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How Bristol got its first mayor and England representative government

Image of an illustration showing King John signing Magna Carta

King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. One of Bristol’s earliest mayors, Roger Cordwainer, was an appointee of King John.

Press release issued: 6 April 2016

Mayors today are often seen as a way of shaking up local government and making it more accountable. But how did England’s towns first get their mayors, eight hundred years ago? This is explored in new research published this week by John Godwin of the University of Bristol.

The article by Mr Godwin, a veteran local politician and now a doctoral student at the University, coincides with Bristol’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of its first mayor.

Since the Middle Ages historians have recognised 29 September 1216 as the date on which Bristol got its first mayor: Adam le Page. But was he truly the first mayor?  Were the early mayors recognised by the King?  And what authority did they have?

Godwin shows that Bristol had at least one mayor before 1216: Roger Cordwainer.  But he was an appointee of King John.

Professor Brendan Smith of Bristol’s Department of History said: “John probably deserves his ‘Robin Hood’ reputation: the caricature of the ‘bad king’. He was weak, wicked, cowardly and grasping.

“Having signed the Magna Carta in 1215, King John reneged on the deal, prompting the country to revolt.  Losing ground to the rebels, the King spent part of his last year in Bristol, before dying of dysentery in Lincolnshire in October 1216.  It was only when the Crown passed to his infant son, Henry III, that peace was restored.”

In the midst of all this conflict, double-dealing and bloodshed, Bristol replaced Cordwainer with Adam le Page, a man chosen by the townsfolk. From then until the twentieth century, the mayor of Bristol was the leader and representative of the town.  Even today, the Lord Mayor chairs the Council meetings, while Bristol’s directly-elected mayor, currently George Ferguson, heads up city government.

Godwin shows that 1216 wasn’t the end of the story for Bristol.  In the early years, its mayors, along with England’s other towns, were not formally recognised by the Crown.  The kings of England were wary of devolving power to people who might challenge their authority.  But, in practice, they were still willing to deal with the mayors chosen in Bristol and elsewhere.

In 1300, Edward I formalised the situation.  Mr Godwin, said: “Edward I, the man who sought to unite Britain by conquering Wales and Scotland, was an unlikely devolver of power but it seems that he decided to grant new charters to England’s towns, apparently in the hope that they would then be loyal to him.  This probably made sense: if someone else became king, he might not recognise the rights granted to towns by his predecessor.”

Dr Evan Jones, also of Bristol’s Department of History, said: “England’s medieval mayors were born in bloodshed and their powers came from desperation.  That’s perhaps the take-home message of John Godwin’s research.  But the events of the thirteenth century helped establish towns as independent corporations, governed by their citizens.

“Last year the English-speaking world celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta because the ‘great charter’ established the notion that people have rights.  But changes in town governance at that time were equally important.  They created the notion that leaders should be chosen by the people for the people.  That made towns the cradles of democracy.”


‘The origins of Bristol’s mayoralty’ by John Godwin in Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 

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