Dunwich

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
1386Peter Cuddon I
 Hugh Thorpe
1388 (Feb.)Augustine Knight
 William Woodward
1388 (Sept.)Peter Cuddon I
 John Bagge
1390 (Jan.)Peter Cuddon I
 Robert Runton
1390 (Nov.)
1391Robert Runton
 William Havene
1393Robert Cook
 Augustine Knight
1394
1395Robert Cuddon I
 William Chock 1
1397 (Jan.)Peter Helmeth
 Nicholas Goodber
1397 (Sept.)
1399Peter Cuddon II
 Peter Helmeth
1401
1402
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406
1407
1410Peter Cuddon II
 William Barber II
1411Richard Griston
 Thomas Clerk II
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Clerk II
 Thomas Brantham
1414 (Apr.)Nicholas Barber
 Philip Canon 2
1414 (Nov.)Thomas James
 Philip Canon
1415
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)John Luke
 Philip Canon
1417
1419Nicholas Barber
 Philip Canon
1420John Luke
 Richard Russell II
1421 (May)William Barber II
 Robert Cuddon II
1421 (Dec.)John Luke
 Nicholas Barber

Main Article

Dunwich was a royal borough paying fee farm to the Crown. Its earliest charter, for which the inhabitants were charged 300 marks by King John, dates from 1199; in May 1421 the town procured a second copy after accidentally losing the original.3 Dunwich was one of the 27 towns summoned to the Council of 1286, and it returned Members to Parliament from 1296. But in the years that followed it declined rapidly from being a prosperous port, which every year proffered the Crown as much as £120 13s.4d. and barrels containing 2,400 herring, into an impoverished village. In 1354 an official inquiry revealed that the harbour, once large and deep and affording berths for many ships, had been obstructed by the action of the sea, and although another haven had been constructed this was at some distance from the town and, being narrow and shallow, was avoided by seamen. Since Edward I’s time one-fifth of the town had been submerged, and the remainder for the most part now stood deserted. Many of Dunwich’s vessels and men had been lost in the wars with France. Accordingly, in 1357 Edward III reduced the fee farm, by that time set at £65, to £14 10s.9d., the maximum amount it was thought possible to raise. This decline continued in the 15th century: Henry VI deducted a further £2 8s.8d. from the charge, and Edward IV’s confirmation of the charter mentions that the town ‘by reason of its situation and resistance to the attacks of the King’s enemies, as well as by the rage of the sea, was much impoverished’.4 In 1354 it had been claimed that the number of burgesses holding their property by scot and lot tenure had fallen from 2,000 to 47. Certainly, by our period the town must have consisted of not more than 150 households: in 1403, 135 persons from four parishes contributed to the parliamentary subsidy, and a rental of 1434 lists 132 contributors from three parishes.5

Henry IV began the practice of granting Dunwich out at farm to individuals, a sure indication of the town’s increasing decline. First Thomas Mowbray, Earl Marshal, was awarded custody of the borough in May 1403, and then it was secured by the King’s half-brother Sir Thomas Beaufort, afterwards duke of Exeter, who was instrumental in procuring Mowbray’s execution. Beaufort held Dunwich on an Exchequer lease for 20 years from April 1407, and following his death, which occurred some three months before this expired, the town apparently reverted to the Crown. However, in 1440 it was to be granted to Sir William Phelip* (now Lord Bardolf), and three years later to William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk.6 Nevertheless, in spite of the general decline, the burgesses on occasion successfully resisted threats to the liberties contained in their charter. In November 1392, at a court of admiralty held at Covehithe, the bailiffs of Dunwich pressed the burgesses’ rights of exemption from summonses to courts outside the jurisdiction of the borough, while throughout the late 14th century and the early part of the 15th the townspeople waged an almost continuous dispute over foreshore rights with the family of Swillington, lords of neighbouring Blythhurgh, a dispute which was finally settled by compromise in 1410.7

Dunwich was governed by a mayor and four bailiffs until 1347, when the first office was abolished and the number of bailiffs halved. There were also two coroners and an under bailiff. The bailiffship became the monopoly of a few: between 1377 and 1422 no more than 18 men filled this post, 11 of whom are known to have sat in Parliament between the same two dates. In all, 14 of the 23 Members returned in our period occupied the bailiwick at some stage in their careers, eight of them doing so before their first recorded election to Parliament. They held office an average of seven times each: indeed, John Luke was bailiff for 14 terms, John Bagge for 16, and William Barber II for at least 20. Nevertheless, it was an unusual event for one of the bailiffs to be sent to the Commons actually during his official year. This happened only in 1410, when Barber returned himself, and in 1421 (May), when Barber’s fellow bailiff took sole responsibility for the return after he had been elected again. Thomas Brantham was serving as under bailiff when returned in 1413 (May). Four parliamentary burgesses are known to have been coroners of the town, and Nicholas Barber may still have been discharging that office when elected in 1421 (Dec.)

The paucity of local records makes it impossible to ascertain whether Dunwich was paying wages for parliamentary service, but no writs de expensis were ever enrolled in Chancery on behalf of Members returned for the borough. The economic state of the town would make it highly unlikely; and at least four times during the period 1386-1421 the bailiffs failed to reply to the sheriff’s precept instructing them to hold elections. We do not know the names of those who represented Dunwich in as many as 13 of the 32 Parliaments assembled; accordingly, any attempt to analyse the returns with regard to parliamentary experience must prove unsatisfactory, and it would certainly be unwise to suppose that, of the 23 burgesses known to have been returned, as many as a third (eight) sat only once. All the same, Peter Cuddon I, elected to at least seven Parliaments (five of them between 1383 and 1390), and Philip Canon, who sat four times between 1414 and 1419, were the only Members to have any concentrated experience; and of the others, only John Bagge and John Luke, who both appeared five times, could be said to have had anything of a parliamentary career. The same pair of burgesses were never returned to consecutive Parliaments, and only Peter Cuddon I and Philip Canon are known to have been individually reelected. However, Robert Runton sat in two out of three Parliaments summoned between January 1390 and November 1391 (the third return being lost), and John Luke was elected to two out of three which met between December 1420 and December 1421 (inclusive). Furthermore, despite the gaps in the returns, it is certain that on five occasions both Members had previous experience of the Commons, and on ten more one Member is known to have been qualified in this way. Only in four Parliaments was Dunwich apparently represented entirely by novices, and the gaps in the returns make this an unlikely occurrence on each of these occasions.

So little biographical detail is recorded about the Dunwich Members that an assessment of their careers is difficult. All seem to have originated from within the town or its near neighbourhood, and most made a living from trade. Brantham and James were brewers, and Russell was a mason. None had any close connexion with those magnates who held the town at farm, and the association of the Cuddons with the influential Phelip family had no noticeable effect on their material circumstances and is unlikely to have been a factor in their elections to Parliament. Sibton abbey possessed property in Dunwich and Eye priory derived an income from the place,8 but none of the parliamentary burgesses appears to have been connected with either. Only Hugh Thorpe and the Cuddons were ever appointed to serve on royal commissions, and then only as collectors of subsidies. The Cuddon family, which provided four representatives in this period, was the most prominent in the borough. Members of it had sat for Dunwich in the Commons before the reign of Richard II, and continued to do so under Henry VI. But, as the 15th century progressed, they acquired landed holdings elsewhere in the county, and their connexion with the town gradually weakened. Their changing status is marked by Peter Cuddon II’s payment of a fine to be exonerated from the order of knighthood, and by the description of the younger Robert Cuddon as ‘gentleman’.

Parliamentary elections were evidently held in the town itself. Before 1407 it was the practice for the sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk to send a precept to the bailiffs of Dunwich instructing them to make returns. The names of the parliamentary burgesses and their mainpernors were then written on the schedule listing the Members from both shires and all their boroughs which was returned with the writ to Chancery. Separate indentures survive for Dunwich from 1410, drawn up as between the bailiffs on the one part and (usually) the two coroners and a dozen named burgesses on the other.

Author: K.N. Houghton

Notes

  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 963.
  • 2. T. Gardner, Hist. Dunwich, 88, says they were returned to the Leicester Parliament but cites no source.
  • 3. Rot. Chart. ed. Hardy, i. 51; Pipe Roll 1 John (Pipe Roll Soc. n.s. x), 290; CPR, 1416-22, p. 363.
  • 4. Gardner, 12-14, 22-23; CFR, vii. 36; CChR, vi. 194; CIMisc. iii.