Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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Leland called Wigan ‘as big as Warrington and better builded ... some merchants, some artificers, some farmers’, and spoke of the coal works at Hawe on the Bradshaw land a mile from the borough. Although Wigan was included in a Henrician statute (35 Hen. VIII, c.4) among the towns with many ‘decayed’ buildings, it seems to have been relatively prosperous during the period, having 2,600 communicants in the reign of Edward VI. Its constitution made it a factious borough. Lying within the duchy and county palatine, it had as lord its rector, under the chief lordship of the Langton lords of Newton who held the advowson. Between this authority and that of the mayor, bailiffs, aldermen and ‘free burgesses’ there was ample scope for friction, especially as some of the local gentlemen were themselves burgesses. Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby, perhaps like his successor an alderman, had considerable influence, while members of the Bradshaw and Gerard of Ince families were occasionally chosen as mayors.2

Wigan had received a number of charters in the middle ages making the burgesses free tenants of the rector as lord of the manor, and these were confirmed by Henry VIII in 1511. The mayoralty was established as early as 1350; a petition from rector Richard Wyot (1506-19), nominated by the crown in the minority of Richard Langton, stated that the usual custom was for the burgesses to elect three of themselves, from whom the rector chose one. Among later rectors were the famous doctor Thomas Linacre, appointed in 1519; Richard Langton (who died soon after taking the benefice in 1532-3); Richard Gerard (March 1555 to August 1558), the nominee of the Earl of Derby by Sir Thomas Langton’s grant of the patronage; and his successor Thomas Stanley, an illegitimate son of Edward Stanley, 1st Lord Monteagle. In 1538 John Kitchen, already lessee of the parsonage during the absence of the rector, Richard Kighley, purchased the next presentation from Langton; he later sold the right of presentation to two Londoners and transferred his remaining interest to Langton and two members of the Gerard family.3

Sir Thomas Langton was a considerable nuisance in the borough during this period, although—or perhaps as a result—he appears to have exercised little influence on parliamentary elections. The mayor and his assistants, with help from anti-Langton gentry, managed to keep some self-government working in the town and to circumvent the rectors and their officials. Details of borough organization are scanty, but by 1509 there were two bailiffs and a town clerk. The number of aldermen varied in the 16th century, and as late as the 1580s a rector was to claim that their appointment was a recent development ‘without due right’. The term appears, however, in a description of the electorate on the indenture for the Parliament of March 1553.

In view of the chronic disturbances and the number of potential patrons, it is surprising that Wigan seats were more often filled by Lancastrians than were those of the other palatine boroughs. Only in 1545 were two ‘foreigners’ returned and in four of the seven later Parliaments both Members came from Lancashire. Election indentures survive for all the Parliaments between 1547 and 1555, except that of April 1554, and are uniformly in English. In 1547 Thomas Carus’s name appears on the election indenture in a different hand from that of the rest of the document and in October 1554 Alexander Barlow’s is entered over an erased and illegible one; the name of his partner John Barnes may also be a later insertion, but the practice is considerably less frequent in this borough than in the other Lancashire ones.4

In 1547 the wording of the indenture is conventional and virtually the same as for Lancaster, Liverpool and Preston, but in February 1553 Wigan adopted a different form, with no mention of the sheriff:

To all men to whom these presents shall come, Charles Legh, mayor ... [torn] aldermen and burgesses of the same town send greeting in our Lord God ... know ye that we ... by the common consents and voices of us the saids [sic] mayor, aldermen and burgesses [torn] all other of the commonalty of the said town have elect and chosen ...

The three surviving Marian indentures revert to the contractual form, the parties being the sheriff and the mayor and burgesses. In October 1554 and September 1555 ‘the commonalty’ is included in the second party, but this was probably more nominal than real.5

The first names found date from 1545, when they appear on the sheriff’s county return, but there is no certainty as to when the borough began to elect Members again after its last recorded return in 1307. In the Crown Office list prepared for the last session of the Parliament of 1547 Wigan is one of four boroughs standing between Calais (enfranchised in 1536) and the Cinque Ports, the others being Liverpool (where the names of the first Members are likewise known from the sheriff’s return of 1545) and two boroughs which are not known to have returned before 1547. The choice of two strangers in 1545 perhaps suggests that the borough was then newly enfranchised.6

These two Members were presumably nominated by the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster: Thomas Chaloner, then a teller of the Exchequer, was later to sit for two other duchy boroughs and John Eston, the city of London’s steward for Southwark, was closely associated with the King’s steward there and chancellor of the duchy Sir John Gage. In 1547 the junior Member Carus, recently appointed vice-chancellor of the duchy at Lancaster, had personal as well as official links with the new chancellor, Sir William Paget, and was also related by marriage to the Stanley family. His senior colleague Barlow, a member of the Earl of Derby’s council and perhaps already his brother-in-law, presumably owed his six consecutive returns to the earl’s patronage. Barlow’s partner in both the Parliaments of 1553 and in 1555, Gilbert Gerard, was then in the early stages of a distinguished legal career, during which he would act as counsel to Derby, but he was probably more beholden to his standing as a cadet of the family seated at Ince, and perhaps to his connexion with the sheriffs who returned him. The junior Members in the Parliament of 1554, William and John Barnes, present problems of identification but were both almost certainly from Essex and nominees of their fellow-countryman Sir Robert Rochester as chancellor. Rochester may have tried to secure both seats in the second Parliament of 1554, when Barlow’s name was not that originally inserted in the indenture, but the attempt, if made, was no more successful than was Sir Ambrose Cave’s in 1563. Ralph Barton, the second son of a former knight of the shire by a kinswoman of the Earl of Derby, had entered Gray’s Inn five years after another (actual or prospective) relative by marriage, Gilbert Gerard; the Barton family leased property in Wigan. His partner Thomas Smith was of Blackmore, Essex, and presumably owed his return to Sir Edward Waldegrave, who was shortly to succeed his uncle Rochester (a close friend of Smith’s uncle (Sir) Clement Smith) as chancellor of the duchy.

Author: N. M. Fuidge


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