The history of yeovil

Provost, Portreeve and Burgesses

Early town government


There are very few records regarding the early establishment of the borough of Yeovil or its administration. In Georgian times most of the town's charters and other records were deliberately destroyed when it is said that three cartloads of "old writings" took three days to burn. Further town records were lost when the Tolle Hall or Court Chamber which belonged to the burgesses, an early form of town hall in the Borough, partially fell down in 1780.

Nevertheless, the establishment of Yeovil was hinted at in the Domesday Book of 1086 in which twenty two men held messuages, later called 'the Tenement', and later still formed the borough of Yeovil. However 'the Tenement' remained incorporated within the holdings of William d'Eu that would later become the Manor of Hendford.  Under the Normans the privileges previously enjoyed by the Tenement were severely curtailed. However by 1138 Maud, queen of Henry I, was endowed with Yeovil including the Tenement which she placed under the rectors of St John's. With this came restoration of some of their pre-Conquest rights and the Tenement was described as "of the Liberties of the Church of Yeovil."

Yeovil was a borough 'by prescription', that is to say by long usage and custom and similarly its market and fairs were also prescriptive and were held by custom and not set up by a grant or charter. Nevertheless the 'Tenement' was still within the manor of Hendford and, to a degree, still came under the auspices of the lord of the manor. In August 1205 King John passed through Yeovil and that same year gave the town its first known charter under which Yeovil's Sunday market, a relic of pagan days, was changed to a Friday which clashed with the market held in the 'Tenement'. The problem, of course, came down to money; since the rector received market tolls and fees from the Tenement market while the lord of the manor of Hendford received market tolls and fees from the town's market. Bad feeling followed for the next two centuries but erupted almost straight away for in 1219 Walerand Teutonicus, an 'absent' Rector of Yeovil, brought a suit against Sir John Maltravers for the rights of the Church. The decision of a special court held at Ilchester found in favour of the Rector providing that any income from the Tenement go to the Church and not personally to the Rector.

In 1305 an agreement was reached in a court at Somerton between Robert de la More, Parson and Lord of Yeovil, and the Burgesses of Yeovil - recorded as such for the first time. So, by 1305 the original twenty two messuages of the Tenement had become the "Free Borough of Yeovil". With this came certain rights such as the continued right to elect burgesses and, from within their number, annually elect a provost albeit with the veto of the Parson, as lord of the manor, rather than the provost being nominated by the lord as previously. The agreement also decreed that each burgess should attend the three-week Court or at the Parson's Portmote - the Portmote being a court of an English borough but also simply meaning a town's administrative assembly.

"Freedom was attained, and not the least of it was that the ancient liberties were recognised and confirmed. The burgesses were exempted from feudal taxes and aids, and they were allowed to decide their own quarrels in their own tribunals. The Sheriff could not arrest there - a phrase of very significant meaning to the medieval boroughs - and they no longer had to attend the Hundred Court." (Goodchild, 1954)

A burgess originally meant a freeman of a borough but later came to mean an official (either elected or non-elected) or the representative of a borough in the House of Commons. It was derived from the Old French word burgeis, simply meaning "an inhabitant of a town". In Yeovil the burgesses were successors to the original twenty two freemen recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. They had the right to elect a portreeve, subject to the approval of the lord of the borough. Together they formed a 'Commonalty', and claimed to be a Corporation by prescription: it had existed from time immemorial.

Every year the burgesses named three townspeople being ‘fit and proper persons’ as candidates for the position of provost or, later, portreeve. The lord or his steward then selected one of the three who duly swore an oath and took up office on St Thomas’ Day. In some cases, especially more recently, the role has been combined with that of mayor - as was the case with Yeovil. As Daniel Vickery described "For many years it was customary to nominate three persons to the Lord of the Manor, at his Court Leet, held in October, and the person he selected attended at the General Quarter Sessions to be sworn in, and to qualify as a magistrate, and was then empowered to administer oaths and to attest recruits. Beyond this the office of Portreeve brought no honour or patronage with it. Public documents were sent to him as the head of the legal constituency of the town, and he was expected to take the Chair at all public meetings of the burgesses. He had possession of the old town seal, and the ancient gilt mace. It might perhaps have happened on some occasions, when the Portreeve was a bachelor, that he paid an official visit to the old ladies at the Portreeve's alms-house; but beyond these few particulars his influence or authority did not reach. At last even these honours, humble as they were, passed away."

Historically a provost or portreeve, also known as a port warden, was the title of an official possessing political, administrative and/or fiscal authority over a town. The degree of authority wielded by the portreeve has varied considerably through history and location. The term derives from the word port which originally meant a market town or walled town and not specifically a seaport; and the word reeve, meaning a high-ranking supervisory official. The origins of the position are in the reign of Edward the Elder (King of Wessex, 899-924) who, in order to ensure that taxes were correctly exacted, forbade the conducting of trades outside of a 'port' or duly appointed place for trading, and without the supervision of a portreeve or other trustworthy person. At this time therefore, they had a role as a fiscal supervisor, much like modern customs and revenue officers. This, effectively, forced the beginnings of the ‘weekly market’. By the late Middle Ages the portreeve acted as the representative of the people to ensure that their duties to the community were fulfilled.

The earliest recorded provost in Yeovil was Robert le Provost of 1266. The provost was a steward or bailiff of a medieval manor, effectively the leader of the burgesses. Burgess originally meant a freeman of a borough but later came to mean an elected or unelected official. It was derived in Middle English from the Old French word burgeis, simply meaning 'an inhabitant of a town'. In turn this derived from bourg, meaning a market town or village. Generally speaking the burgesses were from the town's merchant class or what might be considered middle-class residents. 

Effectively while the lord had ultimate control over his domain and, more importantly, gained income from it, he usually had little to do with the detail of running the town. Indeed many lords rarely, if ever, visited since Yeovil would have simply been one of their many holdings. Strangely, we might think today, many of the rectors of the church also had little to do with the town, being 'absent' and simply enjoying the income from the benefice, including several chantries, despite the earlier ruling of 1219. The provost / portreeve and burgesses on the other hand ran the town on a hands-on, day-to-day basis like an early form of town council, the Corporation.

It would appear in the 1460's the title of Yeovil's provost changed to portreeve, although the duties and responsibilities remained broadly the same and, as the elected leader of the burgesses, he possessed political, administrative and day-to-day fiscal authority over the town. 

It was established that "the Portreeve and burgesses were seized in fee to them and their successors of divers messuages lands and tenements value £10 or thereabouts and that they were so seized from time immemorial." The portreeve and burgesses continued to oversee the administration of Yeovil until the middle of the nineteenth century.