I recently started following a Facebook page entitled “Angry People in Local Papers”. One story recently highlighted was reported in the Southampton Echo. Perry McMillan, a taxi driver and long-term Southampton FC fan, has made a presentment to the city’s ancient court leet about the colours with which the Itchen Bridge is illuminated.
Though rare in England today, in medieval and early modern times, leet courts were commonplace. Members of the community would routinely make presentments on a wide variety of grievances. These often related to failures to follow specific local regulations, improper behaviour or disputes over the management of property.
The medieval records of the Southampton court leet have been lost. Those that survive only go back as far as 1550 but they provide a vivid insight into the everyday lives of historic communities and the often petty – but very familiar – disagreements between neighbours.
In his recent presentment, McMillan took issue with the lights of the bridge being blue and yellow – which are the colours of arch rivals Portsmouth, not the red and white of his club. As he explained to one journalist:
I was born and bred in Southampton and have been a Saints fan since the 1960s and it’s hard to believe that the lights on the Itchen Bridge are blue, instead of red and white. Hundreds of Southampton supporters travel across the bridge on foot, bike, and bus and have had more than a decade of mockery from Portsmouth supporters. It’s a situation we need to rectify.
A historic democratic tradition
The exact origins of the court leet, as an institution of local governance in England, are unclear. It probably pre-dates the Norman Conquest of 1066, although the term “leet” is not known prior to the early 13th century.
The Court Act of 1971 saw the majority abolished, many having not sat since the 18th and 19th centuries, when their duties were absorbed into other courts. Southampton is one of the few cities to have retained its court leet. It sits once a year, on the first Tuesday after Michaelmas (September 29).
Historically, the court leet’s single, annual sitting was a major civic occasion. Prior to moving to the guildhall with the Bargate, the iconic gateway to the medieval town in 1617, the Southampton court leet met in the open air at the Cut-thorn, a circular mound surrounded by trees at the northern perimeter of the town.
In the medieval and early modern periods, the presiding officer of the court was the mayor, with the jurors comprising aldermen and councillors. Although the court had the power to investigate (but not prosecute) criminal acts, the court’s defining characteristic was its concern with local issues.
These ranged from common nuisances to the enforcement of trading regulations and bylaws. They also included the suppression of illegal games, such as tennis and bowls, which were thought to distract from archery practice, an activity mandated by royal proclamation. This punitive approach can also be seen as a way of regulating the activities of those lower in the social order.
Grievances still relevant today
Throughout the 16th century, presentments to Southampton’s court leet relating to sport and games were commonplace. These included complaints that archery butts had not been set up, or had fallen into disrepair.
In 1550 alone, there were five sporting presentments. Thomas Mucko the Younger was accused of keeping a tennis court. Thomas Deboke and William Mudforde were both accused of having bowling alleys.
These records provide a vivid picture of the disagreements and disputes which preoccupied Southampton’s townspeople. They bring to mind many of the issues – disputes over parking, planning and fly-tipping – which are familiar to readers of local newspapers today. In 1550, a complaint was made against Thomas Casberd for parking his cart in the street “to the annoyance of the king’s people” – a gripe to which we can probably all relate.
Thomas was, in fact, a serial offender. Another entry records how he also stood accused of illegally joining together three houses – something we might recognise today as a planning violation.
The language used in the presentments to medieval leet courts is often vivid and reveals attitudes to hygiene and social order. It was common for complaints about the slaughtering of animals and disposal of entrails to talk evocatively of the stench of rotting meat.
Other frequent annoyances included people washing clothes in the street and dumping rubbish or materials, including in the castle green and against the town walls – which archaeological investigations have confirmed.
The court also dealt with presentments on a range of issues relating to live stock, leisure and civic duty. It outlawed cows being milked in the street and pigs and ducks being allowed to roam freely. It forced residents to meet their obligation to scour stretches from the town ditch. It prohibited tipplers selling ale after 9pm and allowing “unlawful games”.
Today, the court functions as a forum for local people to draw to the city council’s attention to issues that might otherwise pass them by. The Town Crier formally opens proceedings. Complainants then make their presentments to the court jurors, who are comprised of honorary aldermen, past mayors and sheriffs, as well as the steward of the manor of court leet and the sheriff, who acts as foreperson.
When a complaint is accepted, Southampton City Council’s court leet procedure specifies, it will be forwarded to the relevant council department and reported to the cabinet within four to six weeks. In making his presentment, McMillan is continuing a rich tradition of local governance.