Dorchester

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
1386Henry Cravell
 Peter Blount
1388 (Feb.)John Perle I
 Thomas Lamer
1388 (Sept.)William Chuse
 Thomas Gardener
1390 (Jan.)William Tylle
 John Blount I
1390 (Nov.)
1391Thomas Lamer
 John Gould
1393Robert Gutton
 Thomas Gardener
1394William Pullare
 William Ash 1
1395John Blount I
 Thomas Hussey I
1397 (Jan.)Robert Veel
 John Jordan
1397 (Sept.)Robert Gutton
 John Jordan
1399John Blount I
 John Westpray
1401
1402John Bomel
 John Jordan
1404 (Jan.)John Blount I
 John Jordan
1404 (Oct.)
1406Richard Hyde
 John Jordan
1407John Cheverell
 John Jordan
1410John Jordan
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Walter Tracy
 William Newton
1414 (Apr.)John Blount I
 John Gryffyn
1414 (Nov.)John Jordan
 Richard Berell
1415
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1417Reynold Jacob
 John Ford II
1419John Ford II
1420John Stork
 John Ford II
1421 (May)John Stork
 John Ford II
1421 (Dec.)Robert Mose
 John Ford II

Main Article

Despite its status as the county town of Dorset, Dorchester failed to keep abreast of other market towns in the shire not only in size and prosperity, but also in terms of progress towards administrative independence. Whereas in 1253 Bridport had received a royal charter of incorporation, and the men of Wareham had long held their town at farm, the royal borough of Dorchester appears to have gained little in the way of privilege from the Crown until the 14th century. In 1305 the inhabitants were granted permission to build a prison, but not until 1324 did the bailiffs and burgesses receive a royal charter temporarily granting them custody of the borough for a fee farm of £20, and this arrangement was only made permanent in 1337. At an inquisition held in the latter year, the town and its liberties were valued at £16 5s., and the sources of its income as listed give some indication of the basis of Dorchester’s economy. They included the proceeds from three annual fairs, three weekly markets and control of weights within a 12 mile radius of the borough. The charter of 1337 was confirmed in successive reigns (in 1396, 1400 and 1420) without significant alteration, and it was not until 1485 that any additional privileges were secured. In population, too, Dorchester apparently lagged behind other boroughs in the county. According to an assessment for the parliamentary subsidy of 1340, only 42 persons qualified for taxation there, as compared with 92 and 91 in Bridport and Shaftesbury, respectively. Hutchins made the point that the actual returns for the subsidy indicate a greater average wealth among those taxed in Dorchester, for collectively they paid £9 17s.9d. as compared with £12 14s.10d. paid by more than twice the number of men in Bridport. Nevertheless, it was also in the reign of Edward III that the burgesses of Dorchester petitioned the King for a remission of their fee farm on the grounds of a decline in local trade and the fact of houses being left deserted. A similar claim was to be made a century later, when a royal commission was appointed to inquire into the burgesses’ plea of poverty. Even before then, Dorchester was not alone in its financial difficulties, but in 1435-6 was just one of several Dorset boroughs listed as being unable to make their normal contribution towards taxes.2

Our knowledge of Dorchester’s progress towards self-government is limited by a lack of source material, but a set of ordinances framed in 1414 provides a good deal of information about the town’s internal organization and the degree of administrative autonomy it then enjoyed. These ordinances, drawn up before a jury of 12 burgesses in the town court and recorded in the Dorchester ‘Domesday Book’, laid down that every year two bailiffs were to be elected by a body of 24 ‘lawful’ burgesses, and sworn in soon after Michaelmas, the penalty for evading this duty being a fine of £10. The bailiffs had full responsibility for the borough’s finances, which were accounted for annually before men specifically chosen for the purpose, but any ‘courtesies’ offered to a royal justice or official in connexion with business touching the community, were to be sanctioned by a select group of 12 burgesses. Any surplus remaining from the collection of parliamentary subsidies, or profits from the bailiwick over and above what was due to the Crown, was, following an audit, to be kept for general use, with the added proviso that funds should not be appropriated for private business purposes on the part of individual townsmen. Other borough officers included the town clerk, the serjeants, and the constables who presided over the town court alongside the bailiffs. Such offices were tenable only by freemen of the borough. Entry into the freedom, which was open to burgesses paying scot and lot, required a double payment of rent to the borough as well as a ‘fine by pledge’, and this rule applied even to those who succeeded their fathers by right of inheritance. It was also common for burgesses of one Dorset borough to apply for the freedom of neighbouring towns, usually those in which they had trading interests.3

Among the privileges enjoyed by freemen of Dorchester was that of electing Members of Parliament. The town had sent two burgesses to the Commons regularly since 1295. After 1406, the electoral returns for the county sometimes included indentures listing the Members returned by all its boroughs. These indentures were drawn up between the sheriff and four representatives from each borough on the occasion of the election of the knights of the shire in the shire court held at Dorchester. However, there is no evidence that the election of the burgesses actually took place in that court; indeed, the procedure adopted was one of convenience, in order that the sheriff could be notified simultaneously of the results of the several borough elections previously held. The statement in the indentures, that each election had been made with the assent of the whole commonalty of the town in question, supports the view that the indentures merely recorded the formal presentation by delegates of the names of those already elected.4 In fact, there is nothing to suggest that undue external pressures were brought to bear on either parliamentary elections or, indeed, any other aspect of town government.

Between 1386 and 1421, returns for nine of the 32 Parliaments are missing, although for that of 1394 names have been supplied by Prynne. In addition, two returns, those for the Parliaments of 1410 and 1419, are badly torn, and only one Member is known in each case, so a minimum of 27 men sat for the borough during the period under discussion. In no fewer than 20 of the 24 Parliaments for which names are known, at least one burgess had previous parliamentary experience, and in six of these both Members had been returned on some earlier occasion. In Richard II’s reign, for which almost all the Members are recorded, there were only three instances of re-election in the strict sense: Henry Cravell and Peter Blount sat in 1385 and 1386, and John Jordan was re-elected in 1397 (Sept.). Both men who sat in 1393 (Gutton and Gardener) were also experienced Members, but to each of three other Parliaments of the reign (September 1388, January 1390 and 1394), two novices were apparently elected. The numerous gaps in the returns make it impossible to analyse parliamentary experience in the reign of Henry IV and the early years of that of Henry V. However, the Parliaments of 1404 (Jan.) and 1407 both contained experienced Members; indeed, two of the four men involved had been re-elected after service for Dorchester in the preceding Parliament, and a third, John Cheverell, had sat in the preceding Parliament for Wareham. To Parliaments at the end of this period, Dorchester invariably returned men of solid experience: John Ford II sat in all seven of the Parliaments assembled between 1417 and 1423, and in the consecutive Parliaments of 1420 and May 1421 his fellow Member was John Stork. Ford’s record of parliamentary service for Dorchester was only bettered by that of John Jordan, who was returned eight times. Peter and John Blount I each sat on five occasions. Five burgesses were also returned to Parliament for constituencies other than Dorchester: John Perle I (February 1388) was to be elected as knight of the shire for Dorset in 1394, and Walter Tracy, sitting for the borough in May 1413, went on to represent Bridport in 1419 and Melcombe Regis in 1427; while the other three had already become familiar with the Commons before representing Dorchester—Robert Veel and John Ford II by sitting for Melcombe Regis, and John Cheverell by sitting for Wareham.

Among certain Dorchester families there appears to have been something of a tradition of parliamentary service: Peter and John Blount I were brothers, and John Jordan was father of the man of the same name who was to sit in 1425. Several Members are likely to have been related to men who sat for neighbouring boroughs (though it is not possible to be certain in all cases): Thomas Gardener may have been a kinsman of John Gardener II (Melcombe Regis 1417); John Gould of another John (Weymouth 1380); and Walter Tracy of John and Nicholas Tracy (Bridport 1384-99 and 1402, respectively). Thomas Hussey I’s son Thomas II was to represent two Wiltshire boroughs before being elected for Melcombe Regis and then as a knight of the shire. However, 18 of the 27 Members who represented Dorchester are known to have been resident burgesses. Four of these had interests elsewhere in the country, too: Thomas Lamer was referred to after his death as ‘late citizen of London’, and John Gould, Richard Berell and John Gryffyn also possessed land at Seaborough, Somerset, and Tatton and ‘Middleton’, Dorset, respectively. Seven others were clearly country gentlemen rather than townsmen: they were John Cheverell, a ‘gentleman’ of Chilfrome, John Ford II, generally described simply as ‘of Dorset’, Thomas Hussey I, who lived at North Bowood, John Perle I, who also sat for the shire, and Robert Veel, who lived just outside Dorchester at Frome Whitfield; together with William Newton and John Stork, who both chiefly resided in Somerset and attained armigerous rank. No information survives to indicate the place of residence of the remaining two Members, Richard Hyde and William Tylle, although Hyde, at least, would appear to have been a Dorset man. Neither these two nor the seven landowners mentioned above ever held office in Dorchester, but 13 of the 18 resident burgesses did serve as bailiff there, generally doing so after their parliamentary careers had begun. For most of the period under review, the bailiffship was filled from the same group of burgesses from whom MPs were drawn; John Blount I, John Bomel, Reynold Jacob and Robert Mose all discharged the office for four annual terms, William Ash and William Pullare for three, and Henry Cravell and John Jordan for two. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that several of these burgesses were returned to Parliament during a term of office as bailiff: Thomas Gardener in 1393, John Blount I in 1395, John Bomel in 1402, John Jordan in 1406 and 1407, John Gryffyn in April 1414, Reynold Jacob in 1417 and Robert Mose in December 1421.

The occupations of less than half of the parliamentary burgesses have been discovered. However, seven of those resident in Dorchester are recorded as trading in cloth in the town, some of them exporting this product from Melcombe Regis. William Pullare is known to have occasionally imported wine. Six of Dorchester’s representatives (John Cheverell, John Ford II, William Newton, John Stork, Walter Tracy and Robert Veel) were members of the legal profession, nearly all of them of sufficient ability to attract clients from among the leading gentry families of Dorset. When returned for Dorchester in 1397 (Jan.), Veel had already done service not only as clerk to the j.p.s in the county, but also as keeper of the rolls of the King’s bench, and he was well acquainted with the chief justice, Sir Walter Clopton. However, Veel was the only lawyer known to have been elected by the borough between 1386 and 1407, and although two members of his profession were to be returned together in May 1413 (Newton and Tracy) it was not until 1417, when John Ford II began his unbroken run of seven Parliaments (to two of which he was accompanied by Stork) that lawyers came to take a major share of the borough’s representation.

Eleven of Dorchester’s Members became involved in local administration outside the borough, although in the cases of five of them merely as collectors of parliamentary subsidies in Dorset or Somerset. Thomas Hussey I, John Perle I and John Stork were all made j.p.s in Dorset and William Newton in Somerset, but only Hussey had served on the bench before his election to Parliament, and he was also unique in being a j.p. when returned (in 1395). Hussey, Newton, Perle and Veel were all appointed to the royal escheatorship of Dorset and Somerset, but, again, only Hussey had held office as escheator before being elected to the Lower House. The only resident burgess appointed to royal office was Peter Blount, who, having been named as deputy to the chief butler in all ports in Somerset and Dorset shortly before the assembly of his second Parliament, that of October 1383, was still occupying that post when returned again in April 1384 and 1385. He later served as collector of customs at Melcombe Regis.

Author: E.M. Wade

Notes

  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 967.
  • 2. Recs. Dorchester ed. Mayo, pp. xxviii, 2-12, 15-16, 27-30; VCH Dorset, ii. 138, 246; J. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 338, 348-9; CPR, 1436-41, p. 269.
  • 3. Recs. Dorchester, 107-13.
  • 4. M. McKisack,