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Birmingham 1066-1625


Birmingham began life inauspiciously as a way through a marsh to other more important places, but grew to be one of the great cities of the kingdom. The evolution of citizenship in this period, like the growth of Birmingham itself, came in slow uneven stages - illustrated here by documents that provide 'snapshots' in time.

Drawing of medieval Weoley Castle
Birmingham in the Domesday Book - opens new window
Birmingham in the Domesday Book
Document (161k) | Transcript

Citizenship at the time of Domesday

When the Domesday survey was commissioned, Birmingham was a small village, and no free men are listed in the manorGlossary - opens new window. We associate citizenship with towns, but there is little evidence of town-based citizenship at the time of Domesday. The size of important towns like London and Winchester tended to be underrepresented in the Domesday Book. One reason for this may have been the difficulty of recording their population accurately; also, many towns were underpopulated after the destruction wrought by the Norman conquest. In and around a village, there was certainly little alternative to feudal service.

Medieval mayhem

Birmingham's central position meant it was vulnerable to the many rebellions, wars and insurrections that made their way towards London from Wales or the north, and the basic rights of individuals would have been badly affected by conflict and instability. In 1486 - when Henry VII was cementing his position as king, after ousting Richard III - Birmingham found itself caught up in the aftermath of the rebellion led by Sir Humphrey Stafford against Henry's government. After suppressing the rebellion, which was centred on Worcester, Henry sent commissioners of Oyer and TerminerGlossary - opens new window to Birmingham and Worcester 'to enquire into murders, rapes, insurrections, and rebellions in Warwickshire and Worcestershire'.

Rebellion and royal justice in Birmingham - opens new window
Rebellion and royal justice in Birmingham
Document |Transcript
Drawing of medieval Weoley Castle Although this rebellion was put down successfully, more followed. John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, had pledged allegiance to Henry and was the man addressed in Henry's commission appointing the sessions held in Birmingham in 1486. He had, however, been named by Richard III as his heir, and he led his own, larger, rebellion in the following year.

Topping up the royal coffers

Unlike many towns, Birmingham had never been particularly reliant on its market. But craftsmen, including goldsmiths, appear very early in Birmingham documents; and metalworking, the source of much of the city's explosive growth in later years, was well established in the Middle Ages. By the time of the manorial survey in 1529, the market itself was flagging, lasting from 'ten in the forenoon...; but until three of the after noon'. The same survey refers to the sorry state of the manor itself after the insanity of the previous manorial lord and the minority of the current one, Edward Birmingham.

Drawing of medieval Weoley Castle
The Birmingham family lose their manor - opens new window
The Birmingham family lose their manor
Document (410k) | Transcript
Henry VIII was famously short of money, and his ministers were clever at devising ways of getting it. These included not only expedients that affected the life and liberties of the whole nation, like the dissolution of the monasteriesGlossary - opens new window, but also local measures of questionable morality. The decline of the manor of Birmingham and the weakness of its leading family gave Henry a golden opportunity to enrich the Crown.

Challenges to royal authority

In documents that have survived from the 16th century, we begin to find a lot more detail concerning the lives of the ordinary people of Birmingham and evidence of challenges to royal authority on the basis of law. The system whereby monopolies in moneymaking mercantile ventures were granted to Crown favourites was very unpopular with tradespeople. Monopolies were attacked for their adverse effect on trade; and they also enlarged the state at the expense of individual freedom, since the system encouraged and relied upon informers to enforce it. Dorothy Rastell was connected to a notable local family but risked the displeasure of the Crown by running a pub in Birmingham without paying the relevant monopolist, Edward Horsey, Captain of the Isle of Wight, for the privilege.

Dorothy Rastell, rogue vintner - opens new window
Dorothy Rastell, rogue vintner
Document (673) | Transcript
Cocking a snook at Star Chamber - opens new window
Cocking a snook at Star Chamber
Document (1568k) | Transcript
The Colemores were another prominent Birmingham family, and they appear alongside the Birminghams themselves on the jury panel for the sessions held in the town in 1486 (see above). From a case heard by Star ChamberGlossary - opens new window in 1615, Edward Colemore, a merchant and citizen, emerges as having considerable power over the lives of his neighbours - even over such a traditionally powerful figure as a local churchman.
Details of the libel case in Star Chamber that had resulted in Edward Colemore's earlier conviction are recorded in another National Archives document (STAC 8/272/19), which runs to 150 folios of parchment and tells us a great deal about the position of the Colemores in Birmingham society and their relationships with their neighbours and with the authorities. Happily it reproduces the libel in full. Drawing of medieval Weoley Castle

Drawing of medieval Weoley Castle

Citizen power

The movement towards citizenship shown in these documents is halting and fitful, but we have come a long way from the Domesday Book to Edward Colemore. From a small group of powerful clerics and noblemen under the king imposing law on a powerless peasantry, we arrive at a situation where a local citizen is able to use the law to persecute and impoverish an influential churchman and evade the authority of Star ChamberGlossary - opens new window - a much feared court, which men of Colemore's background and legal keenness managed to abolish within 30 years of the case. Seen in this light, it could be argued that the most powerful figure in the last of the documents reproduced here is the merchant citizen, Edward Colemore, himself.


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