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The history of Winchelsea

The government of New Winchelsea

In 1283, the barons of New Winchelsea secured from the King the rights and privileges they had enjoyed in the old town. They also asked for the right to elect a mayor and 12 jurats (aldermen) rather than be governed by the King’s Bailiff. Initially they were rebuffed. The King famously replied “Let them have bailiffs as they have been accustomed.” However, a temporary administration of a mayor and 24 jurats was established to allocate plots and set the rent for each. This body appears to have evolved into the Mayor and Corporation, which have survived (albeit in purely ceremonial form) to this day. The first mayor was probably elected on 30 March 1293, but the first recorded incumbent was Gervaise Alard junior in 1294.

The Mayor had enormous powers. He was the chief magistrate of the town, with the authority to appoint other magistrates and (with the King’s Bailiff) could impose the death sentence. He was also coroner, a position of enormous influence, and controlled such vital commercial matters as the regulation of weights and measures. The Mayor was elected each Easter Monday at the open-air Hundred Court by his fellow Freemen (everybody who owned property above the age of 12 years, had lived in the town for a year and a day, and so on). He would then select 12 Freemen to be his jurats. They provided the magistrates and collectively acted as his council. However, the King’s Bailiff continued to represent the interests of the Crown, and so Winchelsea appears to have been governed by a form of dual administration, albeit that the Bailiff was usually a local man.

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