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Durham University

Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700


Constitutionally, Newcastle and Durham were very different urban centres. Newcastle was a royal town, which is to say that its overlord was the crown, to which its burgesses collectively owed an annual payment known as the fee farm. In return, the burgesses enjoyed certain liberties, particularly a monopoly of economic rights on the river Tyne; these ‘laws and customs’ were confirmed by Henry II in the twelfth century. In 1216 King John granted the town the right to have a guild merchant, an economic association of traders, from which the town’s government would gradually emerge. Over the course of the thirteenth century Newcastle acquired a common seal and a mayor, further evidence of its ability to organise its own affairs. In 1400 Henry IV elevated Newcastle to the status of a county, and the town gained a sheriff, while the mayor and aldermen became ex officio justices of the peace. Newcastle was not completely autonomous; all towns in medieval and early modern England had a lord. There was nowhere in England comparable to the independent city-states of northern Italy and the southern Low Countries. But Newcastle was as independent, in its constitutional structure, as any town in England. By contrast, Durham was a seigneurial town, which meant that it was under the lordship of a lord other than the king. That lord was the bishop of Durham. The city of Durham was polycentric – it consisted of six urban areas, each a separate jurisdiction – but the most central urban place, with a marketplace at its heart, was the ‘Bishop’s Borough’. In the later twelfth century the burgesses of Durham obtained a charter from Bishop Hugh du Puiset, which gave them ‘all the free customs’ that the burgesses of Newcastle possessed, but the charter did not concede self-government. As was the case in other seigneurial towns, the lordship of the bishop of Durham was immediate, and the bishop’s officers, notably his bailiff, exercised extensive control over the city through the borough court, which was held in the Tolbooth. Durham had no guild merchant, and it was not until the mid sixteenth century that the town received a charter of incorporation from the bishop. By the terms of Bishop James Pilkington’s 1565 charter Durham had a new ruling body, headed by an alderman and twelve burgesses, who were to assist the alderman in the governance of the town. In 1602 the alderman was renamed mayor and the twelve burgesses became aldermen. The major novelty was the appointment of a second council, known as the common council, whose members were to be drawn from the city’s twelve craft guilds (or companies). These institutional changes brought Durham’s governing structures into line with those found in other English urban centres, but they were not secured without struggle and, as the legal dispute fought in 1610 in the royal court of exchequer showed (Bishop of Durham vs Mayor of Durham etc.), the bishops of Durham were reluctant to release their official oversight of urban life.

There is a problem of evidence for the medieval period. For Newcastle, the destruction of the civic archive by Scottish soldiers during the British Civil Wars of the 1640s means that the town’s earlier political history can be told only through the lens of the royal records. For Durham, the absence of a tradition of self-government deprived the city of its own archive. The town was administered as part of the palatinate of Durham, the bishop’s secular jurisdiction, which was governed wholly independently of Westminster in the Middle Ages. The bishop’s records document the assertive power of lordship rather than the animating spirit of community.

Yet despite the presence of the bishop, who remained a significant force in the early modern town, the internal politics of Newcastle and Durham were dominated by the same set of questions. These questions revolved around the definition and meaning of citizenship. Citizenship had no single, fixed meaning. Citizens or burgesses – the terms are interchangeable – were the freemen of English towns and cities. Citizenship was largely a male privilege and very few women were citizens in their own right. To be a citizen was to possess a mixture of legal, economic and political rights: the right to be tried solely by one’s fellow citizens in the town court; the right to engage freely in trade, open a business, sell goods by retail and practise a craft; and the right to participate in civic elections and hold office. To be a citizen was also to uphold certain responsibilities, notably the duty to pay taxes. There could be tensions between the balance of rights and duties. One of the arguments made by the ‘poor burgesses’ of Newcastle, in a legal suit that came before royal justices in 1305, was that they paid their taxes just like the ‘rich burgesses’ of the town. They were all citizens and they had the same rights. This court case illuminates further the contested nature of citizenship. The distinction between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ citizens was the division between rulers and ruled. Wealth determined access to higher office, least of all because it was regarded as a sign of honour, reputation and wisdom: the civic elites of English towns were the probi homines, literally the ‘worthy men’. But citizens, whether rich or poor, governors or governed, all swore an oath and spoke the same words. The contents of the oath, and the context in which it was performed, hint at the existence of another fault-line that ran through urban politics. Oaths emphasised hierarchy and stressed obedience to authority; indeed, in sixteenth-century Durham new freemen swore their oath before the bishop’s representative, the bailiff, in the borough court. But oaths also promised mutual aid and transformed a town inhabitant into a privileged member of a sworn community.

The sources presented here describe the routes into the civic franchise and reveal the close connection between citizenship and membership of another corporate body: the craft, or company, as occupational associations were known in the early modern period. They demonstrate the existence of corporate activity in Durham long before the city’s formal incorporation in the sixteenth century, and they highlight the role of the crafts in the serious disturbances that erupted periodically in Newcastle between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The definition of citizenship generated considerable debate in late medieval and early modern Durham and Newcastle. Citizenship was a form of official control and regulation, and a source of cohesion and consensus. It was also a means of popular empowerment and inclusion, and a driving force behind social and political conflict.

Further reading:


Margaret Bonney, Lordship and the Urban Community: Durham and its Overlords 1250-1540 (Cambridge, 1990)

William Hutchinson, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, vol. 2 (Newcastle, 1787)

Robert Surtees, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, vol. 4, part 2 (Durham, 1840)


John Brand, History and Antiquities of the Town and County of the Town of Newcastle Upon Tyne, vol. 2 (London, 1789)

Constance M. Fraser, ‘The Life and Death of John of Denton’, Archaeologia Aeliana,4th Series 37 (1959), pp. 303-25

Constance M. Fraser, ‘Medieval Trading Restrictions in the North East’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th Series 39 (1961), pp. 135-50

Constance M. Fraser, ‘The Economic Growth of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1150-1536’, in Diana Newton and A.J. Pollard (eds.), Newcastle and Gateshead before 1700 (Chichester, 2009), pp. 41-64

Richard Welford (ed.), History of Newcastle and Gateshead, vols. 1-3 (London, 1884-7)


Christian D. Liddy, ‘“Bee war of gyle in borugh.” Taxation and Political Discourse in Late Medieval English Towns’, in The Languages of Political Society, Western Europe, 14th -17th Centuries, ed. A. Gamberini, J.-P Genet and A. Zorzi (Viella, 2011), pp. 461-85

Christian D. Liddy, ‘Popular Politics in the Late Medieval City: York and Bruges’,co-authored with Jelle Haemers English Historical Review 128 (2013), pp. 771-805

Christian D. Liddy, ‘Urban Enclosure Riots: Risings of the Commons in EnglishTowns, 1480-1525’, Past and Present 226 (2015), 41-77