Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||Stephen Holt|
|Thomas Norris I|
|1388 (Sept.)||Richard atte Gate|
|1391||John Bedford I|
|Thomas Norris I|
|1397 (Jan.)||John Godeman|
|John Plomer I|
|1397 (Sept.)||John Godeman|
|William Hyde II|
|1413 (May)||Andrew Blake|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Hert|
|1416 (Mar.)||William Chepelond|
|1417||John Gosselyn II|
|John Parker III|
|1420||John Gosselyn II|
|Thomas White III|
|1421 (May)||William Fagger|
|1421 (Dec.)||Thomas White III|
Build on a spur of the South Downs descending to the banks of the river Ouse, Lewes had emerged in the tenth century as the virtual capital of east Sussex, and in the later Middle Ages it sometimes challenged Chichester’s supremacy in the county as a whole. Despite a royal order of 1254 and its reiteration in 1336 that the shire court was always to be held at Chichester, it continued to be occasionally convened at Lewes until 1378 (this last time following a violent altercation between the sheriff, Sir William Percy*, and the civic authorities). In the late 14th and early 15th centuries the Sussex assizes were generally held at Lewes or East Grinstead, rather than in the county town. Yet for the most part Lewes failed in its attempt to become the administrative centre of the shire.1
Nor, as the assessments for taxation made in the 1330s clearly show, could Lewes rival Chichester in terms of wealth, even though the great Cluniac priory founded there brought visitors and encouraged trade. The men of Lewes sought to establish their town as the focus of the local wool trade, from whence fleeces could be shipped to Calais (via New Shoreham or Seaford) independently of the Staple at Chichester. They argued that Lewes, situated in close proximity to the principal Sussex sheep farms, would make a much more convenient depot. At first they met with some success. In 1365 it was ordered that the collectors of customs based at Chichester should visit Lewes from time to time to supervise the weighing of wool stored there and receive the subsidies due, this being for the ‘ese et quiete de pluseurs gentz’ and to relieve costs and labour expended on carriage to the city; and in the period 1382 to 1397 customers and pesagers appointed for the area were jointly responsible for Chichester and Lewes. The inconvenience of carrying wool to Chichester, given the poor state of the roads of west Sussex, led to a grant of royal permission for it to be weighed and shipped at Lewes from March to December 1397. However, there is no evidence that similar leave was granted following a petition on the same issue addressed to the Parliament of 1402; and it would seem that thereafter the merchants of Lewes had no option but to take their wool to Chichester as before, although on occasion special licence might be granted to influential individuals to ship their produce direct from the town.2
The lordship of Lewes had descended with the barony of the same name from the earls de Warenne to the Fitzalan earls of Arundel. Although Lewes castle was the administrative centre of the Fitzalan estates in east Sussex, Richard, earl of Arundel, was quite prepared to leave it undefended when, in 1377, the French sailed up the estuary of the Ouse and anchored within sight of the town; allegedly, he even refused to send forces to help the burgesses unless they paid the cost. During the Peasants’ Revolt the earl was required to retain prisoners in his castles of Lewes and Arundel, since Guildford gaol was full, and for two years from May 1382 a felons’ gaol was again put in operation at the former place. But the castle was subject to attack by townsmen and other insurgents who early in 1383 broke down the gates, smashed doors and windows, burned account rolls, rentals and other muniments, and consumed and destroyed ten casks of wine. In later years Earl Richard used the castle not only as an armoury but also as a storehouse for wool awaiting export. The inquiries held in 1397 to establish the value of his possessions, declared forfeit following his condemnation for treason, found that he received about £27 15s. a year from the borough of Lewes, this sum being made up of such items as £8 1s.6d. rents of assize, £5 6s.8d. from various farms, £2 from the view of frankpledge, 30s. from the ‘portemote’, and £2 from the Whit Monday fair and weekly market. There is no evidence that his successor, Earl Thomas (d.1415), ever used the castle as a residence, although the latter’s widow, Countess Beatrice, may have done so on occasion.
It is unclear to what extent the earls and their stewards controlled the government of the borough. From at least the mid 13th century it had been ruled by bailiffs, but whether these were appointed by the lord or freely elected by the townsmen themselves does not appear from the few surviving local records. In the later 15th century a single official was appointed bailiff of the castle and town, but it does not follow that this had ever happened earlier. Certainly, the two constables were chosen in the borough court, probably at the annual law day held on the first Monday after Michaelmas; and the seeds of self-government had been planted long before in the 12th-century formation of a guild merchant, although nothing is known about the membership or activities of this body in our period.3
Lewes had only sent Members to Parliament sporadically in the period 1295 to 1334, and not at all from then until 1348. Thereafter, however, it was represented quite regularly. That the names of the parliamentary burgesses are recorded for no more than 20 of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421, is mainly due to the subsequent loss of, or damage to, electoral returns. However, the gap for the Parliament of January 1390, when returns for some of the other Sussex boroughs do survive, may have occurred because of a failure on the part of the burgesses of Lewes to respond to the sheriff’s precept. The limitations of the evidence necessarily make an attempt to analyse the representation of Lewes in terms of parliamentary experience somewhat tentative. It would appear that 16 of the 24 men named sat in only one or two Parliaments each, but a certain continuity of representation was provided by the election of Thomas Norris I to at least seven Parliaments between 1363 and 1391, John Maryot to six between 1395 and 1413 and Thomas White III to five between 1420 and 1435. Given the gaps in the returns, and in particular those for five of the ten Parliaments of Henry IV’s reign, it is impossible to say with certainty whether preference was given at the hustings to those with experience of the workings of the Commons, although to no less than four Parliaments Lewes returned two such qualified Members, and to at least 11 more it sent an experienced man in the company of an apparent newcomer. Furthermore, re-election is known to have taken place five times: John Maryot was returned to four Parliaments in a row from September 1397 to 1402, and John Godeman and Roger Forster were re-elected in September 1397 and 1407, respectively. Although it might seem that the borough was represented entirely by novices in the Parliaments of September 1388, 1406, November 1414 and 1417, all these assemblies followed immediately or shortly after gaps in the returns, so there is always the possibility that these individuals had in reality sat on earlier occasions.
Save that Walter Gosselyn was related to John Gosselyn II, and John Parker III was the father of John the MP of 1453, there is no sign of an emerging tradition of parliamentary service in particular local families. However, 20 of the 21 Members who have been positively identified certainly lived in Lewes; and even the exception (William Green, a dealer in wool who held land worth £5 a year on the coast at Goring) is recorded on occasion serving as a juror in the town. As might be expected, a substantial proportion of the parliamentary burgesses (at least half) were engaged in the wool trade, as exporters (for example Andrew Blake—who was also a shipowner—Stephen Holt and John Maryot), clothiers (such as Robert Bynt and Richard atte Gate) or even smugglers (William Green). Two men with such concerns—Maryot and Bynt—were elected to the Parliament of 1402, doubtless in the expectation that they would promote the burgesses’ petition for a relaxation of the laws regarding the Staple at Chichester, and on other occasions the representation was dominated by wool merchants, too. None of Lewes’s representatives have been convincingly identified as members of the legal profession, although Thomas White III’s many years’ service as a coroner suggest that he was well versed in matters of the law.
While there is no direct evidence that the lords of the borough ever actively interfered in parliamentary elections to promote the return of those of their affinity, it is worthy of remark that at least two of Lewes’s Members in Richard II’s reign had connexions with Earl Richard far closer than those to be expected of mere tenants on his demesnes. Ten years before Stephen Holt was elected to the Merciless Parliament of 1388 (at a time when the earl and his fellow Lords Appellant were in control of the government), Arundel had granted him for life land worth £5 a year; and John Maryot, returned in 1395 and September 1397, had actually risen in insurrection with those magnates in November 1387. Following Earl Richard’s execution by judgement of the Lords assembled in Maryot’s second Parliament, the latter saw fit to purchase a royal pardon granting indemnity for his own treasons and felonies. The fact that William Chepelond, who had represented Lewes in 1393, did likewise, may suggest that he, too, was suspected of actively supporting their treasonous lord. Andrew Blake, who had bought substantial quantities of wool from the earl shortly before the latter’s arrest in 1397, also took out a royal pardon at this time, although he differs from the others in so much that he was not, apparently, elected to Parliament until after Arundel’s death. No such close links between the parliamentary burgesses of Lewes and Earl Thomas have been discovered. However, William Northampton may have owed his bailiffship of the town—which all but coincided with his election to Parliament in March 1416—to the earl’s widow, Countess Beatrice, and Thomas White III was employed as one of the same lady’s ministers at the time of his initial appearance in the Commons in 1420.
Previous to that first election, White had served as a coroner in Sussex for at least 16 years, but by 1420 he was probably no longer holding office. Three others also received appointments in the Crown’s grant: Walter Gosselyn and John Maryot as pesagers of wool, and Stephen Holt as collector of customs and subsidies in Chichester and Lewes. Indeed, Gosselyn was returned to Parliament for the only recorded time, in September 1388, while so employed, and Holt was elected to those of February 1383 and February 1388 during his term as customer. Holt, John Gosselyn II and William Wodefold were all at some time appointed as collectors of parliamentary subsidies in the shire at large, Wodefold being so named even before his earliest known election to the Lower House.
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. VCH Suss. vii. 7, 14-15; CCR, 1377-81, pp. 67, 72.