This is Much Wenlock’s Guildhall, standing in the heart of the town next to the parish church. It was built in 1540 after the dissolution of Wenlock Priory, so marking the end of monastic rule and the growth of secular, civic administration. The ground floor was originally a corn market, and several weekly markets are still held there. The upper floor has a court room, now a museum and gallery, and a council chamber, where our Town Council continues to meet every month.
Surprisingly Much Wenlock has a prestigious civic history for what today seems a small and sleepy town. It was first granted borough status by a Charter from Edward IV in 1468. This was to mark his acknowledgement of the “’laudable and acceptable services’ of his ‘liege men and residents of the town of Wenlock’ in his gaining of the crown.” Under the Charter the townspeople acquired a certain autonomy and could organise markets and fairs, and have their own officers – a Bailiff and Burgesses to oversee secular matters. The Prior still held sway though, effectively acting as lord of the manor. But after the Dissolution it was down to the Bailiff and Burgesses to run the town.
We will soon all know what these pillars of the community got up to – at least from 1495 to 1810. Extraordinarily, the Borough Minute Book covering 300 years of civic pronouncements and records has survived, and this year the Town Council raised funds to have it conserved and digitised. Now there are teams of volunteers working on the transcription of the entries. There are 800 pages, since the Burgesses who had the book made in 1495 were looking ahead. They were also using a newfangled material – paper. It was expensive stuff too, for during the conservation process it was discovered from the water marks that they had commissioned only the best from a maker in Italy.
The whole thing is quite breath-taking. Almost too much to imagine in our little town of two and half thousand souls; even when we were looking at the newly conserved Minute Book back in September when it was given its first public airing. Our very own half-millennium time machine of bureaucratic declarations and decisions. It will not be a pretty story either, not all of it anyway. There will be hangings, and the poor will be shoved from pillar to post, but within these pages we might also perceive the seeds of English democracy beginning to swell and take root.