was re­con­firmed at the ex­che­quer, but this was just as likely is­sued for the ben­e­fit of his es­tate. We do not know when Her­vey died nor whether he was sur­vived by his wife or any chil­dren; his will was not en­rolled at London’s Hust­ing Court which may sug­gest he died out­side of the city. In the end his final days were as ob­scure as his be­gin­nings.

Her­vey was a pop­ulist who con­vinced the poorer Lon­don­ers that he could pro­tect their in­ter­ests against their richer masters. For a while he was suc­cess­ful, but in the end his en­e­mies over­came him and un­did the ma­jor­ity of his pro­gramme. But the events of au­tumn 1272 do al­low us to glimpse the ten­sions which ex­isted in thir­teenth-cen­tury London, ten­sions cer­tainly ex­ac­er­bated by the royal mulct of the Lon­don­ers af­ter 1265 which set cit­i­zen against cit­i­zen. But what is also clear is that for all of Arnold’s ful­mi­na­tions that ‘the al­der­men showed by many rea­sons that the elec­tion of the mayor be­longed to them, be­cause they were as though the head and the pop­u­lace were as though the limbs’, this was an ar­tic­u­la­tion of a hope rather than an ex­pec­ta­tion. In fact, there was plainly no set­tled elec­tion pro­ce­dure for London’s mayor. King John had granted to the Lon­don­ers, on 9 May 1215, that ‘we will and strictly com­mand, that our afore­said barons of our afore­said city of London may chose unto them­selves a mayor of them­selves, in man­ner and form afore­said’. No doubt the al­der­men would, there­fore, claim that they, as the barons of London, had the right to ‘chose unto them­selves a mayor for them­selves’, but that was not an in­con­tro­vert­ible claim. Where should this elec­tion take place? Who should de­cide the can­di­dates? Who, in­deed, were the barons of London? In the end it would take 200 years of fur­ther in­ter­mit­tent ac­ri­mo­nious and dis­or­derly

elec­tions be­fore an elec­toral pro­ce­dure would be fi­nalised, in 1475, which es­sen­tially re­mains the same to this day.

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