Available from Boydell and Brewer
No names known for 1510-15
|1523||RALPH SWILLINGTON 1|
|RICHARD MARLER 2|
|1539||ROGER WIGSTON 3|
|BALDWIN PORTER 4|
|HENRY OVER alias WAVER5|
|by 14 Jan. 1544||EDWARD SAUNDERS vice Wigston, deceased6|
|1553 (Mar.)||JAMES ROGERS|
|1553 (Oct.)||JOHN NETHERMILL|
|1554 (Apr.)||THOMAS KEYVET|
|1554 (Nov.)||JOHN THROCKMORTON I|
|1555||JOHN THROCKMORTON I|
|1558||JOHN THROCKMORTON I|
During its most prosperous period, from about 1345 to near the end of the 15th century, Coventry is said to have been the fourth largest city in England, and in 1523-7 its subsidy assessment was still higher than any save those of London, Norwich, Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But the cloth trade was declining and the art of making blue thread, flourishing in the period and giving rise to the expression ‘true as Coventry blue’, seems to have been lost by the middle of Elizabeth’s reign. A survey of 1522 showed over 80 Coventry cappers, the next craft, numbering only 41, being that of weaving; other industries were tanning, shoemaking and the sale of leather goods. Figures for the city’s population vary considerably but John Hales II was probably right that it was declining steeply, and the government was sufficiently concerned to grant a new three-day fair during October to help trade. The mint which Edward IV had set up at Coventry survived throughout the 16th century, and the fame of the Corpus Christi pageants brought many visitors to the city, including Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Princess Mary. These entertainments, which provided trade for at least innkeepers, victuallers and vintners, also had ill effects; as early as 1494 the court leet decided that the crafts needed financial help to keep up the plays, and in 1539 the mayor told Cromwell that after Corpus Christi the ‘poor commons’ were badly off for the rest of the year.7
During the early 1520s Coventry experienced several risings; two of them, grandiose plots to kill the mayor and other officials and to seize Kenilworth castle, were easily put down, but the enclosure riots of ‘Ill Lammas Day’ in 1525 were more serious, and the central government intervened, deposing the mayor for his support of the insurgents and imprisoning over 40 people. The city’s strong walls, finished according to Leland ‘but late’ before his visit, made Coventry the Duke of Suffolk’s natural choice as his headquarters during Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554, but he acted too slowly, and the mayor ordered the gates closed against the rebels.8
A county in its own right since 1451, Coventry was administered by a mayor and two sheriffs, with a recorder, steward and town clerk (the last two offices being sometimes combined) and several councils whose membership and functions are difficult to distinguish. There was no such rigid structure of a Twenty-Four and a Forty-Eight as other boroughs had adopted by the 16th century: the same small group of existing and former officials often formed the nucleus of each body. Twenty-four former office-holders, perhaps nominated by the mayor, met at the January court leet, were sworn there as a jury and elected the mayor and other leading officials except the sheriffs, who were chosen at Michaelmas; in 1555 the city decided to elect the mayor as well as the sheriffs at Michaelmas. There was another council of 24, chosen by the mayor and perhaps identical in membership with the leet jury, which met a few days before the two great assemblies of the court held each year, to examine petitions and prepare business. Another body was composed of the 24 electors and 24 other townsmen, nominees of the mayor; this probably dated from a city ordinance of 1423 by which the mayor was to choose 24 ‘wise and discreet men’ to work with the electoral jury to draw up ordinances. But the numbers, given in the leet book, of those attending various meetings show that the authorities were not bound by convention, and several different bodies were described as the ‘mayor’s council’. The term alderman, regularly used after 1477, was at first confined to the head officer of each ward. After 1451 the sheriffs held a monthly county court, to which all freeholders must have had right of access. The sheriffs, as successors of the former royal bailiffs, received all profits from fines, from which they paid the £50 annual fee-farm to the crown.9
The Dissolution had a serious effect on the city, since not only the Benedictine priory but the property of the Carthusians, Dominicans and Franciscans came into the hands of the crown; later the chantries, with the wealthy guilds and fraternities, were also suppressed. The efforts of Rowland Lee, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, to prevent the partial destruction of the priory church failed, and the bishop’s palace gradually fell into decay, succeeding bishops making Lichfield their headquarters. Largely through money provided by the Merchant Taylor Thomas White, the city bought much of the former church land, but Hales acquired the site of the Whitefriars, originally granted to (Sir) Ralph Sadler, and other property, including the college of John the Baptist; according to Leland, ‘Hales with the club foot hath gotten interest in this college, and none (but the devil) can get him out’. The corporation had more success with the manor of Cheylesmore, covering a large area in the south of the city; in July 1549 Edward VI granted it to the Earl of Warwick, who in the following month agreed to lease the park to the city.10
Parliamentary elections were held at the sheriffs’ county court in the guildhall. The seven indentures which survive from 1542 onwards (always in Latin) give the names of between 15 and 32 electors. In most cases no style follows the name, but in September 1553 and October 1555 two or three men are designated by their craft. The indenture for 1555 is unusual in giving only one sheriff as a contracting party, the named electors being the mayor, nine aldermen, a grocer, a skinner and a dyer, together with the two chamberlains of the city cum multis aliis civibus. Irregular records for the period show that Members were paid wages, usually the statutory 2s. a day.11
There is no evidence of outside interference in parliamentary elections and none of the 17 known Members was an outsider. Even the four recorders, Ralph Swillington, Roger Wigston, Edward Saunders and John Throckmorton, were expected to take a lease of a house in the city and to be frequent in their visits; it may have been Saunders’s inability to comply with the second of these conditions which accounts for his failure to sit more than once for Coventry during his tenure of the office from 1541 to 1553. Eight of the Members were ex-mayors and two, Henry Over alias Waver and John Nethermill, were ex-sheriffs who were later to be mayors. Baldwin Porter was steward and town clerk and his brother Henry Porter had become steward in his turn before his last election. Only Thomas Bond, the only son of John Bond, seems to have held no civic office: he was returned to Mary’s first Parliament shortly after coming to an agreement with the city over his grandfather’s bequest of almshouses. It may have been concern for the fate of ‘Bond’s lands’ as well as their professed fears for one of Coventry’s two churches which during the first session of the Parliament of 1547 moved Christopher Warren and Henry Porter to join with their colleagues from Lynn in opposition to the bill for the dissolution of chantries and guilds. The bill ‘for the city of Coventry’ introduced into the second session concerned ‘Bond’s lands’, but after Thomas Bond had given evidence before the House nothing more is heard of it. In 1558 the recorder Throckmorton presumably played the major part in securing the passage of an Act for the payment of tithes in Coventry (4 and 5 Phil. and Mary, no. 10).
Author: N. M. Fuidge
- 1. LP Hen. VIII, iv. app. 1.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Only the christian name survives on the indenture, C219/18B/103; surname supplied from Coventry mayors' accts. 1542-61, pp. 12, 17, 21.
- 6. Coventry mayors' accts. 1542-61, p. 21.
- 7. VCH Warws. ii. 441-2; viii. 4-5, 152-6, 162, 208, 214; W. G. Hoskins, Local Hist. in Eng. 177; Anon, Coventry (1810), 35-36, 122-4; S. Timmins, Warws. 258; M. D. Harris, Coventry, 289 seq.
- 8. Anon. Coventry (1810), 34-35; VCH Warws. viii. 203; LP Hen. VIII, iv. 1743; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, ii. 106.
- 9. Harris, 57-59; C67/49; VCH Warws. viii. 201, 256-65; Whitley, Parlty. Rep. Coventry, 4-5; Coventry Leet Bk. (EETS cxxxiv), ii. pp. xix-xxvi, 633-4.
- 10. Anon. Coventry (1810), 138, 163, 171, 225; VCH Warws. viii. 19, 125-39, 316; Leland, ii. 107; HMC 15th Rep. X, 124; Timmins, 258.
- 11. CJ, i. 880, C219/18B/103, 18C/127, 19/131, 132, 20/147, 148, 21/190, 191, 23/160, 24/197.