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Cities in History: Archives and Traces, 1100 –1700

Conflict about Durham’s charter of incorporation (1610, 1617)

Durham University Library, Archives and Special Collections, Old University Manuscript E.I.9


The incorporation of Durham in 1565, under the government of an alderman and twelve burgesses, and the city’s re-incorporation in 1602, under a mayor, twelve aldermen and twenty-four common councillors, replaced the earlier regime of a bailiff, who oversaw the borough court on behalf of the bishop. We can learn something of the nature of the bishop’s lordship before 1565 from a deposition in the 1610 legal dispute heard in the Court of Exchequer (Bishop of Durham vs Mayor of Durham etc.). A weaver, originally from Durham, but then resident in Yorkshire, remembered the city in the days of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham from 1530 to 1559. He recalled how the holder of a burgage plot, acquired through inheritance or purchase, had to take an oath ‘to be faithfull’ to the bishop and to pay 2s. to his bailiff. By this oath, the landholder not only gained entry to his property, but became a freeman of the city. The citizen’s oath was an oath of fealty, a declaration of obedience. The weaver went on to say that he had entered the freedom of the city through his occupation. When he became free of the weaver’s craft, he presented himself to the bishop’s bailiff in the borough court, paid a fine, and swore an oath; he promised to be ‘true and faithfull’ to the bishop and his successors, and, significantly, to the bishop’s liberties. These liberties stretched, geographically, well beyond the city to include the whole of the land between the rivers Tyne and Tees, the core area of the palatinate of Durham. Another Durham citizen, a carpenter, confirmed this testimony. He recalled that, in the time of Bishop Tunstall, ‘all Tradesmen of the said Cittie coming to be made free’, went to the bishop’s borough court, where they presented themselves to the bishop’s bailiff, paid a fine, and then swore ‘to be true and faithfull’ to the bishop ‘and to the liberties of the Countie pal of Duresme’. There could not be a more emphatic statement of the bishop’s lordly definition of citizenship: the freeman was to recognise his place, not within a sworn urban community of freemen, but within a vertical hierarchy that expected deference and subordination, in support of the bishop’s lordship, which extended outside the city.

The 1602 charter, conceded by Bishop Tobie Matthew, established, at least in theory, a sophisticated apparatus of civic government, separate from the bishop, but the 1610 case shows that Bishop William James, Matthew’s successor, was much less keen than Matthew to relinquish his rights and much more prepared to defend them at law. Depositions in the Exchequer case are transcribed in Bishop of Durham vs Mayor of Durham etc. One of the texts here is a seventeenth-century transcript of the case, which includes the ‘decree’, the official judgement at the end of the legal proceedings. The defendants, including the mayor of Durham, had a very different memory of the city’s history from that of the bishop. They argued that the city had existed as a corporate body from time out of mind, by prescription, rather than by chartered grant. To bolster their defence, and to resist the bishop’s story of episcopal dominance, they argued that the city had many fraternities and crafts – mercers, drapers, dyers, tanners, skinners, weavers, and others – which had existed from time immemorial. To practise one of these crafts, possession of the franchise was fundamental. The argument was, in short, that the city had a rich and ancient history of autonomous and collective activity, from the craft guild to the civic corporation. The decision in the Court of Exchequer was in favour of the bishop of Durham, but the citizens of Durham did not give up the fight. On James I’s arrival in Durham in 1617, on his way up to Scotland, the mayor welcomed the king and ‘an Apprentice’, a symbol of the city’s corporate traditions, delivered a speech to ask for his support of their rights against the claims of the bishop.