A HISTORY OF BROMSGROVE COURT LEET
King Alfred, he who reputedly burnt the cakes, may have been a poor cook but he was a clever administrator. He divided the country into shires, the shires into laths and the laths into hundreds, the latter made up of ten tythings. The tything was a group of about ten families, each a pledge and a security for the others; they appointed from amongst their number a tythingmen to answer for them all. To this day Tythingmen are appointed to report to Bromsgrove Court Leet at the ‘View of Frankpledge’.
The Court Leet is a survival from the manorial system introduced to this country by another well known king, William the Conqueror (1066). He commissioned the Domesday Book which was completed in 1086, and in which the Manor of Bromsgrove is recorded. In broad outline the manorial system decreed that all land was owned by the king who granted the manors to his supporters or, perhaps, as in the case of Bromsgrove, a manor was retained for his own use. Thus the Manor of Bromsgrove was held in ‘ancient desmesne’. Although in 1682, the sovereign transferred it to Sir Thomas Windsor, (later Lord Plymouth) the privileges attached to this Royal manor could not be alienated and they continue to be enjoyed.
The Courthouse was originally at the Lickey as the manor then extended from Grafton to Kings Norton. In 1564, a court was held at the Lickey, conducted by the Attorney General, for the express purpose of establishing separate manors for Bromsgrove and Kings Norton, though Queen Elizabeth was Lord of the Manor for both.
The government of the manor was in the hands of the Court Leet and one privilege of being ‘Royal’ was that the appointment of the Lord’s steward – his chief agent – was subject to the approval of the Court. The officers of the court were chosen by ‘most voices’ at a ‘great court and view of frankpledge’ held every autumn. This was a meeting of the freeholders in the manor at which the Tythingmen reported on all the happenings within their ‘yield’ – so named because in addition to other duties they were also responsible for the collection of ‘lewnes’ or local taxes. The first election was that of Bailiff, the chief officer of the court, followed by that of Reeve. The Reeve was originally responsible for the collection of the head rents for the Lord of the Manor. It was customary for the Reeve to succeed to the office of Bailiff. Other officers of the court were the ‘Affeerors’, whose job it was to assess the proper amount of any fine which the court may have decided to impose. Other important officers were the equivalent of today’s trading standards officers. In addition to Aletasters there were Breadweighers and Searchers and Sealers of Leather. This last named appointment was necessary in Bromsgrove because Queen Elizabeth had licensed the town for the production of leather, a trade of importance to its prosperity. Many skinners, curriers and tanners are recorded as having served the office of Bailiff. A Headborough and Constables were appointed; and a Bellman, who besides acting as town crier, was required to clean the courtroom and the church steps and ring the market bell
At the courts, the Steward, representing the Lord of the Manor, officially presides; but it is the Bailiff who is responsible for summoning the court, executing its decisions and collecting all fines and other charges; the freeholders give judgement in all actions by ‘most voices’. The customs of the manor which have subsisted, as the phrase goes, ‘from the time when the memory of man runneth not to the contrary’ are the basis of the law. The Jurymen do not give the verdict, as juries do today, but act as wise men who give advice as to what these customs are. It will be from this body of men that the Reeve and the Bailiff will be chosen. After his year in office is over, the Bailiff will become and Ealdorman, and as such is relieved of other duties, though he should still support the Bailiff when he ‘walks the fair’.
Those readers who seek more information about the working of the courts should refer to a publication of the Worcestershire Historical Society entitled ‘The Court Rolls of the Manor of Bromsgrove and Kings Norton 1494 to 1504’ and a lecture given in 1882, by W.A. Cotton to members of the Bromsgrove Institute Debating and Mutual Improvement Society. This latter is reprinted in the Bromsgrove Messenger of 1910, and may be found in Notes and Queries available in Bromsgrove Public Library.
The Bailiff had heavy responsibilities but he also had perks. The office was one of importance and during his year he was considered the first citizen of the town. He took commission from the sale of all wool which had been weighed on scales he provided at the town hall; he also took the ‘pitching penny’ which shopkeepers were charged for putting their stalls in front of their shops on fair day. Bromsgrove’s fair is a charter fair granted by King John in 1199. But there is one traditional duty of the Bailiff which, even today - perhaps especially today - he is not allowed to forget. He is required to entertain, at his own expense, the steward and officers of the court. In 1685, it is recorded that it cost Obadiah Alford £1.10. It costs more today!
In opening the court the Headborough proclaims ‘Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All good people of Bromsgrove who have business to be heard before the Court Leet and Court Baron of Bromsgrove, give your attention to the worthy steward or you will be amerced. God save the Queen!’ To be amerced was to be fined or otherwise punished. The Steward then swears in the jurors, their foreman first, saying ‘You as foreman of this homage with the rest of your fellows shall enquire and true presentment make of all such things as shall be given to you in charge and all such matters as shall come to your knowledge presentable at this court. You shall present nothing out of hatred or malice nor conceal anything through fear, favour or affection but in all things shall true and just presentment make according to the best of your understanding so help you God’. The Tythingmen report on all matters within their yield which might concern the court: complaints by one citizen against another; births, marriages and deaths; exchanges of land and so on. This was important as these events could all result in payments being due to the Lord of the Manor, such as a heriot payable on the death of a freeholder – usually the best beast. This form of death duty was first introduced by another famous king, Canute (995-1035).
The Court Leet was normally held four times a year, and the Court Baron which heard actions for the recovery of debt, trespass and so on, was held every three weeks. Miscreants might be presented and amerced for a variety of offences including the throwing of slops into the street, parading a stallion between the hours of eleven o’clock and three, and singeing a pig in the street. If unable to pay a fine, they might be put in the stocks which were often constructed so that they could also be used as a whipping post, another popular form of punishment. In 1681, twenty seven victuallers were presented to the court for breaking the assize of ale and eight bakers for breaking that of bread. As long ago as 1203, a law was passed for regulating the sale of bread and bakers who offended could be fined heavily and the bread given to the poor. Some examples from the court rolls may best illustrate the sort of cases which were heard.
A.D. 1489, Lykehay Great Court held there Monday next after Michaelmas, 5 Henry VII.
A.D. 1490 Frank-Pledge, Thursday Pentecost 5 Henry VII.
William Hawkes newly built a house upon the common at Moseley to the damage of the tenants without leave of the Lord.
The tenant presented the death of William Barnsley whereby there falls to the Lady (the Queen) in the name of a heriot, one feathered bed, value three shillings and that Elizabeth Grace is his sister and next heir.
A.D. 1546 31st May Lykehay Bromsgrove
To this court came William Borworth who is an outlaw of the king and prayed that he may have liberty within his Lordship’s land of Bromsgrove and Kings Norton to have and occupy all his goods and chattels according to the liberties of the same manor for this year and it is granted to him and he gives to the Queen as Lady of the Manor the fine of eight pence.
The powers of the court were eroded by acts of parliament passed between 1846 and 1925 which transferred the responsibilities of the manorial court to various other authorities. In 1977, the Administration of Justice Act abolished the right of Court Leet to determine any legal matter, but in a rare recognition of the value of preserving tradition, refrained from abolishing the courts and allowed them to continue to transact such business as was traditional before the act became law. There is thus legal authority for Bromsgrove to continue the interesting customs, some of which have been observed for more than nine hundred years.
There is in existence a record of Bailiffs of Bromsgrove going back as far as 1494, though it is only complete since 1733; these can be located from the Home Page. The names of many old Bromsgrove families will be found amongst them. Many officers of the court gave lengthy service. Henry Albutt was Headborough and town crier from 1870, until 1918. W.H. Kimberley, who was Bailiff’s polebearer, submitted his resignation in 1934, at the age of 94 after fifty years service. Thomas Fletcher, Searcher and Sealer of Leather and F Alcock , a Tythingmen, completed fifty years service in 1924, and 1928, respectively. More recently Cyril Nokes represented the court as Bailiff’s Polebearer for twenty five consecutive years at the Henley in Arden Court Leet church service. The poles are an interesting part of the court’s regalia, the first three of them being introduced in 1841. It is possible they were inspired by the pageantry of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Albert the previous year. Two more were added later. One in the year of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, 1987, and the other in 1902. They are carried in procession in front of the more important officers. When not in use they may be seen in a special showcase which is in the coffee bar at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bromsgrove. They are inscribed with the date of origin and names of the Bailiffs; Reeves and other officers before whom they have been carried.
As has been said, Bromsgrove is a Royal manor, but for almost three hundred years the lordship was held by Lord Plymouth until his Worcestershire estate was sold in 1945. A substantial part of the estate was bought by Howard Bird who had been a tenant. He also acquired the lordship and he generously agreed to continue the ancient traditions of the court. On his death he bequeathed the lordship to his grandson, Christopher, who has since filled the role with great dignity.
Nowadays, the court may best be observed when it carried out the assize of bread; leather and ale and ‘walks’ the fair. The proper date for this is Midsummer Day, but, in order to enable local people to enjoy the ceremony, it is now held on the nearest Saturday. In 1983, a medieval street market was started on the same day when charity stalls are set up and entertainers roam the main street. The first royal charter for a fair was granted in 1199, by King John so that the people of Bromsgrove might ‘keep holiday and do honour to the patron saint of their parish of St John the Baptist’. So this has always been an opportunity for the townspeople to enjoy themselves and celebrate a bit of Bromsgrove’s long history.
Although the powers of the Court have now all been assumed by other authorities, its continued existence was specifically authorised by the Administration of Justice Act 1977. There is thus recent authority for it to continue to adjudicate on such time honoured prohibitions as singeing a pig in the street or parading a stallion between the hours of ten in the morning and three in the afternoon. It continues as a piece of living history and, it is hoped, as a source of pride to all Bromsgrovians whether native or by adoption. The list of Bailiffs bears witness to the great variety of men who have been lucky enough or perhaps from anther point of view unlucky enough! – to have been elected to this office by their fellow citizens.