WILLIAM BROWNE who died in 1489 was the dominant figure in Stamford for most of the fifteenth century. John Leland, Henry VIII’s antiquary who visited Stamford nearly fifty years after Browne died, wrote that Browne was “a marchaunt of a very wonderfulle richenesse”.
Certainly he had wealth. We can see this from the fact that he and his brother John Browne rebuilt the church of All Saints including a new tower, and they left their merchant’s mark on the building. William founded Browne’s Hospital on Broad Street next door to where he lived and conducted his business. He endowed it with a very substantial series of estates in Stamford and in the countryside around. The building itself and its fittings such as the glass reveals the wealth as well as the inspiration of its builder. (A glass workshop in the town during the century, including one John Browne of Stamford glazier, is known to have produced some of the finest fifteenth century glass in the area (Gothic 2003:402)). William Browne left half of his large estate to his almshouse; his daughter Elizabeth who married John Elmes of Henley on Thames inherited the other half.
William’s wealth was built on wool. He was a Calais stapler, indeed he was elected as mayor of the Calais staple. And that not only gave him trading wealth; it also brought influence. For the Calais staple was one of the chief engines of finance for successive governments. Loans were made to the king, in return for which the lenders were granted export licences, property which fell into the Crown, and general pardons. It also gained the lenders the ears of the king’s ministers and even the king himself. The king often came through Stamford on his way north or south, and there were several places worthy of housing the king and his household in and around the town, especially the friaries (Stamford Castle was already in disrepair by this time although, as the Hall Book shows, courts continued to be held there).
Such prominence brought with it duties, of course. William served on the borough council for the whole period under review and was Alderman (i.e. mayor) on six occasions. Part of his power base in the town came from the gilds of the town, including the gild of St Katherine (GCC Mss 266/670); William Browne was its Alderman from at least 1480 until his death, when he was succeeded by his nephew Christopher Browne until 1495. He was also a prominent member of the Stamford gild of Corpus Christi and served as its Alderman in 1484 and probably other years also (Rogers 1973:34). He was appointed JP in Rutland and was also sheriff in Rutland and Lincolnshire, offices which not only brought with them duties but also opportunities to increase his wealth and influence. He was a man worth cultivating.
And he was also a man of political shrewdness. He steered himself carefully through the difficulties of the years 1450-52, 1470-71 and again 1482 to 1485 (Rogers 2009). Browne was sheriff of Rutland during the key year 1483; his appointment by Edward IV was renewed by the government of Edward V and then again by Richard III, so he was clearly acceptable to all regimes at this time. The licence to found the hospital seems to show this in some detail. He seems to have started his Hospital well before the death of Edward IV, but he did not obtain the licence to set up a trust and endow it with property in this reign. Richard III granted the licence to Browne in January 1485. Henry VII renewed that licence (CPR 1476-85:505, 570; CFR 1471-85:245, 257, 268; Newton 1966).
But Browne seems to have avoided political commitment. He never served as MP for the borough. Although clearly called upon to help the town at times of political uncertainty, he did not become personally involved.
It was not of course William alone who had such influence in Stamford, as can be seen from the way in which John (William’s younger brother) and Christopher (John’s son) were treated. John Browne was listed as second in the list of the First Twelve every year until he died (1476) except for the two years when his brother William served as Alderman, in which case John’s name came first in the list. John did not serve as Alderman during the time of the Hall Book but he had been Alderman in 1462-3 after the new charter had been granted. He too was wealthy, helping to rebuild All Saints church in the market place, and the Book of Hours which he and his wife commissioned shows both the high art and international connections which the family had (RCHM 1977; Gothic 2003: 273-4). Christopher was admitted to the freedom in December 1481, and he was fast-tracked onto the First Twelve and immediately into the post of Alderman in the following September. After a short period of uncertainty, his name was always ranked first in the First Twelve list. The Browne family were clearly very eminent in Stamford in the late fifteenth century.
Stamford and power
Despite the fact that Stamford was a Yorkist property, it managed to stay clear of most of the troubles of the period (see Rogers 1965, 1973). It claimed it had received its charter in 1462 as a reward for having been sacked by the Lancastrian army in the previous year. But the sack of Stamford has been greatly exaggerated by later historians (in the seventeenth century, Richard Butcher the town clerk alleged that some town councillors were plundering the town of its records and then blaming the sack of Stamford for their destruction; and Huntingdon and other towns were sacked at the same time but did not make such a hullabaloo about it as did Stamford). It sent troops to both Henry VI and Edward IV when necessary and raised taxes to pay for them (Rogers 2009). There are times when some influence can be seen in the promotion of eminent persons directly onto the town council, by-passing the normal routes of climbing the council ladder, so that they could be chosen as Alderman. But at no time did the council fall under the long-term influence of any party at the time; the chief influence seems to have been William Browne. The town chose royal servants as its MPs from 1467, but I suggest that they did this for their own interest rather than simply to find a suitable place for a royal supporter, and all of these MPs had local investment in the town. A new charter of 1481 came some time after the battle of Loosecoat Field nearby (1470). Despite its Yorkist credentials and loyalties, the chief interest of Stamford in the late fifteenth century was Stamford, not any of the warring parties in the country at this time.
And this implied more than anything else relations with its lord and his officials. The duke of York, lord of the manor, castle and town of Stamford during the reign of Henry VI, allowed the town to manage its own affairs, especially the market, though enforcing the manor court held in the Castle. His steward and his bailiff under the steward were responsible to collect what profits were due to the lord. Disputes occurred over sources of income such as the town pinfold. So that the charter of 1462 (and again in 1481) could be seen as much as granting freedom from the lord as from the royal administration. After his accession to the throne, Edward gave the town, manor and castle to his mother Lady Cecily dowager duchess of York. When Henry VII came to the throne, he gave the reversion of the town to his wife Elizabeth. From about 1480, her officials such as William Hussey began to interfere more directly in the town’s affairs, enforcing measures of control over the town’s council which they claimed had come down from antiquity (i.e. from the times of William de Warenne who held the town in the fourteenth century; see Rogers 1973).
Real power then seems to have lain within the town and especially with William Browne. There are hints in the Hall Book of William’s dominance in the town. The chief one is that his name was always first in the list of town councillors (the First Twelve); apart from the years when he was Alderman, he was never dislodged from that position. There was a marked change after his death. The first name in that list was frequently changed, often being the name of the immediate past Alderman. But from 1465 when we have the first list to 1490 when it was reported that William Browne had died, for 25 years William Browne headed the list. He gave the town instruments for the gaol immediately after one of his terms of office as Alderman. Such a gift can be seen as both symbolic as well as philanthropic. On one occasion (1481) when it appears that some factionalism broke out in the town council, it was Browne who took the lead of a small group of councillors, locking up the town seal so that no-one could use it without the knowledge of himself and the others. And there is one clear hint of his identification with the town of Stamford. During his year of office, he alone of all the Aldermen used the personal pronoun: “William Cunwey came before me”; “he gave his pledge to me” etc. No-one else used this kind of language. It may also be significant that William Browne seems to have had relatively few interests in other towns such as Boston, King’s Lynn etc, as did many other Stamford merchants of the day. He was a member and indeed Alderman on one occasion of the celebrated gild of Corpus Christi in Boston, but that apart, his links outside Stamford seem to have been few. He acquired country estates, for example Lilford in Northants, but he does not seem to have spent time on these estates. He left Lilford to his daughter Elizabeth the wife of John Elmes; their son William Elmes was one of the executors of William Browne in setting up his Hospital after his death in 1489.
Beyond this is speculation. But he seems to have been a defender of the privileges of the town to a quite remarkable degree. Having himself served as sheriff of two counties, he knew at first hand how important it was to keep the sheriff out of the town as the charter allowed them to do. The only occasions this was broken were some of the parliamentary elections in the town when it would seem that the Alderman conducted the elections but made his returns to Chancery through the sheriff of Lincoln. And the ‘lord’ of Stamford (Lady Cecily duchess of York, mother of Edward IV) and her steward who conducted the manorial court from the Castle were also to be kept at bay. It may have been useful to give an occasional present to her representative such as Humphrey Bourchchier lord Cromwell (a present made when William Browne was Alderman), but the freedom to run its own affairs - its streets and dunghills, its trading hours and market locations, its apprenticeships and sureties, its magistrates’ courts (as JPs) and disputes over debts - must at all costs be preserved.
The chief signs of his defence of the town’s privileges may be seen from what happened immediately after his death. Once during the life of William Browne it is recorded that the lawyer who (according to the charter of 1462) was supposed to attend all sittings of the JPs was present at a council meeting. But immediately after the death of William Browne, a number of significant changes took place. The Alderman was elected (as before) on 30 September (whatever day of the week that date fell on), but instead of entering at once on his duties, some time later (sometimes as much as one month), he and the other councillors were summoned to the Castle where they took their oaths before Lady Cecily’s steward or his deputy and began their year of office. In order to overcome any objection to such innovation, the Hall Book records this as being “according to ancient custom” (secundum antiquam consuetudinem) - i.e. it is alleged to date from before the charters. In fact, it was a revival of the custom under the Earls of Warenne when the town was required to present their newly elected chief officer to the earl for his approval. I want to suggest - but no more than suggest - that it was the death of William Browne which allowed the steward of the Castle once again to enforce his veto over the town councillors and their election of the Alderman. It could of course have been part of a more general reform of administration designed to strengthen royal power at the expense of the local lords. But the change of tone in the Hall Book after 1490 is so strong that something local seems to have enabled it to take place. And the town went along with this new or revived practice - there is a later declaration by the Alderman and council about searching the market “on behalf of the king”.
Stamford and the charters
Such control by an outside authority would seem to have contravened the 1462 charter. Not that Stamford paid much attention to their charter. The charter was used by the town councillors to promote the town’s interests, not to bind it. Its provisions were ignored when custom pointed to this. For example, there were two Twelves, a First Twelve from whom the new Alderman was chosen and a Second Twelve for the community (very soon after the death of Browne, a Third Twelve was chosen by the common freemen of the borough for a special audit of officers’ accounts; the freemen on that occasion seem to have felt that the Second Twelve no longer represented their interests, but that third council quickly vanished). The charter said there should be a council of thirteen, of whom one should be chosen as Alderman; it says nothing about the Second Twelve. Again the charter said the Alderman and his fellow JPs should hold their court every Thursday; but the court was held more occasionally than this and on any day of the week they chose, including Sundays. I suggest (although there is no firm evidence for it) that these were customs which had appertained before the 1462 charter and they continued after the charter; the townsmen of Stamford saw the charter as enabling them to do some things but it must not stop them from doing other things, especially what they had done earlier.
The grant of the charter indeed (although it conferred some new privileges) was probably in the interest as much of the king as of the town. It has been suggested that it was a reward to the town for their loyalty to the Yorkist cause, but it was just as likely to be a pledge for future support to the Crown. For Stamford was still a fairly wealthy town and through it the king had access to relatively easily raised money. In 1481, Edward IV renewed the charter and gave some extra privileges (a second, i.e. Monday, market and two new annual fairs, the profits of which came to the town council, not to the lord of the manor). But again this can be seen as being in the king’s interest as well as the town’s interest.
Some issues for further
The purpose of this publication is to put the town’s minute book – the Hall book – into the public domain. Much more work needs to be done on the history of Stamford at this period, for this is not a full history. This is clear from two further points at which Stamford’s history and national history intersect on a regular basis. The election of MPs (actually a revival, for Stamford had returned MPs on two occasions during the early fourteenth centuries), is reported in the Hall Book on several occasions, but there are other occasions when it is not so reported (Rogers forthcoming). And the collection of royal taxes on the town is again mentioned several times in detail but there is no record on several other occasions (Jurkowski et al 1998). The keeping of records was not Stamford’s strong point in the late fifteenth century. The book itself is not complete and items are sometimes recorded out of sequence. The Hall Book thus needs to be supplemented by the royal records and the church records of the period.
Some suggestive lines of enquiry
Apart from more research into the town’s national roles at this period, the Hall Book leads us to ask other questions concerning the council and its relations with the residents of borough. For example, there is one sign of internal conflict such as is known in Kings Lynn and other towns at this time (Dimmock 2001; Dyer 1992) which needs to be explored further. There may have been some growing reluctance to serve as Alderman. Towards the end of the period, at least one person was brought onto the First Twelve with a specific proviso that he be not elected as Alderman without his consent. And on four occasions, a person was brought onto the First Twelve (two of them from the Second Twelve) and elected as Alderman immediately. More needs to be looked at in this respect.
The influence that the Alderman had is not clear. One thing is strange. The Alderman was ex officio the patron of the gild of St Clement, appointing the priest to that chantry (Hartley and Rogers 1974: 23-24). On at least one occasion that appointment was made “with the consent of the comburgesses”; but there is no sign of this kind of business in the Hall Book. We do not have a full record of all the business transacted by the Alderman and his council here.
Then there are the town’s Corpus Christi plays - ‘pagentes’ as they are called here, probably floats provided by each of the thirteen craft groupings on which were staged not static displays but some dramatic interludes. The town on one occasion suggested these should be divided into two sets, six one year and five the following year. Why was this change proposed?
The lists of occupations which can be drawn from the admission of freemen to the borough may be very revealing. We do not of course have a full list, for the names of those who had already been admitted to the freedom before the 1462 charter was given are not known, and at times a separate record of admissions was made; but over the twenty-five years covered in this volume, there may be significant changes in the make up of the town’s economy.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the admissions to the town’s freedom is again what happened after the death of William Browne. As the table of admissions shows, the only Alderman who did not admit anyone during his year of office was William Browne (and only four in his other term); and during his lifetime, on no occasion were more than nine persons admitted at one sitting. But only a few months after his death, no less than 23 freemen were admitted in one long list, and a few months later another nineteen tradesmen were admitted again at one council meeting. It almost looks as if Browne was exercising some restraining influence limiting the number of freemen who could be admitted, and that as soon as he died, the flood gates were opened (the same thing happened to the gild of St Katherine which Browne also ran). But some Aldermen admitted many freemen, especially Robert Hans and some of those who came up from the Second Twelve, others very few.
It would be good to see if the kinds of trades and crafts being used changed over this period as seen in these admissions. A number of apprenticeships are enrolled and throw light on the development of trades and manufactures. There is more which can be discovered in this respect. For example, we can see here the inns of the George, the Moon and Stars, and the Antelope, and there are several references to lodging houses which between them provided not only hospitality for visitors but also trading centres, travel terminuses and meeting places for the transaction of all kinds of business.
And this raises the issue of the wealth of Stamford at this time. Some historians have seen towns as in a state of decline in the later fifteenth century, while others have noted areas of considerable prosperity. The Hall Book does not at first sight throw much light on this. But we can note the building work going on in Stamford at this time which forms a backdrop to the debates in the council chamber. A number of substantial town houses were built in the later fifteenth century, notably the large courtyard house south of (and now part of) the George Hotel. Stukeley’s drawings show several large fifteenth century houses which have now gone. St George’s church had just received extensive building, thanks in part to Sir William Bruges Garter King of Arms, and a new nave roof was going up while the Hall Book was being written. William Browne and his brother John were rebuilding All Saints church on a grand scale as well as Browne’s Hospital, one of the grandest hospitals of the later medieval period. All Saints Vicarage was also rebuilt at this time. St John’s church had just finished its rebuilding and St Martin’s church tower was rebuilt at the same time, while the rest of the church was being reconstructed in the 1480s. St Mary’s church also was being extensively rebuilt, and William Hikeham paid for restorations to the north aisle which seems to have been used by the gild of Corpus Christi for its chapel; the carved and painted ceiling was given by Hikeham and his wife Agnes (Harris 1965; RCHM 1977).
Which raises the issue of the role which women played in the town. Women ran businesses - but appear very rarely and then primarily in court cases. Never on the council or in any other public role such as assessors or collectors of taxes; never even as sureties or pledges. William Browne’s town was not in fact a man’s town, but the representation of it in the Hall Book was as a man’s town. Women are almost always seen in negative terms in this record - those who are mentioned here are parties in law suits, causes of trouble, vagabonds and lodging house servants, although elsewhere we see them playing a part as full members of the parish gilds.
And finally there is the question of the town council chamber. Where was ‘the common hall’ in which the First and Second Twelves met and where the sessions of the peace were held? On one occasion, the Hall Book says the council met in the hall of the gild of Corpus Christi. In the sixteenth century, while the town’s Gyldehall seems to have been a chamber over the south gate of the town over the bridge, there was also a Gildehalle in St Mary’s Place which the Cecil family held and which appears to have been close to the site of the present Town Hall (Hartley and Rogers 1974:34). Some meetings of the town council were held here while the town hall was being repaired, as recorded in the Hall Book.
And talking of council meetings and their minutes, I found myself becoming interested in the book itself. Why in 1465, three years after the new charter made a new beginning necessary, did the council feel it necessary to start a new Hall Book, copying up some but not all of the previous three year records (they even left out the elections of the Aldermen for these years)? Did they start with a bound book or did they start writing on separate sheets and only later bind them into a very large volume? The existing size of the book would make it very difficult to write in when bound. Where did the paper come from? - examination of the watermark may help to reveal this. And who wrote up the entries? - as with so many other medieval texts, we do not know who wrote the Hall Book; the town clerk cannot now be identified. A great pity - although he was often careless and slack in his work. And what happened to the other town records, such as the finance account books and lists of freemen and other papers mentioned in the text?
But so long as we remember that in the Hall Book we are seeing only one part of late medieval Stamford, a picture which men drew and in which they actually did not see the women and their achievements, we shall look at this record as one of great value - a town council trying to regulate its own affairs, settle its own disputes, promote its own interests, tidy its own streets, develop its own recreations – many of the activities and ambitions which Stamford’s residents today have largely lost despite successive governments which have pledged themselves to more decentralisation. Medieval Stamford citizens were in greater control of their own lives and environment than their twenty-first century successors are.