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Honesty and dissent: resisting the Company of St George in Tudor Norwich

  • Ben R. McRee (a1)

‘Honesty and dissent’ explores strategies of political resistance in Tudor Norwich through an analysis of the city's prestigious Company of St George. Nearly a quarter of those nominated for membership during the second half of the sixteenth century failed to appear when summoned and declined to take up the livery; most eventually complied, but only after fines, threats of imprisonment and delays that could last a year or more. They pursued a strategy of passive resistance that allowed them to register objections while conforming to expectations of ‘honest’ behaviour. That underappreciated approach enabled citizens to push back against urban authorities without compromising their standing in the community.

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The author would like to thank the staff of the Norfolk Record Office for their expert assistance. He also gratefully acknowledges the support of Franklin & Marshall College's Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund.

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1 Whall had married and taken up citizenship as a grocer just three years earlier:, accessed 9 Mar. 2016; L'Estrange, J., Calendar of the Freemen of Norwich, from 1307 to 1603, ed. Rye, W. (London, 1888), 148.

2 The fifth man, Robert Borne, is not noted again in the Company's records until 1578 when he was sworn in.

3 Norfolk Record Office (NRO), 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 284.

4 Ibid., 286.

5 Historians have remarked on both the narrowing of political authority during the Tudor period, with citizens of modest means increasingly excluded from positions of influence, and on the lack of concerted resistance to that trend. As Catherine Patterson concluded, ‘[s]erious civic unrest was a rarity. For all the economic, social and religious tensions present in sixteenth-century towns, urban communities remained generally peaceful and urban government proved remarkably resilient’: Patterson, C., ‘Town and city government’, in Tittler, R. and Jones, N. (eds.), A Companion to Tudor Britain (Oxford, 2004), 127. Patterson and others have cited a variety of reasons for the acceptance of expanding magisterial authority, including the importance of civic honour, the need for officials to meet civic expenses out of their own pockets, and broad participation by ordinary citizens in lower offices, such as that of constable: Patterson, ‘Town and city government’, 124–5; Archer, I., ‘Politics and government 1540–1700’, in Clark, P. (ed.), The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. II (Cambridge, 2000), 241–6. Even if open rebellion was rare, political dissent was not entirely absent, of course. Peter Clark noted factional troubles, for example, in Kentish towns during the 1590s: Clark, P., English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution: Religion, Politics and Society in Kent, 1500–1640 (Rutherford, NJ, 1977), 253–5. And Robert Tittler recorded legal challenges to attempts to narrow authority in a number of towns in the 1590s when ruling groups sought to expand their authority through new or revised charters: Tittler, R., The Reformation and the Towns in England: Politics and Political Culture, c. 1540–1640 (Oxford, 1998), 191–3. And Archer noted conflict over the enclosure of common lands in Coventry: ‘Politics and government 1540–1700’, 245–6, a topic recently taken up for an earlier period by Christian Liddy who investigated enclosure riots in York, Coventry, Southampton and other towns before 1520: Liddy, C.D., ‘Urban enclosure riots: risings of the commons in English towns, 1480–1525’, Past and Present, 226 (2015), 4177.

6 Bishop, J., ‘Speech and sociability: the regulation of language in the livery companies of early modern London’, in Colson, J. and van Steensel, A. (eds.), Cities and Solidarities: Urban Communities in Pre-Modern Europe (London, 2017), 214.

7 Belliotti, R.A., Roman Philosophy and the Good Life (Lantham, MD, 2009), 34.

8 Richards, J., Rhetoric and Courtliness in Early Modern Literature (Cambridge, 2003), 26, and more generally 23–8. Decorum could be a physical as well as a verbal performance, and, as John Walter has reminded us, subordinate groups could manipulate the gestural code to get their message across: J. Walter, ‘Gesturing at authority: deciphering the gestural code of early modern England’, Past and Present, 203, supplement 4 (2009), 96–127. The relationship between early modern expectations and the emphasis that late medieval cities had placed on ‘sad’ and ‘discreet’ behaviour merits further study. See, for example, Kermode, J., Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley, and Hull in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1998), 29; also Hanawalt, B.A., Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (Oxford, 1993), 199.

9 Withington, P., ‘Public discourse, corporate citizenship, and state formation in early modern England’, American Historical Review, 112 (2007), 1018–36. See also ‘Honestas’, in Turner, H.S., Early Modern Theatricality, Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature (Oxford, 2013), 522.

10 See McRee, B.R., ‘The mayor and the saint: remaking Norwich's Gild of St George, 1548–49’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 79(2016), 120.

11 The selection process for city councillors had been set in a 1415 agreement that settled a long-running dispute. The ‘composition’ made that year called for annual election of the 60 common councillors by ‘alle ye enfraunchised men housholders’, of the city, meeting by ward on successive days each spring: Hudson, W. and Tingey, J.C. (eds.), Records of the City of Norwich, vol. I (Norwich, 1906), 98–9. See the recent account by Liddy, Christian in Contesting the City: The Politics of Citizenship in English Towns, 1250–1530 (Oxford, 2017), 195203.

12 New members owed an entry fee of 20d and a payment of 2s to the bedell. They were also obligated to purchase the livery (valued at 5s in a 1580 case: NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 301). Annual fees included a payment towards the cost of the feast (3s for city aldermen and 2s 6d for everyone else) and 12d in ‘almes’, which went to the priest's salary and poor relief.

13 Regulations over the third quarter of the century reference a drinking or ‘banquet’ after evensong on the day before the feast, a dinner and a supper on the principal day and a continuation of unspecified nature on the following morning. The gathering on the morrow of the main day was controversial, and various attempts to end it were made between 1549 and 1581. See NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 178, 179, 190–1, 202, 262, 266, 272, 274, 302–3.

14 Archer, I., The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 1991), 116, 119.

15 Kilburn-Toppin, J., ‘“Discords have arisen and brotherly love decreased”: the spatial and material contexts of the guild feast in early modern London’, Brewery History, 150 (2013), 30.

16 Felicity Heal reported that the Oxford feast cost £40 in 1602 and £43 in 1607: Heal, F., Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990), 339.

17 Those who sought dispensations typically did so several years after joining the Company as they neared the four-year mark of eligibility for the office of feastmaker. The charge for a lifetime dispensation varied from person to person and decade to decade, though a few were issued gratis. It cost anywhere from £2 to £20 at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign and as much as £30 at the end; median payments were £5–£6 throughout. The availability of dispensations waxed and waned: the Company granted 30 during the 1560s, 10 in the 1570s, 22 in the 1580s and 12 in the 1590s. That variability could reflect a pattern found by Richard Wunderli for London aldermen, who fined out of office more frequently during periods when the city needed money: Evasion of the office of alderman in London, 1523–1672’, London Journal, 15(1990), 318. See also Kermode, J.I., ‘Urban decline? The flight from office in late medieval York’, Economic History Review, new series, 35 (1982), 179–98. The absence of Company account rolls for most of this period makes it impossible to correlate the availability of dispensations with revenue in Norwich. The Company also sold temporary exemptions, usually lasting one to five years, which delayed eligibility for the office. The cost of a temporary exemption also varied, but was typically 6s 8d per year.

18 That was also the case in London, where Archer concluded that ‘most wardens seem to have welcomed the opportunities to advertise their status’, Pursuit of Stability, 117.

19 Compare the experience of London companies described by Kilburn-Toppin, ‘“Discords have arisen”’, 34–5.

20 The Company's 12-member council and the feastmakers from the previous year comprised the electors for this office.

21 Surviving account rolls from the 1580s and early 1590s include regular payments for making the garlands: NRO, 8/f, surveyors’ account rolls, 1581–92, passim.

22 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 221. ‘Certeyne persons’ is a phrase that appears regularly in the records of the city assembly to refer to individuals picked to carry out specific tasks.

23 The details of the selection process were not specified, nor were they recorded in either city or Company documents during this period. The ward assemblies apparently acted independently in making their selections, however, as suggested by language from 1596 stating that those chosen by the wards would only be admitted if they were ‘thought mete’ by the Company: NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 361. By the early eighteenth century, the Company was reportedly supplying written lists of those it wanted elected to the ward assemblies, a procedure it claimed ‘formerly & in antient times hath been used’: NRO, 17/b 11, 1602–1729, 572–3; J.G. Kilmartin, ‘Popular rejoicing and public ritual in Norwich and Coventry, 1660 – c. 1835’, University of Warwick Ph.D. thesis, 1987, 306; Miller, J., ‘Containing division in Restoration Norwich’, English Historical Review, 121 (2006), 1041–2. It is not known when that pattern began.

24 The by-law has slipped by largely unnoticed. Eighteenth-century antiquary Benjamin Mackerell did catch the change, however, calling it ‘the source from whence so many evils afterwards ensued’: Mackerell, B., ‘Account of the Company of St George in Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology, 3 (1852), 344. Mackerell's report garbled the details of the original entry and is not a reliable guide to the new provision.

25 The Company issued 30 dispensations from the feastmaker's office during the decade, the highest number in Elizabeth's reign and consistent with a need for revenue. See n. 17.

26 Slack, P., The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (reprint edn, Oxford, 1990; first published 1985), 128.

27 New councillors are here defined as those who had never previously served in the city's common council. They are distinct from those who had once served and were returning after a period away from council service. That was not an unusual pattern; most long-tenured councillors did not serve continually. John Surman, for example, was first elected for the ward of Conesford in 1558 and served three consecutive terms. He was then out of the council for three years before being selected again in 1564 and serving four consecutive terms. He was off in 1568, and was then selected eleven straight times from 1569 to 1579. He is counted as a new councillor here only in 1558.

28 Had narrowing council participation been an unarticulated goal of the 1561 regulation? The evidence from elections in the 1560s is mixed. In five of the ten years, including the initial opportunity in 1561, electors chose seven or more new city councillors, consistent with long-term trends in council participation. But in several years, notably 1564 and 1570, they added substantial numbers of non-councillors and few new councillors. The varying pattern of selection during the decade suggests that reducing council participation had not been the original goal of the regulation. Its potential for that end emerged quickly, however, possibly as early as 1562, and certainly by 1564. Note that new councillor selections rose slightly (to just over six per year) after 1570, still well below pre-1561 levels, before falling again after 1590.

29 Of the 73 non-councillors chosen 1561–70, 34 went on to become members of the common council.

30 Non-councillors comprised 63% of new Company members between 1561 and 1570 (73 of 115) and 78% (7 of 9) of those noted as reluctant.

31 NRO, 17b, 1452–1602, 241.

32 That fine was equal to the fee for granting a one-year exemption from election as feastmaker, and the Company may have chosen to treat these cases in a similar manner. The longer delays to 1568 and 1569 should, however, have cost more in that case.

33 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 250. Word had been admitted to the freedom as a fishmonger in 1558. The resolution of his case has not been preserved and it is not known what became of him. He held no city offices after 1564 (when he had been chosen as constable for West Wymer), and there is no further trace of him in Company records.

34 Non-councillors comprised 71% of new Company members and 76% of those who balked at joining from 1571 to 1590.

35 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 275. The fines were lower than those levied during the 1560s.

36 Ibid., 296.

37 Ibid., 322, 326. The fines were formally adopted in 1586. Property seizures (‘distresses’) were not part of that by-law and were first used in conjunction with the new fines in the following year.

38 Ibid., 323, 325–6.

39 Only half of the non-councillors were subsequently chosen to serve on the common council, continuing the pattern established in the 1560s (see n. 29). Non-councillors who were later elected to the common council typically reached that status within four or five years of joining the Company, though the interval could extend to a decade or more. New councillors who balked did not suffer any interruptions to their civic careers.

40 Behaviour on both sides fits the ‘idiom of fraternity’ described by Patrick Wallis for London companies: Wallis, P., ‘Controlling commodities: search and reconciliation in the early modern livery companies’, in Gadd, I.A. and Wallis, P. (eds.), Guilds, Society and Economy in London 1450–1800 (London, 2002), 87 and passim. For similar practices in an earlier period, see Hanawalt, B.A., Ceremony and Civility: Civic Culture in Late Medieval London (Oxford, 2017), 127–33.

41 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 302.

42 Ibid., 304. Since 1574, the feast had been held on the Sunday before the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist; before that it had been held on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday. In 1585, the day was shifted again, this time to the Tuesday after the feast of St Peter: ibid., 316.

43 Ibid., 312.

44 The growth of Protestant sentiment in Elizabethan Norwich is well documented. Muriel McClendon has traced Protestant dominance of city government after 1558: McClendon, M., The Quiet Reformation: Magistrates and the Emergence of Protestantism in Tudor Norwich (Stanford, 1999), 191–9. Matthew Reynolds has detailed the appearance of ‘forward’ Protestant thinkers such as John More in the city: Reynolds, M., Godly Reformers and their Opponents in Early Modern England: Religion in Norwich, c. 1560–1643, Studies in Modern British Religious History vol. 10 (Woodbridge, 2005), 6470 and passim.

45 See Reynolds, Godly Reformers, 47–8, 52–4, 90–1 and passim. Reynolds identified several Norwich families with Catholic ties, including those to which Augustine Whall and Richard Lussher, both of whom resisted in 1576, belonged. Two Sothertons joined without protest after 1561: John in 1583 and Thomas in 1587. The Aldrichs, another prominent Protestant family had a mixed record. John Aldrich was one of those fined in 1574 for not taking the oath, though the fine was forgiven. Michael and William Aldrich swore without incident in 1589 and 1592, respectively. Michael objected strongly to selection as feastmaker in 1595, however, being jailed before finally submitting.

46 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 302–3.

47 Ibid., 313. Lifetime dispensations averaged 0.7 per year from 1571 through 1577; from 1578 through 1587 they were distributed at a rate of 2.3 per year.

48 Ibid., 313. The proposed fee was one third more than the highest charge levied during the 1580s, which was £10. No one ever paid the increased fee, and £10 continued to be the maximum in practice.

49 Robert Baker was given the dispensation in 1592 in case he should return to Norwich in the future.

50 During the 1580s, the Company issued 22 dispensations covering 18% of new members. Temporary dispensations also declined during the late 1580s and early 1590s. Measured in terms of time dispensed, the 10 years from 1576 through 1585 saw 103 years of eligibility excused; the next 10 years, from 1586 through 1595, saw only 39 years of eligibility dispensed.

51 NRO, 8/f, surveyors’ account rolls, 1581–92, passim. The highest attendance during that period was 172 and the lowest was 159.

52 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 334. It is worth noting that the 1589–92 Norwich outbreak of plague began about this time, though it is unlikely to have affected attendance. The first evidence of increased mortality appeared on 12 July, almost two weeks after the feast, when the mayor's court received its weekly report of burials. The figure for the week ending on that date was 24, the largest total to that point in the year and twice the average for the previous month (my thanks to Professor Paul Slack for pointing me to these reports). At the time of the feast, however, burials had fallen within a more typical range – 14 for the week prior and 9 for the week after: NRO, 16/a 12, mayor's court book, 1587–95, 295, 286, 292. During the previous and more severe epidemic of 1584–85, burials had been much higher, reaching 30 the week before the feast and 38 the week after in 1585 with no effect on attendance (161 members that year): NRO, 16/a 11, mayor's court book, 1582–87, 452, 458.

53 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 334. Attendance recovered in the wake of the new regulation, but only partway. The last two surviving accounts reported 134 members in attendance in 1590 and 131 in 1591, still some 30 short of pre-1589 levels.

54 For the ‘crisis of the 1590s’, see Clark, P. (ed.), The European Crisis of the 1590s: Essays in Comparative History (London, 1985), as well as the more recent contribution by Geoffrey Parker on the role of climate: Parker, G., ‘History and climate: the crisis of the 1590s reconsidered’, in Leggewie, C. and Mauelshagen, F. (eds.), Climate Change and Cultural Transition in Europe, Climate and Culture, vol. 4 (Leiden, 2018), 119–55. On the political repercussions for urban communities, see Clark, English Provincial Society, 246, 251–5.

55 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 326.

56 I have compared two price indices for this period: the classic Phelps Brown and Hopkins basket of consumables and the more recent consumer price index for London compiled by R.C. Allen. Indexing each series to its 1580s average indicates that prices in 1587 were more than a third higher than the decadal average. Full details and a table of values extending through the 1590s can be found in the appendix.

57 In London, Archer noted that excessive costs led the haberdashers to cancel their yeomanry dinner between 1586 and 1595, while the merchant tailors had been holding their dinner only every third year since 1570: Archer, Pursuit of Stability, 119. The haberdashers’ timing meant that they reinstated their dinner just before the highest prices of the century.

58 Hoskins, W.G., ‘Harvest fluctuations and economic history, 1480–1619’, Agricultural History Review, 12 (1964), 32. According to the indices cited above, prices were 40% (1595 and 1596) to more than 80% (1597) higher than the 1580s average during that four-year span. Note that Hoskins, like Allen, dates the accounting year differently than do Phelps Brown and Hopkins. Hoskins’ (and Allen's) 1586 is Phelps Brown and Hopkins’ 1587 – 1586–87 in both cases.

59 NRO, 17/b 10, 1452–1602, 359. The measure was approved in May of 1596, after the selection of members for that year, and first affected those chosen in 1597. The penalties had previously been set at 5s and 20s in 1586. Penalties of 100s had been tried previously in 1578. They had already revived the sale of dispensations, albeit on a modest scale, offering two in 1594, one in 1595, two in 1596 and four in 1597. Whether this sterner effort to halt resistance among the propertied can be linked to wider attempts to reform local manners is doubtful. But a full account of behavioural reform during the 1590s in Norwich has yet to be written. Muriel McClendon did discover an increase in prosecutions for a wide range of behaviours beginning in the 1560s, but her study only goes as far as 1581: McClendon, Quiet Reformation, 209–24. Paul Griffiths, who has looked at prosecutions for vagrancy between 1590 and 1645, found that cases did rise sharply, but not until the early 1600s: Griffiths, P., Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England, 1560–1640 (Oxford, 1996), 359–66.

60 Nicholas Dyngle was the only one to resist during that two-year span, and he suffered both imprisonment and the enhanced monetary penalty – with no friendly reduction for submitting – before taking his oath.

61 Perhaps they concluded that it was better to impose modest penalties that produced willing submission than to insist on punitive fines that bred resentment as Wallis has argued for London. He cited the spirit of ‘concord and fraternity that lay at the centre of the guild idea’ as one reason for mild punishments in the London companies: Wallis, ‘Controlling commodities’, 92.

62 In 1600, only five of the ten who resisted swore their oaths in the same year, a level consistent with the 1580s.

63 Their actions call to mind the small victories won by twentieth-century peasants practising what James Scott called ‘everyday resistance’. Peasant aims, he wrote, were ‘not directly to overthrow or transform a system of domination’, but ‘to thwart material and symbolic claims from dominant classes’: Scott, J.C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, 1985), 301. Although the merchants, craftsmen and professionals selected for membership in the Company of St George were clearly not in the same position of weakness as the peasants studied by Scott, they did find themselves at a disadvantage when it came to Company demands, which were backed by the city's legal apparatus, and did pursue an indirect form of protest.

64 Five of the 54 who swore their oaths without protest between 1591 and 1600 (inclusive) later became mayor. The proportion is 9% in each case.

65 Mackerell, ‘Account of the Company of St George’, 374, 372 for quoted passages, 366–74 for full narrative. On Mackerell's antiquarian work, see Stoker, D., ‘Mackerell, Benjamin (bap. 1685, d. 1738)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), accessed 19 June 2018,, and Benjamin Mackerell, antiquary, librarian, and plagiarist’, Norfolk Archaeology, 42 (1994), 112. Clarke's protest relied on the Gild and Company's old records, and one suspects that Mackerell, who had access to the documents and the expertise to exploit them, furnished Clarke with the material he needed. Unstated in Mackerell's account, though perhaps obvious to contemporaries, was the influence of Whig–Tory conflicts on the outcome; Clarke's victory coincided with Whig ascendancy in local government. Several modern accounts have restored that political context: Kilmartin, ‘Popular rejoicing’, 307–10; Rogers, N., Whigs and Cities: Popular Politics in the Age of Walpole and Pitt (Oxford, 1989), 338–9; Miller, ‘Containing division’, 1042. For more general accounts of partisan struggles in the city, see Wilson, K., The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995), 376404; Knights, M., ‘Politics, 1660–1835’, in Rawcliffe, C. and Wilson, R. (eds.), Norwich since 1550 (London, 2004), 171–4. More recently, Daniel Howse has interpreted Clarke's actions as part of a broader campaign against privileged institutions: D. Howse, ‘Governance, social relations and popular politics in eighteenth century Norwich’, University of East Anglia Ph.D. thesis, 2013, 173–5.

66 Mackerell, ‘Account of the Company of St George’, 367.

The author would like to thank the staff of the Norfolk Record Office for their expert assistance. He also gratefully acknowledges the support of Franklin & Marshall College's Faculty Research and Professional Development Fund.

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