Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1390 (Jan.)||John Combe|
|William Plomer I|
|1399||Thomas Smith I|
|John Everard II|
|1421 (Dec.)||Thomas Hussey II|
Situated in east Wiltshire near the border with Berkshire, Great Bedwyn during the period under consideration was the smallest and least important of the Wiltshire boroughs, save only Old Sarum. With a taxable population of only 87 in 1377,1 it was, in effect, no more than a medium-sized village, much smaller than the neighbouring towns of Marlborough and Pewsey, and exceeded in size by the decayed borough of Ludgershall. In the 12th and early 13th centuries Bedwyn (with Marlborough) had been a prosperous centre of the Wiltshire woollen industry, producing an inexpensive cloth called ‘burel’, and it was then that its large and magnificent church was built. By our period, however, this trade had virtually disappeared, and the town had become impoverished. Only one man—a local yeoman—paid more than 6d. towards the poll tax of 1379. Nor is there any evidence that the position improved in the 15th century, so that in the 16th Leland could describe Bedwyn as ‘but a poore thinge to syght’.2
The town was, even so, a place of great antiquity and had been part of the royal domain since about 975. After the Norman Conquest, the surrounding hundred of Kinwardstone, the manor of Wexcombe and other members became appurtenant to Bedwyn, and Henry I alienated the whole parcel, or liberty, to the Marshal family. By 1347 it had passed to the Staffords, who administered it by means of a bailiff made responsible for collecting and paying a fee farm to the Crown set at between £31 and £36 a year. From 1403, owing to the minority of Humphrey, earl of Stafford, custody of the liberty fell to Henry IV’s queen, Joan of Navarre, as part of her dower estates located in Wiltshire. She in turn leased it to Sir William Sturmy*, chief steward of her lands, whose seat at Wolf Hall lay just outside the town. He appears to have continued to farm it until his death in 1427.3 Though called a borough in Domesday Book, Bedwyn’s burghal status rested on prescription alone, since it apparently never received a charter. Nor did it possess any municipal institutions. The most important local official, at least up to 1403, was the earl of Stafford’s bailiff. Thereafter, the area was probably administered by men appointed either directly by the queen or by her farmer, Sturmy.4
It is difficult to say whether and to what extent Great Bedwyn’s overlords influenced the choice of its MPs. The Stafford bailiff acted as returning officer, and, moreover, on seven of the eight occasions between 1380 and 1386 on which Bedwyn elected representatives, he stood surety for the attendance of one of them.5 After 1420, the influence of Sir William Sturmy (not only farmer of the liberty, but the most powerful of the local gentry) can perhaps be seen in the return of such of his associates or kinsmen as John Benger, John Everard II, Robert Erle† and John Sturmy†. With the exception of Everard, however, all these were themselves quite prominent gentlemen who had good claims to election on that score alone.
So far as is known, Great Bedwyn first sent burgesses to Parliament in 1295, and it made returns to six of the 17 assemblies summoned between then and 1315. It was again ordered to elect in 1361 and 1368, but failed to make returns, though representatives were once sent in the meantime—to the Parliament of 1362. Apart from this instance, no record remains to show that the borough returned MPs between 1315 and 1377. After 1378, however, its burgesses made more frequent appearances in the Commons. Members were sent to at least ten of the 16 Parliaments between then and 1390 (Jan.), and on three further occasions during this period—in 1378, 1381 and 1388 (Sept.)—the borough was ordered to make a return but failed to do so. Nevertheless, between 1390 and 1420 occurred another gap in its representation, for during that time Great Bedwyn is known to have held elections only once, in 1399. Whether the borough did in fact make returns at other times, or whether, when summoned, it neglected to respond, we do not know. After 1420 Bedwyn was represented in Parliament with a fair consistency throughout the 15th century.
In the 14th century parliamentary elections at Great Bedwyn were initiated by a precept sent by the sheriff of Wiltshire to the earl of Stafford’s bailiff, and probably took place in the manorial court.6 After 1406, however, when the system of indentures was imposed upon the counties by statute, Great Bedwyn, in common with the other Wiltshire boroughs, sent delegates to the county court, their business there being formally to present the names of their representatives for inclusion in the return for the county as a whole. The results of only five elections to Parliament for Great Bedwyn—those of 1386, 1390 (Jan.), 1399, 1420 and 1421 (Dec.)—survive for this period. (The borough was summoned to elect Members for the Cambridge Parliament of 1388, but failed to do so.) Since the names of but nine Members are recorded, it will plainly be necessary to consider those who sat before 1386 and after 1421 if a more valid interpretation of the borough’s representation is to be obtained.
The burgesses elected between 1380 and 1390 were all apparently resident in the borough, and of little, if any, importance outside it. They were of modest means; none paid more than 6d. towards the poll tax of 1379, and they included in their number a plumber and a smith. Thomas Smith I was returned a total of seven times—on five consecutive occasions between 1382 (May) and 1384 (Apr.); William Plomer I sat six times, including both Parliaments of 1382 and again in the successive assemblies of 1384 (Nov.) and 1385; and John Combe appeared five times, Thomas Hurlebat twice and William Bailiff once. It is clear that men with some experience of the Lower House were preferred, although with such a small and apparently impoverished population, the choice of suitable candidates must have been limited. Even so, the first identifiable outsider did not put in an appearance until 1399, this being Geoffrey Mauncell, a Salisbury goldsmth with no known Bedwyn connexions.
Between 1420 and 1437, although it would appear that five of those elected, including Maurice Hommedieux and Walter Corp (1427) were burgesses proper, the largest group among the Bedwyn MPs was composed of members of the local gentry, and such men occupied seats on ten out of a possible 24 occasions. John Benger (1420), Robert Erle, Thomas Stokke (1422), Henry Chancy of Collingbourne (1423), Richard Harden (1423 and 1426), Geoffrey Polton of Polton (1426), John Sturmy (1431), and Robert Collingbourne (1431 and 1432), only two of whom are known to have sat more than once, were all resident in or near Bedwyn, and of these, Benger, Stokke, Sturmy, Harden and Collingbourne all belonged to old, established local families. John Sturmy was the bastard son of Sir William Sturmy, a frequent knight of the shire (and Speaker at the Coventry Parliament of 1404), while Collingbourne’s father, Richard, had sat for Marlborough in 1402, and John Benger’s son, John, was to be returned for Westbury in 1449 and for Great Bedwyn itself in 1467. It has already been noted that several of these men maintained close links with Sir William Sturmy, farmer of Bedwyn from 1404 to 1427, and the most powerful local landowner: both John Sturmy, his illegitimate son, and Robert Erle, his kinsman, were among his executors, John Benger was a feoffee of his estates, and Robert Collingbourne and Thomas Stokke were other associates of his. Few of these gentlemen held office at a county level, although Robert Erle and Richard Harden both acted as tax collectors, and Harden, a lawyer, was also clerk of the peace for Wiltshire from 1417 to 1420.
But if local gentry and burgesses together formed the largest proportion of Great Bedwyn’s representatives between 1420 and 1437, non-residence was becoming increasingly common, and outsiders occupied nine out of a possible 24 seats, mostly towards the end of the period. These were John Everard II (who sat for Old Sarum in 1423), Thomas Hussey II (Old Sarum 1423, Melcombe Regis 1427, Dorset 1435), Richard Briggs (Bedwyn 1429, 1432, Ludgershall 1431, 1433), Thomas Tropenell (Bedwyn 1429, Bath November 1449), William Hall (Bedwyn 1435), Richard Furber (Bedwyn 1437, Marlborough 1427, 1430, 1431), John Appleton (Bedwyn 1437) and Robert Wotton (Bedwyn 1437). Obviously, more than half of these men also sat for other constituencies. All (except Hussey, an important Dorset esquire) were from Wiltshire, Everard and Briggs originating in Salisbury, and Furber in Marlborough, but their links with Bedwyn, if any, are hard to establish, although Everard was an associate of Sir William Sturmy, and Hall was connected with the Staffords. Tropenell, Hall and Wotton were lawyers. Non-residence, noticeable as a tendency in the 1430s, became normal after 1440. Between then and 1509, only one Member, John Benger (1467), lived in the town, and of 18 others, 13 were even from outside Wiltshire.7
Author: Charles Kightly
The borough was sometimes known as 'Great' or 'West' Bedwyn to distinguish it from 'Little' Bedwyn.
- 1. VCH Wilts. iv. 309. Only 39 persons contributed to the poll tax of 1379: E179/196/42a.
- 2. VCH Wilts. iv. 117-19; Wilts. Arch. Mag. liii. 116; E179/196/42a; J. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, v. 79-80.
- 3. Wilts. Arch. Mag. vi. 263, 291; xli. 281; lii. 366; CPR, 1401-5, pp. 347-9; 1436-41, p. 161; CIPM, xiii. 210; CCR,