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|1388 (Feb.)||Geoffrey Clerk|
|1388 (Sept.)||Geoffrey Clerk|
|John Cook I|
|1390 (Jan.)||Geoffrey Clerk (?)|
|1394||Geoffrey Clerk (?)|
|1397 (Jan.)||Thomas Wakefield|
|1397 (Sept.)||Thomas Bailly|
|1413 (May)||John Hewet|
|1414 (Apr.)||Ralph Brasier|
|1414 (Nov.)||Henry Forster|
|1421 (May)||Ralph Brasier|
|1421 (Dec.)||Henry Forster|
Leicester, positioned near the centre of the kingdom, and on a number of good trade routes both by water and by road, had reached a peak of prosperity in the 13th century: in the tax assessment of 1269 it was rated the eighth richest borough in England. By the end of Edward III’s reign, however, a decline had set in, no doubt partially due to the deaths of a large number of townspeople in the great pestilences of 1349 and 1361, but also attributable to a diminution in trade. In the poll tax computation of 1377 Leicester had fallen to 17th position in the list of the most prosperous boroughs. Nevertheless, the town was still of considerable importance, its population of over 3,000 making it larger than Northampton, Nottingham and Derby, and only slightly smaller than Oxford. The volume of its trade in such commodities as hides, woolfells, cloth and foodstuffs is difficult to estimate in our period, since neither guild merchant rolls nor borough accounts exist, beyond the occasional chance survival, between 1380 and 1465.1
Originally one of the five ‘burghs’ of the old Danelaw, Leicester later became the caput of the honour of the same name, which from the mid 13th century formed a part of the inheritance of the earls (later dukes) of Lancaster. Thus, at the beginning of our period it pertained to John of Gaunt, from whom it passed to Henry IV and Henry V. These monarchs maintained the duchy of Lancaster as an entity separate from other royal lands, dealing with the honour as dukes rather than as kings. Duchy control of the borough itself had for a long time been almost complete: it was exercised by the steward and receiver of the honour, and, more directly, by a bailiff. But two internal administrative bodies had existed since the 13th century. The first of these was the court of ‘portmanmoot’ which, consisting of burgesses and presided over by the mayor, tried minor cases arising within the town. Though nominally independent, the ‘portmanmoot’ was nevertheless subject to the influence of the duchy, which was entitled to take all its issues. The other, the guild merchant, enjoyed more freedom: it not only elected its own officers, but also retained judicial profits. By the end of the 14th century, these two bodies had virtually coalesced under the leadership of the mayor and 24 jurats, whose vehicle of government was the ‘morningspeech’ or meeting of the guild merchant. There, ordinances were promulgated, pleas heard, and new burgesses admitted: sons of burgesses gained entry to the freedom without payment; otherwise, natives of Leicester paid a fine of 3s. and outsiders one of 6s.8d.2
From the middle of the 14th century onwards various attempts were made by the townspeople to evade duchy control. In 1360, for example, the then duke of Lancaster was induced to give up his right to certain tolls from the fair held in Leicester, though an attempt in 1382 to remove the fair from duchy jurisdiction altogether met with vigorous opposition from John of Gaunt. The latter had, nevertheless, granted the burgesses a lease of the borough, which entitled them, upon payment of £80 p.a., to receive the perquisites of all the local courts for ten years, starting in 1375. They were also permitted to elect their own two bailiffs, although these were required to wear duchy livery.3 Important though this lease undoubtedly was, it was a purely temporary measure, and after it had run its term in 1385 a similar concession was not made until 1404, when the burgesses were allowed to farm the borough for 20 years at an increased annual payment of £90. However, it seems likely that this new arrangement soon foundered, perhaps as a consequence of inability on the part of the townspeople to meet demand. In October 1408 the mayor and bailiffs were ordered in the strongest terms to appear before the duchy council in London to answer certain unspecified charges, bringing with them all their charters for examination. In July of the following year the steward of the honour was ordered to appoint a bailiff in the town, which would seem to indicate that the burgesses had in some way forgone their right of appointment, which, as we have seen, was an important provision of the lease. Certainly, Henry Forster, bailiff for ten years from 1413, was a duchy and not a local nominee; he was to resign in November 1423, when the borough was once again let out at farm.4
Despite circumstances making for conflict, relations between duchy and borough were, in fact, nearly always cordial. John of Gaunt was a frequent visitor to Leicester, where he made donations to charities and held sumptuous entertainments: he seems to have been popular with the townsmen, who turned out in force to protect his property in case of attack by the rebels of 1381. Relations with Henry IV were equally good, if usually more distant: in a petition of 1402 the burgesses asked the King to take into account the support they had given ‘pur la salvacion de vostre inheritance de vostre droit de vostre duche, pur lour droit recovrer’, no doubt referring to help given by the borough at the time of Henry’s return from exile in 1399, when William Bispham, the bailiff, had ridden out to join the Lancastrian army with a body of local supporters. Henry V showed favour to the town by granting it in 1415, shortly after Parliament had been held there, a royal pardon of all fines and debts owed to the Crown, and by confirming in the following year the ancient right of the merchants of Leicester to be free of tolls throughout the land.5
These amicable relations were reflected in local duchy and borough appointments: cases are known, indeed, where men served both parties consecutively, and even sometimes simultaneously. Geoffrey Clerk, for instance, sometime receiver and bailiff of the honour, later served as mayor of the borough, as also did Peter Clerk and Henry Forster, who had held similar offices. Not long before our period, John Cook† (the father of John Cook I), had discharged the duties of mayor and duchy bailiff in the same year (1369-70).6 The fact that Geoffrey and Peter Clerk, Henry Forster, William Bispham and Robert Skillington, each one of them employed by the duchy of Lancaster, were returned to Parliament for the borough on 11 occasions in all, suggests that at least some duchy influence was exercised over elections. Given the absence of local records and the paucity of electoral indentures for Leicester during this period, however, it is difficult to discover either the extent of this influence, or the manner of its operation. There is, for instance, no evidence that duchy officials presided over the hustings, or even regularly put in an appearance there.
Leicester had sent burgesses to Parliament for the first time in 1295, and had continued to do so ever since without intermission. Little is known for certain about either the electorate or the method of election in this period: earlier, both Members had been chosen by the whole ‘commons’ of the borough rather than by any more exclusive body, and this practice appears to have persisted until at least 1407, when Thomas Denton and John Tonge were stated to have been chosen ‘per totam communitatem tocius burgi’. At some unknown date before the middle of the 15th century, however, the ‘commons’, as part of their gradual loss of power within the borough, were confined to the election of just one of the MPs, the other being chosen by the mayor and 24 jurats. Leicester being a county town, the borough election was in some way associated with that of the knights of the shire, which was also held there. But practice appears to have varied: in 1407, for example, the two elections took place on the same day, though separately; in 1411 that for the shire preceded the borough hustings by 15 days. So far as the electoral return went, it was quite common practice for the names of the elected burgesses to be inserted in the indenture for the shire, together with the names of between four and 12 witnesses, which were listed separately from those attesting the choice of shire knights. In a few cases the borough witnesses were intermingled with those for the county, in others they were omitted altogether. It is thus not impossible that county and borough Members should on occasion all have been elected in the shire court, whether or not with the assistance of a number of burgesses, although it is more likely that these composite indentures represented merely a formal presentation to the court of the outcome of a separate election on the part of the borough. This was certainly the case in later years.7
No more than 22 returns have survived for Leicester for the 32 Parliaments under consideration, and that for January 1390 is so badly mutilated as to reveal the name of only one MP. Twenty-four burgesses are recorded sitting during the period, of whom 15 are only known to have been returned once, four twice, and another four not more than three times. The most experienced seem to have been John Church, with no fewer than eight Parliaments to his credit, Ralph Brasier alias Humberston with seven, and Geoffrey Clerk with six. Thus, on 17 occasions at least one of the Members-elect had some knowledge of the workings of the Commons, and in 1394, April 1414, 1419 and May 1421 both were qualified in this way. Conversely, in five other Parliaments, those of 1397 (Sept.), 1399, 1401, 1406 and 1407, neither burgess is known to have served previously. There did occur some instances of re-election to successive Parliaments: Geoffrey Clerk sat three times in a row from February 1388 to January 1390; while Henry Beeby was returned in 1394 and 1395, Robert Evington in 1410 and 1411, and John Church in 1420 and May 1421.
Only four of the MPs of this period came from families with a tradition of parliamentary service on behalf of the town. Roger Humberston was possibly the brother of William Humberston† (1378), and certainly the uncle of Ralph Brasier alias Humberston, while Henry Beeby was doubtless a kinsman of Richard† and Thomas Beeby†, John Cook I the son of an earlier John (1365), and Thomas Wakefield a relation of William Wakefield†. Eighteen of the 24 parliamentary burgesses are known to have been more or less permanently resident in Leicester, although of these John Church, John Nightingale, William Bispham and Henry Forster probably originated outside the town, and the last two named may only have lived there during their tenures of the duchy bailiwick. Sixteen Members held offices in the borough: 13 were mayors, and of these four were made bailiffs by nomination of the burgesses and one by appointment of the duchy. Two more served only as town bailiffs and another just as duchy bailiff. Brasier occupied the mayoralty for four terms, and Church and Beeby for three each. Five of this group of 16 actually sat in the Commons while currently discharging some such local office, for Leicester returned one of its bailiffs (Wakefield) in April 1384, its mayor in 1391 (Geoffrey Clerk) and 1395 (Beeby), and the duchy bailiff in 1399 (Bispham), November 1414, 1419 and December 1421 (Forster in each instance). In most cases (two-thirds) service in at least one Parliament preceded nomination to office.
It is clear that the Members for Leicester during this period fall roughly into two groups: the burgesses proper and the duchy servants. Many of the former were fairly obscure individuals, and little is known about the trades they followed, although they included a wool merchant and a brazier. But the Humberstons (including Brasier), Beebys and Cooks all came from well-established Leicester families, and were prominent members of the guild of Corpus Christi, the richest fraternity in the town. With the exception of Ralph Brasier, who was linked with Roger Flore* of Oakham, and Robert Evington, who was connected with John Wilcotes*, none of the burgesses proper can be shown to have had links with the gentry either of or from outside the county. Roger Humberston, however, was married to Margaret Tansley, daughter of one important Nottingham merchant and widow of another. Five members of this group—Brasier, Church, Donyngton, Evington and Nightingale—owned land outside the town, but except in the case of Nightingale this consisted of only small properties, none far away. Only a few of the burgesses proper were ever appointed to offices in the Crown’s gift, the most important being John Cook I, who was made alnager, and Thomas Wakefield who was made coroner, both of them in Leicestershire at large, although this did not occur until after their first appearances in the Commons.
The duchy men, a group of six (if we include Robert Skillington, the master mason who spent much of his professional life engaged on building works for John of Gaunt, and John Tonge, assuming he was the man employed at Castle Donington) were of a different sort altogether. Peter and Geoffrey Clerk, William Bispham and Henry Forster, besides occupying an impressive number of posts within the administration of the duchy, all went on to fill offices in the Crown’s appointment. Bispham and Geoffrey Clerk both served a term as escheator of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, Clerk also carrying out the duties of an alnager, while Forster, before he took up office as duchy bailiff in Leicester and represented the borough in the Commons, had spent several years attached to Henry IV’s household. These four all extended their interests beyond the confines of Leicester, by acquiring land elsewhere in the shire, or even at some distance, in the case of Geoffrey Clerk in London and Northamptonshire, and in that of Forster in Yorkshire. Bispham married into the Leicestershire county gentry.
During the period under consideration, Leicester was the most important centre of the lollard heresy. The heretics John Aston and Philip Repingdon preached there, and William Swynderby made the town his headquarters. The last seems to have inspired considerable support among the townspeople, for during his trial before the bishop of Lincoln in 1382 the mayor and 30 burgesses of Leicester testified to his orthodoxy. A number of local men were tried for heresy in 1389, and more were involved in Sir John Oldcastle’s* revolt in 1414; but only one parliamentary burgess, Roger Goldsmith, can be shown to have had lollard sympathies.8
Author: Charles Kightly
- 1. Leicester Bor. Recs. ed. Bateson, i. p. lvi; H. Knighton, Chron. ed. Lumby, i. 61, 116; VCH Leics. iv. 37, 40, 48, 49; J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 142, 229.
- 2. VCH Leics. iv. 1, 4, 12-14, 24-25, 33-37.
- 3. Ibid. 10; Knighton, ii. 112; Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, no. 729; Leicester Bor. Recs. ii. 149-52.
- 4. Leicester Bor. Recs. 219-22, 232-3; DL42/16, ff. 252, 254.
- 5. R. Higden, Polychronicon ed. Lumby, ix. 238; Knighton, ii. 142-3, 313; Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, no. 161; Leicester Bor. Recs. ii. 170, 225-8, 229-31; C81/615/3247.
- 6. Wygg