Southwark

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
1386Henry Thymelby
 William Beeche
1388 (Feb.)John Northampton
 William Porter I
1388 (Sept.)Roger Chandler
 Richard atte Vine
1390 (Jan.)William Wintringham
 John Mucking
1390 (Nov.)
1391William Spalding
 Walter Segrave 1
1393John Solas
 Thomas Solas
1394
1395John Solas
 John Mucking
1397 (Jan.)Thomas atte Gill
 John Mucking
1397 (Sept.)William Derby I
 John Mucking
1399Ralph Spalding
 John Parker II
1401
1402John Gofaire
 John Mucking
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Baker II
 Thomas Spencer
1407Thomas Colman
 John Deken
1410
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William Horton
 Thomas Spencer
1414 (Apr.)John William II
 John Welles II
1414 (Nov.)John Solas
 William Kirton
1415William Redstone
 Thomas Spencer
1416 (Mar.)John Solas
 John Mucking
1416 (Oct.)
1417William Kirton
 John Deken
1419Robert William
 John Welles II
1420William Kirton
 John Deken
1421 (May)William Redstone
 John Deken
1421 (Dec.)Thomas Dewy
 Thomas Lucas II

Main Article

Although Southwark cannot properly be described as a suburb of London until 1550, its earlier history was inseparably bound up with that of the City. It owed its very existence as a bridgehead settlement, founded by the Romans during the first century AD, to the establishment of a military and trading centre on the other bank of the Thames; and London’s subsequent expansion was reflected in the rapid development of Southwark as a residential area and market town. The reasons for this are clear enough, for with only one crossing over the Thames below Kingston both in Roman times and throughout the Middle Ages it was inevitable that most north or south bound traffic would converge on London Bridge. A network of roads—the best known of which, Watling Street, passed but a few miles to the south—brought large numbers of merchants and travellers into Southwark, while visitors from the continent either came by land from the Kent coast or sailed up the river direct. Foreign trade naturally played a major part in Southwark’s economic growth, as did the presence in the borough of many great houses or hostels: in the second and third centuries these belonged to wealthy merchants, and at a later date were built by such noblemen and influential prelates as required a town house when at Court or attending to business in the City. Less affluent visitors were accommodated in the various hostelries for which Southwark was famous; Geoffrey Chaucer* has left an agreeable picture of the Tabard Inn, where the Canterbury pilgrims ‘weren esed atte beste’, but not all these establishments were equally salubrious, or possessed such genial hosts. The business of catering for, and no doubt often exploiting, a sizeable itinerant population was a lucrative one, pursued from the earliest times by many of the resident townspeople, who also derived substantial profits from the sale of clothing and provisions to their neighbours across the river.

The withdrawal of Roman rule, especially since it coincided with subsidence and flooding in the Thames basin, naturally brought about a period of recession, and the ease of access which had previously worked to Southwark’s advantage now made it particularly vulnerable to the attacks of foreign invaders. The West Saxon kings recognized its military potential as a fortified burgh guarding the southern approaches to London, but whatever defences it may have possessed were destroyed—along with almost all the rest of the town—by the advancing Norman army in 1066.2 Nevertheless, the Domesday survey, compiled only 20 years later, shows Southwark to have been well on the way to economic recovery, with a population of at least 560, several burgages owned by lords with property elsewhere in Surrey and a flourishing herring industry. Ships had again begun to unload their cargoes there, which suggests that merchants and tradespeople were also taking up residence near the river. The almost complete destruction of the borough by fire in 1211 proved little more than a temporary set-back to its continued prosperity. Guildford, the county town of Surrey, certainly did not possess so many resources, and as late as 1332 appears to have been smaller and less affluent than Southwark, where the taxable population then stood at 114 and the total population was growing almost three times faster than in the county at large.3 This was chiefly because of the great diversity of local crafts and industries, which for the most part lay outside the control of the highly organized and monopolistic London guilds, and were therefore attractive to the small tradesman or entrepreneur.

Economic relations between Southwark and the capital remained ambivalent throughout the Middle Ages, for while resenting the competition offered by the brewers, bakers, fishmongers and clothiers who lived across the river (and were not therefore subject to the same stringent regulations), the city fathers were none the less happy to confine dangerous or unpleasant trades to the far side of London Bridge. Lime kilns were already in operation by the end of the 13th century, when the transition from wood to coal as a means of heating the furnaces gave rise to a number of complaints about the polluted atmosphere. Equally offensive, and considerably more dangerous to public health, were the slaughterhouses and tanneries which defied the law by disposing of carcasses and offal directly into the Thames. Even so, outsiders were quite prepared to settle in the borough, bringing with them new skills and helping to improve upon established ones. This was particularly true of the many foreigners who had taken up residence there by the middle of the 15th century. Most of these men were involved in either the clothing or leather trades, but some, ostensibly described as goldsmiths, were probably mainly engaged in commerce as money-lenders or brokers.4

The recurrent problem of local disorder which beset Southwark throughout the Middle Ages was in part caused by the constant coming and going of important nobles and churchmen with their ill-disciplined retinues. In this respect the clergy were as much to blame as the laity, and there are many instances of violent brawls between members of rival religious houses. The bishops of Winchester made regular use of their hostel in the borough: William of Wykeham and his successor, Henry Beaufort, both held high office and were therefore often in residence. Always conducted on a lavish scale, Beaufort’s hospitality could excel that of the royal court, as, indeed, it did in 1423 on the marriage of his niece, Joan, to James I of Scotland.5 But not all the gatherings which took place at his palace in Southwark were so festive: three years later the hostility between Beaufort and Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, had reached such a pitch that their respective followers assembled on opposite sides of London Bridge, ready for an armed confrontation. On this occasion bloodshed was narrowly averted, although the continued presence of Beaufort’s private bodyguard in the borough did little to dispel the tense atmosphere. Inevitably, political dissension in the capital made itself felt across the river. During the summer of 1405, when Henry IV seemed in danger of losing his throne, proclamations were made against the assembly of armed men in Southwark; and again, in 1409, the bailiffs received orders to prevent the wearing of swords by men of low degree. Popular outbreaks of discontent took place from time to time, usually in response to outside events. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a local mob joined with the rebels from Blackheath in pulling down the unpopular Marshalsea prison, releasing all the inmates and demolishing the gaolers’ houses. They also did considerable damage to the stews of Bankside, which their great enemy, William Walworth, the mayor of London, then leased from Bishop Wykeham.6 The attack was also inspired by hatred of the foreigners living in that part of the borough, for despite the cosmopolitan nature of medieval Southwark, settlers from abroad were often regarded with fear and suspicion. In 1436, for example, the townspeople accused certain Flemings who had acquired their own hostelries of harbouring ‘alle maner alienes and strangers, as wel Frenshmen and Picardes, as Flemmynges and alle other nacions, as wel adversaries to our Souverain Lord the Kyng as frendes’, and petitioned that in future no alien might be allowed to keep a lodging-house within the confines of the borough.7

Yet however disruptive it may have been, the existence of a sizeable foreign population was not the chief cause of Southwark’s unsavoury reputation as a haunt of dispossessed persons and criminals. Outlaws, escaped prisoners and other fugitives had for centuries taken refuge there simply because the system of local government was so weak and divided that no single authority possessed the power effectively to enforce law and order. Each of the five major landowners with interests in the borough clung tenaciously to their individual franchises, and there were frequent disputes over the implementation of judicial privileges. The Crown’s fiscal and administrative rights (later made over to the City) were restricted to an area known as the Gildable Manor. Although, until the 15th century, the sheriff of Surrey was theoretically free to exercise the return of writs and hold views of frankpledge there, many obstacles prevented him from exerting his powers to the full. Not least of these was the close proximity of four other manors exempt from the jurisdiction of the shire, hundred and borough. Both the prior of Bermondsey and the archbishop of Canterbury had the power to levy a wide range of fines and tolls in their manorial courts, while the bishop of Winchester, as lord of the notorious Clink liberty, held what was effectively a court of record with cognizance of cases of debt, trespass and breach of the peace.8 A significant part of the episcopal income derived from the stews, or brothels, of Bankside, which contributed greatly to the general lawlessness and violence of this part of the borough. Various regulations to control the stew-holders had been drawn up and sporadically enforced from the 12th century onwards, but judging by the repeated protests and petitions submitted by the more respectable burgesses of Southwark, these measures proved largely ineffectual. Having salved their own consciences by forcing the stew-holders to remove themselves south of the river, the citizens of London began to complain about the unruly element which congregated there. They had long wished to acquire administrative and economic control over Southwark and, seizing upon its lack of good government as a pretext for intervention, gradually began to achieve this end.9

Evidence of Southwark’s borough status has survived from a comparatively early date. It was one of the two defensive sites in Surrey listed in the Burghal Hidage of c.900, and although not specifically described as a borough in the Domesday survey, was by 1130 being taxed as one. It was first represented by its own jury at the eyre in 1235, a practice which continued throughout the later Middle Ages. According to an inquisition ordered by Henry III in 1251, the townspeople of Southwark were then paying tolls worth £10 a year to the sheriff of Surrey. These were subsequently farmed out to a succession of bailiffs appointed by the Crown, and in 1327 the mayor, aldermen and commonalty of London obtained a grant of the farm by royal charter. Although evidently made in response to a request for the power to attach criminals escaping from the City into Southwark, the award did not bestow any judicial privileges other than those implicit in the collection of the annual farm, and it was not until July 1406 that the citizens were accorded these powers of arrest, together with the return of writs in the borough. They also assumed control over the various assays held in Southwark at this time; and, having secured for themselves all the rights previously exercised by the royal clerk of the market, were at last in a position to eliminate any unwelcome competition from local tradesmen.10 Arguably, the City’s chief motive in its desire to limit Southwark’s independence was an economic one. For over a century the mayor and corporation had fought a losing battle against the forestallers and hucksters who exploited the people of London both by selling inferior goods or foodstuffs at inflated prices and creating artificial shortages of certain commodities. The authorities’ primary concern was to impose the same high standards upon the brewers and bakers of Southwark as obtained in the City, and this could only be done through the assizes of bread and ale held in the borough itself. The attack on forestalling was, however, far more than an attempt to provide reasonably priced food for the capital, since it brought the small craftsmen and shopkeepers of Southwark into direct conflict with the London guilds. The latter were anxious to restrict trade to their own members, and throughout the 15th century were engaged in extending this monopoly across the river. A third charter, awarded to the City in October 1444, made provision for the holding of an annual ‘piepowder’ court in Southwark, and it was here that representatives of the major guilds were able to discipline workmen who did not meet their exacting requirements. Certain of these bodies, such as the English weavers, had already been given powers of regulation in the borough, but all were anxious to see its complete absorption within the City boundaries.11

The burgesses of Southwark naturally tried hard to retain their freedom, but lacked the necessary organization and traditions of self-government to put up much of a defence. Having for centuries been subject to the conflicting authority of ecclesiastical landlords and royal officials, the townspeople found themselves in a particularly vulnerable position. They had no mayor or elected officers to speak on their behalf; nor were they able to exploit the changing political situation as successfully as their more powerful neighbours. The charter of 1327 had been awarded to the City by Queen Isabella out of gratitude for the support which it had given during the struggle to depose Edward II. That of 1406 followed a loan of £6,000 advanced by Richard Whittington* to Henry IV, whose financial and political difficulties made him particularly amenable to the mayor’s demands. Again, Henry VI’s grant of further privileges in 1444 appears to have been influenced by the Londoners’ willingness to raise money on his behalf, and may well have been the purchase price set upon their continued good will. Not that the Crown was always prepared to accede to such demands: during the 14th century, at least, its several franchises in the borough remained intact, and Edward III showed every sign of favouring the burgesses in their fight for independence. In June 1340, for example, they were granted the right of supervising the collection of pavage, previously exercised by the city bailiff. Several years later, in March 1373, the ‘good men of Southwark’ obtained a licence to build the Marshalsea prison, and thus acquired a useful weapon with which to resist the corporation’s encroachments in the borough.12

Although King Edward had exempted the citizens of London from the jurisdiction of the marshal of the royal household, his award did not extend to Southwark, where the court of the Marshalsea continued to override common law and local customs alike. The city authorities found these restrictions extremely frustrating, and in 1376 begged the King that their own law officers might be granted complete freedom from all outside intervention when making arrests within the confines of the old Gildable Manor. Such a major concession was not forthcoming, and for the next 30 years the mayor and sheriffs remained powerless to search that part of Southwark without the authority of a royal commission. Moreover, the burgesses themselves, possibly with encouragement from above, had petitioned in 1376 for the renewal of an old ‘Chartre de Franchise’ which had allegedly been destroyed by fire. No such document is ever known to have existed, and this attempt to secure a precise definition of hitherto unrecorded rights and privileges before they could be granted away was itself unsuccessful. All hopes of undermining the City’s influence came to an end in 1406, with the award of Henry IV’s charter to the mayor and corporation of London. A petition compiled by the residents of Southwark at this time shows clearly enough how hostile they felt towards those who claimed to have reduced the borough to the status of a mere suburb, and how bitterly they resented any intrusion upon their commercial activities. These protests proved fruitless, for although the King promised to give them his full consideration, nothing was in fact done to rectify the burgesses’ grievances.13 Despite this undercurrent of animosity, for most of the time relations between Southwark and the capital remained superficially unruffled. Many Londoners acquired property in the borough and a number of burgesses became members of city livery companies. None the less, it is interesting to note that, throughout the period under review, the electors of Southwark maintained a staunch independence in the choice of local men as MPs.

Southwark first sent burgesses to Parliament in 1295 and continued to do so regularly from then onwards. Returns have survived for only 23 of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421, and because of these gaps any remarks on the parliamentary experience of the 29 burgesses known to have been returned during our period are open to qualification. But so far as the evidence goes, the majority of these men, 19 in all, sat only once, three no more than twice, and a further three not more than three times. Both John Solas and John Deken were returned to four Parliaments, and William Kirton to five. With his eight elections spread over a period of 25 years (1381-1416) John Mucking’s parliamentary record was unique; not only in terms of experience, but also because he alone sat in three consecutive Parliaments. John Deken was re-elected to the Parliament of 1421 (May), but this is the only other known case of continuous service in our period. As might be expected with so many apparent newcomers to the parliamentary scene, Southwark was quite often represented by two men who had never been returned before. On perhaps nine occasions both MPs were novices; and on a further eight only one is known to have previously served in the Commons. There are, however, at least six instances of two experienced men being elected together, an event which took place more frequently from 1415 onwards. Indeed, in marked contrast to the earlier pattern of representation, only three new men seem to have been returned to the six Parliaments which met after this date. No Southwark MP appears ever to have sat for another constituency.

In our period it was the practice for brief returns to be made either for all the Surrey and Sussex boroughs together or, less frequently, for the Surrey boroughs alone. These documents provide nothing more than basic lists of Members and their mainpernors, and give no idea of the electoral procedure adopted in Southwark or, indeed, elsewhere in the county. The size of the Southwark electorate also remains open to conjecture, although it was probably quite large. Two of the 29 men returned by the burgesses between 1386 and 1421 remain unidentified, although their comparative obscurity, coupled with a strong tradition of representation by local men, suggests that they too lived in or near the borough. Enough evidence has survived clearly to establish residence in the case of all but one of their parliamentary colleagues (John Parker II), and even he is known to have had connexions in the Southwark area. At least 14, and probably more, of the MPs had either purchased or inherited property in the borough; three owned tenements in the neighbouring manors of Lambeth and Newington; and three, John Deken, John Mucking and William Wintringham, acquired premises in London for business purposes. Both John Welles II and William Porter I were occasionally described as ‘of London’, but although they carried on their trade as grocers in the capital, both lived across the river. Thomas Spencer, a Londoner, settled in Southwark at the time of his marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local man, and had been a resident for some years before his first election to Parliament.

Where they are known, the occupations of the parliamentary burgesses of Southwark reflect the diversity of trades and crafts practised by the townsmen. Two bakers, a chandler, a weaver, three grocers, a saddler, a carpenter, two brewers, an inn-keeper and a vintner sat for the borough in our period. Only one lawyer, John Solas, appears to have been returned, although it is possible that William Kirton, who served as a coroner of Surrey until his death in 1428, was also a member of the legal profession. Naturally enough, commercial interests predominated in a borough which depended for its prosperity upon a wide range of local industries, and which, during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, was struggling to retain its economic freedom. Most of the Southwark MPs formed a fairly close-knit group, acting as witnesses, feoffees and mainpernors for one another whenever occasion arose. At least six were evidently related, and some of these may well have been brothers: John and Thomas Solas sat together in the Parliament of 1393; William Spalding was returned in 1391 and Ralph Spalding eight years later; John William II and Robert William sat respectively in 1414 (Apr.) and 1419.

At least three of the MPs returned during our period played a prominent part in the affairs of London livery companies. John Deken became a warden, and John Welles II the master of the Grocers’ Company; and John Mucking, probably the richest man in Southwark, was made master of the Vintners’ Company and a common councillor of London while still a comparatively young man. Even so, and although clearly anxious to be represented in Parliament by men with influence in the City, the burgesses of Southwark showed a marked reluctance to elect any of the resident bailiffs appointed by the mayor and corporation. Walter Segrave, the only MP to hold this office, did so about 13 years after his one return to Parliament, at which time he had no known connexion in London. Most of the parliamentary burgesses of Southwark must at some time have come into contact with the noblemen and prelates whose hostels lay in the borough, but only two seem to have been retained by them on a formal basis. William Wintringham, one of the leading master carpenters of his day, was made surveyor and master of all John of Gaunt’s works in England in or before October 1374, and still occupied this important post at the time of his first election to Parliament, three years later. Notwithstanding his status as a local property owner, it looks very much as if Wintringham owed his return, on this occasion at least, to Gaunt’s intervention. John Solas had, by 1399, been engaged as bailiff of the prior of Bermondsey, on whose behalf he also pleaded in the court of King’s bench. His position as a clerk of this court (where he served for 30 years with special responsibility for the enrolment of the Surrey and Sussex records) made him particularly attractive as an employee. There were, however, many complaints in the Commons about the corrupt practices of King’s bench clerks, who were alleged to tamper with evidence prejudicial to their clients; and it may be assumed that Solas voiced a spirited defence of his profession when sitting in the House. A number of his colleagues acted as agents of the Crown or royal commissioners from time to time. Both he and William Kirton were made coroners of Surrey, although the latter’s appointment was purely temporary. Solas received a total of five royal commissions, three of which, appropriately enough, concerned the removal of the records of the court of King’s bench to certain towns on the assize circuit. John Mucking and William Wintringham were also instructed to undertake various specialized tasks, and, in common with no less than 13 of their colleagues they acted as tax collectors for the county of Surrey as well as in Southwark proper.

Author: C.R.

Notes

  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1130.
  • 2. D.J. Johnson, Southwark and the City, 2-11.
  • 3. VCH Surr. i. 285-7; J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 51, 142, 304; Chrons. Mayors and Sheriffs of London ed. Riley, 3; Surr. Rec. Soc. xi. 2, 5-7.
  • 4. CPR, 1281-92, pp. 207, 296; 1301-7, p. 549; VCH Surr. ii. 249-51; RP, iii. 669.
  • 5. VCH Surr. iv. 146.