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


1386Elias Spelly
 William Canynges
1388 (Feb.)Thomas Beaupyne
 Thomas Knap
1388 (Sept.)Robert Gardener
 John Fulbroke
1390 (Jan.)John Vyel
 William Frome
1390 (Nov.)
1391William Frome
 John Stevens
1393Thomas Beaupyne
 John Stevens
1397 (Jan.)William Frome
 John Banbury II
1397 (Sept.)
1399Richard Panes
 Thomas Norton
1402Thomas Norton
 John Droys
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406Henry Bokerell
 Gilbert Joce
1407John Droys
 John Newton II
1411Thomas Norton
 David Dudbroke
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Norton
 John Leycestre
1414 (Apr.)Thomas Young III
 John Spyne
1414 (Nov.)Thomas Blount I
 John Clyve
1416 (Mar.)Robert Russell II
 Robert Colville
1416 (Oct.)
1417Thomas Norton
 John Burton II
1419Robert Russell II
 Mark William
1420Thomas Norton
 John Spyne
1421 (May)Thomas Norton
 Henry Gildeney
1421 (Dec.)Richard Trenode
 Mark William

Main Article

In 1377 Bristol, with an estimated population of over 9,500, rivalled York as England’s second largest town after London. Bristol’s greatness was built on its commerce; it could boast no ancient reputation as a cathedral seat, as a military station or as a shire town. The second seaport in the land had been founded on a site with unique geographical advantages as a depot for overseas trade: situated on the Avon close to its junction with the Severn, immune from foreign invasion and assaults from pirates, where the Avon and Frome provided a sheltered tidal harbour and two great quays, the ‘Back’ and the ‘Key’. The basis of its trade during the period under review was the export of woollens, but Bristol was also an industrial community. By the end of the 14th century it had become one of the leading manufacturing towns of the country, where, it has been estimated, some 1,500 persons were actively employed in the various processes of cloth production. Of the 19 local guilds, those formed by the weavers and tuckers were apparently the largest, with the dyers and shearmen high on the list. Cloth, although the principal, was not, however, Bristol’s only manufacture, as the existence of the guilds of skinners, cordwainers, tanners, farriers, smiths, cutlers, lockyers and pewterers testifies. Guns were forged at the local foundry. To support this busy industrial centre, it was necessary to obtain supplies of corn and other foodstuffs from the neighbouring counties, and this in itself stimulated the inland trade of Bristol’s merchants. A wealthy community, Bristol was, outside London, easily the most important town as regards the size of its loans to the Crown, for it advanced over £1,000 in Henry V’s reign alone.1

A borough since the mid 12th century, ‘in as free and semblable wise as is the citee of London’ (Ricart), Bristol paid an annual fee farm of £100 in this period. By the town’s ‘Great Charter’ of 1373, purchased for 600 marks, it had been made a shire-incorporate, the second after London to be so instituted, and being thus separated from Somerset and Gloucestershire, had acquired its own elective sheriff and independent shire jurisdiction.2 Since 1216 the most important official had been the mayor, who was elected annually on 15 Sept., and took his oath at Michaelmas, up to 1373 before the constable of the castle, but thereafter more publicly at the guildhall in the presence of his predecessor. His office was extended by the charter of 1373 to encompass the duties of royal escheator of the urban county, for which he was answerable at the Exchequer. The number of his ‘brethren’ had varied from time to time, but from 1373 onwards comprised a sheriff and two bailiffs. The former was selected by the Crown from a short-list of three names sent to Chancery by the burgesses, the duration of his term of office being liable to variation, and certainly not becoming precisely synchronous with the mayoral year until 1499, when the common council was empowered to appoint two sheriffs annually, the town being thereby relieved from royal interference. The council, normally composed of the most substantial burgesses, had been established in the 14th century primarily to curb arbitrary action on the part of the mayor and bailiffs. Evidence arising out of a severe conflict between the potentiores and the commons of 1312-13 may point to the existence of a small council of 12. This, however, was superseded in 1344 by a larger group of 48 as the mayor’s counsellors and advisors, a constitution which was confirmed by the charter of 1373, although the number of councillors was then reduced to 40, probably to bring them into relation with the five aldermen elected by the wards. The council was chosen by the mayor and sheriff with the assent of the community. In theory the constitution of the town rested on a fairly wide basis, but in practice the natural tendency to exclusiveness triumphed, the wealthy merchants shut out the commonalty from a share in the government, and the common council gradually in the 15th century became an oligarchical body, which arrogated to itself the election of the mayor and other officers.3

Bristol had been one of the 27 selected towns required in March 1268 to send their mayors, bailiffs and six representatives to the Council to treat of matters touching the King, kingdom and themselves. Representatives were then summoned from Bristol to attend the Parliament held at Shrewsbury in 1283, and that of 1295, and thereafter the borough regularly made returns. On 28 Oct. 1409 writs were issued for a Parliament to assemble on 27 Jan. following at Bristol itself, only for the venue to be subsequently changed to Westminster. Only Bristol and York in the 14th century shared with London the privileges of county rank, but unlike London neither of these two was called upon to send four representatives apiece. The Bristol charter of 1373 stated definitely that those elected to represent the town in Parliament should not exceed the usual number of two, but that they might be called knights of the shire as well as burgesses of the borough. That the representatives were supposed to act in a double capacity was usually stated afresh each time a parliamentary return was made, as, for example, in the spring of 1421. And in 1425 the Members, Henry Gildeney and John Langley, were entrusted with a formal protest at the carelessness of the clerk of the Crown in failing to name them knights of the shire. The charter probably made little practical difference, however, to the manner of conducting a parliamentary election. The two representatives, who had formerly been elected at the borough court, would after 1373 be chosen in a similar assembly at the guildhall, calling itself the shire court. From October 1373 the writ was returned by the sheriff of Bristol, endorsed simply with the names of the Members. Later, in order to comply with the statute of 1406, it was accompanied by an indenture drawn up between the sheriff on one hand and the mayor and councillors on the other. The number of councillors recorded as present at elections during this period varied from 37 (in November 1411) to 21 (in December 1421), although on one occasion it was stated that ‘alii probi homines’, had also participated. Generally, to judge from the indentures, a group of between 25 and 35 men, merchants for the most part, effectively controlled the elections. Bristol, as an urban county, was to adhere strictly to the rules governing the franchise of shires, as laid down by statute in 1430, from 1432 onwards restricting the right to participate in elections to its 40s. freeholders.4 It was the sheriff’s responsibility to see that the returns were transmitted to the Chancery. Instead of sending special messengers to Westminster or wherever Parliament was to assemble, one method was to entrust delivery to the burgesses-elect themselves, and this was in fact done in 1419 and 1420, when Mark William and Thomas Norton, respectively, tendered the returns to the clerk of the Parliaments.5

Returns have survived for only 21 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421, and the names of only 28 Members of this period are known. Repeated election was frequent: Thomas Norton sat as many as seven times, between 1399 and 1421, Thomas Beaupyne six times (although only twice in our period), Elias Spelly and John Burton II five times each (both only twice in the period), William Canynges and William Frome four times, three others three times each, and seven twice. Beaupyne was out of the ordinary in that he went on to become a knight of the shire for Somerset. The gaps in the returns make the incidence of election to consecutive Parliaments impossible to estimate, although Thomas Norton was certainly re-elected in 1421 (May). In as many as 16 out of the 21 Parliaments for which returns are extant, at least one Member had been tried before, and in five instances neither was a newcomer to the Commons. There can be no doubt that parliamentary service was regarded as creditable and a proper object of ambition, otherwise men of the calibre of John Burton II, William Canynges and Robert Russell II would not have sought election: nor would examples be likely of a family tradition of service, as with the Nortons.

Since the government of Bristol at this time rested with a rich and powerful group of native merchants, it is hardly a matter for surprise that the MPs and those who elected them belonged to this oligarchy. In the period under review all of the representatives without exception were merchants, although one, John Fulbroke, may also have dabbled in the law. All lived in Bristol for the purpose of trade, although at least four were not of local origin: Thomas Young III and David Dudbroke were both Welsh, John Banbury II Irish, and Richard Trenode Cornish. All were engaged in the cloth trade and had overseas interests, in some instances geographically extensive: John Burton II traded with Iceland and Normandy, William Canynges with Prussia, Portugal and Flanders, and Robert Russell II with the Baltic, Brittany and Ireland. Such men indeed formed an ‘aristocracy of merchants’ superior to and standing apart from mere shopkeepers and small wholesale traders. They imported such goods as iron, oil, salt, woad and fruit from Spain and fish from Iceland, but their main concern was wine from France and Spain. Trenode had even specialized in the wine trade as a London vintner before settling in Bristol. Many had close connexions with Ireland, sending thence shipments of cloth and salt, and importing hides and salted salmon. John Banbury II even held property in Limerick. Certain of the Bristol MPs, such as John Burton, helped supply the town’s grain, and the most prominent merchants among them, men like Thomas Knap, Thomas Norton and Elias Spelly, were able to obtain the necessary royal licences to take part in the lucrative pilgrim traffic to Compostella. In addition, many carried on an active inland trade, enjoying close links with the midland towns and London. Cloth was brought, ultimately down the Severn, from Coventry, where at least five Bristol MPs (William Canynges, John Clyve, John Vyel, Gilbert Joce and Elias Spelly) were members of the prestigious guild of the Holy Trinity.

It was in the 15th century that those Bristol merchants who owned the ships they used for trade emerged to form an influential hierarchy. Earlier, shares in ships had been quite common among the parliamentary representatives: William Canynges and Elias Spelly jointly possessed two vessels, and John Spyne and John Banbury II held shares in others. But John Leycestre became sole owner of at least two ships, and Thomas Knap and Elias Spelly of three each, Spelly bequeathing one of his to another Member, Thomas Norton. John Stevens benefited in the same way through the will of the prosperous Walter Derby. Later in the period more merchants came to take sole possession of vessels, or, like Robert Russell II, even of small fleets, accumulating their wealth not so much by dealing in cloth as by carrying the merchandise of others who paid for freight. John Burton II was one such, famed for commissioning the largest ship built in Bristol in his day. A regular hazard encountered by these men, however, was the commandeering of their vessels for royal service, notably for the expeditions against France undertaken by Edward III and Henry V and also, under Henry IV, in aid of the suppression of the Welsh rebellion. One of Thomas Knap’s ships taking soldiers to Cardiff in 1403 was abandoned by them in rough seas. Another menace was that of pirate attacks, yet certain of Bristol’s parliamentary representatives were themselves not beyond partaking in and profiting from this activity: Thomas Norton, who acted as joint admiral of a fleet authorized to safeguard the seas, took as prizes neutral vessels suspected of carrying cargoes belonging to the enemy. Against piracy and the risks of war the only and very ineffectual protection was a safe conduct, purchased at great price from the Crown. Robert Russell II was among the more fortunate merchants in being able to procure several of these for his trading ventures. Eight of Bristol’s representatives in this period are known to have been cloth manufacturers as well as exporters.

Many of the Members amassed sizeable fortunes, as their famous Bristol houses, like ‘Vyelplace’ and the Nortons’ magnificent mansion in St. Peter’s churchyard, indicate. John Droys owned property in Bristol alone worth £55 annually. Several speculated in land: Thomas Beaupyne, whose family came from Cirencester, purchased extensive estates in Somerset; John Leycestre acquired land in Monmouthshire, Elias Spelly bought manors in Somerset and houses at Worcester, and Mark William was reputed to have amassed holdings worth as much as 400 marks p.a. Some of the MPs, such as John Stevens, John Banbury II and Thomas Beaupyne, were of sufficiently sound financial standing to be able to make personal loans to the Crown. Their wills and chantry foundations sometimes supply further proof of this wealth. They also occasionally hint at more than simply conventional piety. Thomas Knap, for example, required prayers to be said for all merchants, mariners and craftsmen at his chantry on the Back every morning. Perhaps worthy of special mention is John Vyel, who treasured a relic said to have come from the pillar to which Christ was bound, and requested 1,000 masses to be said for his soul.

The parliamentary burgesses of the period were nearly all drawn from the group of powerful merchants who controlled Bristol’s government. Of the 28, only John Fulbroke is not known to have filled any borough office. All the rest, quite without exception, sooner or later were chosen as bailiff, 22 of them as sheriff and as many as 20 as mayor. William Canynges and Thomas Knap each occupied the mayoralty for five terms, Elias Spelly and John Burton II for four, John Droys for three and eight others twice. For the most part (in all but three cases), election to Parliament for the first time came only after the person concerned had successfully completed a term as bailiff and sometimes as sheriff, too, although it nearly always (save with four exceptions) preceded promotion to the mayoralty. It never happened in this period that someone currently serving as a borough officer was elected as a parliamentary representative, but shortly afterwards, in October 1423, the merchants of Bristol broke with tradition by returning their mayor, John Burton II. During the period under review the mayoralty of the local Staple was usually held by the mayor of the town, and ten MPs are definitely known to have occupied these offices concurrently. At least nine of Bristol’s Members were elected constables of the Staple, and on two occasions in our period one of the then constables was returned to the Commons: in January 1390 (William Frome) and in 1407 (John Newton II).

It is not surprising to find several of these merchants acting as commissioners of the Crown, making inquiries into complaints about piracy, commandeering ships and mariners, and victualling the royal castles in Wales by Henry IV’s command, nor to find them appointed as port officials in the area. Ten MPs from this period were at some time collectors of customs and subsidies in their home port. Gilbert Joce, after attending the first session of the Parliament which met on 1 Mar. 1406, obtained appointment as customer in the ports along the northern coasts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. John Stevens acted as customs collector at Bristol for 15 years between 1395 and 1410; Robert Russell II did likewise for much of the period between 1406 and 1423, during which he twice represented the borough in Parliament; and Thomas Beaupyne had virtual financial control over customs and subsidies in the West Country for over 20 years (1371-92). Indeed, on all six occasions that Beaupyne sat in the Commons for Bristol he was currently holding royal office. Robert Colville was appointed controller of the customs, Richard Trenode and Mark William were made searchers, and the latter was promoted to controller of the search from 1413. Four others were alnagers, while William Canynges was granted the Exchequer lease of the cloth subsidy in Somerset, Dorset and Gloucestershire, and Thomas Beaupyne supervised the sale of cloth in six western counties from 1371 to 1395. Henry Bokerell’s appointment as alnager was renewed for five years in May 1406, while he was representing Bristol in the Parliament of that year. Beaupyne and Robert Russell II both discharged office as deputy butler in the area for a brief period. Shortly after attending the Parliament of January to March 1390, William Frome was appointed purveyor of the works at Bristol castle by Richard II; and Beaupyne was even to be named as constable of the castle for life in 1399, by Henry IV, although this was after his parliamentary service was over.

Some of these merchant oligarchs came to be readily accepted in county society. Beaupyne’s four daughters all made good marriages outside the burgess community, while Mark William’s daughter was wedded to the wealthy Sir William Sturmy’s* heir, (Sir) John Seymour. John Burton II was to be enfeoffed of property in Somerset by none other than Richard, duke of York, and felt free to call on Chief Justice Fortescue* to act as an executor of his will.

Author: L. S. Woodger