Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||Thomas Francis|
|1388 (Sept.)||Ralph Algar|
|1390 (Jan.)||Thomas Francis|
|Simon Fordham 1|
|1397 (Jan.)||Henry Boss|
|1413 (May)||Thomas Godstone|
|1414 (Nov.)||Thomas Godstone|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Ford III|
|John Sumpter 2|
|John Ford III|
|1421 (May)||Thomas Godstone|
|1421 (Dec.)||Thomas Godstone|
A busy port, which had a taxable population of 2,995 in 1377, Colchester was a royal borough, paying fee farm to the Crown. The charter granted by Richard I was confirmed by successive monarchs with little alteration and the borough sent Members to Parliament from 1295. The return to Chancery was always endorsed on the parliamentary writ, and there is no indication of the method of election in the local records. Ordinances for the conduct of municipal elections, made in 1372, limited the right of election to sworn freemen, who nominated a selecting body of 24. Participation in parliamentary elections was probably restricted in a similar way, for the corporation was tenacious of its liberties and strongly resisted any infringement of them. The first task of the law hundred jury was always to inquire whether any privilege had been threatened, and the commonalty was repeatedly involved in litigation to safeguard its interests. Twice in the 1380s it procured recognition of the burgesses’ right to trial outside the borough by a jury chosen from the town, and in 1397 and 1400 successfully resisted royal claims to full payment of the fee farm.3
Under Henry IV the fee farm of £35 a year was granted, as an annuity, to John Doreward, Speaker in 1399, and then, in 1404, to Humphrey of Lancaster (later duke of Gloucester),4 but there is no indication that either man ever influenced parliamentary elections. The Crown appointed the constable of Colchester castle: Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, from 1384 until 1388, followed by Sir Walter Lee*, Sir John Littlebury and Robert Tey*. The last lost the constableship to Prince Humphrey in 1404 after being implicated in the conspiracies against Henry IV.5 Although Tey had close contact with certain of the MPs for Colchester, there is no reason to suspect that this connexion was a principal factor in their election.
The expense of rebuilding the town walls for defence against an expected invasion from France enabled Colchester to obtain almost continuous exemption from sending burgesses to Parliament between 1382 and 1421.6 Returns are extant, however, for 22 of the 29 assemblies covered by these grants, and as the exemption was renewed in the course of three parliamentary sessions for which there are no returns (1394, 1404 and 1410), it is likely that Colchester sent representatives on those occasions also. The exemption was probably used as an excuse to devote Members’ wages towards the repairs; there is no mention of payment to Members in the local records, or any enrolments of writs de expensis after 1376.
Returns have survived for 19 of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421, and Prynne supplies information to fill two of the gaps, so that altogether the names of 14 Members are known. All but two sat more than once, and, indeed, the average was five Parliaments each. Thomas Godstone was returned no fewer than 13 times and Thomas Francis as many as 14. In this period re-election of both retiring Members to the following Parliament occurred only twice (in 1386 and May 1421), but on eight other occasions one Member was elected to two successive Parliaments. Continuity was maintained in this way from one Parliament to the next in ten of the 21 assemblies for which names of the MPs are recorded, and when a novice was elected someone with experience of the Commons was usually returned with him. Only twice (1397 (Jan.) and 1416 (Mar.)) were two untried men apparently elected together. Between them, Godstone and Francis sat in 21 of the 29 Parliaments with extant returns from 1381 to 1423. Francis was chosen for seven out of nine held in the years 1383 to 1393, while Godstone, who was returned to six successive Parliaments from 1417, appeared in all except two of the first 14 Lancastrian assemblies for which local evidence survives. His brother was to represent the borough in 1425 and he himself to be again elected in 1427.
All 14 parliamentary burgesses were freemen and resident in Colchester at the time of their returns, although William Nottingham had originally come from Gestingthorpe (about 16 miles away), and Ralph Algar from London, while Thomas Godstone was a native of Surrey. They were all merchants (with the possible exception of John Sumpter, who may have been trained as a lawyer), trading in grain and fish, and most of them had an interest in the local production and sale of cloth.7 Several exported these commodities to the Low Countries. A few evidently prospered through their mercantile and other ventures, even aspiring to be members of the gentry: Godstone, Kimberley and Sumpter all achieved armigerous rank, and Francis and Nottingham were sometimes called ‘gentlemen’; they each acquired substantial property holdings worth over £20 a year, in Godstone’s case twice that amount.
All of Colchester’s representatives were active participants in the town’s government. Two bailiffs were chosen each year and the office was almost monopolized by the parliamentary burgesses; between 1386 and 1422 only four others shared it with them; furthermore, they filled both appointments for all but four years. Eight Members were bailiff before their earliest election to Parliament and only three of the 14 had not occupied a post of some sort in local administration before being returned. Colchester elected one of its officiating bailiffs to Parliament on 12 occasions in our period—1388 (Feb.), 1388 (Sept.), 1390 (Jan.), 1393, 1397 (Jan.), 1411, 1413 (May), 1417, 1419, 1420, 1421 (May), 1421 (Dec.)—and on other occasions it sent a bailiff just finishing his term of office. On the other hand, it never happened that both bailiffs were elected to the same Parliament. Sometimes an alderman was returned (as in 1388 (Feb.), 1399 and 1411), and William Mate was receiver when elected in 1393 and coroner when elected in 1406. Election to Parliament at Colchester usually took place after several years’ employment in local government, but there was one exception to this general rule. Thomas Godstone’s rapid advance in borough politics was unparalleled at Colchester in this period: he was made both bailiff and parliamentary burgess within two years of entering the freedom of the borough. Godstone served as bailiff of Guînes in Picardy by royal appointment for 35 years, during which he represented Colchester 13 times. No other Colchester Member ever held an appointment of this kind, although John Christian and John Kimberley were both, like Godstone, sometime customs officials at Ipswich, the area under their control including the port of Colchester. Indeed, Kimberley occupied posts at Ipswich as collector or controller of customs, or as deputy butler, for some 28 years, during which he twice represented Colchester in Parliament (1420 and May 1421). No parliamentary representative for Colchester ever served as sheriff, escheator or j.p. for Essex, but nine were named on royal commissions in the county.
Author: K.N. Houghton
- 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 953.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 142; T.K. Cromwell, Hist. Colchester, 264; Colchester Oath Bk. ed. Benham, 2, 17-21, 218, 224.
- 4. RP, iii. 670; Feudal Aids, vi. 433.
- 5. CPR, 1381-5, p. 442; 1385-9, p. 424; 1391-6, pp. 218, 609; 1396-9, p. 1.
- 6. CPR, 1381-5, p. 214; 1385-9, p. 505; 1391-6, p. 379; 1401-5, p. 355; 1408-13, p. 199; 1413-16, p. 23.