Town V. Abbey
The Long Quarrel between the Abbot
& the Merchant Guild
When King Henry I founded Reading Abbey, he gave to the Abbey "Reading itself." He also gave the Abbot power over the people of Reading. In many ways the Abbot was master of the town. This did not prove pleasing to the townsmen. A stubborn quarrel arose between them and the Abbots.
In the year 1253 the ‘men of Reading’ were called before the King's judges. The men of Reading, said the Abbot, had been behaving badly. With arms in their hands they had lain in wait by day and by night for his servants, and had pounced out upon them and beaten them. This was bad, but this was not all. The burgesses were going about saying that they were not so much in the Abbot's power as he supposed, and that they could make their words good in a court of law. How the men of Reading excused themselves for beating the Abbot's servants we do not know. But we know that they tried to prove to the judges that their Guild was older than the Abbey, and that the Abbot had been trampling upon its ancient rights. But, said the judges, the men of Reading could not make their words good. They could show no charters or legal writings to prove what they said. Indeed, if they and their Guild had any rights at all, they owed them to the kindness of the Abbot. So the men of Reading were sent about their business, and the King despatched a letter to the Sheriff of Berkshire, Nicholas of Hendred, telling him to see that they behaved themselves better in future.
The burgesses, therefore, got the worst of it. They went home feeling that they would always get the worst of it in these quarrels, unless their Guild had a charter from the King. Very soon they went to the King, Henry III, most likely with handsome gifts in their hands, and they persuaded him to give them a charter of privileges. Armed with this, they went to the Abbot, and they made an agreement with the Abbot which the King's judges accepted as fair and wise. Thus cleverly the burgesses regained lost ground.
This agreement of 1254 first of all tells how the burgesses had complained that the Abbot had robbed them of their Guild Hall, that the quarrel between Guild and Abbey had shifted the town market from its old place; and that the Abbot had made demands upon them which he had no right to make. Next, it tells us what the Abbot was willing to do to heal these grievances. He would agree to restore the market to its old place, he would yield up the Guild Hall and the burgesses might have their Guild for evermore. Lastly, the burgesses agreed that every year, on the feast of St. Michael, the Abbot should receive from them a noble (6s 8d) as rent for a certain field. Every year, the Abbot should choose one of the burgesses to act as Warden, or Custos, of the Guild. Whenever a new burgess was admitted to the Guild, he should pay a fee of four shillings to the Abbot. Every year, on the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula (1st August), every burgess of the Guild should pay five pennies to the Abbot as the cost of licence to buy and sell in Reading. Then come some other rules securing, to the Abbot, his powers of justice over Reading and other privileges. The agreement was known as the ‘Final and Endly Concord,’ because it was hoped that it would settle once and for all the quarrels of Abbot and Guild. But it did no such thing.
For nearly three hundred years, from the agreement of 1254 to the fall of the Abbey in 1539, the Guild and the Abbots were hardly ever at peace. Sometimes they wrangled about the appointment of Constables; at other times about the sum each ought to pay towards the King's taxes; at other times about the profits of a slaughter-house, or the use of a mace, or the appointment of the Mayor. The particular dispute mattered little. The point, all the time, was who should be master of Reading.
In the fifteenth century, Reading became far richer than it had ever been before. This was the age when the cloth trade was growing fast. This wealth put new heart into the burgesses and they grew much bolder. Year after year, disputing went on. One of the Abbots dared to say that the Guild was just a sort of casual club and that it had no right to hold property at all. The burgesses fired up at this and replied with might and main. They appointed committees to prepare their case and to meet the Abbot and his lawyers. They ransacked their ancient chests in the Guild Hall for documents which should prove how old and worthy a body their Guild was. They went riding to Canterbury and to London about this business. They paid money to famous lawyers so that nothing might be lacking to secure them victory. They got a fund of money together to pay for a new charter from King Henry VI. Many a secret conference about these things was held in the old Guild Hall.
In 1458, the burgesses were in such good heart that they ventured a daring stroke. They paid Richard the Goldsmith the sum of 4s 4d for a mace. This mace was to make plain to all beholders the honour and dignity of the Mayor and of the Guild. It was to be carried in a stately way before the Mayor, and it was to lie in front of him at meetings in the Guild Hall. Now a mace, which, like the King's sceptre, is in its origin nothing more than a staff or stick, has always been regarded as a symbol of power and authority. It was not likely, therefore, that the Abbot of Reading would be at all pleased to see the Mayor going about with such an object of authority. He at once wrote an angry letter to the King; and the King listened to what the Abbot said, and sent a letter forbidding the Mayor to use a mace. For the next thirty years, therefore, the burgesses had to be content to do without a mace and to use, instead, two tipped staves. These staves, moreover, were to be carried, not by their own sergeants-at-mace, but by servants of the Abbot. This was a stinging humiliation, and the burgesses loved the Abbot less than ever.
At last, however, in 1487, the Guild secured a new charter. Henry VII was now King, and was more favourable to the burgesses. They were now allowed to have a mace, and the King also conferred upon them even more valuable privileges. Yet the disputes with the Abbot continued. So sharp became the quarrel that, in 1492, the Abbot refused to appoint a Mayor. For seven years, he hardened his heart against the burgesses. What were they to do now? They could not carry on their business without a Mayor. The Mayor was to the Guild what the keystone is to the arch. Without a Mayor all their affairs must be in confusion. At length, they decided to appoint a ‘Mayor’ themselves, and they solemnly undertook to render to the Master of the Guild, thus appointed, the same obedience and loyalty that they had been accustomed to render to the Mayor, chosen in the old way by the Abbot. So, though the Abbot remained stubborn for seven years, things went on otherwise much as before. Finally, in 1507, it was agreed that this old weary dispute, which for three centuries had been now smouldering and now blazing, should be referred to two of the King's judges for settlement. Their settlement took the form of a Decree.
By this Decree of 1507 the Abbot secured most of the rights which he had ever held over the Merchant Guild of Reading. He was still, to a very great extent, to be master of the town, although the King had repeatedly given, by charter, rights and privileges to the Merchant Guild. Reading was now a much more important town than it had been in the old days and we cannot suppose that the Merchant Guild, which had been fighting this battle so stubbornly for more than three centuries, would have been likely to accept, for long, a settlement which fastened upon the burgesses so many of their old fetters. But only a few years after the Decree of 1507, the Abbey of Reading came suddenly to an end. There was no great protest made by the people of Reading on behalf of the great monastery. We cannot doubt that when they remembered this long quarrel, they were not particularly sorry to think that, in future, there would be no Abbey to trouble them, however sorry they might be for the fate of the last Abbot.
In 1542 the burgesses of Reading won from King Henry VIII a most important charter, which was the beginning of a new chapter in the town history. After this time, the Merchant Guild of Reading seems to vanish away and to have been transformed into the new and powerful Corporation of Reading, recognised by the charter of 1542. The King also gave to the burgesses a new Guild Hall at the old Greyfriars’ Church. He granted them the sole right of electing their Mayor and he ordered that the Mayor of Reading should have the authority of a justice of the peace - that is, of a magistrate.
So ended the long wrangle between the Abbey of Reading and the Merchant Guild of the burgesses. It all seems very far away now, and the matters in dispute have little interest for most people in these days. Yet let us be mindful how ancient a body the Corporation of Reading is - how hard it had to fight for its first liberties, and even for leave to exist at all.
Edited from W.M. Childs' "The Story of the Town of Reading" (1905)
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