Portsmouth

Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Elections

DateCandidate
1386William Bristowe
 Richard Mautravers
1388 (Feb.)John atte Mede 1
1388 (Sept.)Richard Gay
 William Bristowe
1390 (Jan.)Richard Robust
 William atte Pury
1390 (Nov.)
1391William atte Pury
 Henry Seys
1393William atte Pury
 Richard Whiliare
1394William Hicche I
 Henry Seys
1395Richard Gay
 Stephen Agulon
1397 (Jan.)William Hicche II
 Henry Seys
1397 (Sept.)William Hicche II
 Henry Seys
1399William atte Pury
 William Balchief
1401
1402Richard Spicer alias Newport
 William Hicche II
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406William atte Pury
 Richard Gay
1407
1410Henry Abraham 2
1411William Balchief
 William atte Pury
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William atte Pury
 William Balchief
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)William Balchief
 William atte Pury
1415William atte Pury
 Henry Abraham
1416 (Mar.)William atte Pury
 Thomas Robust 3
1416 (Oct.)
1417William atte Pury
 Richard Gay 4
1419William Balchief
 John Serle II
1420William Balchief
 John Versy
1421 (May)Simon Stubbere
 Henry Abraham
1421 (Dec.)William Balchief
 Richard Hert

Main Article

The size of the population of Portsmouth during this period is not recorded, but the town was evidently small and somewhat impoverished. Originally ‘Portsmouth’ had been simply the name of the anchorage in the estuary of the river Wallington, used from the 11th century for naval and military expeditions. Richard I, the founder of the town, landed there on his return to England in 1189, and the foundation charter of 1194 was granted during a week’s stay by the King at Portsmouth, on the eve of what was to be his final departure from the country. His project included the construction of a dock for the royal galleys. The site, on the south-west corner of Portsea Island, faced deep water suitable for large ships incapable of reaching the much older settlement at Portchester, and, indeed, Portsmouth gained importance as a naval station rather than a trading centre: the King’s ships continued to be laid up for the winter there; in the 13th and 14th centuries it was used as a rendezvous for expeditions to Gascony and elsewhere; in 1415 Henry V embarked for Normandy at Portsmouth; and in the following year the French blockaded the English fleet lying at anchor in the harbour. Local trade benefited to a certain extent from the necessity of victualling such expeditions, but until more extensive docks were built by Henry VII the town never really prospered, partly because its trade was controlled by Southampton, which remained the unrivalled commercial port of the Solent.5

Before Portsmouth’s foundation the privileges of the burgesses of Southampton had extended over the harbour, and from very early on conflicts arose when they saw their customs revenue threatened by traffic at the new port. In 1199 John’s charter gave the men of Southampton the farm of their own vill ‘cum portu de Portesmue’, but the inhabitants of Portsmouth succeeded in limiting this grant to the waters of the port, excluding the town proper. The outcome of an agreement reached in 1239 was that Portsmouth remained a ‘member’ of Southampton right up to the 18th century, the great customs continued to be assessed at the head port, and only pontage and petty customs came under Portsmouth’s immediate control. Consequently, in 1344 merchants began to abandon the town owing to the double dues exacted, first by the men of Southampton in the estuary, then by the bailiffs in Portsmouth itself.6 It may be the case that these conditions continued in the period under review.

Nor was this the only cause of Portsmouth’s economic difficulties. On at least five occasions before 1386 the inhabitants had been all but ruined as a consequence of assaults by enemy forces. The town was almost completely destroyed in 1265 and 1338, and so badly damaged in 1369 that the townsmen sought assistance from the Crown for rebuilding. Then, in July 1377 and, traditionally, again in 1380, Portsmouth was attacked and set on fire by the French. Six years later, when there were renewed threats of invasion, a royal commission was set up to survey the port and prepare for its defence, but, even so, no steps were taken to render it less vulnerable. Between 1342 and 1385 the burgesses had been exonerated from paying their fee farm (fixed in 1229 at £20 p.a.), for a total of 21 years. In December 1385 remission was granted for five years more ‘by reason of their great destruction by the King’s enemies of France and their impoverishment by the war’, and when this term expired they were discharged for a further eight years. Nothing was done to strengthen the town’s defences until 1416 when Henry V, aware of its strategic value, commenced a six-year building programme, costing more than £1,000 and involving the fortification of the entrance to the estuary with a round tower and a chain boom (possibly based upon the example of Harfleur). Their main function, however, was to safeguard the King’s ships, not the local inhabitants.7

Portsmouth’s foundation charter included provision for a market (on Thursdays) and a fair (around Lammastide), and gave the burgesses similar privileges to those enjoyed at Winchester and Oxford. When, in 1256, they were permitted to have a merchant guild, allowance was made for the punishment of anyone interfering with their liberties with a prohibitive fine of £10. How the governing body was composed remains obscure throughout the Middle Ages. According to the ‘Customs and Usages’, dating probably from the late 13th century, it then consisted of a mayor, a bailiff, two constables, two sergeants and 12 jurats, but although there was certainly a ‘mayor’ in 1323, throughout the period under review no mention is made of such a person, and two bailiffs were to all appearances the most important officers. It was they who collected the rents and were responsible to the Crown for the farm of the borough; pleas were held before them and writs addressed to them. For much of the 15th century there would seem to have been only one bailiff, and in a suit for assault on the town officers in 1435 the only ones mentioned were a bailiff, a constable, a sergeant and a clerk. The ‘Customs and Usages’ state that internal elections took place on the Monday preceding Michaelmas, the ‘mayor’ taking his oath on the feast day itself, when he also chose 12 men ‘to his councell’. Owing to the loss of the earlier borough records, the relations between the guild and the corporation remain obscure; nevertheless it may perhaps be inferred that they were closely allied from the fact that it was the mayor and burgesses who regulated trade in the 16th and following centuries, and that borough courts were held in the guildhall.8

In 1295 Portsmouth elected two burgesses to Parliament, and continued to do so regularly from that date, with a few lapses, notably early in the 14th century, when the bailiffs failed to make returns.9 Little is known about the mode of election. Up to and including 1406, endorsements of the parliamentary writs of summons sent to the sheriff of Hampshire merely recorded the names of the knights of the shire and the parliamentary burgesses of Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth. Occasionally, however, the sheriff reported that he had sent instructions to the bailiff of the liberty of Portsmouth to hold the borough election, and had duly received from him the names of those chosen.10 Sometimes this information was supplied on a separate schedule. In 1395 and 1397 the actual replies of the bailiffs of Portsmouth, brief notes on paper, were forwarded to the Chancery. From 1407 onwards the outcome of the shire elections was given on an indenture (in accordance with the statute of the previous year), but the returns of the boroughs in 1411, 1413 (May), 1414 (Nov.) and 1419 were simply listed on a schedule, in Portsmouth’s case usually with a statement that the election had been made there ‘per totam communitatem’. In 1415 and for every Parliament between 1420 and 1432 a single indenture certified the election of both the knights of the shire and the burgesses in terms which suggest a common election in the shire court at Winchester. But that this was not really the case is made clear by what happened in 1432, 1433, 1435 and 1449 (Nov.), at all of which times the returns once more took the form of individual responses from the bailiffs of the boroughs. These replies probably reflect the procedure used by many other boroughs, but generally the sheriff’s clerk would write his own version either on a schedule or on the dorse of the writ of summons, or else record the names on the shire indenture. In the case of the Hampshire towns, the separate replies happen only to have survived because the clerk evidently wished to save himself trouble by forwarding to the Chancery the bailiffs’ replies simply as they stood. In 1449 (Feb.), 1450 and 1453 the Portsmouth return actually took the form of a brief indenture drawn up between the sheriff and the bailiff.

Returns have not survived for ten of the 32 Parliaments meeting between 1386 and 1421, and for another the name of only one Member remains. However, Prynne supplies the names of the MPs for 1417, and we have learned of Henry Ahraham’s return in 1410 from legal records. Even so, difficulties of identification make it uncertain how many burgesses sat for Portsmouth in this period. (There may, for example, have been two contemporary William Balchiefs and two William atte Purys.) But 19 names are known. Despite these deficiencies, it is clear that the borough preferred to send to the Commons men with previous parliamentary experience, for in all the 22 Parliaments for which the names of both representatives are known, at least one had sat before; and in eight such Parliaments both had done so. It never happened that two novices were elected together. Re-election took place on no less than seven occasions: William Bristowe sat in 1385 and 1386; William Balchief in 1419 and 1420; William atte Pury in 1391 and 1393 and, later on, in the three consecutive Parliaments of 1414 (Nov.), 1415 and 1416 (Mar.); and William Hicche II and Henry Seys were returned together to both of the Parliaments of 1397. There is evidence, too, of the borough electing men experienced as partners: Hicche and Seys sat together three times all told, and Balchief and atte Pury four. Although seven of the 19 burgesses evidently appeared only once, William Balchief and Richard Robust were each returned seven times, and William atte Pury perhaps 11 in all. Certain Portsmouth families established a tradition of parliamentary service: the Abrahams included Henry, Richard (the MP of 1372, 1377 and 1383), Robert (returned in 1433 and 1449) and another Richard (1437); Richard Gay was perhaps the father of another Richard, and Richard Robust the father of Thomas; and probably two William Hicches sat in this period. Portsmouth evidently paid its parliamentary representatives at the customary rate of 2s. per day, but in 1410, at any rate, found the raising of the money beyond its powers. Henry Abraham was supposed to receive £4 7s. for his wages and expenses that year, yet only obtained 38s., the bailiffs being unable to levy the remainder owing to resistance from certain tenants in the town.11

Only nine Members may be identified with absolute certainty as resident in Portsmouth. But, assuming that those who served as bailiffs lived there too, then a majority did so for sure. Of just two is there any real doubt: John Serle II was apparently the Southampton man of this name, and Richard Spicer originated in the West Country. The latter, however, was described as ‘of Portsmouth’ in the year of his election (1402) and later settled not far away at Soberton. The Members’ occupations or professions are for the most part not recorded, although two were merchants on a minor scale, and another was master of a ship. The rest were no doubt small property owners or shopkeepers. Spicer stands out from his fellow parliamentary burgesses as a seaman of outstanding calibre who, perhaps thanks to his many prizes of dubious legitimacy, was able to purchase lands and establish himself among the gentry of the shire, even to the extent of eventually attaining armigerous rank.

It is impossible now to compile a complete list of the bailiffs of Portsmouth, but 11 MPs are recorded as holders of this office, one of them, John Versy, for at least four terms. Generally, service as a bailiff preceded election to Parliament, and there are no known instances of a bailiff being returned during his term of office in this period (although Richard Robust had been sent to the Commons when bailiff in 1373, and Richard Hert was to be similarly elected during his bailiffship of 1425). John Serle II was to act, some 20 years after his election in 1419, as clerk to the water bailiff of Southampton, and Bargate broker at the same port. Only three Members were important enough to be appointed to royal commissions: Henry Abraham, on one occasion, to collect the parliamentary subsidies in Hampshire, John Versy, to conduct inquiries and arrest pirates at Portsmouth, and, more important, Richard Spicer not only to hold arrays in the shire (three times under Henry V), but also to take musters of military retinues proceeding to Normandy. None of the resident burgesses ever held royal office proper. But Serle was serving as under sheriff of Hampshire at the time of his only return to Parliament; and Spicer had been appointed, five years before his electon for Portsmouth, as deputy butler at Plymouth. Although early in his career Spicer had been retained as a councillor and officer of John Holand, duke of Exeter, half-brother to Richard II, very soon after the beginning of Henry IV’s reign he sailed to Portugal in the service of the new King’s sister. But save for him, none of Portsmouth’s representatives had any known connexion with members of the royal family or aristocracy; few, indeed, even had contacts of note among the gentry of Hampshire.

Author: L. S. Woodger

Notes

  • 1. The name of his fellow Member has been torn off the return: C219/9/4.
  • 2. KB27/598 rex m. 22.
  • 3. C219/11/8.