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|1388 (Feb.)||John Bonet|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Thorne|
|1390 (Jan.)||Thomas Brocas|
|1397 (Jan.)||John Gatyn|
|1397 (Sept.)||Robert Chesenhale|
|1402||Robert atte Mille|
|1404 (Jan.)||John Gatyn|
|1413 (May)||Ralph Wimbledon|
|1414 (Nov.)||William Waterman|
|William Weston III|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Hipperon|
|William Weston III|
|1421 (May)||Thomas Waller|
|John Gregg 1|
|1421 (Dec.)||Thomas Waller|
Although its early history remains obscure, Guildford had clearly achieved considerable importance as a market centre by the mid tenth century, by which time it had become one of the two towns in Surrey to possess a mint. Geographical factors hastened this development and ensured continued prosperity during the later Middle Ages. The original settlement had grown up as a fording place over the Wey and, because of its strategic position in a gap in the chalk uplands, it was able to command the main line of communication across England south of the capital. Most of the traffic passing through Surrey, particularly that moving between London and the coast, travelled along the ‘Great Way’ or via regia, and thus greatly stimulated Guildford’s commercial expansion.2 The proximity of London none the less proved something of a mixed blessing, since the northern part of the county was dominated by the thriving suburb of Southwark, which throughout our period remained the richest and most populous of the Surrey boroughs. Indeed, despite its comparative size—with about 630 inhabitants recorded in the Domesday survey—Guildford cannot have begun to assert its influence as a county town until the surrounding expanses of heath and woodland had been colonized during the 12th century. Even as late as 1332 its taxable population of 105 was lower than that of either Kingston-upon-Thames or Southwark, where 163 and 114 persons respectively were then assessed as taxpayers.3
This is not to suggest that Guildford’s very obvious economic advantages were not exploited to the full. The burden of supplying the royal household may well have been resented by the townspeople and local farmers, but the frequent visits to Guildford palace made by King John and his son, Henry III, undoubtedly proved a great stimulus to both trade and agriculture. So too did the growth of the clothing industry, for which Guildford was in every respect an ideal centre, possessing all the natural resources for the production of high-quality cloth, with ready access to both foreign and domestic markets. From the beginning of the 14th century, if not before, herds of sheep had been reared commercially on the chalk downs; the discovery of fuller’s earth in large quantities at Nutfield in Surrey, and the abundant supply of water-power to drive the fulling mills, made it possible not only to weave but also to finish cloth locally. Many of the Flemish weavers encouraged to settle in England by Edward III chose to practice their trade in, or near, the borough, with the result that, by 1391, the ‘Guildford cloths’ produced there and elsewhere in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire were famous throughout the country. At this time the weavers, anxious to maintain their reputation as skilled craftsmen, successfully petitioned against the dishonest practices of fullers who had been stretching—and therefore weakening—the untreated cloth.4 Yet whatever antagonism existed between the two trades, both continued to prosper, and Guildford seems to have escaped the period of recession which affected many English towns during the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
Guildford had been recognized as a borough by 1130, and soon afterwards the burgesses were commanded to exempt traders from the two neighbouring townships of Chiddingfold and Catteshall from paying the customary tolls and customs. Further evidence of urban growth may be found in the substantial aids paid by the townspeople to the Crown during the late 12th century and the existence of a small but wealthy Jewish community at Guildford during King John’s reign. From 1235 onwards the borough was represented by its own jury at the eyre, but it was not until 1257 that the burgesses obtained two royal charters, the first granting them freedom from arrest for the debts of others, and the second the right to have the county court held in their town. The court had, in fact, been meeting at Guildford for the previous century at least. Guildford castle had probably served as gaol for the two counties of Surrey and Sussex from 1202, if not before, and it played an important part in the history of Guildford during the 13th century. The site had been fortified since the Conquest, and was subsequently enlarged, so that by 1246 it could be used as an administrative centre and a royal residence. Extensive alterations and improvements were made to the buildings, which comprised Henry III’s palace, although his descendants were less regular visitors there, and they allowed the fabric of both the palace and the royal manor-house in Guildford park to fall into a general state of decay. Even during King Henry’s lifetime, the townspeople had begun illicitly to enclose large areas of the surrounding demesne; and by 1379 it was found necessary to remove the fallen timber and rubble which made the manor-house uninhabitable. Six years later a quantity of lead was taken from the castle roof for use elsewhere, and by then even the dungeons were no longer secure. Perhaps this was why, in November 1406, the inhabitants of Guildford were required to pay a heavy fine for the escape of a prisoner: such events must have been common.5
The charters of 1257 were meanwhile confirmed by Edward III in 1341, when the burgesses secured the valuable privilege of freedom from tolls previously leviable upon their merchandise throughout the country, together with the right to hold a fair lasting five days annually at the feast of Holy Trinity. This date proved unsuitable because of local competition, and from 1347 onwards the Guildford fair was held during the week after Whit Sunday. The burgesses had long possessed a significant degree of independence where the government of the borough was concerned, but only in 1366 did they begin paying their own fee farm of £10 p.a. into the Exchequer. A commission was set up in March of that year to inquire into the issues and profits hitherto collected by a series of royal nominees, and in the following October the fifth of Guildford’s charters, formally recognizing both the mode of levy of the fee farm and the ancient customs of the guild merchant, was awarded by the Crown. The mayor and bailiffs also acquired the judicial powers necessary for them to administer the borough courts without any form of outside intervention. The unpopularity of the ruling body, composed of senior members of the guild merchant, may well have been partly responsible for the serious disturbances which shook Guildford during the Peasants’ Revolt. Very little is known about events in Surrey during the spring and summer of 1381, although discontent ran high throughout the county and there were many cases of riot and arson. This was so at Guildford, where the mob followed its usual practice of destroying all charters, muniments and other documents likely to contain evidence of repressive customs. Copies of the royal charters were eventually made in 1383 upon payment of 22s.4d. and confirmed in the following year, but the other records could not be replaced. At least two of the ringleaders were Guildford men, and both were summarily executed after the rising; the county gaol was so full of prisoners that one escaped and others had to be transferred to the earl of Arundel’s castles at Arundel and Lewes. None the less, whereas sporadic outbreaks of disorder continued in Surrey for the next few years, law and order was soon restored within the borough itself.6
The guild merchant was already established as the main organ of government in Guildford by 1256, when the freemen of Kingston-upon-Thames were given permission to organize their own fraternity along similar lines. During the 14th century and probably long before, new members obtained admission to the guild upon payment of a modest fine, although some, perhaps the wealthier burgesses, were expected to provide a feast for the assembled company and lay on a display of bull-baiting. Great care was taken over the choice of a suitable animal, and sometimes the guild insisted that new entrants should offer securities before the spectacle took place. In practice, membership seems to have been dependent upon residence in Guildford, although a few London merchants and influential tradesmen, such as John Gatyn, were accepted because of their close commercial contacts with the borough. Guild meetings for the election of officials were held annually, either at Michaelmas, which was always the case after 1413, or during the first two weeks of October. These were festive occasions, as can be seen both from the expenditure on food and drink and the number of officials (including four butlers, two keepers of the hall and a marshal) concerned with social rather than administrative affairs. The task of running the guild, and therefore the borough itself, lay with their senior colleagues, the mayor (or seneschal), the town clerk and, from 1366, the bailiff, who was responsible for the payment of the fee farm and had to present an account of his receipts and expenses every Michaelmas. Four farthingmen, two constables, two ale tasters and a bridge warden were also elected from time to time.7
A court, known locally as ‘the piepowder court’ was held every three weeks in the borough, and the profits, together with the customary tolls on brewers, tanners and butchers, were collected by the bailiff as part of his farm. Other revenues came from the mayor’s annual view of frankpledge, which took place at Easter, giving the authorities the opportunity to enforce commercial and disciplinary regulations. Two such views, or courts leet, met every year during the 16th century, and it may well be that the second, on the Monday after Hilary, also had its origins in the medieval period. A number of regular charges were made directly upon the funds of the guild merchant, which were augmented by contributions from the members themselves. The latter appear to have exercised careful control over their finances, particularly in the case of MPs’ expenses: in 1361, for example, the commonly-accepted rate of 2s. a day hitherto paid to the parliamentary burgesses of Guildford was halved in an attempt to husband the guild’s resources.8 This desire for economy perhaps explains why, during the period under review, John Gatyn, a fishmonger and citizen of London, was most frequently of all chosen to represent Guildford in Parliament. Being for most of the time in London on business, he was no doubt prepared to accept such frugal remuneration.
Guildford had first sent representatives to Parliament in 1295, and continued to do so regularly from then onwards. Returns survive for 24 of the 32 Parliaments held between 1386 and 1421, the rest having been lost. The number of burgesses definitely elected during this period is 27, of whom, so far as is known, 13 sat only once, seven no more than twice, and three (Thomas Brocas, John Thorne and Thomas Waller) three times. Both William Weston III and John Bonet represented Guildford in four Parliaments as young men, and both went on to become shire knights towards the end of their careers. Bonet’s service as a parliamentary burgess began in 1385 and ended in 1399, but it was not until 1414 (Apr.) that the electors of Surrey first selected him, doing so again seven years later. Weston’s parliamentary career was also spread out over a long period. He sat for Guildford four times between 1415 and 1431 and waited a further 16 years before representing the county just once in 1447. Only two other Guildford MPs possessed so much knowledge of the parliamentary scene. Robert Chesenhale sat six times for the borough over two decades, although only twice during our period. His colleague, John Gatyn, attended eight of the 16 Parliaments for which returns have survived between 1385 and 1404 (Jan.), being re-elected in 1397 (Jan.) and 1401. Similar instances of re-election are known to have occurred in 1390 (Jan.) and 1421 (Dec.), when Robert Vinter and Thomas Waller, respectively, were returned to consecutive Parliaments. The burgesses of Guildford would no doubt have preferred to choose men with previous experience, but circumstances were beginning to work against them. This is evident from the striking change in the pattern of borough representation which took place at the beginning of the 15th century. In eight of the 15 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1404 (Jan.), both MPs are known to have sat before, and in four only one of the Members was an apparent newcomer to the Commons. Not until 1402 were two novices returned together, but after this date the practice became more frequent. Gaps in the returns make it impossible to speak with complete certainty about the parliamentary careers of the MPs who sat for Guildford between 1404 (Oct.) and 1421 (Dec.), although the borough appears to have been represented by two newcomers at six of the Parliaments which met during this period, and by one novice sitting with a more experienced colleague at a further four: only once, in 1421 (Dec.) are both Members known to have served on a previous occasion.
The elections themselves probably took place, as was later the case, at the county court meeting in Guildford. The more influential burgesses—and several of the men who represented them—invariably attended the court to attest the return of the shire knights, so it seems likely that the borough elections were held at about the same time. Nothing is known of the procedure involved, since very brief composite returns for either the Surrey and Sussex boroughs, or, occasionally, the four Surrey boroughs alone, were made in list form throughout our period. In 1488, the elective assembly was reduced to a body of 30 approved men, which suggests that previously it had comprised all, or at least a substantial number, of the members of the guild merchant.9
Four of the 27 parliamentary burgesses returned for Guildford between 1386 and 1421 remain unidentified, and were probably quite obscure local men. At least 14 of the rest are known to have lived in the borough for all or part of their lives, while the two London tradesmen, John Gregg and John Gatyn, bought up tenements and did business there as well as in the capital. Ten of the local residents (besides Gatyn, who acquired various holdings in Surrey over the years) either leased or purchased other property in the neighbouring manors of Stoke, Artington, Compton and Godalming. Some of them may have been farmers, although most were no doubt supplementing their incomes as tradesmen or shopkeepers by producing foodstuffs for sale in the borough. Robert atte Mille claimed to have been robbed of stock and grain worth over £40 from a close in Stoke, near Guildford; and at least four of his fellow burgesses, Robert Chesenhale, John Cross, Richard Eton and Richard Woking, were also men of substance who had established themselves as landowners elsewhere in Surrey. Chesenhale and atte Mille in particular fall into the category of country gentlemen and potential shire knights to which five and possibly all seven of the ‘outsiders’ who represented the borough during our period also belonged. Thomas Brocas, William Weston III and John Bonet were members of county families long prominent in local politics and administration: Brocas possessed the strongest personal connexion with the townspeople of Guildford, having entered the guild merchant when young, but with estates respectively at Compton, Ockham and Ockley, none of the three men lived more than a few miles from the borough. The same is true of Thomas Ingram, whose compact bloc of smallholdings, farms and tenements lay immediately to the south-east in Shere. Even Ralph Wimbledon, perhaps the wealthiest of the five, had accumulated a considerable amount of property in this area, adding to it through a series of shrewd purchases as he grew richer. Unlike his colleagues, however, he occupied land outside the county in Suffolk and Middlesex which he farmed for the Crown. Wimbledon and Ingram sat only once for Guildford; and even though Bonet and Brocas between them were returned to seven Parliaments between 1385 and 1404 (Jan.), it is evident that the burgesses’ choice more often fell upon residents. Most of these were probably involved in either the weaving or the victualling trades: Henry Colas was an innkeeper, John Gatyn a fishmonger and John Gregg a grocer. Only one of the inhabitants proper, John Hipperon, is known to have been a lawyer, although some of his colleagues may well have belonged to the same profession. What little evidence there is, however, suggests that the majority of the Guildford MPs had commercial rather than legal interests.
The loss of guild merchant records for the period 1378 to 1413 makes it impossible to discover exactly how many of the parliamentary burgesses held office in the borough, but at least four of them served as mayor and two as bailiff. Richard Woking, the only MP to be made successively bailiff, town clerk and mayor after 1413, held the second of these offices twice and the third three times. His two elections, to the Parliaments of 1420 and 1421 (Dec.), fell between his first and second mayoralties and came towards the end of a distinguished and active career. Part of this had been spent as bailiff of the bishop of Salisbury’s liberty in the county of Surrey, but unlike Robert Chesenhale, who was made constable of Farnham castle by William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester, in 1379, Woking did not enter the Commons while actually in the employment of a prominent local landowner. Chesenhale, on the other hand, represented Guildford in four Parliaments as one of Bishop Wykeham’s estate staff, a position which gave him considerable standing in the community.
No less than nine of the MPs sitting for Guildford during our period became involved in the business of government administration at various levels: six were appointed to royal commissions, and five acted as tax collectors in the shire at large. Ralph Wimbledon had gained experience as under sheriff of Surrey and Sussex before being elected in May 1413. John Hipperon’s second return to Parliament in 1422 took place while he was serving as clerk of the peace for Surrey, but he alone held an office of the Crown when elected. Both Richard Eton and William Weston III were coroners of Surrey before their removal on the ground that they lacked the necessary qualifications. Weston was later made escheator of Surrey and Sussex, a post previously occupied by Robert atte Mille and Ralph Wimbledon. Atte Mille, possibly the wealthiest and certainly the most influential resident of Guildford during the late 14th century, alone became a j.p., sitting on the Surrey bench during his term as sheriff of both Surrey and Sussex.