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|1386||Sir William Shareshull|
|1388 (Feb.)||Sir John Ipstones|
|1388 (Sept.)||Sir Thomas Aston|
|1390 (Jan.)||Sir Nicholas Stafford|
|1390 (Nov.)||Sir Nicholas Stafford|
|1391||Sir John Bagot|
|1393||Sir Thomas Aston|
|William Walsall 1|
|1394||Sir John Ipstones|
|1395||Sir William Shareshull|
|1397 (Jan.)||Sir John Bagot|
|Sir Robert Francis|
|1397 (Sept.)||Sir John Bagot|
|1399||Sir Thomas Aston|
|Sir Robert Francis|
|1401||Sir John Bagot|
|Sir Robert Francis|
|1404 (Jan.)||Ralph Stafford|
|1404 (Oct.)||Sir John Bagot|
|Sir Robert Francis|
|1406||Sir Thomas Aston|
|Sir Humphrey Stafford II|
|1407||Sir John Bagot|
|Sir William Newport|
|1411||Sir John Bagot|
|Sir William Newport|
|1413 (May)||Sir Thomas Gresley|
|1414 (Apr.)||John Meverel|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Meverel|
|Sir William Newport|
|1416 (Mar.)||Humphrey Haughton|
|1419||Sir Thomas Gresley|
|Sir Richard Vernon|
|1420||William Lee II|
|1421 (May)||Sir John Bagot|
|1421 (Dec.)||Hugh Erdeswyk|
Returns for Staffordshire have survived for all but five of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421, the others having been lost. We know the names of 24 of the men who represented the county during this period. Even allowing for the limitations of the evidence, it is clear that the electors of Staffordshire had a marked preference for candidates with experience of the Commons, and on six occasions, if not more, they chose MPs who, although new to the county, had previously been returned elsewhere. Only twice, in 1386 and 1388 (Feb.) do two complete novices appear to have been elected together. In slightly more than a third of the Parliaments considered here (11 in all) one of the Members was probably entering the Lower House for the first time, but gaps in the returns make it impossible to be certain about this, particularly towards the end of our period. On the other hand, we can be sure that the county was represented by two experienced men on at least 14 occasions. Re-election seems to have been much less common. Only once, in the Parliament of 1390 (Nov.), did complete continuity occur, although in seven other Parliaments, if not more, one of the two Members was re-elected. It is noteworthy that between September 1388 and 1394 first John Delves and then William Walsall sat in three consecutive Parliaments. As far as the representation of Staffordshire alone is concerned, the general average of experience of just over three Parliaments is not particularly striking, although Sir Nicholas Stafford and William Walsall stand out with nine apearances each, and Sir John Bagot with eight. Yet when election elsewhere is taken into account, the overall average rises to between four and five Parliaments.
Seven of the 24 MPs are known to have sat for other counties, and two, William Lee II and John Mynors, for the Staffordshire borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, which both represented before becoming shire knights. Five MPs were returned for Derbyshire, and although all had strong interests in Staffordshire, the knights Thomas Gresley, Richard Vernon, and Robert Francis held the bulk of their estates across the county border and were more closely involved in local government there. Sir Humphrey Stafford II is unique in that his one return for Staffordshire was followed by service as a shire knight for Dorset in no less than ten Parliaments, while his uncle, Ralph, had three times represented Worcestershire before being chosen by the electors at Stafford. Several Members were thus well acquainted with the workings of Parliament over a long period. William Walsall’s appearances were spread over almost 50 years, while Sir John Bagot, William Lee II, Sir Thomas Aston, Sir Robert Francis and Sir Humphrey Stafford II could boast parliamentary careers of between 26 and 30 years’ duration. Sir Richard Vernon was to become Speaker of the Commons in 1426 while sitting for Derbyshire, but none of the other MPs considered here ever occupied that office.
In every one of the nine Parliaments which met between 1386 and January 1397 Staffordshire was represented by one knight by rank and one esquire. Two knights were returned together on seven occasions over the next 14 years, and again in 1419, although from 1402 onwards there was an increasing tendency for the electors to choose two candidates who were both esquires or gentlemen. With the notable exception of William Walsall (who was probably richer and certainly more influential than many of his colleagues with knighthoods), the knights returned during our period tended to have far more parliamentary experience than the esquires.
All 24 MPs held land in Staffordshire, either through marriage (although only Rustin Villeneuve, who was reputedly French, owed all his possessions there to his wife), purchase or inheritance. Indeed, no less than 19 of their number are known to have come of families with strong local connexions, which can often be traced back to the 13th century or even earlier. The names of Aston, Bagot, Delves, Ipstones, Stafford, Shareshull and Swynnerton continued to figure prominently on the parliamentary scene very much as before, being joined by those of men who had more recently built up estates in the county. Even those landowners whose possessions lay principally in Derbyshire derived a substantial part of their income from property in Staffordshire. At least 20 of our MPs had territorial interests in other parts of England and Wales, most often in Cheshire, Shropshire and the central and north-east Midlands, but some, such as Sir Thomas Gresley, Sir Richard Vernon and Rustin Villeneuve held estates further north as well. Sir Humphrey Stafford II’s great inheritance of land which extended over ten counties and produced more than £570 a year was not yet in his hands when he sat for Staffordshire in 1406, so we cannot tell how rich he then was. Nor is it any easier to compute the relative wealth of his parliamentary colleagues, although there can be little doubt that both Sir Thomas Gresley and Sir Richard Vernon enjoyed landed incomes of about £200 a year in later life, and that Sir John Bagot was sure of at least half this sum. Ralph Stafford must have been almost as prosperous, yet his estates were certainly no more extensive than those belonging to many of the other shire knights under review.
During the late 14th and early 15th centuries almost all the men who represented Staffordshire in Parliament owed their social position to the ownership of land. With the exception of William Lee II (and probably Richard Lane), none appear to have been lawyers. Rustin Villeneuve was primarily a soldier, although he was by no means alone in possessing a distinguished record of military service. A further 14 shire knights went on campaigns abroad at some point in their careers, often in the retinues of noblemen with estates in Staffordshire. Thus, Sir Thomas Aston, Sir John Ipstones, Sir Humphrey Stafford II and Ralph Stafford were retained by successive earls of Stafford; Ipstones also went overseas with John of Gaunt, as did Sir John Bagot, Sir William Newport (a commander later noted for his bravery in Prince Henry’s Welsh campaigns) and John Swynnerton. Sir Nicholas Stafford spent much of his youth in the service of the Black Prince and his brother Lionel, earl of Ulster; his kinsman, Ralph Stafford, fought in one of the free companies and also took part in the bishop of Norwich’s ill-fated crusade of 1383. John Delves, Sir Thomas Gresley, John Mynors, Sir Richard Vernon and probably Hugh Erdeswyk also saw action in France, while William Walsall gained his military experience with Richard II in Ireland. Ten of these men, if not more, had been involved in at least one campaign on first being returned for Staffordshire.2 Despite the length and impressiveness of their service as soldiers, Sir John Bagot (sometime deputy to Sir Thomas Beaufort as captain of Calais) and Sir William Newport (who became constable of Beaumaris castle) remained closely involved in local government, for like the great majority of shire knights considered here they were no less active as administrators and agents of law enforcement.
Save for the soldier, Rustin Villeneuve, and Roger Longridge, an obscure figure about whom little is known, all of our MPs were employed locally as crown servants or royal commissioners at some point in their lives. Six of them had served as sheriff of Staffordshire on first being returned for that county, although only Sir Robert Francis had by then occupied another shrievalty elsewhere (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire).3 A further seven became sheriffs (usually more than once) during the course of their parliamentary careers;4 and two of them actually sat in the Commons while in office, thus disregarding the writs of summons which prohibited the return of sheriffs. John Delves was made sheriff of Staffordshire five days before the Parliament of November 1390—to which he had previously been elected—actually met; and Sir Thomas Gresley represented Staffordshire in 1419 while serving as sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Three MPs attained the rank of sheriff after their last appearance in Parliament. It is interesting to note the wide experience which some of these men acquired in office, both in terms of length of service and movements from one county to another. William Walsall, for example, was five times sheriff of Staffordshire, while Aymer Lichfield spent two terms as sheriff there and two more across the county boundary in Warwickshire and Leicestershire. In all, Sir Robert Francis was in office as a sheriff in the north Midlands for over six years of his life.
Only four of our men had been escheators before they sat for Staffordshire (Lane, Lee, Lichfield and Swynnerton), although two more (Bagot and Walsall) were appointed by the date of their last return. Five out of the six represented the county in Parliament during one or more of their terms as escheator, William Walsall in November 1380, Aymer Lichfield in 1386 and 1395, John Swynnerton in 1402, Sir John Bagot in 1407 and Richard Lane in 1426. John Delves did not become escheator of Staffordshire until he had made his last appearance in the Commons. A somewhat larger number of men were appointed to commissions of the peace, although only five of them (Francis, Lane, Lee, Lichfield and Vernon) sat on the Staffordshire bench before being chosen by the county electors for the first time (Ralph Stafford had, however, served for a short time in Worcestershire). Five others became j.p.s between their first and last returns for Staffordshire, and three more achieved that position in later life. So far as is known a current member of the Staffordshire bench sat in nine of the 15 Parliaments which met between September 1388 and 1406, although none seem to have been returned again until 1419. In May and December 1421, however, both shire knights were then justices. Of the 24 men whose careers are under review all but two (Villeneuve and Longridge) were appointed to ad hoc royal commissions, and taken as a whole their experience of service on such bodies was considerable. No less than 13 of them sat on six or more commissions during their lives, although some, of whom the most notable are Vernon and Sir Humphrey Stafford II, only became really active after they had ceased to represent Staffordshire in Parliament.
Valuable administrative experience was not confined to the offices described above. Aymer Lichfield’s election to the Parliament of 1395 occurred when he was alnager of Staffordshire. William Walsall, sometime marshal of the hall to Richard II, proved himself equally useful to Henry IV, and it was as constable of Dynevor that he attended the Parliament of 1402. Sir William Newport was similarly returned in November 1414 while occupying the constableship of Beaumaris castle. Both William Lee II and Sir Richard Vernon became deputy justiciars of South Wales, and sat as such in the Commons during the 1430s. As we have already seen, Sir John Bagot spent one year in the deputy constableship of Calais and also served on an embassy to Burgundy before his last return to Parliament. On the other hand, neither Rustin Villeneuve nor Sir Richard Vernon (who held many important posts, including that of treasurer of Calais) achieved prominence until much later in their lives.
The period under review coincides almost exactly with four of the most turbulent decades in the history of later medieval Staffordshire. The unusual turn of events which left the three most powerful baronial families in the county almost continuously without an adult head, while the fourth (the Bassets of Drayton) became extinct, caused a general breakdown in the traditional pattern of allegiance, and also meant that feuds between local landowners went largely unchecked. Although the surviving legal records present an exaggerated picture of the collapse of law and order—particularly where the misdeeds of Hugh Erdeswyk and his supporters are concerned—it cannot be denied that the absence of controls from above had a generally harmful effect upon society. The death in battle of Edmund, 5th earl of Stafford, in 1403, barely three years after his coming of age, once again deprived the house of Stafford of the predominance which it had enjoyed during the mid 14th century. Yet such was its influence in the county that even when the young earls themselves were unable to direct their own affairs their kinsmen and retainers were often returned to Parliament, albeit not as frequently as had been the case before. Sir Nicholas Stafford, a cousin of the 2nd earl (d.1386), who headed the latter’s council and subsequently directed the administration of the family estates, sat in nine Parliaments between January 1377 and November 1390. At the time of his election, in February 1388, Roger Longridge was one of the deceased earl’s annuitants. The kinsmen, Ralph and Sir Humphrey Stafford II, were returned respectively in 1404 and 1406. Sir Thomas Aston, whose connexion with the baronial family dated back to 1375, if not before, served briefly as treasurer of Earl Edmund’s household during the course of his parliamentary career, and his colleague, Roger Bradshaw, the chamberlain, was returned later in 1416. Sir Richard Vernon, Hugh Erdeswyk and William Lee II did not become associated with the 6th earl (who was made duke of Buckingham in 1444) until after he came of age in 1421, since it was only then that men of their position felt they could derive any real personal benefit from serving him.
Both the Audleys and the Dudleys were similarly weakened by long minorities, and as a result they were unable to fill the political vacuum left by the temporary eclipse of the house of Stafford. Far from helping to keep the peace, Edmund, Lord Ferrers of Chartley, another member of the local baronage who succeeded to his father’s estates in 1413, became involved in a bitter feud with Hugh Erdeswyk. His adherents in this vendetta included Sir John Bagot and John Meverel, while Erdeswyk was supported by John Mynors, Sir William Newport and Sir Thomas Gresley. Erdeswyk’s misdeeds had already been the subject of a petition to the Parliament of 1410, and in April 1414 the Commons were again obliged to consider the problem of endemic violence in Staffordshire. A long series of indictments was heard against Erdeswyk and his retainers before the court of King’s bench at Lichfield in 1414, Henry V himself being present in court as part of his tour of law enforcement in the Midlands. No doubt chastened by their encounter with the King, the miscreants escaped further punishment and were fully pardoned not long afterwards.5
The ineffectiveness of the officials of the duchy of Lancaster in controlling these and other disturbances is only too apparent, especially in view of the potential reserves of territorial influence and patronage available to them in Staffordshire. Indeed, it actually looks as if some of the local unrest was directed against employees of the duchy, who monopolized the clientage network and otherwise abused their position. John of Gaunt and his descendants may sometimes have used their authority as dukes of Lancaster to secure the return of acceptable parliamentary candidates, but this cannot have been done overtly, as only two such office-holders were returned during our period. John Mynors, who had in his youth joined with Erdeswyk, in attacking several eminent duchy officers, but who was eventually recruited into their ranks, may perhaps have been made a shire knight on the strength of his new connexion. He sat in the Parliaments of 1420, 1431 and 1437 when bailiff-feodary of the duchy property in Staffordshire, and also held other less important posts there. Sir Robert Francis was constable of Castle Donnington (which formed part of the duchy’s Leicestershire estates) at the time of his election to the Parliament of October 1404, but the other Staffordshire MPs who entered the service of the duchy had either ceased to be employed by the date of their first return (as had Roger Bradshaw), or were not to obtain their appointments until after they last sat in the Commons (this being the case with Sir Thomas Gresley and Sir Richard Vernon).
Yet from 1399 onwards the house of Lancaster could none the less rely upon the support of a body of Staffordshire MPs whose commitment was dictated by a combination of loyalty and self-interest. With the exception of Aymer Lichfield, who apparently died in disgrace after his removal from the Staffordshire bench in 1399, even those MPs noted for their partisanship of Richard II made a rapid and evidently convincing change of allegiance. Rustin Villeneuve, a retainer of the earl of Rutland with a personal grudge against the Lords Appellant, was clearly returned to the Parliament of September 1397 as a royal placeman, although he received every mark of royal favour, including a knighthood, from Henry IV. Like Sir John Bagot, whose brother, Sir William*, was one of Richard II’s most trusted councillors, the crown servant, William Walsall, became a prop of the Lancastrian regime within months of the change of dynasty. Many of their parliamentary colleagues showed an attachment to Henry IV which was less blatantly opportunist. Both Sir Thomas Aston and Sir Thomas Gresley joined Henry on his landing at Ravenspur in 1399; Sir Robert Francis (who was knighted soon afterwards) and Sir William Newport (a retainer of John of Gaunt since 1386) may also have played an active part in the usurpation; and Roger Bradshaw, Sir William Shareshull, Sir Humphrey and Ralph Stafford and John Swynnerton were all zealous supporters of the new King. In each of the seven Parliaments which met between 1399 and 1407 both of the Members for Staffordshire were known adherents of the house of Lancaster (albeit recent ones), some of whom had taken up arms in order to keep it in power. On the whole, the gentry of Staffordshire were disposed to follow the lead set by Edmund, earl of Stafford, who died fighting for Henry IV at the battle of Shrewsbury, so the Crown did not necessarily have to intervene in county elections to the extent of nominating men for election, still less of imposing them.
The surviving electoral indentures show no signs of any outside influences at work, although from time to time the sheriff appears to have used his position to ensure the return of a particular candidate. The election of two such firm supporters of the court party as Sir John Bagot and Rustin Villeneuve to the Parliament of September 1397 may well have owed something to the sheriff, William Walsall, who was then marshal of the hall to Richard II. During the early years of Henry IV’s reign, the sheriffs of Staffordshire were almost all retainers of the Crown, which helps to explain why so many MPs shared their political sympathies. Sir Humphrey Stafford II combined loyalty and family feeling by securing the return of his uncle, Ralph, to the Parliament of January 1404. On the whole, the electors of Staffordshire came from leading county families, members of which had either been, or were to be, returned to Parliament through discreet management of this kind. During the turbulent period between 1407 and 1416 when the local gentry were divided into rival camps, both sides were fairly evenly represented among the electorate. We do not know who sat for Staffordshire in the Parliament of 1410 when these feuds were being condemned, but in 1407, 1411 and November 1414 each faction had its own representative in the Commons. Erdeswyk and a friend, Sir Thomas Gresley, occupied both seats in May (and probably also February) 1413, no doubt through the influence of the sheriff, Sir Thomas Dethick, who was himself related to Erdeswyk by marriage. A final reconciliation took place in 1421, when Erdeswyk’s followers returned Sir John Bagot to the May Parliament and Bagot cast his vote for Erdeswyk in the following December.6