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|19 Jan. 1559||SIR RALPH BAGNALL|
|THOMAS TRENTHAM I|
|Sir Ralph Bagnall|
|Apr. 1572||JOHN FLEETWOOD|
|19 Nov. 1584||EDWARD DUDLEY alias SUTTON1|
|EDWARD LEGH I 2|
|WILLIAM BASSETT II|
|17 Oct. 1588||WALTER HARCOURT|
|THOMAS GERARD I|
|1593||SIR CHRISTOPHER BLOUNT|
|(SIR) WALTER HARCOURT|
|6 Oct. 1597||JOHN DUDLEY alias SUTTON|
|SIR CHRISTOPHER BLOUNT|
|Sir Edward Lyttelton|
|1 Oct. 1601||(SIR) THOMAS GERARD I|
|SIR JOHN EGERTON|
In his report to the Privy Council on the justices and other principal gentlemen of Staffordshire made in 1564 by Thomas Bentham, the radical bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Simon Harcourt of Ellenhall and Ronton Abbey appears, with his father-in-law, Sir Edward Aston, and another knight, as ‘a knot hurtful to justice and great maintainers’.3 It is round these names, and particularly the name of Harcourt, that the story of the early Elizabethan county elections in this shire revolves. Bishop Bentham’s comment does not accuse the Harcourt group of hostility to the established church, but he clearly regarded them as an obnoxious, as well as powerful lot, and presumably their religious leanings, if any, seemed to the bishop reactionary rather than forward.
Simon Harcourt secured the junior county seat for Staffordshire in Elizabeth’s first Parliament. His colleague was Sir Ralph Bagnall, the elder of two remarkable brothers, who in Henry VIII’s reign soared from an origin in provincial trade to court circles. A protestant, he was a Marian exile. Though he had sat for the county before, and had represented his native town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, he was probably regarded by the Harcourt group as something of an upstart. Certainly, his radical religious outlook must have cut him off from this conservative faction. His election in 1559 prevented the Harcourt party from monopolizing the county representation: an obvious point that must have been emphasized by his taking the senior seat—whether accorded him as a knight in social status and an older man, or won in a contest of voices, is not known.
In 1563 the two Members were Simon Harcourt, now in the senior seat, and his son-in-law, John Grey of Enville. Here was a Harcourt monopoly. Perhaps Bagnall challenged it. Clearly, he wanted to continue his membership of Parliament, and doubtless would have liked to represent the county. Instead, he had to be content with a seat at Newcastle-under-Lyme. At the next election, in 1571, we know that he and the Harcourt party clashed. There were three candidates: Bagnall, Harcourt’s son-in-law John Grey, standing again, and Thomas Trentham I. Harcourt himself had evidently had his fill of Parliaments and did not sit again after 1563. As for Trentham, he was a pronounced protestant, and it may well be that he and Bagnall combined forces against the Harcourt faction. According to Bagnall’s statement in a subsequent Star Chamber case,4 he and Trentham had a majority of the voices at the election; but the sheriff was Harcourt’s brother-in-law, Walter Aston, and when he came to make his return, he returned Grey and Trentham, simply substituting Grey for Bagnall as the senior knight. Bagnall had to have recourse once more to a seat at Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Harcourt died in 1577. There is no evidence of his influence in the election of 1572, though the junior Member, Thomas Whorwood, may have had Catholic sympathies and was certainly of conservative religious views. He may therefore have drawn support from the Harcourt party. The Harcourt family group—if it still retained its cohesion—re-emerged only in 1586, when John Grey again sat for the county, and in 1588, when Simon Harcourt’s son and heir, Walter, began his parliamentary career by winning the senior seat. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems as if—with the exception of John Grey—the pattern for the general elections of 1572, 1584 and 1586 was the normal county one of continuous change, spreading the honour among gentlemen who were ready enough to represent the county, but not so keen on parliamentary experience for its own sake as to sit for boroughs when the county seats were closed to them. The senior 1572 man was an ex-government official who had profited from the dissolution of the monasteries, and was uncle of the famous London recorder, Fleetwood. Edward Leigh I (1584) had just enough Staffordshire property to take a turn as knight of the shire, and William Bassett II (1586), head of an old Staffordshire family, had recently returned from serving with Leicester in the Netherlands. Neither in 1563 nor in 1586 were there as many Staffordshire men in the House of Commons as there were parliamentary seats in the county: a significant comment on the political apathy of the gentry there. In 1584 the senior of the two county Members—taking precedence, by virtue of his noble birth, over a gentleman nearly 30 years older than himself—was Edward Dudley alias, Sutton, the young heir to Lord Dudley, whose family were remotely connected with the Earl of Leicester and in origin the senior of the Dudley line, though it had long been devoid of any distinction other than its peerage. Edward Dudley, who was to prove himself an irresponsible n’er-do-well, was only a month or two over 17 years of age at the time of his election. What the county or the House of Commons thought of such a beardless, worthless youth becoming senior knight of the shire, we can only guess. Perhaps there is a story behind the election, now lost to us, for the ‘junior’ 1584 man was pricked sheriff on the very day of the election. He took his seat nevertheless and asked in the House on 2 Dec. for permission to continue as an MP, which, by implication was granted, for he was given leave of absence two days later.
The time was approaching for a new influence to enter the county’s electoral history: that of the Earl of Essex, whose principal estate, Chartley, was situated in Staffordshire. Perhaps he was behind the election in 1588 of the junior county Member, Thomas Gerard I, son and heir of the master of the rolls, a man who, three years later, was to be knighted by him before Rouen. Certainly, in 1593 he attempted to direct the county elections. Writing from court on 2 Jan. to three of his Staffordshire supporters, Sir Edward Lyttelton, Sir Edward Aston and Richard Bagot, he expressed his exceeding desire that his ‘very good friend’, Sir Christopher Blount—his stepfather and crony—might be elected. ‘I do therefore commend the matter to your friendly solicitations’, he added, ‘praying you to move the gentlemen, my good friends and yours in that country, particularly in my name, that they will give their voice with him for my sake.’ A week later he wrote, ‘with no less affection and earnestness’, entreating their support for Gerard as the second county Member, and asking them to employ their credit and use his name, and to ‘stand fast’ to him in his request. In a postcript—similar to one in his earlier letter—he added: ‘I should think my credit little in my own country, if it should not afford so small a matter as this, especially the men being so fit.’ The whole episode, with its intemperate insistence was typical of the Earl.5
For a time the situation was complicated, since Harcourt, the senior 1589 man wished to be re-elected. Harcourt also was one of Essex’s knights of Rouen, and it looked as if the Earl’s impetuosity would split the ranks of his own friends. Proceeding on his instructions, Bagot received promise of support from a relative and 60 ‘of his friends and well-wishers’, and was assured of similar strength from duchy of Lancaster tenants. A contested election appeared inevitable, and, however unhappily, Bagot prepared himself to obey the Earl. Fortunately, Sir Thomas Gerard saved the breach in party ranks by turning to Lancashire, where his family had great influence, and where, in fact, he had been elected for the county, as well as for Staffordshire, in 1588. If the Earl knew of this last-minute change, he gave no new instructions, though a late letter of his to Bagot about a borough election furnished him with the occasion to do so. Bagot was perplexed. He wrote twice to Sir Edward Lyttelton—the second time on 29 Jan. 1593—asking to be told if Gerard had really ‘resigned his good will to Sir Walter Harcourt’, in which case his friends might ‘spare their labour’. Lyttelton’s answer was that Bagot’s information was as reliable as his: ‘If Sir Thomas’, he commented, ‘release us (as by his letter it seemeth he hath) and willeth that those procured for him should give their voices for Sir Walter Harcourt, and he would accept of it as to himself, I know not what more is to be required at our hands.’ In the new situation, Lyttelton appears to have expected only a small attendance at the election, for in a postscript he added: ‘I would wish you to bring some of your friends to give their voices for Sir Christopher Blount, and so will I’.6 Presumably there was harmony at the election and no one contested the nomination of Blount and Harcourt. Blount was returned in the senior seat: token of his status as husband of the Countess of Leicester.
At the time of the 1597 general election, the Earl of Essex was away from England on the Islands voyage, but when embarking at Plymouth he had thought of the elections and written various letters. In one of these he urged the re-election of his stepfather, Sir Christopher Blount. He may also have commended the candidature of Sir Edward Lyttelton of Pillaton Hall, who also was standing for the county. Lyttelton belonged to the Essex party. He was married to a Devereux, he had a brother in the service of the Earl as keeper of the house and park at Chartley,7 he had been one of the gentlemen whose support the Earl had sought in the 1593 election, and in the end he was to be a participant in the fatal Essex rebellion of 1601, from which folly he was fortunate to escape with imprisonment and a fine. Thus, with two candidates, Blount and Lyttelton, the Essex party in 1597 were bent on achieving the monopoly so characteristic of their noble patron’s inclinations.
This formidable party arrangement was met with a challenge from Edward Dudley, the 1584 Member who had succeeded to his father’s peerage. No doubt the absence of the Earl of Essex encouraged his temerity, but the Dudleys at this time were at feud with the Lytteltons—particularly the Worcestershire branch of the family—and only the previous year Lord Dudley had been heavily fined by the Star Chamber for his riotous conduct. Detestation of the Lytteltons explains his determination to run his younger brother, John Dudleyalias Sutton, against Sir Edward Lyttelton. So does the fact that the sheriff, who would preside at the election, was Thomas Whorwood of Compton, the Staffordshire MP of 1572. Whorwood was John Dudley’s father-in-law, and, if this election be a measure of his character, as unscrupulous a man as Lord Dudley. By any reckoning, save that of shameless fraud, their enterprise was without hope. John Dudley was barely 28 years of age, and, as Lyttelton remarked in the Star Chamber case which he subsequently brought against the three principal parties in the election contest, ‘It seemed very difficult to effect that the freeholders ... would be moved to elect’ Dudley, ‘being a man inexperienced in such weighty and great affairs, and not having in the said county any house or place of residence of his own, but remaining as a sojourner in the house’ of his father-in-law. Whorwood as good as admitted that Dudley possessed no freehold land, and at best may, or may not, have had an annuity of £100. However, as quite a number of Elizabethan cases prove, no disadvantage could deter an unscrupulous sheriff. Add the social prestige of a peer, Lord Dudley, equally unscrupulous and utterly improvident, and the instruments were fashioned to secure any result.
The Star Chamber account of the election shows that the tactics of the Dudley group were directed against Lyttelton. In the preliminary canvassing—so it was said—they tried to persuade freeholders, if already committed or doubtful, to stay away from the election; the poll—such as it was—they urged freeholders voting for Dudley and Lyttleton to ‘plump’—as a later age termed the practice of voting for only one of the candidates—for Dudley. Whorwood was accused of swelling his numbers by using recusants in his custody at Stafford gaol, five of whom were named. The wives of these recusants were also said to have been at the election and ‘given their voices’ with Dudley. ‘Impertinent’ was all Whorwood chose to say in answer to these charges; and it might legitimately be concluded that they were true. He, Lord Dudley and John Dudley were said to have assembled about a hundred ineligible voters, many of them mean servants and followers of the Dudley family, brought to swell the noise and cause disturbance.
The election took place in the shire hall at Stafford on 6 Oct. 1597, about 800 freeholders being present. Beforehand, Whorwood marshalled the Dudley forces on one side of the market place, waving his hat and staff over his head ‘in very undecent and outrageous manner’ and crying ‘As many as love my Lord Dudley, come on this side’: ‘A Dudley! a Dudley!’ Lord Dudley was himself present, and, at the election, ‘with great and loud voice’, voted for his brother. Presumably, he also confirmed his vote at the poll, and was a party to the indenture. Whorwood acknowledged that he ‘allowed’ the vote; and this, Lyttleton contended in his Star Chamber bill, was contrary to law, since, as a peer of the realm, Dudley had no voice in elections to the Lower House. So far as is known, the point was being made for the first time. There can be little doubt about the principle that peers, being personally summoned to Parliament, could not logically be electors of representative Members. True, plenty of peers exercised influence in the preliminary choice of county candidates and in the canvassing of voters, and as patrons in borough elections wielded more arbitrary power. In Stuart times such activities were to be challenged on the same principle that lay behind Lyttleton’s objection in 1597, but there is no other Elizabethan evidence of a peer actually voting in a county election.
After the election by voices—in which, according to a report made by ‘all the justices of peace then there present’, Blount and Lyttleton had a majority of ‘200 persons at the least’—Whorwood seems to have led Dudley’s voters round the market place in a show of bravery, shaking his hat and crying ‘A Dudley!’. There is some reason to think that this was a fairly general custom at contested elections: certainly it was not unique, though it was probably rare for the theoretically impartial arbiter of the election, the sheriff, to head the demonstration. Afterwards, at the request of Sir Edward Lyttelton, the sheriff made a presence of holding a poll. When asked, in the Star Chamber case, if he polled the greatest part of the freeholders, Whorwood at first described the question as impertinent, but later replied that he examined ‘divers’. He seems to have polled a number of Dudley’s voters, and then been persuaded by Lord Dudley, who promised to ‘save him harmless’ from the consequences, to leave off. On the excuse of dinner and of being unwilling to trouble the county any further, he terminated the proceedings.
Apparently the election indenture was written out by one of the sheriff’s servants that morning at Stafford, leaving blanks for the names of the two elected knights. Names and seals of witnesses were secured, including perhaps the names of some gentlemen who were not among Dudley’s partisans. The two Members’ names were added later. In order of precedence, they were John Dudley alias Sutton and Sir Christopher Blount.8
It was bad enough for the Devereux party—as Blount and Lyttelton’s forces might be called—to see Lyttelton so blatantly tricked out of his seat, but their opponents added insult to injury by returning Sir Christopher Blount as the junior knight of the shire. His wife, the Countess of Leicester, wrote an indignant letter to her son, the Earl of Essex, complaining of this ‘wrong and disgrace’. Blount and Sir Edward Lyttelton, she added, hoped that the sheriff’s purse would pay for it, and she herself was anxious that Lord Dudley would not be forgotten, who had been a special actor in the affair, notwithstanding that he knew of the Earl of Essex’s letter, written in favour of Sir Christopher Blount. Lord Dudley appeared before the Council on 1 November, possibly as a result of this letter.9
Lyttelton quickly filed a Star Chamber bill against Lord Dudley, Thomas Whorwood and John Dudley alias Sutton though it seems possible that for one reason or another he only proceeded with his case against Whorwood. There is no record of the outcome, but it is unlikely that such outrageous behaviour as the sheriff’s escaped without fine and imprisonment. The Privy Council may also have taken action. In May 1598 John Dudley was before the Council, summoned by Essex to answer unspecified charges. Possibly, the summons was connected with the election, action having been postponed until after the Parliament, during the meeting of which Dudley was protected by parliamentary privileged.10
Though there can be little doubt that the behaviour of the Dudleys originated in their feud with the Lytteltons, the insult inflicted on Sir Christopher Blount suggests that, as in so many other counties, this local feud had been caught up and merged in the great national divide between the followers of the Earl of Essex and all who were against them, or not for them. The Dudley-Lyttelton feud continued. In July 1598 the Privy Council wrote to the justices of assize for Worcestershire, instructing them to call before them two of the Worcestershire Lytteltons, Stephen and John, with others of their company, who had committed divers outrages and violences against Lord Dudley’s brother, John, and his followers.11 No details of the affray are known, but it was probably part of the aftermath of the 1597 election. This John Lyttelton, like his relative, Sir Edward, was involved in the Essex rebellion of February 1601, but was not so fortunate as he. He was condemned as a traitor, and though spared the gallows, soon died in prison.12
The last election of the reign, in 1601, brought a truce to feuds: no Harcourt, no Devereux, no Dudley intervention is perceptible. (Sir) Thomas Gerard—no longer a protégé of the Earl of Essex, but one who had proclaimed him a rebel13—returned from his interlude in Lancashire, and, as the inheritor of his father’s Staffordshire seat at Gerrard’s Bromley, secured the senior county seat. The other Member was Sir John Egerton, a relative of the lord keeper. He was a person remote from the factions that had hitherto disturbed the county. Indeed, his main estates and interests were in Cheshire, and his return for Staffordshire, in other circumstances, might have caused some surprise. But the Dudley group had been discredited by the election of 1597 and Lord Dudley himself was sinking deeper into ruin, while the Essex party, which had presumably been extensive in the Earl’s home county, was in total eclipse. The Staffordshire gentry, never very Parliament-minded, cannot have had an embarrassment of choice in 1601. Even Sir Walter Harcourt, who in 1597 had been crowded out of his own county and found refuge in Westmorland, does not appear to have wanted to sit. There was some talk in the county—or so he asserted—of nominating him again in 1604; but James I’s proclamation against choosing bankrupts seems to have erected an obstacle to ambition, and thereafter his finances and his credit continued to deteriorated.