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Wards, Parishes and Gilds

The division of Colchester between the walled centre and the suburbs outside was not one which was relevant to the practical organisation of borough affairs. For most administrative purposes borough offices preferred a division of the town between four wards. North Ward included the town north of the high street. East Ward included Friar Street and all the suburbs beyond East Gate (169). South Ward included the south-eastern corner of the town within the walls together with the suburbs beyond South Gate as far as Hythe. Head Ward was the south-western corner of the town within the walls with the suburbs beyond Head Gate. These ward divisions were recognised in the procedure for electing borough officers each year; the first step in the election of bailiffs, chamberlains and aldermen was to find four men, one from each ward, who would then nominate twenty others to make up the electing committee 170. Ward organisation was fundamental to the administrative work of the borough courts. Three times a year the bailiffs presided in the moothall at a session called the lawhundred when a jury of residents from each ward reported minor misdemeanours committed against statute law and by-laws. It was on these occasions that obtrusive dunghills, polluted wells, encroachments on the highway and fraudulent millers were brought to the bailiffs' attention, together with many similar matters of common concern (171). Ward organisation was also the structure within which the bailiffs worked when handling private litigation. The officers of the borough courts included four sergeants, one for each ward (172), who were responsible for ensuring that defendants were brought to court, either by seizing some of their goods or by arresting them. These sergeants also collected fines and other dues within their respective wards on behalf of the chamberlains. For this reason the town clerk, when recording litigation in process, located homes, inns, taverns, workshops and mills by reference to the wards they were in rather than to their parishes (173).

Parishes may have been the units within which taxes and rates were assessed and collected (174), since wards were rather large for this purpose. Apart from that, their administrative significance was ecclesiastical rather than civil. All the same, parish organisation must have influenced social contacts in the community more than ward organisation did, since church attendance brought neighbours together week by week. Within the walls of Colchester there were eight parish churches, but only the parish of St Runwald lay entirely inside the walled area. Where suburbs spread out beyond the walls the parish boundaries had often been shaped to include them, which meant that from all sides Colchester people came within the walls to go to church. The suburbs beyond North Gate were all in St Peter's parish, and in the other direction St Mary's extended beyond Head Gate to include Crouch Street and most of St John's Street. Holy Trinity included the suburbs outside South Sherd. And in the east, St James's church, although inside East Gate, had probably no parishioners at all within the walls.

The suburbs beyond South Gate had their own parochial organisation. St Botolph's parish was one of the most populous because, besides including most of St Botolph's Street and the western end of Magdalen Street, it stretched within the walls to include part of Wyre Street. St Giles parish, appropriated to the Abbey, included the houses around St John's Green and Lodders' Lane. St Mary Magdalen's, which shared its church with an ancient hospital for lepers and other infirm people, served only a few houses in the middle section of Magdalen Street and around Magdalen Green. Finally, Hythe formed a separate parish with its own church of St Leonard (175).

Colchester parishes all contained a mixture of social classes and none of them corresponded to an area of conspicuously wealthy residents. Had there been one parish for the high street and its environs it would have stood out for its prosperity, but in fact the town centre was highly fragmented. The market place was divided between three parishes; Cornhill was in St Peter's, the moothall, the butter stalls and the cloth stalls were in St Runwald's and the meat and fish stalls were in St Nicholas's. The western end of the town inside the walls also included the churches of St Mary (whose parish included Head Street), Holy Trinity (which served Trinity Lane) and St Martin (for most of East and West Stockwell Street) (176). This dispersion of congregations in central Colchester meant that benefactions were too much spread around for any one parish to achieve a reputation for architecture. So far from being conspicuous for their fine style, the town churches were ancient and unsophisticated structures built with old Roman Bricks, and the rubbish of other ancient edifices" (177). St James, which had recently had a new south aisle built (178), was the most grand (179).

In 1412 parish organisation gave only minor responsibilities to laymen. The duties of churchwardens required little personal initiative. Rut literacy was sufficiently widespread to encourage some independence of thought and action in matters of religion. The sons of merchants and other wealthier residents of the town were taught by the master of Colchester grammar school 180, which stood just inside Head Gate on the western side of the street (181). Poorer men sometimes learned to read English, at least, without a school education of this kind. There were Franciscans from the house in Friar Street who were willing to help small groups of people wanting to read devotional literature in the mother tongue (182). Although sometimes lay literacy led to the adoption of unorthodox opinions, the Lollard movement in Colchester was tiny and posed little threat to the established order (183). The most conspicuous flowering of lay piety, the endowment of fraternities, was in all respects orthodox. These foundations, dedicated to the cult of particular saints, gave their members mutual support of both a spiritual and a material nature. Members of a fraternity would arrange for a priest to say masses for themselves and their families, both in their lifetime and after death. They also aimed to
help each other in times of sickness and trouble (184). There were fraternities of St John the Baptist (185) and St George, (186) but the most prestigious Colchester fraternity, cutting across all parish ties, was the gild of St Helen.
 
St Helen, according to legend then current, had close associations with the borough. It was supposed that she was the daughter of Coel, king of Essex and Hertfordshire, that she was born in Colchester, there married Constantius, duke of the Romans, and soon afterwards gave birth to the future emperor Constantine, whose conversion to Christianity was a turning point in the history of Europe (187). St Helen was already in 1380 the patron saint of a fraternity which paid for the saying of masses in the ancient chapel of St Helen near the castle (188). Besides the appropriateness of its dedication, this chapel had the advantage of freedom from parochial ties (189). But by 1412 the gild had moved to an equally suitable chapel beyond the town wall on the south side of Crouch Street. This building had belonged to the hospital of the Holy Cross and a convent of crouched friars there, but the convent was poorly endowed and its revenue had proved inadequate to fulfil its founder's intentions 190. Control of this endowment, together with the right to present a priest to officiate in the chapel, had been acquired by the leading townsmen during the late fourteenth century; some of the income was temporarily diverted to the work of repairing the town walls (191). But the chapel, even if in disrepair, was more recent, more visible and probably more elegant that St Helen's chapel, which looked like a barn and was hidden away in a back lane. It also had some hitherto undervalued assets in the form of relics of St Helen herself and of the True Cross which she was believed to have discovered in Jerusalem. In 1400 the efficacy of the Holy Cross relics was wonderfully demonstrated. Thieves had broken into the chapel and stolen the golden reliquary containing them. Three miles out of town, seeing that they were likely to be caught red-handed, they had thrown the reliquary into a deep pond. But the relics had refused to sink, and the reliquary had remained standing out of the water sufficiently for the pursuers to recover it. Encouraged by this miracle, in 1402 the chapel's patrons had obtained from the archbishop of Canterbury a grant of indulgence to pilgrims who should visit it (192), and soon afterwards, in 1407, the chapel had been assigned to a reconstructed fraternity and gild of St Helen, licensed to maintain a chantry of five chaplains and to support thirteen poor people (193). The fraternity's membership included prominent burgesses of Colchester together with members of local landed families (194). Some of these were to add to the gild's endowments when they died (195). The founding generation of this new gild of St Helen was responsible for devising the Colchester coat of arms which survives to this day (196). Its central feature is the true cross, green and sprouting into new life, with the three holy nails which St Helen also discovered (197). On the feast of St Helen there were inevitably special celebrations at the chapel in which members of the gild were involved. Thomas Godeston, a founder member of the gild, and one of its greatest benefactors, was to be found here rather than in the moothall. Thomas Rypere could calculate, from information compiled by one of his recent predecessors, that it was now 1,093 years since St Helen's discovery of the chapel's most precious relics 198. Here, on such a day, with so many vivid reminders of the saint - the town walls she had built, the chapel dedicated to her, her well, the relics she had discovered, the fraternity dedicated to her - it was easy to feel that Colchester was a well-favoured town, and to take pride in the way the cult of its spiritual guardian, the only recognised saint to have been born there, had revived and flourished in recent years.

The arms of Colchester, redrawn from the royal charter of 1413


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