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|1388 (Feb.)||William Wightman|
|1388 (Sept.)||William Wightman|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Wightman|
|John Dunhead I|
|John Dunhead II|
|1397 (Jan.)||Walter Willardby|
|John Dunhead I|
|1397 (Sept.)||John Hawkin|
|John Dunhead II|
|Richard Prentice 1|
|John Rous I|
|1411||Robert Peck II|
|1413 (May)||Robert Peck II|
|1414 (Apr.)||Robert Peck II|
|1414 (Nov.)||Roger Chamberlain|
|1415||Robert Peck II|
|1416 (Mar.)||Robert Peck II|
|John Denton 2|
|1421 (May)||Robert [Peck II] 3|
|1421 (Dec.)||Robert Peck II|
Situated at the crossing point of the river Ouse and the main route between London and the north-east, Huntingdon was an obvious site for early settlement, and by the tenth century it had become a market town of sufficient standing to have its own mint. Although at first development was checked by Danish raiding parties, the royal borough of Huntingdon enjoyed a more settled period of expansion after the Conquest, when, according to the Domesday survey, it housed some 256 burgesses. However, growth was again disrupted during the troubles of Stephen’s reign, which so impoverished the town that its taxable value dropped by half. A more permanent obstacle to prosperity was the presence, only five miles away, of a rival market centre, St. Ives, which, apart from the usual routine commercial activities, boasted an annual fair attracting continental traffic, as well as a flourishing local trade in hides, wool and corn. To offset this competition, the burgesses of Huntingdon agreed, in 1252, to pay an increment of £20 on top of their existing fee farm of £45, in return for a royal charter granting them the right to impose certain tolls upon merchandise sold at St. Ives. A contemporary assessment of the annual profit expected from this source was £100; but within a century economic changes had completely reversed the situation, so that the arrangement now proved a serious liability. The setting up of the Calais Staple and severe depopulation caused by plague combined to draw away trade from St. Ives; and when the fair was eventually discontinued, the burgesses of Huntingdon, themselves depleted in number, were left with a heavy fee farm and no alternative source of income. In 1363, in response to a petition in Parliament, both the increment of £20 and the not inconsiderable arrears were remitted to the burgesses. The ensuing royal charter, which evidently repeats part of their complaint, refers to ‘mortal pestilences’ and ‘other adversities’ leading to a serious fall in population and wholesale unemployment. Other evidence supports this plea of poverty: by the mid 14th century, three out of 16 parish churches were derelict, while a further eight lacked incumbents. Further remissions of the fee farm, which fell to £41 in the 15th century, indicate that the economic decline of the borough continued long after the Black Death.4
None of the surviving local records contain any suggestion that the government of medieval Huntingdon was subjected to external pressure; and the same may be said of its parliamentary elections. Nor, with one notable exception, do the careers of the 30 burgesses here under review reveal close personal associations with anyone likely to attempt such manipulative tactics. The case of William Wightman, who was elected to 22 Parliaments between 1361 and 1391 while in the employment of the Crown, is clearly very different, although he owned substantial holdings in the borough, where he achieved great celebrity by helping to put down the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. As spigurnel of the Chancery (a post which he occupied for over three decades), Wightman was in many ways an ideal parliamentary candidate, being constantly present at Westminster (and thus, perhaps, prepared to forgo some of his expenses), and also possessed of considerable influence at Court. The election of a royal placeman was invariably a two-way process, from which both parties hoped to benefit; and there is no reason to suppose that the rulers of Huntingdon were other than delighted to boast such a well-connected representative.
Collectively, the burgesses claimed certain rights of self-government and freedom from arrest which had been confirmed, albeit in very general terms, in a royal charter of 1206. There followed at intervals other grants of a temporary nature, but not until 1348 did the townspeople secure a more precise legal definition of their liberties, so vaguely acknowledged by King John. This particular royal charter confirmed existing privileges, while at the same time broadening the area of immunity from the sheriff’s jurisdiction: the burgesses were henceforward to have return of writs, the right to account directly at the Exchequer, and cognizance of all pleas through their bailiffs, as well as being quit for ever of toll, murage, pavage, pontage and certain other dues. These concessions were extended in 1363, and confirmed twice by Richard II, significantly enough for a second time in 1381 as a reward for ‘the good and laudable conduct’ displayed by the burgesses during the Peasants’ Revolt. Such encouraging marks of royal favour clearly owed a great deal to the good offices of William Wightman, who not only led the suppression of the local rising, but was also a parliamentary burgess in the years of both confirmations. (This chapter of Huntingdon’s history contrasts sharply with that of neighbouring Cambridge, where the town’s liberties were actually suspended as a punishment for the support given locally to the insurgents.)5
Any analysis of the government of Huntingdon in the Middle Ages is hampered by the absence of local records, but what little evidence survives suggests that the control of borough affairs was not the preserve of an exclusive group or oligarchical body but, in theory at least, open to all residents with property there. Natives of the town had the automatic right of enrolment as freemen on taking an oath of fealty, while strangers who bought property there could be elected as burgesses in the borough court and then purchase their freedom for 20s. Until the 13th century, the town was governed in the name of the burgesses alone, but from then onwards communications from Chancery were directed to the bailiffs as well as burgesses; and apparently it was these two officers who, with two coroners, administered the affairs of the community, acting in its name at law and carrying out executive functions which would otherwise have been in the competence of the sheriff.6
Huntingdon began sending representatives to Parliament as early as Edward I’s reign. The franchise was wide, consisting of all property owning freemen resident in the borough and paying scot and lot. The choice of parliamentary burgesses ostensively took place in the full county court at Huntingdon along with that of the knights of the shire. However, though there is no direct evidence of such a procedure, it is quite possible that, in the early 15th century at least, the elections in the county court were seen as no more than a formal meeting where the dozen or so burgesses named on the indentures could announce a choice of representatives previously made by most of the freemen in the borough court. Usually, the indentures simply state that the election was carried out by a few individual burgesses, but in some instances, as in 1413 (May) and 1414 (Nov.), it is said explicitly that the Members were chosen ‘with the assent of the whole commonalty of the borough’.7
Returns for Huntingdon to eight of the Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421 have been lost, although other evidence provides the names of the burgesses who sat in 1401 and 1416 (Mar.). It thus appears that at least 30 men represented the borough during our period, of whom over half (17) appear to have served only once. This evident lack of experience is most marked from 1393 onwards: allowing, of course, for the gaps in our information, it looks as if the borough returned two complete newcomers to a total of nine Parliaments, while on a further two occasions a novice served with a colleague whose knowledge of Commons’ procedure was confined to just one previous Parliament. There were of course exceptions, such as Robert Peck II, who probably sat 12 times in all, being accompanied on three occasions by John Denton. John Hawkin, too, was re-elected in 1397 (Sept.) and 1399. But apart from these few individuals, there was little continuity of representation in Huntingdon for the best part of three decades. However, at the very beginning of the period under review we encounter three men who achieved longer and more regular records, namely Thomas Daniel (with four returns to his credit), William Luton (with ten) and William Wightman, the Chancery official mentioned above.
In few cases did the Huntingdon Members inherit any real tradition of parliamentary service. One possible exception was George Gidding; and it looks as if the two John Dunheads as well as Thomas and Richard Freeman were closely related. But otherwise there was an apparent lack of interest of the part of most burgesses in establishing what might, in general terms, be described as a career in the House of Commons. Scarcity of sources may, in part at least, account for such a negative view, but the fact remains that the great majority of our men lacked any real experience of either Parliament or local administration. Indeed, over a third (12) never held any kind of office at all: and of these an unusually large proportion of eight are nowhere described as resident in Huntingdon. Another, Roger Chamberlain, had interests in London as well as in the borough, having for some years traded as a grocer in the City, where his wife owned property. In so far as is known, seven of the burgesses who did serve as coroners or bailiffs were returned to Parliament well before the date of their first appointment. John Abbotsley, for example, who sat in 1420, did not become coroner of Huntingdon for another 17 years; and both John Foxton and John Bickley were made bailiffs long after they decided to stand for the House of Commons. Not surprisingly, then, the electors of Huntingdon quite often returned two novices without any previous parliamentary or administrative background whatsoever, possibly because it was sometimes hard to find more impressive candidates. Nevertheless, such men did exist, and a few had become very well versed in the affairs of the borough before they offered themselves for election. George Gidding brought to his parliamentary service, in 1421, an understanding of wider issues gained through two years as bailiff and more than ten as coroner. William Luton and Thomas Daniel had also both been coroners for some time before attending Parliament together in 1386. Even so, this kind of attribute was not the established norm; and even Robert Peck II, who sat in 12 Parliaments and was eight times bailiff, began life at Westminster as a complete novice. He was, however, later to sit on seven occasions while in office as bailiff, and his colleagues, Thomas Daniel, John Hawkin, William Luton and John Rous I, were also returned when occupying this post. Only very rarely did the parliamentary burgesses of Huntingdon hold appointments outside the town, few being men of any great standing even in the locality. Henry Proude and John Sabrisforth occasionally acted as royal tax collectors, but in this they were quite exceptional.
The comparatively humble status of some of our men goes a long way towards explaining this apparent lack of involvement in the wider county community of Huntingdonshire, for among them we find a husbandman, a chandler, a glover and a butcher. But others, such as the London grocer, Roger Chamberlain, and the wool merchant, John Colles, were far more affluent; and it appears that one or two owned property in the surrounding countryside. John Hawkin, for instance, is known to have been a resident of Great Gitting and to have had quite impressive financial dealings. He was one of the small group of burgesses who established significant connexions with the local gentry; but on the whole the factors of falling population and steady economic decline militated against such relationships on the part of the men of Huntingdon.