Townspeople in medieval times had the privilege of being able to run their own affairs via the town council, through a royal charter granted by the monarch.
The medieval town had a defined hierarchy and those with the most power had the greatest say in how the town was run. Unlike in rural areas, where a lord could control huge tracts of land and those who lived within that land, the townspeople were answerable to a town government which was largely run to benefit the trade upon which the town thrived. Charters were a good source of income for medieval monarchs, as a town paid to buy its charter, then made annual payments for the right to continue self-governing.
Freemen in the Medieval Town
Once the townspeople had been granted a charter, they were free to elect their own officers to run the town government. However, unlike in the present day, not everyone had a say in who would rule. Those who elected the officers of the town council were the freemen – usually full members of one of the town’s craft guilds. The council was headed by a mayor, again elected by the freemen. The status of freeman was one which could be passed down the generations from father to son.
The freemen were in reality a small, closed and rarely-changing group of males who held the power to run the town and the trade within that community.
Town Courts in the Middle Ages
The largest towns were almost like little kingdoms, and had their own town court to administer justice independently of the Crown. The sheriff ruled over the court, and it was his responsibility to appoint men to make sure that rules were adhered to – many of which related to trade, such as collecting tolls, checking weights and measures and making sure that food and drink were made to the required quality.
Women played no formal role in town government, as it wasn’t usually possible for women to become members of the trade guilds from which the freemen were selected. Only a widow could become a guild member in some instances, but it would not have been possible for a woman to rise through the ranks of medieval government.
Law Enforcement in the Medieval Town
The merchant guilds were supportive of the town government, as they needed stability in order to carry out their respective trades. The Beadle and Constable in the town were responsible for day to day law and order, and it was they who could call upon townspeople to form a night watch in times when the town was under threat from attack, or could organise a hue and cry to catch a fleeing criminal.