Settlements of man, even in his earliest form, were governed by a council of some kind to uphold tribal laws and see to the running of the community. The Greek and Roman civilisations had ‘sophisticated’ elections and governments, and when Britain became a Roman province in 43 AD administration was put in the hands of the various tribes, reorganising them as local government units (civitates) and letting their nobles form councils and hold magistracies. The Roman constitution was upheld but was adaptable to existing institutions. In the 650 year period between the Roman’s departure and the Norman Conquest, those institutions were upheld and improved by the Saxons who laid the foundations of a society we’re still familiar with to this day.
By the end of the 7th century the country was split into three major kingdoms: Northumbria in north-east England and southern Scotland, Mercia in the Midlands, and Wessex in the south and south-west. From very early on, these kingdoms were sub-divided into shires and further divided into hundreds, boroughs and parishes.
In the 9th century, kings of smaller kingdoms that had previously existed between the three larger ones became ‘sub kings’ or ‘aldermen’, subordinate to the overall ruler and put in charge of shires. Their position was little more than that of local official but under Athelstan’s rule (924–939) their status increased to that of powerful earls, presiding over the shire courts and administering justice in the king’s name.
The ‘Witan’, or royal council, of the 10th century vastly improved local government. During the reign of Edgar (959–75) the regional kingdoms of England were reduced to a single framework of ‘shires’. In more rural areas local disputes and misdemeanours were upheld by the hundred courts. Originally, all members of the Hundred communities were expected to attend these courts – held monthly and usually in the open air – and it was they who judged the outcome of proceedings according to customary law. Later, rural communities were represented by just a few key members of their population: for example, Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley owed suit (attendance) to the hundred court at Braughing, each represented there by a Reeve and four best men. To begin with, a reeve was a villein free of all service other than supervisory work in the fields, but he did take on special duties under the direct control of the lord’s bailiff or steward. His position later became one of far greater importance as the shire-reeve (or sheriff) who then presided over the hundred courts.
Under Edward the Confessor’s rule (1042–66), government, the military, the Church, taxation, coinage, law and order, and records of land ownership were all well established. After the Conquest, King William had little reason to alter the way Anglo-Saxons had ruled but like any conquered nation, certain institutions and practices had to be changed in response to the problems new rule brings. The Anglo-Saxon Witan, or Council, became William’s curia regis (‘kings court’) i.e. a meeting of all the royal tenants in chief, both lay and religious. Full courts were held three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, to which all great tenants-in-chief of the realm were summoned to see that justice was done. These courts mostly dealt with land disputes.
Anglo-Saxon administrative organisation had also worked well under Edward the Confessor, the royal household being at the centre of royal government. Local government was also left largely intact, although bishops and earls did cease to preside over the shire courts. Instead, bishops held their own ecclesiastical courts and earls had their feudal courts. Earls, however, were still entitled to take a third of the proceeds from shire courts.
Urban-based local government existed in Britain from the 8th century until 1974, after which time it continued only as a honourary status granted by royal charter to a district council. Urban areas are generally termed as boroughs, derived from the Old English word ‘burg’ (or burgh) meaning a walled or fortified place. Many towns had their beginnings in the neighbourhood of a castle, a monastery or well protected manor house. The term ‘burg’ related exclusively to the English way of life, its origins in charters of incorporation or grants of liberties bought from the king and later developed through the ever-powerful merchant and craft guilds.
The township was the smallest unit of the political system, which was simply a community of allodial landowners linked by a common interest. Bishop’s Stortford’s position was slightly different in that it was the property of the bishop of London, and at some time after the Conquest was made a mesne (intermediate) borough, in effect making the bishop or his appointed officials almost entirely responsible for it. That responsibility also included the surrounding area – known as the bishop’s barony – and in this part of Hertfordshire the barony was sizable. It comprised of Bishop’s Stortford, Great Hadham, Little Hadham, the three Pelhams and Albury, as well as many other villages some of which were in Essex. These, in total, made up the ‘Liberty’ of jurisdiction of the bishop of London.
To establish the bishop’s position and uphold the law, the king granted him many diverse rights that included permission to hunt small animals in any of his lands lying within the king’s forest; the right to hang anyone found guilty in the manor court; and to make sure that all free men over the age of 12 were within the frankpledge – meaning they were responsible for each others behaviour.
Under Norman rule the people of Bishop’s Stortford no longer had to attend the Hundred Court at Braughing, instead there was a Bishop’s Court in Waytemore Castle to deal with felony of a religious nature and a Borough Court for civil matters. The latter eventually lapsed and the owners of manors within the bishop’s jurisdiction dealt with civil punishment in the manor courts or ‘Court Leet’ (Landowner’s Court) held yearly of half yearly.
In Feudal and Medieval times these Court Leets had considerable power, one of their many roles being to appoint manorial officers. They were: the head borough, fish and flesh tasters, ale tasters, bread tasters, bread and butter weighers, leather sealers or leather searchers, constables for the manor, common drivers for the east side of the river, and common drivers for the west side of the river. The Lord of the Manor of Stortford was also entitled to certain tolls on all cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and fowls sold in the market, and his steward or bailiff was appointed a deputy-bailiff to collect the tolls.
Any warrant issued by the sheriff of Hertfordshire or Essex, to be executed within the barony, had to be served by the bishop’s bailiff. The Bishop’s Court was maintained by charging ‘Castleguard’ rent, and when the bishop moved around his diocese a constable had to be left in charge of the castle.
Twelve burgesses and elected officials represented the town at the Bishop’s Court. The term ‘burgess’ simply means a freeman or citizen of a borough, although elected burgesses usually came from the more privileged classes of the community. Bishop’s Stortford’s status changed briefly in 1207 after King John quarrelled with the Pope over a religious matter (See Guide 8 – Waytemore Castle), and in a retaliatory move against the Pope, freed the town of ownership by the bishop and made it a Borough. This gave its people the right to elect its own Constable and officers.
The 17th century, historian Henry Chauncy (See Guide 3) wrote that King John, after making the town a borough, committed it to send two burgesses to Parliament. But this fact can be disputed. He may well have made the town a borough but parliament didn’t existed at that time, only the Great Council consisting of the king’s tenants-in-chief and members of the clergy. However, when King John finally resolved his differences with Rome in 1214, both town and castle were returned to the bishop.
Up until, and including the reign of King John (1199–1216), the king had always been the supreme authority, who not only reigned but governed as well. Although obliged to listen to the advice of the Great Council, most monarchs ignored them and attempted to increase their overall authority. King John granted self-government to many towns as a way of strengthening himself against the barons, but after over-ruling the advice of the Great Council once too often he was eventually forced to sign Magna Carter in 1215. This charter, drawn up by the barons (at Bury St Edmunds), limited arbitrary government and established that the king, in future, would govern in collaboration with the Great Council.
The word ‘parliament’ first came into use around 1258, but not until Simon de Montfort, Earl of Liecester, seized power from Henry III in 1264 did the old system of a group of councillors selected by the king finally become redundant. The barons had already suceeded in implementing a series of governmental reforms, and in January 1265 Simon de Montfort issued a writ, calling, for the first time, two knights from each shire and two burgesses from each borough to attend a new style parliament. By including representatives from the middle classes (commons), de Montfort is often credited with establishing the House of Commons and contributing to the foundation of our modern-day parliament.
But parliament at that time was nothing like it is today, generally only being called when the king wanted to raise money. The sheriff, who received the writ from the king summoning representatives, had discretion to send the summons to the towns of his choosing. Many townships considered this a burden, as did the burgesses, because it was they who had to travel to wherever the king was when he called parliament. This could be in York, Winchester, Oxford or Gloucester – in fact, anywhere. Not until the 14th century did parliament convene permanently at Westminster.
Although Bishop’s Stortford had briefly experienced borough status under King John’s rule, it wasn’t actually represented in parliament until 100 years later. Whether this was by royal charter or by purchase of its rights from the Lord of the Manor (the bishop) isn’t known, but two town burgesses attended the parliaments of Edward II and Edward III in 1311–1315, 1318, 1320, 1322 and 1340. It put the town on the same level as cities like London and St Albans but it’s thought representation was lost after this time, possibly as a result of the 1348 plague that decimated the population.
This same fact, combined with a decline in prosperity, forced the Bishop’s Court to reduce administration costs and it eventually lapsed. Only the Court Leet (manor courts) was then held at Waytemore Castle, but when this was demolished in the early 16th century the courts were transferred to the Crown Inn at Hockerill where they continued until the early 19th century.
The Tudors, especially Henry VIII, created an efficient centralised government and a decentralised local administration. In local affairs government was dependent on the support of the propertied section of the community, and taxpayers would meet annually in the Vestry of parish churches to chose four principal officers from their midst. Two to supervise the management of the church – Churchwardens; an Overseer of the Poor, responsible for the old, the sick the unemployed and orphans; a Surveyor of the Highways or Stonewarden, who maintained the roads; and a Constable responsible for maintaining law and order.
Constables were originally appointed by the Court Leet, but by the 18th century the appoinment was made by the parish. Locally, and probably more generally, the vestry nominated 15 persons who were qualified and able to serve as constables, the names of two or four of them then submitted for approval by the magistrates. Usually it was the local squire who acted as Justice of the Peace.
Of those officials elected to serve the parish it would seem that churchwardens were generally the most important, one of their number usually occupying the chair at Vestry meetings. Along with the Overseer they would also form a committee of the parish, responsible for gathering and distributing the means of relief for the poor; collecting the rate for the relief of the poor, and putting the poor to work.
Only once more after the 14th century did Bishop’s Stortford lapse from ownership by the bishop of London. When Charles I succeeded to the throne in 1625 he believed he alone had the divine right to rule his kingdom, and so began the long struggle in parliament between him and his followers against the opposing House of Commons, which ultimately led to the Civil War.
Bishops were members of the upper house – House of Lords – and supported the royal cause no matter what, always defeating the House of Commons. Frustrated by this, the Commons devised a way of impeaching a number of bishops – including the Bishop of Ely – for high treason and, as a result, other bishops fearing the same fate quickly withdrew from the House of Lords.
After the Commons victory, an ordinance of parliament in 1646 required that all properties of the bishops – who had no voice in government – were to be vested in trustees in order to pay off debts of the kingdom incurred by King Charles. Rectory Manor i.e. the Manor of Stortford and all that was owned by it, was then purchased by one Richard Turner (See Guide 10 – Rectory Manor) who held it for 15 years before being forced to relinquish it at the Restoration (1660).
After the Restoration the established religion became a major issue, and parliament made every effort to stamp out Non-conformity by passing two Acts (See Guide 6 – United Reform Church). One of these was The Five Mile Act, forbidding Non-conformist ministers to teach in schools or come within five miles of any ‘city or town corporate or borough that sends burgesses to Parliament’. Bishop’s Stortford had indeed previously sent burgesses to parliament, but the fact that no charter existed to say the town was a borough was instrumental in the town becoming a haven for Non-conformists at that time.
The Tudor system of self-elected officials worked well, but as the population grew it eventually failed through corruption and neglect. The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 put an end to this by establishing the rule of elected councils, although in country areas local government remained in the hands of justices of the peace assembled in quarter sessions.
Locally, the Court Leets had become obsolete by about 1830, the task of appointing manorial officers then taken over by the Vestry. The number of officers was by now far fewer but still included the *head borough, ale tasters, fish and flesh tasters, and cattle drivers. These appoinments finally ceased in 1872.
*The last person to occupy the important office of head borough (1866–1872) was Arthur Boardman, founder of Boardmans shop in North Street (See Guide 6 – Boardmans). And the last appointed deputy-bailiff of the Manor was a Mr Samuel Warner, who not only collected the tolls but also acted as town crier.
Bishop’s Stortford remained in the see of London until 1868, at which time the Manor of Stortford was transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of England. They then leased the tolls to the Local Board. Most of the copyhold property in the parish was later enfranchised, and of the principle purchasers it was Walter Gilbey who eventually acquired all the manorial rights and tolls to become Lord of the Manor (See Guide 2 – Sir Walter Gilbey).
The start of local government as we know it began with The Local Government Act 1888, when county councils were created and given a measure of control over local authorities. These measures were adopted by Bishop’s Stortford parish, and a Board consisting of 15 members, five of whom retired annually, governed the town. Members were elected by cumulative voting (the large ratepayers having more voting power than small ones) but the full poll was open to scrutiny by all ratepayers.
Under the new Act, the board had increased powers and passed byelaws for the management of the town. They dealt with lighting, drainage, paving and road maintenance, and also established the town’s Fire Brigade. The Local Board survived until the Local Government Act 1894 replaced parish boards with urban and rural district councils. Parish councils continued only in rural districts.
Under the Local Government Act 1972 former county borough, borough and urban and rural district councils were replaced by county councils that were subdivided into districts with district councils. Rural areas were divided into parish councils dealing purely with local matters. Since the 1960s Bishop’s Stortford’s population has grown considerably and now, with five Wards, has 18 councillors all of whom perform their duty on a voluntary basis. Thirteen of their number represent the town on the District Council and three are members of the County Council.
The town council has minimal powers regarding community services but its statutory duties include management of the cemetery, allotments, St Michael’s churchyard and some of the town’s open spaces. It also provides a Tourist Information Centre and administers several trusts.
After the town was ‘occasionally’ represented in its own right by burgesses sent to parliaments of the 14th century, it was later represented in tandem with other towns. From the late 1800s until 1955, one MP represented the combined interests of Hertford, Bishop’s Stortford, Cheshunt, Hoddesdon, Sawbridgeworth and Ware. After that date Hertford joined up with Welwyn and Hatfield and a new constituency of East Hertfordshire was formed consisting of Bishop’s Stortford and other towns. Further boundary changes in 1982 meant that Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford were represented by just one MP.