John B. Manterfield, ed. Borough Government in Newton's Grantham: The Hall Book of Grantham, 1649-1662.
The Hall Book of Grantham records the range and extent of local English government in a period of immense political change. This is the second volume in a series of Lincoln Record Society publications promoting the records of Grantham in the early modern period and providing access to the earliest known proceedings of the town's alderman court. The first volume, confusingly titled Grantham during the Interregnum, focused on the years 1641 to 1649 (despite the Interregnum starting at the execution of Charles I in 1649), while the book under review explores the period from 1649 to 1662. The edition provides a thirty-page introduction that is divided thematically before diving into the original text. The edition also provides appendices listing all the period's serving council members and their dates of office.
The Hall Book minutes are impressively transcribed. Much of this work was undertaken by volunteers from the University of the Third Age (U3A), a peer-learning community of retired men and women. The editor notes in his introduction that the volunteers' transcriptions were peer-reviewed and then double-checked for accuracy (viii). The result is a meticulous transcription. This extends far beyond the words themselves and into sensible decisions regarding the layout of the manuscript. The editor has chosen to remove the marginal notes from the start of each new entry in the book and has, instead, chosen to include them in italics above the relevant entry. Lists of names and accounts, on the other hand, retain their original layout. These editorial decisions allow the reader to understand how the clerk presented his work and help the reader align sympathetically to the images of the manuscript provided at the end of the introduction.
Grantham was a small urban space that covered an area of less than two-thirds of a mile, but it was busy, full of trades, and connected into wider county politics because of its proximity to nearby Lincoln (xi). The town was governed by a system of elected burgesses, and the breadth of their activities was impressive. They controlled access to trades, regulated weights and measures, paid the local ministers and stipendiary lecturers, leased property, collected rents, regulated antisocial behaviour, oversaw all aspects of the Poor Law, appointed and policed the local coroner, and saw to the upkeep and maintenance of highways and local mills.
What is striking about this activity--other than its sheer scope--is the regimented nature of business. Each meeting followed a distinct procedure. Entries record petitions from those men who wished to purchase the freedom of the town and gain rights to trade, in addition to orders to punish those trading in the town without a license. Even when working to organise foster care for an orphan child or domestic living arrangements for elderly or mentally ill parishioners (129-30), the Hall Book maintains a cool distance. Occasionally, a local tradesman would appear before the court for 'uncivill' talk and try to undermine confidence in the Council (60). The overall impression, however, is of a stable and fully-functioning form of local government.
The procedural nature of the Council's minutes belies the difficulties of government in this period, though. By looking closely, one can see the gap between the aspirations of early-modern authorities and the reality on the ground. For example, the Council may have implemented a raft of legislation to collect money, but the sergeant or other officials frequently reported that people were not doing as they were told. When the Council ordered a parish-wide collection to repair the church steeple in 1652, parishioners responded generously in the immediate aftermath, but the spire was not rebuilt until after the Restoration (111). When assessing these documents, one can never be sure how to reconcile the Council's ambitions and its actual achievements.
In addition to the day-to-day weaknesses of early modern government, the minutes also connect Grantham with the fundamental political upheavals of the period. Grantham experienced something of a godly takeover in the aftermath of the Civil Wars and this had a direct impact on the Council's activities. As royalists were barred from entering public office in 1647 (xx), the average age of the Council dropped and its socio-religious composition changed. The Council was clearly eager to augment godly preaching in the area while it made efforts to ensure that godly behaviour was encouraged through the creation of a local workhouse ('manufactory') for paupers (97).
The Hall Book also subtly reflects on the difficulties of living in the aftermath of conflict. The financial cost of regime change, for example, affected the Council's ability to function. The Hall Book records how the Council purchased all the acts and ordinances of Parliament to allow them to keep up to date on changes to legislation while the burgesses realised that the King's coat of arms needed removing from the town's mace (56). The wars' main consequence on Grantham, however, was a chronic lack of money. The records regularly speak of the Council's overwhelming reliance on loans and the increasingly desperate measures it took as a consequence. In 1652, the Council paid off one tranche of loan interest by taking out another loan (101--02). Members of the Council were expected to provide additional liquidity in times of crisis by providing loans on favourable terms to the Council (65). This came to a head in 1654 when the Council could no longer afford to pay back its own members (xiii).
For all the richness of the transcription and the litany of issues it raises regarding urban government in early modern England, the framing of the edition somewhat undermines its importance. Firstly, the historiographical grounding of the introduction is rather limited. The editor has little to say about the reformation of manners in the mid-seventeenth century or the range of works assessing godly types of government in the period (the works of David Underdown and Bernard Capp are conspicuous by their absence). The work's existence in an historiographical vacuum is illustrative of a bigger concern, though.
The editor is at pains to tell the reader that the purpose of the volume is to record what "the young Isaac Newton" would have seen when he attended the local grammar school (xi). However, focusing on this period as the time of Isaac Newton's formative years seems to overlook the complexity--and importance--of the town's response to significant political change. Indeed, after introducing the reader to William Clark's spectacular career as godly alderman, the editor refers to him simply as "Newton's landlord" (xlvii). By trying to connect the town with the bigger personality of Isaac Newton, the editors have undersold what makes this manuscript important: its localism and the idiosyncrasies of its structures of government. These features have far more to tell us about life in a seventeenth-century town than any connection with a single man, no matter how important he would become. The Hall Book of Grantham illustrates the largely untapped richness of English archives in revealing the complexities of a post-bellum town in the seventeenth century.
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|Author:||Langley, Chris R.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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