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|1388 (Feb.)||Roger Lichfield|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Cole II|
|1390 (Jan.)||Roger Lichfield|
|1390 (Nov.)||Richard Maisemore|
|John Cooper I|
|1397 (Jan.)||Thomas Belne|
|1404 (Jan.)||Richard Halle|
|1413 (May)||John Weston|
|John Wood I|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Weston|
|1415||John Wood I|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Wood I|
|Ralph Merston 1|
|Geoffrey Friar 2|
|1421 (May)||John Forthey|
|1421 (Dec.)||John Forthey|
Worcester’s population in 1377 has been estimated at 2,336, a figure comparable with other cathedral cities such as Exeter and Winchester. The city appears to have been fairly prosperous at this time, thanks to its importance as a distributing centre for the west midlands, which depended largely upon its bridge. At the beginning of the 14th century there had been no other place to cross the Severn between Gloucester and Bridgnorth, and by then Worcester was already the converging point of many roads, including the direct route from London to mid Wales. The city’s economy also benefited from the expansion of the carrying trade along the Severn; commodities from overseas would come up river from Bristol to be taken on from Worcester in carts up the Avon valley to Warwick and Coventry. The tradesmen of the town included goldsmiths, bellfounders, coppersmiths and leather-workers, but more important than these were the men employed in the woollen industry, which had so grown in the first half of the 14th century that the merchants felt justified in demanding in 1353 that a local staple should be established (only, however, for their petition to be refused). Worcester, producing a fine quality material, was the centre of the cloth trade in the county, and evidently so continued: in 1466 it was stated that ‘It ys used and accustomed grete cloth makynge to be hadd wtyn the seid cite and subbarbes ... and ... occupied by grete parte of the people ther dwellynge, that is to sey by spynners, websters, dyers, shermen and other artificers’; and Leland was to comment in the 16th century that ‘the wealth of the Towne of Worcester standeth most by drapering, and noe Towne of England at the present tyme maketh so many cloathes yearly as this Towne doth’.3
Worcester had obtained its first royal charter in 1189, then securing the right to pay its own fee farm. But it owed its first detailed grant of liberties to Henry III, by whose charter of 1227 the essential privileges enjoyed by the city in the later Middle Ages were explicitly conveyed: the fee farm was fixed at £30, and the citizens were permitted to form a guild merchant, whose members gained protection for their trade. In 1257 they secured the right of return of writs. These various franchises and immunities were successively confirmed, for example in 1378 (on condition that the citizens should assist in the construction of a balinger for royal service), and in 1396, with the additional grant of the powers of j.p.s to the bailiffs. Nevertheless, Worcester was late in obtaining grants of further chartered privileges from the King, for the subsequent development of its constitution proved slow: a mayoralty was not to be created until 1621. The nature of the administration of the city in the period under review is made known to us in some detail by the elaborate set of ordinances issued by the civic authorities in 1466, for these represented in great part a codification of existing customs. The 82 clauses, covering most aspects of civic life, reveal the internal system of government to have been oligarchic. In essence it comprised the two bailiffs and a high and low chamber of the common council. Each year the high bailiff retired to be replaced by the low bailiff of the previous year, the choice of the new junior resting with a body chosen for this purpose by the existing bailiffs and aldermen. The high chamber of the council comprised 24 members, and vacancies in this body, which consisted of men of the ‘grete cloth’ or chief livery, were filled by co-option. The lower chamber was composed of 48 members, also maintained by co-option, from among the ‘most sadde and sufficient of the comyns wtyn the cite’. In financial matters the latter body played an important part, no gift ‘of the comyns good’ being made without their consent. If necessity arose for a tax or loan, this was to be assessed by a committee of 12 members, drawn equally from the 24 and 48. There was a close relationship between the municipal body of the city and the guild merchant, so that the former was often spoken of as the ‘yeld’. Indeed, freedom of the city, which normally cost a fee of 13s.4d., was offered at a reduced rate to apprentices. All the citizens were required to pay local taxes and also to be resident in Worcester, save for ‘certeyn persones that for ther grete worshipe and offices of attendance be exemted’. These individuals were specifically named in the ordinances, and included Thomas Throckmorton†, Thomas Lyttleton j.c.p. and Sir Walter Skull†. There can be little doubt that a list compiled earlier would have mentioned such other distinguished lawyers as John Weston and John Wood I.4
Worcester had been one of the towns called upon in 1268 to send representatives to appear before the royal council to treat of matters touching the kingdom, and it was among the 21 represented in the Shrewsbury Parliament of 1283. In 1295 similar summonses were issued to other Worcestershire towns, but with the exception of Droitwich (which continued to send Members until 1311), they were not represented in the Commons again until long after our period. At the election of 1305 the sheriff responded to Chancery that as for the citizens of Worcester, this writ was returned to the bailiffs of the liberty of that city, who have full return of writs, who replied to me that two citizens have been elected in accordance with the tenor of the writ.
And this system of election and return, with the citizens quite clearly making their choice of representatives at an assembly held apart from the meeting of the shire court, continued in practice until 1406. In the following year the endorsement to the writ declared that the names of representatives for the county and city along with those who had elected them were entered on an attached indenture. The latter, however, contained only a list of electors of the knights of the shire, the words ‘and citizens’ being interlineated. The indenture of return for the Parliament of May 1413 stated that at the county court at Worcester two knights of the shire and two citizens had been elected by 19 named individuals, these being clearly divided into shire freeholders and resident citizens. But this distinction was not made at every election: in 1414 (Nov.) and 1419 the groups of electors were not so separated, and the indentures certified the election of both knights and citizens in terms suggesting a common assembly in the shire court. There is now no means of knowing whether the appearances are deceptive, and the men of Worcester continued throughout to decide the matter of their representation before the court met, although this seems very likely. There was to be introduced in 1442 a different method of making the electoral returns, whereby the shire and city representatives were named in separate indentures, those party to the election of the latter being described as notabiles personae commorantes et residentes in Worcester, and this system, clearly indicating separate elections, was then retained. There seems to have been an attempt at Worcester to apply the 40s. freehold electoral franchise: the city ordinances of 1466 reiterated the statutory regulations for shires on this point, and in addition stated that ‘every election of citezens for to come to the Parliament, that they be chosen openly in the yelde halle, of suche as ben dwellynge wtyn the ffaunches, and by the moste voice’. Now and then one of the shire notables with professional connexions in London might make himself responsible for the delivery of the returns for both the shire and city to the clerk of the Parliaments: in 1420 John Wood I did so, and in 1422 one of the burgesses-elect, John Forthey, then clerk to the county’s j.p.s, was entrusted with the task.5
Returns for Worcester have survived for 26 of the 32 Parliaments which met during the period, providing the names of 23 representatives. The city is known to have sent at least one man already familiar with the ways of the Commons to 23 Parliaments, and in 11 of these both Members had sat before. Only on three occasions (September 1388, 1417 and 1420), is it even possible that the two representatives were novices. Re-election, in the sense of return to consecutive Parliaments, took place on at least 11 occasions. Thomas Belne sat in every Parliament for which returns are extant between 1391 and 1399 inclusive (a total of six times), and John Forthey was returned to four consecutive assemblies in the years 1420 to 1422. Eight of the 23 Members served only once, five twice, and three three times. By contrast, John Bredon, Roger Lichfield and John Forthey were each returned six times, and Richard Maisemore and Thomas Belne both sat on ten occasions, the former between 1379 and 1391 and the latter between 1390 and 1410. The record of Maisemore and Belne was equalled by that of John Weston, who represented Warwick on four occasions, Worcester on five (in 1410 sitting for both places), and Worcestershire once, while John Wood I came close behind with his three appearances for the city and six as a knight of the shire. There was little in the way of a family tradition of service of this sort. All the same, Richard Halle was possibly the son of Robert Halle†, and certainly his own son, John†, was to represent the city in 1435. Similarly, the son of Richard Oseney was to become a Worcester MP in 1453. Roger Lichfield was the son of Thomas†, who sat for this constituency, and nephew of Aymer Lichfield, the shire knight for Staffordshire.
All but one of the 23 MPs (John Boyle, about whom nothing has been discovered) owned property in the city, and the majority were clearly resident there. Roger Lichfield, however, may sometimes have lived in Staffordshire; and, although John Weston and John Wood I did possess houses in Worcester, the former also held lands in Warwickshire and was actively involved in that county’s affairs, and the latter’s home was at Northwick, just outside the city. It is not surprising to find that at least six Worcester MPs were engaged in the local cloth industry. The others included a merchant, a butcher, a baker and a saddler. But such men, with the exception of Richard Maisemore who represented the city ten times, were usually returned only once or twice. By contrast, from 1390 Worcester sent at least one lawyer to almost every Parliament (the only exceptions being November 1390, 1401, January 1404 and 1417); indeed, both Members sitting in 1410, 1413 (May) and 1415, were of this profession. There were five known men of law among the 23 representatives: Thomas Belne, Richard Oseney (the clerk of the peace for Worcestershire from c.1410 to 1419), John Forthey (Oseney’s successor in the clerkship from 1419 to c.1426—representing Worcester four times in that period), John Weston, like Forthey a member of Lincoln’s Inn, who served as recorder of Coventry from c.1415 to 1433, and John Wood I, a member of the Middle Temple. Weston and Wood both took the coif to become serjeants-at-law.
Seventeen of the 23 Worcester MPs of this period are known to have held office in the city as a bailiff, although it was not usually the case for such service to coincide with election to Parliament. For example, John Bredon, nine times a bailiff, only sat in the Commons of 1397 (Jan.) and 1399 when so engaged. However, Richard Maisemore had been returned during his bailiffships in 1384 (Nov.), 1385 and 1386, and John Cooper I when discharging office in 1395; and the same thing was to happen to Robert Nelme in 1423. Certain of the Members in addition became involved in extra-civic affairs. Thomas Belne was elected to Parliament in 1407 while serving not only as bailiff of Worcester but also as escheator of Worcestershire. The same escheatorship was later held by John Wood I (for three terms) and John Forthey, while Roger Lichfield was appointed in Staffordshire and Shropshire. Through the patronage of Sir Ralph Butler (afterwards Lord Sudeley), Forthey was to obtain the even more remote posts of deputy butler in London and keeper of the rolls of the Irish chancery.
The most prominent of Worcester’s parliamentary representatives were three lawyers who each took a leading part in county affairs, all of them becoming j.p.s for Worcestershire. Thomas Belne sat on the bench from 1399 to 1414, John Weston from 1414 to 1423, as one of the quorum (and also as a j.p. for Warwickshire 1407-33), and John Wood I sat continually from 1417 until his death in 1458 being, as well as one of the quorum, sometime custos rotulorum for the shire. Naturally these men were frequently required to act in Worcestershire on various other royal commissions, but Weston’s duties also took him into Warwickshire and Wood’s into several other counties as well. Their status was comparable with that of knights of the shire, and, indeed, Weston and Wood were just that; they were designated esquires and bore their own heraldic arms. All three were well connected in the county at large: Belne’s associates included members of the Cokesey family and the influential Sir John Russell*, councillor and master of the horse to Richard II. An even more significant connexion, shared by both Weston and Wood, was with Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, who may, indeed, have exerted some influence over the outcome of the parliamentary elections for the city of Worcester, since he was not only constable of the castle but also hereditary sheriff of Worcestershire and thus responsible for forwarding the electoral returns to Chancery. Weston was one of the earl’s legal counsellors, initially retained with an annual fee of 20s. (previous to his first return for Worceter), which was subsequently doubled; and Wood was one of several lawyer-administrators connected with the earl, who together formed a closely knit circle with common interests. In this context it should be noted that the city returned Weston five times in this period and Wood three, the two men sitting together in May 1413 and 1415. Both were later appointed by Warwick to the post of deputy sheriff of Worcestershire. Wood’s early connexions included his ‘master’ Sir John Phelip*, a Suffolk man and personal friend of Henry V who had entered the local community through marriage; indeed, when attending the Commons in Henry V’s first Parliament in May 1413, he was accompanied by Phelip as a shire knight. Wood’s rise in status over the years is clearly suggested by the identity of his feoffees, who by the 1450s included Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and Thomas Bourgchier, archbishop of Canterbury, as well as several eminent members of the legal profession, such as John Prisot, c.j.c.p.
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1165.