Scarborough

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 Seamer
 John Carter I
1388 (Feb.)William Sage I
 John Acclom I
1388 (Sept.)John Folkton
 John Carter I
1390 (Jan.)
1390 (Nov.)
1391Robert Martin
 John Carter I
1393Robert Alnwick
 John Moresom
1394Robert Shilbottle
 William Carter I
1395Robert Shilbottle
 William Harom
1397 (Jan.)William Percy
 John Carter I
1397 (Sept.)
1399John Acclom I
 William Harom
1401John Mosdale
 Robert Acclom
1402Thomas Carthorpe
 William Harom 1
1404 (Jan.)John Mosdale
 William Sage II
1404 (Oct.)John Mosdale
 Robert Acclom
1406William Percy
 William Harom
1407Roger Stapleton
 William Carter II
1410
1411John Mosdale
 John Carter II
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)John Mosdale
 Thomas Carthorpe
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)John Mosdale
 William Sage II
1415Robert Bamburgh
 George Topcliffe
1416 (Mar.)Roger Stapleton
 Thomas Carthorpe 2
1416 (Oct.)
1417
1419William Forster
 William Sage III
1420John Carter II
 Thomas Copeland
1421 (May)John Carter II
 William Sage III
1421 (Dec.)William Forster
 John Acclom II

Main Article

Scarborough owed its early and lasting strategic importance to a combination of geographical features, which not only gave it a fine natural habour but also provided an imposing hill site for fortifications and a signal station. Long before the Romans established a base there for defence against the Saxon invaders, Scarborough played a vital part in protecting the north Yorkshire coast. The construction of a new castle by the Normans provided a great impetus to expansion, and by the time of King John the old walled borough, which nestled at the foot of the hill next to the harbour, was surrounded by flourishing suburbs. The town’s first royal charter, awarded at some point between 1155 and 1163, has been lost, but letters of confirmation dated 1253 indicate that the liberties set out in it were based on those enjoyed by the citizens of York. The burgesses were, moreover, permitted to hold an annual fair lasting 45 days in August and September, an unusually long period which testifies to their growing prosperity. So too does the scale of the fee farm paid by them to the Exchequer, since the sum of £66 a year was comparatively high for a northern town. The grant by Henry III in 1252 of a subsidy on shipping so that the residents could ‘strengthen a new port with stones and timbers against the sea where all ships might enter and leave without danger’ proved of great assistance, for although Scarborough eventually fell behind Edward I’s foundation, the port of Kingston-upon-Hull, it did develop valuable trading connexions with Iceland and the Baltic, as well as continuing to offer an anchorage for a sizeable amount of coastal traffic and its own fishing fleet.3

Two further royal charters of 1256 allowed the burgesses to farm the nearby manor of Falsgrave at an additional rent of £25 p.a., while also according them a variety of legal and economic exemptions. By then Scarborough possessed its own guild merchant through which the borough was governed, but as the ruling elite (or potentiores) became more entrenched and oligarchic, so opposition began to be voiced from below. Antagonism also developed between the royal authorities in the castle and the townspeople as a whole; and twice, in 1273 and 1312, the liberties of the borough were suspended because feuding had reached such serious proportions. In the long run, however, it was the conflict between the richer burgesses and those of ‘the poor and middling sort’ which caused the most serious problems, since by the mid 14th century the town was effectively split into two warring factions. Part of the trouble lay in the machinery for electing municipal officers, which was open to abuse by the potentiores. In theory, two bailiffs were chosen annually by a group of 36 burgesses, themselves sworn in with the assent of the whole community, but in practice the elections were dominated by a narrow, self-perpetuating clique. Attempts to have the borough customs codified ‘in order to do justice between rich and poor’ gave rise to further popular protest; and although a ‘composition’ was finally effected in 1356, mutual distrust and suspicion continued very much as before, compounded by allegations of corruption and misgovernment made repeatedly against the municipal authorities. In 1378, for example, Henry, earl of Northumberland, was empowered to investigate the ‘divers debates and dissensions’ in the town which had arisen ‘between certain of the King’s lieges and subjects there by default of the exhibition of justice’, although his efforts did little, if anything, to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Not surprisingly, Scarborough was one of the few northern towns to be affected by the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The aims of the local rebels were almost entirely political, being directed against the ruling caucus and its monopoly of office. The grant of a royal pardon to the townspeople of Scarborough, in October 1382, was made conditional upon the payment of a fine of 400 marks, while a second, larger sum of 500 marks was demanded from the potentiores, since they were largely to blame for letting matters get out of hand. The imposition of such a heavy penalty could hardly have come at a worse time, because the town had already entered upon a long period of recession.4

As well as the problems of internal conflict and political unrest, Scarborough faced serious economic dislocation because of the Black Death and the war with France. In 1362 the townspeople petitioned successfully for a grant of £246 from the government to rebuild the quay after years of neglect, depopulation and decay caused by successive outbreaks of plague. Recovery had barely begun when the town was subject to a series of punitive enemy raids, culminating, in 1378, in an attack by a combined French, Scottish and Spanish fleet, with the intention of releasing a Scottish spy from custody in Scarborough castle. The success of this expedition, during which several townspeople were carried off as prisoners to Boulogne and ransomed, and considerable damage was done to the defences, prompted a bitter attack on the gross mismanagement of the war-effort by the young Richard II’s advisors, and assured the burgesses of Scarborough a sympathetic hearing in the Parliament of 1379. Partly in response to these appeals for help, the Commons pressed for the allocation of a special subsidy to provide ‘vessealx de guerre’ for coastal protection, although four years later the taxpayers of Scarborough complained that they could not afford to maintain any of these ships without further assistance. The volume of trade entering the port had, naturally, fallen as a result of enemy action at sea, and with it the tolls upon which the residents depended for their livelihood. Other revenues came from property taxes and customs duties on herring sales, but the steady erosion of the coastline reduced the former, and the activities of forestallers (who cornered the market out at sea and thus evaded the authorities) made it increasingly difficult to collect the latter. These problems were repeatedly voiced in Parliament during the 1380s, and, although due allowance must be made for exaggeration, there can be little doubt that Scarborough was neither as prosperous nor as politically stable as it had been two centuries before.5

Returns survive for Scarborough for 24 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421, the others having been lost. We know the names of 25 men who represented the borough during this period, although the gaps in the evidence now make it impossible to tell exactly how much experience any of them had of the Lower House. By and large, however, it looks as if the electors of Scarborough liked to choose at least one parliamentary burgess who had sat before, for on 11 occasions, if not more, a newcomer was accompanied by a colleague who was already familiar with the Commons. Only five times, in 1394, 1401, 1407, 1415 and 1419 were both Members apparent novices, but we cannot be entirely certain on this point. It is, on the other hand, clear that in a minimum of eight Parliaments two men with previous records of service were returned together. At least three instances of immediate re-election are known to have occurred—in 1395, 1404 (Oct.) and 1421 (May)—but the distance between Scarborough and London, and the problems of travel (particularly in winter), meant that continuity of representation was comparatively infrequent. So far as we can tell, six men attended only one Parliament during their careers, while ten were returned twice. Four are known to have been elected three times, but few achieved more impressive records of service. Both John Carter I and William Harom took part in four Parliaments, John Acclom I in five, and John Mosdale (the only crown servant of any distinction to represent the borough in our period) in six. William Forster’s Membership of 11 separate Parliaments, extending over a period of 23 years, marks him out as by far the most experienced of the burgesses here under review. None of these men appears to have sat for any other constituency, so the average level of attendance lay somewhere between two and three Parliaments each.

With the exception of Thomas Copeland, whose identity remains uncertain, but who evidently had interests in Richmondshire, all the Members of Parliament returned for Scarborough during our period maintained strong connexions with the borough. Robert Martin alone did not live there, being the owner of estates in the nearby villages of Thwing and Butterwick, although he belonged to a local family, as did all his other colleagues. Quite a number were descended from members of the dominant oligarchy whose narrow, paternalistic rule had triggered off the upheavals of 1378 and 1381. The prominent families of Acclom, Carter and Sage provided Scarborough with over one third (ten) of its representatives during our period. John Acclom I and his sons, John II and Robert, were returned, as were William Sage I, his son, William II, and his grandson, William III. The precise relationship between the four members of the prolific Carter clan to sit in Parliament is harder to establish, but it seems likely that we are dealing with two more pairs of fathers and sons. Quite evidently the potentiores of Scarborough kept as tight a control over the selection of parliamentary burgesses as they did over all other aspects of municipal government. No less than half of our Members (13) served as bailiffs of the borough, often for several terms. Both William Percy and William Sage II held office seven times, Thomas Carthorpe nine times, and John Acclom I ten times. Percy, who may well have been a lawyer, was also coroner of Scarborough, a post which he occupied for at least two years before first sitting in Parliament. Not surprisingly, some MPs were appointed as collectors, surveyors or controllers of customs along the North Sea coast, seven being employed in Scarborough itself by the Crown at various times, and one (Thomas Copeland) further up the coast at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Only three are known to have acted as local tax collectors, but four received commissions of the peace in Scarborough, and ten sat on royal commissions of a more general nature. John Mosdale, who held office for over 30 years as a serjeant-at-arms and as keeper of the two royal castles of Scarborough and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, discharged no less than 20 such commissions, and had acquired a wealth of administrative experience by the time that he began to attend Parliament. He was, even so, in no sense a royal placeman, since he and his family made their home in Scarborough, where they occupied substantial holdings.

As well as deriving quite sizeable incomes from property, a significant proportion of our men did well out of trade. At least 12, and probably far more, were shipowners, whose maritime ventures occasionally ran foul of the law. During the early 15th century, for instance, some of the leading residents of Scarborough (including seven Members of Parliament returned in our period) were accused of acts of piracy against Hanseatic merchants and threatened with forfeiture by the government as a means of compensating their victims. The loss of many customs records for Scarborough now makes it impossible to establish the extent of their commercial dealings, but we know that quite a few were important enough to use the port of Kingston-upon-Hull as well as Scarborough.

Scarborough first returned Members to Parliament in 1295, and continued to do so on a regular basis from then onwards. The parliamentary elections were held by the two bailiffs, following receipt of a precept from the sheriff of Yorkshire, to whom the royal writ of summons was always addressed. On receiving the names of the burgesses-elect and their mainpernors, he simply entered them on the dorse of the original writ, which he then sent back to Chancery. We do not know, therefore, who else took part in the electoral proceedings at Scarborough, other than the bailiffs and the four mainpernors. It was not unusual for one of the bailiffs to return himself, however, this being the case on at least nine occasions between 1386 and 1421. All three of John Carter I’s terms as a parliamentary burgess occurred while he was serving as bailiff, and both John Acclom I and Thomas Carthorpe returned themselves twice while in office. William Percy and William Sage II also took advantage of their position to obtain seats in the Lower House, although there is nothing to suggest that undue pressure was brought to bear on the electors (most of whom must have been potentiores, with a vested interest in preserving the oligarchic system of local government, and thus supporting their own nominees), or that any of these men would not otherwise have been selected. On the contrary, all were ideally qualified to represent Scarborough in Parliament; and it may well be that the assumption of office implied a readiness to serve.

Author: C.R.

Notes

  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1113.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. A. Rowntree, Hist. Scarborough, chaps. I-V; CChR, iii. 189-90; VCH Yorks (N. Riding), ii. 549-50; CPR, 1247-58, p. 147.
  • 4. CPR, 1377-81, p. 307; VCH Yorks (N. Riding), ii. 549-50; White Vellum Bk. Scarborough ed. Jeayes, 7; A. Réville, Soulevement des Travailleurs, 253-7.
  • 5. CPR, 1361-4, p. 271; T. Walsingham, Hist. Ang. ed. Riley, i. 369-70; RP, iii. 63, 162; SC8/71/3522, 139/6944, 6949, 140/6956, 259/12941.

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