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Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700

Mayor and Aldermen vs Burgesses of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1515)

The National Archives, STAC 1/2/106

This is a case from the Court of Star Chamber, a royal court established in the reign of Henry VII, in the late fifteenth century, as an offshoot of the king’s council. Its remit was wide, and became wider over the course of the sixteenth century, but its principal concern was disorder. Here, the claim, made by the mayor and aldermen of Newcastle, was that certain evil-disposed persons had ‘moved and stirred many of the Comons of the same towne’ not only to disobey the mayor, but ‘riotously with force and armes’, in the manner of ‘newe insurreccions and rebellion’, to gather together, on many occasions, to the number of ‘fyve hundreth persones and above’. The commons, the mayor and aldermen asserted, had formed a sworn conspiracy, having taken an oath on the Bible to maintain their wrongful opinions. Like the records of the Court of Exchequer, from which six cases have been selected and transcribed on the theme of Contesting the city, proceedings in Star Chamber started with the plaintiff’s bill of complaint; next was the defendant’s answer; then came the plaintiff’s reply and the defendant’s rejoinder; these were each supported by ‘interrogatories’, which were questions put to witnesses for either side, and answers to the same questions in the form of depositions. For more information on the judicial process, see

In this case, the proceedings were conducted by two members of northern landed society, Sir Edward Radcliffe of Dilston in Northumberland and John Bentley of Tursdale in Co. Durham, who were acting under royal commission. Appointed on 24 May 1515, they were empowered to investigate the truth of the complaint and to report back to Westminster in early October. They examined the witnesses in Newcastle over several days, from 10 July (TNA, STAC 1/2/106/2). I have not transcribed the whole case, and there is further material in TNA, STAC 2/18/260 (, which is a series of interrogatories concerning the allegation that the commons had conspired to act against the mayor and aldermen of Newcastle and against the good rules and customs of the same town. There is an older transcription of the dispute, and its resolution, in I.S. Leadam (ed.), Select Cases before the King’s Council in the Star Chamber, vol. 2: 1509-1544 (Selden Society, 25 1910).

The case is important for many reasons. It reveals the contours of economic and political power within Newcastle at the end of the Middle Ages. Three groups of wholesale merchants – mercers, drapers and corn merchants (known as boothmen) – were the dominant force in the town. In 1480 their shared interests in overseas trade had encouraged them to join together as the Company of Merchant Adventurers of Newcastle, an association that had ties to the London-based Company of Merchant Adventurers. The other mercantile craft, which would become increasingly prominent over the course of the sixteenth century as Newcastle gradually established itself as the English coal capital, was that of the hostmen, coal merchants, who would gain in 1600 a monopoly of the sale of coal on the river Tyne. In 1515 the townspeople engaged in the wholesale trade described themselves as ‘honest Comyners’. Their opponents were simply the ‘Comons’. These commoners described themselves as ‘Artificers Burgenses and Guyldmerchauntys’. The word ‘Artificer’ pointed to the economic identity of the commoners: they were craftsmen, involved in the production of manufactured goods. The term divided them, economically, from the drapers, mercers and corn merchants. But the titles ‘Burgenses’ and ‘Guyldmerchauntys’ suggest a more complex picture of commonality, as well as of difference. Like the merchants, the artisans were burgesses, freemen of the town. They were, in fact, guild merchants, a privileged status that they possessed as citizens. In the thirteenth century members of the guild merchant were not distinguished in any way; they had equal rights. In 1515 the commoners imagined the citizenry as a single entity of merchants and artisans, rulers and ruled. The merchants had another vision of the urban community: one in which the members of that community – the commons – were not the same. Some were more worthy than others: they were the ‘honeste’ or ‘worshipfull’ commoners. The internal tensions that these words denoted were always present in towns, but they seem to have become more visible and more sharply pronounced from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

In 1515, as in 1305, economic matters were closely bound up in political questions about the role and rights of citizens in urban life, and about the governance of the town. The mercers, drapers and corn merchants declared that it was borough custom that they alone were free to buy and sell, both by wholesale and by retail, all types of goods and merchandise, irrespective of their specific craft affiliation. Other burgesses, meanwhile, were expected to adhere to the principle of one craft, one trade; to buy and sell the goods of other crafts for profit, they had to seek a licence from the crafts whose business they wished to follow. The contentious issue was free trade. But since the privilege to buy and sell freely was an integral part of citizenship, much more was at stake. The artisans, who had a keen sense of history and an even more assertive awareness of their liberties, grounded their claims in antiquity. From Newcastle’s ‘furste corporacion’, by which they meant the ‘laws and customs’ confirmed by Henry II in the twelfth century, the right to buy and sell freely belonged to the whole body of burgesses (‘in a generalitie’), without exception. The counter argument, then, was based on a series of dichotomies: the artisans had custom on their side, in contrast to the novelty of the merchants’ actions (which had taken place ‘nowe of late’); they stood for the collective interests of the many opposed to the personal ambitions of a minority (the mayor and aldermen were ‘few in nombre’). Most of all, the craftsmen believed that they were full members of the urban community and that there could not be one rule for one group of burgesses – the town’s wealthy merchants – and another for the artisans, who were also part of the citizenry. To buttress further their position, the craftsmen recalled ordinances made in the reign of Edward III, to which ‘the hole Comons’ had given their assent and to which the king had applied his great seal to last in perpetuity. These ordinances had been formulated in 1342, when there was a similar struggle in Newcastle (‘like variaunce’). According to the second of the ordinances, ‘all burgesses of the town, both poor and rich, of whatever status, shall be able freely to buy all they think necessary from all ships, both foreign and native, entering the port’. The 1342 ordinances did not quite say what the artisans claimed or wanted them to say, and, crucially, the craftsmen forgot to mention entirely that the charter was revoked by the king in 1345. The mayor and aldermen were able to turn to another historical record, an ‘old book’ containing various articles made in the town assembly in 1438-9, to support their case.

These two very different ways of remembering the town’s history illuminate the longevity of competing views of citizenship: one emphasising hierarchy, obedience and deference, in which some citizens were more equal and more privileged than others; and another which stressed the shared identity, rights and duties of all citizens, irrespective of personal wealth, reputation and social status.