‘To Avoide All Envye, Malys, Grudge and Displeasure’: Sociability and Social Networking at the London Wardmote Inquest, c.1470–1540
By Charlotte Berry
The London Journal, 42:3, 201-217
In 1540, the men chosen as members of the jury for the Aldersgate wardmote set down a series of regulations ‘for good rule and order to be kepte and observed by suche as are sworne of the wardmote enquest’. Although detailed provisions for the ward court and its jurisdiction had been set out over a century earlier in John Carpenter’s city custumal, Liber Albus, it was apparently not such procedural matters which were their concern. Comparison to Carpenter’s ‘Articles of the Wardmote’ shows that only one of the ordinances, for the presentation of a list of all ward householders by the beadle, derives from civic regulation. Instead, the Aldersgate ordinances are primarily concerned with the personal behaviour of jurors and ward officers during the period of the jury’s sitting. Personal conduct of jurors and officers was crucial not just for the smooth running of the court but also because, as will be demonstrated, the wardmote was an important venue for local men to prove their worth. In the process, men built the personal contacts which were so important to social and economic advancement in the medieval and early modern city.
The custom of the wardmote was ancient, probably deriving originally from the Anglo-Saxon folk moot. These meetings were held within each ward of the city and presided over by the alderman. Wardmotes were usually held annually, although since 1447 aldermen had been permitted to call them as often as required. The meeting itself involved the assembly of all adult males in the ward, who in turn elected local officers (beadles, constables, scavengers, rakers and aleconners) and chose a jury or inquest of male householders who were to investigate offences against the ‘points’ of the wardmote. The Aldersgate ordinances suggest that this jury was expected to sit for at least two days, since the beadle was required to present the list of householders ‘on the first or seconde daye of sitting of the foresaid enquest’.
The remit of offences to be investigated by the jury appears to modern eyes very wide indeed, ranging from environmental hazards like houses built of flammable materials and poorly maintained roads to moral offences such as extramarital sex and the keeping of bawdy houses. As Sarah Rees Jones has argued, the rhetoric of ‘nuisance’ under which all of these offences fell provided a ‘dynamic and elastic discourse’ which enabled jurors to shape presentments to fit changing local concerns. Caroline Barron has also identified a certain flexibility in the use of wardmotes by local inhabitants as a venue for protest and calls for political change, albeit that the mayor and aldermen usually resisted such appeals. For the seventeenth century, Valerie Pearl posited that ward office holding and the wardmote’s role as a venue for popular participation in politics were key to maintaining stability in the growing city. A flexible view of the wardmote tallies with Marjorie McIntosh’s analysis of local courts elsewhere in England in the late medieval period which emphasises the extent to which juries in the late medieval period shaped legal processes to their own parochial concerns, using courts to promote the jurors’ conception of orderly community. In a short article responding to McIntosh, Shannon McSheffrey described the wardmote as a process through which the community defined ‘which men were respectable, worthy, and of a certain stature’ to the exclusion of those who appeared indicted. The present study explores this avenue further, analysing how the process of communal definition was carried out.