Hertfordshire

County

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
1386Sir Walter Lee
 Thomas Lee
1388 (Feb.)Sir Walter Lee
 Sir Robert Turk
1388 (Sept.)Sir Walter Lee
 Sir Robert Turk
1390 (Jan.)Sir Walter Lee
 Sir John Thornbury
1390 (Nov.)Sir Walter Lee
 John Ruggewyn
1391John Norbury
 Sir John Thornbury
1393Sir Robert Turk
 John Ruggewyn
1394Richard de la Pantry
 John Ruggewyn
1395Sir Thomas Morewell
 John Ruggewyn
1397 (Jan.)Sir Edward Benstede
 John Ruggewyn
1397 (Sept.)Sir Edward Benstede
 John Ruggewyn
1399Sir Edward Benstede
 John Ludwick
1401Sir Thomas de la Barre
 Robert Newport
1402Sir Edward Benstede
 Sir Robert Corbet
1404 (Jan.)Sir John Poultney
 Sir Robert Corbet
1404 (Oct.)Sir John Poultney
 William Parker II
1406Sir John Poultney
 John Goldington I
1407William Parker II
 Sir Thomas de la Barre
1410
1411Sir Thomas de la Barre
 Robert Newport
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)John Hotoft
 John Leventhorpe
1414 (Apr.)John Hotoft
 William Flete
1414 (Nov.)John Hotoft
 William Flete
1415
1416 (Mar.)John Hotoft
 John Leventhorpe 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417Sir Philip Thornbury
 John Hotoft
1419John Fray
 John Hotoft
1420John Fray
 John Barley
1421 (May)Robert Louthe
 William Rokesburgh
1421 (Dec.)Sir Philip Thornbury
 John Kirkby II

Main Article

Returns for Hertfordshire are available for 28 of the 32 Parliaments which met during the period under review. No information appears to have survived about the elections of 1410, 1413 (Feb.), 1415 and 1416 (Oct.), so consequently some doubt must remain as to the relative parliamentary experience of at least half of the 25 men who are known to have sat for the county between 1386 and 1421. An analysis of the existing returns reveals a strong preference on the part of the electors, particularly during the 14th century, for a degree of representative continuity. Only twice, in 1413 (May) and 1421 (May) did two apparent newcomers enter the House of Commons together, although we cannot be entirely certain on this point because of the gaps in the evidence. So far as we know, one experienced Member and one novice were returned to 14 Parliaments, while in a minimum of 12 Parliaments both the men elected had sat before. Instances of re-election were fairly common, most notably towards the beginning of our period, when Sir Walter Lee was returned to all six of the Parliaments summoned between 1385 and 1390 (Nov.), and John Ruggewyn to the five which met between 1393 and 1397 (Sept.). Moreover, Sir Robert Turk was re-elected in 1388 (Sept.), Sir John Poultney in 1404 (Oct.) and immediately after in 1406, John Hotoft twice in 1414 (Apr. and Nov.) and 1419, William Flete also in 1414 (Nov.), and John Fray in 1420. Complete continuity of representation seems, however, to have been achieved only in the three Parliaments of 1388 (Sept.), 1397 (Sept.) and 1414 (Nov.), each of which was, perhaps significantly, the second of two Parliaments to meet within one year.

Certain MPs were thus in a position to acquire an impressive amount of experience in the Lower House, often spread over many years. Concentrating, for the moment, upon returns for Hertfordshire alone, it appears that seven of the men considered here sat only once, five twice and six three times (Sir Thomas Morewell would also have sat three times had he not obtained royal letters of exemption after being elected in 1383). William Flete was returned to at least four Parliaments, while Sir John Thornbury and Sir Edward Benstede both represented their county on five occasions. As we have already seen, John Ruggewyn’s six returns took place within less than a decade; and in a mere nine years John Hotoft was elected seven times or more. On the other hand, Sir Robert Turk’s parliamentary career lasted from 1378 to 1393, during which time he too had seven returns to his credit. Only Sir Walter Lee, who was sent to 11 Parliaments between 1377 and 1390 (Nov.), outdid this record of service, which appears all the more remarkable in view of his subsequent appearance as Member for Essex in 1391, 1393 and 1394. Two of his colleagues also represented other counties, Sir Thomas de la Barre sitting alternately for Herefordshire and Hertfordshire in six Parliaments spread over 30 years (1386 to 1416), and Sir Robert Corbet being returned first for Wiltshire (1385 and 1397 (Jan.)), then for Hertfordshire (1402 and 1404 (Jan.)) and lastly for Suffolk (twice in 1414). None of our Members ever became Speaker of the Commons.

Nine knights by rank sat for Hertfordshire during our period, and at first tended to dominate the pattern of representation. In only one of the Parliaments before 1410 did two esquires sit together (1394), whereas there were five occasions on which both members were of knightly rank, and 12 on which a knight was accompanied by an esquire or gentleman. This tendency was reversed dramatically from 1411 onwards, when esquires of the King’s body, such as John Hotoft and John Leventhorpe, assumed rather more importance on the parliamentary scene. Between then and 1421 (Dec.) a belted knight was returned only three times, always in the company of an esquire. Yet these distinctions seem rather artificial in view of the great wealth and influence commanded by newcomers who could easily have supported knightly rank had they wished; and contemporaries may well have found the question of formal status largely irrelevant.

Because of the close proximity of both the City of London and the royal court at Westminster, the electors of Hertfordshire were indeed fortunate in the calibre of many of their chosen representatives, several of whom coupled long experience of local government with a wider range of skills acquired as merchants, lawyers, crown servants or even, in the case of the celebrated captains John Norbury and Sir John Thornbury, as former mercenaries. Turning first to the administrative expertise of our Members, it appears that eight of their number performed the office of sheriff at least once during their lives, but that of these only two (Sir Edward Benstede and Sir Thomas de la Barre) actually did so before first entering Parliament.2 De la Barre had, in fact, already served three terms as sheriff of Herefordshire when he was returned for Hertfordshire in 1401; and it is interesting to note that, despite existing legislation against the election of sheriffs, he actually sat for Hertfordshire in March 1416 while occupying the shrievalty of Essex and Hertfordshire. Sir Walter Lee abused his position even further, returning himself, as sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire, to both of the 1390 Parliaments, although he had already been replaced in office by the time that the second of these met. Sir Robert Corbet also entered the Commons while in office, but this was long after he had ceased to represent Hertfordshire. In all, Corbet served two terms as sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, one as sheriff of Wiltshire and another as sheriff of Shropshire, and it was during the last of these (1413-15) that he twice sat for Suffolk. A strong element of administrative unity as well as geographical proximity bound the counties of Essex and Hertfordshire together, so that for almost all our period they shared the same sheriff and escheator. Although only one MP (Sir Walter Lee) actually represented both counties in Parliament, several of his colleagues held offices or commissions which thus extended their authority across the Hertfordshire border; and of these seven occupied the joint escheatorship.3 None, however, had experience of this particular office at the time of their first election. Sir Thomas de la Barre, on the other hand, had not only been an escheator but also a j.p. in Herefordshire before representing Hertfordshire in the House of Commons.

All but six of our men sat on the Hertfordshire bench, and nine of them had already been appointed before first being returned for the county. A further eight took up office during the course of their parliamentary careers, although, in addition to de la Barre, John Hotoft, John Leventhorpe and Robert Newport had previously served as justices in other counties, and were thus rather more experienced than might at first appear. All in all, the Hertfordshire electors seem to have felt a preference for members of the local bench, returning two current justices to at least five of the Parliaments under review, and one to a further 15. Even though this leaves eight Parliaments when neither representative held a commission in Hertfordshire, it is important to remember that some of these men were active elsewhere, and thus equally knowledgeable about the law. John Fray, who was eventually to become chief baron of the Exchequer, went on to serve as a j.p. in six counties, as well as in the towns of Cambridge, Bishop’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth, but most of his remarkable career falls outside the scope of this survey. With the striking exception of William Parker II and Sir John Poultney (both of whom belonged to affluent mercantile families), all our Members were the recipients of ad hoc royal commissions at some time in their lives, and at least 14 had gained experience in this capacity by the date of their first election to Parliament. John Fray, who served on a total of 59 recorded commissions, naturally stands out among his colleagues, but several others, such as John Hotoft (23), John Leventhorpe (21), Sir Walter Lee (20) and Sir Thomas de la Barre and Sir Edward Benstede (13 each), are also worthy of note. A minimum of 12 Hertfordshire MPs also acted as local tax collectors, usually while still quite young men, yet few occupied other posts in the field of local government, perhaps because of their superior position in the administrative hierarchy. John Leventhorpe, however, was employed briefly as a customs official in the port of London before he entered Parliament, and John Ruggewyn sat for Hertfordshire in 1395 while serving as alnager for the county. Both Robert Newport and John Fray were made justices of assize towards the end of their respective careers.

One of the striking features of the parliamentary representation of Hertfordshire is the high proportion of crown servants and annuitants who figure in the returns. The presence of the royal court and offices of central government nearby at Westminster clearly explains this phenomenon, although the great influence exerted by Henry IV and his son in the county was in part due to the long tradition of loyalty to the house of Lancaster which had grown up there during the previous century. At least nine of our Members held office of the Crown, even though two of the most distinguished of them—John Norbury and John Fray—did not achieve real prominence until long after their parliamentary careers were over. In the course of time, Fray became chief baron of the Exchequer and the occupant of several other important administrative posts, while Norbury’s various appointments included the treasurership of the Exchequer and the keepership of Henry IV’s privy wardrobe. Sir Thomas Morewell, on the other hand, had ceased to hold any specific place at Court some years before being returned in 1395, but he was still in receipt of fees awarded to him for past services to several members of the royal family. Of the six men who entered Parliament as employees of the reigning monarch, John Leventhorpe (the receiver-general and attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster) and his colleague, John Hotoft (formerly the controller of Henry of Monmouth’s household) were certainly the most powerful. Leventhorpe’s first return in May 1413 clearly owed a great deal to his position as an executor of Henry IV, whose will was one of the first items to come under discussion once the two Houses met. Sir Walter Lee, a knight of the body to Richard II and leader of the abortive attempt to suppress the rebels at St. Albans in 1381, sat on three occasions when constable of Colchester castle, having initially been appointed to that post in March 1388 during the recess of the Merciless Parliament, perhaps in an attempt to enlist his support for the Lords Appellant. His brother and fellow courtier, Thomas, had, meanwhile, been returned with him in 1386 while serving as constable of Queenborough castle and keeper of Berkhampstead woods, and actually received the parkership of King’s Langley during the course of the session. Sir Robert Corbet, a particular favourite of Henry IV, occupied the constableship of Berkhampstead castle; and at the time of his election to Parliament, in December 1421, John Kirkby II was employed as deputy steward of the duchy of Lancaster manor of Soham in Cambridgeshire. Besides these salaried officials, most of whom were also paid additional fees and pensions, Sir Thomas de la Barre, Sir Edward Benstede and Sir John Thornbury each represented Hertfordshire while retained as knights of the King’s body—Sir Thomas then being the recipient of at least 80 marks p.a. in fees. Richard de la Pantry, who married the widow of another courtier, was moreover in attendance on Richard II when the county electors returned him in 1394. Although not yet formally confirmed as an esquire of the royal household at the time of his election in 1399, John Ludwick in fact served both Richard II and Henry IV continuously in this capacity. Disregarding the often strongly held political sympathies of the other shire knights who sat during our period (Sir Philip Thornbury, for instance, is depicted on his tomb as a Lancastrian retainer, although no further evidence survives to bear this out), we may be reasonably sure that in five Parliaments for which returns are available (1386, 1390 (Jan.), 1413 (May), 1416 (Mar.) and 1421 (Dec.)) both Members were either office-holders of the Crown or courtiers. At least one royal placeman took his seat in a further 16 Parliaments,4 although it is interesting to note that in neither January nor September 1397 was Richard II represented by a spokesman from his immediate circle.

How far the ruling monarch found it necessary to bring influence to bear in any way upon the electors of Hertfordshire is open to debate, especially as all the Members here under review were, without exception, local landowners whose connexion with the county can be traced back well before the start of their respective parliamentary careers. There was certainly no overt attempt to secure the return of an ‘outsider’ during our period, for although some MPs originated as far afield as Cheshire (John Norbury), Shropshire (Sir Robert Corbet), Herefordshire (Sir Thomas de la Barre), Yorkshire (John Leventhorpe), Leicestershire (Sir John Poultney) and the Welsh marches (Sir John Thornbury), all possessed substantial Hertfordshire estates which they had either inherited, purchased or acquired through marriage. Likewise, the two London merchants, Sir Robert Turk and William Flete, were already local landowners on a fairly impressive scale when the county electors first chose them as shire knights. Just over half (13) of our Members inherited some, if not all, of their property in Hertfordshire, while at least seven, and probably more, married heiresses or widows with estates there. The former mercenaries, Sir John Thornbury and John Norbury, who had both made personal fortunes by hiring out their services to foreign powers, shrewdly invested some of their profits in land, as did the wealthy mercer, William Flete, and the lawyer, John Fray. John Leventhorpe was particularly favoured with royal grants in tail-male of manors in both Essex and Hertfordshire, yet he also took advantage of the fluid property market to consolidate his holdings through purchase.

All but three of our men owned land in other parts of England; and some, of whom the most notable are Sir Robert Corbet and Sir Thomas de la Barre, ran estates which were scattered right across the country. Although Corbet had not yet inherited his extensive patrimony in Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and Oxfordshire when he sat for Hertfordshire, he was already in possession of land along the Welsh march and, moreover, had taken control of his wife’s inheritance in Wiltshire and Hampshire. To his own property in Hertfordshire, Monmouthshire, Herefordshire and Hampshire, de la Barre added the manors in Bedfordshire and Norfolk which belonged to his wife, thus acquiring a landed income of at least £104 p.a. On the whole, however, the territorial interests of our Members were largely confined to the south-east of England. Predictably, the greatest number (11) had estates across the county border in Essex, and at least eight were the owners of shops or tenements in London. A further six held land in Middlesex; five acquired holdings in Cambridgeshire; and four appear as landlords in Kent. Three MPs (including Corbet) came into property in Hampshire, but of the remainder only John Leventhorpe had possessions in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and John Norbury alone was active in Sussex. In common with Sir Thomas de la Barre, Sir Robert Turk acquired an estate in Bedfordshire through marriage; and it was thus that Thomas Lee became established in Berkshire. Those Members who derived some of their revenues from land in Leicestershire (Sir John Poultney), Staffordshire (Sir Robert Corbet), Gloucestershire (Sir Edward Benstede), Suffolk (the same) and Lincolnshire (William Flete) did so because either their own or their wives’ inheritances lay in these relatively distant counties, and not as a result of investment on their part. On the contrary, most of our 25 Members confined their own dealings in property to the home counties.

Although enough evidence, in the form of tax returns and inquisitions post mortem, has survived to enable us to estimate the minimum annual income derived by certain individuals from their estates, these figures can give no more than a shadowy impression of their real wealth. John Norbury, whose property was said to be worth £294 p.a. in 1412, appears to have been the richest of the Hertfordshire landowners returned during our period, but there is every reason to believe that both John Leventhorpe and William Flete were just as affluent. William Parker II was sure of at least £64 p.a. from holdings in Kent and the City alone, while the rents from Sir Robert Turk’s tenements in London reached almost £100 p.a. Six of their colleagues (John Barley, Sir Thomas de la Barre, Sir Edward Benstede, Sir Robert Corbet, John Hotoft and Sir Philip Thornbury) eventually enjoyed landed incomes well in excess of £100 p.a., although Corbet cannot have received more than half this sum at the time of his election for Hertfordshire. To these figures must, of course, be added the other fees and profits upon which at least half of our Members came to depend, not to mention the substantial investments which many made in commercial ventures. John Leventhorpe and John Hotoft in particular must have derived the greater part of their incomes from wages, annuities and perquisites of office; and the other courtiers and crown servants listed above were all in receipt of some pension or salary paid by the King. The two lawyers, John Fray and Robert Newport, both possessed a number of wealthy clients, for although Fray was still at the beginning of his career when he sat as an MP his professional skills had already gained recognition, particularly in the City. Although nowhere specifically described as members of the legal profession, it is quite likely that both John Hotoft and his friend, John Leventhorpe, were also lawyers. Neither of these two busy administrators can, however, have enjoyed the opportunity to build up a practice of their own. Whereas Sir Robert Turk evidently ceased trading as a fishmonger when he moved to Hertfordshire, the mercer, William Flete, remained an active member of the Calais Staple throughout his life, adding continuously to the impressive fortune which made him one of the most powerful (and unpopular) figures in the county. His return to the Parliament of 1414 (Nov.) seems, indeed, to have been contrived so that he could present in person a petition concerning the merchants of the Calais Staple in general and his own business operations there in particular.

Despite the fact that many of their number did not belong to long-established county families, a strong element of cohesion existed between the men who represented Hertfordshire during our period. The most obvious connexion was naturally that of kinship or marriage: Sir Walter Lee and his brother, Thomas, sat together in 1386; and Sir Walter’s two brothers-in-law, Sir Thomas Morewell and Robert Newport, as well as his nephew, John Barley, also became shire knights. The Lees’ influence in Hertfordshire during the late 14th century was very strong indeed, since other MPs, such as Richard de la Pantry and John Ruggewyn, numbered themselves among Sir Walter’s closest friends. Sir John Thornbury and his son, Sir Philip, likewise established a family tradition of parliamentary service which included Sir Edward Benstede (whose marriage to one of Sir Philip’s two sisters forged a lasting bond between the two men) and Sir Robert Corbet (who eventually took the other sister as his third wife). Sir Thomas de la Barre and Sir Robert Turk both acquired most of their Hertfordshire estates through marriage into the Kendale family: Sir Edward Kendale’s sister and heir, Beatrice, married Turk, and his widow, Elizabeth, became Sir Thomas’s wife. John Norbury may well have been instrumental in securing the return of William Parker II, his former ward and the stepson of his daughter, Joan, although the young man probably owed a great deal to the posthumous reputation of his father, the rich and influential London alderman, William I*. He was certainly not alone in benefiting from the residual prestige of a celebrated ancestor, but it is, of course, impossible to tell how far considerations of this kind counted with the Hertfordshire electors. Sir Thomas de la Barre, for example, was a nephew of Edward III’s under chamberlain, Sir Richard Pembridge, while Sir Edward Benstede claimed his descent from Sir John Benstede (d.1323), chancellor of England. Whereas neither Thomas nor Sir Walter Lee suffered as a result of the disgrace and imprisonment of their father, who was dismissed ignominiously from his post as steward of the household to Edward III, Sir John Poultney was clearly returned because of his position as heir to the extensive estates built up by the great 14th-century merchant financier after whom he was named. Sir Robert Turk probably received some help as a young man from his kinsman, the courtier, Bartholomew, Lord Burghersh, although in the end his brother, John, the chancellor of Oxford university, may well have proved even more useful in the furtherance of his career. There can be little doubt that William Flete’s appointment as a royal commissioner for the victualling of Harfleur in 1416 was procured by his kinsman, Simon Flete, then controller of the town and a future keeper of the privy wardrobe to Henry VI. Several members of Flete’s family held posts at Court, and this may explain why he himself was used as an agent to raise royal loans from the Calais Staple. John Barley counted Thomas Langley, bishop of Durham, among his kinsmen, while Sir John Thornbury and his son were related to the two distinguished royal clerks, Thomas Field (dean of Hereford) and John Prophet (secretary and keeper of the privy seal to Henry IV). In neither case, however, is there any evidence to suggest that these connexions were a source of immediate advancement. On the contrary, certain MPs, of whom the most obvious example is Robert Newport, seem to have prospered at a time when other members of their families (in his case the ill-fated Andrew Newport*) were suffering a reversal of fortune.

A substantial proportion of our shire knights benefited from other types of patronage, which, in most cases, came from leading members of the English baronage. John Norbury and Sir John Thornbury were both retainers of John of Gaunt, and sat together as such in the Parliament of 1391, by which time Norbury was also on amicable terms with Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. John Leventhorpe saw at least nine years’ service as receiver-general and auditor-general of Bolingbroke’s estates before he became King in 1399, and it is possible that Robert Louthe also had early connexions with the house of Lancaster. Sir Walter Lee fought on at least two campaigns with Gaunt, but we do not know how cordial their relations were otherwise. Thomas Lee and Sir Robert Turk contracted at various times to serve abroad with Gaunt’s younger brother, Thomas of Woodstock, in whose affairs Sir Robert Corbet also played a fairly prominent part. As a lawyer, Robert Newport had prolonged dealings with successive earls of March and Oxford, as well as various members of the influential Bourgchier family, most notably Sir William Bourgchier, whose wife, Anne, dowager countess of Stafford, retained him to serve on her council, and came to rely heavily upon his legal expertise. During his youth, Sir Thomas Morewell had spent some time on diplomatic business at the court of John Montfort, duke of Brittany, whom he subsequently served loyally for many years, receiving an annuity of 100 marks, and taking advantage of the opportunities thus presented for promotion within the royal household itself. Interestingly enough, both John Norbury and John Kirkby II, who are now remembered for their attachment to the Lancastrian cause, owed their initial advancement to others. Norbury’s early success as a soldier was largely due to the encouragement of Henry, earl of Northumberland, and his younger brother, Thomas Percy (who made him deputy captain of Brest); and Kirkby had John Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, to thank for his appointment as marshal of the Exchequer.

Although, as this evidence shows, the authority of the Essex-based de Veres, earls of Oxford, and the Bourgchiers occasionally made itself felt from across the county border, the predominant influences at work in Hertfordshire were those of the Court and the duchy of Lancaster (which from 1399 were united and thus doubly powerful), and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the City of London, where most of our Members had connexions of various kinds. As one of the major landowners in the county, the abbey of St. Albans found itself in the anomalous position of both giving and needing good lordship; and its relations with some Members, particularly the irascible William Flete, were often very str