Shrewsbury

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
1386Robert Grafton
 Hugh Wigan
1388 (Feb.)Hugh Wigan
 Robert Thornes
1388 (Sept.)Robert Grafton
 Hugh Wigan
1390 (Jan.)Robert Grafton
 Thomas Pride
1390 (Nov.)
1391Hugh Wigan
 Thomas Pride
1393Thomas Pride
 Thomas Gamel
1394Thomas Pride
 Hugh Wigan
1395Richard Aldescote
 Roger Thornes
1397 (Jan.)Thomas Skinner
 John Geoffrey
1397 (Sept.)
1399Nicholas Gerard
 Thomas Berwick
1401
1402Thomas Pride
 Roger Thornes
1404 (Jan.)Thomas Pride
 Simon Tour
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Perle II
 Robert Thornes
1407Thomas Pride
 John Scriven
1410Robert Thornes
 Roger Thornes 1
1411Thomas Pride
 John Whithiford
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)David Holbache
 Urian St. Pierre
1414 (Apr.)Thomas Pride 2
1414 (Nov.)Robert Horseley
 William Horde
1415William Horde
 John Shotton
1416 (Mar.)William Horde
 John Beget 3
1416 (Oct.)William Horde
 Robert Horseley 4
1417William Horde
 David Holbache
1419Roger Corbet
 David Rathbone
1420Robert Whitcombe
 Richard Bentley
1421 (May)Urian St. Pierre
 Robert Whitcombe
1421 (Dec.)William Horde
 Robert Whitcombe

Main Article

In 1377 the inhabitants of Shrewsbury aged 14 years or more (including 100 persons discovered moving from street to street to evade the collectors of the poll tax), numbered 2,083, indicating a probable total population of more than 3,000 and a town comparable in size with Gloucester and larger than any other strictly within the Welsh march.5 Although only one of several bridging points across the Severn, Shrewsbury, with its three large annual fairs, had developed into probably the most important trading centre along the river. A guild merchant is known to have existed before 1209, and in the following two centuries the local drapers in particular became a powerful fraternity, taking advantage of the high quality wool grown in the region. In the first half of the period under review, however, Shrewsbury’s trade and commerce must have been adversely affected by three important events: in the early summer of 1392 the walls, gates and bridges were severely damaged by floods; two years later a large part of the town was burnt down by a fire started accidentally by a workman repairing St. Chad’s church; and at the time of the brief parliamentary session held at Shrewsbury from 27 to 31 Jan. 1398, armour and moveable goods to the value of more than 300 marks were allegedly taken from the inhabitants by members of the royal household. Despite the earliest of these occurrences which, if we are to believe the representations of the burgesses, seriously affected the prosperity of the town, in 1397 Shrewsbury had been able to make a loan of £100 to the Crown.6 It was not long, however, before the town faced a further setback, with the outbreak of the Welsh rebellion in mid September 1400. As early as 1380 the burgesses had stressed the necessity for increased fortification in view of their position on the border. Now, the bailiffs were immediately instructed to demand securities and oaths of allegiance from all Welshmen living in Shrewsbury, and to make ready to hold the town against invasion. At the same time the inhabitants had also to bear the expense of a visit from Henry IV. In July and August 1402 preparations were again undertaken for the arrival in the area of a royal army, and the bailiffs’ accounts for 1402-3 reveal the huge cost of provisioning for a siege, including the purchase of weapons and armour and payments to masons, carpenters and archers. Not the least expenditure went on victuals for the prince of Wales’s army, and other items included payments to his treasurer, chancellor and squires; furthermore, along with the reimbursement of messengers sent riding to the King at Hereford, the townspeople were expected to make contributions to even such members of the prince’s and earl of Stafford’s companies as their minstrels. On 21 July 1403 the most critical battle of the reign was fought just to the north of the town, and a month later Hugh, Lord Burnell, was formally commissioned to hold Shrewsbury against Owen Glendower. The inhabitants long remembered the day, ‘quo Owinius fuit apud Salop’, for eight villages in the liberty and suburbs were burnt down. As a consequence, in 1406 and again in 1407 the burgesses petitioned the King for relief from parliamentary subsidies, and even much later, in 1444, they were able to secure certain privileges on the ground that, in Henry IV’s time, the town had been a defensive stronghold against the rebels, and had the inhabitants not stood firm, a large part of the county would have been devastated.7

Shrewsbury was a royal borough, paying an annual fee farm at the Exchequer, and the close connexion with the Crown (and possibly its influence) is to some extent reflected in its parliamentary representation. Robert Grafton, previous to his first election for Shrewsbury in 1386, had been concerned with the administration of royal estates in Wales. The prominent Welsh lawyer, David Holbache, acted both as Richard II’s pleader and attorney and his joint justiciar in the principality long before being returned to Parliament for the borough. One of Shrewsbury’s Members in 1399, Nicholas Gerard, was to be described as ‘King’s esquire’ under Henry IV and, shortly after the battle of Shrewsbury, secured by royal appointment the posts of clerk of the local statute merchant and constable of the castle. Gerard’s successor as constable in 1412, Urian St. Pierre, kept the office for 24 years, in the course of which he represented the borough in Parliament on four occasions, and he, too, was called ‘King’s esquire’ and was retained by Henry V. After sitting for Shrewsbury in five Parliaments under Richard II, Hugh Wigan entered the service of Henry of Monmouth when prince of Wales. These five, along with five others, also held important crown offices in the county at large. Richard Bentley was acting sheriff in October 1420 at the time of his election to the Commons, and later also officiated, as so too did St. Pierre, as a county coroner. Five parliamentary burgesses were sometime escheators: Roger Corbet, David Holbache, William Horde, Robert Thornes and Robert Whitcombe, Horde representing Shrewsbury in Parliament, twice in 1416 and also in 1421, while actually holding office, and Corbet similarly doing so in 1419. St. Pierre, when first returned to Parliament in 1413, was discharging the duties of alnager of Shropshire. Both Holbache and Horde also acted as steward of the Fitzalan lordship of Oswestry when it was in the Crown’s possession, and it was not long before Corbet was to be appointed constable of Holt castle, Denbighshire.

But perhaps more significant than the distant influence of the Crown was the nearer presence of the Fitzalans, who played no small part in the town’s affairs. On the patent roll of 1381, referring to the burgesses of Shrewsbury, Richard, earl of Arundel, was described as ‘their lord’; in 1384 they secured a royal grant of murage through his intercession, and the influence of both the earl and his brother, Thomas, the archbishop of Canterbury, may be discerned in each of the attempts at municipal reform made in the course of this period. In 1388-9 the burgesses sent the earl several gifts of wine, as well as providing hospitality for his knights, servants and players. This was followed in the years 1400-3 with similar presents to his son, Earl Thomas, along with gratuities to the latter’s minstrels and, in 1407-8, a pipe of white wine costing as much as £5.8 David Holbache had been in the service of Earl Richard until the latter’s death (by execution) in 1397, acting as his attorney and feoffee, and it was while serving the new earl in the same ways that he was elected MP for Shrewsbury. Again, Urian St. Pierre clearly had some intimate connexion with Earl Thomas, for in 1410 he promised to do his best to secure the earl’s patronage for Nicholas Gerard. And although these two, as has been seen, were in royal service as well, no doubt their association with Henry of Monmouth’s friend counted for much locally, especially in May 1413, immediately after the earl’s promotion as treasurer of the Exchequer. Other magnates also claimed some degree of influence in Shrewsbury. Earl Richard’s son-in-law John, Lord Charlton of Powis, and the latter’s younger brother and heir, Edward, came in for gifts of wine from the Shrewsbury burgesses, too, and David Holbache, late in his career when Edward was Lord, was to act as steward of Powis. On various occasions Hugh, Lord Burnell, was entertained at Shrewsbury, and he numbered among his feoffees both Holbache and Thomas Skinner. Gilbert, Lord Talbot, and his brother John, Lord Furnival, visited Shrewsbury in 1407-8 and doubtless on several other occasions, acquired extensive estates in the area, and built an inn called Le Talbot in the town itself. Later on, in 1426, the council of Humphrey, earl of Stafford, met in Shrewsbury where it consumed a gallon of the borough’s best malmsey.9 What real power these lords could exert over the burgesses, especially in their choice of parliamentary representatives, is impossible to assess. There is, however, no reason to believe that the townspeople did not retain some large measure of independence.

This view is certainly borne out by the history of the government of the borough. The burgesses had long benefited from privileges granted in a series of royal charters. They had been paying their own fee farm since 1175, and in 1199 King John sanctioned the formation of a common council and the election of two reeves (from 1294 named bailiffs). The charter of 1341, granted at the request of Richard, earl of Arundel (d.1376), and other magnates, conferred additional freedoms. The burgesses were generally members of the guild merchant. In the early 13th century this had included all sorts of traders and shopkeepers, but by the mid 14th century had come to be comprised of a smaller group of the more wealthy men of Shrewsbury, together with a few others who, living outside the limits of the borough, were nevertheless connected with it by ownership or property or otherwise.10 Admission to the liberty was conditional on one of four factors: birth in Shrewsbury, descent from another burgess, apprenticeship to a freeman, or purchase. Only burgesses could be elected as borough officials. Throughout the period under review, attempts were made by various factions in the town to gain control over its government. As a result of several petitions sent to the Parliament at Northampton in November 1380, royal commissions were set up specifically to investigate a claims by the ‘mayor’ and inhabitants that whereas it was usual for the two bailiffs to be chosen on St. Giles Day (1 Sept.) by the ‘more sufficient’ members of the community from among themselves, certain others of inferior status and possessing no property in Shrewsbury, encouraged by the ‘evil counsel’ of malcontents such as Thomas Pride, had taken upon themselves to elect these officials, and well in advance of the customary date. The earl of Arundel, ‘their hereditary protector’, undertook the task of restoring order, and, after certain of the inhabitants had been summoned to his castle named ‘Isabel’ (probably Shrawardine) and a fortnight’s discussion had ensued, agreement was reached on 29 Mar. 1381. It was then decided that, for two years from the following September, 12 of the ‘most sufficient’ persons of the town should co-operate with the bailiffs in its government. This committee was found so conducive to tranquility that it was continued in being until 1389, when, however, as a result of further ‘grauntz descordes, debates et desscencions’, a new composition was required. The then bailiffs (Robert Thornes and Hugh Wigan), paid a visit to the earl of Arundel at Much Wenlock, following which, in his presence at Shrewsbury abbey on 29 June, there was another meeting which eventually led to an agreement, on 16 Aug., to confirm the existing bailiffs in office and elect another council of 12. At the same time regulations were drawn up requiring the bailiffs to take oath not to be influenced by money, favour or enmity when nominating the 25 resident burgesses who were to elect their successors and the two coroners and six assessors for the next official year. The 25 were to be kept in a separate conclave throughout the period of the elections, which were now to be held on the Sunday after St. Giles. Henceforth the bailiffs were to be continually resident and possessed of lands or rents worth no less than £10 a year, or of merchandise valued at £100. No bailiff was to be re-elected to any borough office within three years, nor to receive an annual fee of more than 40s.11 Further provisions intended to prevent the misappropriation of public funds by officials were also established. These, however, failed to stop the revival of old feuds, notably that in which the Biritons and Thornes were ranged against the supporters of Thomas Pride and Nicholas Gerard, following allegations that Pride and Gerard had embezzled the commonalty’s money. In February 1399 another royal commission was appointed to investigate; and consequently, in May, the bailiffs (Robert Thornes and William Biriton) were removed from office in the presence of Lord Burnell. But the affair dragged on, and it was not until 15 Oct. 1400 that, in the common hall of the town and with such august personages as the duke of York, the earls of Rutland and Warwick, and the treasurer of the Exchequer all looking on, Archbishop Arundel drew up letters patent once more attempting to stabilize governmental arrangements for the borough. It was now agreed that, in addition to the safeguards provided in 1389, two chamberlains, elected by a majority of the burgesses, should be made responsible for all expenditure, while the borough seal, monies, jewels and accounts were to be placed in a common chest bearing eight locks, to which the bailiffs would hold one key, the chamberlains another, and the assessors one each. The new electoral procedure appears from the first Shrewsbury ‘Assembly Book’ to have worked smoothly, the elections each year of two new bailiffs, two new coroners and six new supersedentes or assessors proceeding with an entire regularity until 1417, when, however, contrary to the constitution, the retiring bailiffs (John Perle II and Roger Corbet) and all six assessors were re-elected. Similarly against the rules, in the next year Perle and Corbet were chosen as coroners. A further composition, drawn up in 1433, was in many respects a repetition of that of 1389, although it raised the bailiffs’ fees to £5 apiece, and ordained that the council of 12 should be a permanent body chosen for life by the bailiffs and commonalty, vacancies being filled by the commonalty only as they arose. Even less favourable to the townspeople as a whole was to be the composition of 1444 by which, now renamed aldermen, the 12 were allowed to fill up their own vacancies.12

Shrewsbury regularly sent representatives to Parliament from Edward I’s reign. The Parliament of 1283 had convened in the town itself, as did also the brief second session of Richard II’s last Parliament, that of 1397-8. Very little is known about the borough’s electoral procedures. Up to and including 1406 a simple endorsement on the writ originating with the Chancery and returned to it by the sheriff of the county recorded the names of Shrewsbury’s parliamentary burgesses along with those of four (nearly always fictitious) mainpernors. In January 1390 the sheriff stated that he had sent his precept to the bailiffs of Shrewsbury who were responsible for making the return. Then, on 12 Oct. 1407, in accordance with the changed requirements made in the writs of summons, referring to the statute of the previous year, an indenture was drawn up between the bailiffs and the sheriff in the presence of burgesses assembled in the common hall, ten of whom were named in the text. The election of the knights of the shire took place at Shrewsbury castle the following day, when a separate indenture was composed. No other indentures specifically for the borough have survived for this period, and it looks as if none ever existed, for the endorsement of the writs generally referred to only one such document, that authenticating the return for the shire. In 1411, however, the electoral results for Shropshire, Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth were all included in a single indenture. Even so, there can be little doubt that the Shrewsbury elections continued to be held at a different time and place from those of the county, with the sheriff being informed in due course. In the composition of 1433 it was stated that the parliamentary burgesses were to be chosen ‘by the ... comyns, in maner and fourme as the ... auditours shall be’ (meaning, by the whole body of burgesses), but whether this had been the usual practice earlier in the century is not clear.13 Some evidence has survived as to what the borough was prepared to pay its representatives. The standard national wage parliamentary burgesses were authorized to claim was 2s. per day, including time spent travelling, but some boroughs paid only 1s., and others considerably more. At Shrewsbury the rate varied but was rarely generous: for the Parliament which met in September 1388 and lasted 38 days the Members (Hugh Wigan and Robert Grafton) each received £3 8s., that is approximately 1s.9d. daily; Wigan did less well in 1394, when he and Thomas Pride were paid just over 1s.3d. per day each; in 1407 for a Parliament lasting 43 days Pride and John Scriven were allowed only 1s. per day each for 21 days service, along with additional ‘expenses’ of £4; while in 1419 David Rathbone received £4 and Roger Corbet 56s.8d., which indicates that, as the Parliament lasted only 28 days, the former was allowed almost 3s. per day, the latter 2s.14

The names of Shrewsbury’s MPs are known for only 27 of the 32 Parliaments assembled between 1386 and 1421, and they numbered 25. Shrewsbury usually sent at least one burgess with previous experience of the workings of the Commons. This was the case on no fewer than 20 occasions, and on 11 of these neither Member was a newcomer. In view of the loss of so many returns, it is, of course, impossible to assess accurately the number of times two novices were elected together, but this is unlikely to have happened on more than seven occasions. It is, however, interesting to note that following a run of seven Parliaments in Henry V’s reign for which all but one of the burgesses’ names are known, two entirely fresh individuals appeared in 1419 and another two immediately afterwards, in 1420. Overall, 12 instances of re-election, in the strict sense of election to consecutive assemblies occurred: Robert Grafton was returned to the Parliaments of 1388 (Sept.), and 1390 (Jan.), Hugh Wigan to three running in 1386 and 1388, Thomas Pride to the successive assemblies of 1391, 1393 and 1394 and, later, to those of 1402 and 1404 (Jan.), Robert Whitcombe to the three Parliaments in 1420 and 1421, and William Horde to no fewer than five consecutive Parliaments summoned between 1414 (Nov.), and 1417. Although 11 out of the 25 Members of the period were elected (so far as is known) only once, some established long records of parliamentary service: Thomas Skinner represented Shrewsbury 12 times between 1371 and 1397, Thomas Pride did so 11 times between 1378 and 1414, William Horde ten between 1414 and 1429, and Robert Whitcombe eight between 1420 and 1442. In addition to his five elections to the Commons for Shrewsbury, Hugh Wigan could boast six more for the city of Hereford. Roger Corbet sat once for the county of Shropshire after once representing the borough, but David Holbache had been made a shire knight three times before he was returned for Shrewsbury in 1413 (May), and appeared twice more in that capacity before his final election as a burgess in 1417. A tradition of parliamentary service had grown up in several Shrewsbury families, notably those of Gamel, Geoffrey, Horde, Perle, Pride and Skinner. Two sons of Robert Thornes, Robert and Roger, represented the borough in this period, sitting together in 1410, and Roger’s own sons were to enter the Commons in the 1430s. John Geoffrey and Hugh Wigan were cousins. Roger Corbet, a member of the branch of the family seated at Moreton Corbet, was a son of Sir Roger Corbet*, brother of Robert* and uncle to Sir Roger and Thomas Corbet, all of them sometime knights of the shire.

Without exception, the MPs for Shrewsbury were all possessed of houses or shops in the town when elected to Parliament. Ownership of property being a necessary qualification for borough office, it probably also applied to candidacy for the Lower House, and it may perhaps be inferred that certain outsiders purchased premises in Shrewsbury only to qualify for election. If they felt obliged to do so, it perhaps indicates that the burgesses were determined to preserve their independence from outside interference in the choice of representatives. David Holbache, a prominent lawyer and retainer of the earl of Arundel, nevertheless sought admission to the freedom of Shrewsbury, and was actually serving as a bailiff in the year of his first return for the borough (1413). But clearly he was no ordinary burgess, for his landed and other interests were centred in the main on Oswestry. Thomas Berwick, who was elected in 1399 probably only as an outcome of local feuds, was a ‘foreign’ member of the Shrewsbury guild merchant. But these two were exceptions. The general rule appears to have been that, in practice, a burgess had to have successfully discharged some kind of office in the town before he was even considered for election to the Commons. Only two MPs of this period were seemingly never borough officials: Thomas Berwick and Thomas Gamel. Seventeen out of the 25 were sometime assessors, usually for more than one annual term, and 12 served as coroners. (Only one instance, however, occurred of a coroner being elected while in office: Roger Corbet in 1419.) As many as 19 Members acted at some stage as bailiffs. Indeed, it was far from unusual for one of the current bailiffs to be returned to Parliament—this happened on 13 occasions in our period. On five other occasions a bailiff who was soon to retire or had only recently done so was elected. And to the few Parliaments so far not considered, the borough invariably sent a member of the council of 12, an assessor, or the borough attorney (in 1399 Nicholas Gerard, then also town clerk, and in 1402 Roger Thornes).

Most of the parliamentary burgesses belonged to one of the many Shrewsbury guilds,15 numbering among them two mercers, a merchant, a vintner, three drapers and a fletcher. Out of probably as many as six members of the legal profession the most important was David Holbache, who, having been Richard II’s pleader and a justiciar in Wales, was, at the time of his first return for the borough, currently serving as custos rotulorum for the county of Shropshire. Several other Shrewsbury MPs were like Holbache, at least in the sense that they possessed a status superior to that of mere burgess. Richard Bentley and Roger Thornes were described as ‘gentlemen’, and Nicholas Gerard, Urian St. Pierre and Roger Corbet even as ‘esquires’. All of this group were landowners in Shropshire and some elsewhere as well: for instance, the Thornes family came from Staffordshire and continued to possess interests there, and Thomas Skinner owned property as far away as Essex. Not surprisingly, certain of these men were appointed to royal commissions dealing with affairs of the shire and the march, Holbache being kept almost continually active on such bodies from 1378 to 1420, in Wales and the lordships of Oswestry, Bromfield and Yale as well as in Shropshire; he was the only parliamentary burgess for Shrewsbury in this period to be made a j.p. And such men naturally became closely connected with others of the county gentry, by marriage in some instances: Roger Corbet married the only daughter of Sir William Lichfield; Urian St. Pierre was the brother-in-law of a sometime sheriff, Sir Roger Acton; and Thomas Skinner was related to Sir Hamon Vaughan. Beneath this veneer of propriety, however, lay a considerable amount of violence, and the incidence of crime among Shrewsbury MPs was remarkably high. Not only were there aggressive feuds (such as that between Nicholas Gerard and Urian St. Pierre), but inevitably manslaughter (involving Richard Aldescote), assault (Roger Corbet, Nicholas Gerard and William Horde), and embezzlement or other fraud (Thomas Pride and John Shotton). In 1414 the King’s bench sat at Shrewsbury because the rate of homicides in Shropshire was higher than that of any other county. Even so, matters did not noticeably improve later in the century, and one of our Members, William Horde, himself fell victim to murderers.16

Author: L. S. Woodger

Notes

  • 1. The Christian name is erased on the return. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1105 lists John Thornes, but, with no man of that name traced, it seems reasonable to assume that Robert Thornes’s colleague in 1410 was his brother Roger.
  • 2. C219/11/3, discovered since the compilation of OR. Only one name is legible.
  • 3. Prynne, iv. 1105.
  • 4. H. Owen and J.B. Blakeway, Hist. Shrewsbury, i. 548 (unverified).
  • 5. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 142; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), ii. 21, based on Shrewsbury Guildhall, box VI, 161.
  • 6. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), ix. 101-2; VCH Salop, i. 419; E.M. Carus-Wilson, Med. Merchant Venturers, 5; Shrewsbury Guildhall, box II, 67; HMC 15th Rep. X, 4; Owen and Blakeway, i. 204-6; CPR, 1391-6, p. 495; 1396-9, p. 181.
  • 7. CPR, 1399-1401, p. 359; 1401-5, pp. 137, 140, 280, 285, 293; 1405-8, p. 414; 1441-6, p. 411; SC8/72/3554, 252/12585; RP, iii. 597, 618; Shrewsbury Guildhall, box VIII, 353, 354.
  • 8. CPR, 1381-5, pp. 2, 442; Shrewsbury Guildhall, box VIII, 349, 350, 354, 355.