The urban elites of provincial 15th and 16th-century English towns and cities have been widely researched by scholars. The mayors, aldermen, common councillors and other elite civic office-holders of such towns, it has been argued, held near omnipotent political power. Indeed, it is often acknowledged that the period from the late 15th through to the mid-16th centuries witnessed growing oligarchic government in many more towns and cities, in the process handing greater political control to smaller numbers of civic elites. In emphasising the political power of these elites, however, there is the danger that our perceptions of 16th-century urban governments and urban politics have become rather uncritical. In this article, James Lee recovers the political activity of a variety of lesser civic officials in Tudor Bristol, first considering the constitutional frameworks in which such officials operated, before examining what kind of political authority such individuals were capable of exercising.
Five hundred years ago, Bristol was the second or third largest town in England ( only London, York, and possibly Norwich outstripped it in wealth and population), but was finding it difficult to maintain this position in the face of increasingly difficult economic conditions. Bristol shared in the problems besetting many of its rivals: population growth was held back by recurrent epidemics, with the result that levels of trade and demand for manufactured goods remained low, while the shortage of tenants meant that houses fell empty and soon decayed; the increasing competition from rural clothiers hit the urban textile industry, and the town's elite showed growing reluctance to volunteer for burdensome and costly civic office. Peter Fleming offers an insight to life in Bristol in the last decade of the fifteenth century.