Cambridge

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
1386Robert Brigham
 John Herries
1388 (Feb.)John Cotton
 John Camp
1388 (Sept)John Blankpayn
 John Marshall I
1390 (Jan.)Richard Maisterman
 Robert Goodrich
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Camp
 John Payn I
1393John Herries
 Robert Goodrich
1394Robert Brigham
 Robert Goodrich
1395Robert Brigham
 John Thriplow
1397 (Jan.)Hugh Candlesby
 John Thriplow
1397 (Sept.)Thomas Trivet
 Simon Bentbow
1399Hugh Candlesby
 William Salle
1401
1402Robert Brigham
 Thomas Trivet
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Knapton
 John Bilney I
1407Simon Bentbow
 Thomas Beverley
1410
1411John Bush
 John Alderhithe
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Stephen Neel
 Robert Attilbridge
1414 (Apr.)John Beverley
 John Warwick III
1414 (Nov.)John Greenlane
 John Hokington
1415John Knapton
 Thomas Beverley
1416 (Mar.)John Bilney I
 John Sexton II 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417John Bilney I
 Robert Attilbridge
1419John Knapton
 Henry Topcliffe
1420John Cappe
 Henry Topcliffe
1421 (May)John Greenlane
 John Bilney I
1421 (Dec.)Richard Andrew
 William Wedgwood

Main Article

Cambridge was from its beginning a strategic centre and military base. Its castle, built later by the Normans on the outskirts of the town, remained a notable fortress and occasional royal residence until the late 13th century; thereafter it was used as a gaol and administrative centre for the shire as a whole, for Cambridge had by then been the county town for over 300 years. By our period Cambridge had long been one of the major market towns of the eastern counties, owing its economic importance largely to its geographical position. Having grown up at a natural focus for road and river traffic, it was ideally situated to provide an outlet for the agricultural produce of the region, which included the great monastic estates of Ely and Ramsey. Cambridge had enjoyed the monopoly of all waterborne traffic in the county since the early 12th century, when it was designated a centre for the collection of tolls. As the waterway linking it to the Wash was an important trade route, the town’s potential as a focus for commerce was quickly realized. The royal charter of 1201 granted it a guild merchant, whose members were to be exempt from tolls throughout the kingdom, and as there is no trace of a select group of merchants within the borough later, this privilege may be assumed to have been of general benefit to the burgesses. The town’s fair, held at Reach near Swaffham, was given official recognition, and three other fairs were established on the outskirts, one of which, Sturbridge fair, was eventually to rank among the most important in England. These, together with the old-established market, gave Cambridge an unrivalled advantage over other local trading centres. Grain, wool, livestock and dairy produce were the chief commodities on which the town’s economy was based, and a notable trade in clothing and leather goods was carried on there.

Some indication of the growing wealth of the town is provided by its ability to meet the substantial costs of obtaining such liberties as it acquired in successive royal charters, while further evidence of development is supplied by the number of religious foundations and endowments made by the burgesses during the 12th century, including Barnwell priory, St. Radegund’s and St. John’s hospital. This prosperity reflects a steadily rising population, which itself provided a ready market, and the town benefited economically from the extra demand for food and accommodation created by the expanding academic community (first established in the early 13th century).2 Estimates based on the tallage of 1337 suggest that Cambridge then had a population of some 4,400. However, the town suffered heavily during the Black Death and was slow to recover. The number of university clerks at King’s Hall was almost halved, and, as a result of the depopulation, it was decided in 1365 to unite the parish of All Saints, emptied by plague, with that of St. Giles. By 1377 the lay population (without the clerks, who may have numbered about 300), was some 2,850, making Cambridge somewhat larger than the neighbouring cathedral city of Ely, but smaller than the other university town, Oxford. Pestilence continued to be a problem throughout our period and in the later 15th century, but to what extent outbreaks affected the size of the population cannot now be ascertained.3

The earliest known royal grant to Cambridge was made between 1120 and 1131 and provided that the townspeople might try in their own court anyone breaking the law within the borough’s boundaries, and under Henry II a move was made towards independence of royal officers in the shire at large when, in 1185, the burgesses were allowed to account for their own fee farm at the Exchequer. Further important jurisdictional franchises were gained in 1201, and by a second charter granted by King John in 1207 the annual fee farm was fixed and the burgesses were permitted to elect a reeve (soon called ‘mayor’) to head the existing administration. In 1256 Henry III granted them the right to elect their own coroners, together with the franchise of return of writs.4

Yet as the burgesses of Cambridge evolved an apparatus and procedures for self-government, a challenge to their jurisdiction within the town emerged with the growth of the university, which was always seeking to extend the judicial authority it exercised over its own members. From the 13th century onwards there was a constant series of incidents between clerks and laymen, as the university broadened the area of its influence, tending to increase its wealth and franchises at the borough’s expense by drawing away to itself patronage from the Crown, magnates and wealthy burgesses. The most serious expression of the townsmen’s resentment was vented shortly before our period begins. In December 1380, in order to quell rioting in the town, the mayor was instructed by the royal council to proclaim and enforce the statutes for the maintenance of the peace, and in the following February several leading burgesses (among them a number who were later to sit as MPs) were bound over in £100 each (half of which would, if forfeited, be payable to the King, half to the chancellor of the university) for obstructing judicial sessions. When unrest in the shire erupted that summer, the mayor, Edmund Lister, with the bailiffs (including Hugh Candlesby and John Herries) and other prominent burgesses, led a crowd of rebels into the precinct of Corpus Christi college, which not only possessed extensive property in the town but also enjoyed the patronage of the unpopular duke of Lancaster. The college muniments, providing evidence of privileges granted by the Crown, were destroyed, and new bonds, subjecting the university to the borough’s jurisdiction, were extracted from the clerks under compulsion. Barnwell priory and St. John’s hospital were also plundered, as were houses belonging to burgesses not of the mob’s persuasion, such as John Blankpayn and Richard Maisterman, as well as property of the wealthy former shire knight, Roger Harleston. But the university was such a powerful enemy that reprisals inevitably followed in the autumn. The mayoral election of September 1381 was quashed by a royal writ in which the mayor-elect, John Marshall I, was described as ‘not sufficiently qualified’ for the position; and it was Maisterman who replaced him. The university petitioned the King and in December, following an investigation in Parliament, Maisterman was appointed to exercise in the King’s name those functions previously carried out by the town’s elected officers. Moreover, Cambridge was excluded from the general pardon then issued, and its franchises were suspended. When, in May 1382, they were restored, significant exceptions were made and certain jurisdictional rights concerning the regulation of trade were permanently forfeited by the borough and transferred to the university. An increment of four marks was added to the fee farm, so that throughout our period it was to stand at £70 a year.5 The loss of income from judicial fines left the town at such a disadvantage in the raising of its dues to the Crown, that in 1385 it was granted an alternative source of revenue; it was allowed all fines, amercements or forfeited issues imposed by the King’s own courts on men of Cambridge.6 That relations between the government and the town had by then been restored to an amicable footing is further suggested by the fact that in September 1388 Cambridge was chosen as the meeting place for Parliament. Ironically, this Parliament, held in the heart of a region where social and economic unrest had led to excessive violence, was the occasion of repressive social legislation.

Relations between the borough and the university again became bitter between 1414 and 1418, during the mayoralties of John Bilney I, a former fellow of King’s Hall, who was accused of deliberately infringing the university’s privileges. Violent incidents, accusations and counter-charges bcame commonplace, and each side petitioned the King’s Council, which finally referred the dispute to arbitrators. Yet other mayors, such as Simon Bentbow and Robert Goodrich, earned the approval of the university’s chancellor for their conduct of affairs, and the practice grew up for an assembly, the ‘Magna Congregatio’, to be held annually where representatives of both sides might meet and confer.7

From 1207, Cambridge elected its mayor and four bailiffs annually on 9 Sept., and they were sworn in at Michaelmas. At first, it was usual for burgesses to have served already as bailiffs before their appointment to the mayoralty, but the 14th century saw a tendency for mayors to emerge from among the most wealthy and influential, the less substantial burgesses providing the bailiffs. Apart from controlling the revenues of the town, the mayor and bailiffs also exercised immediate surveillance over the enforcement of its jurisdiction. They presided over the five annual sessions of their court for suits involving land, a weekly court for personal actions, a court of guild merchant held as required, and two annual courts leet. Since 1268, the mayor, bailiffs and coroners had been assisted by two aldermen and four ‘discreet and lawful burgesses’, later called ‘councillors’, who were sworn to assist in keeping the peace. In 1344, an ordinance was issued in Cambridge regulating the procedure to be followed in elections of borough officers. Two ‘lawful’ men, one appointed by the mayor and his assessors, the other by the commonalty, were to choose 12 others who, after co-opting six more, were to swear to elect men worthy of their task. Some modifications were made subsequently: for example, it was ruled in 1419 that only men who had previously served as bailiff or treasurer were eligible to take part in the electoral process, thus reinforcing the hierarchial nature of the proceedings. The two treasurers, first mentioned in 1338, were, unlike the other officials, normally appointed on Hock Tuesday (nine days after Easter Sunday). They were responsible for such borough revenues as rents from houses and lands, whereas the bailiffs dealt with the income from tolls, markets and fairs. Not until 1376 do we first hear of the common council of the 24; and it is only in 1426 that the town records give details of how this body was elected. The election took place in the guildhall and followed a principle similar to that contained in the 1344 ordinance. One burgess was chosen by the mayor and his assessors, another by the whole community, and these two elected eight ‘discreet burgesses’ who chose eight more; the resulting 16 together then elected a further eight to make up the full tally of 24. Once elected, the members of the council continued in office until death, and vacancies were filled by co-option. From the names supplied on that occasion, the council appears to have been composed of burgesses of some local prominence. Besides the mayor, 14 other members had already represented the borough in Parliament over the previous 20 years, and the three who had been mayors had filled the office for as many as ten years in all during the same period.

According to the records, these elections involved the commonalty, and it was in its name that the borough ordinances too were usually issued. However, from the account of the election of the council in 1426, which states specifically that the congregation gathered in the guildhall consisted of burgesses, there is no reason to believe that the commonalty extended beyond the limits of those who were proper freemen of the borough. All burgesses had first to be admitted to the freedom, swearing an oath at the ceremony of admission to protect the liberties and customs of Cambridge. Membership of course conferred privileges, including the right to set up a booth, rent-free, at Sturbridge fair. For the son of a resident burgess, the customary entry fine was 3s.4d. on his father’s death, double that sum during his lifetime.8

So far as its parliamentary representation is concerned, Cambridge returned two Members regularly from 1295 onwards. These were generally townsmen who often all but monopolized the major offices of local government. From 1427, they each received from the borough for their attendance in Parliament 1s. daily, which was only half the fee once customarily recognized by the Crown. Judging from the simple, bare statements of the indentures of return, it would appear that the borough Members were elected at the county court at the same time as the knights of the shire, but this was evidently not the case. What happened in Huntingdon also happened in Cambridge: that is, the borough electors attended meetings at the shire court merely to report the result of elections already held in the town assembly. In fact, until an ordinance of 1452, the practice in Cambridge was for one of the parliamentary burgesses to be chosen by the commonalty, the other by the mayor and his assistants. After that date, both were chosen by a majority of the burgesses.9 From the records available there does not appear to have been, in normal times, any external pressure brought to bear on either the government of the borough or its elections, parliamentary or otherwise. A possible exception was the Crown’s intervention in the mayoral election of 1381, for when Maisterman first assumed office he was not a popular figure locally. However, he continued in office for no less than five years, during which he represented the borough in six of the seven Parliaments summoned. Moreover, he served again as mayor in 1388-90, and was elected to Parliament again in 1390 (Jan.). The evidence is insufficient for firm conclusions to be drawn, but even so, it was certainly in the royal interest that, after the events of 1381, local government should remain in loyal hands.

Between 1386 and 1421, the returns for Cambridge are missing for eight of the 32 Parliaments. Names for that of March 1416 are, however, supplied by Prynne, so altogether at least 30 individuals sat for Cambridge during this period. Of the 24 Parliaments for which evidence survives, certainly no fewer than 18 were attended by at least one Member with previous experience; and both the Members in no less than eight of these had sat previously. So far as Richard II’s reign is concerned (for which the returns are almost complete), there were only four instances of reelection in the strict sense. And only in Richard’s last Parliament, in September 1397, were two novices chosen. The gaps in the returns for Henry IV’s reign are too numerous to permit of any valid conclusions as to the parliamentary experience of those whose names happen to be known, either for that period or the early years of Henry V’s reign. It is, nevertheless, safe to say that in a majority of Parliaments after 1415 either one or both Members had previous experience; but in only one instance (1420) was anyone actually re-elected. In the last Parliament of Henry V’s reign, however, it looks as if both Members were sitting for the first time.

Although nine parliamentary burgesses are recorded as being elected just once, and ten twice, a few were returned quite frequently: John Blankpayn and Robert Brigham both sat at least five times, John Cotton seven, and Richard Maisterman eight. Parliamentary service was usually concentrated into a comparatively short period. Thus Cotton’s Parliaments all met within a span of nine years (1379-88) and Maisterman’s within a similar length of time (1381 to 1390). In this way a certain continuity of representation was achieved, at least during Richard II’s reign. On the other hand, 25 years elapsed between Brigham’s first Parliament in 1377 and his last in 1402, and also between John Knapton’s first in 1406 and his fourth and last in 1431. Nor were there many instances of Cambridge families providing more than one Member of Parliament in this period: John Beverley (April 1414) is likely to have been a kinsman of Thomas Beverley (1407 and 1415), and Thomas Camp, knight of the shire for Cambridgeshire in 1420, may have been the son of John Camp, who had sat for the borough in 1388 (Feb.), but these are the only examples found. True, to the first Parliament of Henry VI’s reign Cambridge returned Richard Bush, probably a relation of John Bush (1411), and in 1427 it elected Richard Sexton, a kinsman of John Sexton II (March 1416). But clearly no one family or even a group of families dominated the representation of the borough.

There can be no question that the great majority (all but two) of the parliamentary burgesses for Cambridge lived in the town, a point of especial interest in view of the statute of 1413 which required parliamentary burgesses, as well as knights of the shire, to be resident in their constituencies. The two exceptions, John Hokington and John Payn I, lived no more than a few miles away at Oakington and Swaffham Prior, respectively, and although both held office in the county and never, so far as is known, in the borough itself, neither was a complete ‘outsider’, for both owned property in Cambridge, and Payn, at least, often visited the town in the furtherance of his career as a lawyer. The town naturally drew to itself enterprising individuals from elsewhere in the county, such as the well-to-do landowner John Greenlane, who came from Haddenham. More unusual was the arrival of migrants from other shires, although Robert Goodrich, who was eventually elected mayor of Cambridge, hailed from Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, all those whom Cambridge returned to Parliament in this period at least held property in the town, and most of them made it the centre of their business or trading concerns.

Extant lists of medieval borough officials for Cambridge are incomplete and occasionally inaccurate, but even so we can be certain that the majority of the 30 parliamentary burgesses were active in an official capacity there at some time or another. Only four apparently failed to serve either as mayor or bailiff: besides Hokington and Payn, who were never townsmen in the full sense, John Camp, the lawyer, falls into this category, and so too, quite possibly, does John Beverley, of whose career, however, too little is known to be certain. Altogether 15 MPs were elected as mayor (of whom six also held office as bailiff), and 11 others served only in the less important post. Most Members held local office for at least two annual terms, some being particularly prominent: thus John Bilney I and John Greenlane were each elected mayor on six occasions, Maisterman on seven and Brigham on eight; while John Warwick III was mayor three times and bailiff three times, Stephen Neel served as bailiff for nine terms, and Alderhithe and Bush for five each. As might have been expected, several of those most active in local government were also most regularly elected to Parliament, Bilney, Brigham and Maisterman being particularly notable examples. For only four years in the period 1386 to 1422 was the mayoralty occupied by a man (John Gaynesford each time) who, so far as is known, never represented the borough in Parliament, and, indeed, he may well have done so on one or other of the occasions for which the returns have not survived. Yet it was by no means a regular occurrence for a mayor to be elected to Parliament while actually in office. Indeed, it only happened at six of the 24 elections where we know the names of those returned: in 1386 and 1394 (Brigham), January 1390 (Maisterman), March 1416 and 1417 (Bilney) and May 1421 (Greenlane). The Cambridge electors were even more reluctant for a bailiff to be absent from his duties: this is only known to have happened on the occasion of the politically crucial assembly of 1399, to which the borough returned Hugh Candlesby. It was quite usual for parliamentary burgesses to have served a term as bailiff prior to their earliest election to Parliament: ten out 17 had done so before entering the Commons for the first time. On the other hand, parliamentary service generally preceded nomination to the mayoralty; 13 of the 15 MPs who were made mayors were only so promoted after representing the borough at least once.

Twelve of the 30 MPs were appointed at some time in their careers to royal commissions set up to supervise certain of the town’s affairs—perhaps to investigate the state of repair of the great bridge, to array the townsmen at times of threat to national safety, to deliver the gaol, or to collect subsidies. In most cases (seven) such appointments were only made after their first returns to Parliament. Similarly, 13 were placed on commissions on the peace in Cambridge, although only one of them sat on the bench before his earliest known return. Eight were first appointed as j.p.s by virtue of their office as mayor, but most served on other occasions too. It was more unusual for Cambridge’s Members to act as crown commissioners in the shire generally: only seven did so as tax collectors, and just three on such specialized bodies as commissions of inquiry, oyer and terminer, and array. Most prominent in this respect was the lawyer, John Payn I, who was the only parliamentary burgess to be appointed as a j.p. for the county (although he served very briefly). Thomas Beverley and Robert Attilbridge (the latter succeeding the former) held the royal posts of porter of Cambridge castle and keeper of the King’s warren; indeed, Attilbridge may still have been occupying them at the time of his elections to Parliament in May 1413 and 1417. Beverley was also appointed as alnager of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and John Hokington was a county coroner, but in neither case did such office-holding coincide with parliamentary service.

Only in a few instances do the records afford information as to the occupations of Members, but it may be assumed that the majority were tradesmen of some sort. Warwick was a skinner, Marshall a smith, Sexton a butcher, and Andrew a spicer; while Alderhithe and Candlesby were both engaged in the cloth trade and the latter also dealt in wine. The most successful merchant was John Herries, perhaps best described as a mercer, whose business interests brought him into close contact with important members of the Mercers’ Company of London. Exceptions to the norm were John Bilney I, who had begun his career as a scholar and fellow of King’s Hall (although it is not known how he made a living after he abandoned clerical life), and the two lawyers—John Camp and John Payn I. It is interesting to note that Camp and Payn were returned together to the Parliament of 1391, yet only Camp was elected on another occasion; so evidently men of law played a very minor role in the representation of the borough.

A number of those who sat for Cambridge in this period were persons of some substance. John Hokington’s property in Cambridge alone could be let for £5 6s.8d. a year, and Robert Brigham derived £5 16s. p.a. from his, even at the start of his career. Fourteen (most of whom were sometime mayors) acquired landed holdings elsewhere in the shire, from which at any rate some derived quite sizeable annual incomes. When assessments were made for the purposes of taxation in 1436, Bilney’s income was estimated at £6 a year, Wedgwood’s at £8 and Richard Andrew’s at