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Durham University

Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700

Bishop of Durham vs Mayor of Durham etc. (1610)

The National Archives, E 134/8Jas1/East41

This is a very extensive case, which unfolds in a long roll of depositions, interrogatories and counter-interrogatories, and covers a number of related issues including fines and profits, weights and measures, and the right of the bishop’s bailiffs to arrest Durham men. It pits William James, the Bishop of Durham, against the mayor of Durham, Edward Wandless, and a number of other significant inhabitants. Political power in Durham emerges as complex and overlapping, rather than as a single, unified urban centre: a ninety-year old weaver deposed that he ‘knoweth the Cittie of Duresme the Brough of Durham and Framwelgate and the great waistes & Moores nigh the Cittie of Duresme and hath knowne all the said severall places by the space of thre score yeares last past’ - several places, rather than a single corporation. The dominance of the bishop of Durham, whose palace (Durham Castle) loomed over the City, over local affairs was clear: Durham’s guild members had to swear oaths and pay fines to the bishop; and city affairs were run by the bishop’s borough court, headed by his bailiffs.

The symbolic space of the ‘Tollbooth’ on Durham market place (the courthouse rebuilt by Bishop Tunstall in the 1530s) was clearly sensitive for Durham’s freemen. It was here that they had sworn oaths to uphold their trade and the liberties of the bishopric of Durham (historically the land between the Rivers Tyne and Tees, much wider than the City), and where the bishop had previously held his borough court to regulate Durham City’s affairs. By 1610, the tollbooth was the site of the ‘mayor’s court’; Durham had been incorporated and then reincorporated as governed by a mayor and twelve aldermen in 1565 and 1602. But an attempt by a local lawyer, Edward Hutton, to reinstate the borough court - and in particular Hutton’s gall to sit ‘in the Maior’s place’ - provoked an angry response from the freemen present. One of them (a defendant in this case) ‘stept up on the table and with both his handes tooke [him] by the shoulders and puld him forth of the place and the bookes ... for holding of the said Courte were throwne away’. The defendants then ‘thrust them ... down the stairs into the markett place where diverse railing speeches ... were used’. In other words, a struggle between competing powers of the bishop and the mayor was played out locally in a competition to control the symbolic site of the town court.