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Letter book A, manuscript on vellum, 1275

City of London, Letter Book A, manuscript on vellum, 1275-1298, ref: COL/AD/01/001

Archive treasures: medieval administration

The series of volumes known as the Letter Books document the earliest proceedings of the government of the City of London. They began in 1275, initially as registers of bonds and recognisances, but soon developed into administrative minute books, recording the meetings of the Court of Aldermen and the Court of Common Council. They continued to be kept until the end of the seventeenth century, and are called 'Letter Books' because they were labelled with letters of the alphabet (not because they contained copies of letters).  Fifty of these volumes survive, in continuous sequence, providing an essential quarry for the history of the City at both a micro and macro level. Elizabeth Scudder tells more.

The pages shown here illustrate two events in the City’s history. The entry on the right, from 1285, represents an important step in the evolution of City administration as it provides the first list of forty 'probi homines' (worthy and substantial men) who were to consult with the Aldermen on the common affairs of the City. These reputable citizens were 'sworn of every Ward' and the representation varied from one to three. This group evolved into the Court of Common Council, which became the main governing body of the City.

At this date the City had 24 Wards. Most of the Wards are known by their modern names, allowing for some variations in spelling, the principal exception being the Ward of 'Lodgate and Neugate' (Ludgate and Newgate). The contemporary Alderman of this Ward was William de Farndone and it is from his family surname that the modern name of Farringdon derives.

In 1322 it was agreed that rules to govern all citizens should be made by an assembly comprising two people from each ward, and in 1346 this was amended so that the number of representatives reflected the size of the ward. The Court is first referred to as the Common Council in 1376 and by the end of the fourteenth century it had taken on a number of legislative functions, becoming particularly involved in financial affairs. As municipal services developed, so did the need to raise taxes, and the Court became the representative body for the citizens in assenting to that.  It has continued in existence ever since, gradually taking over more responsibilities from the Court of Aldermen. Its size has varied over time and by the nineteenth century had swelled to 240; today, the Court of Common Council has a membership of 100.

Letter book H, manuscript on velum, 1381

​City of London, Letter Book H, manuscript on vellum, 1375-1399. Ref: COL/AD/01/008

On the left is a page from Letter Book 'H' recording the writ to the City Sheriffs pardoning those involved in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Triggered by years of discontent over the treatment of labourers, culminating in the imposition of a poll tax, this armed uprising was one of the most significant popular rebellions of medieval England, the climax of which took place within the environs of the City. In June 1381 a large assembly of disaffected people, mostly from Essex and Kent, gathered at Blackheath where they were inspired to action by the radical preaching of John Ball.  The following day they stormed the Tower of London and summarily executed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Treasurer.

The young King, Richard II, agreed to meet the rebels at Smithfield. William Walworth, the Mayor, accompanied him and achieved fame by killing the rebel leader, Wat Tyler. The uprising collapsed, the ringleaders were captured and punished, and Walworth was knighted. To this day the dagger which is reputedly Walworth’s is preserved in Fishmongers’ Hall, and the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, has a nineteenth-century stained glass window depicting the scene at Smithfield. The rising itself went down in history as an early manifestation of the fight for social justice, or of the dangers of allowing radical ideas to foment (depending on perspective), and for centuries thereafter it was regularly re-enacted in City street theatre.

02 May 2018
Last Modified:
23 May 2018