Last week Ellen Hawley wrote a post that mentioned medieval burgesses. I read it and wasn’t sure that I agreed with something that she quoted from a website that gave a definition of medieval burgesses. In my head and, I’m afraid, in my novel His Ransom, burgesses were the men who governed a town. This week’s research has shown that my earlier research was sorely lacking and I apologise now to anyone who has read the novel for the misinformation.
It’s true that governing bodies of towns were made up of burgesses, but burgess was not the title of a member of the governing body. A burgess was a free man who lived in a borough, paying rent to the lord of the manor. He was neither a serf nor a villein bound to a particular manor. Instead, he had many rights over the land he rented. Serfs and villeins were not eligible to become burgesses, even though some of them would have been able to afford the rent.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor could create a borough/town within their manor by making their tenants burgesses. Burgesses held a plot of land (usually less than half an acre) and paid a fixed rent for it. This meant that they didn’t have to provide agricultural services to the lord.
Their rights to this piece of land were quite extensive. They could sell it (or leave it to someone who would in turn become a burgess), sublet it or mortgage it. They also had the right to sell and buy goods in the town’s markets without having to pay tolls. This is what many of them ended up doing.
A borough was originally a centre for trade with a wall around it. Alfred the Great created many of them in the tenth century with the idea of having places that could be defended against the Vikings. This was in a time before castles first appeared in England. The borough’s walls and its soldiers provided protection for the market and its inhabitants.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor created boroughs and towns in order to have markets and fairs on their land, which would provide extra income for them. As well as the profit on the rents paid by the burgesses, it also gave the lord’s serfs and villeins somewhere nearby to sell and buy goods, paying tolls to him for the privilege, since they didn’t live in the town.
There were 100 boroughs in England in 1086. By 1300 there were over 500. Some of them had been created by various kings and some by abbeys, but most had been made by lords of the manor.
A burgess was eligible not just to sit on a town’s governing body, but he could also be selected to represent the town in a parliament. Parliament was not a permanent institution, but met for a few days (usually about a fortnight) more or less once a year, at least during the reign of Edward III, at the behest of the king. You’ll note that I use the word ‘selected’ rather than ‘elected’. The method of selection varied from town to town, but the representatives were usually selected by the other burgesses.
A very complicated selection system was used in King’s Lynn, where the mayor chose four burgesses who chose another four, then the eight selected another four. These twelve men selected the men they sent to parliament. There were also rules about which groups could provide the twelve men. The objective seemed to have been to ensure that the town’s representatives in parliament really did represent the views of those who ran the town. You’ll note again, that they weren’t representing the views of everyone in the town, but only those of the burgesses.
Over the years, burgesses tended to become wealthy men from trade. As a consequence, they were expected to look after the poor and infirm. They would, themselves, have seen this as a religious duty. They provided the money for hospitals and gave money to abbeys and friaries for the support of the poor and other good works. In Southampton they paid for a conduit to carry water from a spring about a mile outside the town down the hill and into the town. The photograph at the top of the post is the fourteenth-century Conduit House at the bottom of the hill, halfway between the spring and the town.
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corédon and Ann Williams
Medieval Southampton by Colin Platt
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.