The Stubborn & Evil-doers

The Elizabethan settlemant in religion included the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which are still to be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The thirty-seventh article called “Of the Civil Magistrates” maintains

“that prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.”

The article goes on to authorise such actions by the Christian Prince as capital punishment and making war. I sometime wonder if Christianity has ever really recovered from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.

Now, this power to restrain the stubborn and evildoers was delegated by the Prince who was the chief magistrate to his or her officers, by statute, commission, warrant, charter, or appointment, and these officers and lesser magistrates acting ‘in the name of the Queen’ maintained the Queen’s laws and the Queen’s peace. And however lacking in status they were themselves, they represented, in their person, the majesty of the Prince. A dog is obeyed in office.

Not least amongst these delegated officers were the mayor and aldermen of Hull, a tight little self-perpetuating merchant oligarchy of thirteen, with no common council. Their authority came from the town’s charter, which was regularly renewed and expanded. The town had been a County and had had Admiralty jurisdiction over the Humber estuary since the reign of Henry VI and in Elizabethan times there was no great local landowner to impose his patronage upon them. As a town that was also a county the Justices of the Peace were not chosen by the crown, but were the elected aldermen. The nearest superior jurisdiction, civil or ecclesiastical, was forty difficult miles away at York. This independence was allowed because the aldermen were good at keeping the lid on trouble and also because they were broadly in sympathy with the aims of the ecclesiastical and secular regimes. The Lord Presidents of the North and the Archbishops of York both also delegated their own authority to the Hull bench. (2)

Hull is a port and the aldermen were merchants. So, far from being isolated or provincial, they were well travelled. They visited London regularly on their own business and the town’s. I have heard a theory that a Mayor could not leave his town during his year of office, but this does not seem to have been enforced in Hull. From the extant records, current or future aldermen can be placed at some time in every major port from Cadiz to Murmansk and under the Guns of Elsinor into the Baltic and to the furthest reaches the gulf of Finland. Most were to be found in London at least once a year.

The Aldermanic bench could fine, imprison, disenfranchise (that is withdraw the right to trade) and expel. These powers were rarely or never tested in any superior jurisdiction and certainly they were never tested successfully. The killer power was the right to disenfranchise, which was absolute and kept the middle classes in order. Only a freeman, a burgess, was allowed to trade in Hull. The threat to remove that right to trade would subdue any merchant or craftsman. Additionally the town also had extensive powers of patronage, including the right to assign the leases of a fair part of the real estate of Hull, which belonged to the town, the crown or the religious foundations. It also had the power to make ex gratia payments and grant pensions for services to the town, and the right of appointment, during pleasure, to very many paid posts, from the dung cleanser of the river bank to the preacher of God’s word within the town.

The male population of Hull was about 2,000 and was divided into about 500 burgesses, the freemen or enfranchised, who were entitled to trade with strangers in the town and the other inhabitants who were children or servants and in trade or in commerce. Of the 2,000 about 500 were in sea-going occupations. There were also foreigners; strangers from Ireland, London or York, and aliens from Scotland or Danzig, and one from the slave coast of Africa. Some were transient, others were inhabitants and traded by permission of the bench, and for a fee. The aliens and strangers tended not to cause trouble except for the occasional anarchist like Rebbe Jacobson from a small town near Brussels who came to Hull and sold to whom he would at his own price, until, that is, they caught him. (1) Like the Emperor Constantine, Adam Smith has really made a difference to the world.

The mere inhabitants of Elizabethan Hull were usually well behaved, except of course for their propensity for

“the blasphemings of the most holy name of god, drunkenness, whoredom and infinity other abominable and detestable sins, enormities and offences which do abound in the town by reason of the great number of ale houses, the unreasonable and excessive strong ale by ale brewers there brewed, and the continual and disordinate repair of the people to those lewd houses.” (3)

No change there then.

And now to some cases.

A woman, Jane Smith, had been bad-mouthing the mayor and preacher, they put her in the stocks on market day and they also gave her notice of eviction from the house where she lived as the town’s tenant. Jane Smith’s case demonstrates the questionable legality of some of the actions of the bench. The maxim of natural law, nemo iudex in suam causam, was regularly breached in Hull. It was established as early as 1607 in Bonham’s case before Chief Justice Coke sitting in Common Bench that the College of Physicians could not act both as a party and a judge and had therefore illegally fined Bonham for practising medicine without their licence. In Jane Smith’s case the mayor of Hull sat as judge in a case of slander, where he was one of the two who had been slandered. Unlike Bonham, Jane Smith did not appeal to a court in London; a fine was not part of her punishment she was therefore almost certainly very poor. (4) Sometimes one’s authority is what one gets away with.

It is very possible that Jane Smith was not actually evicted from her house. If she accepted the verdict and ‘humbled herself’ she may have been permitted to stay. The pattern of punishment for most men was for a short prison sentence, between three and five days and a swinging fine. After the prison sentence had been served, the offender could usually, by public, humble admission of his fault and a promise not to re-offend, have the fine reduced to a far more reasonable amount. Stubbornness, a refusal to accept authority, was as much penalised as evildoing.

Of course some evildoing was beyond contrition. Isabel West of Hull offered to show a young London merchant a good time whilst her husband was away. No sooner had they got down to business than the husband leapt with a dagger from behind a painted cloth in the bedchamber and scared the young man out of all he had on him. Somehow this came out, and it was established that it wasn’t the first time the Wests had played this trick. The husband a taylor and a burgess, was disenfranchised and fined and the pair were imprisoned for two weeks and then formally expelled, on a cart. The poor young merchant of London was not seen as an innocent victim but was imprisoned and fined for “consentinge to so nowghty a fact.” These offenders could not have mitigated any part of that punishment by humbly submitting themselves to the mayor and his brethren. (5)

The more serious challenges, although they were few, came from responsible burgesses of the aldermanic class, those who were called as a group ‘ancient, discreet and substantial burgesses’. If these became so infuriated with a perceived injustice that they appealed to an outside authority in London or York the bench spared no effort to defend the action, and if possible bring it back into the town.

I am not talking about, for example, Alderman Robert Dalton who was convicted of sharp practice in one of his many ventures and tried to start an action for Perjury in Star Chamber against the jurors for finding him guilty. The rest of the Aldermen only had to stand firm against him, as by taking away his right to trade in Hull they could have ruined him. His act of contrition and reconciliation with his aldermanic brethren was a major public event. (6)

In 1577 the town was ordered to produce ten men for Hackbutt training.(7) Then as now going on a course took one away from the important business of making money, and becoming one of the town’s qualified hackbutters might lead one into all sorts of later inconveniences, one might even get shot at. Two of the ten men selected by the mayor for this training were Hugh, only son of Robert Armyn a burgess who had been sheriff, and one Anthony Burnsell who as well as having his own cloth business was a churchwarden. Both Burnsell and the elder Armyn protested furiously at the selection, accusing the mayor of malice against them. This is not unlikely as both had been a minor irritant for some years.

It is difficult to establish the reason for their opposition to the aldermen. Publicly the town authorities put it down to mere bloodymindedness, calling them factious and obstinate. A group of critics of the aldermen had been meeting and holding a mock court to ridicule the mayor and alderen and Armyn and Burnsell were the leaders.

It may have been confessional. Their main enemy was Alderman John Smith, a noted puritan.

Whatever drove them, on this occasion, their words and gestures were intemperate and insulting, and Burnsall even appeared threatening. So both were imprisoned until they should give bonds for their better behaviour. This they both reused to do, Armyn said that he refused because he would otherwise to be cursed by the other burgesses for setting a precedent that would turn freemen into slaves.

After six days in prison Armyn brought an action in the Court of Requests at York against the mayor for false imprisonment, claiming that even if the charges were true, he had already paid an over-severe penalty and that he was an old man and not well and the conditions in the prison could kill him. He also pointed out that in those six days his business had lost £40 through his absence. Now £40 was the annual stipend of the town preacher.

On receipt of Armyn’s petition, the court office at York sent out the usual letter to the mayor ordering him to release Armyn and appear and show cause. Fortunately one of the Hull aldermen was already in York and got wind of this. He went to see the Lord President of the North, at that time the Earl of Huntingdon, and had the letter withdrawn and in its place a commission made to three Hull aldermen to take depositions (that is, witness statements) in Hull. In a later conversation with the mayor, who rode over to York the next day, the Lord President commended the actions taken so far and advised him to delay the town’s reply and the commissioners’ report until the last possible day allowed. And until the case was settled he was advised to keep both men in prison, even if they changed their minds and ‘would willingly submit themselves’. If the problem that Armyn and Burnsell had with the town authorities was confessional, then Huntingdon’s choice of the three most precise aldermen in Hull as commissioners to take the depositions is yet another sign of his support for the mayor.

It should be noted that the order for the hackbutt training had originally come from Huntingdon so he had an interest in the matter. And if the root cause was confessional, Huntingdon has become known as the puritan earl.

Eventually the depositions were studied in York and the Lord President, as he had promised the mayor, ruled against Armyn and said that he should be entirely ordered in the matter by the mayor and aldermen. The spirit of the judgement was so partial that the clerk in one part described Armyn as the defendant and not the petitioner. Back in Hull the verdict was read to Armyn. He and Burnsell had been in prison for just a month, but it was another three days before they capitulated, and publicly recited the culpa that the mayor and aldermen dictated to them.

This is from Armyn’s

“Master mayor, I confess before you your Brethren and the company here assembled that I have very ill used my self against you and your brethren the aldermen both in reporting that to be done by you upon malice . . . which in deed was by you done upon good consideration and by good auctoritie, and also in serving a process of you master mayor contrary the dewetie of an obedient and dewetifull burgess that ought obediently to Live under your government. And therefore I desire you the said mayor and aldermen to remitt that which is past and I promise hereafter to become an obedient and dutiful burgess.”

They finally both agreed to be bound over to good behaviour for £5 each.

It is important to note that both Burnsell and Armyn’s son Hugh, presumably by that time both competent Hackbutters, became aldermen and mayors of Hull. Humble submission worked.

To sum up

The town’s authority depended on its charters, the solidarity of the bench of aldermen, the support of the Elizabethan regime and the absence of a local patron. Hull was also assisted in keeping its population in order by the great disparity in income between the aldermanic families and the rest. This bred a type of tyranny and it could be characterised as an authority of coercion and repression. However they never did get on top of the problem of the brewing of excessive strong ale.


HHC BRB/2 was KHRO Bench Book Four

(1) BRB/2 f.233 (2) e.g delegation from the Archbishop BRB/2 f.112v. (3) BRB/2 f.117v. (4) BRB/2 f.226v. (5) BRB/2 f.66 (6) BRB/2 f.288v.-290 (7) BRB/2 ff158v-164


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