Barry on Patterson, 'Urban Government and the Early Stuart State: Provincial Towns, Corporate Liberties, and Royal Authority in England, 1603-1640'

Catherine F. Patterson. Urban Government and the Early Stuart State: Provincial Towns, Corporate Liberties, and Royal Authority in England, 1603-1640. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2022. xi + 312 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-687-5

Reviewed by Jonathan Barry (University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2023)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)

Printable Version:

This is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the early Stuart state and its relationship to society, and one characterized by a conscientious attempt to offer a balanced view of the complexity of the relationships involved, offering evidence to inform the lively debates regarding the nature of that state and its descent into civil war and revolution, but siding neither with revisionists nor pre- and postrevisionists. Given the “British” dimension of that wider debate, readers should note (as the subtitle makes clear) that this volume limits itself largely to England: there are some references to royal policy toward towns and urban settlement in Ireland (on which the author promises further research), but no references at all to Stuart policy toward Scottish towns (where the royal burghs, in particular, had a rather different relationship to the state, and to each other, through having their own organization, not merely representation in Parliament alongside the counties, as in England) or to colonial settlements across the world. Although it inevitably makes some references to London, it also focuses on provincial towns, and in particular on those towns (a minority of all towns, but a majority of the larger ones) which had obtained corporate status before or during the period and hence had “corporate liberties” that helped characterize and motivate their dealings with the Stuart state. Finally, it should be noted that the “state” in question is, as the subtitle again helpfully specifies, largely the state as defined by “royal authority,” in particular the Privy Council and the main central courts as instruments of royal power. It does not address in depth the towns’ relationship with Parliament, nor with specific branches of central government such as the armed forces or the revenue services, nor with the other organs of the state understood in a broader sense, such as the other institutions of local government, the law, or the church, although many of its findings throw valuable light on aspects of how all these institutions operated.

Its definition of “urban government” also focuses largely on the actions and attitudes of those holding corporate office within those towns, as they attempted to balance their duties to those both above and below them: although regular reference is made to the work of Phil Withington and others on notions of citizenship and the wider urban community, the primary evidence deployed here is drawn from the official records of the corporations or their dealings with the center. That said, what might be seen as the central theme of the volume, certainly as it relates to the broader historiography, is the paradox that, while corporate governance was increasingly restricted to a self-selecting minority of townspeople who relied on royal and state authority to help establish their control and legitimacy in relation to the rest of the townspeople (and the wider society, including the county gentry), the Crown, especially under Charles I, increasingly distrusted those same corporate governors as potentially representatives of a “popular” form of government, particularly when it came to their relationship with the church (Patterson prefers the notion of “popularity” to recent emphasis on “republican” tendencies). Both ideologically and practically (as it sought to finance and run itself and its wars), the Crown proved increasingly deaf to the problems its policies and procedures created for towns (especially port towns) and hence for the governors of those towns in protecting their interests (individual and collective). Patterson is rightly cautious (in a brief but valuable excursion into the early 1640s in her conclusion) in drawing the conclusion that these problems led inevitably to civil war, let alone made all town governors anti-royalist in that war, yet her work conveys a strong sense of the weakness of the mechanisms of the early Stuart state in reconciling the inevitably conflicting demands of different groups (including competing towns), beyond the reactive attempts of the Privy Council and royal law officers to address waves of lobbying and petition, and how even these mechanisms began to rigidify as Charles and archbishop of Canterbury William Laud increasingly sought to establish new uniform principles of top-down royal (and episcopal) authority.

The book is organized in two halves, the first half looking at “governing corporate towns,” while the second explores “corporate towns and the business of government.” The first half begins, naturally enough, with charters and the process of incorporation, and rightly emphasizes the sheer scale of incorporation and recorporation in this period, especially in James’s reign, as well as the tendency of new charters to strengthen what we might loosely call “oligarchy” in urban government at the expense of more open processes. This theme is then developed in the next two chapters, which examine quo warranto challenges to charters and the declining role of elective processes in urban governance. Although Patterson points out that quo warranto challenges might come from other sources, notably the rush of them in the late 1610s as the Jacobean state tried to finance itself via patents and monopolies, whose holders often sought to exercise powers otherwise held by corporate bodies, she stresses the tendency (especially under Charles) to strengthen top-down models of government, including the preference for single mayors over the former practice of having two bailiffs in charge. Throughout she emphasizes the complex motivations of the different players involved, including the ambivalent attitudes of the gentry and aristocracy, but she does not explore this latter point in depth, perhaps as it was the theme of her earlier book, Urban Patronage in Early Modern England (1999). There is much valuable information in this section, often drawn from careful trawling though the records of the central courts as well as state papers, though as in the book generally, the relatively short coverage of any specific case means that one can never feel sure that all the dimensions involved are coming out.

The second section takes four key themes to explore the “business of government,” in which Patterson makes a strong sense for the particular focus and impact of government policy and actions on the corporate towns. These are social policy (poverty, plague, control of food and especially drink, vagrancy), trade, the “burdens of the state” (that is, mostly the direct and indirect impact of war/defense in imposing burdens such as military training and billeting, as well as financial demands to meet the costs involved), and, finally, “religious policy.” Patterson is careful to note the extent to which town governors could share both the aims and the assumptions of the Crown in trying to address most of these themes (perhaps least in religion, as discussed below), but also how frequently the royal perspective on how best to meet these requirements could clash with what seemed best to townspeople, not just for their local circumstances, but to carry out those aims most effectively (here more might have perhaps been made of how Parliament could, potentially, act as a means to allow such varying opinions to be articulated, as well as rival voices within the court and Privy Council). In the case of religion, in particular, the Crown’s attempts to enforce conformity in religion (especially once this meant conformity to episcopalian ceremonialism and a distrust of any lay initiatives or authority that challenged the church hierarchy, led by the king) not only clashed with what the local leaders saw as the best means to achieve local order (via preaching and moral reformation) but also increasingly saw the power of lay urban authorities limited by an insistence on the independent jurisdiction of the church, including curbing lay power over cathedral liberties, stamping out lay-funded lectureships, and even imposing clerical magistrates on urban benches. In their paranoia that any objections or threats to their policies denoted that lay leaders were both nonconformists and populists, Charles and Laud went a long way toward forcing a basically conformist and loyal group of local leaders into challenging both Crown and church authority. It is both a strength and a weakness of this book that, in the absence of any extended case studies of how this process worked out, both in this period and during the 1640s, we do not get a developed sense of how it was that so many town governors, despite this, eventually became supporters of the Crown. Patterson offers a convincing and sensitive account of the structural dilemmas that increasingly challenged the workings of the early Stuart state, but has left others to decide how the agency and motivations of different participants shaped their varied reactions, reflecting their different views of what would best promote the “order” of their society.

Citation: Jonathan Barry. Review of Patterson, Catherine F., Urban Government and the Early Stuart State: Provincial Towns, Corporate Liberties, and Royal Authority in England, 1603-1640. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.