Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||John Hayward|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Tracy|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Tracy|
|Gilbert Draper 1|
|1395||John Roger I|
|1397 (Jan.)||John Palmer II|
|1397 (Sept.)||John Hayward 2|
|1402||Simon atte Ford|
|1407||Henry Rauf 3|
|John Roger I|
|1413 (May)||William Mountfort II|
|John Roger I|
|1414 (Apr.)||Simon atte Ford|
|1414 (Nov.)||Simon atte Ford|
|1417||Simon atte Ford|
|William Mountfort II|
|1420||Simon atte Ford|
|1421 (May)||Simon atte Ford|
|John Hore II|
|1421 (Dec.)||Simon atte Ford|
The size of the population of Bridport in this period is not recorded, but the town may have been bigger than Dorchester. Although it had but one parish church, and in 1319 there were living there only 180 burgesses, of whom the richest held possessions worth no more than £4 8s., Bridport seems to have grown in prosperity subsequently. The numerous fraternities formed in the second half of the century and the increasing expenditure noted in the cofferers’ accounts perhaps point to the existence of a flourishing community, which, however, was insufficiently strong to establish a guild merchant. In the mid 16th century Leland was to describe it as a ‘fair large town’.4 In so far as the manufacture of ropes in England was localized, the chief centre of the industry was Bridport. The rich damp soil around the town produced the best hemp and flax in the country, and Bridport’s proximity to the sea, coupled with the demands of its fishermen and boat builders, stimulated the growth of the industry. By 1388 it was well enough established for six ropers to leave to set up a similar enterprise at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a busy trade in cables, sailcloth, nets, webbing and horsegirths had been built up with London, Southampton, Portsmouth and the Devon ports. This was the first of three great periods in the history of the Bridport rope-making industry, but a short-lived one, for by the mid 15th century production was in decline and a great quantity of rope began to be imported from Normandy and Genoa. Bridport was not an important cloth-making town, but some of the inhabitants were engaged in the sale of this product.5 The town’s trade may have suffered owing to the lack of a harbour. Bridport is not actually on the coast, and in the Middle Ages the burgesses did not own the place where the river entered the sea. The ‘portus’ of the late 13th century had been no more than piles driven into the sides of the river for mooring purposes. In 1369 letters close were sent to the Exchequer ordering a stay of demands on the bailiffs of Bridport to account for forfeitures of gold and silver illegally exported thence, after it was shown that there was no port there and consequently no overseas traffic. Eight years later the Cobb at Lyme was destroyed by gales, and this may have prompted the men of Bridport to build their own harbour. In 1385 John Huderesfeld obtained a royal licence to collect a subsidy for six years for the completion of works he had already begun, and in 1393 the bailiffs received a further three years’ grant for this purpose. Two years later the town was officially described as a port, but it was not to remain so for long. By 1447 the moles had collapsed and the burgesses claimed to be too poor to restore them. There may have been some truth in their assertion for when, in 1435-6, the county had been found incapable of bearing its normal share of the burden of taxation, a schedule of ‘vills and boroughs desolated, wasted, destructed and depopulated’ to which rebate of tax was to be allowed, noted that £10s.5d. should be remitted to Bridport.6
Although Bridport was a crown borough, the inhabitants were slow to obtain the liberties accorded to other towns. By 1386 only one charter had been granted them, though this permitted the payment of the fee farm, amounting to £16 a year, by a bailiff elected by themselves. This concession, made in 1253, some 70 years before the county town received a similar grant, was confirmed only shortly before our period. The burgesses did not have the right to return royal writs independently of the sheriff, and enjoyed few trading privileges. Nevertheless, in 1390 they were able to make a successful case for freedom from tolls at Dorchester. The family of Chideok, seated nearby, exerted a considerable influence over the town’s affairs, most notably in the matter of the municipal elections, but in 1363 Sir John Chideok† had made a formal quitclaim to the community of his rights in this regard, allowing the inhabitants from then on to elect as bailiff whomsoever they liked, without impediment from him or his heirs.7 The Chideoks continued to be landlords of many properties in and around Bridport, and their influence was such that fines for the entry of certain of their tenants into local premises were inserted in the registers of accounts and elections made by the town officers. The Somerset landowning family of Gorges also held property in Bridport, including the advowson of the church, and the Staffords of Hooke possessed a substantial landed interest in the area. Sir Humphrey Stafford I* used the town as an assembly point in 1403, after he had been commissioned to array the shire, and in 1426 his son, Sir Humphrey II*, was formally entertained there.8 Although certain of the parliamentary burgesses were connected in some way with these members of the gentry (the most notable examples are the associations of Gilbert Draper with the Staffords and John Hayward with Thomas Gorges), there is no evidence to indicate that the Chideoks, Gorges or Staffords either attempted or even wished to influence parliamentary elections. But evidently the burgesses were open to persuasion from outside in their choice of a representative in 1410, for they returned to Parliament that year Thomas Lovell, only recently the ward and now the son-in-law of a rich merchant and landowner, John Roger I. Lovell, whose seat was at Clevedon, Somerset, had never, so far as is known, had any personal contacts with the burgesses of Bridport, but Roger, who was returned to Parliament with him on this same occasion, had sat for the borough twice before, owned property there and had begun his public career as a local official. He may well have used his influence in the town to secure his son-in-law’s election.
During this period two bailiffs were chosen every year (each receiving a salary of £2), to collect and account for the fee farm, being, together with two under bailiffs, two cofferers (who were responsible for the leasing of community property), two constables, two churchwardens of St. Mary’s, and four searchers of hemp and flax, elected at Michaelmas. A bailiff was never required to act for two annual terms running, but there seems to have been no limit to the number of consecutive terms a cofferer or constable might serve. Usually the bailiffship followed after duty as a cofferer and preceded election as a constable. By 1392 there were also a recorder and a town clerk, although names of the occupants of these posts are not known until late in Henry VI’s reign. The identity of only one steward, presumably an appointment at the Crown’s disposal, is known. The 12 jurats, who became officers of some importance in Bridport later in the 15th century, are hardly mentioned in this period.9
From 1295 Bridport had regularly sent representatives to Parliament. Throughout the period under review the names of all the Members for Somerset and Dorset, knights of the shire and burgesses alike, were listed on a single schedule for return to Chancery. In addition, from 1407 onwards there were returned, in accordance with the provisions of the statute of 1406 and new instructions on the writs, electoral indentures drawn up in the shire courts, the practice in both counties being to record the election of the knights on one indenture and that of all the burgesses for the several towns on another. Seeing that the indenture recording the returns of the Dorset boroughs, and drawn up as between the sheriff and four delegates from each of the seven towns, was written on the same day and at the same place as the shire elections were held, it might be concluded that the election of the parliamentary burgesses took place in the shire court, were it not for the statement that the choice of Members had been made with the assent of the whole community of each of the towns. The view that the Bridport elections were indeed held locally and independently is substantiated by the survival of three precepts, sent by the sheriffs of 1305, 1422 and 1553, in each case directing the bailiffs to hold parliamentary elections. The second of these is of particular relevance here. On 12 Oct. 1422 the sheriff, Robert Hill*, wrote to advise the bailiffs of the forthcoming Parliament, instructing them to hold elections of two burgesses of the better sort, who were to be indifferently and freely chosen, and to inform him of the names of those picked by 28 Oct. Strangely enough, the shire court met on the very same day the sheriff dispatched this precept, and moreover the indenture of return for the boroughs, including Bridport, bore the same date.10 The explanation may be that after the local elections were held and the sheriff notified of the results, the indenture was backdated to coincide with the meeting of the shire court. Bridport was one of the boroughs which favoured a lump sum payment to their representatives for the whole term of a Parliament whatever its duration. Presumably this was in order to safeguard themselves against incurring heavy liabilities. In 1385 it was decided that the rent from a certain tenement in the town should be set aside for the payment of the parliamentary burgesses of that year, and that the latter should receive one mark each for their expenses. The sum provided varied from Parliament to Parliament, but remained comparatively low: Nicholas Tracy received 22s. in 1402, and Simon atte Ford £2 (‘pro parliamento’) in 1422 and two marks (26s.8d.) in the following year, when his fellow Member, Thomas Newton†, was paid only £1.11
The names are known of 20 men returned for Bridport to 22 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421. The gaps in the returns obviously make any attempt at statistical analysis precarious. Even so, there can be no doubt that the borough preferred to send to the Commons at least one representative with previous parliamentary experience. This happened in no fewer than 20 instances, and in eight of these both men had been returned before. On only two occasions is it possible that both Members were newcomers to the parliamentary scene: in 1397 (Jan.) and 1402. Although 11 parliamentary burgesses of this period may have been returned only once, the record of three others is impressive: John Tracy sat in nine Parliaments before being elected for the last time in 1399; Simon atte Ford was returned to no fewer than 11 between 1402 and 1426; and John Hayward appeared in 14 between 1373 and 1399. Re-election in the strict sense of the term occurred at least 12 times: John Tracy, who sat in four consecutive Parliaments from 1386 to 1390, was re-elected again in 1394, John Crouk in 1397 (Sept.), John Hayward in 1388 (Feb.) and 1399, Henry Rauf in 1407, and Simon atte Ford in 1414 (Nov.). Indeed, the last named was returned to seven Parliaments in a row between 1420 and 1426. A few of the representatives were related: three members of the Tracy family (Nicholas, John and Walter) and two Stikelanes (Roger and Edward) sat in the Commons for Bridport. A readiness to serve in this way is also evidenced by the appearance of Bridport MPs as candidates for other boroughs: members of the Stikelane family also sat for Lyme Regis, Walter Tracy appeared once for Dorchester and once for Melcombe Regis, and Henry Rauf may well have been elected by Wareham. John Roger I, after representing Bridport three times, was returned as a knight of the shire in 1421.
Almost all of the parliamentary burgesses for Bridport held property in the town, and the majority, even including John Hore II, who had been born in Wales, and William Mountfort II, a native of Dartmouth, made it their place of residence. John Stampe, who is an exception, none the less lived only about three miles away. However, there is no evidence that Edward Stikelane and Walter Tracy, although both were members of local families, themselves resided in Bridport. (They held property near Cerne Abbas and in Dorchester, respectively.) The only outsider proper was Thomas Lovell, a native of Wiltshire whose patrimony was mainly sited in Somerset. These three were returned for the borough only once each. Certain of the Members acquired land elsewhere in Dorset, for the most part around Walditch or Weymouth, and John Hayward inherited property in Somerset. Two MPs besides Lovell acquired sizeable country estates: William Mountfort II’s holdings in Devon and Dorset included the manor of ‘Vere’s Wotton’, and John Roger I’s impressive landed investments in three shires were estimated to be worth as much as £171 a year. These two men were the leading merchants of the community, and both sat for Bridport three times. The remaining parliamentary burgesses were for the most part manufacturers and/or traders in cloth and rope on a comparatively small scale. The documentary evidence for the production and sale of rope is scanty, but certainly five of the Members were involved in this industry, four of them (Somon atte Ford, John Hayward, John Roger I and William Mountfort II) as suppliers of materials for the King’s ships. Mountfort, indeed, provided cables and sailcloth for the refitting of Henry V’s fleet. Only three of the 20 parliamentary burgesses were men of law: John Stampe and John and Walter Tracy. The borough in fact sent lawyers to Parliament more often in the 14th century than in the later part of the period; one member of this profession (John Tracy) was returned to every Parliament from 1386 to 1394, but lawyers were chosen to fill only four seats in the next 16 Parliaments for which returns have survived. By and large it was merchants and small traders who predominated in the representation of the borough.
Three of the 20 MPs, those who were probably not resident in the town (Walter Tracy, Edward Stikelane and Thomas Lovell), apparently never filled a local office. Of the rest all but four (William Pernham, John and Nicholas Tracy and Henry Rauf) held the most responsible post, namely, the bailiffship: Simon atte Ford did so for as many as six terms, William Mountford II for seven, John Hayward for nine, and John Palmer II for 11. Parliamentary service was usually preceded by a term as bailiff, and, moreover, it was not at all unusual for a bailiff to be elected to the Commons in the course of his year of office. This happened in the case of nine of the 22 Parliaments: 1388 (Feb.), 1390 (Jan.), 1393, 1394, 1395, 1397 (Jan.), 1413 (May), 1414 (Nov.), and 1417; and, indeed, in 1395 and 1397 both bailiffs were sent. On four other occasions one of the recently discharged bailiffs was elected to a Parliament summoned to meet within a few days of the end of the official year, perhaps in the knowledge that he needed to travel to Westminster in any case, to render account for the fee farm. Nine served as cofferers, generally before their first election to Parliament, and 14 acted as constables, the latter for the most part after their initial entry to the Commons. William Pernham was returned to his only Parliament (December 1421) when cofferer, and John Crouk sat in his second Parliament (September 1397) and Henry Rauf in those of 1406 and 1407 while in office as constables. So, at least one of the town’s officers was returned to as many as 13 out of the 22 Parliaments.
A third of the Members (seven) were named on royal commissions for the collection of parliamentary subsidies in Dorset, but only three held more permanent offices by crown appointment: Simon atte Ford was customer at Melcombe Regis from 1399 to 1403 (being returned to his first Parliament, 1402, during his term of office); John Roger I held the same post for a year, 1406-7; and John Tracy served as coroner in the shire shortly before his last return in 1399.