The early history of the mayoralty in the town is confused because there was two governing bodies after its incorporation in the late 12th century. One was the Gild (Guild) Merchant, an association of local traders who monopolised trade in the town under the supervision of its chief officer, the alderman. The other was the legal and civil administration headed by elected officials. The reeve (or provost) was the royal representative in the administration. As there was considerable personnel overlap between the two bodies they soon merged.

In Southampton the office of mayor probably developed from that of the alderman, head of the Gild Merchant, which meant that, unlike in other towns, the mayor was chosen rather than elected by the townspeople or by jury. The custom was for the outgoing mayor to nominate two burgesses, one of whom was to be chosen as his successor, or the outgoing mayor himself might be re-elected.

The first record of a mayor of Southampton is in 1217, although a name is not specified. Benedict Ace was mayor for 11 consecutive years between 1234 and 1249. This was not popular with the burgesses who obtained by royal patent from Henry III the grant that they should not in future be ruled by a mayor. This state of affairs lasted until 1269 when the office seems to have been resurrected, with Simon de la Bulehuge as mayor in 1270, although the title seems to have been ignored by those in authority - charters from Henry II to Richard II were addressed simply to the burgesses of the town.

In 1445 Henry VI made Southampton a perpetual corporation with the mayor at the head of its administration. The election, by the burgesses of the town, was to take place each year on the Friday before the feast of St Matthew. It seems, however, that the practice was more restricted. This process of part nomination and part election was modified over the years and endured until the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835, after which the mayor was elected by the councillors. A list of Southampton mayors from 1217 to 1882 was kept amongst town records in the audit office and is now in the City Record Office.The list has been updated as List of Mayors of Southampton 1217-2017.

See also:

Further reading:

History of Southampton, by Rev. J. S. Davies, p163-184. (HS/h)
Medieval Southampton, by Colin Platt, p23, 53, 165-7, 175-6. (HS/h)
The Book of Fines: The Annual Accounts of the Mayors of Southampton, Vols. 1-3 (1488-1594), by Cheryl Butler. (HS/l)
The Book of Remembrance of Southampton, vol. 1 by Harry W Gidden (ed), pviii-x. HS/l


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