Great Yarmouth


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


1386Ralph Ramsey
 John Beketon
1388 (Feb.)Ralph Ramsey
 John Ellis II
1388 (Sept.)Ralph Ramsey
 John Hacon
1390 (Jan.)Ralph Ramsey
 John Ellis II
1390 (Nov.)
1391Ralph Ramsey
 John Hacon
1393John Hacon
 John Ellis II
1395Ralph Ramsey
 Hugh atte Fenn
1397 (Jan.)Richard Cley
 Hugh atte Fenn
1397 (Sept.)Ralph Ramsey
 William Oxney I
1399John Beketon
 Hugh atte Fenn
1404 (Jan.)Roger Adams
 Geoffrey Pamping
1404 (Oct.)
1406Robert Ellis I
 Henry Rafman
1407Robert Clere
 Peter atte Fenn
1410William Parker III
 Alexander atte Gapp
1411Nicholas Cates
 Peter atte Fenn
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William Oxney II
 Alexander atte Gapp
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)Geoffrey Pamping
 Robert Ellis II
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)
1417Henry S[pitling]
 Richard [?Ellis] 1
1419William Colkirk
 John Cranley
1420Thomas Dengaine
 Robert Ellis II
1421 (May)Thomas Covehithe
 Robert Ellis II
1421 (Dec.)Richard Ellis
 Robert Cupper

Main Article

In the earlier part of the 14th century Yarmouth had been one of the wealthiest English towns, owing its prosperity to its position as the most important centre for herring fishing in the kingdom, and, indeed, as one of the major fishing ports of Europe. Several hundred fishing boats visited the local autumn herring fair, held from Michaelmas to Martinmas. Yarmouth was also a shipowning centre of considerable note, the size of its merchant fleet giving it an unusually large role in certain phases of the wars with France and Scotland. But after 1370 Yarmouth declined in naval importance owing to excessive losses of vessels,2 and the later part of the century also witnessed a severe decline in the herring trade. This last was partly due to competition from both old and new rivals. Control of the trade had long been disputed with the Cinque Ports, whose merchants had been accustomed from time immemorial to land and sell their fish at Yarmouth and to share the jurisdiction over the 40-day annual fair with the townsmen on equal terms, dividing the profits; fresh orders had to be issued to protect the Ports’ rights in 1367, 1373 and 1387, after quarrels had erupted. Even more serious was Yarmouth’s dispute with Lowestoft, which became particularly bitter between 1370 and 1390. The men of Lowestoft were jealous of Yarmouth’s privileges and wished to emulate its prosperity by attracting away trade. In this they were supported by the powerful London Company of Fishmongers, who resisted the attempts of the Yarmouth merchants to make themselves sole purveyors of the supply of herring in their locality. The dispute centred on control over the entrance to Yarmouth haven at Kirkley Road. The haven mouth shifted frequently, and at some point before 1370 the harbour entrance silted up; ships began to unload at Kirkley and Lowestoft instead, and as a result much of Yarmouth’s trade was forestalled or diverted, and customs dues were lost. In 1372 Kirkley was formally annexed to Yarmouth by royal charter; Yarmouth acquired the right to levy tolls there; and the free landing of merchandise anywhere within seven leagues of the town was prohibited. This caused much contention, with the King and Council succumbing first to the arguments of one side, then to those of the other; consequently, the Yarmouth charter was revoked in the Good Parliament of 1376, regranted temporarily in April 1378 and more permanently seven months afterwards, revoked in February 1382, regranted in February 1385, revoked in October 1385, and then regranted yet again in October 1386. The arguments of both sides were vigorously expressed in petitions to Parliament. The Commons in general, wanting cheaper fish, promoted free trade in the hope of achieving a fall in prices, and in 1376 representatives of seven named counties and ‘autres de la commune’ successfully petitioned for the lifting of restrictions of herring sales within seven leagues of Yarmouth. Allegations made by inhabitants of Lowestoft led to the impeachment of two leading Yarmouth merchants, William Ellis and Hugh Fastolf, while the same Parliament gave a favourable reception to the ‘poor men’ of Yarmouth itself, who complained against the ‘great men of the town’, alleging ‘hardship, wrongs and oppression’—grievances stemming from resentment that a monopoly of the herring trade should be enjoyed by the merchant oligarchy. Ellis and Fastolf were able to clear their names in the very next Parliament (the Bad Parliament of January 1377). Even so, hostility to the merchants of Yarmouth continued to be voiced in the Lower House: in 1380 (Nov.) the Commons alleged that the Yarmouth charter was damaging to them all (a view popularly expressed during the uprising of the following year when the burgesses were compelled to surrender this document, which was promptly in two); in February 1382 Yarmouth was instructed to send additional representatives (the bailiffs and four or five burgesses) to the Parliament then in session to provide an answer to ‘loud complaints of the people as well in this as in former Parliaments’; and when, in 1385, Yarmouth’s control of Kirkley Road was withdrawn once more, it was done ‘at the supplication of the commons of Norfolk and Suffolk and of all England’.

On the other hand, the arguments for the permanent annexation of Kirkley to Yarmouth were strong ones. Yarmouth was the only coastal town of defensive importance between Bishop’s Lynn and Ipswich; both King and burgesses saw it as a frontier town—‘une reale frountier et forte ville de guerre’—and there was a genuine fear that depopulation, inevitably following after severe loss of trade, would endanger that vulnerable coast. In 1386, when a French invasion from Flanders seemed imminent, the men of Yarmouth claimed to be carrying heavier financial and defence burdens than any town for six counties around, and although this was clearly an exaggeration, it was taken seriously by Richard II’s council, which was concerned lest the remaining burgesses should prove unable to support the annual fee farm of £60, the parliamentary tenth of £100 and the cost of fortifications. Both sides used the political and constitutional difficulties of the period to advance their own positions. Yarmouth actively courted the support of John of Gaunt: Walsingham reported that the duke refused to listen to the complaints against the town ‘quia minus favit populo quam pecuniae’; and it was a royal council presided over by Lancaster which in 1378 came out in favour of Yarmouth’s annexation of Kirkley. After 1386 the merchants of Yarmouth carried the day, for although petitions continued to be sent to Parliament (as, for instance, in February 1388) voicing opposition to the charter, it was not to be revoked again in our period.3

Hugh Fastolf secured the farm of the manor of Lowestoft in 1387 and for a while relations between that place and Yarmouth improved, yet underlying resentment long continued. In 1401, after mediation by four persons including the King’s councillor, John Doreward*, it was formally agreed that the men of Lowestoft should have a share in Yarmouth’s trade, but even this did not put an end to the disputes. Furthermore, although Yarmouth had been largely triumphant, it was a victory without substance: from 1380 the town experienced severe economic difficulties, and the volume of herring brought through the port declined dramatically. Whereas Yarmouth once ‘estoit en prosperite, en plein enhabite des gentz et de richesse’, petitions to the Parliaments of 1399 and 1407 spoke of it being ‘en poynt d’estre autrement destruit et desolat’. Plague, too, had greatly reduced Yarmouth’s population, so that in the 1370s this numbered no more than about 3,000, and since then had continued to dwindle. To help counteract this decline, Richard II granted permission in 1393 for the burgesses to levy special tolls on every last of herring sold in the town in order to pay for the construction of a new harbour, and Henry IV not only established the wool staple at Yarmouth in 1404 (though it was moved again after a year), but also, in 1409, granted the town £100 a year for five years from the tunnage and poundage collected there, to complete the harbour works.4

Yarmouth was ruled by four bailiffs, elected annually, with a council of 24 burgesses to assist them. This council, no doubt modelled on the one at Norwich, was first mentioned in, and apparently created by, ordinances passed in 1272, though it possibly replaced an earlier body. Its precise function is unclear, although in 1386 the 24 jurats elected the minor officers of the borough, and it would seem that they generally acted in an advisory rather than a judicial capacity. The burgesses held their own courts and were responsible for payment of the fee farm, initially set at £55 a year but increased by £5 following the annexation of Kirkley Road.5 Earlier in the 14th century, Yarmouth’s MPs would appear to have been appointed by the bailiffs, although the absence of clear evidence of election by the townsmen as a body does not necessarily mean that they had no say in the choice of representatives.6 The borough had enjoyed the privilege of return of writs since 1256, so the procedure followed in our period when Parliaments were summoned was for the bailiffs to conform with the precept sent them by the sheriff of the joint bailiwick of Norfolk and Suffolk, and for their response subsequently to be recorded on the schedule listing the names of the knights of the shire and other parliamentary burgesses from both counties, the schedule being then returned to the Chancery by the sheriff, along with the writ of summons. Although the statute of 1406 did not expressly require indentures to authenticate borough elections (as opposed to those for the counties), the writs of summons for the following Parliament did so, and such documents survive for the Norfolk towns. In Yarmouth’s case, they were drawn up between the bailiffs on the one part and a small number of burgesses on the other, it being stated that the election had been held in the presence of those named, and that they had affixed their seals. The number of burgesses so listed was eight in 1407, but in later years was nearly always just four. Thus, the election seems to have rested with an exclusive, oligarchical group, acting in the name of the whole community. And it was from this same select group that Yarmouth’s parliamentary representatives were mainly drawn.

The list of Members’ names is greatly reduced through the disappearance of returns to no less than ten of the 32 Parliaments summoned during the period. To the remaining 22 Parliaments 25 persons were elected. The loss of so many returns renders any attempt at statistical analysis very precarious; and although it looks as if as many as 12 Members sat just once and seven others no more than twice, and that the overall average was but two Parliaments per head, we cannot be sure that this presents a true picture. John Hacon is known to have been returned six times between 1383 and 1393, and Ralph Ramsey as many as eight between 1385 and 1397 (Sept.); and it may well be that if more returns had survived for the early 15th century, examples of similarly frequent service would be revealed. Two of Yarmouth’s MPs represented other constituencies in our period: Henry Rafman sat for Norwich after leaving Yarmouth for the city, and Ramsey went on to secure election as a knight of the shire for Suffolk in 1402, having by then acquired lands in that county and become a ‘King’s esquire’. Then again, with so many gaps in the list of Members, it is impossible to decide whether or not Yarmouth favoured men with previous parliamentary experience. Certainly, in six Parliaments the borough was represented by two men so qualified, and on ten other occasions an apparent newcomer was accompanied by a tried man. Seemingly, however, in six Parliaments both MPs were novices, and it is worthy of remark that in all four of those for which returns survive between 1404 (Jan.) and 1410 the borough was represented entirely by men apparently lacking in experience of the workings of the Commons. The value of continuity of representation was possibly appreciated more in the reign of Richard II, when re-election is known to have occurred six times, and Ramsey was returned to eight of the ten Parliaments between 1385 and 1397 for which the names of Yarmouth’s Members are known, serving five times in a row.

As parliamentary burgesses for Yarmouth were mostly drawn from a comparatively small group of merchant oligarchs, it is not surprising to find particular families producing more than one Member. John Beketon and Alexander atte Gappe were related to men who had represented the borough earlier in the 14th century; two members of the atte Fenn family (perhaps uncle and nephew) sat in our period; the two William Oxneys were father and son, and the prolific and influential family of Ellis produced six MPs between 1355 and 1422—indeed, to nine of the 22 Parliaments for which returns have survived in our period, Yarmouth elected an Ellis. As might be expected, nearly all of those returned had an interest in the herring trade, and 21 of the 25 can be identified as fish merchants. These substantial burgesses were often involved in all branches of the trade, from catching to exporting; they were boat owners and hosts to foreign merchants, as well as dealers; and they owned special ‘fish-houses’ where the herring could be salted, cured and stored. Many traded with Gascony, exporting herring from Yarmouth and returning with wine, Spanish iron and salt; some shipped cloth to the Netherlands or imported timber and other goods from the Baltic. Several MPs possessed vessels, not only fishing boats like doggers, but also ships capable of carrying sizeable cargoes to and from Spain. The most prominent in this respect were John Hacon, the master mariner, Hugh atte Fenn, and the elder William Oxney; and Hacon and Oxney even served as captains of vessels commissioned for naval service by the Crown. Merchants clearly dominated the parliamentary representation of the borough. The four Members who in their individual ways were set apart from the typical representative (Robert Clere, Thomas Dengaine, William Parker III and Ralph Ramsey), belonged rather to the ranks of the gentry of Norfolk, yet all four had ties of some sort with the merchant community. Clere was a younger son and a grandson of former knights of the shire, coming from a family which owned substantial estates near Yarmouth and having as his eldest brother a man who had served as deputy admiral in the port; Parker hailed from Brumstead, several miles to the northwest of the town, though he was closely connected with the Yarmouth family of Ellis; Dengaine, although known as an ‘esquire’, nevertheless held borough offices; and Ramsey, the outstanding Yarmouth Member of the period, whose career was hardly distinguishable from that of a shire knight (which, in fact, he later became), not only had an interest in the herring trade, but so concerned himself with local government as to serve as bailiff five times. No man returned for Yarmouth in this period is positively known to have been a lawyer, although it is possible that Clere and Dengaine had some legal training; certainly the former had close family ties with prominent members of the profession. It was only after our period had ended that the borough elected to Parliament lawyers of the calibre of John Manning (1429) and William Yelverton (1435 and 437), both of whom, incidentally, were returned while holding office as steward of the liberty of Yarmouth’s rival port, Bishop’s Lynn.

All but one of the 25 parliamentary burgesses are recorded as owning property in Yarmouth, the exception being Robert Clere. Not all of them were natives of the town, however: Rafman hailed from Wymondham, and Ramsey’s antecedents are uncertain. At least nine MPs acquired land outside the town in the course of their careers, on one side or other of the nearby boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk, and two purchased property in the shire town of Norwich. However, only Ramsey and Clere became landowners of any consequence. For the majority, the centre of their interests always remained Yarmouth. Twenty-two of the 25 held the local office of bailiff, some of them doing so quite frequently: for instance, Hugh atte Fenn and the younger Robert Ellis each occupied the post for nine terms, and William Oxney I for no less than 13. It was more usual for election to Parliament to follow after such service than to precede it—16 MPs had done duty as bailiffs before they first entered the Commons. And it only sometimes happened that a bailiff was returned during his term of office; this occurred in respect of eight Parliaments (February 1388, January 1390, January and September 1397, 1410, 1411 and May 1413) and in only one, the Parliament of 1397 (Sept.), were both MPs currently serving as bailiffs. Of the three parliamentary burgesses who were never chosen as bailiffs, two held royal office in the port: Peter atte Fenn as searcher of ships, and William Parker III as collector of customs. Only Robert Clere, in this as in other respects an outsider, never occupied an official post in Yarmouth, so far as we know. In any busy port the Crown was bound to appoint numerous customs officials, and to this rule Yarmouth was no exception. A total of 15 Members found employment, at one time or another, in such offices as deputy butler, collector or controller of customs, mayor of the short-lived Staple, or searcher of ships. Half of these (seven) had experience of suchlike royal service when elected to Parliament for the first time. Indeed, men actually holding the important post of collector of customs were not infrequently returned to the Commons: this happened on ten occasions (February and September 1388, January 1390, 1391, 1395, January 1397, 1399, 1406, 1420 and December 1421), and in two of these Parliaments (February 1388 and January 1390) both the customers sat. In this connexion it may reasonably be assumed that it proved convenient for a man to combine the task of rendering customs dues at the Exchequer with appearance as parliamentary burgess. The most important royal office to which any of Yarmouth’s MPs was ever appointed was that of sheriff of the joint bailiwick of Norfolk and Suffolk, and this, as befitted one who had by then already appeared as a shire knight, was given to Ramsey on two occasions, although not until after his parliamentary career had ended. Ten parliamentary burgesses served as j.p.s, invariably only in Yarmouth itself, although one of them—Robert Ellis II—was also to sit for a short while