Bridgwater

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
1386John Sydenham
 Richard Mayne I
1388 (Feb.)John Sydenham
 Richard Mayne I
1388 (Sept.)John Palmer I
 John Wynd
1390 (Jan.)William Thomer
 John Palmer I
1390 (Nov.)
1391William Thomer
 John Sydenham
1393William Thomer
 Robert Boson
1394John Cole III
 John Palmer I 1
1395William Thomer
 John Kedwelly
1397 (Jan.)William Thomer
 John Kedwelly
1397 (Sept.)William Thomer
 John Sydenham
1399William Thomer
 John Kedwelly
1401
1402William Thomer
 John Kedwelly
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406William Thomer
 William Gascoigne
1407William Gascoigne
 Richard Ward
1410William Gascoigne
 John Kedwelly
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William Gascoigne
 William Gosse
1414 (Apr.)William Gascoigne
 Thomas Cave
1414 (Nov.)William Gascoigne
 John Kedwelly
1415
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1417William Gascoigne
 John Kedwelly
1419William Gascoigne
 Richard Mayne II
1420William Gascoigne
 Martin Jacob
1421 (May)James Fitzjames
 William Gascoigne
1421 (Dec.)William Gascoigne
 John Pitt

Main Article

Bridgwater was a thriving port situated a few miles up the navigable Parrett. In 1377 it had an adult population of over 850, comparable with that of Bath, but the lay subsidy returns of the earlier 14th century suggest that it had then been the wealthiest of the Somerset towns, higher in the list than Bath, Wells and Taunton, and perhaps this was still the case. ‘Bridgwater’ was the name given to a kind of broadcloth manufactured locally, and the port had trading connexions with Bayonne, Bordeaux and Ireland as well as a share in the coastal traffic. Besides cloth, agricultural produce such as beans, peas and wheat were shipped out of Bridgwater, while wine and fish were its main imports. The town boasted four annual fairs.2 At the beginning of Richard II’s reign two-thirds of the borough belonged to William Zouche, son and heir of Lord Zouche; the remaining third, together with the castle and the manor of Haygrove, to Edmund, earl of March. The Mortimer share comprised one third of the burgage rents, of the tolls charged on river traffic and in the market and fairs, and of the profits of the borough court, which usually amounted to over £15 a year. To these rights the earl’s son and grandson succeeded, respectively in 1381 and 1398. Then, until the latter (another Edmund) came of age in 1413, the property was held by his stepfather, Edward, Lord Charlton of Powis. The Zouche property, held by the heir to the title in 1377, passed in 1396 to his son, and in 1415 to his grandson. The last was then a minor, and his lands were placed in the custody of Ralph, earl of Westmorland.

There is no hint that relations between the burgesses of Bridgwater and the lords of the borough were ever troubled during this period. This was possibly because Bridgwater was never the centre of the Zouches’ estate organization, but rather a relatively isolated piece of property, and the same held true for the Mortimers, even though the castle at Bridgwater did serve as a focus for the administration of their territorial possessions in Somerset. Personal contact was a rare occurrence. The disputes of 1380-1, during which Zouche complained that the master and brethren of the hospital of St. John the Baptist in Bridgwater, along with Sir Baldwin Malet and others, had prevented his steward from holding a view of frankpledge and had otherwise trespassed on his rights of lordship, were never in essence conflicts between the burgesses and their lord; indeed, it is clear that some of the town’s inhabitants, at least, shared Zouche’s attitude to the hospital.3

The lords of the borough showed little interest in the affairs of Bridgwater, including its parliamentary representation. Apart from the lord’s steward, who was appointed directly by him, the borough officials, although technically the lord’s men too, were elected by the burgesses from among themselves. Bridgwater had been a ‘liber burgus’ since 1200, and by the end of the 14th century the portreeve, chose by the burgesses to collect the lord’s rents, was no longer very important in the town hierarchy. The most influential figures were now the two stewards of the guild merchant (often called ‘stewards of the community’), who had certain limited judicial powers to try and punish those who infringed local ordinances. It was to them that the accounts of the wardens of two town chantries and the bridge were presented, and it was they who authorized disbursements of communal funds. They were assisted by the bailiff of the guild (‘the common bailiff’). Two other bailiffs formed the executive arm of the administration, and below them were placed the receiver, the constables, and the wardens of the peace and of assize. The internal administration of the town had developed considerably during the century, in the course of which the guild merged into the community of burgesses, the bodies having in common a clerk, seal, mace and hall.

After 1406 the parliamentary returns for Bridgwater were sent to Chancery from the county court, in indentures containing the returns of all the Somerset boroughs, each being represented at the court by a committee or delegation of, usually, four local men. Presumably, they were responsible for reporting to the sheriff the results of elections held locally, but no evidence has survived to reveal how such hustings were conducted at Bridgwater. Returns are now extant for only 23 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421, during which period Bridgwater was represented by just 16 men. Clearly, some of the burgesses were rich in parliamentary experience: John Kedwelly sat seven times, John Pitt eight, William Gascoigne 12 and William Thomer 13. Three of them also represented other Somerset boroughs on occasion: Martin Jacob appearing for Taunton, Richard Mayne II for Wells (both of them after this period), and John Palmer I once for Wells and twice for Bath, apart from nine times for Bridgwater. The average service was nearly five Parliaments each. To every Parliament for which returns survive Bridgwater sent at least one man with previous experience; and on no occasion were both Members novices. To 12 Parliaments the borough elected one tried and one inexperienced man, but on 11 occasions both those chosen had sat in the Commons before. On no fewer than 14 occasions men were elected to successive Parliaments; indeed, both Members of the Parliaments of 1386 and 1395 were returned to the assemblies immediately following. Of the nine Parliaments between 1390 and 1402 (inclusive) for which we know the names of representatives, William Thomer missed only one; and William Gascoigne was elected to every assembly convened between 1406 and 1422 (inclusive), a total of 12. Thomer and John Kedwelly were returned together four times, and Kedwelly and Gascoigne three, so evidently tried partnerships were welcomed. Clearly, the borough set much store on parliamentary experience. But perhaps the few were keen to serve, others only too ready to let them.

A surprisingly large group of five men, roughly a third of the MPs of this period, were not at all involved in the affairs of the town, and apparently did not live there: James Fitzjames held property in Bridgwater, but is better described as a local landowner than a burgess proper; Robert Boson acquired a manor near the town by marriage; Richard Mayne II owned many acres of land in Somerset, some situated near Bridgwater, but his chief interests were in Wiltshire; and Martin Jacob and John Palmer I were attorneys who lived elsewhere in Somerset. But these ‘outsiders’ (if so they may be called) occupied no more than seven of the 46 seats of the period. The remaining 11 Members were all resident in Bridgwater. Indeed, nine of them are known to have held some sort of office in the town, although apparently only six had experience of such employment before they first entered the Commons. Six MPs were sometime stewards of the guild, and it not infrequently happened that one of them was returned to Parliame