Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



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A flourishing market town with some 2,000 or 3,000 inhabitants, Maidstone was becoming the judicial and administrative centre of West Kent, although under Henry VIII it was still only one of six or seven towns where the county assizes were held. Elections of knights of the shire were generally held at nearby Pennenden Heath. Since the river Medway was navigable through Maidstone the ragstone for which the town was famous was both used at Canterbury and shipped further down river; in 1541 Calais was largely repaired from this source. Maidstone was also the chief market for the agricultural produce of the Weald. The archbishop of Canterbury, who until 1537 was lord of the manor, had a large house in the town known as the palace. In that year, as part of a massive exchange of lands, Cranmer surrendered the manor and lordship to the crown, which retained it until 1550, when it was granted to Sir Thomas Wyatt II; eight years earlier his father had been appointed royal steward of the manor.1

At the opening of the period Maidstone appears to have been governed, under the archbishop, by a portreeve, 12 ‘brethren’ and up to 24 ‘commoners’, but in July 1549 it received a charter of incorporation from Edward VI, who was said to have acted on the advice of the Duke of Somerset. (Somerset had earlier acquired the hall and revenues of the fraternity or guild of Corpus Christi at Maidstone.) The preamble declared that the government of the town, ‘the chief port of the water of Medway’, had been thought to pertain to certain inhabitants commonly called the portreeve and brethren but that ‘occasion being given to search the origin of such government ... it is found insufficient in law to be maintained’. A corporation was therefore established consisting of a mayor, 12 jurats and an unspecified number of the commonalty. Over £200 was raised in the town, mainly by the sale of the ‘ornaments’ of the Corpus Christi guild, to buy back its former premises for use as a school. The first mayor under the charter, Thomas Cole, was a strong Protestant who in 1552 was to become dean of Salisbury and in the following reign an exile at Frankfurt.2

In March 1553 Maidstone returned its only two Members during this period. Whoever was responsible for the election presumably believed—or affected to believe—that the charter of incorporation carried with it the right to parliamentary representation. Unfortunately the Latin indenture of election is badly torn: one of the contracting parties is given as the sheriff of Kent, the description of the other is missing. However, those testifying to the election are described as ‘the aforesaid mayor, jurats and ...’, while more than 30 signatures are appended, about half of them still legible, so that some of the commonalty must have voted. The month and year of the return have disappeared, but the figure ‘14’ remains; the next missing word is probably February, but as the writs went out on 5 Jan. it is just possible that the election took place in that month. No date is known for the county return. The sheriff included the names of the ‘burgesses elected on behalf of the community of the town of Maidstone’ on the dorse of the writ, with those of the knights of the shire and those elected for Rochester. The next Maidstone election indenture to survive dates from 1584; it gives the names of 9 jurats, including the mayor, and 26 others, these presumably representing the commonalty, defined by the Elizabethan charter as persons dwelling in the town having freehold land or tenements.3

Nothing certain has come to light on the origin of the claim to representation. It could have come either from the town itself or from Wyatt, while the Duke of Northumberland, hoping to mobilize support in the Commons for a change in the succession, may have used it to promote his cause. The sheriff of Kent, (Sir) John Guildford, was his relative by marriage, and in the previous November he had restored to Sir John family lands which had been in dispute between them since the death of Sir Edward Guildford 20 years earlier. One of the two men returned, William Wotton,