Obeying the law of the land

THE daily lives of Scarborians in the 1600s were rigorously restricted and ordered by the laws of the state, the laws of the church and the bye-laws of the borough.

Scarborough itself had four courts operating in the borough, three regular, meeting at fixed intervals, and one occasional. Since at least 1298 the town had a court of pleas which met daily or every few days to deal with private, civil cases between parties in disputes concerning matters such as debt and trespass. The records of this court are truly enormous but largely uninformative: by 1600 they contain little more than the names of the people involved, the issues between them and the sums of money at stake. All that they really tell us is that Scarborians of that time were quarrelsome and litigious. Between neighbours there was no love lost: in one year alone, 1601-2, there were as many as 430 cases heard.

The occasional court was that of Scarborough’s two annually-elected coroners who investigated sudden, violent or suspicious deaths in the Liberty, of which there were surprisingly many. People fell off the pier and drowned in the harbour; they were crushed to death underneath ships dislodged from their cradles; and they fell down the many deep, private, uncovered wells. Some died of exposure sleeping out of doors during freezing winter nights. Several hanged themselves or cut their own throats.

Murder was extremely rare: apart from Civil-War fatalities, between 1600 and 1660, only two civilian deaths were said to have been caused deliberately and maliciously and the defendants were remanded to the York assizes.

Thirdly, Scarborough had a court leet or sheriff’s tourn, a kind of manorial court, which met only twice a year. Like the court of pleas it was presided over by the borough’s chief officers and magistrates, the two annually-elected bailiffs. This assembly dealt with infringements of the town’s comprehensive “pains” or bye-laws, concerning such matters as markets, street cleaning and clearance, water supply, sewage disposal and licensing of brewers, publicans, porters and many other local employments.

Finally, the two bailiffs also sat four times a year, at Epiphany, Easter, Trinity and Michaelmas, at Scarborough’s quarter or general sessions. The quarter sessions answered serious statutory offences against communal peace and public order which at Scarborough included theft, burglary, assault, drunkenness, vagrancy, illegal sports and games and breaches of the sabbath.

For the court leet and quarter sessions, about 25 men were summoned on the first day and from them a panel of 15 and of 13 respectively were chosen and sworn in as juries. Anyone who failed to obey the summons to jury service and lacked adequate excuse, such as absence at sea or illness, would be “amerced” (fined). The jurors were then asked to decide whether there was sufficient evidence to “present” defendants for future trial and it was then left to the constables to bring them to the next sessions where they could be fined, pilloried or excused. The two bailiffs issued warrants to their two sub-bailiffs to collect these fines or their value in property.

Though the title of bailiff suggests a farming foreman rather than an important civic dignitary, at Scarborough the two annually-elected senior and junior bailiffs occupied positions of great power and prestige. The offices lasted for six centuries until they were replaced by that of mayor in 1836. After their 12 months in office as bailiffs, they then served the following year as coroners, but might be and often were re-elected for further terms.

Elections for new bailiffs and for all the corporation’s many other positions were held inside the Common Hall by its 44 members every St Jerome’s day, September 30. In addition to the two bailiffs and two coroners, there were four chamberlains, the treasury officials, and 36 burgesses arranged hierarchically in their three Twelves.

Each of the 44 men had a set place in order of seniority. There were no elections into the Common Hall from outside it: membership was by invitation from inside only. Scarborough’s ruling body for 600 years was a self-perpetuating oligarchy of the town’s elite families who in effect inherited their privileged places.

Besides bailiffs, coroners and chamberlains, the Common Hall also selected, paid salaries to and, in some cases, clothed a large number of the borough’s servants. Mention has been made previously of two pasture masters, the netherd and the warrener, but there were also four constables, one for each Quarter, four churchwardens for St Mary’s, four overseers of the town’s highways, four guardians of the poor, macebearer, piermaster, gaoler, two breadweighers, two alefyners and a searcher, a sealer and a registrar of leather.

The lives, livelihoods and leisure of the townspeople were all supervised by the watchful eye of the Common Hall. During the hours of darkness the town gates were shut and anyone then found wandering abroad was suspected of misbehaviour.

Ironically, in a town which would soon become a resort for visitors, residents were required to ask permission to entertain “strangers” or accommodate “undersettlers”, that is lodgers or tenants. Vagrants were treated very harshly.

Wages were fixed by law; at least once a year tradesmen and shopkeepers had to bring in their weights and measures for inspection and approval; prices and quality of bread and ale were regularly determined and tested; and the weekly markets and annual fairs were closely monitored to prevent fraud and unfair competition.

As far as religious conduct was concerned, the Common Hall enforced the statute laws of the land. Though in practice it was impossible to compel everyone to attend St Mary’s on Sundays, the town’s magistrates were severe on householders who blatantly defied Sabbatarian rules by entertaining, playing games, drinking or just going abroad “during divine service”. Even indoor games were proscribed on Sundays.

How Scarborians reacted to these intrusive limitations on their liberties and how the local authorities responded to their infringement will be told in forthcoming articles.