The practice of urban self-government in Europe long predated the historical evidence for such activity. The sense of community that made townspeople feel different from country people came in the first instance from living together in even closer proximity and in larger numbers, from the need to import most of their food, and from a desire to protect wealth accumulated by means of craftworking and trading. The urban "community" (Latin communitas) included everyone in theory, or at least all adult males. This is why open-air assemblies were the norm in the early Middle Ages; only later did urban administration become the preserve of more exclusive groupings. Before the Anglo-Norman invasion, the only real towns in Ireland were the Hiberno-Norse trading settlements—few in number and scattered around the coastline of the southern half of the island. Being of Scandinavian origin, they may have had an assembly (Norse thing) at which decisions were reached collectively in accordance with local custom. Only Dublin provides convincing evidence: outside the town to the east there was an assembly place or Thingmot, where warrior-merchants met presumably under the presidency of the king, and possibly also of the bishop (later the archbishop) after about 1030. That the townspeople came to think of themselves as burgesses (Latin burgenses) is indicated by a letter sent to the archbishop of Canterbury in 1121. Eventually it may have become customary to meet in a large hall, referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis as the "court" (Latin curia). Modern archaeologists have seen in the regularity of the house plots of Hiberno-Norse Dublin a sign of some kind of regulatory authority in the period before the Anglo-Norman takeover in 1170. The mint that was operating in Dublin from 997 down to the 1120s must have had a designated and publicly accessible location, possibly in the precinct of Christ Church Cathedral. Collective decision making, therefore, was a tradition rather than a novelty by the late twelfth century, if only on a limited scale.

The Formalization of Municipal Self-Government

Many existing towns in western Europe came to acquire more complete independence and more formal recognition of that independence during the twelfth and early thirteenth century. These developments— more or less universal—happened to coincide with the colonial process in Ireland. In addition, more towns were founded in parts of the country, and, as elsewhere, townspeople petitioned their rulers for charters as expressions and guarantees of urban "liberty." There were two types of town: those (generally larger towns) whose lord was the king of England and those (generally smaller towns) whose lord was a lay or an ecclesiastical aristocrat. For the former, the legal model was Bristol in England; for the latter, the small town of Breteuil-sur-Iton in Normandy. In a general sense, however, Dublin acted as the chief role model in Ireland, and its progress toward self-government is a classic demonstration of the stage-by-stage process whereby rulers made considerable sums of money by granting concessions in a piecemeal fashion. Having been selected by King Henry II as the main focus of loyalty to the English crown in Ireland, Dublin was handed over to merchants from Bristol for a whole generation. Only in 1192 was the city granted its first charter of urban liberties as an independent entity. At this stage the essence of municipal administration was the hundred court (named after a subdivision of Anglo-Saxon shires), which met weekly and enjoyed a wide range of administrative competence. An important feature of its procedures was trial by fellow burgesses. A further liberty with wide-ranging administrative implications was granted in 1215—the right to assess and to collect the fee farm or city rent of two hundred marks (a mark was two-thirds of one pound sterling) payable to the exchequer in two annual installments. The municipal authorities now had a direct financial relationship with all householders in the city, though no detailed records have survived. An even more decisive advance toward autonomy in administrative matters was made in 1229, when King Henry III granted the citizens permission to elect a mayor (Latin maior). After 1229, the city administration was headed by the mayor and two provosts, called "bailiffs," from 1292. A council of twenty-four members also gained official recognition, and the commonalty’s status as a corporate body (though not yet legally incorporated) was confirmed by a common seal for authenticating documents.

Other towns in Ireland obtained privileges that would form the basis of self-government at different times and with varying results. The earliest example of a purely Anglo-Norman-chartered town is Drogheda-in-Meath, whose burgesses were accorded a version of the laws of Breteuil by Walter de Lacy in 1194. A slightly later seigneurial creation is Kilkenny, whose first documented privileges date from around 1200 and whose Liber Primus begins about thirty years later with the election of a town council of twelve members, together with a town administrator called the sovereign. As at Dublin, Kilkenny’s hundred court met every week. To judge by the size of its fee farm, one hundred marks, Waterford was the second most important town in medieval Ireland; its burgesses were allowed to collect this money themselves from 1232 and to elect their own mayor from about 1254. In yet other towns, the chief administrative officer might be called the portreeve or the seneschal. All of these officers acted both as figureheads and as intermediaries with the overlord, whether king or nobleman. This relationship was mediated through oaths of loyalty. A major responsibility of urban administrators was the construction and maintenance of military defenses, in the shape of walls, mural towers, gates, and ditches. To that end, English kings granted special murage charters to royal and non-royal townspeople to enable them to raise funds. These operations would have placed an enormous financial and logistical burden on administrators and on those who were administered by them. The most dramatic expression of this is the Anglo-French poem describing the excavation of the town ditch at New Ross in 1265. A weekly rota was drawn up, in order that different socioeconomic groups would perform their share of the labor; even the town’s priests and womenfolk were recruited. This is a fine illustration of that collective sense of responsibility that lay at the heart of medieval self-government.

Late Medieval Developments and Difficulties

Formal charters granting urban privileges were expressed as a rule in terms of general principles; it was left to their recipients to work out the details of urban administrative procedures. Broadly speaking, we have more evidence about these matters from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than from the great age of town growth itself, the records of Dublin being the most informative. One positive development there was the initiation of a new municipal book, known as the Chain Book because it was secured by a chain for public consultation in the tholsel, or city hall. The main item is a long list of by-laws ("laws and usages") drawn up in French, still the official language of legal enactments, both central and local, and a widely known vernacular. By the early fourteenth century the mayor and two bailiffs headed a complex structure of twenty-four jures (making up the regular city council), forty-eight demi-jures, and a body called the ninety-six (together forming the common council). The latter met four times a year, and from 1447 onward its minutes or assembly rolls have survived. The principal functions of the mayor were to preside over the hundred court, to execute decisions reached by the city council and the common council, and to represent the citizens vis-a-vis the outside world. The bailiffs assisted the mayor, enrolling contracts, supervising the seizure of goods, confiscating stray animals, and performing other tasks with quasi-legal connotations. The chief officers in turn were assisted by a host of functionaries ranging from the recorder, treasurer, and auditors at the top, to sergeants, jailers, the keeper of the dockside crane, and the water bailiff at the bottom. The annual appointment of these men ensured a degree of control over their activities. There are signs that the administrative burden was onerous: men elected as mayor or bailiff were fined for refusal to serve their term in office. Depopulation caused by the Black Death may have made the pool of eligible men too small: the surviving franchise roll for the years 1468-1512 implies that the majority of new admissions came from lower social levels (by apprenticeship) and from outside the city.

Waterford had a similar set of by-laws modeled on those of Dublin, as well as a tripartite structure of councilors. In the city’s records, there are comparable signs of the difficulties experienced in persuading leading citizens to serve in high office. A serious deterrent was the need for mayors of Waterford to be proactive militarily from circa 1320, as the position of the colonists steadily worsened; the unfortunate John Malpas was actually killed while on campaign in 1368. For its citizens’ heroic services to the English crown, Waterford was conferred with a civic sword for ceremonial purposes in 1462, as Dublin already had been in 1403. Apart from these two cities, however, the mechanisms of urban administration are not well recorded. One unusual survival is a mid-fifteenth-century land-gavel ("ground rent") roll for Cork. It is unfortunately incomplete, but the fact that nine individuals held between them 40 percent of the recorded properties may point toward a sharp reduction in the city’s population. Indeed, Cork’s fee farm payments to the central administration declined from the 1340s and ceased altogether after 1416. Over forty functioning cities and towns survived in Ireland into the sixteenth century, but the degree of competence and diligence with which most of them were administered is virtually impenetrable.

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