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|Robert atte Lee|
|1388 (Feb.)||David atte Hacche|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Balet|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Kent I|
|1391||Henry Barbour I|
|David atte Hacche|
|William Tho ...|
|1397 (Jan.)||John White I|
|1397 (Sept.)||Thomas Selham|
|John Hunt I|
|1404 (Jan.)||John Kent I|
|William Derby II|
|1406||John Hunt I|
|1410||John White I|
|1413 (May)||William Wilton|
|1414 (Apr.)||John Hastyng|
|John Clerk I|
|1414 (Nov.)||Stephen Stapper|
|1416 (Mar.)||Walter Mustard|
|Thomas Lavyngton 1|
|1421 (May)||Thomas Lavyngton|
|Simon Porter alias KENT|
|1421 (Dec.)||John Hunt I|
By the last quarter of the 14th century, Reading had become the largest and most important town in Berkshire. Communications by road with London, Winchester, Oxford and the west country cloth towns were good, and Reading’s position at the confluence of the Thames and the Kennet enabled it to take advantage of the facilities for water transport these rivers provided. They, together with their local tributaries, were also useful for the washing and dyeing of cloth, the town’s economic mainstay, and over a century later, Leland could state that ‘these waters be very commodius for dyers, welle occupied there, for the town standith chiefly by clothyng’. The importance of this trade is reflected in the number of eminent Reading burgesses employed in it in our period. The population and wealth of the town are difficult to estimate, but the surviving poll tax return of 1379 indicates that a large number of the inhabitants were quite well to do. This record, taken together with the slowly increasing revenues of the merchant guild, gives an overall impression of fairly stable prosperity.2
Reading was already an urban centre of great antiquity, having been established before 871. Following the foundation there by Henry I of a great Benedictine abbey, the abbot was made lord of the town, which became a ‘mediatised’ borough, so to remain until the Dissolution. Although it was governed through the abbot’s bailiffs, by 1200 a merchant guild had been established, and, as the only autonomous body the community possessed, this not surprisingly grew in strength and, having done so, began a long quarrel with the abbey over local administration. The first major dispute erupted in 1253, when the guild members claimed rights and privileges alleged to have been granted to the inhabitants of Reading by Edward the Confessor, but they were unable to provide proof, and Henry III confirmed the abbey’s rights. Admittedly, the townsmen gained confirmation of their entitlement to a guild and a guildhall, only the abbot was to appoint the warden and receive certain fines and dues, and at the same time they were granted a royal charter which conferred freedom to trade anywhere in England and exemption from all local courts and tolls. These last privileges were jealously guarded and successfully upheld, even against the City of London.3
Thus, the end of the 14th century saw a situation in which control of the town still officially rested with the abbot, but was constantly disputed with him by the guild merchant. The guild provided in effect the borough’s administration, its members being the burgesses, its officers the town officials and its head the mayor. Final choice of the last rested with the abbot, who referred to him as the ‘guardian’ or ‘warden’ of the guild, not recognizing the mayoral office. It seems likely, however, that by 1386 the abbot’s range of choice was limited to a short-list of acceptable burgesses elected by the guild. This was certainly true after 1446, when just three candidates were nominated each year. The abbot’s own proper representatives in the town continued to be his bailiffs, of whom there were two. Other officials included the constables and the treasurers or cofferers, all chosen by the guildsmen. Decisions and elections concerning the borough were made by the ‘communitas Radyngie’, assembled in the guildhall. New burgesses were admitted during full meetings: sponsored by one or two established members, they took an oath to the mayor, who was described as ‘the kynges lettenent’, swearing to maintain the liberties and franchises of the guild, and to keep secret ‘the comyn counsell of this saide guilde and the felishipp of the same ... and it to no persone publice, shew, ne declare, out of the seid gildhall’. Newcomers paid a variable fee, part of which went to the abbot and part to provide a ‘iantaculum’ or breakfast for those assembled. Sons of burgesses were frequently excused admission charges, as were nominees of great men or of the abbot. The number of annual entrants is not available for this period, but in the 1420s and 1430s they ranged from one to nine. The number of guilds-men never exceeded 50 at any one time.4
There were many disputes between town and abbey in our period. Two prominent burgesses, William Catour and David atte Hacche, were both sued for challenging the abbot’s jurisdiction in the marketplace. In the latter’s case, in 1387, the royal court of Chancery found in the abbey’s favour, and its rights were again confirmed. Three years later the abbot’s steward attempted to appoint a constable, thus infringing the guild’s liberties: the mayor, Catour, while bringing the matter up before the county j.p.s, stated that the town was a royal borough and its burgesses were entitled to send representatives to Parliament, to appoint constables and to elect a mayor, who had authority over all local appointments. The outcome of the suit is not known, but although the burgesses’ right to appoint constables was certainly established by 1417, the abbot, whose privileges were confirmed by both Henry V and Henry VI, continued to have a hand in the election of mayors until the Dissolution. It is possible that hostility towards the abbey was the cause of two outbreaks of lollardy in the town during this period, in 1396 and 1417, but there is no evidence that any of the more important burgesses were involved.5 Despite his attempts to control the guild, the abbot appears to have exercised little influence over the election of MPs. His bailiffs, it is true, were present at the hustings, but it is difficult to say whether these officials were more closely attached to town or to abbey at this period. At least five of them (Richard Farle, Robert Godewyn, John Kent I, Robert Hay and John White I) themselves served as MPs, but only Kent did so during his term of office (in 1404); and since four of the five were also chosen as mayor in the course of their careers, the extent to which they were the abbot’s nominees is hard to ascertain.
Reading had sent representatives to Parliament for the first time in 1295, and had continued to do so, without intermission, ever since. On receipt of a precept sent by the sheriff of Berkshire to the mayor, the election of parliamentary burgesses was made by the ‘maior et comburgenses’—that is, the members of the guild merchant. Some indentures of the period 1410-22 exist, and these are attested by the mayor and between 11 and 17 burgesses, always including the two bailiffs, two constables and two cofferers. These witnesses may have been the sum total of electors, or perhaps only the most eminent of a much larger number of participants, possibly the whole guild membership. Even if this were the case, however, the electorate could not ever have numbered more than 50. The elections of 1410 and 1414 (Nov.) are stated to have taken place at Oxford castle, the headquarters of the joint bailiwick of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and perhaps the usual venue for Reading elections up until then. By 1417, however, the guild had apparently won the right to elect at Reading, and certainly after 1420 the hustings always took place at the guildhall. In all known cases the borough elections were held after those of the county, the period elapsing between the two being anything between a month (in 1410) and two days (in 1420). The cofferers’ accounts after 1424 frequently include payments for parchment and wax for the parliamentary returns, and for messengers taking the latter to the sheriff at Oxford.6
The names of the MPs for Reading are known for 24 of the 32 Parliaments of this period, and numbered as many as 39. Nearly two-thirds (25) are only recorded as sitting once, and nine more just twice. The only really experienced men were Thomas Lavyngton with 12 returns between 1416 and 1442, and Simon Porter with ten between 1421 and 1449, and, obviously, most of their parliamentary service fell outside the period under review. It was thus not unusual for at least one of the elected burgesses to be inexperienced, and in nine cases neither Member is known to have sat before. It only happened on three occasions (in 1391, 1393 and 1417) that both Members had served in a previous Parliament. Only one instance of re-election to consecutive Parliaments is known, that of Thomas Lavyngton in 1421 (May). Clearly, the tendency between 1386 and 1421 had been for the duty of parliamentary service to go the rounds. It was not until after the accession of Henry VI that Reading’s representation came to be dominated by a few experienced and influential men.
Several local families provided more than one MP: thus John Pernecote (1414), was the son of Richard (1397), Stephen Stapper (1414) perhaps the son of William (1386), and Richard Selham (1380) probably the ancestor of Thomas (1397) and William (1445). It is also likely that the frequently elected Simon Porter (also known as Simon Kent) was closely related to John Kent I (1383, 1390, 1404). All Reading MPs appear to have been resident there, though Thomas Lavyngton may not have been permanently so. At least 20 of them held office in the town, 15 as mayor, five as bailiffs, four as constables and three as cofferers. Ten of the mayors served as such for more than one annual term (indeed, Catour and Morys chalked up seven terms apiece). Yet with the exception of John Kent’s election during his bailiffship of 1403-4, it never happened that men currently discharging official duties were returned to Parliament. Indeed, the majority of burgesses sat in the Commons for the first time before ever taking on such responsibilities. Where MPs’ trades are known, one or another branch of the cloth industry predominated. The Members included three weavers, two clothiers, two tailors, two mercers, a draper and a dyer. Indeed, Shortwade and Porter, who appear to have developed interests overseas, probably exported this product. Next in importance were the victualling trades, with three fishmongers, a ‘victualler’, a brewer and an inn-keeper (William Catour, who also traded in wine and cloth). Also represented were workers in leather, with a saddler, a tanner and a shoemaker, while two barbers and a brazier complete the list.
Many Reading MPs held offices outside the town: 11 at one time or another were tax collectors in the county of Berkshire at large; John Kent I, William Catour, Roger Hay and Simon Porter were county coroners, and Catour and Thomas Lavyngton both acted as royal commissioners of inquiry. Of all the parliamentary burgesses, Lavyngton alone attained a seat on the local bench, though this occurred long after he had ceased to represent Reading in the Lower House. In most cases such appointments came only after the Member’s initial appearance in the Commons. Only three of the burgesses proper—Wilton, White and Catour—are known to have owned property out of town, and this consisted merely of smallholdings in the immediate vicinity. The three ‘gentlemen’ who sat for the borough, however, developed wider interests: Lavyngton, probably a lawyer, held comparatively large tracts of land in fee; Vachell apparently inherited the family premises at Coley and Tilehurst; and Mustard leased property at Whitley. But the Members of this period were for the most part burgesses and tradesmen of the second rank, their concerns firmly centred on their home town. Somewhat out of the ordinary, then, were Walter Mustard and Thomas Lavyngton, who belonged more to the gentry. Mustard was chiefly important as a minister of Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, who perhaps influenced his election in March 1416; and Lavyngton devoted much of his career to the service of his kinsman, Bishop Polton, and then became active on behalf of John Norris†, the prominent Lancastrian courtier. The election of these two together, in 1416, and of Lavyngton to 11 more Parliaments subsequently, is indicative of a change in the representation of Reading. Whereas previously the typical MP had been a local tradesmen who only sat in one Parliament, thereafter the representation was dominated by a presumed lawyer (Lavyngton) and a mercer (Porter), who between them filled half the seats available between 1416 and 1450.
Author: Charles Kightly
- 1. Not in OR, but given in W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1093, and also legible on the mutilated return (C219/11/8).
- 2. J. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 109, 111; E179/73/42; VCH Berks. iii. 349; Reading Pub. Lib. Cofferers’ accts. R/FA/1414-50.
- 3. VCH Berks. iii. 342-6; Reading Chs. ed. Pritchard, 1.
- 4. VCH Berks. iii. 346-8, 350; Reading Recs. ed. Guilding, i. 3, 4, 26; C. Coates, Hist. Reading, 57-58.
- 5. SC1/42/108; Add. Ch. 19644; Coates, 52-53; CCR, 1396-9, p. 9; 1413-19, pp. 13-14; St. Albans Chron. ed. Galbraith, 104; VCH Berks. iii. 348.
- 6. Reading cofferers’ accts. 1424-6, 1428-9, 1432-3, 1440-1.