The City of London and the Problem of the Liberties, c1540 - c1640

Note to readers

The files linked below constitute the thesis I produced for my doctorate from the Faculty of Modern History at Oxford University. Both the content and the pagination are identical to the copy of my thesis deposited in the Bodleian Library (shelfmark: MS. D.Phil. c.22058).

The whole of The City of London and the Problem of the Liberties, c1540 - c1640 by Dr A P House is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Short Abstract

The post-monastic liberties have long formed a footnote to the history of early modern London, but they have escaped serious historical consideration on their own merits. Only a handful of the capital’s two dozen religious houses became liberties after the dissolution. The thesis focuses primarily on four of them, showing the liberties to be more complex and more functional places than their traditional depiction would suggest.

The introduction contextualises London’s post-monastic liberties. In addition to reviewing the historiography of the liberties, the introduction puts them in an historical context, considering them alongside provincial jurisdictional battles, early modern London’s rapid growth, and the institution of sanctuary. The second chapter focuses on the City of London’s relationship with the liberties in the century after the dissolution. A chronological survey of its approach to the liberties precedes a thematic discussion of the issues that affected that approach.

The following chapters present in-depth study of four post-monastic liberties. They explore the development of administrative and social conditions within each liberty and consider the relationship of each to outside authorities.

Because of variations in the survival of sources, different aspects of each liberty’s history come to the fore. The Minories chapter focuses on its ecclesiastical exemptions and their role in fostering an early Puritan community there. The Blackfriars chapter considers the effects of its gentry and noble population as well as the role of its playhouses and its Puritan leanings in the decades before the Civil War. St Katherine by the Tower’s history is explored through the development of an indigenous administrative system to govern the growing population of the precinct, which existed alongside its still-operating hospital. The St Martin le Grand chapter corrects long-held misconceptions about its role as sanctuary and considers its administrative development under the auspices of the reformed Westminster Abbey.

Long Abstract

Post-monastic liberties—the jurisdictionally independent areas left after the dissolution of English religious houses—have long received casual attention from scholars of early modern London, but they have previously escaped serious historical consideration on their own merits. Accusations levelled against the liberties have been taken at face value by scholars for centuries, and only recently have historians begun to reassess their generally grim reputation in light of evidence to the contrary. In part, the problem of reevaluation lies with the liberties themselves. By their very nature, the liberties (often called exempt places in early modern documents) defy collective analysis. In the absence of jurisdictional or administrative studies of individual liberties, only broad generalisations have been possible about the post-monastic liberties in general. The thesis therefore approaches the liberties from two mutually-reinforcing angles, examining the approach of the City of London to the liberties on the one hand and presenting detailed accounts of four post-monastic liberties—the Minories, Blackfriars, St Katherine by the Tower and St Martin le Grand—on the other. These four liberties varied widely in geography, history, administrative structures and social composition. The thesis is not an exhaustive study of London’s post-monastic liberties, but it does provide valuable new information about both individual liberties and their general role in the metropolis, showing them to be more complex and more functional places than their traditional depiction would suggest.

The introduction provides both a conceptual and an historical explanation of the post-monastic liberties, including a cursory discussion of the factors that affected a liberty’s claims to jurisdictional exemption. The introduction also reviews the treatment of the liberties in the historiography of the capital. The liberties have suffered particularly at the hands of scholars bound to the New Historicism and other postmodern critical theories, but historians of recent decades have suggested that serious archival research would provide a more balanced image of the liberties.

The second chapter focuses on the City of London and its relationship with the liberties in the century after the dissolution. It begins by considering the liberties in a metropolitan context, as just one part of the jurisdictional milieu in which the City and its governing Court of Aldermen operated. It puts the liberties in an historical context by considering their position vis-à-vis jurisdictional battles in provincial English cities, the rapid population growth of early modern London, and the faltering institution of sanctuary. The second chapter goes on to survey the City’s approach to the liberties chronologically. After 1540, the city made a concerted effort to secure the post-monastic liberties in their midst, either by purchase or by challenging their jurisdictional franchises through statute or litigation.

While most of the City’s attempts to undermine the liberties’ franchises were fruitless, it met with occasional success. King James’s second charter to the City in 1608 extended its authority in six liberties. Only liberties whose franchises were protected by corporate entities with links to the royal government continued to enjoy those franchises after the 1608 charter. After considering the effects of the charter on the City’s relationship with the liberties, the second chapter proceeds to a thematic discussion of the issues that primarily affected that relationship—taxation, environmental regulation and economic regulation.

Each of the four subsequent chapters presents an in-depth study of one postmonastic liberty. They explore the development of administrative and social conditions within each liberty and consider the relationship of each to outside authorities. Because of variations in the survival of sources, different aspects of each liberty’s history come to the fore.

The third chapter explores the Minories’ links to London’s nascent Puritan community and the Ordnance Office. Despite its small population, the Minories pressed ecclesiastical privileges rather than secular franchises. For almost twenty years the Minories was the home of leading Protestant families. In combination with independence in selection of their clergy and a practical if tenuous claim to ecclesiastical independence, the Minories was a tinderbox of religious radicalism. Its parish, Holy Trinity, drew prominent Puritan preachers from around England, but the establishment of the bishop of London’s authority in the Minories during the 1570s caused noticeable changes in the administration of the parish. Radicalism did not disappear entirely, but outward conformity replaced open defiance of the local ordinary.

The parish of Holy Trinity provided the only formal administration within the Minories. The godly crowds that gathered to hear sermons augmented the income of what was otherwise a poor parish, giving it financial resources disproportionate to the wealth of the Minories’ inhabitants. During its years as a centre of metropolitan nonconformity, Holy Trinity developed a regular system of administration, including an active vestry that left behind detailed records.

After 1562, the Minories had direct ties to the Tower of London through the presence of the Ordnance Office there. The residential and Ordnance sides of the liberty were completely separate, entered from the outside by different gates and administratively distinct from one another. Only two of the Lieutenants-General of the Ordnance concerned themselves with the residential portions of the Minories. Roger Dallison misappropriated properties in the Minories to enrich himself. One of his successors, John Heydon, worked hard to reform the Ordnance Office and took an active interest in the administration of the parish.

The fourth chapter considers the effects of Blackfriars’ substantial gentry and noble population on life in the liberty; it also explores the liberty’s links to Elizabethan and later drama and to metropolitan Puritanism in the decades before the Civil War. Like the Minories, Blackfriars lacked any formal secular system of government. Its residents, however, showed a consistent willingness to act collectively. The liberty had been home to prominent families since the beginning of the sixteenth century, if not before, and in the aftermath of the dissolution the freehold over the Blackfriars site was distributed more widely than was the case in other liberties. The bulk of the precinct, along with the secular franchises over the whole, were granted to Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels, in March 1549/50.

Cawarden gave his neighbours their first opportunity at collective action by denying Blackfriars’ parochial status, stripping down the old friary church and using it to store Revels supplies. The success of his neighbours’ petition to the Privy Council gave the Parish of St Anne (which had existed in some form before the dissolution) impetus to create more permanent administrative structures. Success also inspired later generations of Blackfriars residents to advocate for themselves to outside authorities. When James Burbage began work on a new playhouse there in 1596, residents successfully petitioned the council to stop the development. After the annexation by the City of London under its 1608 charter, Blackfriars residents began to petition both the lord mayor and the bishop of London for help dealing with the theatre, which finally opened in 1610, but with less success than they had enjoyed with the Privy Council.

Throughout the 1570s, Blackfriars residents fought a protracted legal battle with the City of London over its rights in the liberty. Waged in the Court of Common Pleas and the Privy Council, Blackfriars residents succeeded in establishing their jurisdictional independence. Their efforts were rewarded by assistance from the royal government in augmenting internal mechanisms for maintaining order in the liberty.

The tone of life in Blackfriars changed slowly in the first decades of the seventeenth century as noble and gentry residents moved away and were replaced by an unlikely mixture of dramatists and Puritans. The parish took on a more godly tone after 1607, when Cawarden’s successor as primary freeholder sold the parish church and advowson to the St Anne’s parish vestry. The vestry presently invited William Gouge, a well-known Puritan, to be their minister. Gouge remained at St Anne’s until his death in 1653, ensuring Blackfriars importance as a Puritan enclave up to and through the Civil War.

The fifth chapter considers the administrative system that was developed in the liberty of St Katherine by the Tower to govern the growing population that existed alongside its still-operating hospital. The survival of the Hospital of St Katherine left its successive masters (who after Mary’s reign ceased to be clerics) in an authoritative position in the liberty. Administrative development there happened under their guidance. The hospital’s first Elizabethan master, Thomas Wilson, earned the scorn of the hospital chapter and liberty residents alike when he attempted to enrich himself by selling off the hospital’s chartered right to an annual fair in the early 1560s. The move inspired residents of the precinct to act collectively in defence of the privilege, which they saw as being held in trust by the hospital for the liberty as a whole.

Record survival for St Katherine’s is sparse before 1598, but it is clear that the structures governing both parochial and secular aspects of life in the liberty had been established years earlier. Julius Caesar was master of the hospital from 1596 until his death in 1636, and he oversaw the maturation of the network of offices through which the liberty was governed. Caesar was himself an active justice of the peace for Middlesex; both sessions records and the St Katherine’s constables’ accounts confirm that officials there made regular presentments to Middlesex JPs, most often for victualling offences. The stability offered by Caesar’s mastership fostered the responsibility of its officers, who developed standard methods for addressing a variety of issues, from plague to poverty to illegal building.

The sixth chapter corrects longstanding misconceptions about the role of St Martin le Grand as sanctuary and considers St Martin’s administrative development, which progressed under the auspices of the reformed Westminster Abbey. St Martin’s developed a notorious reputation as sanctuary over the course of the fifteenth century, recorded ironically by Thomas More, repeated by John Stow and misunderstood by John Strype. The claim to offer sanctuary was progressively abandoned after St Martin’s appropriation by Westminster Abbey in 1503 under Henry VII, but later authors mistakenly assumed such problems continued in force through the end of the sixteenth century, if not beyond. The sixth chapter shows that, while St Martin’s continued to claim jurisdictional independence from the City of London, by the time the collegiate church there was dissolved in 1542, St Martin’s had no notion of itself as a place of particular sanctuary.

The durable independence of St Martin’s was in large part due to its relationship with Westminster Abbey, which continued to be a formidable presence in the capital even during the turbulent decades of the mid-sixteenth century. Especially during the period from 1561 through 1598, when William Cecil was steward of the abbey’s metropolitan estates, the City of London left St Martin’s to its own devices. The royal government, however, frequently lumped St Martin’s with the City when it addressed issues of general concern to the metropolis.

At the turn of the seventeenth century the abbey continued to be a fundamental influence at St Martin’s, but the participation of liberty residents in local administration increased sharply. In a 1593 petition to Cecil, inhabitants of St Martin’s complained of specific administrative problems and asked to be given the authority to keep order in the liberty. Cecil accordingly devolved to them the right to keep a prison within the liberty, to make their own bylaws and to enforce them as a community. Further progress was made in the decades after Cecil’s death. Offices controlled by the abbey (such as the constabulary and collectorship of rents) began to be given to local men. Local offices that had previously existed were formalised and placed under the oversight of an inquest, for which a court house was purchased.

The role of aliens in the liberties is considered throughout the thesis. The second chapter includes an overview of the situation of immigrants in the early modern metropolis, and the subsequent chapters explore the alien communities in each of the four liberties that are studied in-depth. Restrictions imposed on the economic lives of immigrants were accompanied by a set of exemptions that gave them the chance to mitigate their legal disadvantages. Comparing the alien populations in these four liberties to one another and to those in the City of London, it is clear that longer-established immigrant communities were better-integrated into the economic and social life of the capital. Although understandable, this fact has long been obscured by animus toward the liberties, whose alien residents have generally been assumed to have settled there to avoid integration.

Liberties like St Martin’s and St Katherine’s had housed substantial alien populations since the fifteenth century. By Elizabeth’s reign, immigrants living in those two liberties were better-settled and wealthier than their counterparts elsewhere in the capital; they were also significantly more likely to attend the English church, hold patents of denization, and cooperate with the City’s livery companies. In places like Blackfriars, which boasted no pre-dissolution stranger community, denization was marginally higher than in the City, but aliens in Elizabeth’s reign were by and large members of the stranger churches rather than their local parishes. It was only in the Minories, however, with its small overall population, that aliens appear to have taken any significant role in local administration.

The role of immigrants is only one of several themes that recur among the liberties studied in-depth. The development of internal structures of government, the process of physical development and the evolution of the relationship between a liberty and outside authorities permit the comparison of the liberties to one another. The result is a view of these jurisdictional anomalies that is simultaneously broader and more nuanced than has previously been possible.

Links to all content

0. Front material (title, preface, table of contents, figures, abbreviations, etc) 6pp
1. Introduction and historiography 16pp
2. The Liberties and the City of London 46pp
3. The Minories 42pp
4. Blackfriars 42pp
5. St Katherine by the Tower 30pp
6. St Martin le Grand 38pp
7. Conclusions 4pp
8. Bibliography 23pp

Or, if you prefer to download the whole thesis as one file, you can do so here (247pp).

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