3 February 1258 – King Henry III Moves Against his Opponents in London
On this day in 1258 a series of inquests began in the wards of London. Starting on Sunday 3 February and continuing for an entire week, thirty-six men from each ward of the medieval city answered questions, on oath, that were put to them by John Mansel, administrator and councillor to King Henry III of England (1216-1272). The king had sent Mansel to London on 25 January, along with Imbert Pugeys and Aubrey de Féscamp, to enquire into an accusation that the mayor and his accomplices had misappropriated a tallage which had been imposed on the city in 1255. A tallage was a tax that the king could levy on people who lived on his manors and property at will. In London, especially, it was a controversial royal prerogative power because it implied that the Londoners, who considered themselves barons of the realm, were no better than the serfs on royal lands. Indeed, twice in or before 1215, the Londoners had petitioned that they should not be tallaged without the consent of the kingdom and/or the city. The Londoners tried to incorporate this demand into Magna Carta, which was sealed by King John (1199-1216) in that year. John refused to concede on this point, but what the Londoners did gain in Magna Carta was confirmation that all their ancient liberties would be protected.
Henry tallaged the Londoners on at least ten occasions during his reign, often leading to quarrels between the king and citizens. A tallage levied per capita by Henry in 1227 was so troublesome that the Londoners requested that henceforth they should not be assessed in this way. The greatest clash between the king and the citizens over tallage, however, came in January 1255, when the king demanded the Londoners pay a tallage of 3,000 marks (£2,000). The mayor of London, Ralph Hardel, simply refused to pay. Instead, he offered the king an aid of 2,000 marks (£1,333). What was more important to Hardel and the Londoners in 1255 was not so much the money, but the principle: an aid carried with it an implication of taxation by consent. The king sent his officers to the city to collect the tallage; in response, the citizens refused to take part in any inquisitions as to the value of their goods and chattels. Eventually the king ordered a search of the royal archive where he found proof that he could tallage the citizens at will. On 8 February the citizens finally gave way and paid the money. However, grudges were borne on both sides. As far as the Londoners were concerned, these frequent royal demands for supply were an unjust exaction incompatible, in spirit at least, with Magna Carta, and an insult to their dignity. As far as the king was concerned, illi rustici Londonienses, qui se barones appellant (those peasant Londoners, who call themselves barons), insulted his royal dignity with their demands and were getting too big for their boots.
In January 1258 the king decided to move against his opponents in the city. Mansel and the others arrived in London and promptly summoned the folkmoot to meet on Sunday 27 January. The folkmoot was an assembly of all the freemen of London. It traditionally met three times a year on ground to the north-east of St Paul’s Cathedral, close to the site of Paternoster Square today. In this way, the king and his officers were appealing directly to the citizens and bypassing the mayor and aldermen. The royal officers proclaimed that the king has come to learn that the poorer Londoners had been unfairly burdened in the collection of the 1255 tallage, and he ordered juries of thirty-six men to be elected in each ward who would answer questions about the assessment of the tallage in their ward. There was, however, one important caveat: Mansel ordered that the election should take place in the absence of the alderman of the ward who, it was feared, might seek to influence the electoral process.
Even in the absence of the alderman, there can be little doubt that those elected to the jury of each ward were men drawn from the ranks of the richer sort. They certainly knew their rights. The Londoners might have lost the battle over tallage in 1215, but they had won protection of their ancient liberties. On Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 February, in the bishop of London’s hall and at the Guildhall, these juries of thirty-six men stood on London custom and refused to swear the oaths required of them by the king’s councillors. They claimed that on this occasion no oath could be demanded of them beyond the customary oath of loyalty which they had already sworn to the king. On Friday 1 February, therefore, the king and councillors decided to appeal once more to the citizenry as a whole at the Guildhall. According to the alderman of Billingsgate Ward, Arnold fitz Thedmar, an ‘innumerable crowd’ of ‘wretches’ shouted that they wished the juries to take the oath, which was contrary to London’s liberties, and which liberties these wretches had done nothing to deserve. With the massed citizenry behind him, Mansel ‘took the city into the king’s hand’, he removed the mayor, Ralph Hardel – Henry’s opponent in 1255, the sheriffs, Thomas fitz Thomas and Matthew Bukerel, and the royal chamberlain, Thomas Esperon, from office and appointed his own men in their place.
Thus, on Sunday 3 February, the juries began to appear before John Mansel at the Guildhall and answer the questions put to them on oath. The inquisitions, which would be heldin camera, would take seven days to complete. Next week we shall discover what happened when the inquisitions had been concluded.