Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1386||John Howell 1|
|1388 (Feb.)||William Bishopdale|
|1388 (Sept.)||Henry Carlisle|
|Stephen Whitgray 2|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Bishopdale|
|1393||John Morton I|
|Richard/William Langton 3|
|Thomas Dirindon 4|
|1395||John Morton I|
|1397 (Jan.)||William Redmarshall|
|1397 (Sept.)||William Redmarshall|
|1413 (May)||Richard Dalton|
|1414 (Apr.)||William Middleton|
|1414 (Nov.)||William Johnson|
|Robert Whelpington 5|
|1416 (Mar.)||Roger Booth|
|Thomas Hebburn 6|
|1421 (May)||Emericus Hering|
|1421 (Dec.)||Roger Booth|
Recognizing the importance of Newcastle-upon-Tyne as both a port and a defensive site, the Normans lost no time in fortifying the township, just as the Romans had done before them. A flourishing community grew up around the castle, and shortly before 1135 the first of many royal charters was awarded to the residents. King John later permitted them to occupy the borough at a fee farm of £100 a year, payable at the Exchequer, while at the same time improving the fortifications. The population evidently expanded during the 13th century, for in 1299 the boundaries were enlarged to include land in Byker. Further evidence of growing prosperity is to be found in a royal charter of 1318, which extended the annual fair from two to 26 days in August. By then Newcastle was governed by a guild merchant and a group of officials headed by a mayor and two bailiffs, chosen annually on the Monday after Michaelmas Day (29 Sept.). In 1333 the mayor was accorded the rank of royal escheator in the town, although this increase in his powers tended to exacerbate existing social divisions within the community.7 By 1342 the resentment felt by the rank and file of the townspeople towards the authorities erupted into violence, and the Crown was obliged to intervene to restore order. The situation was made all the worse by the threat of a Scottish invasion (which was repulsed), so Edward III took a strong line with the ruling hierarchy, not only fining them a total of £2,042 for their ‘excesses and transgressions’ and temporarily suspending the town’s liberties, but also insisting upon a number of sweeping changes in local government. The nature of these reforms, which obtained the royal sanction in October 1342, suggests that most of the trouble had arisen over the election of officials ‘by confederations and procurations’; and henceforth a complicated system of voting was employed so that representatives of ‘the most honorable, decent and honest brethren of the twelve mysteries’ could have a say in the choice of mayor and bailiffs. Financial and legal abuses, too, had caused a great deal of ill-feeling, and measures were introduced to ensure the public accountability of those responsible for the receipt of revenues. An unacceptable level of corruption in the local courts may certainly be inferred from the further provision that ‘there shall not be one law for the rich and another for the poor’, and from a specific prohibition upon the taking of bribes or gifts by officials. Some of these ordinances formed the basis of a new charter, issued to the town in 1345, by which time order had been properly restored after another outbreak of rioting.8 Relations between the borough authorities and the Crown improved somewhat during the latter part of the 14th century, and in 1391 Richard II gave William Bishopdale, the mayor, a ceremonial sword which was to be carried before him and his successors whenever they processed through Newcastle. Of even more importance for the town was the grant of shire status, made by Henry IV in 1400, which meant that henceforth 24 of ‘the fitter, discreeter, better and more honourable burgesses’ could choose their own sheriff every year and also select six aldermen to act as j.p.s.9
Newcastle owed its prosperity to trade, not only in the domestic market, but with countries as far afield as Iceland and Spain. Its leading merchants, several of whom sat in Parliament, engaged in commercial ventures with France, Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, and the Hanseatic ports, as well as providing southern England with coal, which was, along with wool and fish, one of the borough’s major exports. The history of Newcastle during the later Middle Ages is one of a continuous struggle by the burgesses to win and maintain control of shipping along the river Tyne. From the mid 12th century onwards, all vessels sailing up the river were supposed to unload their cargoes in the port of Newcastle, where members of the guild merchant alone were permitted to do business. In practice, however, it was difficult for them to enforce their monopoly, especially in the face of competition from three great ecclesiastical landowners, the bishop of Durham (at Gateshead), the prior of Tynemouth (at North Shields) and the prior of Durham (at South Shields). This intense rivalry had particularly harmful effects with regard to the development of the Newcastle coal trade, since both the prior of Tynemouth and the bishop of Durham were important mine owners, and insisted upon their right to handle their own shipping. The burgesses managed to restrict the prior’s activities, but Bishop Fordham of Durham proved a far more formidable opponent, and in 1383 he secured a royal charter permitting him to sell and ship coal from the south bank of the Tyne without further hindrance. Conflict between the townspeople and successive bishops of Durham continued throughout our period, culminating, in 1410, in a protracted lawsuit over the building of a tower on the Gateshead side of the Tyne bridge, which Bishop Langley regarded as an infringement of his episcopal rights. He, too, won his case, but only after a hard struggle in which at least ten of the parliamentary burgesses of Newcastle were personally involved as delegates on behalf of their fellow townsmen.10
The woolmen of Newcastle encountered competition further afield from the merchants of Berwick-upon-Tweed (who paid lower customs duties and could thus undercut them on the international market) and the members of the Calais Staple. The latter presented a more serious challenge, jealously guarding their monopoly over English wool exports, and forcing traders from the north to offer merchandise of a coarser, inferior quality in open competition with the superior fleeces produced in the south. During the early years of the 15th century a consortium of Newcastle merchants, including William Johnson, William Middleton, John Morton, Roger Thornton, William Langton and Robert Swinburne, made repeated attempts to break the stranglehold of the Calais Staple by obtaining royal licences for the direct shipment of wool to Flanders. The staplers scored a brief triumph in 1401, when they persuaded Henry IV to revoke one such permit for the export of 2,000 sarplers of wool; but the northerners were not easily discouraged, and by 1408 they had again set up in competition, albeit on a more modest scale.11
These recurrent commercial problems posed less of an immediate threat to the people of Newcastle than the endemic warfare and disease which made life on or near the Scottish border so unsettled and dangerous. During the early years of the 14th century the burgesses sometimes failed to send representatives to Parliament either because no able-bodied men could be spared from defending the town against the enemy, or because an invasion was expected at any time. The comparative wealth of Newcastle, the major commercial centre of the north-east, attracted marauding Scots, who engaged in piracy against merchant shipping by sea and mounted raiding parties by land, even during periods of truce. The state of the town’s defences was thus a constant cause of concern, and royal commissions were frequently set up in response to complaints of penury and neglect from the inhabitants. As early as 1357 they asserted that the combined effects of enemy action and the Black Death had resulted in such wholesale depopulation and impoverishment that henceforward it would be impossible to hold out unaided against attack. An allegation made in 1380 that 6,054 people had died during a recent outbreak of plague can safely be dismissed as wild exaggeration, although claims that ‘le tierce partie de dite ville est degaste et deshabite par pestilentez’ are not without substance. The entire population of the town stood at about 4,000 in 1377, and may have fallen by as much as one half over the next four years. Not surprisingly, the parliamentary burgesses returned during this period were chiefly concerned with obtaining help for the borough, either through a reduction of the fee farm or a grant of aid.12 The wealthier among them, despairing of financial assistance from the government, actually took matters into their own hands. In 1387, for example, William Bishopdale and two associates received permission from Richard II to fit out ‘a large ship, a barge, and a balinger of war, arrayed and equipped for the safe passage and return of fishmongers, merchants, and other the King’s lieges at war ... and for destroying the King’s enemies of France and Scotland’. Several years later, in 1415, John Strother followed suit by putting two balingers to sea at his own cost, and actually capturing some booty seized by Scottish pirates.
Returns survive for Newcastle for 25 of the 32 Parliaments which met during our period, the rest having been lost. The names of 26 of the parliamentary burgesses are known for certain: there, is, however, some element of doubt as to whether William Langton or an otherwise unidentified Member called Richard Langton sat for the town in 1393. The electors of Newcastle showed a clear preference for candidates with previous knowledge of the House of Commons, and returned two such men together to at least nine Parliaments, most of which met before 1399. A newcomer served along with a colleague who had sat before on a further ten occasions, if not more, although the gaps in the evidence make it impossible to tell just how experienced the burgesses returned after 1391 actually were. Two apparent novices represented the borough in 1393, 1402, 1406, 1413 (May) and 1414 (Apr.), but there is, of course, a strong possibility that some of them had, indeed, served already. The return of individual Members to consecutive Parliaments was not uncommon, occurring in 1390 (Jan.), 1397 (Sept.), 1399, 1415 and 1416 (Mar.); but it was only in 1419 that complete representative continuity was achieved with the reelection of both Roger Thornton and John Strother. The level of experience of the Newcastle burgesses was thus comparatively high, for although ten of their number appear to have taken part in only one Parliament, four sat twice, five three times and two (Laurence Acton and Roger Thornton) four times. William Bishopdale, John Howell, and Robert Whelpington each had five Parliaments to their credit, while Sampson Hardyng and Roger Booth were both returned to six. Hardyng’s record of parliamentary service was particularly impressive because he also sat five times as a shire knight for Northumberland. The only other Newcastle burgess to be returned elsewhere was Robert Darcy, a lawyer with particular interests in Essex, which he represented in no less than nine Parliaments between 1416 and 1445. The borough of Maldon also selected him once, in 1422, but in common with all the other men here under review, he had strong local connexions with Newcastle, and was actually living there when the electors sent him to Westminster in 1402. All in all, the 26 borough representatives attended an average of between two and three Parliaments; but if the experience of Darcy and Hardyng as shire knights is taken into account this average rises to just over three.
With the exception of Thomas Dirindon (whose name is provided by Prynne, and who cannot otherwise be identified), all the burgesses returned to Parliament during our period held property in or near Newcastle; and many come from families which had lived in the town for generations. Even so, a surprisingly small number of Members were closely related, Robert and Thomas Hebburn being the only father and son to represent the borough between 1386 and 1422. Richard Dalton married Robert’s daughter, Agnes, who took John Strother as her second husband, while Roger Booth and Sampson Hardyng arranged a marriage between two of their children. On the whole, however, commercial connexions and shared administrative experience seem to have counted for more than blood ties. At least two-thirds of our men (17) were heavily involved in trade and derived most, if not all, of their incomes as merchants. It is, however, worth noting that a significant proportion of the others—including Laurence Acton, Roger Booth, Emericus Hering and William Redmarshall—were primarily landowners whose interest in commerce was almost exclusively official rather than personal. Social distinctions between the two classes were fluid, and in certain cases barely existed at all. Perhaps because of the economic problems which they faced as a result of the endemic violence along the border and the generally low levels of agricultural productivity on their estates, members of the Northumbrian gentry turned readily to trade in the hope of making quicker and easier profits, while Newcastle merchants moved easily into the ranks of the local squirearchy.
Rather more than half of the parliamentary burgesses (14) owned quite extensive estates in Northumberland and Durham, as well as shops, tenements and rents in Newcastle itself. Some, like Robert and Thomas Hebburn and John Strother, inherited the bulk of their possessions, but still elected to devote most of their energy to commerce; others, of whom the wealthy trio of William Bishopdale, Sampson Hardyng and William Johnson are by far the most notable, married into the ranks of the landed gentry; and a third group invested heavily in the property market. Over the years, Roger Thornton bought up an impressive number of holdings in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire, besides acquiring a base in London for his flourishing coal and lead business. Such as his standing in the northeast that he was able to marry his son to Elizabeth, the daughter of John, Lord Greystoke, and his daughter to Sir John Middleton’s* son and heir, John. Thornton was in many ways exceptional, but several other MPs could boast quite influential connexions. Robert Hebburn was Sir William Carnaby’s* brother-in-law; and his son, Thomas, later consolidated the alliance between the two families by marrying his cousin, Isabel, who was Sir William’s daughter. William Johnson took one of Sir Bertram Monbourcher’s* grand daughters as his wife, while John Strother claimed kinship with Sir Thomas Musgrave*, Sir Thomas Blenkinsop* and Sir William Swinburne*. The latter actually employed him as his agent in Wales while he held office as constable of Beaumaris; and he subsequently had a hand in managing the Swinburne estates. It looks very much as if William Middleton was related to the above-mentioned Sir John Middleton, especially as the two of them were returned together to Parliament (in April 1414) at the time of Sir John’s struggle to retain control of the Skelton estates. At least two lawyers, Robert Whelpington and Robert Darcy, represented Newcastle during our period. Darcy, whose interests lay mainly in London and Essex, moved south permanently soon after he sat for the borough. He then embarked upon a remarkable career during which he acquired several clients among the baronage, including John, duke of Bedford, and the dowager countess of Hereford, Henry V’s grandmother. By 1436 he could rely upon an income of at least £366 p.a., derived partly from estates in Essex and partly from fees paid by his wealthy patrons.
Landowners and merchants alike were closely involved in the business of local government, which, at various times, commanded the attention of all but three of our men (Roger Booth, Thomas Dirindon and Thomas Hebburn, who died young). No less than 13 (exactly half) served as mayor of Newcastle, usually for one or two terms only, although Laurence Acton, Henry Carlisle and William Langton were elected on three occasions, and Roger Thornton achieved the remarkable record of nine years in office. With few exceptions, the choice of mayor fell upon an experienced parliamentarian who occupied a position of some consequence in the community. Such stringent requirements did not, however, prevail when it came to choosing the town bailiffs, for five of the ten MPs who were selected had yet to sit in the Lower House and were still evidently at the start of their careers. During the reign of Richard II, the mayors and bailiffs of Newcastle quite often took advantage of their position to return themselves to the Commons; and a serving official represented the borough in at least seven Parliaments between 1378 and 1399. Indeed, on a further two occasions, in 1391 and 1397 (Jan.), both Members were currently in office, although there is no reason to suppose that they were chosen without the full approval of the leading burgesses who took part in the parliamentary elections. By the terms of the royal charter of 1400, which elevated Newcastle to the status of a shire-incorporate, the post of bailiff was abolished and replaced by that of sheriff. No less than 11 MPs held this post, often, again, while they were still quite young and inexperienced, six being appointed before they first attended Parliament. William Redmarshall and John Wall both served three times as sheriff, but on the whole the post was rarely monopolized by one particular individual.
Surprisingly, in view of the general interest in trade, only three parliamentary burgesses appear to have been involved in the running of the Newcastle Staple, although the records are incomplete and it is thus impossible to compile a full list of mayors and constables. William Johnson, William Redmarshall and Roger Thornton, who were leading figures in the mercantile community, each served as constables, while Redmarshall also acted once as mayor. Emericus Hering (who, so far as we know, had no commercial dealings of his own) was made keeper of the seal of the local statute merchant, but this office lay in the King’s gift, as too did the appointment of collectors of pavage, pontage, and murage in the borough. Nine men were chosen for this task (which assumed unusual importance because of the need to maintain the town’s defences), and six acted as tax collectors for the Crown, the most frequently employed being Roger Thornton and Robert Hebburn. The charter of 1400 also made provision for the selection of six aldermen who were to act with the mayor as j.p.s. Unfortunately, the surviving evidence yields only a few names,13 but we can, none the less, be reasonably confident that at least a third of our MPs, if not more, sat on the Newcastle bench at some point. The experience of serving on royal commissions of various kinds was shared by at least 18 burgesses, although Robert Darcy was employed exclusively in the south, long after he represented Newcastle. Of the remaining 17, Sampson Hardyng was most often in demand, being named on no less than 36 occasions, although William Bishopdale was appointed to 11 commissions and Roger Thornton to six. Both Hardyng and Robert Whelpington, the lawyer, were called upon by successive bishops of Durham to hold sessions of the peace in the episcopal liberties of Norhamshire and Islandshire, and the two of them also spent time as escheators of Northumberland. Almost half (12) of the Members under review gained a valuable training in finance and administration by working for the Crown in the port of Newcastle, either as collectors or controllers of customs or searchers of ships. Merchants, in particular, sought to take advantage of the opportunities for personal gain which such posts could bestow, but some, most notably William Bishopdale, were caught out by the authorities and heavily fined for embezzlement.
Newcastle sent Members to Parliament from 1283 onwards, although, as noted above, the unsettled state of the border meant that it was not always possible to act upon the writ of summons, which was disregarded on at least four occasions (1315, 1327, 1332 and 1337) because of warfare with the Scots. Until the borough was incorporated as a county, in 1400, the sheriff of Northumberland was responsible for making the return. The choice of representatives was usually noted by him on the back of the writ of summons for Northumberland, but occasionally (as in January and September 1397 and 1399) a separate return was drawn up under his direction by the town bailiffs, who actually held the elections. From 1401 onwards, however, the newly created sheriff of Newcastle acted as returning officer, and the elections took place in his court at the guildhall. It is by no means certain when the practice of appointing 12 probi homines (or leading burgesses) to choose the two parliamentary representatives on behalf of ‘the whole community of the town’ was first adopted, but it may well have dated back to the agitation of 1342, at which time similar procedures were introduced for the election of the mayor and bailiffs. The custom was well established by 1407, when, in accordance with the parliamentary statute of the previous year, the returns began to take the form of indentures bearing the names of the 12, roughly in order of seniority. At first, none of them ever appear to have sat in Parliament themselves; but between 1413 (May) and 1427 at least three and sometimes as many as six or seven of our men were listed as probi homines. After 1435 the number of electors steadily increased, rising to 35 in 1447 and 50 three years later. Only once, in 1413 (May), did one of the 12 (Richard Dalton) actually vote for himself as a parliamentary candidate.14