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|1388 (Feb.)||John Newton I|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Newton I|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Newton I|
|John Snell I|
|1391||John Newton I|
|1397 (Jan.)||John Wylaston|
|Thomas Barber II|
|1404 (Jan.)||Roger Coton|
|1411||Thomas Barber II|
|1413 (May)||Thomas Barber II|
|1414 (Nov.)||Sampson Erdeswyk|
|Robert Whitgreve 1|
|1416 (Mar.)||Henry Fenton|
|John Parker IV|
|1421 (May)||John Harper|
|1421 (Dec.)||Adam Edgeley|
During the Middle Ages Stafford occupied an important strategic position on the major route from London to Chester and the north-west. Standing at a crossing-place on the river Sow at the junction of several small valleys, it was chosen in 913 by Aethelflaeda of Mercia as the site of a ‘burh’, and by 1016 it had assumed the status of a county town with a royal mint.2 The years immediately after the Norman Conquest proved a troubled period in its history. By 1086 the castle had fallen into ruins, the King’s fee farm had been reduced from £9 to £7, and 52 of the 164 recorded messuages were then vacant. Although the borough enjoyed a measure of economic recovery, it never became really prosperous, for despite the relative fertility of the surrounding countryside, the county of Staffordshire as a whole was poor. A number of wool merchants lived in Stafford from the mid 14th century onwards, but the manufacture and sale of woollens was never properly developed and trade in general was largely confined to local markets. However, the slow growth of other towns in the county worked to Stafford’s advantage. According to the lay subsidy returns of 1332-3, it was more heavily taxed than either Lichfield or Newcastle-under-Lyme, although the somewhat limited evidence of the 1377 poll tax would suggest that its population then stood at less than 1,000.3
Stafford was a royal borough, and as such was represented by its own jury at the eyre of 1199. It obtained its first charter from King John in 1206, when the burgesses were confirmed in all their accustomed liberties in return for a fee farm which, from 1130, if not before, had stood at £3 6s.8d. a year. The townspeople received several grants of murage from the Crown during the later Middle Ages, and as a result of a charter awarded to them by Henry III in 1261 they began to hold an annual fair during the last week of February. These two charters were confirmed by Edward II in 1315 upon payment of the unusually large sum of 100 marks, although subsequent letters of confirmation proved far less expensive. The borough’s privileges were further extended by Henry IV, who, in March 1412, permitted a second annual fair, which was to take place in May.4 Since Stafford did not possess a guild merchant as such, questions of government and finance were settled by the confraternity of St. Mary, membership of which probably brought with it the freedom of the borough. By 1233 the municipal hierarchy was headed by two bailiffs, who accounted annually on 1 Nov. for the money passing through their hands. Only one such account has survived for the period under review. It covers the year ending November 1412, and records total receipts of £57 10s.5d. Almost all this money came from tolls and profits of justice, most notably the ‘great court’ held at Easter, which that year raised over £8 10s. for the borough’s coffers. The bailiffs were also responsible for maintaining the fabric of the town walls, gates and bridge, as well as leasing out certain property and supervising sessions of court. Their labours were, however, generously rewarded with a payment of £6 10s.7d. in fees and expenses. A passing reference to the treasurer suggests that some aspects of finance lay outside their control, but the duties of this obscure official remain unknown.5
In practice, the most dominant influence in medieval Stafford was exercised not by the Crown but by the Stafford family. Their position as titular lords (and later earls) of a town which had been deliberately placed outside their control by the Conqueror was indeed anomalous, especially since one of their chief residences lay about a mile to the south and they owned or were chief lords of most of the countryside around. The royal castle of Stafford, which was rebuilt in 1102, served as little more than a county gaol: by February 1391 the fabric of the building had deteriorated so badly that it was considered unwise to keep prisoners there lest they should escape.6 How different was the first earl of Stafford’s own impressive seat which he built in 1348 (upon or near the site of an earlier manor-house) to provide an assembly point for his retainers in Staffordshire, Cheshire and the Welsh marches, as well as an administrative centre for the family’s extensive estates in the north-east Midlands. As late as 1521, when the buildings had fallen into decay, visitors remarked upon the site, which dominated the area for miles:
The Castell standeth nygh a myle from the toune [Stafford] upon soo goodly an height that all the contrey may be seen xxt or xxxti myles aboute and oon way a man may see to the Kynnge’s lordship of Caurs in Wales xxx myles from thennes and an other way to the Kynnge’s Honour of Tutbury.7
The castle was indeed a physical manifestation of the power of the house of Stafford, although during the period under review its authority was greatly curbed because of the extreme youth of four successive earls.
Stafford first appears to have sent burgesses to Parliament in 1295, and from then onwards two Members sat regularly in the Commons. The electoral procedure remains undocumented, since the original writ of summons was merely endorsed by the sheriff of Staffordshire with the names of the two elected burgesses. Returns have survived for only 21 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421. Because we do not know who represented the borough on any of the other occasions it is impossible to give more than a general idea of the relative experience of the 19 Members considered here. Even so, there can be little doubt that the electors of Stafford either showed a marked preference for men who had previously attended the Commons, or else were obliged through a lack of suitable candidates to return the same Members over and over again. Only once, in 1419, did two apparent novices enter Parliament together, although in view of the earlier gaps in the returns there is a strong possibility that at least one of them had been returned before. Two experienced Members served in a minimum of nine Parliaments, and one in ten or more during our period. Re-election seems to have been fairly common: John Newton I sat consecutively in the three Parliaments of February and September 1388 and January 1390; John Wylaston was re-elected in January 1397; in 1407 both Members of the previous Parliament, Thomas Jockery and John Huntingdon, were re-elected; and in 1419 there began over ten years of almost complete continuity during which John Harper and Robert Whitgreve virtually monopolized the representation of the borough.
Whitgreve, whose record of service in the Commons remained unchallenged throughout the 15th century (although it had been bettered earlier on, by William Wightman*), sat for Stafford in every Parliament for which returns are extant between 1420 and 1442, having previously been elected on at least three occasions from 1411 onwards. Altogether, he took part in no less than 20 Parliaments (in those of 1445 and November 1449 representing the shire), and in this he stands unique among his contemporaries. His friend and colleague, John Harper, sat nine times (once, in 1431, for Staffordshire), and three of the other MPs whose careers are under review (Thomas Jockery, John Newton I and Richard Stanford) were returned six times if not more. Nicholas Snell and John Baxter both served in five Parliaments. Three of their colleagues sat three times, two twice and seven once, although due allowance must be made for the gaps in the returns. Only one MP, the courtier, Adam Edgeley, sat for another borough, namely Hereford, which he represented in 1423; and as we have already seen the lawyers, Harper and Whitgreve, eventually became shire knights.
With the exception of Thomas Jockery, who remains unidentified despite his six returns to Parliament, all these men had some connexion with Staffordshire, and most were familiar figures in Stafford itself. At least eight (and probably far more) served as bailiff there. John Baxter may perhaps have represented the borough in 1378 while still in office, although it was not until the return of Robert Whitgreve in 1429 that one of the two current bailiffs is definitely known to have entered the Commons. Because so little documentary evidence is now available for later medieval Stafford most of our MPs remain rather shadowy figures. None the less, 14 of their number clearly came from families living in or near the borough. A bare minimum of ten owned property in Stafford, while 11 had tenements, farms or estates elsewhere in the shire. Only three Members held land in other counties: John Harper acquired manors in Essex, Middlesex, Kent and Leicestershire; Robert Whitgreve bought property in Worcestershire and Shropshire; and Sampson Erdeswyk married an heiress with estates in Leicestershire and Oxfordshire. All three men were lawyers, and although Erdeswyk never became a shire knight (as did his two colleagues), this was certainly not through a lack of personal wealth or influence. Unlike Erdeswyk, who belonged to one of the leading families in Staffordshire, the majority of our Members seem to have been tradesmen or farmers on a relatively small scale. Richard Stanford, a skinner, John Baxter, a draper, and Thomas Barber II, a yeoman, were perhaps fairly representative of those MPs who did not earn their living as lawyers or servants of the Crown. Robert Whitgreve, who became a teller of the Exchequer in 1415 and a royal serjeant at arms in 1423, combined the law and a career in central government with other service at Court, while Adam Edgeley and John Parker IV were both yeomen grooms to successive Lancastrian kings and the holders of various royal offices. Like many other retainers who began their careers in the affinity of Edmund, earl of Stafford, the two men turned to the Crown for patronage on their lord’s death at the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Thus, although at first glance they may appear to have been royal placemen imposed upon the burgesses of Stafford by Henry V or his agents, their previous record of service with the late earl must have recommended them to the electorate.
As the greatest and most powerful landowners in the north-east Midlands, the earls of Stafford were able to build up strong and lasting relations with local families, whose loyalty remained constant, despite the debilitating effect of three long minorities spread almost continuously over the years 1386 to 1423. Thus, most of the MPs under review had some connexion with the earls, if only as mesne tenants. At least eight of them rented land from their estates in and around the Stafford area, and four (John Clifton, Adam Edgeley, John Huntingdon and John Parker IV) entered the Commons as retainers or former retainers of Earl Hugh (d.1386) or one of his sons. Both Robert Whitgreve and John Harper established really close relations with Humphrey, earl of Stafford (later duke of Buckingham), during the course of their parliamentary careers, but it was not until after his last return that Thomas Barber II rose to prominence as one of Earl Humphrey’s leading employees. The last three examples in particular serve to disprove J.C. Wedgwood’s belief that from 1399 onwards either one, or sometimes even both, of the Members for Stafford were returned on the strength of their connexion with the baronial family.8 On the contrary, since the earls (and their trustees during minorities) lost no time in recruiting the most able local men as estate managers or councillors, they inevitably numbered several MPs among their staff. Some, like Harper and Whitgreve, had already sat in the Commons, while others owed their election to personal influence rather than patronage. Indeed, during the first half of the 15th century at least, Earl Humphrey and his agents had no reason to question the burgesses’ choice of parliamentary representatives, since it accorded so closely with their own interests.
Although not due to intervention by the earls of Stafford, a change in the social position and general experience of MPs is discernible from about 1400 onwards. After this date the electors tended to choose richer men whose influence not only extended throughout Staffordshire but also, in certain cases, made itself felt in Westminster as well. Thus, whereas no lawyers are known to have sat during the first half of our period, we find two serving together in the Parliaments of 1414 (Nov.), 1420 and 1421 (May), thereby establishing a pattern which was to continue throughout the 1420s. Sampson Erdeswyk’s return in 1414 (Nov.) was quite probably engineered by his powerful brother, Hugh*, whose violent feuds with a series of local landowners (including the duchy of Lancaster) had reduced the county to near anarchy for several years, but it does not otherwise look as if these protracted vendettas had any direct effect upon the representation of the borough. On the contrary, the courtiers, Edgeley and Parker, were returned during the second decade of the 15th century: both had previously served on royal commissions and both were currently employed in minor posts by the Crown. Parker may have sat in the Commons of 1419 when deputy to Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, the admiral of England, although the date of his appointment to the post remains unknown. He was certainly on close terms with Beaufort, who had been his patron for several years. Only three other MPs participated in the business of local government, in each case well after their first return to Parliament. During the course of his long career as Member for Stafford, Robert Whitgreve was appointed to at least 27 commissions, served five terms as escheator of Staffordshire, sat on the local bench and became an employee of the duchy of Lancaster. His friend, John Harper, assumed the responsibilities of office after his days as an MP were over, for it was not until later life that his legal and financial expertise was utilized by the Crown. He did, however, represent the borough in 1429 while serving a term as escheator of Staffordshire. Thomas Barber II had possibly been made coroner of Staffordshire before his last return in May 1413, but his other posts as alnager of the county and escheator of Shropshire and the adjacent Welsh march came to him well after that date.