Bletchingley

Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Elections

DateCandidate
1386William Bart
 John atte Wyke
1388 (Feb.)Robert Nafferton
 William Nightingale
1388 (Sept.)William Hart
 Henry atte Stone I
1390 (Jan.)John Deubeneye
 William Nightingale
1390 (Nov.)
1391
1393William Hart
 Richard Turner I
1394
1395William Hart
 William Tanner
1397 (Jan.)William Hart
 Richard Turner I
1397 (Sept.)John Deubeneye
 Thomas atte Helde
1399John Deubeneye
 Thomas atte Helde
1401
1402William Hart
 John Modys
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406
1407
1410
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)William Hart
 Roger Eylove II
1415William Hart
 John Modys
1416 (Mar.)Roger Eylove II
 John Modys
1416 (Oct.)
1417William Hart
 Robert Axi
1419Roger -
 John -
1420
1421 (May)Walter atte Berne
 John Knoller
1421 (Dec.)Henry Brampton
 Herny atte Stone II

Main Article

Although the site of the medieval borough of Bletchingley was not settled until Anglo-Saxon times, there is evidence of Roman occupation in the neighbouring manor of Pendell and of prehistoric fortifications on the crest of the chalk downs a few miles to the north. The heavy clay and dense forest of the Surrey Weald formed an impenetrable boundary to the south, and may well have deterred the Romans from cultivating the lighter belt of greensand on which Bletchingley stands. Once cleared, the soil proved comparatively fertile and easy to work; tenants were attracted to the area, and by 1086 a large and prosperous manor with a population of about 200 had grown up.1 Some of its later inhabitants were probably involved in the working of nearby quarries, which provided firestone, gravel and chalk for local use and traditionally supplied some of the finer stone used in building Westminster abbey. The combination of fast-flowing streams and ample supplies of wool from sheep reared on the manor hastened the development of a fulling industry, but, despite the quality of cloth produced, only a modest output was maintained throughout the Middle Ages. The tanneries for which Bletchingley was later famous also seem to have operated on a very small scale. During our period the townspeople were almost completely dependent upon the profits of agriculture for their continued prosperity, either as farmers or as tradesmen engaged in the buying and selling of wheat, oats, barley, dairy produce and stock from the surrounding countryside. The first reference to a local market occurs in 1262, when rents for shops and stalls paid to the Clare family came to £2; but a considerable amount of trade must have passed through the town long before this date. The building of Bletchingley castle by the Clares during the middle of the 12th century (possibly on a site already fortified by William Rufus) was undoubtedly a great impetus towards both the intensive cultivation of the manorial demesnes and the growth of a regular local market. The burgesses derived even greater benefit from a royal grant in 1283 to Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, the owner of the borough, of an annual fair to be held there at the beginning of November, although the return made at his inquisition post mortem nine years later suggests that he was not sharing in any increased revenues. Rents from shopkeepers and stallholders had fallen to 16s. and did not rise again during the following century.2

With only limited evidence at our disposal, it would be unsafe to say that Bletchingley had by this time entered a period of economic stagnation, but the lay subsidy assessments of 1334 show it to have been far poorer than many other towns and even villages in Surrey. The 20 townspeople then rich enough to qualify for taxation produced no more than £2 4s.6d., whereas the hamlet of Horne, immediately to the south of the borough, boasted 27 householders and an assessment of £3 3s.2d.3 Many former residents of Bletchingley seem to have been attracted to this growing village community with its iron works and more fluid land market. There can be little doubt that the enclosure of two deer parks in the manor of Bletchingley by the Clares during the previous century had served to place an effective curb on expansion: between them they measured over ten miles in circumference and in 1521 were said to support a herd of 1,000 deer. Since a number of burgesses were tenant farmers, anxious to extend their holdings, the imparking of common land and an inevitable reduction in the amount of available leasehold must have encouraged them to move elsewhere.4 There are, however, no signs of serious depopulation or of long-term economic decline: assize rents collected from the borough even rose modestly between 1262 and 1429. The manor and borough (which lay within the confines of the manor) were together said to be worth £55 p.a., clear of running costs, in 1314, and still managed to produce £50 a year during the late 1420s, even though not all the tenants had settled their accounts. Shortly after his coming-of-age in 1423, Humphrey, 6th earl of Stafford, who then owned the borough, was able to double the rents on some burgages, so there can have been no lack of people ready to settle there.5

Bletchingley was a mesne borough, owned successively by the Clares, earls of Gloucester and Hertford, and the Staffords, earls of Stafford and dukes of Buckingham, during the later Middle Ages. It was never incorporated, and clearly owed its original burghal status to the power and influence of the Clares, who were shrewd enough to exploit its economic position. It was first described as a borough in 1226 and was thus represented at the eyre by its own jury from 1235 onwards; but it had enjoyed a degree of importance as the administrative and military centre of the Clare estates in Surrey for many years before. Although Gilbert de Clare did not attempt to rebuild Bletchingley castle after its partial demolition by Henry III’s supporters in 1264, he and his descendants made occasional use of a nearby hunting lodge where manor courts were held and routine business was transacted. The burgesses lost much of their freedom of self-government as a result of the re-organization of the great Clare inheritance during the middle years of the 13th century. Henceforward, all judicial, financial and administrative matters concerning any of the family’s property in Kent, Surrey and Sussex came under the immediate supervision of a receiver based at Tonbridge in Kent. This system was maintained, and in many ways strengthened by the Staffords, who acquired one-third of the Clare estates by marriage in 1347. From this date onwards both the manor and borough of Bletchingley were subject to continuous intervention by the earls, their senior ministers, and, during minorities, their feoffees.6

Bletchingley had no mayor during our period, nor do the townspeople appear to have formed themselves into a guild merchant or any other kind of fraternity. A court and view of frankpledge took place annually in the borough; the burgesses also held their own court, or ‘portmanmote’, which, as the main instrument of local government, was presided over by the bailiff and provided yet another source of income for the lord by way of fines and amercements. Tenants in the manor and borough alike owed tallage for the knighting of the lord’s eldest son and the marriage of his eldest daughter. Dues of this kind were invariably raised by an official from Tonbridge, while the task of collecting rents and judicial profits lay with the resident bailiff. For most, if not all, of the period under review, the latter rendered a joint account for all the Staffords’ possessions in the Bletchingley area, including the manor of Stangrave and other scattered farmsteads. By 1428, however, there were two bailiffs: one was responsible for the borough, and the other, who was senior in rank, took charge of the manor and its appurtenances. The burgesses were then permitted to elect one of their number as bailiff, although their freedom of choice was somewhat curtailed by the dearth of willing candidates. In 1445, for example, Henry Brampton, who had represented Bletchingley in the Parliament of 1421 (Dec.), was evicted from his burgage for refusing to take up office in the borough. The rapid succession of new appointments during the 1420s and 1430s suggests that most of his recent predecessors had been just as anxious to avoid the responsibilities involved.7

Under normal circumstances neither the burgesses nor their bailiffs can have enjoyed much autonomy, but the four successive minorities which beset the Stafford family during the late 14th and early 15th centuries gave them an unaccustomed measure of independence. The house of Stafford was without an adult head for no less than 30 years between 1386 and 1423: the manor and borough of Bletchingley were at first administered by a group of councillors and feoffees, but on the 5th earl’s death in 1403 (at the battle of Shrewsbury), this part of his Surrey estates was shared between Anne, dowager countess of Stafford, and Nicholas Bubwith, who later became bishop of Bath and Wells. In January 1404, Henry IV made a further assignment of rents and profits from Bletchingley to Queen Joan, so that for the next 19 years the residents recognized no single authority.8 This does not appear to have affected the pattern of parliamentary representation in any way, for the practice of returning local men had already become well established long before 1386. Many MPs were demesne tenants or minor officials employed first by the Clares and then by the Staffords, but since such a connexion was virtually inescapable in a small borough owned by a single lord, it cannot be taken as evidence of electoral management. Indeed, although a number of the 6th earl of Stafford’s senior estate and household personnel were returned for Bletchingley after the close of our period, most of them had already acquired property in the area and were therefore influential local figures in their own right.

Bletchingley first sent burgesses to Parliament in 1295 and continued to do so quite regularly until the 1320s when returns become more intermittent. In marked contrast to the larger Surrey boroughs of Guildford and Southwark, it was evidently not required to make any return to at least 31 of the Parliaments held between 1295 and 1385, but representation gradually picked up again from 1371 onwards. Even so, returns have survived for only half of the 32 Parliaments of our period, and there is no information at all about the rest. In view of the apparent completeness of the Surrey returns for 1406 and 1407 it looks as if elections were never held in Bletchingley for either of these two Parliaments,9 although any remarks on the parliamentary experience of the 17 burgesses known to have been chosen between 1386 and 1421 are still clearly open to qualification because of other gaps in the evidence. Six of these men appear to have sat only once, four just twice, and two not more than three times. Despite the complete absence of returns between 1404 (Jan.) and 1414 (Apr.) inclusive, the record of at least five MPs is rather more impressive. John Modys and William Nightingale were both returned four times, Robert Nafferton five times, John atte Wyke six times (but only once, in 1386, during the period under review), and William Hart as many as eight times between 1388 (Sept.) and 1417. The burgesses of Bletchingley evidently preferred to be represented by men with previous experience of the parliamentary scene. In six of the 16 Parliaments for which returns have survived, both men elected had sat before, and in seven others one had done so. Only in September 1388 and in the two assemblies of May and December 1421, at the very end of our period, were two apparently inexperienced men returned together. Re-election was, however, rather less common. William Hart served consecutively in 1395 and 1397 and again in 1414 (Nov.) and 1415, while John Modys, his parliamentary colleague in 1415, was re-elected in 1416 (Mar.). John Deubeneye and Thomas atte Helde sat together in the two consecutive Parliaments of 1397 (Sept.) and 1399, but this is the only known instance of complete representative continuity. None of the Bletchingley MPs appear to have offered themselves for election elsewhere during this time.

Nothing is known of the electoral procedure adopted at Bletchingley, since a very brief composite return was made either for the Surrey and Sussex boroughs together, or occasionally, the four Surrey boroughs of Guildford, Southwark, Reigate and Bletchingley alone. No date was ever attached to these returns, nor is there any indication of the size of the Bletchingley electorate which must, however, have been comparatively small, comprising at most the bailiff and nine or ten other prominent residents, the majority of whom were evidently called upon to represent the borough in Parliament at some time during their lives. Certainly, all the MPs about whom any information has survived seem to have had strong local connexions, and in the case of 12 out of the 17 there is clear evidence of residence in the Bletchingley area. Unfortunately, the almost complete loss of borough records during the late 14th and early 15th centuries makes it impossible to speak with any degree of certainty about the occupations and social position of the parliamentary burgesses returned between 1386 and 1421. Indeed, four of their number remain unidentified, which in itself suggests that they were fairly obscure local men—an impression supported in each case by the existence in the Bletchingley area at this time of families bearing the same name.

At least nine of the better documented MPs were farmers, the bulk of whose land lay within a four- or five-mile radius of Bletchingley and was leased from the earls of Stafford and the Cobham and Uvedale families. None of them owned large amounts of property, although Henry Brampton, Walter atte Berne (who leased the entire demesne farm at Bletchingley from the 6th earl of Stafford during the early 1420s), Roger Eylove II, Thomas atte Helde and Henry atte Stone II were obviously farming on a larger scale than most of their fellow burgesses. Yet whatever influence they may have possessed was strictly limited, as can be seen from the very modest part played by Bletchingley MPs in the business of local government. Roger Eylove II and William Hart alone received royal commissions, the former as a tax collector in 1413 and the latter to provide transport in 1413 and 1416 for building materials being sent to Westminster. Their colleagues’ experience was confined to estate management at a very low level: William atte Berne having, for example, served as rent collector of the manor of Bletchingley some 23 years before his first return to Parliament in 1421 (May), and Henry atte Stone II being twice app