Higham Ferrers


Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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Higham Ferrers, a small market town on the main road from London to Leicester, lay within a duchy of Lancaster lordship. The borough had been founded in 1251 by two charters from William de Ferrers, 5th Earl of Derby, but the second of these, together with later documents, had been lost when on 14 Mar. 1556 Queen Mary granted incorporation as the mayor, aldermen and burgesses. The new charter was ostensibly granted, first, because ‘the mayor, burgesses and commonalty ... have been endowed with many liberties and privileges by letters patent of the Queen’s progenitors and have enjoyed the same from time immemorial’ and, secondly, in recognition of the town’s support of the Queen in 1553. The mayor was to be assisted by a common council made up of seven aldermen and 13 capital burgesses, all of whom were named in the charter. There were to be two markets a week and four fairs a year, the usual dues being paid to the crown ‘in right of the duchy of Lancaster’. Earlier there had been a fee-farm of £28 a year, but various exemptions had been granted and in 1558 the borough was apparently paying less than £20. The Somerset earls of Worcester held some land in Higham Ferrers.1

In addition to the duchy steward, the leading officials were the receiver, who dealt with all the duchy manors in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Huntingdonshire as well as Northamptonshire, and the auditor: constables of the castle (‘in great ruin and decay’ by 1523) were no longer appointed after 1533. Relations between duchy and town were not always harmonious and the Marian charter defined the limits of jurisdiction in the mayor’s three-weekly court of record: a newly elected mayor was to be sworn, as previously, before the duchy steward or his deputy. The duchy claimed the right to appoint all the officers of Higham Ferrers hundred, and when the burgesses, after the charter of 1556, dismissed the petty constables elected in the duchy court and chose new ones, they were held to have exceeded their rights. The chief duchy official at Higham Ferrers during Mary’s reign was Sir Robert Tyrwhitt I, appointed by Henry VIII as steward and receiver.2

The charter also empowered Higham Ferrers to return one Member to Parliament ‘to be maintained there at the charges and costs of the borough, parish and commonalty’, to have ‘an affirmative and negative voice and to do all things that other burgesses of Parliament do’. Banbury and Monmouth (a duchy borough in which the earls of Worcester were also interested) were then the only other single-Member constituencies in England, but later in 1556 they were joined by Abingdon. No explanation has been found for the limitation at Higham Ferrers, where the crown could expect to control the choice of Members and thus to increase its following in the Commons. The initial selection of the young and inexperienced Ralph Lane is also at first sight surprising, although he was related to both Tyrwhitt and the Throckwortons, who were active in the duchy administration of Higham Ferrers, as well as to the sheriff of Northamptonshire, Sir John Fermor, and perhaps to Nicholas Lane, one of the charter aldermen. Another point in his favour was his domicile in London (where he was perhaps still a member of the Middle Temple), which would relieve the borough of his ‘charges and costs’. The election indenture does not survive but that for the following Parliament has as the contracting parties the sheriff of Northamptonshire and the mayor, aldermen (all named) and capital burgesses.3

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. VCH Northants. i. 336; iii. 267-9; R. M. Serjeantson, Ct. Rolls Higham Ferrers, i. 9, 16; ii. 14-17, 27 seq.; Bridges, Northants. ii. 173; Anon. Chs. and Insignia of Higham Ferrers, 7, 9, 12, 14, 46; CPR, 1553, p. 47; 1555-7, pp. 200-3.
  • 2. Somerville, Duchy, i. 587-90; Serjeantson, i. 17, 24; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, iv. 22.
  • 3. C219/26/70.