Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer


7 Feb. 1581ROBERT RICH vice Smith, deceased
27 Sept. 1597WILLIAM PETRE
22 Sept. 1601HENRY MAYNARD

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Essex was one county where conditions were right for a turbulent electoral history in this period, but for a variety of reasons including the proximity of court and government, the Privy Council managed to keep matters under control. Their intervention began with the first election of the reign, when the two candidates were Sir William Petre and Sir Anthony Cooke. Petre had been one of Thomas Cromwell’s servants and secretary to Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary; so moderate and capable a statesman that Queen Elizabeth retained him in her Privy Council and her favour. In these circumstances his claim to the senior county seat could not have been in jeopardy. In contrast, Cooke had never sat for his county: indeed, his only parliamentary experience was as MP for Lewes in the reign of Edward VI. He was in his middle fifties, an eminent scholar, and a leader of the radical majority in the 1559 House of Commons, a role for which he may have been cast by his son-in-law Sir William Cecil.

During the previous reign Cooke had been abroad as a Marian exile, and was returning to England when he was elected as second knight of the shire for Essex. To be chosenin absentia for a county seat, especially when there was no strong justification, was an extraordinary occurrence. Perhaps two letters written by the Privy Council show what happened.2 The first, dated 5 Jan. 1559, five days before the election, was to Sir John Raynsford asking him to forgo the use of a house at Colchester—presumably an inn—which had first been hired by Lord Rich for the county election and later commandeered by Raynsford.

Raynsford had been an adherent of the Duke of Northumberland and one of the witnesses to the letters patent transferring the throne to Lady Jane Grey. He was a political radical and an ‘especial and singular friend’ of the 2nd Earl of Bedford. Lord Rich, the 1st Baron Rich, was the wealthiest man in the county, the betrayer of Sir Thomas More, and a notorious persecutor of protestants under Mary.

The dispute over controlling an inn in the county town on election day suggests that a contested election was in train and a large crowd of voters expected.3 It can be inferred that the rival candidates were a Catholic and a radical, the one supported by Rich, the other by Raynsford. Rich’s candidate may have been Sir Edward Waldegrave, who had sat for Essex in the previous Parliament, a Catholic who had been a member of Mary’s Privy Council and a type of man who would not easily efface himself. The candidate supported by Raynsford may well have been Sir Anthony Cooke.

Two days after writing to Raynsford and three days before the county election, the Privy Council wrote to the sheriff. The printedRegister gives a bare entry of the letter and the text is lost, but it probably warned the sheriff against permitting irregular and factious practices and may even have given him to understand that the Council wished Sir William Petre and Sir Anthony Cooke to be elected. Probably there was no actual contest for the second county seat, but it seems clear enough that Cooke’s election was secured by Privy Council intervention, in which Cecil, and possibly the Earl of Bedford, played leading parts.

In 1563 the Privy Council once more intervened in the Essex county election. They wrote to Lord Rich—perhaps on hearing news of his plans—asking him to agree to the election of the former Members, Sir William Petre and Sir Anthony Cooke, ‘whom all we here thought meetest ... except you knew any meeter’. Rich replied that his desire was to secure the election of his son Robert as senior knight of the shire. On his instruction, the son had asked Sir William Petre if he intended to stand for election and had been told no: a statement that Petre, present at the Council meeting which discussed Lord Rich’s letter, denied. Rich was presumably eager to establish the primacy of his family in Essex in the new reign; and as his son Robert, unlike his father, had conformed to the new protestant establishment, hoped to make him the county’s choice as senior knight of the shire. Sir William Cecil seems to have drafted (certainly there are amendments in his hand) the Council’s reply to Lord Rich. It reiterated their earlier demand, adding that Robert could either ‘have a place as your heir apparent in the higher house’, or else ‘if you would, by other good means, be in the lower house’ (i.e. come in for a borough). The Council could not see why in a matter required by her Majesty’s Council for the service of her Majesty and the realm, ‘you should not more regard the satisfaction of our reasonable desires than of your particular’ ones. ‘And because by your letter you require to know our pleasures, we have thought thus to write unto you’.4

The tone of the Council’s letters is reminiscent of the more authoritarian days of Henry VIII and Mary Tudor; but Lord Rich probably deserved the rebuff. He dared not disobey; but he did not humble himself to the extent of placing his son in a borough seat.

By the time of the 1571 Parliament Lord Rich was dead and Petre and Cooke were old men, their places being taken by Sir Thomas Smith and (Sir) Thomas Mildmay II. The former, a friend of Sir William Cecil, a scholar and a statesman, was just beginning the Indian summer of his political career with promotion to the Privy Council. The latter was Sir Walter Mildmay’s nephew, like him radical in religion and a man of power and wealth in Essex. There is every reason to think that this was an agreed and peaceful election.

When the Ridolfi Plot compelled the summoning of a new and unexpected Parliament in 1572, Smith was on an embassy in France. As one of the commissioners who had inquired into the Duke of Norfolk’s conspiracy, his presence in the House of Commons would have been helpful, but it did not look as if he could be back in England in time. In a personal letter to Cecil, he stated the problem. Though he would be out of the country at the time of the election, he wanted to retain his Essex seat. He regretted that the crisis had not been foreseen and the Parliament of 1571 prorogued instead of being dissolved. He suggested that Cecil should write to Lord Rich (the 2nd Baron) and to the sheriff of Essex to secure his election: a shrewd estimate of where electoral power in that county lay, and a fairly good indication that Rich had backed him in 1571. Alternatively, he suggested that Cecil should procure a letter of support from the Queen or the Privy Council.5 So far as we know, official action was not needed. Smith was re-elected, though, as it turned out, he remained in France and was unable to take his seat during the first session. His junior colleague was Sir Thomas Barrington of Hatfield Broadoak, one of a wealthy puritan family. Smith died in 1577, and at the by-election, held tardily on 7 Feb. 1581—three weeks after the start of the final, brief session of the 1572 Parliament—Robert Rich (son of the 2nd Baron) was elected. Less than three weeks later, he succeeded as 3rd Baron Rich. As it happened Barrington also died either just before or just after the end of the 1581 session, certainly before the end of the Parliament.

By 1584, the year of the next general election, (Sir) Thomas Heneage, the rising courtier and statesman, had moved his chief residence from Lincolnshire to Essex, and for the rest of his life, up to and including the Parliament of 1593, the county found itself—willingly, no doubt—saddled with an immovable senior knight of the shire. The new head of the Petre family, Sir John, secured the second seat in 1584 and 1586.

Then in 1588 came another threatened contest and another intervention by the Privy Council. The sheriff at the time was Robert Wroth I, Marian exile and wealthy puritan. The Council in 1588 evidently suspected a plot to change the venue of the election—one of the tricks in a sheriff’s repertoire—and ordered Wroth to see that it was held in the accustomed place, Colchester, and not elsewhere. A fortnight later they conveyed to Lord Rich, who was now the principal patron of puritans in this very puritanical county, their understanding that the majority of the gentlemen and freeholders of Essex were disposed to choose Sir Thomas Heneage and Sir Henry Grey as knights of the shire, and that Lord Rich sought to impugn the choice by preferring some other. In consequence, a greater number of freeholders was likely to be at the election than was fit at this present time. For this reason, and also because of the worthiness of Heneage and Grey, the Council required Lord Rich to forbear dealing in the matter and to send them his answer by the bearer of their letter.6

Rich—probably in collusion with his relative, Wroth—was evidently meaning to place a puritan in the junior seat, thereby serving the interests of the religious party he patronised and satisfying an itch to assert his power in county elections. (Sir) Thomas Heneage, no friend of puritans, probably got wind of this and reported it to his colleagues on the Privy Council. Sir Henry Grey, the candidate whose seat was challenged, was a cousin of Lady Jane Grey, lieutenant of the Queen’s pensioners and deputy lieutenant of the county; a man of standing, with conservative connexions through his mother and his wife, and likely to be as attractive to Heneage as he presumably was obnoxious to puritans. Heneage and Grey were duly elected, probably without a contest.

There was some excuse on this occasion for the highhanded intervention of the Privy Council. It was only a few months since nerves had been strained by the threat of the Spanish Armada; and perhaps the first of the notorious Marprelate tracts had just appeared to disturb the authorities with the fear of social unrest or revolution: Yes, he that now saith, ‘Why should bishops be?’ Will next cry out, ‘Why Kings? The saints are free’.In such circumstances, it was dangerous—or so Privy Councillors might think—to permit an extraordinary concourse of people at a county court so close to London, exacerbating social rivalries and religious divisions.

For the rest of the reign, with puritanism in eclipse, peace probably did descend on the county. After the death of Heneage, William Petre, whose mother and tutor were Catholics, and who himself later became a Catholic, took the senior seat in 1597—a conservative triumph. The junior knights in both 1593 and 1597, Richard Warren of Claybury and John Wentworth of Gosfield Hall, were both Essex country gentlemen. Henry Maynard, secretary to Lord Burghley and afterwards to Sir Robert Cecil, was elected first knight in 1601. Puritanism managed to peep in again in 1601 with the election as junior Member of Francis Barrington, son and heir of the 1572 Member, a man who was to sit for the county on six subsequent occasions.


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. APC, vii. 38-39.
  • 3. Egerton 2644, ff. 128-54; EHR, xlvi. 591 n. 3.
  • 4. SP12/25/64, f. 125.
  • 5. Cotton, Vespasian F, vi. 53; M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith, a Tudor Intellectual in Office.
  • 6. APC, xvi. 298, 318.