Much Wenlock


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

Background Information

No names known for 1510-23


1536(not known)
1539(not known)
1553 (Oct.)RICHARD LEE

Main Article

Wenlock, a market town ‘environed with hills’, was the trading centre of a predominantly agricultural district, with a weekly market and a three-day fair in June. The town had grown up under the lordship of a Cluniac priory, and at least until the mid 14th century it paid a fee-farm to the crown on the ground that the priory was ‘still in the King’s hand’. In 1468, at the instance of John Wenlock, Lord Wenlock, ‘the parish of the Holy Trinity of Wenlock’ was incorporated as the bailiff, burgesses and community. The burgesses, who had to elect a bailiff on each 2 Oct., were also empowered to choose ‘out of themselves or others’ one Member of Parliament, being on this account exempt from contributing towards the expenses of the knights of the shire. By 1491 they were returning the customary two Members. The term ‘burgess’, although presumably at one time synonymous with freeman, is not defined in the charter, and the scanty references to the election of borough officials leave it uncertain whether the whole body of freemen voted or whether, as in other Shropshire boroughs, only a limited group did so: the uncertainty extends to the parliamentary franchise. At the election of a bailiff in October 1540, the first after the suppression of the priory, it was recorded that one elector or two (the wording is ambiguous) was ‘placed among the electors for our lord the King by Rowland lord bishop of Lichfield and president of the council of our lord the King as in law the prior of Wenlock’. The town’s minute-book for 1545-6 records 50s. as laid out for a confirmation of the charter, but this had to await the reign of Charles I.1

Election indentures survive for all the Parliaments from 1542 to 1558: the first (which is in similar form to that for Ludlow and almost certainly in the same hand) and the last two are in Latin, the others in English. The town is named ‘Wenlock Magna’ or ‘Much Wenlock’ and severally described as ‘the town of Much Wenlock with the liberties of the same’, ‘the borough town’ or ‘the town and liberties’. The contracting parties to the indenture of December 1541 are the bailiff and some 12 named electors, but thereafter it is the sheriff who contracts with the bailiff, conjoined in 1555 with 13 burgesses and in 1558 with the (unspecified) greater number of them, or (in March 1554) with the bailiff and the Members, this last example being cast in the first person and being signed by the Members. The bailiffs claim to have carried out the elections in the name of the burgesses (or comburgesses, as they are sometimes called) and to have acted ‘upon the one whole, entire and common assent and consent’ of a common assembly. In December 1544 more details of the preliminaries to the election are given; the bailiff had received ‘the copy of the King’s majesty’s writ ... together with a letter from John Halywell, deputy sheriff’ ordering him to call an assembly of the burgesses. The election of October 1547 may have been contested, being decided by ‘common assent of the most and greatest number of the voices of the said burgesses being electors’. No direct evidence of parliamentary wages has been found, but a note in the bailiffs’ accounts for 1538-9 records that 5d. was paid to a borough official ‘for his pains for the summoning of the musters and gathering the burgess money’, a phrase which could denote a payment towards the muster, entry fines for freedom of the town or the wages of Members.2

Wenlock was not so closely connected with the council in the marches of Wales as were Bridgnorth and Ludlow, nor did it depend upon a single magnate; but the authorities maintained close relations with neighbouring gentlemen, notably the Lacons of Willey and their kinsmen the Blounts and the Corbets, who seem to have influenced the choice of Members. Only four of the 16 Members whose names are known served as bailiff and even they were more than simple townsmen: Richard and Thomas Lawley were the nearest surviving kinsmen of Lord Wenlock, Richard Lee (if correctly identified) was an officer of the royal household who married a Dudley, and Thomas Ridley the husband of a Blount. All the others were Shropshire gentlemen except Reginald Corbet and George Bromley, two lawyers of Shropshire origin, John Evans of Shrewsbury, clerk of the council in the marches, and Edward Hall, a London lawyer who had links with Shropshire and was doubtless known to his fellow-Member John Foster, a local man with business connexions in the capital. John Herbert, who lived thre