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The Legitimation of Power: Riot and Authority in Fifteenth-Century Norwich One winter's day in Norwich in 1443, a crowd of citizens turned out to attack the neighbouring Benedictine priory. According to later allegations, they spent an exciting four days breaking the prior's prison, parading in the streets and terrorising the monks with threats to burn down or mine the priory. They locked the city gates against the king's ministers, as if in time of war. The prior was thus persuaded to give up to the citizens his copy of an agreement made between the city and priory some fourteen years before; whereupon, surprisingly, the citizens returned docilely to their normal duties and places. Stiff retribution, however, was later imposed by the king's justices - the city lost its liberties for four years, and paid a stunning thousand-mark corporate fine, independent of fines levied on individual citizens.1 This "riot" has been painstakingly described by historians, yet has never found a satisfactory place within any interpretative scheme of fifteenth-century English history. Tanner, for instance, studying the religious life of preReformation Norwich, finds that on the whole religious harmony and orthodoxy prevailed. His conclusion that "tension within the church in Norwich appears to have diminished, not increased, during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries"2 necessarily relegates the 'riot" to the status of an aberration - though with long-standing antecedents and consequences - from the mainstream of religious life in late-medieval Norwich. Griffiths, on the other hand, incorporates the event to the mainstream of fifteenth-century history by categorising it as one of the "truly serious"riotstypifying the inadequacies of Henry VTs rule, and the consequent breakdown of social and political order in the late 1430's and 1440's.^ But this bends the evidence. What was so "serious" about the Norwich riot? There is no evidence that anyone - monk or citizen sustained any injury; nor that property, apart from the prior's stocks, was damaged; nor that the government had to mount any major emergency action to compel its disorderly subjects back to obedience. O n the contrary, the city's attorney withdrew its plea when faced with indictment at oyer and terminer; two ringleaders of the "riot" meekly sued for the king's pardon in the summer of 1443; and the city as a whole, though it protested against the amount of the fine ^dictments recorded on 28 February 1443; PRO, KB 9 84/1 mm 3-4 and 10-13, cf. K B 27 728, Rex m 24 and 25r; W . Hudson and J.C. Tingey (eds), The Records of the City of Norwich, 2 vols, London, 1906 and 1910, vol. 1, 355-356 (hereafter, Hudson and Tingey, Norwich Records); PRO E 28/71, nos. 49 and 50 (the original corporate fine was 3,000 marks, later reduced to 1,000). 2 N. Tanner, The Church in Late Medieval Norwich, 1370-1532, Toronto, 1984, especially 4-7, 142-154, and 169 (hereafter, Tanner, Church in Norwich). 3 R.A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI, London, 1981, 137-138 and 147. 66 P.Maddern imposed, did so by the well-established legal channel of petition to the king, with support from his magnates.4 It is hard to see, in this set of circumstances, evidence of disastrous and long-term failure of central authority. The lack of notable evidence for explicit insurgency in the "riot" also weakens, though it does not demolish, Storey's thesis that the affair was one of the necessary forerunners to the outbreak of the national quarrels constituting the Wars of the Roses. It may be true that the Norwich case displays admirably the role of a great magnate (the earl of Suffolk) in maintaining quarrels and fomenting divisions;5 but w e may justly ask how any number of these harmless outbreaks could amount to a dynastic civil war, however small-scale and sporadic. Further, to put the Norwich "riot" into this context obscures the motives of the participants. The distant approach of civil war can hardly have motivated them. Yet Storey's alternative explanation (that it was a quarrel between the "heirs of the former...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 65-84
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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