C.J. (Charles James) Billson.

Mediaeval Leicester online

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Towards the end of the i6th century, a claim made by some
Leicester bakers to bake at their own houses bread and cakes,
which were not for their own consumption, was resented by
the general body of the baking fraternity who used the Crown
bakeries. An action was brought in the Court of the Duchy
of Lancaster to test the validity of this claim. The case was that
one William Becket, who was a common victualler of Leicester,
used to bake at the Queen's common bakehouses, but he had
also an oven in his own house, at which he was accustomed,
" as divers others in that town have done," to bake " pies, pastries,
and sometimes spiced bread and cakes." The defendant
acknowledged his suit to the Queen's ovens, and the Court of
the Duchy ordered that from thenceforth he should bake his

bread at the Queen's ovens, and should forbear to bake any
spiced bread or cakes, except that he might bake at his own oven
such only and so much as the Mayor and Aldermen might give
him license to do according to the direction of the Privy Council.
Mr. and Mrs. Becket continued their private baking as before,
apparently without any such license, and thereby roused the
active resentment of the other bakers of the town. Their opposi-
tion became so violent, that in April, 1599, two months after the
order of court, William Becket went over to Ashby-de-la-Zouch,
and laid his case before the powerful Earl of Huntingdon. The
Earl took Becket's part, and sent him back to the Mayor of Leices-
ter with the following letter. " Mr. Mayor : I understand by
the bearer hereof, William Becket, that he hath been licensed
to victual in your town of Leicester, and, for that his wife hath
uttered, for the better maintenance of herself and her great
charge, some spiced cakes or bread, whereat the bakers have
seemed to take exceptions, and thereupon so molested them as
thereby they be greatly impoverished ; my desire is for the relief
of him and his charge, that since it lieth in you to grant him a
license to sell and utter such cakes, that you should so permit
him to do without any further molestation by them offered : for
as I do hear by information that there is an order set down in
the Duchy Court that you may make and confirm him a license
so to do, and thereby free the poor man from any trouble hereafter
by any of them procured, which I would wish you to do for the
better relief of him and his great charge. And so I bid you
farewell. Ashby the viii April, 1599.

Your friend,

George Huntingdon."

The Mayor does not seem to have acceded to the Earl's request.
At any rate, in October of the same year, two Judges of the Court
of Exchequer and the Attorney of the Council of the Duchy
issued an Order, requiring the Mayor and Aldermen " to take
such order with the bakers that you and they permit the said
Becket to bake such small things as he hath used in your town
in his own house, as divers others in that town have done, which
in our opinions may be done in some measure, considering how


the price of corn is fallen, without prejudice either to your corpora-
tion or tlie said bakers of the said town. Of your accomplish-
ment whereof in some moderate sort we do not doubt." After
the receipt of this Order, the Mayor and Corporation summoned
Becket and the Bakers before them. Becket then said that, unless
he might be suffered to bake such sorts of bread and as much
weekly as he had heretofore used, he would " answer them (the
Plaintiffs) to the law." The Mayor and his brethren then
reported to the Attorney, that, in view of Becket's attitude, they
had " taken no order betwixt them," but had " left them to
the order of the honourable court of the Duchy." One of the
Plaintiff Bakers, Roger Hall, having made an affidavit to the
effect that the Defendants had disobeyed the injunction which
prohibited them from baking in their houses " spiced cakes, buns,
biscuits and such other spiced bread, and to sell the same, (being
bread out of assize and not by law allowed)^" the Duchy Court
made an Order on Jan. 25, 1600, and appointed the ensuing 21st
of April for hearing the matter. The case seems, however, to
have been settled before that date, on April 3rd, when the bakers
agreed that Becket should be allowed to bake spiced bread, &c.
one day in the week, upon his undertaking not to bake more than
would serve his guests.

The Ordinal of the Leicester Bakers' Occupation has not
been preserved, but no doubt it corresponded generally to
those of other towns. Its contents may be inferred, in some
degree, from the Composition of the Hull Bakers, dated 1598, which
is still extant. This ordinance provided in the first place for
the government of the company. One Warden and two Searchers
were to be chosen yearly, who, on the day after their election,
should be sworn before the Mayor, and who should give bonds
to the company ; and only freemen were to be admitted to the
company. Provision was made for the protection of the trade :
no innholder or other person within the town not free of the
company of bakers might bake any bread for sale, nor for serving
their guests ; no inhabitant might bake cakes to sell, and no person
from outside the town might sell bread within the town except on
Market Days, and then only by retail. Offenders were to be


fined ; and the Warden and Searchers might distrain for such
fines, calHng in, if necessary, the Mayor's officers. The Bakers
undertook to serve the town well with all kinds of bread, and
to keep the assize, to pay half the fines to the Mayor and Burgesses
and ten shillings yearly for the composition, and not to take
apprentices without the consent of the Mayor and the greater
part of his brethren. The Warden and Searchers were to come
weekly to the Mayor to take their assize to sell by ; and the com-
pany were to deliver bread to poor women and other of the town
to retail the same again, thirteen loaves to the dozen. The Hull
Composition was executed by the bakers, and also by the Mayor
and Burgesses under their common seal.

It is greatly to be regretted that the account books of the
mediaeval Occupations of Leicester have not come down to
us. Their testimony to the past life of the town would have
been of the highest value. The trading guilds of the Middle
Ages, were, as we know, " no mere formal organizations for
purposes which ended with the hard toil of the working day."
It is highly probable that they developed out of religious guilds.
At any rate they were undoubtedly inspired by the same ardent
feeling of Christian brotherhood. " The warm blood of the life
of the time circulated in them. Their members sat together
at the feast, stood by each other's honour in the mart, lived in
the same quarter, shared the same purchase, marched side by
side in the pageant, acted together in the play, and fought together
in the part of the city walls committed to their care. The esprit
de corps was as strong among them as among knights of higher
rank. Honesty and fair dealing were dear to them, and they
followed the bier of the departed, and paid wax for the rest of his
soul in peace." Now and then echoes of this ancient life sound
faintly fh the surviving records of mediaeval Leicester. There
is, for instance, the report of a Common Hall which was held on
the 26th day of March, 1477, at which the Players who played
the Passion Play in the preceding year brought in a bill for certain
debts incurred, and asked the Guild Merchant " whether the
Passion should be put to the crafts to be bound or nay " ; and,
at the same time the Players gave to the Pageants all the proceeds


of the play up to that time, and all their raiments and all other
manner of stuff that they had. The Guild Merchant thereupon
chose 21 persons to have the direction of the play. Mr. Kelly
thought that this record indicated that at Leicester, as in many
other ancient boroughs, such as York and Chester, the Passion
Play was acted by players selected from the different crafts or
trading guilds. They do not seem however to have had the
m.anagement of the Play, for this proposal that the crafts should
manage it was not accepted, the governing body of the town decid-
ing that it should be managed by a committee of their own,
" with two beadles." Whether the crafts of Leicester arranged
the Passion Plays or not, they used undoubtedly to get up and
present outdoor Pageants on days of High Festival. Nor did
the fraternities of trade lag behind the religious guilds in public
spirit and generosity. Thus, in the year 1540, the Occupations
of Smiths and Butchers and Bakers and Corvisors, or Shoemakers,
all subscribed according to their means towards the expense of
obtaining Henry VHI's charter of Fairs.

The deep sense of brotherhood which animated the old
Leicester Occupations is well brought out by the record which
tells how, in the year 153 1, the Warden and Company of Journey-
men Shoemakers agreed to pay to the Dominicans or Black
Friars ten marks over and above the usual offering duties, to have
their prayers ; and how, in the following year, it was agreed,
before Mr. Nicholas Reynold, then Mayor, by consent of the
Wardens and all the Company of Journeymen Shoemakers, that
they should give yearly to the Austin Friars in Leicester, for all
the brethren and sisters to be prayed for, in ready money los.,
to be paid at two times in the year, besides the offering days before
used. Women were not admitted to the Guild Merchant of
Leicester, but it appears from this record that the Shoemakers'
Occupation admitted both brothers and sisters.

Again, the Occupations acted as Insurance and Friendly
Societies for their members, and helped them when they were
in distress. Thus, the Articles of the Leicester Glovers' and
Fellmongers' Ordinance, which have been preserved, contain
the following clause : —


" That if any of the masters' apprentices or dwelling in
the said borough fall into poverty or decay by God's visitation,
by fire or by sickness, to have relief of such moneys and for-
feitures as shall arise to the said occupations at the discretion of the
said masters and greater part of the said company."

And the fraternal spirit which inspired the trade crafts of
mediaeval Leicester is delightfully indicated by another provision
contained in the same Articles : —

" That, at the death and marriage of the said masters' wives,
children and servants, upon notice of the beadle, all the said
masters, not having reasonable excuse (to be allowed at the
next meeting), shall be present, contagious times excepted, on
pain for each sixpence."




THERE is little doubt that at the date of the Domesday
Survey, Leicester was a flourishing town. Historians
have been misled by the alleged total destruction of
Leicester, which is said to have occurred in the year io68, and
consequently the borough has been represented as being, at
the date of the Domesday Survey, in a ruinous and depopulated
state. The only record of this supposed destruction is contained
in the Register of Leicester Abbey, the M.S. of which is preserved
in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. But there is every reason
to think that the destruction to which the Abbey scribe referred
did not occur in 1068. On the contrary Mr. J. H. Round assigns
it, for various good reasons, and " without a shadow of doubt,"
to the rebellion of Ivo de Grantmesnil in iioi. Moreover, of
the 322 houses registered in Domesday book, as then standing
within the borough of Leicester., four only are said to have been
then " waste," or uninhabited, — a fact which is quite inconsistent
with a recent sack. These tenements were those held of the
King in capite, and there may have been others. However, on
the basis of five persons to each of 318 houses, the number of
the occupants of those tenements would be about 1600, and they
formed the great bulk of the community. The whole of the
population would not exceed 2000.

Two thousand inhabitants may seem few for a town of
any importance, but it must be remembered that the whole of the
population of England did not at that time reach two millions,
and no town had more than a few thousand occupants. Mr.
F. W. Maitland, multiplying the " recorded men " in Domesday
by five, makes the total population of England at that time only
1,375,000. Winchester, one of the largest towns, is estimated
to have contained between 6000 and 8000. Colchester had over

After the Conquest the population of the town increased
but slowly. It was held in check by the hard life of those un-


settled days, and it suffered also from violent acts of military
license, such as the rebelUon of iioi, when Ivo de Grantmesnil
" first introduced the horrors of private warfare into England."
Still more devastating was the awful catastrophe of 1173. All the
historians agree in emphasising the spirit of ruin and desolation
which then swept over Leicester. " The houses were never
afterwards rebuilt ; the streets became lanes, and the sites of the
buildings were in time converted into orchards." The inhabitants
who survived the fire and slaughter of this great sack were allowed
to leave the town on paying 300 marks or pounds of silver, and
sought refuge at St. Albans, or at St. Edmondsbury. Polydore
Vergil says that Leicester would have been razed to the ground,
" if the besiegers could have taken the castle." For some years
the town was almost deserted, and the inhabitants must have
dwindled to a mere handful.

It was not long, however, before members of the old families
began to return, and settlers from other towns were also attracted
to the place. The earliest rolls of the Guild Merchant, which
date from 1196, give some evidence on this point. We find men
registered there, as entering the Guild at the end of the 12th
century and later, whose names betray their foreign origin,
such as " Brete" (the Breton), and " Voncq" (from the Ardennes) ;
or else their names show that they were strangers to Leicester
who came from other parts of the island, as in the case of " de
Anglia," and " Norreis " (the Northerner). Many have come
from villages of Leicestershire and Rutland ; others from Warwick-
shire, and the Forest of Arden ; others from towns like North-
ampton, Peterborough and Lincoln ; from Stratford, Wenlock,
Winchester, Carlisle and Lichfield.

By the beginning of the thirteenth century the town was
evidently recovering from its grievous wound, but the population
was probably far smaller than it had been a hundred years earlier.

It was not, indeed, until the thirteenth century had fully
dawned, that the Boroughs of England began to obtain such a
measure of independence and freedom as rendered possible
the gathering of wealth and the growth of population. The full
stream of prosperity did not set in for many a year, but even before


1300 some of the worst evils which beset the hfe of mediaeval
towns had given way to better conditions. Leicester never lagged
behind other towns in reforming zeal, and its progress was
comparatively rapid. In the year 1269 this town appears in
the King's subsidy roll amongst the richest boroughs, inferior
in its contributions only to London, the Cinque Ports, York,
Lincoln, Yarmouth, Worcester and Winchester. Thompson
estimated that in 1300 Leicester contained " not more than
5000 or 6000 inhabitants," but this is certainly an
exaggeration, for it is not thought that the largest boroughs at
that time could muster more than 4000 or 5000 inhabitants.
There is little direct evidence on this point, but it may be noted
that a tallage roll of the year 1271 contains 468 contributors, a roll
of 1276 contains 428 names, and a roll of 1286 contains 387.
A tallage roll of 1306 has 344 names. Some persons may be
included among the tax-payers, as possessing goods
in Leicester, who did not reside there, but they would
be few. At any rate we cannot place the total number
of taxpaying householders at Leicester in 1300 at much over
400. On the basis of five persons to a house the tax-paying
householders and their families would thus amount to about 2000.
To these must be added the non-taxpaying householders, with
their families, the monks and clerics, retainers, paupers, prisoners
and other waifs and strays, as well as the vast establishment
maintained at the Castle. The numbers living at the Castle can
only be guessed at, but some indication of the princely scale upon
which it was conducted at this period may be gathered from the
annual expenditure of the Earl's steward, which amounted in
the year 13 13 to ,£73 5 8 9s. — equivalent to nearly ^(^90,000 of
present money. Fifteen hundred of " the Earl's great horses,*'
which, we are told, were always kept in the stables, must have
given employment to a large number of persons. The religious
houses, too, were well occupied. We may estimate that these
various elements might contribute, perhaps, nearly 1000 souls.
The whole population of the town probably approached 3000.*

* Doering's calculation, 3,500, is wrongly based on the number of
names found in tallage-rolls for tJbree separate years.


In the course of the next half century, Leicester, like the
other trading towns of England, increased in wealth and popula-
tion. The tallage rolls show an average of more than 450 tax-
payers, and that for the year 1342 contains as many as 550 names.
Before the visitation of the Black Death in 1348 — 1349, there
must have been more than 3000 persons within the town. The
community had become so numerous, and the civic life of Leices-
ter had been so firmly established, when that calamity fell, that
its effects were not so disastrous as they were in poorer and less
advanced towns. The only contemporary account of the plague
which devastated Leicester in 1348 — 1349 is that of Henry of
Knighton, a canon of Leicester Abbey, who thus describes the
ravages which it made throughout the county. " The terrible
death rolled on into all parts, according to the course of the sun,
and at Leicester, in the little parish of St. Leonard, there died
more than 380, in the parish of Holy Cross " (St. Martin's) " more
than 400, in that of St. Margaret, Leicester, more than 700 ; and
so in every parish great numbers."

It has been said that this epidemic destroyed more than
one-third of the population of the town — a calculation based,
presumably, on a statement of Thompson's, that " two thousand
deaths, at the lowest computation, must have taken place at
Leicester, and that, too, in a population probably not exceeding
6000." But there is reason to conclude that at that time the
population was really under 3500.

If we reUed solely upon the Records of the Borough we
should hardly be aware that any such catastrophe had occurred,
still less that it had been as serious and far-reaching as the canon
of Leicester Abbey asserts. On turning to a tallage roll of the
year 1336, one finds there the names of some 460 taxpayers of
Leicester, and a tallage roll made eighteen years later in 1354, six
years after the first and most severe visitation of the plague,
contains very nearly the same number. Moreover, the amount
contributed in 1354 is only thirty shillings less than in 1336.
The town thus appears, on the surface at any rate, to have been
hardly less populous and wealthy after 1348 than it was before.
What is the explanation of this ? That Henry of Knighton's
figures are untrustworthy, may, of course, be taken for granted ;


but at the same time it is quite evident from his account that the
epidemic at Leicester was most severe, and had serious conse-
quences. There are two factors which may partly explain the
town's rapid recovery. In the first place, it has been observed
that the mortality was greatest " among the meaner sort of the
people," so that it would not fall as heavily upon a community
of well-to-do traders as on agriculturalists. And, ia the second
place, the fame of Leicester's prosperity was at this period suffi-
ciently wide-spread to attract fresh comers to take the place of
those who fell in the course of the epidemic.

An analysis of three of the tallage rolls, those for 1318,
1336 and 1354, gives the following results bearing upon this


The number of names on the roll of 13 18 is about 460 ; in
1336 it is 460, and in 1354 about 455. Of the names given in
1336, no less than 127 occur also in the roll of 1318, identical
both as to Christian and sur-name, and, generally speaking, they
may be said to betoken the same persons as those who were living
at Leicester eighteen years before. Again, 167 persons on the
1336 roll had family names which occur in the 13 18 roll, but
different Christian names, and they may be taken to be, as a
rule, members of the families which were settled in Leicester in
13 18, There were thus on the 1336 roll something like 290
persons who, or whose families, had been settled in the town
eighteen years before that time. The names in 1336 that were
quite new in Leicester were only 166.

Now if we pass over another eighteen years, and turn to
the roll of 1354, the result of a comparison of that with the roll
of 1336 is as follows : The identical names are only 58, the
names identical as to family are 145, and the new names are
no fewer than 247. Thus the old settlers were then about 203,
and the new settlers considerably outnumbered them ; whereas
in 1336 the old settlers were very greatly more numerous than
the new comers. Leicester therefore, it is clear, made up its
losses in well-to-do taxpayers by drawing to itself settlers from
without. It is even possible to learn, to some extent, whence


they came, for of the 247 new comers nearly half bore names
which indicate their place of origin.

Sixty-five of these names are derived, as might be expected,
from villages in the counties of Leicester and Rutland, and
27 more from villages lying in the neighbouring counties of
Nottingham, Lincoln, Northampton, Warwick, Stafford and
Derby. A few come from far-away villages in Lancashire and
Northumberland, and the remainder from various towns, among
which are London, Liverpool, Dublin, Ely, Coventry, Northamp-
ton, Nottingham, Stamford, Tiverton, Lynn, Peterborough,
Wellington, Leek, Huntingdon, Stafford, Dunstable, Chester,
Grantham, and the French town of Lille,

Nevertheless, although the check given to Leicester's
prosperity by the Black Death was not lasting, there must have
been a large falling off in the number of inhabitants.

In the year 1377 an ungraduated poll-tax of one groat a
head was levied upon all English subjects, except beggars, over
fourteen years of age. The number of persons contributing to
this tax in the borough of Leicester was returned as 2,101. If
one-third is added for the estimated number of persons under
14, the population would, on this evidence, be 2,800. Some
may have evaded this unpopular impost, which was soon openly
resisted, and the results of the poll tax are rio longer considered
wholly trustworthy guides to population. Yet it may perhaps
be gathered from this return that the population of Leicester
was smaller than it had been thirty years before. Sixteen
English towns contributed more to the tax than Leicester did.
And in 1398, when " the well -beloved Mayor and the honest
men of the town of Leicester freely and voluntarily lent one
hundred marks " to King Richard the Second, there were
eighteen towns which provided the Crown with larger sums.
It may be concluded that the population was somewhat lower
in 1400 than it had been in 1300.

With the new century the prospects of Leicester became
brighter, and for a generation or two the borough increased in
wealth and repute, and doubtless in the numbers of energetic
citizens who carried on its trade. Unfortunately^ almost all the

145 J

municipal annals and accounts are lacking after 1380 for the
best part of a hundred years. It is evident, however, that before
the closing years of the 15th century a change took place, and
fortune ceased to smile upon the town's progress. In 1492 the
householders on whom the King's tenth was levied did not
amount to 250, and there can be little doubt that the population
was then dwindling. The town fell, indeed, owing to various
causes, into a state of poverty and decay, which lasted nearly
a hundred years. Many other English boroughs were then in
the same plight, but the Leicester people themselves said that
all their troubles were due to the introduction of strangers, who
were allowed to trade in the borough to the detriment of the
old burghers who paid the taxes. Their opinions on the subject

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Online LibraryC.J. (Charles James) BillsonMediaeval Leicester → online text (page 13 of 21)