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In fact the Abbot stripped the dead of everything-leaving him nothing, by all accounts, but his winding sheet.
Although the people of Over were under the same rule, yet there is no mention of their having been in this degraded state ; and it is probable, therefore, that they were protected by some charter of an early date. There is a charter existing in favour of Over, granting a weekly market and annual fair. This was obtained from the Abbot of Vale Royal and is dated the ninth of King Edward I; but no other is known to exist.
It is said by some that Over had a Mayor before Chester could boast of such a dignitary, and that the former takes precedence of the latter in this respect. Webb, who wrote two hundred years ago, says that “Over was made a Mayoral “ town by means of the Abbot and convent of Vale Royal ;" but Ormerod gives the name of Walter Lyneet as the first Mayor of Chester, in the twenty-sixth Henry III, A.D. 1242, which would be at least forty years before the establishment of the monastery; therefore the assumption of Over having this priority may be erroneous. It is probable that Over enjoyed the protection of the Norman kings or some powerful Baron or perhaps of the Earl of Chester, as a borough for trade, before the foundation of Vale Royal. However, it was the policy of the Norman rulers after the Conquest to confirm and enlarge the charters of previous Saxon monarchs and confer similar favours upon rising towns, and thus the allegiance of the inhabitants of such places would be secured. Henshall says, in his History of Chester, that “Over was “ numbered among the immediate possessions of the Earl “ of Chester until the fifty-fourth of Henry III, when it was
granted to the abbey of Vale Royal by Prince Edward.”
It is probable that the appointment of Mayor emanated from the Abbot's inability or disinclination to attend to his magisterial duties. This potent Churchman lived in all the
splendour of a powerful Baron and possessed full judicial rights over the manors of Weaverham and Over, with which the Abbey was endowed. He had an extensive right of “advoury,” affording protection to criminals fleeing from the hands of justice-Over Church being, it is believed, one of the
sanctuaries,” of which there were several in the County of Chester. The Abbot of Vale Royal was invested even with the power of dealing out capital punishment. In Town fields, near Over, there are several fields or crofts called “Loonts." These are narrow strips of land, which once constituted the common rights of the Over people. One of these still bears the title of the “Gallows Loont," from its being the site on which in olden time the gallows was erected. Indeed some very old men, recently deceased, used to affirm that they recollected in their young days seeing the oak side posts of this erection.
The Abbot of Vale Royal had also the power of Infangthef and Utfangthef, with the privileges of Tol and Stallayium, and the amends of bread and ale. Infangthef was liberty to try and judge a thief taken within his jurisdiction ; Utfangthef was liberty to take a thief that fled and bring him back to the place where he had committed the crime ; Tol was an imposition for things bought and sold in the markets; while Stallagium was payment for privilege to stand at markets and fairs. Accompanied by his Seneschal and under Seneschal, the Prior, Bailiffs and Gentry of the neighbourhood, the Abbot used to hold his court and there receive the oaths of fidelity of the large landowners and hear their recitation of the circumstances and obligations of their tenure, and also receive the acknowledgment of suit and service from every male burgess in the borough. He appointed a Coroner to hold regular courts of law in his manors of Weaverham and Over, for the administration of justice ; and in the appointment of this officer I think may be traced that of Mayor.
At the dissolution of monasteries Sir Thomas Holcroft obtained the entire manors of Weaverham and Over, with all the privileges that appertained thereto. One of these would no doubt be the legal power the Abbot held over the manor, which he would similarly exercise for his own honour. This he would transmit to his heirs and they to their assigns, Thomas and Edmund Pershall, the latter of whom transferred it by sale, about the middle of the 17th century, to Thomas Cholmondeley, a descendant of the Baron of Malpas (whose family took their name from their place of residence) in whose representative and heir, Lord Delamere, the present proprietor of Vale Royal and Lord of the Manor, the appointment of Mayor of Over is now vested and by whom it is annually exercised.
The mode of appointing the Mayor for a very long period, until recently, was thus performed. The Lord of the Manor held a Court Leet and Baron in October, when two juries were empannelled, one for the town of Over, called the “ Grand Jury," and the other for the lesser townships, called the “Country Jury." Twelve of the most eligible and best qualified persons in the borough were nominated by the “ Grand Jury” at this Court, and their names returned to the Lord of the Manor, who selected one of the number to serve the office of Mayor; and at another meeting of the Court, fourteen days afterwards, the person so chosen was finally appointed to the office, and was then sworn in by the Recorder of the Court; but, before entering upon the office, he had to take the oath of allegiance and supremacy at the Quarter Sessions of the County, like the county magistrates. At the same time the choice was made of the Bailiff, Constables, Burleymen and Aletasters, who were then also sworn in.
Now, however (and for a few years past), the Lord of the Manor indicates to his Law Agent, the Recorder of the
Court, the person whom he will appoint, and this gentleman communicates his Lordship's wishes to the “Grand Jury,” who invariably accept the nomination and elect him there and then, thus reversing the old established mode, and constituting the jury involuntary agents to endorse the appointment, whether agreeable to them or not. The more seemly character of the former mode of choosing the Mayor is apparent, and many think it ought still to be observed.
During his year of office the Mayor acts as a magistrate. In this duty he is aided and advised by the Recorder or Clerk of the Court, who is generally a member of the legal profession. Cases of assault, disorderly conduct, drunkenness and petty theft, as well as graver offences when they occur, are brought before him, and as there is no other magistrate near, and the population is constantly increasing, the office is both arduous and responsible. He is also entitled to a seat on the bench at the County Quarter Sessions, but unless he be a man of some public spirit and education he seldom exercises this right. At the conclusion of his year of office the Mayor assumes the title of “ Alderman.”
The Mayors of Over are mostly selected from the tenants of the Vale Royal estate, but not exclusively, as several gentlemen resident in the borough, not Lord Delamere's tenants, have occasionally held the office. They have generally been plain men of good position and character, not much learned in the law perhaps, but quite capable, with the aid of their legal adviser, of giving a fair and correct sentence; and, to their honour be it said, they have never used their power arbitrarily, but for the most part have wisely tempered Justice with Mercy. Some of those who held the office at an early period were evidently unable to write, as the
Mayor of Over his mark” is not uncommon in very old legal documents relating to the vicinity of the borough. There have been Kings who could do no more, and warriors
of renown whose only signature was the pommel of their sword handle.
A few ancient customs connected with the borough are beginning to be forgotten. Walking the fair is one of these. On this occasion the Mayor, arrayed in proper costume, carried a large silver mace and was met at the market-cross by some of the Aldermen who had passed the chair. After the Bailiff had recited the terms of the charter for the fair the Mayor proceeded, attended by his javelin men and a band of music, from one end of the long street in which the fair is held to the other. He distributed ribbon favours to all the landladies and waiters at the several inns. The Aldermen, Bailiff and other officers also received ribbons, as did the bandsmen and any others who joined in the train. The Mayor's outlay for ribbon frequently exceeded £20; in fact there was quite a ribbon mania on these occasions. One old lady who kept a booth used to boast that her principal profits arose from the ribbons she sold to the rustics and lads of the village who gave streamers to their Lucindas and Phæbes as fairings. The tolls arising from the cattle fair are the perquisite of the Mayor. Those arising from booths and stands are let with the George und Dragon Inn by Lord Delamere.
There is still an annual court held by Lord Delamere, whereat all householders in the borough are summoned to answer to their names, as acknowledgment of suit and service to his lordship, or send the sum of twopence instead. On the last court day £4 9s. 10d. was received in pursuance of this custom. Widows and spinsters are exempt.
Persons who omit attendance and paying the twopence are liable to be fined one shilling. There are 900 names now on the roll, 80 per cent. of which either answer the call” or pay the twopence, and all travellers passing through the borough while the court is sitting can be compelled to pay a like amount.