Essay | The Commune of the City by Ian Stone


On 28 October 1272 King Henry III (1216-72) lay dying at Westminster Palace. His eldest son, Edward, returning from crusade, was about to land in Sicily. True, there was no credible challenger to this fearsome prince’s succession, for which preparations had already been made; however, there were, too, grounds for concern. Only one eldest surviving son, in the two centuries which had passed since the Norman Conquest of England, had succeeded peacefully to his father’s throne. Moreover, from 1263 to 1265 England had been torn apart by a civil war in which Henry and his brother Richard of Cornwall, and their two eldest sons, Edward and Henry of Almain, had been captured and held prisoner by Simon de Montfort. As we shall see, the wounds from this war had yet fully to heal. Any medieval succession was an uneasy process and it must have been an anxious time for those on the king’s council.

But there was to be no peace that day for the fading king. A great crowd of Londoners had chased their aldermanic governors from the London Guildhall and had burst into Westminster Hall. From here their shouts that ‘we are the commune of the city and to us belongs the election of the city’s mayor, and we definitely want Walter Hervey, whom we have elected, to be mayor’ easily reached the royal chamber. In response, the aldermen and their supporters claimed the right of election belonged to them as they were the head of the body politic who sat in judgement in all legal cases heard in the city, whereas the populace were just the limbs of the metaphorical body. They added, moreover, that because many of the mob did not have lands or properties within the city, or even that they were ‘sons of divers mothers’ and of servile status, they cared little or nothing for the city’s well- being. The aldermanic candidate for mayor was Philip the Tailor. No doubt preoccupied with the succession, fearful lest the king be further disturbed, and reluctant to take sides in what to them was an internal municipal dispute, the king’s council sent all of the Londoners away, warning Hervey and his supporters not to come to Westminster in such large numbers again.

The appearance of a multitude of contending Londoners at Westminster must have been particularly unwelcome. The last time a great crowd of angry Londoners had come to Westminster Palace had been in the spring of 1267, when a mob had burst in, broken doors, windows and chairs, and carried off whatever they possibly could. Westminster, the site of his beloved abbey, was Henry’s favourite residence and the abbot of Westminster was a regular recipient of royal patronage. This had led to frequent clashes between the king and the Londoners throughout Henry III’s Personal Rule (1234-58), as the citizens saw the king’s patronage of the vill outside of the medieval city as a threat to their authority and privileges. Trouble had most commonly arisen between Henry and the Londoners, however, in response to royal demands for supply. The most shocking of these incidents had occurred in January 1255 when the king had demanded a tallage of 3,000 marks (£2,000) from the Londoners. Ralph Hardel, the mayor of London, simply refused to pay and instead offered the king an aid of 2,000 marks (£1,333). More important to the Londoners than the money was the principle: tallage was a tax which the king could levy at will, whereas an aid carried with it an implication of taxation by consent.

Following a two-week standoff, the Londoners had backed down in 1255, but grudges were borne on both sides and in 1258 matters came to a head. In February of that year Henry sought his revenge and removed all the aldermen from their positions; he even had eight of them, including Hardel, charged with malfeasance in the collection of the 1255 tallage. Three months later, however, Henry’s barons forced him to agree to reforms more ambitious even than Magna Carta in their scope, and it is no surprise that the Londoners, on the whole, supported the reformers. In 1263 civil war broke out and the Londoners, led by their populist mayor Thomas fitz Thomas, welcomed the baronial army into the city. Indeed, as Henry’s queen, Eleanor, attempted to flee the Tower of London for Windsor, she was pelted with stones, filth and eggs by a mob of Londoners atop London Bridge.

barons, knights and townsmen were all summoned. However, on 4 August 1265, Montfort’s army was destroyed at the Battle of Evesham and the Londoners immediately felt the king’s wrath: leading rebels were arrested and lost their properties, a great many fled the city, and the citizens were saddled with a huge fine of 20,000 marks (£13,333).

It would be wrong, however, to think that every Londoner had supported Montfort. One who seems not to have done is Walter Hervey, the popular choice for mayor in 1272. Hervey’s origins are obscure and it is hard to find evidence of his career prior to 1265. Nevertheless, it seems certain that Hervey had been a member of the royalist party, for when London’s mayor, Thomas fitz Thomas – who could have had no expectations of mercy from a vengeful king – was arrested and deposed as alderman of the ward of Cheap in 1265, he was replaced by Hervey. Thereafter, between 1265 and 1271, Hervey was rewarded with a series of royal appointments as bailiff, receiver, escheator, sheriff, and king’s chamberlain (and therefore ex officio coroner) – all of London. Besides these royally-appointed offices, Hervey had, too, obtained the highest municipal office in the land, when he was elected, seemingly without any turmoil, as mayor of London on 28 October 1271. Hervey had also received some modest gifts from his royal master: in 1267 two robes for him and his wife, Isabelle, and the grant of a property in the parish of St Peter of Woodwharf, in return for a payment of eighty marks; and in 1268 £10 from the merchandise of a convicted felon and a £30 gift ‘of the king’s especial grace and for losses sustained during the disturbance of the realm’.

Evidently, then, Hervey was a man whom the king trusted absolutely. It is, therefore, unsurprising that between 1267 and 1272 the king repeatedly charged Hervey, along with others, to assess his fellow citizens for the fine of 20,000 marks. As escheator Hervey administered land that came into the king’s possession through the failure of a line or when the heir was a minor; as assessor he clearly had a great deal of power to pursue his fellow citizens for money. Hervey enthusiastically executed both offices. It was most probably his zealous application in these roles which saw the majority of his fellow aldermen turn against Hervey. One of those now opposed to Hervey, and perhaps even one of those chased to Westminster in October 1272, was the seventy-one-year-old alderman of Billingsgate Ward, Arnold fitz Thedmar. Arnold was a wealthy merchant of German descent who held several municipal offices, including as spokesman of London’s German mercantile community and keeper of the city’s charters. He was also the author and compiler of a book which was the first book of its kind produced in the British Isles. This book is most famous for its ‘Chronicle of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London’, which covers the years 1188-1274. In a great age of monastic writing, Arnold was the first layman in Britain to compose a historical account of his times. Indeed, it is only thanks to Arnold’s 1600-word report of the 1272 mayoral election that we know anything of the events of that autumn in London.

Arnold recorded Hervey’s first election as mayor in 1271 without any enmity, which may suggest that at that point Hervey had yet to arouse Arnold’s ire. Certainly, Hervey was appointed to another commission to pursue the arrears of the fine in July 1272, and it may well have been Hervey’s behaviour in that round of investigations that prompted Arnold to set down a 1700-word account elsewhere in his book, in which Arnold showed that he had paid a total of 132 marks and had been discharged from the obligation to make any further payments towards this original fine. Notwithstanding his exemptions, Arnold then claimed that because both Walter Hervey and his successor Henry le Waleys had sought to wring more money from him, he had twice been forced to obtain royal letters ordering his fellow citizens to desist from pursuing him for money. Arnold was far from the only leading Londoner of the period to obtain royal immunities from making further payments towards the fine. However much the wealthier citizens claimed to have paid, it must have riled the poorer Londoners to witness the richer citizens obtaining exemptions in this fashion. It is also clear that these exemptions cut little ice with Hervey. His political manifesto was clear: use the dissatisfaction and anger of the poorer Londoners against their richer masters. According to Arnold, Hervey promised the common sort in 1272 that ‘he would protect each of them, throughout the entire term of his mayoralty, exempt from all tallages, exactions and tolls, and that he would discharge all the city’s debts, owed both to the queen and to all others, out of the arrears [of the richer citizens] contained on the rolls of the city’s chamberlain’. Arnold’s claims can be corroborated. In 1276 a major royal inquiry known as the Hundred Inquisitions saw juries being sworn in each of London’s wards to answer specific questions about taxation, jurisdiction and privileges. Jury-after-jury declared that the aldermen of London had opposed Hervey because he had sought to protect the poorer Londoners and to clear the arrears of the fine by chasing the ‘richer and more powerful citizens’. No wonder, then, that at the mayoral election of 1272, the ‘more discreet citizens’, in Arnold’s words, lined up against Hervey.

The events of 28 October were repeated on an almost daily basis for the next three weeks. Disregarding the orders of the council, Hervey arrived with an ‘innumerable crowd’ both ‘on horse and on foot’ on 29 October, and indeed, each day until 11 November. Accused of seeking office only for its own sake, Hervey replied that municipal office was in fact a burden that he was willing to shoulder in order to ‘support the poor citizens against the rich, who wanted to oppress them in tallages and expenditures in the city, for the love of God and charitable motives’. On 11 November an exasperated royal council suggested setting aside both Hervey and Philip the Tailor in favour of a royal custodian until the citizens could unanimously agree upon a candidate. An attempt was then made to find a consensus by electing a panel of ten men, five from each party. Its efforts were interrupted on 16 November, when King Henry died. On the next day the earl of Gloucester, the archbishop of York and many other magnates went to London to proclaim the new king’s peace. Upon entering the Guildhall, they found Hervey with a huge crowd of supporters. Shocked by the discord and fearful of the consequences for the peace of the city, the earl of Gloucester suggested that Hervey should be admitted as mayor. The aldermen objected and asked that the panel be allowed to complete its work. But the magnates had seen enough, and on 18 November, in front of a host of Londoners outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the archbishop and the earl of Gloucester, together with several other magnates and councillors proclaimed that Hervey should be mayor for one year only lest anything worse happen in the city. One year later Hervey was succeeded peacefully by Henry le Waleys.

But Hervey’s enemies were in no mood to be reconciled with their foe and now that Hervey was no longer mayor, they could move against him. Arnold had already accused Hervey of turning a blind eye to the misdeeds of London’s bakers, of accepting bribes and of suspending London’s court of Husting to avoid answering an action bought by Isabella Bukerel for a property which Hervey had been granted. In December 1273 the aldermen annulled charters which Hervey had issued in favour of several of London’s craft guilds; they also had Hervey attached by writ. In May 1274, a charge sheet against Hervey detailing accusations of bribe-taking, malfeasance, the levying of unfair tallages, sealing false measures and illegal actions in court was read out in the court of Husting. Hervey fought back in the manner he knew best. He engaged London’s lower orders and in June 1274 he brought the business at the Husting Court to a halt. ‘Walterus Hervy venit cum multitudine maxima’ recorded the scribe before interrupting his work. On this occasion, however, the king’s council supported the aldermanic party. Hervey was defeated. He was stripped of his aldermanic office and given a life ban from holding office within the city.

Was there any truth in the accusations against Hervey? Certainly, in 1276 a few of the Hundred juries answered that Hervey had acted unfairly when he obtained the property in the parish of St Peter of Woodwharf; there were, too, accusations that he had favoured alien merchants. At another judicial inquest of 1276 he also defended himself against charges of sealing two false measures. But there is no evidence that Hervey was ever convicted of any these charges. Perhaps he was a man who did indeed fulfil the duties of his office ‘for charitable motives’? Whatever the truth of the accusations against him, what is clear is that after 1276 he disappeared not just from public life in London but also the historical record. He was, perhaps, still alive in April 1279 when an allowance to Hervey of £32 16s was reconfirmed at the exchequer, but this was just as likely issued for the benefit of his estate. We do not know when Hervey died nor whether he was survived by his wife or any children; his will was not enrolled at London’s Husting Court which may suggest he died outside of the city. In the end his final days were as obscure as his beginnings.

Hervey was a populist who convinced the poorer Londoners that he could protect their interests against their richer masters. For a while he was successful, but in the end his enemies overcame him and undid the majority of his programme. But the events of autumn 1272 do allow us to glimpse the tensions which existed in thirteenth-century London, tensions certainly exacerbated by the royal mulct of the Londoners after 1265 which set citizen against citizen. But what is also clear is that for all of Arnold’s fulminations that ‘the aldermen showed by many reasons that the election of the mayor belonged to them, because they were as though the head and the populace were as though the limbs’, this was an articulation of a hope rather than an expectation. In fact, there was plainly no settled election procedure for London’s mayor. King John had granted to the Londoners, on 9 May 1215, that ‘we will and strictly command, that our aforesaid barons of our aforesaid city of London may chose unto themselves a mayor of themselves, in manner and form aforesaid’. No doubt the aldermen would, therefore, claim that they, as the barons of London, had the right to ‘chose unto themselves a mayor for themselves’, but that was not an incontrovertible claim. Where should this election take place? Who should decide the candidates? Who, indeed, were the barons of London? In the end it would take 200 years of further intermittent acrimonious and disorderly elections before an electoral procedure would be finalised, in 1475, which essentially remains the same to this day.