Appendix B4: Sheriffs elected to Parliament

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

The Parliament of 1372 passed an ordinance forbidding the election of sheriffs as shire knights, its purpose being primarily to ensure that sheriffs would be available in the localities to carry out their administrative functions efficiently, since they were ‘communes Ministres au People, & deivent demurer sur lour office pur droit faire a checuny’. The ordinance prohibited a sheriff from returning himself for his own county, and the writs of summons, which thereafter re-iterated the prohibition, made it clear that anyone occupying a shrievalty elsewhere was also to be barred from the Commons. (The clause was omitted from the writs for the consecutive Parliaments of 1407, 1410 and 1411, but re-introduced subsequently.)1 Whereas in Edward III’s reign it had not been at all unusual for a sheriff to return himself, the practice became a rarity in the late 14th and early 15th centuries: only six definite examples have come to light in the period 1386 to 1421. The most blatant offenders on the evidence of the returns were Sir William Coggeshall (Essex 1391) and Sir Nicholas Montgomery I (Derbyshire 1411), and although it is uncertain whether Thomas Chaucer (Oxfordshire 1401) actually presided over his own election (which may have been held in October 1400, before his appointment as sheriff), there was clearly ample time for fresh elections to be conducted before Parliament assembled in January following, thus avoiding a breach of the ordinance. In the cases of John Crackenthorpe (Westmorland) and John Weston (Worcestershire) the transgression was less obvious, for both men were, in fact, deputy sheriffs of their respective constituencies when elected in 1393 and 1420, performing the official duties of Lady Clifford and the earl of Warwick, who held the shrievalties in fee by hereditary right. The returns were made with due formality in the names of Crackenthorpe’s predecessor and Warwick himself, yet even if the letter of the law was respected, its spirit was not. There were extenuating circumstances in the cases of Hugh Fastolf and Sir Walter Lee, who held the elections at which they were chosen as representatives for Norfolk and Hertfordshire, respectively, in the autumn of 1390, for when they returned themselves they must have been aware that discharge from their shrievalties was bound to take place before the Parliament actually assembled.

Rather more often (14 times in our period) a sheriff of one bailiwick was elected to Parliament for another. For example, three sheriffs (Sir William Beauchamp, Sir Robert Corbet and Sir Walter Hungerford) were returned to the Parliament of 1414 (Apr.), in the cases of Beauchamp and Hungerford for shires neighbouring their bailiwicks, but in that of Corbet for a more distant constituency. This was, of course, in contravention of electoral law, yet less reprehensible than a sheriff actually returning himself. On other occasions (at least 19), someone who had already been elected to Parliament was appointed sheriff before the Commons assembled, thus, through no fault of his own, offending against the ordinance. This happened shortly before the opening of the Parliaments of 1390 (Nov.)—when seven instances are recorded—1391, 1414 (Nov.), 1417 and 1420. In each case it is unlikely that the chancellor could have been informed of the outcome of the local elections before making the appointments of sheriffs for the new financial year.

Sometimes a knight of the shire would be nominated as a sheriff in his constituency or elsewhere when the Parliament in which he was serving was still in session. But this was a different matter, admittedly against the intention of the prohibition, but not to be impugned as strictly illegal. The most extreme instance of official disregard for the ordinance occurred after the close of the first session of the Parliament of 1397 (Sept.), when Richard II appointed as many as 11 the current Members as sheriffs in their own or other constituencies. Very much out of the ordinary, this was evidently a calculated response to untoward political circumstances.2

In the table below * indicates that the Member effectively returned himself to Parliament.


Shire represented        
1386*Monceaux, AmandCumb.Cumb.1385-8 Nov. 1386
1390 (Jan.)*Lee, Sir WalterHerts.Essex and Herts.1389 -7 Nov. 1390
1390 (Nov.)Berkeley, Sir John I
Delves, John
*Fastolf, Hugh
Felton, Sir John
*Lee, Sir Walter
Moresby, Sir Christopher
Reskymer, Sir John
Roches, Sir John
Whitton, Thomas
Som. and Dorset