Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||Thomas Pirie|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Honybourne|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Colingtree|
|1397 (Jan.)||Richard Stormsworth|
|1413 (May)||Roger Maltman|
|1414 (Nov.)||Geoffrey Balde|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Hendley|
|1417||William Clerk IV|
|1421 (May)||John Bernhill|
|1421 (Dec.)||John Spriggy|
During the two centuries which followed the Norman Conquest, Northampton had been a town of national as well as local importance, owing its early development and status largely to its close association with the Crown. The borough was situated at the centre of the kingdom, was easily defensible and provided with roads which facilitated not only trade but also military communication. Having been a village of only 60 houses in the reign of the Confessor, by the time of the Domesday Book, Northampton had grown to 330 houses, of which well over half were in the hands of the royal family, the King alone owning 100. Royal influence remained strong; and the frequent presence of the Court helped turn the town into a thriving provincial centre. Northampton was often the scene of important national events. Great councils and Parliaments were held there in almost every reign from Henry I’s to that of Richard II. So far as its internal economy is concerned, the textile industry long remained predominant, but increased demand for goods and services allowed other artisans and tradesmen, such as smiths, saddlers and victuallers, to share in a more widely based prosperity alongside the weavers, dyers and drapers. According to J.C. Russell, the estimated population of around 1,000 at the time of the Domesday survey had reached 2,200 by 1377, although it must have been considerably higher before the outbreak of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century.1
The early rise in Northampton’s fortunes is also illustrated by the changes in the valuation of its fee farm. By 1130, this rent had more than trebled from the Domesday figure of £30 10s. to £100; and in 1185 it was fixed at £120, remaining so until the 15th century. The rise in wealth and population was reflected, too, in the growth of municipal institutions, and it is likely that Northampton derived some advantage from its relationship with the Court in obtaining the royal charters which secured its rights of self-government. The death of the last of the de Senlis earls of Northampton in 1153 removed from the locality the only potential challenge to the borough’s independence; and in 1189 the burgesses made fine of £100 for the right to account for their own fee farm at the Exchequer in perpetuity.2 By the same royal charter, they were also allowed to choose their own reeve annually, and certain judicial privileges and exemptions from financial dues were among existing customs given official recognition. When this charter was confirmed in 1200, it was with the added provision that the burgesses should choose six of the ‘more lawful and discreet’ of their number, two to act as bailiffs and four as coroners. Royal letters patent of 1257 formally recognized several other franchises which the burgesses had in fact already been exercising, the most important of which was the right to exclude the sheriff of Northamptonshire from the execution of writs and summonses in the town, this duty now falling to the bailiffs. The town courts also widened their criminal jurisdiction, and burgesses were henceforward to be judged only by their fellows.3
By the early 14th century, Northampton’s prosperity was at its peak. Its boundaries were enlarged in 1301, and it began to be chosen as a meeting place for Parliaments, such as those summoned in 1307, 1328, 1331, 1338 and, much later, in November 1380. The borough was, meanwhile, assured of a share in the profits of the wool trade when, in 1311, it was designated one of the 12 towns of the statute merchant. However, despite these encouraging signs, a process of gradual decline had already begun. In 1334, for example, the townspeople complained to Parliament of their inability to raise the fee farm because of chronic, long-term depression in the local cloth industry, as a result of which some 300 clothiers, whose contribution was vital to the borough’s economic survival, had simply moved elsewhere, leaving vacant tenements behind them. Although the farm was not reduced, permission was given for the burgesses to hold another annual fair to supplement their dwindling revenues. It is unlikely that these measures sufficed, for by the end of the century there were so many deserted properties that the mayor and chamberlains assumed powers in the name of the community to lease them out. Clearly, the devastating effects of successive outbreaks of plague had exacerbated an already serious problem. A noticeable fall in population did not, however, preclude all further institutional development. For example, in 1385, Richard II not only confirmed all the earlier borough charters but gave the mayor wider jurisdiction over trade in the town through a grant of the assizes of bread, wine and beer, and weights and measures. In addition, the mayor and bailiffs were granted cognisance of all pleas within the town and suburbs. There were no more important royal charters until 1459, when Northampton was incorporated as a county in its own right.4
The principal borough officers in the period under consideration were the mayor, the two bailiffs and the four coroners, all seven being elected annually in late September at a general assembly, held in St. Giles’s church. The immediate re-election of a mayor was not unusual; nor was it uncommon for a leading townsman to occupy the office two or three times within a fairly short period. The heavy cost involved, as much as fears that a few families might achieve a monopoly of power, led to the introduction of an ordinance, in 1437, prohibiting anyone from serving twice within a period of less than seven years. Interestingly enough, John Spriggy had just discharged his fifth term as mayor, and he may well have been a prime mover in urging such a reform. As early as the 14th century, the assembly consisted of the mayor, 24 senior burgesses (alias the mayor’s council) and the whole commonalty of the town. The latter either took or was obliged to adopt a fairly passive part in the proceedings; and by the 15th century, legislative, administrative and judicial powers were, to all intents and purposes, controlled by the council. Even so, membership of the assembly still remained open to all who enjoyed the freedom of the borough, including such non-residents as had been given the right to trade with exemption from tolls.5
Northampton was among the earliest towns to receive a summons to Parliament. It did so in 1268; and 15 years later was itself the venue of an assembly of knights, merchants and clergy called by Edward I for counties south of the Trent. As recently as November 1380, a Parliament had been summoned there, largely to avoid the hostile reaction of the London mob during the trial of John Kirkby, who had murdered a Genoese merchant, and had thus become a popular hero to his fellow-citizens. The chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, himself no friend to the Court, blamed ‘certain of the King’s Council’ (implicitly Richard II’s uncle, John of Gaunt) for this unpopular move, which led to great shortages of fuel and other supplies in Northampton, and clearly caused great upheavals in the town.6 The local parliamentary elections were held in the general assembly of burgesses, and attracted such a large turnout that from the early 14th century the church of St. Giles, more spacious than the guildhall, was used for this purpose, even though in practice most of those present were spectators rather than participants. In 1382 (perhaps as a reaction against the popular uprisings of the previous year), the assembly ordained that the outgoing mayor should automatically be returned to Parliament. This potentially restrictive ordinance was, however, soon allowed to lapse, with the result that freedom of selection was maintained, albeit within the confines of an essentially oligarchic system, dominated by a narrow elite of wealthier townsmen. When, after the parliamentary statute of 1406, it became general for the electoral returns of shire knights to be accompanied by indentures, Northampton adopted the same practice. Henceforward, these documents, drawn up between the sheriff of Northamptonshire and the mayor and bailiffs of the borough, regularly stated that elections were made ‘with the assent of the whole community of the town’. But the named witnesses were almost all officials or councillors, and it was quite evidently they who settled upon the choice of representatives, presenting what was more or less a fait accompli to the rest of the electors. The municipal authorities did not brook outside intervention, and so far as we can tell, no evidence has survived of external pressure being brought to bear upon them. It is also worth noting that the elections for the town generally took place on different days from those for the county, an exception to this occurring in 1420.7
Only 21 returns are now extant for Northampton to the 32 Parliaments here under review, the rest having been lost. Even so, at least 40 individuals attended Parliament, only a handful of them being apparently returned more than once. Exceptions were John Stotesbury, who sat three times in all; and Nicholas Horncastle, Thomas Pirie, William Spriggy and Ralph Passenham, each of whom sat twice. Only of four Parliaments in the whole of this period, all of which fell in Richard II’s reign, can it categorically be said that a burgess with previous experience of the Lower House was elected. Indeed, the Merciless Parliament of 1388 was the only occasion on which both Members had definitely served before. Of course, with so many gaps in the evidence, especially after 1400, it is difficult to speak in more than general terms about records of attendance, but as matters stand the proportion of parliamentary novices does seem unusually large. Given that our men could boast little, if any, real experience of the Commons, it is hardly surprising that nothing in the way of a family tradition of parliamentary service grew up during this period. There are, in fact, only four possible cases of kinship between Members: Thomas Stotesbury (1419) was doubtless related to John Stotesbury, William Maltman (1420) to Roger Maltman (1413), and John Spriggy (1421) to William Spriggy. Nothing is now known about John Lincoln (1410), but he may have been connected with Roger Lincoln (1379).
At least 34 of the 40 burgesses who sat during our period were residents of Northampton at the time of their election, although not all of them ended their days in the town. Both John Hethersett and Henry Empingham, for example, obtained the freedom of the City of London and retired there in later life to pursue their respective commercial interests. Of the six non-residents three (Besford, Lincoln and Wappenham) remain unidentified, while the others held estates just outside Northampton. John Stotesbury, the only lawyer to sit for the borough between 1386 and 1421, lived at Sulgrave, and Stephen Kynnesman at Arthingworth, both men being associated more with the local gentry than with the tradesmen and merchants who normally represented the town. Even so, the lawyer’s kinsman, Thomas Stotesbury, who sat in 1419, did business as a draper in Northampton, and Kynnesman had many personal connexions there. The third member of this trio, John Honybourne, was a rather obscure figure with property at Thenford, Northamptonshire.
Well over half (25 in all) of our men held office in the borough at some point during their careers. Of the 24 who served as bailiff, seven went on to become mayor, but John Loudham was the only MP who rose to the top of the hierarchy without first occupying the lesser post. He and Richard Wems shared the distinction of being twice elected mayor; John Spring had three mayoralties to his credit, and John Spriggy the exceptional number of five, although, as we have seen, after his last term of office the town assembly introduced a regulation to ease the burden of such repeated (and expensive) official commitments. It is less easy to discover the names of the medieval coroners and town clerks of Northampton, as only a few scraps of information have survived to cast light on their identity. We know that Thomas Overton and John Sywell were serving as joint coroners in December 1400, when they received royal commissions of inquiry into escapes from Northampton goal. John Bernhill became town clerk in 1410, but the names of his predecessors and immediate successors in office alike remain a matter of conjecture.
Comparatively few MPs held administrative posts by crown appointment. Probably because of his legal training John Stotesbury spent a brief period in the early 15th century sitting on the local bench, but he was the only Northampton MP to do so. John Spriggy was, likewise, unique among his fellow burgesses in his tenure of the escheatorship of Northamptonshire and Rutland, a post which he occupied some three years before entering the House of Commons. Five of the most influential of our men (Begworth, Kynnesman, Loudham, Spring and Woodward) were employed as royal tax collectors, and three (Coldon, Colingtree and Rushden) as alnagers of Northamptonshire. The borough was an important centre for the cloth trade, and it is interesting to note that both Colingtree and Rushden were among the 11 drapers and mercers who represented Northampton during our period. Although their principal trade is not recorded, William Begworth and John Sywell also dealt in cloth, while John Loudham, Richard Stormsworth, William Spriggy and the painter, Thomas Wintringham, were all active as wool merchants. The economic diversity for which Northampton was noted during the Middle Ages is reflected in the occupations of the other parliamentary burgesses. In addition to the two fishmongers, Roger Maltman and John Hethersett (the second of whom owned a warehouse in London and was evidently quite affluent), the townspeople were represented by a glover (Buckingham), a skinner (Empingham), a rope maker (Harpole), at least one yeoman farmer (Passenham) and a plumber (Temple).
Several of these men now appear as very shadowy figures, an impression created largely by the dearth of contemporary local records, although some stand out from among the rest because of their wealth and the range of their connexions. Loudham, John Spriggy, Overton, Wems, Horncastle and Pirye were clearly among the most prosperous residents of the borough, as was the irrepressible Richard Stormsworth, who managed single-handed to overthrow the heretical mayor, John Fox†, and his growing band of supporters. Although little is known about his property, Stormsworth’s attempt to stage a personal coup in the town after the success of his vendetta against Fox strongly suggests that he was already a man of considerable standing there, as does his association with two prominent local landowners, and the fact that he maintained a large bodyguard of armed men. Richard Wems was sufficiently confident of his own position to risk the wrath of one of Northamptonshire’s leading (and most violent) families, the Trussells, certain members of which he took to court in the 1430s for trying to defraud him of a debt of £120. John Spriggy, who was in later life styled as ‘esquire’, owned lands not only in Northamptonshire but also in Norfolk, and even as far afield as Cornwall. John Loudham acquired the manor of Cookley and other property in Suffolk, while Overton, Pirie and Horncastle concentrated on the accumulation of substantial holdings in and around Northampton itself, where they were all three noted rentiers. As we have already seen, both John Stotesbury and Stephen Kynnesman were country gentlemen, the latter being either the brother or close relation of Simon Kynnesman, who, like him, took his seat in the one Parliament of December 1421. That the two men should sit together, one for the borough and the other for the county, may perhaps be regarded as evidence of collusion between the two returning bodies, which were usually quite independent. Stephen was certainly an influential figure, whose estates in both Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire produced a minimum of 30 marks a year.
The later part of the 14th century saw the spread of the heretical teachings of John Wycliffe, and Northampton became a noted centre for lollard preachers, who quickly won the enthusiastic support of the local authorities. Much of our knowledge about the spread of heresy in the town derives from a petition of 1393 addressed to the King by Richard Stormsworth, who claimed that he had been almost lynched in church by an angry mob after trying to barrack one of these itinerant preachers. Allowing for the fact that he and the mayor were already bitter enemies, this document provides a vivid account of the ways in which the leading townspeople were able to offer help and protection to notorious heretics, according them apparently unlimited freedom in the reorganization of church services. Despite his indictment before a hand-picked jury of lollard sympathizers, Stormsworth was eventually to bring about the downfall of his adversary, John Fox, who was incarcerated in Northampton castle. The bailiffs and burgesses drew up a counter-petition for Fox’s release, but although they were adamant in denying the charges of maladministration laid against him by Stormsworth not one of them was able to deny the unorthodoxy of his religious views.8 Stormsworth’s subsequent efforts to obtain the mayoralty for himself by producing letters under the royal signet in support of his candidature ended in failure. On being informed of his machinations, together with his somewhat dubious criminal record, the King gave orders for a free and open election, and thus a particularly turbulent chapter in the borough’s history was brought to a peaceful end.
- 1. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 51, 142.
- 2. EHR, xlii. 354.
- 3. VCH Northampton, 4; Northampton Recs. ed. Markham and Cox, i. 28, 46.
- 4. Northampton, Recs. i. pp. xxiv, 66, 68, 98; RR, ii. 85-86.
- 5. Northampton Recs. i. 275-6; VCH Northampton, 7.
- 6. T. Walsingham, Hist. Ang. ed. Riley, i. 449.
- 7. M. McKisack, Parl. Repn. Eng. Bors. 3, 6, 19, 36; Northampton Recs. i. 248; C219/10/5, 12/4.
- 8. SC8/142/7099, 215/10719.