Gloucester’s Civic Administration

Gloucester’s Civic Administration

NOTES extracted from VCH

Among Gloucester’s courts, the hundred court met every Monday, swore in constables, freemen, and officers of the trade companies, and tried civil actions involving citizens. From the mid 16th century, however, the court was in decline. More active was the piepowder court held at the Tolsey by the sheriffs on market days. That was the main court of pleas in the city, hearing a good deal of litigation and with a number of attorneys in attendance. The frankpledge jury (Court Leet) continued to meet twice a year, and issue, or re-affirm, detailed bylaws concerning paving and other routine administrative matters. A new body instituted by charter in 1561 was the orphans’ court, which was modelled on the London institution. Through it the mayor and aldermen administered the estates of freemen whose heirs were minors, checking wills and inventories, loaning out funds from minors’ estates to citizens at interest, and reimbursing the ‘orphans’ when they achieved majority. There were, however, recurrent disputes over the court’s working and it had almost fallen into disuse by 1640.

The most important city institution was the common council, whose members were co-opted from the freemen. By custom the number of councillors was 40, but the figure fluctuated, depending on whether the aldermen were included in the total. In 1605 James I appears to have reduced the number of the council to 30, but the membership was restored to 40 under Charles I’s charter of 1627. The common council elected certain city officers, such as the four stewards or chamberlains, the town clerk, and the recorder. It also made leases of town lands, regulated the commons, levied taxes, and issued ordinances for the general welfare and good rule of the community. During the 16th century the council expanded its authority at the expense of the frankpledge jury.

By 1600, however, the full council was increasingly overshadowed by the mayor and aldermanic bench. The path to aldermanic power was steep and difficult. An ambitious man had first to enter the council (usually in his late 30s), then serve twice in the costly and burdensome offices of steward and sheriff. After perhaps a dozen years’ service on the council he might then be considered for co-option to the bench. Most aldermen were in their late 40s when they were elevated, wealthy men belonging to the top score of taxpayers in the city and frequently associated with the distributive trades, the most prosperous sector of the economy. 

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