COLCHESTER IN THE EARLY FIFTEENTH CENTURY
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Colchester in the early fifteenth century, with a population of perhaps eight thousand people, was as large as it ever became during the Middle Ages. Between the 1350s and the 1390s it had benefited more than most towns from the rise of English clothmaking, and as industry and trade had grown there so had the number of immigrants from surrounding villages and market towns. Colchester's speciality was woollen cloth of russet colour - that is, of grey, grey-brown or tawny - manufactured to a standard which was beyond the means of the poor but not sufficiently fine for the rich. Most of the town's wealthiest inhabitants were involved at some point in organising the manufacture or sale of cloth, and many less well-to-do households engaged in the necessary manual operations of spinning, dyeing, weaving, washing, fulling and shearing (1). In the following pages this scene of industry and newly acquired wealth will be described as it appeared on August 18th 1412. This was the feast of St Helen, but in other respects it was an ordinary Thursday in summer.
Such a portrait is possible through the records kept by the borough administration of the day. Colchester had a well established tradition of self-government. Every year the burgesses chose two bailiffs, currently Thomas Godeston and John Dyer (2), to be directly responsible to the Crown for everyday administrative duties. The bailiffs presided over court sessions held twice a week to resolve disputes about debts, contracts, minor acts of violence and titles to property, and this jurisdiction required the keeping of records upon which both the efficiency of the courts and the community's income from court dues depended. Since the previous Michaelmas the courts had already garnered about £58 for the common chest, and another pound or two could reasonably be expected during the six weeks before Michaelmas came round again (3).The bailiffs and aldermen were the inner circle of a borough council empowered to make ordinances for the good of the community, and this too required the compiling of memoranda and the registering of new by-laws. A set of five new ordinances concerning the conduct of elections, aldermen's livery, court procedure, the weighing of wool and the paying of weavers was due to be read out to the burgesses for their approval on Monday, 12th September, when new bailiffs would be elected (4). In addition, two chamberlains, William Wykham and John Wylegh (5), who collected sums of money due to the common chest and made such payments as were authorised by the bailiffs and aldermen, were obliged to draw up an annual account to be ready for auditing on September 5th 6. Not all this documentation survives today, but enough remains to sustain enquiry into many aspects of life in the town. Since the records were written and preserved in the moothall, and since the moothall stood at the heart of the town, it is there that this description may most suitably begin.
Colchester in 1611-12, from John Speed's Theatrum Imperii Magnę Britannię