Skip to main content Accessibility help

Seats of Honor, Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620*

  • Robert Tittler


The use of anthropological methods and models to inform the conceptualization of social history is no longer a novelty by any means. Whereas the historian has long documented and interpreted the events and sometimes the material objects of past times, and placed them in causal relationships, in recent years anthropologists have helped historians to unveil the multiplicity of meaning in a particular sets of events or material objects. Common and effective applications of such collaboration have been made with regard to such concerns as kinship and marriage, the nature of personal honor, hospitality, and the ritualized expression of group identity. Yet historians have also employed an anthropological approach to the ritualistic or semiotic aspects of whole communities.



Hide All

I wish to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding which facilitated the research for this paper, Dr. Edwin DeWindt for encouraging me to write it, and Drs. Marjorie McIntosh, Vanessa Harding and Julia Merrit for reading it in draft.



Hide All

1 Geertz, Clifford, “Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in Geertz, , The Interpretation of Cultures, Selected Essays (New York, 1973), p. 21.

2 E.g., Geertz, , Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (Princeton, 1980); Geertz, , Islam Observed, Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (New Haven, 1968); Geertz, C., Geertz, H. and Rosen, L., Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (Cambridge and New York, 1979).

3 Representative examples would include Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, 1957); Strong, Roy, Splendour at Court: Renaissance Spectacle and Illusion (London, 1973); Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978); Muir, Edward, Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice, (Princeton, 1981); and Busahway, Bob, By Rite, Custom, Ceremony and Community in England, 1700–1880 (London, 1982).

4 Phythian-Adams, Charles, “Ceremony and the Citizen, the Communal Year at Coventry, 1450-1550” in Clark, Peter and Slack, Paul, eds., Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500–1700 (London, 1972), pp. 5785, and Phythian-Adams, , Desolation of a City, Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1979), part 4.

5 Phythian-Adams, “Ceremony and the Citizen,” and see also James, Mervyn, “Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town,” Past and Present 98 (Feb., 1983): 330; Kolve, V. A., The Play Called Corpus Christi (New York, 1966), and Nelson, Alan H., The Medieval English Stage, Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays (Chicago, 1974).

6 Brigden, Susan, “Religion and Social Obligation in Early Sixteenth Century London,” Past and Present 103 (May, 1984): 67112.

7 Phythian-Adams, , “Ceremony and the Citizen,” p. 80.

8 This concept is explored in Tittler, , “The End of the Middle Ages in the English Country Town,” Sixteenth Century Journal 18, 4 (Winter, 1987): 471–87.

9 Though a case has recently been made by Dr. Marjorie McIntosh for greater community control amongst small towns of the southeast in the late fifteenth century, the evidence of borough incorporations, town trusts, litigation and even Crown intervention supports this trend over a wider geographic area and to a greater extent in the period especially from c. 1540-1640. Cf. McIntosh, , “Local Change and Community Control in England, 1465-1500,” Huntington Library Quarterly 49, 3 (Summer 1986): 219–42; Tittler, , “The Incorporation of Boroughs 1540-1558”; History 62, 204 (February 1977): 2442; Everitt, Alan, “The Marketing of Agricultural Produce,” in Thirsk, J., ed.; The Agricultural History of England and Wales, 4: 1500–1640 (Cambridge, 1967), pp. 502–06; Clark, and Slack, , Crisis and Order, p. 22, and English Towns in Transition (London, 1976), pp. 126–28; Tittler, “The End of the Middle Ages in the English Country Town.”

10 Clark, and Slack, , Crisis and Order, p. 22.

11 E.g., Dobson, R. B., “Admissions to the Freemen of the City of York in the Later Middle Ages,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 23 (1973): 121; Ramsay, G. D., “The Recruitment and Fortunes of Some London Freemen in the mid-Sixteenth Century,” Ec.H.R., 2 ser., 31 (1978): 526–40.

12 E.g., Webb, John, Poor Relief in Elizabethan Ipswich (Suffolk Record Society, 9, 1966); Slack, Paul, “Social Policy and the Constraints of Government” in Tittler, R. and Loach, S. J., eds., The Mid-Tudor Polity, c. 1540–1560 (London, 1980); Slack, , ed., Poverty and Policy in Early Stuart Salisbury (Wiltshire Record Society, 31, 1971); Slack, , Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (1988); Beier, A. L., Masterless Men, the Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640 (London, 1985); Sharpe, J. A., Crime in Early Modern England, 1550–1750 (London, 1984), and its bibliography; McIntosh, “Local Change and Community Control,” and also Local Responses to the Poor in Late Medieval and Tudor England,” Continuity and Change 3, 2 (1988): 209–45.

13 E.g., Hammer, Carl I. Jr., “Anatomy of an Oligarchy, the Oxford Town Council in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” Journal of British Studies 18, 1 (Fall 1978): 127; Pearl, Valerie, “Change and Stability in Seventeenth Century London,” London Journal 5 (1979): 334; Rappaport, S., “Social Structure and Mobility in Sixteenth Century London,” Part I, London Journal 9 (1983): 107–35 and Part II, 10 (Spring, 1984): 107-34 and Rappaport, , Worlds Within Worlds, Structures of Life in Sixteenth Century London (Cambridge, 1989), esp. chs. 3 and 9.

14 Geertz, C., “Centers, Kings and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,” in Ben-David, J. and Clark, T. N., eds., Culture and its Creators (Chicago, 1977), as reprinted in Wilentz, Sean, ed., Rites of Power, Symbolism, Ritual and Politics Since the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 1516.

15 Eames, Penelope, Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century (London, 1977), pp. xxi and 181. Compare this now current view with the traditions expressed in Fastnedge, Ralph, English Furniture Styles, 1500–1830 (1955, reprinted London, 1969), p. 8 or H. Cescinsky, and Gibble, E. R., Early English Furniture and Woodwork, 2 vols. (London, 1922), 2: 145.

16 Gloag, John, The Englishman's Chair (London, 1964), p. 41. See also Wolsey, S. W. and Luff, R. W. P., Furniture in the Age of the Joiner (London, 1968), p. 69.

17 Priestley, Ursula and Corfield, P.J., “Rooms and Room Use in Norwich Housing, 1580-1730,” Post-Medieval Archeology 16 (1982): 108–09; Agius, Pauline, “Late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Furniture at Oxford,” Furniture History 7 (1971): 72, 76.

18 Chinnery, Victor, Oak Furniture: the British Tradition, a History of Early Furniture in the British Isles and New England (London, 1979), p. 39. Christopher Hill sees the common replacement of benches by chairs in the wealthier homes only in the Restoration period, though this may be something of an extreme view; Hill, , The Century of Revolution (London, 1961), p. 250.

19 Wickham, Glynne, Early English Stages, 1300-1600, 3 vols. (1959-1981), 1: 146 and n. 105.

20 Cescinsky, Herbert, “An Oak Chair in St. Mary's Hall, Coventry,” Burlington Magazine 39 (Oct. 1921): 170–77, summarized in Cescinsky, and Oribble, , Early English Furniture, 2: 154163 and figs. 204 and 220; Gloag, , Englishman's Chair, pp. 3334; Eames, P., Furniture in England… pp. 196–97.

21 Ingram, R. W., ed., Records of Early English Drama, Coventry (Toronto, 1981), pp. 364365.

22 Public Record Office, STAC 5/C23/37, deposition of James Cooke; STAC 5/C41/1, deposition of George Chatfield.

23 Pegden, N. A., Leicester Guildhall, a Short History and Guide (Leicester, 1981), p. 4; Fosbrooke, T. H. and Skillington, S. H., “The Old Town Hall of Leicester,” Trans. Leicestershire Archeol. Soc. 13 (1923-1924): 172, passim.

24 These furnishings seem first to have been noted in Tittler, Robert, Architecture and Power, the Town Hall and the English Urban Community, c. 1500–1640 (Oxford, 1991), plates 9 and 10. The author wishes to thank Mr. Raymond Grange and Ms. Margaretha Smith of the Borough of Beverley Tourist Office, and Mr. Arthur Coates of Beverley for access to this furniture and discussion thereof, and to Mr. Clive Wainwright of the Victoria and Albert Museum for his advice on the same.

25 Raine, A., ed., York Civic Records, 6 (Yorkshire Archeol. Soc., Rec. Sen, 112, 1948 for 1946): 55.

26 Raine, A., ed., York Civic Records, 7 (Yorks. Arch. Soc., Rec. Ser., 115, 1950 for 1949): 168. The reference also illustrates the usage “Lord Mayor,” a designation exclusive, so far as is known, to the chief officials of York and London; Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed.), vide “Lord Mayor.”

27 Department of the Environment, “List of Buildings of Historical Interest, District of S. Hams, Devon” (1978), pp. 4344 (notes by Michael Laithwaite).

28 Chinnery, , Oak Furniture, pp. 448–49 and plate I.

29 Victoria County History, Wiltshire, 6 (1962), p. 87. Shortt, Hugh, ed., The City of Salisbury (1957), pp. 58 and 94; Salisbury City Muniments, Wiltshire Record Office MS. G23/1/3 (“Ledgerbook, 1571-1640”), fol. 61r. The fact that the Salisbury chairs were donated by individual mayors, a donation commemorated by the initials of the donor, should not be neglected. It suggests a parallel to the donation by prominent families of relics or other holy objects to Italian churches of the same era, or the tendency of monarchs in many past societies to redistribute gifts to the community. Such donations may be seen as efforts to gain notoriety and respect from the recipient community. See, e.g., Trexler, Richard, “Ritual Behaviour in Renaissance Florence: the Setting,” Medievalia et Humanistica, n.s., 4 (1973): 128–29 and Geertz, “Centers, Kings and Charisma,” passim.

30 E.g., Hirst, Derek, The Representatives of the People? Voters and Voting under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 45–7; Clark and Slack, Crisis and Order, Introduction; and Clark and Slack, English Towns in Transition, ch. 9; Hoskins, W. G., The Age of Plunder, England in the Age of Henry VIII, 1500–1547 (1976), p. 42. The author is currently preparing an essay on this theme, entitled “The Apotheosis of the Mayoralty, c. 1500-1640.”

31 See Tittler, Architecture and Power, chs. 3-4.

32 This point emerges from an examination of Statutes of the Realm, in which mayoral powers are frequently equated with those of the J.P., a survey of charters of incorporation as they appear in the Calendar of Patent Rolls, and in numerous town by-laws in which the blossoming of mayoral authority is almost ubiquitously reflected. Cf. also Bellamy, John G., Criminal Law and Society in Late Medieval and Tudor England (Gloucester and New York, 1984), chs. 1 and 2; Henderson, E. G., Foundations of English Administrative Law… (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), chs. 1 and 2; Sidney, and Webb, Beatrice, English Local Government, The Manor and the Borough, 2 vols. (1908), chs. 2, 3, and 6; and Bateson, M., ed., Borough Customs, 2 vols. (Selden Soc., 1904 and 1906). The best contemporary description of the Mayor's role in a highly developed example of municipal government in this era is Hooker's, JohnDescription of the Citie of Excester, ed., Harte, W. J., Schopp, J. W. and Tapley-Soper, H., (Exeter, 1919), 3: 804–06.

33 Jewitt, Llewellyn and Hope, W. H. St. John, The Corporate Plate and Insignia of Office of the Cities and Towns of England and Wales, 2 vols. (1895), 1: xxiiixl; Tweedy-Smith, R., The History, Law, Practice and Procedure Relating to Mayors, Aldermen and Councillors (1934), ch. 6; Tittler, , Architecture and Power, pp. 35-7, 117–18.

34 Aries, P. and Duby, George, eds., A History of Private Life, (New York, 1987), 1: 8.

35 Trexler, Richard, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1980), p. 258.

36 Muir, , Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice p. 205; cf. also pp. 191, 206, 253 and 274.

37 Grant, Michelle, “The Person of the King: Ritual and Power in a Ghanaian State,” in Cannadine, David and Price, Simon, eds., Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 298330. See also Wilks, Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 110-112, 391, 430 and 661; and Kyerematen, A. A. Y., “The Royal Stools of Ashanti,” Africa, 38, i, 25. My thanks to Prof. J. D. Esseks for his insights into Ghanian culture.

38 Gilbert, , “The Person of the King,” pp. 318–19.

39 Master's chairs are depicted in numerous contemporary woodcuts, including those reprinted in Orme, Nicholas, Education and Society in Medieval and Renaissance England (London, 1989), p. 72; Lawson, John and Silver, Harold, A Social History of Education in England (London, 1973), pp. 101 and 138 and Thompson, Craig R., Schools in Tudor England (Ithaca, New York), p. 40. It is worth noting that these conventionally show the master wielding a birch: a symbol of authority akin to and held in the same manner as the mayor's mace. A master's chair may be dated from c. 1531 at Newark-upon-Trent School, and from c. 1541 at Berkhampstead School; Seaborne, Malcolm, The English School, ils Architecture and Organization, 1370–1870 (London, 1971), pp. 1416. My thanks to Prof. Kenneth Charlton for his help in identifying appropriate depictions and his discussion of the issue.

40 Agius, Pauline, “Late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Furniture at Oxford,” Furniture History 7 (1971): 7276; Chinnery, , Oak Furniture, p. 19; Nelson, Alan, Records of Early English Drama, Cambridge, 2 vols. (Toronto and Buffalo, 1989), 1: 507–08. For a presentation of patriarchal authority in the family during this period, see Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (London, 1977), especially ch. 5. It is probably superfluous to note the importance of priority seating at court. When the Duchess of Alba, accompanying the entourage of Philip II of Spain following his marriage to Mary Tudor, came to court, both Queen and Duchess insisted on the courtesy of sitting lower than the other. In the end they both sat on the floor! Loades, David, Mary Tudor, a Life (London, 1989), p. 33.

41 See n. 5 above. Corpus Christi pageants have been documented in Wakefield, York, Coventry, Chester and in an unidentified city which sounds much like Lincoln, but numerous other pageants performed elsewhere undoubtedly often served a similar social function. See Nelson, Alan H., The Medieval English Stage, Corpus Christi Pageants and Plays (Chicago, 1974), passim.

42 Heales, Alfred, History and Law of Church Seats, 2 vols. (1872), 1: 3031.

43 Mire, John, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. by Peacock, John (Early English Text Society, rev. ed., 1902, repr., 1975), p. 9, lines 270-276, as cited in Heales, , Church Seats, 1: 11. See also Thompson, A. H., The Historical Growth of the English Parish Church (2nd ed.; Cambridge, 1913), p. 109.

44 Heales, , Church Seats, 1: 1112.

45 Hardy, W. J., “Remarks on the History of Seat Reservations in Churches,” Archeologia (2nd ser., part i, 53, 1892): 104; Masters, B. R. and Ralph, E., eds., The Church Book of St. Ewen's, Bristol, 1454–1584 (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archeol. Soc., Records Section, 6, 1967), pp. xxvi, et passim.

46 Churchwardens' Accounts, St. Lawrence, Reading, 1498-1626, Berkshire Record Office MS. D/P 97/5/2, p. 349. I am indebted to the Records of Early English Drama project at the University of Toronto for access to microfilms of these and other Reading churchwardens' accounts noted below, and especially to Dr. Alexandra Johnston for her advice concerning these records.

47 Masters, and Ralph, , The Church Book of St. Ewen's, Bristol, p. 25; Cox, J. Charles, Churchwardens' Accounts from the Fourteenth Century to the Close of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1913), pp. 67 and 189.

48 Cox, , Churchwardens' Accounts, p. 189; Public Record Office, SP 14/112/83; Rev. Beresford, J. R., ed., “The Churchwardens' Accounts of Holy Trinity, Chester, 1532-1633,” Jour. Chester N. Wales Archit., Archeol. and Hist. Soc. 38 (1951); 112–17; Foster, J. E., ed., Churchwardens' Accounts of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge from 1504 to 1635 (Cambridge Antiq. Soc., 35, 1905), passim; 5 Edward VI, c. 4.

49 Foster, , Accounts of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge, pp. 572–73, et passim; Amphlett, Joseph, ed., The Churchwardens' Accounts of St. Michael's in Bedwardine, Worcester, 1539–1603 (Worcester Hist. Soc., VII, 1896), pp. xvxvi; Orders of 9 and 23 Elizabeth cited in SP 14/112/83; Bailey, John, ed., Transcription of the Minutes of the Borough of Boston, 3 vols. (1980–), 1: 81, 643.

50 Churchwardens' Accounts, St. Giles, Reading, 1518-1642, Berkshire Record Office MSS D/P 96/5/1, 1518-1642, passim.

51 This and subsequent conclusions about the identity of prominent citizens rests on the correlation of the names of Reading office holders, especially its Capital and Secondary Burgesses, with those listed as renting seats in the same years. The reprinted lists of officials may be found in J.M. Guilding, Records of Reading, 4 vols. (Reading, 1897- ), 1: passim, for the appropriate years.

52 Churchwardens' Accounts, St. Lawrence's, Reading, 1498-1626, Berkshire R.O. MS. D/P 97/5/2.

53 Churchwardens' Accounts, St. Mary's, Reading, 1550-1642, Berkshire Record Office MS. D/P 98/5/1.

54 Berkshire R.O. MS. D/P 98/5/1, p. 90.

55 Such listings seem not infrequently to have been kept, though most have not survived. Berkshire R.O. MS. D/P 98/5/1, p. 92 for 1585, p. 94 for 1586 and p. 96 for 1587.

56 E.g., Clark, Peter, “The Migrant in Kentish Towns, 1580-1640” in Clark, and Slack, , Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500–1700, pp. 117–63. Patten, J., Rural-Urban Migration in Pre-Industrial England (Oxford U. School of Geography Resch. Ppr., 1973), passim.

57 Borough Order Minute Book, 2: 56, as cited in Adey, K. R., “Aspects of the History of the Town of Stafford, 1590-1710” (M.A. Thesis, University of Keele, 1971), p. 97.

58 Bailey, , Transcription of Minutes of Boston, 1: 81.

59 Bailey, , Transcription of Minutes of Boston, 1: 643.

60 Hillen, Henry F., History of the Borough of King's Lynn, 2 vols. (Norwich, n.d. [1907]), 1: 310, as cited in Battley, S. M., “Elite and Community, the Mayors of Sixteenth Century King's Lynn,” (Ph.D. Diss., S.U.N.Y., Stony Brook, 1981), p. 207. I am indebted to Dr. Battley for permission to examine her thesis.

61 E.g., Salter, H. E., ed., Oxford Council Acts, 1583–1626 (Oxford Historical Soc., 1928), p. 408; Carrington, F. A., “The Old Market House and the Great Fire at Marlborough,” Wilts. Archeol. and Nat. Hist. Mag. 3 (1957): 112; Rev.Beresford, J. R., “The Churchwardens' Accounts of Holy Trinity, Chester, 1532-1633,” Jour. Chester N. Wales Archit., Archeol. and Hist. Soc. 38 (1951): 149; Cox, , Churchwardens' Accounts, p. 68.

62 Cox, , Churchwardens' Accounts, p. 193; Knight, Mark, “Religious Life in Coventry, 1485-1558” (Ph.D. Diss., Warwick University, 1986), pp. 132–34.

63 Palliser, D. M., The Age of Elizabeth, England under the Later Tudors, 1547–1603 (London, 1983), p. 84 and PRO, SP 14/112/83; Addy, John, Sin and Society in the Seventeenth Century (New York, 1989), pp. 5051et seq.

64 Gough, Richard, The History of Myddle [c. 1702, 1834], Hey, David, ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1981), p. 77passim. For the rules governing the issue, well established even in the Common Law by Gough's time, see Prideaux, H., Directions to Church Wardens, (London, 1692), pp. 111et seq., and Bum, Richard, Ecclesiastical Law, 2 vols. (London, 1763), 1: 254–59.

65 Smith, A. Hassell, County and Court, Government and Politics in Norfolk, 1558–1603, (Oxford, 1974); for burials see Harding, Vanessa, “‘And One More May Be Laid There,’ the Location of Burials in Early Modem London,” London Journal 14, 2 (1989): 112–29.

* I wish to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding which facilitated the research for this paper, Dr. Edwin DeWindt for encouraging me to write it, and Drs. Marjorie McIntosh, Vanessa Harding and Julia Merrit for reading it in draft.

Seats of Honor, Seats of Power: The Symbolism of Public Seating in the English Urban Community, c. 1560-1620*

  • Robert Tittler


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed