Wells

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
1386Nicholas Cristesham
 Thomas Phelpes
1388 (Feb.)Richard Ferrour
 Nicholas Cristesham
1388 (Sept.)John Blithe
 Thomas Hore
1390 (Jan.)Nicholas More
 Thomas Tanner
1390 (Nov.)
1391John Newmaster
 Roger Chapman
1393John Newmaster
 John Blithe
1394John Newmaster
 Thomas Hore
1395Nicholas Cristesham
 John Comeland
1397 (Jan.)Nicholas More
 Thomas Wynchestre
1397 (Sept.)Roger Chapman
 William Greynton
1399Thomas Tanner
 John Blithe
1401
1402John Wycombe
 Roger Chapman
1404 (Jan.)Roger Chapman
 Richard Groos 1
1404 (Oct.)Walter Dyer
 John Bowyer 2
1406Thomas Wey
 Thomas Jay 3
1407Walter Duddesden
 John Newmaster
1410John Russell II
 Luke Wilton 4
1411
1413 (Feb.)John Horewode I
 John Podmore 5
1413 (May)John Horewode I
 Luke Wilton
1414 (Apr.)John Podmore
 Thomas Dynt 6
1414 (Nov.)John Hynden
 Thomas Dynt
1415
1416 (Mar.)
1416 (Oct.)Simon Bailly
 John Cutte 7
1417Richard Setter
 Hildebrand Elwell
1419Richard Perys
 Richard Langford
1420Richard Setter
 Hildebrand Elwell 8
1421 (May)Hildebrand Elwell
 Richard Perys 9
1421 (Dec.)Robert Elwell
 John Pedewell 10

Main Article

By the late 14th century Wells was one of the largest of Somerset towns: its population in 1377 was estimated to be about 1,352. The main cathedral town of a large diocese, it was under the lordship of the bishop of Bath and Wells, to whom, no communal fee farm having ever been established, its people still individually paid their fixed rents. The borough owed its privileges originally to a series of episcopal grants, these, however, being subsequently confirmed and extended by royal charters. The first concessions to the inhabitants had been made by Bishop Robert (1135-66), who not only defined the borough limits but also provided for three fairs to be held there. A later grant gave the burgesses the right to hold a court for the purpose of registering conveyances of messuages and settling internal disputes (the bishop’s judicial rights being reserved in cases of manslaughter and default of justice). Well’s first royal charter was granted by King John in 1201, and designated the town a ‘liber burgus’, but the ‘freedom’ of the borough was still subject to important limitations: Wells remained a part of the liberty of the bishop, who continued to enjoy the privilege of return of writs, this being exercised by his bailiff. The 14th and 15th centuries saw several attempts by the townspeople to evade episcopal control: under Edward II they obtained a communal seal and by 1336 were appointing, as their own chief officer, the ‘steward of the guild’ (known in our period as the ‘master’ of Wells). In 1341 they successfully applied to Edward III for a charter of incorporation, for which they paid £40. As a result of this, they obtained not only freedom from tolls throughout England, but, more important, the power to elect a mayor and bailiffs, constables of the peace and coroners, the privilege of return of royal writs, the right to determine pleas concerning property in Wells, and a licence to enclose and fortify the town. But after protracted litigation this charter was cancelled as being prejudicial to both King and bishop, when it was realized that during episcopal vacancy the sum of 100 marks which annually issued from the franchises, customs and judicial perquisites levied at Wells had automatically accrued to the Crown. The burgesses continued to dispute the bishop’s lordship in certain important respects: they resisted his claim that they should attend the court leet, the hundred court, and the court he held twice a year for his men and tenants generally; and they objected to payment of levies at all the town fairs, as being contrary to previous episcopal grants of exemption. Riots occurred throughout 1342-3, but to little avail, for when the burgesses were subsequently granted by Edward III quittance of tolls throughout the realm, it was only as members of the bishop’s tenantry.11

This struggle against episcopal control evidently had a seriously restrictive effect on the development of Wells. During Richard II’s reign all that the townspeople were able to obtain from the Crown was a bare confirmation of King John’s charter, the clauses of which relating to fairs had proved incompatible with the bishop’s claims. Henry IV likewise confirmed this document, albeit with the inclusion of the terms ‘predecessors’ and ‘successors’ in relation to the men of Wells, which possibly indicates acceptance of the idea of incorporation. Additional weight is given to this supposition by the fact that it now became possible for property to be settled in perpetuity on the master and commonalty. Nevertheless, a state of contention between town and bishop continued throughout the 15th century, reaching a climax in 1493, when Bishop Fox claimed the sole right to create burgesses. The townspeople then protested that for 300 years they themselves had regulated admissions, without interference. Disputes arose again under Elizabeth I, the burgesses stating that they had always had a master and commonalty, one body incorporated in fact and name, together with a common seal, a common council of 24 burgesses and a common hall where officers and MPs were elected. It should be noted that the burgesses had invariably made their claims on the basis of prescriptive right, and that even during the period under review the bishop’s idea of the legal position was at variance with the institutions of the town as actually in use.12

In the late 14th century what in Wells was designated ‘the master and commonalty’ was a restricted community, the burgesses proper forming only a relatively small group of townsmen. There were five modes of access: patrimony, fine, marriage to the widow of a burgess, marriage to the daughter of a burgess, and apprenticeship. The fee charged for admission varied accordingly. Save only in the case of a stranger, who paid in money, it took the form of a gift of wine, wax and a dozen gloves (Wells being famous for glove manufacture), half the gift going to the master and half to the ‘common livelihood’. Freemen newly admitted were obliged to take an oath of loyalty to the master, burgesses and ‘communes’ of Wells. The burgesses held regular meetings, whose acts were recorded in the ‘convocation books’. These contain the proceedings of the principal authorities of the town under the master: pleas of debt, trials for trespass and minor breaches of the peace, and enrolments of deeds. The workings of the borough court are obscure, but occasionally a panel of four burgesses would be appointed to arbitrate in a dispute.13 The Elizabethan townsmen were clearly in error in claiming that the borough had always had a council of 24 men, but there was certainly such a body in existence during the period 1386-1421, although, the documentary evidence relating to it being sparse, we cannot now tell whether or not election to it was regular and frequent. We know, however, that the council of 1408-9 was made up of 12 ‘de maioribus’ and 12 ‘de mediocribus’.14 Borough officials were elected every Michaelmas to serve for one year. They numbered 16 all told: the master, two constables of the peace, two collectors of borough rents, seven keepers of the streets, two supervisors of the shambles, and two churchwardens of St. Cuthbert’s, the parish church. Four auditors were also appointed, these apparently being chosen by the new master rather than being elected by the body of burgesses, specifically to check the brief financial accounts rendered by the previous years’ officials. In addition tax collectors of parliamentary fifteenths were nominated locally to assist those appointed by the Crown. It is not known whether the burgesses had their own hall in which to hold meetings during the period under review: the guildhall is first mentioned in the convocation books in 1432.15

The practical extent of the borough’s independence from episcopal control is difficult to assess, even though the burgesses had clearly developed their own administrative institutions by the late 14th century. A very few of the parliamentary burgesses of Wells (just four) were officers of the bishop, but it is unlikely, even so, that their position as such influenced their elections to Parliament. John Podmore was an esquire in the service of Bishop Erghum and executor of his will, but he did not enter the Commons until long after Erghum’s death. John Russell II became bailiff of the episcopal liberty of Wells before 1400, and was possibly still in office when elected to Parliament in 1410. Thomas Dynt, who was made Bishop Bowet’s bailiff in Wells in 1402, was nevertheless admitted to the freedom of the borough before representing it in the two Parliaments of 1414; and Richard Perys, a freeman from 1398, was subsequently appointed apparitor-general to Bishop Bubwith, and was so engaged when returned for Wells in 1419 and probably also in 1421. In addition, two of the parliamentary burgesses were on occasion employed by the dean and chapter of the cathedral, John Russell II as the chapter’s regular attorney, and Nicholas More as a notary public. However, More combined his duties with offices in the borough, and there is no reason to suspect that the dean and chapter directly influenced his or Russell’s elections to Parliament.

Wells is first known to have sent representatives to Parliament in 1295, from when regular returns survive. In 1307 the sheriff’s precept was directed to the bailiff of the bishop’s liberty of Wells, who on that particular occasion neglected to execute it.16 After 1406, in accordance with parliamentary legislation, indentures were drawn up to authenticate the Somerset shire elections. This was done in the county court customarily held at Ilchester (exceptionally at Wells itself in October 1407). The indentures also established the identity of the representatives from the boroughs, and so far as Wells was concerned four of its burgesses were usually party. It was stated that the elections had been made with the assent of the whole community of each of the boroughs, but whether this was always in fact the case regarding Wells may perhaps be doubted. Occasionally, at least, the text of the convocation books, in which the elections were recorded every now and then, suggests the contrary. Whereas the county court for Somerset met for the elections of 1420 on 4 Nov., the election in the convocation was dated 14 Nov.; again, in the following March, the convocation met on the day after the county court; and in November 1421 a gap of ten days once more came between the two meetings. On these occasions the result of arrangements reported in the county court would seem to have been only confirmed in the town’s own assembly. The latter, however, acted formally, and in November 1421 local agreement took shape in an indenture between the master of the borough (Hildebrand Elwell) and the bailiff of the liberty (William Duddesham). The following year, in November 1422, the Wells election was specifically stated to have taken place in full convocation; and it certainly was not always the case that an election reported in the county court was only later confirmed locally, for in 1406 three burgesses were put forward in convocation, one of whom either dropped out before the county court met or else was eliminated there. Clearly on this occasion, whatever may have happened at other times, an election had first been made in an assembly conducted in Wells.17

In the period 1386-1421 returns for nine out of the 32 Parliaments are missing, but the names of those representing Wells in four of these (January and October 1404, February 1413 and October 1416) have been obtained from the convocation books, leaving only five gaps (for the Parliaments of November 1390, 1401, 1411, 1415 and March 1416). Thirty-three men are known to have sat for Wells in the period. Few of these stand out as individuals of much importance, and in general the burgesses appear to have acted as a group, preferring to share the responsibilities of office, and frequently changing their masters and parliamentary representatives. Two men perhaps stood out from the rest: Nicholas Cristesham and Thomas Tanner. Cristesham represented Wells in Parliament as many as 13 times, and Tanner served three times in the Commons and for no fewer than six annual terms as master. John Newmaster, Roger Chapman and Hildebrand Elwell each sat in Parliament four times, John Blithe and Richard Setter three, and eight others twice. But as over half of the MPs (18 in all) were apparently only elected once, the average number of Parliaments per Member still came to less than two. It is difficult to draw a conclusion from these figures; perhaps they indicate a reluctance on the burgesses’ part to go to Parliament, or perhaps several were eager to do so, but agreed to take turns. So far as is known, re-election in the strict sense took place on only seven occasions: although John Newmaster sat in three Parliaments in a row from 1391 to 1394, no pair of representatives was ever chosen for consecutive assemblies. The gaps in the returns make it impossible to calculate precisely how often a novice was returned, but it perhaps happened on as many as ten occasions that both burgesses were untried. In no more than six Parliaments are both Members known to have had previous experience of the House. Curiously, only one family furnished more than one MP for Wells in this period: two Elwells (Hildebrand and Robert) were elected, the former three times, the latter just once. But the sons of two other Members were to sit for Wells at a later date: Thomas, son of John Horewode I, and Thomas, son of Richard Langford.

Residence on the part of MPs was made obligatory by statute in 1413, and evidently this qualification was considered important at Wells, for the majority of its representatives lived in the town, owned property there, and were freemen. Doubt remains, in fact, only regarding a very few. John Comeland (1395) lived some 20 miles away; nothing is known about Thomas Wynchestre (1397), but being never mentioned in the local records, he almost certainly resided elsewhere; and John Podmore’s place of residence is not recorded, although he had been a trustee of property in Wells before his first election to Parliament in 1413. The majority of the MPs, 29 out of 33, were burgesses proper of Wells. Only those just mentioned (Comeland, Podmore and Wynchestre), together with John Russell II, the bailiff of the episcopal liberty, were never formally admitted to the freedom and, save for Podmore (who sat twice) none of them was returned more than once. Apart from these four, five others (who were freemen) never held elective office in Wells, nor took any part in the administration of the town. But the majority (24) did discharge such offices, and nearly half of the Members of the period (15 out of 33) rose to fill the highest post, that of master. John Blithe occupied the mastership for seven yearly terms, Thomas Tanner for six, and Nicholas Cristesham and Thomas Hore for four each. Election to this office generally (in ten out of the 15 cases) occurred after a burgess had first represented Wells in the Commons, and it only rarely happened that the borough returned its then master: Richard Groos in 1404 (Jan.), John Horewode I to both Parliaments of 1413, Richard Setter in 1417 and Hildebrand Elwell in 1420. On seven other occasions men currently holding less important offices (for instance, that of constable of the peace) were sent.

Very few of the parliamentary burgesses were ever appointed to royal commissions. Nine were named as tax collectors, but this was usually to collect subsidies in Wells alone, not in Somerset as a whole, and Nicholas Cristesham and Thomas Tanner served on commissions to make arrests, but these, again, were to deal with purely local matters. The only one to secure a royal office outside Wells was Richard Perys, who, having been made alnager in Dorset in 1415, was still occupying that post at the time of his election in 1419.

By occupation many of the MPs were minor tradesmen and proprietors of shops. They included an inn-keeper and a shoemaker. But no fewer than 18 of the 33 (over half) are known to have been engaged in the manufacture and trade in woollen cloth, and it was this group which dominated the parliamentary representation of the borough, as it did other aspects of the town’s affairs. Most prominent among them was Thomas Tanner, a merchant who exported cloth from Bristol and also traded in wine and hides. Hildebrand Elwell developed trading interests in London, where he gained admission to the Grocers’ Company; and his friend, Richard Langford, was a goldsmith. Only two of the 33 burgesses are known to have been lawyers: John Russell II (1410) and Nicholas More (1390 and 1397), and it is clear that members of their profession played an insignificant role when it came to representing Wells in Parliament.

Author: L. S. Woodger

Notes

  • 1. Wells Town Clerk’s Office, Wells Convoc. bk. 1378-1450, f. 156; the return has not survived.
  • 2. Ibid. f. 161; the return has not survived.
  • 3. Walter Dyer was originally chosen, only to be later replaced by Thomas Wey: ibid. f. 167; C219/10/3.
  • 4. Wells Convoc. bk. f. 181.
  • 5. Ibid. f. 199; the return has not survived.
  • 6. Ibid. f. 203.
  • 7. Ibid. f. 212; the return has not survived.
  • 8. Ibid. f. 226.
  • 9. Ibid. f. 228.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 230.
  • 11. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 142-3; J. Tait, Med. Eng. Bor. 197-9; Yr. Bk. 16 Edw. III, i. pp. xxiv-xcix, 108-20; Wells City Chs. (Som. Rec. Soc. xlvi), pp. ix-xxxii, chs. 1, 2, 7; Feudal Aids, vi. 326, 351.
  • 1