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|Richard Holiman 1|
|1388 (Feb.)||Walter Frere|
|1388 (Sept.)||Stephen Watford|
|William Atte Dene|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Atte Dene|
|William Atte Dene|
|William Atte Dene|
|William Atte Dene|
|1397 (Jan.)||Richard Sandwell|
|1397 (Sept.)||Richard Kele|
|William Clerk II|
|William Marchaunt III|
|1413 (May)||Roger More|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Coventre II|
|William Atte Halle|
|1415||William Clerk II|
|Andrew Sperlyng 2|
|John Coventre II|
|1421 (May)||Roger More|
|1421 (Dec.)||John Horewode II|
Situated in a well-watered gap in the Chilterns, and in the midst of the most heavily populated part of Buckinghamshire, Chipping Wycombe was one of the two most important towns in the county (the other being Aylesbury). It alone, however, returned burgesses to Parliament at this time. Also known as Great or High Wycombe, it was situated on an ancient road linking the Icknield Way with the Thames and, more significantly, stood on the road from London to Oxford, Woodstock and the Cotswold cloth towns, being conveniently placed half-way between London and Oxford. The waters of the river Wye and its tributary streams, flowing into the Thames above Cookham, provided power for the numerous mills which ground the corn and fulled the cloth which were the town’s main products. At the centre of a rich corn-growing district, Wycombe itself produced wheat and barley for malting, many of the burgesses at this period being engaged in agriculture. The cloth trade also flourished: weavers were encouraged by a local ordinance of 1316 to settle in the borough, and Flemish clothiers made their homes there in the early 15th century. Both cereals and cloth were exported by road or river to London, with which Wycombe merchants had many links: the capital was near enough to be a stimulus to trade, and far enough away not to overshadow and dominate it.3
Wycombe was not a large borough, its population in 1377 being roughly 700, or 900 if the 200 or so ‘foreigners’ (or people living in the parish of Wycombe, but not in the borough) are counted. It was therefore very much smaller than Oxford or Reading, though considerably larger than its nearest neighbours, Wendover and Great Marlow. The lack of guild merchant accounts or borough records makes it impossible to give a precise estimate of the volume of trade at this period, but other evidence shows that, while the cloth trade was flourishing, there was also some depopulation and a decline in agriculture. The manor of Bassetsbury embraced most of the borough, and its court rolls between 1411 and 1442 reveal several mills and barns as having become ruinous, and holdings lacking tenants or else let at reduced rents. There is, however, no evidence of any sudden or catastrophic changes in the economic fortunes of Wycombe at this time.4
Though there were Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements at Wycombe, the place was no more than a large agricultural village at the time of the Domesday survey. Then attached to the fief of Robert d’Oilli, it thus became part of the honour of Wallingford, which it still remained in our period. The manor of Wycombe was in the hands of Henry II between 1156 and 1171, a time in which the Crown was founding towns, and it was probably during this period that the ‘borough’ grew up: certainly it was in existence as such by 1185. The burgesses probably received a charter of some sort from Henry II, granting them the right to a merchant guild. In 1203 King John gave the part of the manor containing the borough to Alan Basset—hence its later name of Bassetsbury. Then, after a series of disputes about trading rights in the 1220s, Basset conceded to the burgesses ‘the whole borough of Wycombe, with the rents, markets, fairs and all else pertaining to a free borough’ in return for an annual farm of £30 13s.4d. This agreement was confirmed and given royal authority by Henry III in 1237: serving in lieu of a royal charter, it was approved by Edward I in 1285 and by Henry IV in 1400. Bassetsbury had meanwhile passed to the family of de Bohun, who held it until the death, in 1419, of Joan, widow of the last earl of Hereford of that name: thereafter, as a consequence of the earlier marriage of Joan’s daughter, Mary, to Henry of Bolingbroke, it passed to the Crown as a parcel of the duchy of Lancaster.5
At the end of the 14th century, Wycombe was an independent borough with a guild merchant comprising the whole community of burgesses, and governed by a mayor who, from no later than 1285, had been elected annually on the Thursday before Michaelmas. He was assisted by two bailiffs, whose duty it was to carry out the decrees of the borough court and to collect the fee farm, although their election took place every year on the Thursday before Lady Day. The main vehicle of local government was the borough court, also called ‘portmanmote’ and ‘guild’. This body, which was both judicial and administrative in function, had exclusive jurisdiction over the borough, the guild merchant, and the important religious guild of the Blessed Mary of Wycombe. The last, founded by burgesses in the 13th century, maintained a chapel in the parish church and, in the course of time, had almost merged with the guild merchant; every year two churchwardens were appointed from among the most important burgesses. The revenues of both the borough and the guild of the Blessed Mary, often shared between the two bodies, were largely derived from the rents of tenements in the town given by benefactors. Entry to the guild merchant, carrying with it the freedom to trade in the borough, was at least partly hereditary: eldest sons of burgesses could, upon a father’s death, claim the liberty of the borough on payment of a fine of 10½d., 1d. of which went to the mayor, ½d. to the clerk, ½d. to the under bailiff, 8d. to the guildsmen and ½d. to the hospital of St. John, a charitable foundation for the poor.6 No doubt, however, there were other ways of entering the guild.
Though there were no great internal struggles for control of the borough at this time, minor disturbances appear to have been fairly frequent. In 1400, for example, William atte Halle and others were accused of threatening two chaplains so that they fled from the town in fear of their lives, and four years later the same man, then mayor, was accused of gathering together 160 confederates, their purpose being to kill William Saunderton, a local landowner, and to burn down his buildings at nearby West Wycombe. A less violent dispute occurred in 1407, when the commonalty impleaded Ralph atte Lude for not paying 23s.3d. rent due to the borough, for detaining an old rental, and for building on common wasteland. The matter was, however, serious enough to be referred to the lady of the manor of Bassetsbury, the dowager countess of Hereford, who ruled that atte Lude should pay his debt and return the rental. During the later part of our period, the lollard heresy was widespread in south Buckinghamshire, and not least in Wycombe, whence at least five men set out to take part in Sir John Oldcastle’s* rising of January 1414. The most important of these, John Langacre, a mercer with connexions both in London and Wycombe, was eventually hanged, but another, John Brian, an associate of Wycombe’s parliamentary representatives, the Sandwells and Thomas Merston, was luckier: he was pardoned and survived to witness the borough elections to the Parliaments of 1420 and 1421 (Dec.). Outbreaks of lollardy in Wycombe continued to occur throughout the 15th century, but no MPs are known to have been directly involved.7
There is little suggestion of outside interference at Wycombe parliamentary elections during our period. Stephen Watford was a courtier and royal servant, and William Clerk II a rent collector for the de Bohuns and, subsequently, for the Crown. However, both were local men with property in the borough, and Clerk later served as mayor. It is possible that neither Thomas Comyn nor John Horewode II came from Wycombe, but the lack of borough records makes it impossible to say for sure. Immediately after our period, however, two outsiders—Nicholas Clopton (1422), clerk of the courts of St. George’s chapel, Windsor, and William Whaplode* (1425), later steward of Bishop Beaufort—were elected. But neither of these two lawyers was unfamiliar with the affairs of the town, and Whaplode, at least, was qualified for election by virtue of his property there.
Wycombe had sent burgesses to Parliament for the first time in 1300, and had continued to do so, albeit with occasional lapses, ever since. The general practice was for a precept to be directed by the sheriff of Buckinghamshire to the mayor, bailiffs and burgesses of Wycombe who, having elected their representatives, sent him a return. Towards the end of our period this sometimes took the form of an indenture. Such indentures as remain were attested by a number of burgesses, ranging from six to 20, but usually amounting to 12 or 14. The offices of the witnesses are not always recorded, but nevertheless it is clear from other evidence that the mayor and bailiffs were generally present. In fact, these witnesses may have been the sum total of those taking part in the election, as making up the ruling oligarchy of the town. Certainly, by the end of the 15th century, this group had become formalized as the ‘mayor’s brethren’ or ‘Common Hall’, a body to whom the right of parliamentary election had by then been reserved.8 The electors are usually stated to have made the election ‘freely and indifferently’ and ‘by unanimous assent’: in the indenture for December 1421, however, when John Horewode and Thomas Pusey were returned, the words ‘freely and indifferently’ have been crossed out. All elections took place at Wycombe; in the years 1419, 1422, 1423 and 1426 they were held at dates ranging between three days (1419) and a month (1422) before those for the shire. In 1417 county and borough elections happened on the same day, but in all other known cases the hustings at Wycombe followed those for the shire, occurring between one and 23 days later.
No more than 20 returns for Wycombe have survived for the 32 Parliaments of this period, and those for 1386 and January 1390 are so badly mutilated as to reveal the name of only one MP in each case. Prynne, however, supplies the missing name for 1386, and also those of both representatives of 1415. The number of burgesses known to have sat during the period is 21, of whom seven are not recorded as being returned more than once, three not more than twice, and six not more than three times. (Andrew Sperlyng, returned three times at least for Wycombe, was subsequently elected three more for Buckinghamshire.) But, even allowing for the frequent gaps in the returns, William Depham sat four times, John Coventre II and Richard Kele five, and Roger More as many as eight times in all, most of these occasions falling towards the end of the period. William atte Dene was elected to no less than 18 Parliaments, although 13 of these met before 1386. Re-election to successive Parliaments was not unusual: atte Dene served in all ten of the Parliaments between 1368 and 1378, and was again returned (on each occasion with Richard Kele) to the consecutive Parliaments of 1382 (Oct.) and 1383 (Feb.). Walter Frere and Richard Holiman served consecutively in 1386 and 1388 (Feb.); William atte Dene once again in 1394 and 1395; William Depham in four Parliaments running between 1391 and 1395; Roger More in four between 1417 and 1421 (May); and John Coventre 11 in 1422 and 1423. The gaps in the returns are, however, both too numerous and dispersed to allow of any valid estimate of how many Members were ‘novices’ when (apparently) first elected, and for the same reason it is impossible to quantify experience. Even so, the records that remain clearly show that there was a tendency to re-elect experienced men.
As might be expected in a borough where membership of the guild merchant was largely hereditary, several MPs came from families with a consistent record of parliamentary service. Richard Sandwell was a relation, perhaps the father, of John (1402); and both were descended from Roger Sandwell†. Andrew Sperlyng was probably the son of Nicholas, and Walter Frere perhaps the son of William†. William atte Dene was a descendant of John†. There is proof positive that 19 of the 21 MPs were resident in Wycombe, although Stephen Watford must have been frequently at the royal court, and both Richard Sandwell and Thomas Pusey probably spent much time in London. Andrew Sperlyng, a resident in the town during the early part of his career (when he represented it in Parliament), is not heard of as such after 1423. It is not known where John Horewode II and Richard Holiman lived.
Despite the fact that only a few names of the borough officials have come down to us from this period, certainly six of the MPs served as mayor, of whom Thomas Merston held office four times, Nicholas Sperlyng three, and William atte Dene and Richard Kele twice. Atte Dene, William Marchaunt III, Walter Waltham and William Depham all served once as bailiff. Generally, election to Parliament came after some such participation in local government. So far as is recorded it never happened that a man actually occupying the mayoralty or bailiffship was returned.
Where MPs’ occupations are known, involvement in agriculture appears to have predominated. Roger More, William atte Halle, Thomas Merston, Richard Kele, William Marchaunt III, Walter Frere and William Clerk all held plough or meadowland within the parish of Wycombe, and no doubt spent at least part of their time in raising cereals. Merston, however, also seems to have been a sheep farmer, and Clerk was also lessee and rent collector of Bassetsbury manor, first for the de Bohuns and subsequently for the duchy of Lancaster. That Richard Sandwell, a cutler, had business links with London, was not surprising. Much more out of the ordinary were the careers of Stephen Watford, a yeoman of the royal kitchen who rose to be an esquire in the Household, and Andrew Sperlyng, a busy lawyer.
Several Wycombe MPs were appointed to offices or commissions outside the town. Roger More, Thomas Merston, Richard Kele and William Clerk all served as tax collectors in the county at large, Kele and Clerk doing so quite often, and William atte Dene was placed on a royal commission to enforce the Statute of Labourers in the liberty of Wycombe. Most important from this point of view, however, was Andrew Sperlyng: after his parliamentary service for Wycombe was over he was appointed as escheator for the joint bailiwick of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and in the 1430s he served for at least eight years as a j.p. for Buckinghamshire, besides sitting on several temporary royal commissions. Similarly, a number of parliamentary burgesses are known to have held land outside the town, though in a majority of cases this was in the immediate vicinity. Further away, William Clerk had an interest in property at Ashendon, Thomas Pusey at Cookham in Berkshire, and Richard Sandwell, a citizen of London, at Harlesden in Middlesex. Once again, however, it was Andrew Sperlyng who was exceptional in this respect: he is known to have owned houses at Long Crendon and Ludgershall and as a member of Lincoln’s Inn he probably stayed in London for long periods of time.
It is clear that Wycombe MPs at this period were, for the most part, local traders and yeoman farmers of no great note. Only four men depart from the norm—Stephen Watford, Roger More, Thomas Pusey and Andrew Sperlyng. Watford, a lifelong royal servant and court official, perhaps retired to Wycombe. More and Pusey, sometimes called ‘gentlemen’, were probably members of the local gentry who subsequently had much to do with the administration of the borough.9 But undoubtedly the most interesting of them all was Sperlyng, who from relatively humble beginnings as a hereditary burgess rose, apparently by his own efforts, to become an eminent lawyer worthy to be a governor of Lincoln’s Inn. A close associate of John Hampden† of Hampden, John Barton II* and other fellow lawyers in Parliament, he was elected three times as knight of the shire. His legal knowledge made him much in demand as a feoffee-to-uses, and brought him into close contact with Thomas Montagu, earl of Salisbury, and William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, the successive sons-in-law of that influential figure, Thomas Chaucer* of Ewelme.
Author: Charles Kightly
- 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1160.
- 2. Prynne, iv. 1161 gives the names of William Clerk and Andrew Sperlyng as Members for Wycombe in a Parliament which could either be that of 1415 or March 1416, but as Sperlyng is recorded as a witness to the Wycombe election of March 1416 (C219/11/8), it is probably the case that Prynne refers to the Parliament of the previous year.
- 3. L.J. Ashford, Hist. Wycombe, 1-3, 38-43; First Ledger Bk. High Wycombe (Bucks. Rec. Soc. xi), 7-8; VCH Bucks. iii. 112-13; CPR, 1429-36, pp. 557-8.
- 4. Ashford, 49-50; DL29/652/10554, 654/10577; SC6/764/12, 13; St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, recs. XV/15/1, mm. 1-25.
- 5. Ashford, 3, 11-12, 15-20; VCH Bucks. iii. 113, 117-18, 123-4; CChR, i. 228-9; ii. 305.
- 6. Ashford, 62-67, 72-76; Ledger Bk. pp. x, 25, 294; VCH Bucks. iii. 120, 133.
- 7. HMC 5th Rep. 562; CPR, 1413-16, pp. 261-2, 271; E357/24 mm. 34, 67; KB9/209/6 mm. 12, 20, 27.
- 8. C219/1/11 (not in OR ); HMC 5th Rep. 562.
- 9. Ashford, 52-53.