In a book called The Fifteenth Century – 3: Authority and Subversion, edited by Linda Clark, there is an interesting essay by James Lee entitled Urban Recorders and the Crown in Late Medieval England. I have taken from the article to illustrate the situation of the city of York with regard to the vital position of recorder. Specifically, an incumbent by the name of Miles Metcalf (of whom, regretfully, I have been unable to find a portrait).
The rise of the recorder (a large number of whom were professional lawyers) came about because of provincial towns’ need to ensure their lines of communication with the central authorities were both adequate and secure. This was in order to push for their own demands and to respond to those of central government. Such matters were especially important at times of a change in dynasty, when recorders were, essentially, go-betweens or intermediaries between urban and central government. They were also sources of news. For instance, after the Battle of Stoke in 1487, the York council received notification of Henry VII’s victory from ‘the mouthe of a servaunt of master recorder coming strught from the said field’.
Some recorders found themselves with unenviable tasks, such as the one in York in 1471 who had to meet Edward IV at the gates of the city to tell him he was not welcome. After the Battle of Tewkesbury a few months later, Edward was, of course, very welcome.
The recorders’ offices provided consistent and detailed corporation records, especially from the towns of Coventry, York and Norwich, and to a lesser extent from Exeter and Bristol. Recorders had considerable social status, not only in urban politics, but often on the national scene as well, and the rise of their individual careers took many of them to high places. Perhaps the most famous example is Thomas Cromwell, who was recorder at Bristol from 1553-40. Some became attorney-generals and privy councillors, so for a privileged few, becoming a recorder was most certainly a useful rung on a lofty ladder.
York enjoyed special relations with Richard III, who for many years, as Duke of Gloucester, lived in Yorkshire, where he was held in very high regard. The city of York was embroiled in an attempt to reduce its fee-farm (details of the dispute are to be found in L.C. Attreed, York’s Fee Farm and the Central Government). Richard III promised a reduction, but the civic authorities struggled through two more reigns before the matter was settled. Throughout this time, York’s recorders and representatives were involved in the very heart of government.
The York recorder from 1477-86 was Miles Metcalf, who loaned Richard III £20 on one of the latter’s visits to the city, an act that is thought indicative of his particularly close relations with the king. The man’s later resistance to Tudor rule revealed him to be remained staunch for Richard. Metcalf’s career as recorder is of particular interest. His predecessor, Guy Fairfax, had let it be known that he intended to quit in 1477, and Richard III (Duke of Gloucester at the time) wanted Metcalf to take his place. There was no objection, and on 1st September 1477, Metcalf was ‘unanimously chosen in his [Fairfax’s] place’. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was popular and known to be a fair lord, so presumably this was why his wishes were accepted. And presumably Metcalf was the best man for the job.
Then came 1485, Bosworth, and the usurper Henry VII’s attempts to be rid of Metcalf by nominating a man of his own, Richard Green, who was a counsellor of the Earl of Northumberland. Henry wished Green to be in office “‘unto such tyme as it shall pleas the kings highnesse to call Miles Metcalfe, late occupying the said office unto his grace and favour’.
Metcalf family loyalty could not be reconciled with the Tudor regime and Henry was particularly scathing in his condemnation, proclaiming that he ‘hath done moch ayenst us which dishableth hyme to exercise things of auctoritie concernyng an hool commonaltie, which by his sedicious means might…and falle to diverse inconvenients’. A proclamation of 24th September 1485 excluded Metcalf and his brother Thomas from a general pardon, although both did receive pardons on 29th November following. Thomas was saved from execution by producing his pardon from the king.”
[Henry’s man, Green] “was duly appointed by the city authorities but only on a temporary basis, until Metcalf was restored to favour. However, Green, Northumberland and Henry seem to have assumed that his office was now secured permanently. The city’s authorities procrastinated in clarifying the issue, buying time for the return of senior members of their council and also for the chance to discuss the matter with the Archbishop of York.
“When they reached their decision, it was a rebuff for Henry. The corporation promised to consider the king’s will in the matter and, as a gesture of reconciliation, elected Green as a counsellor. This, they claimed, would give them an opportunity to assess Green’s ‘demeanaunce and lernyng’ until Metcalf died and the vacancy arose.
“After the death of Metcalf on 19th February 1486, both Northumberland and Henry again made their nominations for the vacant position clear. In early March the earl again proposed Green, and the York council again delayed their decision. Even Northumberland’s wife became embroiled in the negotiations, calling before her members of the York hierarchy and urging them to leave the matter of the recorder in abeyance until she came unto York or wrote to the contrary. [She died 27th July 1485, so did not go anywhere. In fact, I do not see how she could have become involved after Metcalf’s death. If at all, it had to be before. Unless her date of death is incorrect.]
“By the end of the month the king had put forward the name of Thomas Middleton for the recordership. Perhaps this left the York authorities in an even more delicate position than before, as it would surely have been wholly inappropriate for them to favour one patron’s choice over another’s. This might explain the decision of the York council eventually to appoint John Vavasour, a relatively small political figure. Taken as a whole, such consistent royal interest in the position of recorder reminds us of the importance of the role in communications between the crown and the towns.
“[That this episode] occurred early in Henry VII’s reign may also be instructive with regard to Henry’s rather precarious position as a usurper with little in the way of local support. Henry was clearly very keen to impose his authority in a number of major towns, and regarded the appointment of recorders as an opportune means of achieving this.”
The struggles between York authorities and the crown continued, with the city making plain its determination to act independently, but I will end with Metcalf’s demise.
As Bacon’s oft-quoted assessment of Henry VII goes: ‘…as he governed his subjects by his laws, so he governed his laws by his lawyers’. Tudor oppression increased relentlessly. The entire realm must have regretted the loss of Richard III. York citizens certainly did, because in 1489, in protest against Henry VII’s punitive taxes, they murdered the Earl of Northumberland, who had failed Richard III at Bosworth and become a Tudor toady.