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Oligarchy in 16th & 17th Century England

Updated on January 29, 2018
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.

Oligarchic government is the rule of the many by the few. Its growth in sixteenth and seventeenth century towns is attributable to three main factors:

  • The influence of the Crown, which “wished to see power in the hands of a group small and rich enough to be answerable to it” (Clark 1 128).

  • The desire of merchants to concentrate power in their own hands and thus control the economy of their town.

  • The need to meet the soaring costs imposed on towns by the influx of poor migrants from rural areas.

The latter two of these factors ensured that oligarchic government was invariably plutocratic; only the wealthiest inhabitants of a town being able to afford the time or the money to take up civic office.

Oligarchic government was the most time-efficient and cost-effective way of dealing with the social and demographic changes towns were facing. If it did not evolve organically at a local level, as it did in the Sussex town of Rye, where, by the late sixteenth century "the relatively small number of entrepreneurial winners was a … natural ruling stratum, with the time, resources and ability others lacked to attend to the business of good government… "(Hipkin 321), then it was imposed from above by the Crown, as at Huntingdon, which "in 1630,…was granted a new charter which turned the governing corporation, formerly elected annually by the freemen, into an oligarchy holding office for life and…initially nominated by the Crown" (O’Day 119).

In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century there were up to seven hundred towns in England[1]. They included small market towns like Ashford (Kent), larger county towns, such as Canterbury, and a few even larger provincial towns, like Norwich and Gloucester. In most towns the Freemen, who represented between 20% and 50% of the adult male population, formed a commonalty to govern collectively.

As the sixteenth century progressed, the pressures on town administrations became greater. An increasing population and a change in agricultural practices led more and more people to migrate into the towns, thus increasing the administrative and economic demands on the commonalty. The poor tended to concentrate themselves in certain areas of the towns, as evidenced by the 1570 census of Norwich[2] and by parish registers from Gloucester, which show that the poor there lived mainly in the outer parishes of St. Aldate’s and St. Mary de Lode[3].

Such "topographical concentration of the poor presented urban rulers with severe social and police problems, not only through the constant annoyance of begging in the streets and the affrays of the drunk and disorderly, but because of the fear of more organised disturbances" (Clark 1 122).

The slow, protracted, process of government by a commonalty of a hundred or more men was inadequate to respond quickly and decisively to these social and demographic problems. It became apparent that a more streamlined form of local government was necessary, for "[as] the Gloucester magistrates declared in 1584, ‘experience has taught us what a difficult thing it has always been to deal in any matter where the multitude of burgesses have a voice’ " (Clark 2 261)

By 1600 “small, closed councils with members sitting for life and able to co-opt one another were, with few exceptions, the usual means of government in English towns” (Clark 1 129). In Bristol, for example, "the affairs of a large and growing community of six thousand people were in the hands of about forty-five individuals who elected themselves and were, politically speaking, answerable only to themselves" (Wilson 60-61) whilst Newcastle was “effectively governed by thirty-four men…drawn from an ‘inner ring’ (O’Day 109).

This concentration of power among a political elite had been achieved by towns being incorporated under Royal Charter, either at their own request or at the behest of the Crown. Typically an oligarchy was established by "the creation of a common council or councils acting in the name of but excluding the majority of freemen … effectively depriv[ing] rank-and-file freemen of traditional rights to participate in the decision-making process of urban government " ( Hipkin 319).

Such common councils, whose members were called aldermen, were deemed “a thing very godly and necessary” (Hipkin 323) by Lord Cobham when he recommended them to the Rye magistracy in 1574. However, Peter Clark and Paul Slack have suggested “that the rise of oligarchy … had serious consequences for the stability of towns …” (Clark 1 140 and Hipkin 320) because the resentment felt by the excluded majority of formerly influential freemen created volatile groups of dissatisfied tradesmen ready to oppose oligarchic rule. This made oligarchies vulnerable to insurrection and caused them to become increasingly dependent on outside support, such as the Crown or the Gentry.

The Clark/Slack thesis is not, however, applicable to all oligarchies. At Rye, in East Sussex, for example, the town’s elite created “a highly restrictive, self-perpetuating oligarchy … [which] in fact … contributed to a growth of political stability” (Hipkin 321) within the town. Rye’s importance as a major port in Tudor England was declining markedly by the end of the sixteenth century due to the loss of Calais in 1558 and the silting up of the harbour[4]. Oligarchic government was imposed by the town’s social elite in an attempt to secure economic support from the Crown, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Lord Cobham, and any other powerful Court and countryside patrons they could attract. As in most towns the twenty-four aldermen at Rye were chosen by the Mayor and his twelve jurats. Together these officials and the town-clerk took on the powers which had previously been invested in an assembly of one hundred freemen, thus excluding those whom Lord Cobham had dubbed “the vulgar sort” (Hipkin 322). An initial rise in dissent and civic discord climaxed in 1580 with a split in the magistracy, to which the ruling oligarchy responded by a further consolidation of power, restricting entrance to the freedom so tightly in 1582[5] that by 1620 "oligarchic government in…Rye was not based on the exclusion of the commonalty from government ,… [but] on exclusion of individuals from the commonalty "(Hipkin 329).

The result was that subsequent acts of dissent lacked political cohesion or organisation and were quickly subdued by the oligarchy, to the extent that “serious discord after 1590 was rare” (Hipkin 330).

Rye, however, was not typical of English towns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it had no craft gilds through which freemen could advance towards magistracy. In towns such as Gloucester, Worcester, and Newcastle these were a vital part of the cursus honorum[6], the slippery pole to power that ambitious freemen had to climb. In Worcester, for example, "the whole system was designed as a ladder of promotion in which each rung involved observation and training for the next, so few came to office without some relevant experience … [thus] ensur[ing] continuity and stability at the centre of town government " (Wilson 61).

There is no reason to suppose this was not the case in the majority of county and provincial towns. In Newcastle, for example, “the road to political power … was through the Merchant Adventurers’ Company” (O’Day 111), hence the ‘inner ring’ was “[a]lmost entirely composed of mercers and coal traders” (Howell 276). This plutocratic monopoly by the town’s social and economic elite ensured that political policies favoured the interests of the merchant classes and increased the social polarisation endemic to sixteenth century towns. Challenges from disenfranchised freemen to the oligarchy in Newcastle resulted in a “constitutional crisis … in the 1590s” (O’Day 113). This was resolved in 1598 by the Crown imposing a new charter which “removed any hopes of ‘popular control’ of the Common Council and protected the existing oligarchy from the freemen” (O’Day 126). This increased the oligarchy’s dependence on the Crown for its survival, and, in accordance with the Clark/Slack thesis, the oligarchy of the ‘inner ring’ was reinforced in Newcastle at the expense of its popularity and independence.

In the city of Gloucester, all the elements which characteristically contributed to the growth of oligarchic government came together in the late sixteenth century. A steady rise in population, as subsistence migrants “swell[ed] the ranks of the … indigenous poor … [and] posed a serious threat to social order and civic government” (Clark 2 247), coincided with a decline in the city’s cloth industry which left its “industrial sector in disarray” (Clark 2 250). With the economy dependent on the more vulnerable, and more socially exclusive, service and marketing sectors the city was faced with escalating administrative costs, reduced revenues, and growing social polarisation. The provision of poor-relief and the maintaining of public order became paramount in the minds of the town’s ruling elite. To combat “the growing insolvency of city government” (Clark 2 258) officials were forced to subsidise civic funds with their own money. This effectively restricted the holding of civic office to the city’s wealthiest merchants, who were also, by virtue of the cursus honorum, masters of the city’s most influential craft gilds. As a result of Royal charters of 1483 and 1605 the aldermanic bench also monopolised non-conciliar offices, so that "the common council … suffered a marked diminution in its political importance … [as] meetings were often rigged to the oligarchy’s advantage … [and] authority was delegated to a committee dominated by aldermen" (Clark 2 260).

The combination of individual ambition, Royal support, and economic and demographic crises served to make a plutocratic oligarchy inevitable in seventeenth century Gloucester; the correlation between wealth and power was a necessity as much as a choice.

The financial burden imposed by civic office was not unique to Gloucester, where "[b]y the 1570s the convention was established that the four incoming stewards would lend the chamber cash to clear the current deficit; they in turn would be reimbursed by their successors the following year " (Clark 2 258)

Similar conditions arose, if less acutely, in “Leicester … Sandwich, Warwick, Hastings, and Southampton” (Clark 1 130). Such financially demanding conditions deterred some eligible candidates from seeking office, so that “it was not uncommon for even the more substantial citizens to attempt to avoid office” (Wilson 62). Of those who did take up civic office “a significant proportion found the financial strain too much and dropped out of the council after one or more spells of … service” (Clark 2 258-259) whilst others sought “compensat[ion] … for the oppressive burdens of office holding” (Clark 2 262) in perquisites such as preferential leases, sale of offices, and mutual under-assessment for taxes[7]. From 1600 Gloucester’s oligarchy attained a “progressively puritan identity” (Clark 2 262), as did its counterpart in Rye, where there was a "prevalence … of that brand of paternalism and social activism characteristic of moderate puritanism, with its stress on seeking ‘not so much our good, as the good of the community’ and the importance of ‘duty, and not gain to ourselves’ " (Hipkin 332)

Thus the self-serving altruism of the puritan cause engendered the rhetoric of civic responsibility and duty towards the poor, justifying the costs involved in office-holding as a necessary investment in the construction of a godly society.

The growth of oligarchic government was characteristic of political developments within sixteenth and seventeenth century English towns because it not only served the interests of the Crown and of the merchant classes, it also served to provide an efficient and economically effective antidote to the burgeoning costs of civic administration and social order. It accentuated social polarisation by excluding the poor and ‘middling-sort’ from government and it consolidated power in the hands of those most likely to conform to the demands of the Crown. On a national level it represented a drive towards centralisation and uniformity. As all English towns suffered unprecedented demographic, political, social, and economic crises to a greater or lesser extent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so plutocratic oligarchic government became a necessary means of preventing serious social unrest and providing clear cohesive government at a local level.

Sources quoted in text and footnotes -

Clark 1, Peter and Paul Slack, English Towns in Transition 1500-1700 Oxford U.P. 1976

Clark 2, Peter, ‘The Ramoth-Gilead of the Good’: Urban Change and Political Radicalism at Gloucester 1540-1640, in Barry, Jonathan (ed), The Tudor and Stuart Town: A Reader in English Urban History 1530-1688. Longman Group U.K. Ltd. 1995

Hipkin, Stephen, [in footnotes only] The Maritime Economy of Rye 1560-1640 in Southern History 1999

Hipkin, Stephen, [in footnotes only] Buying Time: Fiscal Policy at Rye 1600-1640 in Sussex Archaeological Collections 1994

Hipkin, Stephen, Closing Ranks: oligarchy and government at Rye, 1570-1640 in Urban History, vol 22, pt.3 (December 1995) 319-340 © Cambridge U.P.

Howell, Roger Jr., Newcastle and the Nation: the Seventeenth-Century Experience in Barry, Jonathan (ed), The Tudor and Stuart Town: A Reader in English Urban History 1530-1688. Longman Group U.K. Ltd. 1995

O’Day, Rosemary, The Triumph of Civic Oligarchy in the Seventeenth Century? in Open University Course A322 ‘English Urban History 1500-1700’, unit 12.

Wilson, Kevin, Political Organization in the Sixteenth-Century in Open University Course A322 ‘English Urban History 1500-1700’, unit 6.





[1] Clark 1 7

[2] For an overview of this “detailed and comprehensive” census, see Clark 1 121-122

[3] Clark 2 255

[4] See ‘The Maritime Economy of Rye 1560-1640’ Hipkin, S. in Southern History 1999, and ‘Buying Time: Fiscal Policy at Rye 1600-1640)’ Hipkin, S. Sussex Archaeological Collections 1994.

[5] Entrance by birthright was restricted to those born after their father’s became freemen; entrance by any other means was “subject to the approval of the mayor and…a majority of the jurats” (Hipkin 327)

[6] Wilson attributes this phrase, which he describes as “a kind of career in office”, to MacCaffrey, W.T., Exeter 1540-1640, London, Harvard U.P. 1976, (page 36).

[7] See Clark 2 262

© 2014 Jacqueline Stamp

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