Bramber and Steyning
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The two boroughs, scarcely a mile apart on the west bank of the river Adur, shared a common parliamentary history, even though their origins were diverse. Steyning, settled in the early Saxon period, had become so prominent a centre of trade as to have housed a mint for much of the 11th century, only to be eclipsed as the chief town of the region following the creation of New Shoreham, five miles down river on the coast. As the lordship of the manor of Steyning pertained to Fécamp abbey, from 1369 the manor was continuously in the hands of the Crown, owing to the war with France. For several years it was farmed out to the abbey’s bailiff or proctor, but then, in 1403, it was leased for life to Sir John Cornwall and his wife Elizabeth, Henry IV’s sister. Bramber had come into existence after the Conquest, when the lordship (afterwards called the rape of Bramber) was granted to William de Braose. After building a castle from which to control his domain, the latter founded a borough beneath its walls, in part on a man-made causeway crossing the marshes. Although situated on the most southerly route through Sussex, linking Southampton to Canterbury, Bramber never seems to have prospered. In 1334 it was found to be by far the poorest borough in the county, and seven years later it was said to be completely impoverished, lacking any merchants or tradesmen of substance. Once an entrepôt for the timber trade, Bramber’s port is not mentioned in our period, and Steyning’s had long since ceased to exist. When Steyning and Bramber were assessed together for the poll tax of 1379, only 72 persons contributed, and in the 15th century many shops, stalls and burgages there were described as empty or ruined.1
Bramber castle served as the centre of administration in the rape, but once it had passed from the de Braoses to the Mowbrays it apparently ceased to be regularly inhabited. In the 1380s, when it was no longer kept properly fortified, the men of the shire complained to the King in Parliament that the surrounding countryside was virtually defenceless. At the time of the death in Venice of Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, in September 1399, the castle and manor of Bramber were valued at £32 17s. a year. As the duke’s holdings included several burgages in Steyning, and he customarily received a moiety of the market tolls collected there (such as they were), the two towns were linked in common subservience. They were often considered to form a single borough, both in earlier times at the eyre and, in the 14th century, for purposes of taxation. Little is known about their internal government, save that Bramber had a bailiff, accountable to the Mowbrays, and Steyning (at least by the late 15th century) a constable and a bailiff.2
Between 1295 and 1384 the boroughs of Bramber and Steyning had been represented at roughly two out of every three Parliaments summoned. Usually they sent two Members jointly, but on occasion one or other place (more often Steyning than Bramber) sent both; it never happened that Bramber and Steyning made separate returns. However, neither borough was represented in the 13 Parliaments summoned between 1384 and 1397, nor thereafter, save in 1399, until 1453. It may be surmised that it was the unusual political circumstances pertaining in the autumn of 1399, with the impending deposition of Richard II and the expectation (unfulfilled, as it turned out) that Bramber’s lord, the duke of Norfolk, would shortly be returning home to England, which then prompted the sheriff of Sussex to send a precept requiring Steyning and Bramber to make returns to Parliament. One of those elected, Robert Couk, had been the man responsible as bailiff of Bramber for collecting dues owed since 1397 to the absent lord. There is no doubt that he came from Bramber itself, but although his fellow Member, John Farnfold, certainly lived within the rape, his precise place of residence is not recorded. Farnfold, who had no known connexion with Mowbray, but was a tenant of the young Earl Thomas of Arundel, now restored to his inheritance by Henry of Bolingbroke, had earlier served as a tax collector in Sussex generally, and was to do so again three more times.