City and Borough/England

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City and Borough  (1889) 
by Edward Augustus Freeman

Let us begin then with England and the English borough which has lately been raised to the rank of a city. It is plain that, if the rank of city merely implies the size and importance of the town on which it is bestowed, no English town can have a better right to that rank than Birmingham. But I am quite sure that, a few years back, most people thought that every bishop's see was, as such, necessarily a city, and that no town that was not a bishop's see could be a city. And this belief seemed to be borne out by the fact that the title of city was universally given to every English town that was a bishop's see, and to two only that were not. The two exceptions were Coventry and Westminster, and they were exceptions which proved the rule. For Coventry and Westminster had been bishops' sees, and they might seem to keep their rank somewhat after the manner of dowager queens and peeresses. If this be a sound rule, the advancement of Birmingham to the rank of a city is certainly a breach of it. Birmingham, like Edinburgh or Glasgow in Scotland, is the seat of a bishopric, but not of a bishopric acknowledged by law. Yet the notion of the connexion between city and bishopric used to be so fixed in most minds that I remember how, when a Roman Catholic bishopric was first founded at Birmingham, some inhabitants of Birmingham asked, merrily perhaps, whether their borough had thereby become a city. We have now the fact that Birmingham is not the seat of any bishopric known to the law, and yet that Birmingham has been made a city by royal proclamation. This at once raises our two questions, What (as far as England is concerned) is meant by a city? and, Have city and bishopric (as far as England is concerned) anything to do with one another?

Now I must freely confess that I do not know what difference, except difference in rank, there is in England between a city and a borough. In tables of precedence we see, very near the end, "Citizens", and after them "Burgesses". I conceive therefore that there is an acknowledged difference of rank; that the Mayor of Birmingham will now undoubtedly take precedence of the Mayor of Warwick, that a citizen of Birmingham who is so unhappy as to be without any claim to rank as esquire, doctor, gentleman by coat-armour, or gentleman by profession, will also take precedence of a burgess of Warwick no less badly off. Further than this it is hard to see what Birmingham or any other borough gains by becoming a city. A city does not seem to have any rights or powers as a city which are not equally shared by every other corporate town. The only corporate towns which have any special powers above others are those which are counties of themselves; and all cities are not counties of themselves, while some towns which are not cities are. The city in England is not so easily defined as the city in the United States. There every corporate town is a city. This makes a great many cities, and it leads to an use of the word "city" in common talk which seems a little strange in British ears. In England, even in speaking of a real city, the word "city" is seldom used, except in language a little formal or rhetorical; in America it is used whenever a city is mentioned. But the American rule has the advantage of being perfectly clear and avoiding all doubt. And it agrees very well with the origin of the word: a corporate town is a civitas, a commonwealth; any lesser collection of men hardly is a commonwealth, or is such only in a much less perfect degree.

This brings us to the historical use of the word. It is clear at starting that the word is not English. It has no Old-English equivalent; burh, burgh, borough, in its various spellings and various shades of meaning, is our native word for urbes of every kind from Rome downward. It is curious that this word should in ordinary speech have been so largely displaced by the vaguer word tún, town, which means an enclosure of any kind, and in some English dialects is still applied to a single house and its surroundings. In no other Teutonic language has this particular usage come in; though the way in which the still vaguer Stadt is used in High- German is analogous to it. In common talk we use the word borough hardly oftener than the word city; when the word is used, it has commonly some direct reference to the parliamentary or municipal character of the town. Many people, I suspect, would define a borough as a town which sends members to Parliament, and such a definition, though still not accurate, has, by late changes, been brought nearer to accuracy than it used to be. City and borough then are both rather formal words; town is the word which comes most naturally to the lips when there is no special reason for using one of the others. Of the two formal words, borough is English, city is Latin; it comes to us from Gaul and Italy by some road or other. It is in Domesday that we find, by no means its first use in England, but its first clearly formal use, its first use of it to distinguish a certain class of towns, to mark those towns which are civitates as well as burgi from those which are burgi only. Now in Gaul the civitas in formal Roman language was the tribe and its territory, the whole land of the Arverni, Parisii, or any other tribe. In a secondary sense it meant the head town of the tribe, which in Northern Gaul now commonly bears the name of the tribe, having lost its own local name. Thus Lutetia Parisiorum, Civitas Parisiorum, is known as Paris; if the Civitas Arvemorum is not known by some form of the name Auvergne, it is because local accidents caused it early to take the name of Clermont, When Christianity was established, the civitas in the wider sense marked the extent of the bishop's diocese; the civitas in the narrower sense became the immediate seat of his bishopstool. Thus we cannot say that in Gaul a town became a city because it was a bishop's see; but we may say that a certain class of towns became bishops' sees because they were already cities. But in modern French use no distinction is made between these ancient capitals which became bishoprics and other towns of less temporal and spiritual honour. The seat of the bishopric, the head of the ancient province, the head of the modern department, the smaller town which has never risen to any of those dignities, are all alike ville. Lyons, Rheims, Paris, are in no way distinguished from meaner places. The word cité is common enough, but it has a purely local meaning. It often distinguishes the old part of a town, the ancient civitas, from later additions. In Italy, on the other hand, città, is both the familiar and the formal name for towns great and small. It is used just like ville in French; no distinction is made any more than in French between towns which are temporal or spiritual heads of districts and towns which are not.

I am writing away from books, and I must trust my memory for everything; so I cannot give the exact reference to a passage in Gregory of Tours which throws some light on the use of the word civitas. He gives a description and panegyric of Dijon, and adds his wonder that a place which had so many merits was not called a civitas. We might have used exactly the same form of words of Birmingham the other day, of Liverpool a few years earlier, of Manchester a few years earlier again. Now Dijon never was a bishopric till quite modern times. Gregory's language therefore shows that in Gaul in the sixth century, though most civitates were bishops' sees and most bishops' sees were civitates, yet to be a bishop's see in no way entered into the definition of a civitas. Comparing his way of speaking with modern French practice, one is pretty safe in saying that at no time has it been the custom in Gaul to draw the distinction which has certainly for some centuries been popular in England.

Let us now look at the first document in English history in which cities (civitates) are in a marked and designed way distinguished from other towns which were not cities. We must remember that English usage in the matter of bishoprics was altogether different from that of Gaul. Towns of any kind did not hold the same place in England, or anywhere in Britain, which they held in Gaul. In England, as in Gaul, the bishop was bishop of the tribe, and the territory of the tribe marked the extent of his diocese. But the bishopstool was not necessarily placed in the chief town of the tribe or in any town at all; indeed the tribe had not necessarily any chief town to place it in. One of the changes which began just before the Norman Conquest and which went on after it was the removal of bishops' sees from villages and small towns to the great cities. In the documents about the translation of the see of Devonshire from Crediton to Exeter, the Pope, Leo the Ninth, expresses his wonder that in England the bishopstool was not always placed in a city. Here, it will be seen, the "city" is taken for granted: the argument is not that the place where the bishopstool is shall be called a city; the city already exists, and the bishopstool ought to be in it. Exeter does not become a city because it is made a bishopric; it is chosen to be a bishopric because it is already a city. With this language of Pope Leo the language of Domesday exactly agrees. Places are there spoken of as cities which were not bishoprics, though some of them became bishoprics in after times. Such are Oxford and Gloucester, both Domesday cities, from which the title passed away and afterwards came back again. The name is applied also in Domesday to some towns which have never become bishoprics. I am not sure that without book I can make an exact list, but I am pretty sure that Shrewsbury and Colchester are among them. Exeter, Lincoln, Chester, places to which bishoprics had lately been moved, naturally rank as cities. The whole evidence of Domesday goes against the notion of there being any connexion between bishopric and city, except that a city was a proper place to plant a bishopric in. The places to which the name of city is given are clearly the great and important towns, some of them Roman chesters, some of them English settlements which had greatly outstripped their fellows, towns which were local centres and something more, towns which had more or less of an independent municipal constitution, which had magistrates, laws, and customs of their own, sometimes even a certain measure of authority over the surrounding country. To such towns the name of civitates, borrowed from Gaulish usage, was very naturally given, whether they were bishoprics or not. Sometimes they had bishops, sometimes not; but the age of the Norman Conquest tended to connect the notions of city and bishopric by the systematic translation of bishoprics from smaller places to cities.

Exactly opposite to the Domesday notion of a city is that which has certainly been prevalent for several centuries. This is the doctrine that a city is a town which is or has been a bishopric, and that, when a bishopric is placed in a town, that town, if it does not become a city without more ado, has at any rate a right to be formally created a city. This doctrine is certainly as old as the time of Henry the Eighth; I think I can see signs of it as early as the time of Richard the First. Let us first look to the later time. All the towns in which Henry the Eighth founded bishoprics have ever since been called cities, even though one of them, Westminster, lost its bishopric almost as soon as it was founded. Now Henry's charter of foundation of the bishopric of Gloucester contains a clause providing that henceforth the town (villa) of Gloucester shall be called the city (civitas) of Gloucester. I presume that there is something to the same effect in the other charters; if there is not, so much the better; in that case, the other new cities must have acquired the rank by usage. That is to say, it must have been taken for granted that the seat of a bishopric became a city ipso facto, a belief which would prove yet more than a formal creation. Now it is to be noticed that in this case of Gloucester the charter did but restore the town to the rank which it held in Domesday, and the like is the case with Oxford. The fact that Gloucester ranks as a city in the Great Survey must have been forgotten when Henry the Eighth thought it necessary to raise it to the rank of a city. It is plain that by that time the notions of bishopric and city had become so closely tied together that, as Gloucester was not a bishopric, its ancient dignity had altogether passed out of mind.

If I were writing in the midst of books, I dare say I could find some passages or documents which might illustrate the steps by which the doctrine of Domesday changed into the opposite doctrine which is implied in Henry the Eighth's Gloucester charter. Writing from memory, I can only mention on one side that, what one would hardly have expected, Wareham appears as a city in the Gesta Stephani, and also call attention to a most remarkable passage in Richard of the Devizes, which looks the other way. The Jew who describes the several English towns to the French boy — one of the cleverest bits of satire anywhere — says that Rochester and Chichester were mere villages or small towns (viculi) which had no right to be called cities, except that they were the seats of bishops — flamines is the pagan word which is put into the Hebrew mouth. This is a rather irreverent way of speaking of two immemorial chesters; but it clearly implies that, about the beginning of legal memory, it was believed that the presence of a bishop gave the rank of a city to a town which otherwise would have no claim to it. This is much the same as the doctrine of the Gloucester charter, much the same as the doctrine which was generally held till quite lately. By virtue of it the title of city was given by usage — whether always by law I cannot say — to any place, great and small, which could boast of a bishopstool, while it was refused to the greatest town which had none. The cities of England and Wales ranged from London to Llandaff, while Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham were not cities. Some cities, as Peterborough and Westminster, had no municipal corporation; some, as Ely, had neither municipal corporation nor representation in Parliament. These last answered exactly to the description given by the Jew to the French boy. So it was, certainly from Henry the Eighth, perhaps from Richard the First, down to our own time. Whence did such a doctrine come? I can only say that it must have come from Gaul in some shape or other. There is nothing in Old-English practice or Old-English language to suggest it. Till King William came into England, or at least till King Edward began to take to French ways, men could do nothing but call York a burh and Northampton a burgh though York had a bishop and Northampton had none. And, curiously enough, neither King Edward nor King William, though they taught people to distinguish certain places as civitates, ever taught them that civitas and bishopric were the same thing.

Yet we may be none the less sure that the notion of the connexion of city and bishopric was practically a French importation. Practically the bishoprics of Gaul answered to the civitates; so, under French influences, though not according to French formal practice, the doctrine came to be established in England that no town but a bishop's see could be a city, and that every town in which a bishop's see was placed either at once became a city or had a right to be made one.

After Henry the Eighth the question did not come up again till our own time. In the times between no new bishoprics were created; consequently, according to the rule which was by this time established, no towns were promoted to the rank of cities. In our day we have seen a good many. The first new bishopric since Henry the Eighth's time was Ripon in the reign of William the Fourth. Ripon calls itself a city. Can anybody tell me how it became one? Was it made a city by royal proclamation, or did it take the name of " city " without asking, as soon as it had a bishop ) I do not exactly remember. Or is it just possible that the rank of Ripon as a city has something to do with that wonderful legend of a charter from West-Saxon Alfred in which people at Ripon gravely believed two or three years back? The next was Manchester, and from Manchester onwards there is no doubt. Manchester was undoubtedly made a city by royal proclamation. But, unless my memory quite fails me, it was not made a city till some time after it became a bishopric, not till the question had been raised whether it did not become a city at once by virtue of being a bishopric. I have some indistinct remembrance of a story about a document being brought before a judge in which mention was made of the "city of Manchester." The judge rejected the paper on the ground that there was no such city, and then Manchester was made a city by proclamation. Some Manchester friend will doubtless be able to say whether my memory is accurate as to this story; but there is no doubt that Manchester became a city by proclamation, and that the proclamation did not immediately follow on the foundation of the bishopric. More lately Liverpool, Newcastle, Saint Albans, Truro, Wakefield — I am not sure of the chronological order — have all received the same promotion. In all these cases the foundation of the bishopric has been speedily followed by a royal proclamation raising the borough to the rank of a city. This is' exactly according to the doctrine implied in Henry the Eighth's Gloucester charter. The foundation of the bishopric does not make the borough a city, but it gives it a right to be made one. And, just as among the older sees, the new list takes in towns of very different classes, from Liverpool down to disfranchised Saint Albans. Still the line must be drawn somewhere; there is one bishop's see on which it would have been too grotesque to bestow the rank of a city. Leofric of Exeter and Remigius of Lincoln would have thought it passing strange that, when a bishopric was to be founded in Nottinghamshire, it should be founded at Southwell and not at Nottingham. But our time seems to have gone back from Leofric and Remigius to Saint David and Saint Cuthberht, and we now have in the episcopal village of Southwell an inland fellow of Menevia and Lindisfarn. I looked carefully for some time to see whether a proclamation would come making Southwell into a city; but I have not seen it yet.

And now comes a royal proclamation of quite another character, one not according to recent precedents, but which would have pleased Gregory of Tours and the compilers of Domesday. Gregory wondered why Dijon was not a city; many may have wondered why Birmingham was not one. But now that great borough has become a city, purely on the strength of its civil greatness, without any reference to ecclesiastical arrangements. We have now in England one bishop's see which is not a city, one city which is not a bishop's see. To me at least this seems to be a happy return to the reasonable language of Domesday. The creation of cities, once begun, will perhaps not stop. Modern greatness may plead for Leeds and Bradford; ancient memories may say something for Shrewsbury and Nottingham.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.