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Archival description
City of Norwich Records
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City of Norwich Records

  • NCR
  • Fonds
  • nd [c 1158]-1974

The records of the pre-1835 unreformed Corporation. Some series were continued after 1835. This archive also includes medieval and early-modern records relating to the Great Hospital charity, previously known as God's House, and before 1547, called St Giles' Hospital.

The following notes are adapted from the introduction to W.H. Hudson and J.C. Tingey 'Revised Catalogue of the Records of the City of Norwich, as arranged in the Muniment Room, in the Castle Museum' (1898) section V - Successive Changes in the constitution of the City Government:

A short summary of these is added for the better understanding of the documents.

1 A copy of the account of Norwich in the Conqueror's 'Domesday Book' is in Case 8a. Neither it, nor the Charter of Henry II contains any direct reference to methods of government. The burgh was part of the ancient Demesne of the Crown, and would no doubt be governed by a Reeve (Prepositus, Provost) appointed by the King, and subordinate to the Earl or Sheriff or Constable of the King's Castle. There are no other documents of this period.

2 In 1194, by the Charter of King Richard I, the citizens obtained a grant of the city at a fee-farm (or fixed rent) of £108. They gained the right of choosing their own Reeve and retaining the tolls, rents, fees, fines of court, and other profits of city business. It is probable that at this time the four well-known geographical divisions of the City were organised as four administrative districts called the, 'four Leets of Conesford, Mancroft, Wymer, and Ultra Aquam' (Over-the-Water). This period lasted till 1223, but no contemporary records are preserved, except King Richard's Charter.

3 In 1223, instead of one Reeve, the executive headship of the City was vested in four Bailiffs who were elected by the Freemen of the four Leets, one for each Leet. They conjointly (a) presided over the Leet Courts, or Courts for the presentment of petty offences and their punishment by amercement under the Frank Pledge or Tithing system (Leet Rolls, NCR 5); (b) presided in the City Court to receive recognizances (Enrolments and Deeds, NCR 1 to 4); or hear Pleas (NCR 8); (c) presided over the City Assembly; and (d) they were responsible to the King for all moneys due to him (Estreat Rolls, Pipe Rolls, NCR 7). The receipts and expenditure of the Commonalty were in the hands of two Chamberlains (Account Rolls, NCR 7 and books, NCR 18). The Government of the City during this period, which lasted till 1404, may best be described as communal. It rested entirely on the resolutions of the Assembly, at whose deliberations (in theory) every admitted citizen (not every inhabitant) had a right to attend and take part. It admitted 'foreigners' to the 'freedom,' appointed committees to assess rates or taxes, and carry out all public business, and appointed 'burgesses' to attend Parliament. For public convenience, a custom arose in the 14th century of electing annually '24 citizens' who were specially bound to attend assemblies, but not to the exclusion of other citizens. In 1378, they were officially recognised as a 'Council' of the Bailiffs.

4 In 1404, by a Charter of King Henry IV, the form of government was again altered, the City was established as a County in its own right, and in place of the four Bailiffs were instituted a Mayor and two Sheriffs, the 24 citizens becoming the 'Mayor's Council.' A consequent period of unsettlement resulted soon afterwards in the institution of a representative Common Council of 60 citizens annually elected to attend assemblies (to the exclusion of all others.) At the same time the '24 citizens' became the '24 Aldermen' elected for life. Furthermore, the Aldermen became Justices of the Peace, or Borough Magistrates. These various changes were really the result of underlying influences and conflicting interests, which were at work almost from the middle of the 14th to the middle of the 15th century, and were not finally completed till the Charter of King Henry VI in 1452. From that time the form of Government continued to be by a representative Council, and under the control of a permanent magistracy, until 1835.

The records of this long period are to be found throughout the whole collection. As the various modes of procedure became so much more assimilated to modern practice, it is unnecessary to draw special attention to any of them. It may be observed that, because of the early establishment in Norwich of a strong central authority to which everything else was subordinate, there was no Gild Merchant and there are few records of the proceedings of Trade Gilds. The Gild of St George may be called at first a religious, and afterwards a social, department of the City government.

By an Act of 5 & 6 William IV [1835-6], entitled, 'An Act to provide for the regulation of Municipal Corporations in England and Wales', the title of the corporate body of Norwich was changed from, 'The Mayor, Sheriffs, Citizens and Commonalty of Norwich' to that of, 'The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Norwich'.

Norwich Corporation; 1404-1974; Norwich, Norfolk

City Court rolls and registers of acknowledged and enrolled charters, wills and other instruments

The City Court was a court of record, described in the early rolls as being, '...the full court of the City', and appears to have been, at first, held before the city bailiffs in the Marketplace Tolhouse. From 1403 onwards, the bailiffs were replaced by a mayor and two sheriffs, and it was these officers who together presided over the court thereafter. Soon after this, the Tolhouse was itself replaced by the newly erected Guildhall, and this court, and all others, met in this larger, purpose-built building. The Court itself, having been established at an unknown date (but see NCR 4a/52/13-14, among others, for grants annotated as having been read before the court in the 44th year of Henry III's reign, i.e. 1260), sat to hear pleas of any sort (except for those concerning murder or accidental death-these cases were reserved for the coroners' hearings), to try issues, to hear appeals from injured complainants and for all other business. It is, however, the acknowledgement of deeds and of those wills relating to the devising of lay properties within the city walls and suburbs that is recorded in the rolls of NCR 1. The surviving City archive does not include any compendium series of records for the government or administration of the city, such as, for example the borough court rolls of Great Yarmouth. There, we have a series of rolls surviving from the mid-13th century forming the core record of the borough's administrative and judicial functions for several centuries, and which only from the later 17th century onwards declined into merely rolls of deed acknowledgments. In Norwich's case, the full Court of the City (representing the ultimate authority in Norwich) is represented by several distinct, though sometimes unacknowledged (as such), series of records, each representing a different function of the court.

Deed enrolment
The rolls in NCR 1 survive from the period directly after the restitution of the City's chartered liberties in 1285 (these having been confiscated because of the citizens' involvement with the sack of the Priory of Norwich in 1272). The first surviving roll was entitled, 'Rotulus Cartarum Recognitarum in plena curia Norwici Traditarum et in eadem curia indorsatarum...', (the Roll of Charters acknowledged in the full court of Norwich, handed over [to the court] and in the same court, endorsed) though headings varied through the years from that date. From the 14th century onwards, the rolls were mainly (later still, almost exclusively) concerned with enrolled deeds with which the consent of a wife was necessary (in instances where a husband and wife were conveying freehold property over which the wife had some specific claim, or, more probably, to bar any future claims of dower) and for which, the wife was separately examined by the mayor and sheriffs, apart from her husband. Under an Act of 3 and 4 William IV [1833, entitled, an 'Act for the Abolition of Fines and Recoveries, and for the Substitution of more simple modes of Assurance'], commissioners were appointed in each county for taking acknowledgments of deeds by married women, and this process occurred under the cognisance of the City Court. The entries are in the form of memoranda of the attendance in court of the vending parties and their acknowledgement of their deeds of grant, and usually, their requests for the deeds' enrolment in the records of the court. The deeds themselves are extracted at first, but from the 15th century onwards, are copied in full onto the rolls. As the text of deeds tended to grow fuller as time progressed, so their copies took more space on the rolls, and by the 17th century, it was common for a single entry to occupy the whole side, or more, of a constituent rotulet (often, of up to four feet in length). The entries were written in Latin until the later 17th century, after which the memoranda preambles remained in Latin (until 1733) but the texts of the copied deeds were written in the same language as the original deed, usually English. From 1733 onwards, the entire entries were in English. Marginal references to entries (frequent until the later 18th century) indicate the parish in which the properties concerned were situated.

The will enrolments in the rolls seldom relate to those wills in their entirety. Presumably, in the same way that original deeds were produced to the Court for endorsement and summarised in the court records, so copies of wills would be produced and endorsed as having been acknowledged before the city bailiffs. Actually, though these testaments would have been proved, as was then normal, by the ecclesiastical courts as far as personal property was concerned, the city bailiffs exercised the right of probate over those parts of the wills relating to the devising of lay tenements in the City. It was only those sections of the wills concerned with city properties that were then extracted in the court's rolls for permanent record.

Pleas of Land
In addition, the rolls also included copies of legal proceedings relating to the supposed deforcement of citizens from their tenements in the city, leading to the 'suffering' of common recoveries to bar entails, and which were instigated by writs of right patent ('droit patent') issuing latterly from Chancery, being addressed firstly to the bailiffs, or later to the mayor and sheriffs as presidents of the Court. Such writs, sometimes still with (usually damaged) seals hanging from pendant tags, were often sewn to the left-hand edges of the rolls adjacent to copies of the relevant proceedings in court, described as pleas of land, or 'pleas terre'. Occasionally also sewn to the edge of the roll, are copies of the mayor's precepts to their serjeants at mace to cause disseisors to appear in court. Many, if not all, of the rolls contain such pleas of land, usually enrolled as a defined sub-section of the rolls' entries, often (though not always) after the entries relating to acknowledgements, whatever their date within the period represented by each roll. Some rolls record that the pleas of land were held at special sittings, often on Saturdays, of the Court of Pleas, held at the Guildhall before the mayor and sheriffs. Just how distinct this court was from that concerned with the acknowledgement of deeds is uncertain. Pleas of land were among the causes also dealt with at sittings of another court of record at the Guildhall, presided over by the city sheriffs and which later came to be known as the Guildhall, or Sheriffs', Court. The precise nature of the necessarily close relationship between the two courts (sharing the same roll series and presidents) is uncertain.

In a statement by Revd William Hudson to the Town Clerk in 1896, the rolls of acknowledgement of charters contain approximately 4300 membranes and extracts or summaries of at least 25,000 deeds.

City Court; [? 13th century]-1835; Norwich, Norfolk

Roll of charters delivered, acknowledged and endorsed in the full court of Norwich [the 'City Court']

Headed, 'Rotulus Cartarum Recognitarum in plena curia Norwici Traditarum et in eadem curia indorsatarum...' in the 13th year of the reign of King Edward-beginning on Wednesday next after the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, in the times of R. de Todenham and James Nade, then Bailiffs of Norwich'. Records entries for 117 deeds, including a will extract for Walter le Mercer, 1286, r.1d. Entries are recorded on both sides of constituent rotulets, and usually include the date of endorsement (of the deed) by the clerk, John de Ely.
Marginal references indicate the parishes concerned.
Annotated in a late 18th-century hand, 'According to Blomfield this is in AD 1284-See his List of Bailiffs.'

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