Peter Hewitt is an AHRC collaborative doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham.
In 1595, the Stratford Corporation, which managed the town’s affairs, ordered a piece of furniture to be made. Today, we would probably call this type of object a filing-cabinet, but the late sixteenth century aldermen named theirs the ‘new Cubborde of Boxes’, and detailed its construction in their Minute Books. These records tell us that two local men, Lawrence Abell and Oliver Hickox, made the cubborde in sixteen and a half days – Abell was the joiner, living in Church Street, whilst Hickox, who later lived in Bridge Street, provided the ironwork.
The cubborde was built to store the muniments, titles, evidences, deeds, and other legal documents of the Corporation. It stood in, or close by, the Chamber on the upper floor of the Guildhall on Church Street – a structure built by the Guild and dissolved at the Reformation. Here the aldermen of the Corporation met at least once every month to ‘commen [commune] and consoult to gether of thynges necessary & to redress thos thynges that shall forten [fortune] to be enormyd [abnormal] and out of order’. These were men who, like Angelo in Measure for Measure, were entrusted with the Royal commission – men ‘dress’d in our love’, and ‘lent’ the ‘terror’ of governance.
Six of the twelve drawers housed deeds and receipts (aquittances) relating to the residents of the wards. It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of such documents as those who held them held the right of ownership over the land and buildings, and were therefore entitled to demand rents. Using these documents, newly systematized and ordered to account for the topography of the town, the Corporation was able to track who owed what, and was at times enjoined by the Crown to assess the wealth of Borough residents for tax purposes (subsidies). The important Royal Charter of 1553 was also kept in the ‘cubborde’ – this allowed the Corporation to make bye-laws, and aldermen were henceforth able to prosecute or present evidence against wrongdoers at the Court Leet, and receive a share of the fines exacted. The Charter then, prized and safely stowed in the cubborde, gave the Corporation political agency, and a degree of legal autonomy. (Discover more about the Royal charter on another one of our blog posts).
Religious and state authority also blended together via the old architectural structures of the Guild and the material culture of the Corporation. Prior to the Reformation, the ‘greate bell’ in the Chapel was tolled to mark the raising of Host during the Mass – after the Incorporation of 1553 it was rung to summon the Aldermen to their meetings. These gatherings were both lively and pious – a Chamber Bible, again stored in the cubborde, was drawn out and read aloud, and every alderman was enjoined to depart ‘not forth but in brotherly love’ – upon pain of a 6s 8d fine. Bailiffs burned ‘lanthorns’ or lanterns outside their houses in wintertime – lights which were symbolic of their shining civic and religious example. Silver maces, deposited in the cubborde, were carried by the Serjeant-at-Mace on public procession, who bore them aloft in a ritualized representation of the monarch in absentia.
The Cubborde of Boxes was, therefore, clearly much more than a filing-cabinet. It housed the treasures of the Corporation - items whose material significance were intrinsic to the ‘ordering’ of civic life. If these treasures were deemed important, it is probable that the means by which these things were assembled and organized were equally so. This object allowed the Corporation to begin a rationalization of secular life where social surveillance, taxation, piety, and civic sociability could be newly envisioned and, ultimately, transformed.
For Corporation quotes, see Edgar I. Fripp and Richard Savage (eds.), Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon and Other Records (Oxford: 1921); Levi Fox, The Borough Town of Stratford-upon-Avon (Stratford: 1953).
The ‘Cubborde of Boxes’
The nature of our people,
Our city's institutions, and the terms
For common justice, you're as pregnant in
As art and practise hath enriched any
That we remember. There is our commission,
From which we would not have you warp.
For you must know, we have with special soul
Elected him our absence to supply,
Lent him our terror, dress'd him with our love,
And given his deputation all the organs
Of our own power
Measure for Measure, Act 1, Scene 1