The Borough of Godmanchester

Historical notes about the Borough of Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, England, UK


Godmanchester remained a self-governing manor for nearly 400 years, but in the 16th century the town was increasingly prosperous and the townspeople wished for the privileges of incorporation. In their documents the use of such terms as corporation and burgess crept in, and during a lawsuit in 1569 it was claimed that Godmanchester was 'an ancient borough time out of mind.' The town used a common seal, but legally they were not incorporated and when, in 1585, a newly admitted tenant, named Richard Fairpoint, defied the authority of the bailiffs and commonalty, he threatened to sue the bailiffs, officials, and chief inhabitants one by one.

Borough Seal

The Seal of the former Borough of Godmanchester

The Seal of the former Borough of Godmanchester


A charter of incorporation was obtained from James I in 1604, and Godmanchester became a free borough, under the name of 'the Bailiffs, Assistants and Commonalty of the borough of Gumecestre, alias Godmanchester.' The government of the town, however, was but slightly altered, the Common Council being formed of two Bailiffs and twelve Assistants, who replaced the jurors of the view of frankpledge in matters of town legislation. The first officials were appointed by King James, but the bailiffs after a year of office were in the future to be elected in the Court next before the Nativity of the Virgin Mary by the existing bailiffs and assistants. The assistants were appointed for life and were replaced from the burgesses of the borough by election by the bailiffs and remaining assistants. It may be noticed that the new constitution was less democratic and placed the power of election in the hands of the Common Council instead of the tenants and freemen. Even the jurors of the leet were in 1615 to be impanelled by the bailiffs. Other officials under the new charter were the steward, recorder and town clerk. The borough and manor were granted to the corporation to hold as previously at a fee-farm rent of £120 of lawful English money.

During the Commonwealth, preliminaries were begun for obtaining a new charter, but nothing was actually done. In 1684, the charter of James I was surrendered to Charles II, but it was not restored before his death and the following year James II granted a new charter. The differences in it were small and, after the Revolution of 1688, all corporations were ordered to resume their former charters and the corporation acted under the charter of 1604 until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

The lesser officials, though not named in the charter, were unchanged after the incorporation of the borough and the jurisdiction of the courts remained the same, though they became the courts of the bailiffs, assistants and commonalty instead of the courts of the King. The manorial court became known as the Court of Pleas.

A new edition of the by-laws was promulgated in 1615, repeating the main provisions of the older custumals of 1324 and 1465 and later enactments. Considerable additions had been made in the regulations of common rights; the most important, enacted in 1607, provided that only tenements constituted or divided before 28 September 1601 should have the right of common attached to them. In consequence of these common rights, the freedom of the borough became of considerable value, and large sums were paid by foreigners for admission. The curious custom by which a freeman gave a bucket and two scoops on admission is mentioned in 1635. Afterwards the gift was commuted for money, but the system of purchasing the freedom of the borough came to an end in 1875, and the last payment instead of the bucket and scoops was made in 1876. Now the freedom is an hereditary right and freemen only sign the roll on admission.

In 1835 the old constitution was swept away under the Municipal Corporations Act; a mayor and 4 aldermen and 12 councillors replaced the two bailiffs and assistants and the franchise was vested in the ratepayers. The Court of Pleas had been growing of less and less importance, a few cases of debts and surrenders of land being its only business, but it continued as the mayor's court till 1847. Special courts, however, were held for surrenders and giving seisin of land, but latterly these have taken place in the mayor's presence only. The business of the court leet is now confined entirely to the stocking of the commons. It is held once a year by the mayor, when the 'grass-hirers' are appointed for the year, but the twelve jurors are no longer impanelled. The limitation of the enjoyment of common rights to freemen tenants of commonable houses has led to a good deal of litigation, while the gradual exclusion of the freemen from the government of the borough has brought about outbreaks of discontent on their part.

The seal of the borough is circular, 15/8 in. in diameter, with the device of a fleur de lis, possibly in reference to the dedication of the Parish Church, with the legend 'Commune Sigillum Gumecestre.' It seems to be of 13th century date. The mace is of silver of excellent design and bears the date 1745. The mayoral chain is of gold with enamel medallions, given by different donors since 1896.

For parliamentary purposes the borough was united to Huntingdon, which sent two members to Parliament. In 1867 the representation was reduced to one member and in 1885 it was merged into the county constituency.

No right to hold a market appears to have been granted to Godmanchester, but it seems probable that a market was held at the Horseshoe corner. In the bailiffs' accounts for 1533, there is an item paid for crying a cow and two stray horses in the market, and in 1615 it certainly was the custom to bring fish to the 'Common Market' on Fridays.

A fair on Easter Tuesday and the following Wednesday was granted by James I in the charter of 1604, together with a court of pie-powder. It developed into an important horse and cattle fair held in the streets of the town near the old Court Hall. The cattle and sheep disappeared by 1870 after the rinderpest outbreak of the previous years, but the horse fair continued till Easter 1914. It had been lessening in importance for some years and has never revived since the war. The charter of James II granted a second fair on the Tuesday after the Feast of SS. Simon and Jude, but the right to hold it ceased after the resumption of the old charter in 1688. The court of pie-powder was held during the 17th century, but it certainly was no longer held in 1834.

The control of the waters of the Ouse has always been a matter of great importance to the town of Godmanchester. In the 13th century, the obstructions in the river put up by the Abbot of Ramsey, the Prior of Huntingdon and Reginald de Grey as lords of the mills respectively at Houghton, Hartford and Hemingford Grey led to complaints on the part of Huntingdon and not of Godmanchester, but in the 15th century the latter town suffered severely by the continual flooding of its meadows. A series of complaints were made to the Court of the Duchy of Lancaster by the bailiffs and commonalty and finally in 1524 the right to control the floodgates at Houghton and Hemingford was transferred from the Duchy authorities to the men of Godmanchester. This right still exists and has been safeguarded in the various schemes for the improvement of the Ouse navigation, begun by Arnold Spencer in 1638. It was finally confirmed to the borough in a judgment of the House of Lords in 1897 against Mr. Simpson, who had in 1893 acquired by purchase the entire rights of navigation granted to Spencer, and in the following year began an action against the corporation to prevent them from opening the sluice gates at Godmanchester, Hemingford and Houghton in times of flood.

In 1279, the bailiffs of Godmanchester claimed that the town held a free fishery by the grant of King John and that they formerly had the right, as appurtenant to the manor, of fishing from Hayle to Swiftiswere, but were prevented by the Bishop of Lincoln and others from doing so. The right to the free fishery continued, and from the borough custumal drawn up in 1615, it appears that the 'common fishers' of the town were bound to bring their fish to the common market at the Horseshoe corner every Friday and whenever they had fish to sell, on pain of a fine of 6s. 8d.

In 1086 three water-mills were attached to the manor of Godmanchester, rendering 100s. yearly to the king. The mills passed with the manor (q.v.) to the men of Godmanchester and in 1279 they paid 15s. a year to the fee-farm rent and a holm containing 8 acres was attached to them. At the close of the 15th century they were let on lease, and this system seems to have been continued by the corporation until 1884. At that time no tenant could be found. The corporation applied for leave to sell the property, but opposition was made on the ground that the freemen had the right to have their corn ground freely on the grist stone. No sale took place and the old mill stood derelict nd has been finally pulled down since 1926. A windmill is mentioned in 1599, when it was sold by Robert Green to Oliver Cromwell, alias Williams.


Victoria County History: Huntingdonshire ~ Printed 1932

With later additions and amendments