II. The Members

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

Although divers things that are due to be done here in Parliament might by means be reformed without Parliament, yet the Queen’s majesty, seeking in her consultations of importance contentation by assent and surety by advice, and therewith reposing herself not a little in your fidelities, wisdoms and discretions, meaneth not at this time to make any resolution in any matter of weight before it shall be by you sufficiently and fully debated, examined and considered.  

Sir Nicholas Bacon, lord keeper 25 Jan 1559

(Harl. 5176)

No Member served in all ten Parliaments of this period. The three who sat in nine were William Howard, William More I, and Robert Wroth I. All were country gentlemen, More being described by his biographer as ‘the perfect Elizabethan country gentleman’. Howard sat for the local family borough on eight occasions, contested the county seat twice, and was once successful. His committee record was not outstanding and only one speech by him is known, on the misbehaviour of the servants and boys on the staircase leading to the chamber. Howard’s career shows no particular interest in Parliament, and one wonders why he bothered to have himself returned to it so frequently. William More I sat in 14 Parliaments in all, five times in the Elizabethan period as knight of the shire, at other times sitting for a family borough, as Howard had done. Both Howard and More were Surrey men, but More outshone Howard in attention to House of Commons affairs as he did also over county matters. His reported speeches, however, were few: apart from minor procedural interventions he spoke in favour of devising a more horrible way of executing a fellow-Member in 1585 than the customary hanging, drawing and quartering; on purveyors in 1589; and on the subsidy in 1593. He is known to have been appointed to only one committee in the 1563 Parliament, to eight in 1571, and to 34 in the three sessions of the Parliament summoned in 1572. Measured by this yardstick, this was the high point of his committee activity: he was appointed to 16 in the Parliament of 1584, then ten (1586), 12 (1589), eight (1593), and 16 again in that of 1597.

Unlike Howard and More, Wroth was precisely the man one would imagine to have had the motivation to sit in ten consecutive Parliaments, for he continued his parliamentary career under James I and only narrowly missed being the one person to sit in all the Parliaments of Elizabeth. His father and he were abroad in Mary’s reign, and returned in time for the father to be in the 1559 Parliament, but because of this, or perhaps because of his youth, Robert was not a Member. He entered the House in 1563, and sat in every subsequent Parliament until his death in 1606, always, after 1571, for his county, Middlesex. To him, the House of Commons was a bulwark against the arbitrary exercise of power. Of ‘great cunning’ in procedural matters, he was also a master of the significant intervention; the vital defining clause; correct timing. In 1601 he sat on over 30 committees, took a leading part in the monopolies debate and lectured the Speaker on procedure.

The three men who sat in eight Elizabethan Parliaments were Thomas Heneage, Sir Francis Knollys and Miles Sandys. Heneage and Knollys were courtiers and Privy Councillors; Sandys was a lawyer with government appointments, whose brother Edwin, bishop of Worcester, later archbishop of York, had been in exile with Knollys. Sandys was an active committeeman, interested in law reform and privilege cases, but not a frequent speaker. Knollys sat in 12 Parliaments altogether, was a Privy Councillor throughout his Elizabethan parliamentary career, and, albeit his religious views were not those of the government, was a heavy-weight on the government side when he was not actually managing government business. He was still active in 1593, though he was over 80. Heneage was an active committeeman. Though ambitious he was of lesser status than Knollys. In the 1589 Parliament he was a leading government spokesman but he lost the confidence of the House over the subsidy in 1593. Of the 25 men who sat in seven Elizabethan Parliaments, 11 were country gentlemen, 5 were government officials, 5 lawyers, 3 merchants and one was the servant of a great man. Among the government officials was John Fortescue I, who sat in 1559, 1572, 1586, 1589, 1593, 1597, 1601 and 1604, the only MP to sit in the first Parliament of Elizabeth and the first Parliament of James I. Four Members, Richard Bulkeley I, John Heigham, Richard Lyffe and Robert Wroth sat in 1563 and after 1601, and there were three—Sir William Fairfax, William More already mentioned and Gregory Price—whose experience of the Commons extended from before 1559 to 1597. Bulkeley and Fairfax allowed 40 years to elapse between their memberships; Lyffe, More and Wroth sat continuously. In any case, it need hardly be said that the number of Parliaments a man sat in is no measure of his importance as an MP. Richard Martin, who sat in only one Elizabethan Parliament, was of the greatest significance in the history of the institution. Indeed it may be thought that the choice, made some 30 years ago, of the complete reign of Elizabeth as a section of this History was mistaken, in that it tends to obscure a continuity clear to any reader of the debates in 1601 and 1604. Compare, for example, Wroth’s wish on 20 Nov. 1601 for a committee ’in which a course might be devised how her Majesty might know our special griefs’ with his first speech in James’s first Parliament, (the first in the reported proceedings, as it happens), when Wroth moved for an immediate debate on wardships, a ‘burden and servitude’ to the subject, and demanded the effective action on purveyance and monopolies which he had failed to obtain from James’s predecessor.

 

Parliamentary service out of period

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
Sat before 155924618510381231916630
Sat after 1601141530737386116171230

 

Length of service in period

Number of

Parliaments

10987654321

Number of MPs

sat in the

above number

of Parliaments

033252957111233531654

 

Parliamentary experience

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%

Had sat in

previous Parliament

27312840285242373236

Were to sit in

next Parliament

35274824524137333640

There were 90 knights of the shire elected at each of the general elections in this period, plus a few more at by-elections. Each of the 39 English counties returned two knights of the shire except the county palatine of Durham, which was not enfranchised until the reign of Charles II. The 12 Welsh counties each elected one knight. The county franchise was in the 40 s. freeholders, but there were still occasional claims as at the 1584 Huntingdonshire election that men ‘falsely swore that they severally could dispend 40s. annually freehold land’, and it was held against John Dudley alias Sutton at the Staffordshire 1597 election that he had not ‘in the said county any home or place of residence of his own, but remained as a sojourner in the house’ of his father-in-law.

The sheriff was obliged to hold an election at the next meeting of the county court following his receipt of the writ of summons. He could not excuse himself on the ground that he had not had time enough to muster the freeholders. ‘The law presumed that the county court never wanted freeholders, and that howsoever small the number were, they must proceed to the election, that the Parliament be not delayed or deprived of any of their number’.1 The statutory wage was 4s. a day, but it was by now unusual for a county Member to submit a claim. Negative evidence, however, is always unsatisfactory, and perhaps more claims were made than has been thought. An order was issued to all sheriffs on 4 Oct. 1559 to permit the men and tenants of Finedon, Northamptonshire, to be excused contributing to the expenses of knights of Parliament,2 and, at the other end of the period, a Star Chamber case revealed more or less accidentally that Griffith Nanney was paid £15 or £16 as knight of the shire in 1593. The subject of payment to county Members generally was still under discussion as late as 1610.3

Most (97%) county elections were uncontested, or at least did not proceed to a poll. The Members were chosen by arrangement among the gentry of the county, with a little pressure here and there applied by the Privy Council or by prominent local magnates. Those county elections that did go to a poll were often accompanied by great bitterness and even violence—the Hampshire by-election of 1566 is a good example; another, showing the county electoral machine at work is the Kent by-election of 1597, which did not proceed to a poll, but for which documentation happens to have survived concerning the sort of arrangements between the county gentry that were probably common on most similar occasions.

In this period the status of the knights of the shire as a group was still superior to that of the burgesses.

 

Family Status

 

County

Members

Borough

Members

 
father or mother noble%%
father or mother courtier155
father a knight, esquire, country gentleman8052
father a lawyer*2
father a merchant218
father or mother obscure13
father’s/mother’s status not known119

 

MP’s status

 

County

Members

Borough

Members

 
a knight, esquire or country gentleman9757
a merchant or lawyer237
of lower status*3
status not known-3

 

County Members, or, sometimes, as with the subsidy committee of 22 Feb. 1587, just the senior Members from every pair, were appointed to most important committees, and to all affecting country gentlemen. They were named or indicated after the Privy Councillors in the committee lists, and they sat in the best places. Sir Andrew Noel declared that he would have his son elected a knight of the shire for Rutland in 1601 ‘or lie in the dust’. Lord Rich wished his son to be senior knight of the shire for Essex in 1563, but the Privy Council, who wished the former Members to be re-elected, despatched a stiff letter asking him to pay more regard to ‘the satisfaction of our reasonable desires’ than his own ‘particular ones’. They told him that he could bring his son if for a borough, even implied that he could be called up to the Lords, but it was the county seat Rich wanted for his son, and, since he could not obtain it, young Rich remained out of the Parliament.

The Privy Council was careful how it phrased any letters conveying its wishes to the county electorate, its wording being much more cautious that that used by some magnates to their boroughs. Ordering the sheriff of Norfolk in 1586 to proceed to second election because they did not like one of the Members originally returned, the Council emphasised that they wished this to be ‘free and not solicited’. ‘Her rfiajesty’ they said, ‘had no meaning to impeach any way their free election’. The result of their interference in this case they cannot have foreseen: it was the seating by the House of Commons of the very man the Council had objected to, one whom they had ‘for his misdemeanours thought unfit to be of the commission of the peace’. Thomas Cromwell, reporting the committee set up by the House to investigate this election, thought ‘it might ... be a perilous precedent for the time to come, to the liberty and privilege of this House to admit or pass over any such writ or return ... as the said second writ’.4 Furthermore one of the oldest and most respected Privy Councillors, the treasurer of the royal household, Sir Francis Knollys, went out of his way to show ‘his privity and assent unto the whole recited course of proceedings in the said committee as it hath been declared by Mr. Cromwell’, a striking early instance of loyalty to the House overriding that to the Privy Council.

Interference in county elections, more effective than this example of the Privy Council’s, could also come from influential magnates, such as George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, in Derbyshire. The intermarried Cavendish and Talbot families took both Derbyshire seats in the elections of 1572, 1584 and 1586 and one in 1588 and 1593. Henry Cavendish, with no claim at all to the loyalty of the county, save his name, was elected knight of the shire to the first Parliament called after he attained his majority, and to the next four Parliaments, serving uninterruptedly for over 20 years.

All interventions notwithstanding, there was an ideal attitude towards county elections well recognized by contemporaries, and aptly expressed by the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, lord lieutenant of Wiltshire in 1572:

I would have all gentlemen to have their due reserved unto them, which is, from time to time, as parliaments fall out, to be chosen, now some and then some, as they are fit; to the end they may be experimented in the affairs and state of their country.

Lord Howard’s letter to Sir William More, among the Loseley manuscripts, dated as August 1597, illustrates, too, the feeling that the younger generation should gain experience of Parliament, and that the county families should co-operate to make arrangements informally between themselves:

Good Sir William More, now my son is as it were entering into the world and to those years that may fit his country’s service, I am desirous that he should apply himself unto the same to manifest his proved disposition and endeavours to serve and benefit the same. And to that end I am minded to advise him to stand to be knight of the shire for Surrey against the next Parliament. Wherewith I have thought good to acquaint you being one of my especialest friends, that you may give way and furtherance unto the same. And so I bid you very heartily farewell ...
Your very loving friend
C. Howard

Noticing that he had not indicated which of his sons he meant, Howard added a postscript, ‘I mean my son Sir William Howard’. But this principle of fair shares was by no means universally observed. When families could monopolize the county seats, they did: Francis Hastings I and one of his brothers took both Leicestershire seats in 1584, 1586, and 1597.

In general the county Members resided in the county for which they were elected, but if a man had substantial estates in two counties he might take a turn in each. For this and other reasons the following 43 Members represented two counties in the course of their parliamentary career:

Henry BromleyOwen Hopton
Sir George CareyCharles Howard II
Sir Ambrose CaveSir Henry Jones
Thomas CecilSir Robert Mansell
Sir William CecilHenry Neville
Henry CheyneySir Henry Norris I
Francis CliffordSir John Perrot
Edward CokeSir Thomas Perrot
Sir William CordellHenry Poole
Herbert CroftSir Francis Popham
Sir William DevereuxRoger Puleston II
Peter EdgecombeSir John St. Loe
John Fortescue ISir Wm. St. Loe
Thomas Gerard IJohn Salesbury
Walter HarcourtRobert Salesbury
John Harrington IIRobert Sidney
Francis Hastings IEdward Stanhope I
Six George HastingsSir Robert Tyrwhitt
Thomas HeneageSir Edward Unton
Edward Herbert IIIJohn Vaughan I
John HerbertJohn Wolley
Edward Hoby 

 

and in addition Sir Walter Ralegh represented three counties, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall. He had estates in Devon and Dorset, none in Cornwall, but there he was warden of the stannaries. In any case courtiers were sometimes elected for counties where they had no land or where their own estates might hardly qualify them for the honour: courtiers monopolized the senior Hertfordshire seat throughout this period. John Wolley had no real claim in his own right to a Dorset seat in 1589, but his status as a Privy Councillor made it desirable that he should represent a county rather than a borough. The county where he had his main estate, Surrey, was pre-empted, and someone thought of Dorset, where his father had been a minor country gentleman. Counties such as Westmorland which had few native families were particularly open to outside influence, or to domination by one family, and there would then be a lowering of quality in the candidates. It has already been seen that Derbyshire repeatedly elected Henry Cavendish, a man who had no claim to the distinction on either a local or a national level save that of belonging to a family who could put in whom they chose. The later MPs for Westmorland were a particularly shabby crew. But Middlesex, perhaps because it included Westminster and much of what is now London, had a strain of independence anticipating that of its history some 200 years later: Robert Wroth I was elected there to every Parliament between 1572 and his death in 1606; and it was while he was representing Middlesex that Francis Bacon damned himself for ever in Elizabeth’s eyes by his speech on the subsidy. This argument, however, must not be pushed too far—both Bacon and Wroth accepted court appointments in the next reign.

Here is a list of knights of the shire who had no principal estate in the county shown as represented by them in one or more of the Parliaments in this period:

Matthew ArundellBreconshire
Sir William BowesWestmorland
Thomas BoyntonCumberland
Robert CareyNorthumberland
William CecilRutland
Henry CholmleyWestmorland
Sir William CordellMiddlesex
Francis DacreWestmorland
Edward DennyWestmorland
John Dudley alias SuttonStaffordshire
Walter HarcourtWestmorland
Sir William HiltonNorthumberland
Owen HoptonMiddlesex
Sir Henry JonesCardiganshire
Thomas Knyvet IWestmorland
Thomas Layton INorthumberland
Thomas MyddeltonMerioneth
Sir Henry Norris IIBerkshire
Henry NorthCambridgeshire
Sir Thomas ParryHertfordshire
Sir Thomas PerrotCardiganshire
John Peyton IMiddlesex
Ellis PriceMerioneth
Roger Puleston IIDenbighshire
Walter RaleghCornwall
Reginald WilliamsMontgomeryshire
John WolleyDorset

 

In addition there were many knights of the shire who for one reason or another did not reside in their county at the time they were elected. It is the more interesting therefore that when the sheriff of Hampshire wished to prevent Sir William Paulet from becoming knight of that shire at a by-election in 1566, he should have declared him ineligible on the ground that he was not resident in the county.

The county Members appear, in the following tables,5 to have been three times as active as the borough Members. Largely this is because of their automatic inclusion in the subsidy committees of the later Parliaments and in committees on bills particularly affecting country gentlemen, such as enclosure bills and the 1593 bill on standing uses and perpetuities. Whether or not they were really more active than the borough Members cannot be known. Probably they were, but not by this amount. The figures reflect, too, the idiosyncrasies of the surviving journals, which are especially weak in regard to committee activity in the first two Parliaments of this period.

 

County Members appointed to committees

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%
religion23241431148291012
subsidy1918266954479182**

social and

economic

legislation

5152542401027439048
legal questions372031291120828232

main business of

the parliament

(see appendices)

53415218267*8490
other subjects171522161722265288

* see subsidy

** not known

 

County Members who spoke on various subjects

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
religion 364973419
subsidy 31312120111

social and

economic

legislation

 1461077101012
legal questions****65428616

main business of

the parliament

(see appendices)

 6754104*29
other subjects 83882813713

* see subsidy

** not known

 

The proportion of county Members in each Parliament whose main occupation was that of country gentleman exceeded 75%:

1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
%%%%%%%%%%
87778277757779808281

 

The next largest group by occupation is that of courtier/government official:

1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
%%%%%%%%%%
91310141210101198

 

The small remainder were in the armed forces or were lawyers. Occupation and offices, however, are very different. The next table shows the offices held by county Members during the year(s) of their Parliaments, not quite the same thing as the offices held during the precise limits of the Parliament itself, but the nearest attainable in view of the difficulty of ascertaining exact dates of appointment. In the case of sheriffs, the figures specifically do not mean that the indicated percentage of sheriffs returned themselves at general elections, which was illegal. It sometimes happened, but rarely.

 

Offices in same year as Parliament—county MPs

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%
central government major64449976433
central government21312927292724242138
legal11332--121
duchy of Lancaster5565797336
military/naval1567711111086
lord lieutenant3543542233
deputy lieutenant4298111917232023
custos rotilorum915121010119131013
j.p.80847987858282918281
sheriff117927744756
other county office22223741273321273734
recorder/deputy recorder11243416-6
other municipal office7397109108354
no office14111679111141111
mayorone per cent or less in each Parliament
government officialone per cent or less in each Parliament

 

The figures show remarkable consistency from Parliament to Parliament. That of 1572, it should be remembered, extended into three sessions, 1572, 1576, 1581. A similar table has been drawn up for the borough Members. Comparison between them suggests that county Members were more likely than burgesses to hold office at all. They were nearly three times as likely as burgesses to be on the commission of the peace, and among those holding office, county MPs held significantly more offices, 2.4 each, against 1.7 each for the burgesses. About 90% throughout the period held an office in the same year as a session of Parliament.

On receipt of his writ of summons for a parliamentary election the sheriff of each county sent to each enfranchised borough within his shrievalty, a precept ordering the borough to choose its Members for the forthcoming Parliament, and to notify him of the result in the shire court. In that court an indenture attesting to the borough election result would be produced for forwarding by the sheriff to the clerk of the Crown in Chancery. Sometimes the sheriff would find it convenient to send up to Chancery one comprehensive schedule of returns, containing the results of the elections in all the boroughs in his county, but, as the different dates of the indentures show, each borough would still have made a separate indenture between its returning officer and the sheriff. Those boroughs which had themselves county status received their election writs not via the sheriff of the county but directly. The duchy of Lancaster issued and received the documents through its own office, and the Cinque Ports did so through the warden.

The clerk of the Crown collected the names from the returns into an official list, copies of which went, inter alia , to the clerk of the House and to the serjeant-at-arms. It is the certified list of the clerk of the Crown that shows beyond dispute that a man was accepted as a member of the House.

By a statute of 1413 (1 Hen. V, c. 1) the citizens and burgesses returned to Parliament were to be ‘resiant, dwelling and free’ in their cities and boroughs, and the writs sent to the sheriffs before an election required the choice of parliamentary representatives from among the ‘more discreet’ of these citizens and burgesses. The law, that is to say, prescribed a residential and a social qualification. However, in the first quarter of the fifteenth century outsiders began to buy their freedom in the larger cities and towns, usually to obtain trading privileges. Some of these non-residents were returned to Parliament, and, gradually, with the passage of time, the residential qualification began first to be less strictly observed, then to be ignored altogether. Mary Tudor, desiring to exclude from the House of Commons those of her government’s political and religious opponents who had access to borough seats, tried and failed to re-impose it.

In 1571 there was an interesting attempt to do away with the statutory residential obligation by means of a bill ‘for the validity of burgesses not resiant’. At a guess this was drafted by Thomas Norton*, a committeeman and draftsman, who is known to have wished to free borough elections from legal restrictions.8 In the debate on the second reading,9 the bill was opposed by James Warnecombe on the grounds that it might ‘touch and overreach their whole liberties’, since, without restraint by the law, ‘lords’ letters’ soliciting the election of nominees ‘shall from henceforth bear all the sway’. Warnecombe was slightly miscast for his role as a borough champion. Though a freeman and resident of Hereford, he was also a lawyer, a country gentleman, and the brother-in-law of a county magnate and Privy Councillor, Sir James Croft*. Norton explained the purpose of the bill as twofold: to prevent the choice of unfit representatives, and to avoid the possibility of a parliament’s validity being challenged on the ground that many borough Members were strangers instead of residents, as the law required. Members, he argued, should be chosen for their ability and fitness, good service to the whole realm being respected rather than private regard for place or person. There were no other speakers and no indication of a desire to commit the bill, and when the Speaker put the question for engrossing it ‘the greater number seemed to say "Yea"’. It looked as if the bill would pass the Commons, though of course there would still remain the hurdles of the Lords and the royal assent. However, at this point an unidentified Member intervened, possibly the recorder of London, William Fleetwood. Whoever he was, he was in favour of ‘the pretence’, or expressed purpose, of the bill—namely, to relieve decayed boroughs. Neither he nor any other participant in the debate, so far as can be seen, thought of abolishing these, as Elizabeth in later years would have liked to do, or as James I ordered the sheriffs to do in 1604.10

The question, rather, was what sort of men were to come to Parliament: home-dwellers ‘from every quarter, country and town?’ or men ‘chosen by direction’, it mattered not who or whence? He himself preferred home-dwellers. ‘We deal universally for all sorts and all places’, and therefore the House of Commons should consist of all sorts from all localities. Boroughs should not be at liberty to choose whom they list. Such liberty

is the loss of liberty, for when by law they may do what they will, they may not well deny what shall be required: rogando cogit, qui rogat potentior ... Surely, law is the only fortress of the inferior.

But there should not be a literal interpretation of the existing law.

I mean it not so strictly that those who should be chosen should of necessity be dwellers in the town, but to be either of the town or towards the town; borderers and near neighbours at the least. [When the town lacks men of sufficient discretion] I can never be persuaded but that either the lord whose the town is, be the town never so little, or the steward if that it be the Queen’s, or some good gentleman of the county adjoinant will either assign them one who knoweth the town and can be content to be free among them and to serve by their appointment ...; or else, for some reasonable fee, such as be of their learned counsel and who know them and their country will deal for them.

Robert Bell now thought the danger of noblemen’s letters, described so strikingly by the previous speaker, might be met by imposing a fine of £40 on every borough electing a representative at the nomination of any nobleman: a surprising idea for the recorder of King’s Lynn, where the Duke of Norfolk, until his disgrace, had been all-powerful and had controlled one of the seats.

The debate was wound up by Francis Alford, who sat in six Elizabethan parliaments, always as someone’s nominee. He thought that the main consideration was to secure fit representatives. Many young and inexperienced men were chosen, ‘for learning’s sake’: perhaps through noblemen’s letters, or local affection, or their own ambition, or lack of care in the electors. He suggested an age qualification of thirty, which would have excluded an appreciable number in all Elizabethan parliaments, and perhaps came the more readily to Alford’s mind since he himself had been a little over that age when he first entered Parliament. ‘Moses and Aaron should be cojoined together.’ One representative should be a townsman or else a neighbouring gentleman with local knowledge; the other a learned man, able to express himself, like Alford in fact. As the anonymous journalist summed up his speech: ‘the law should be in force for the one burgess and at liberty for the other’.

The bill was now committed to nine private Members, who presumably saw the technical difficulties of reform and that social realities were in any case more important than the letter of the law. It was ‘allowed to sleep’, an early indication of the usefulness of that remarkable tool the committee system.

There were two main reasons why a borough might return a stranger, the first being a matter of expense. It was a short step from returning a man from a local family who happened to be in London already, perhaps at an inn of court, to returning a complete stranger who undertook to look after a borough’s interests without charge in return for being elected. By statute all boroughs were liable to pay their Members 2 s. a day not only during the parliamentary session but during the time they were travelling to and fro, and many were the injunctions issued by the borough authorities to the effect that their representatives were not to ‘dally’ on the way, or to stay on in London after the close of the session about their private affairs. In 1586 the Rye corporation stipulated that

Mr. Carpenter shall have allowed him by the town for his parliament wages four shillings for every day, beginning the day he taketh his journey and ending the day he cometh home. So as he taketh his journey no sooner than needeth, nor tarry longer than is convenient after the session of parliament breaketh up.

On the other hand, a borough might instruct its Members to carry out other corporation business in addition to attending Parliament. York gave explicit instructions to their Members about their duties inside and outside Parliament, but they also paid them well, at least twice the statutory rate, increasing to keep pace with inflation, plus generous expenses. But even the basic rate was too much for a decaying borough such as Dunwich, with an annual income of only about £50,11 and so the tendency would be to bring in a stranger who might offer to serve for nothing. After the end of a session this stranger could renege on his promise, procure from Chancery a writ de expensis for his wages, and sue for the amount, as Sir Edmund Rowse did at Dunwich and Arthur Hall at Grantham. Sometimes, therefore, a borough might make a stranger Member enter into a bond, as Great Grimsby did in 1559, or a clause might be inserted into the election return itself, as at Wigan in 1588:

our burgesses shall discharge and save harmless our said town from all costs and charges concerning and during their attendance in the same Parliament.

The payment or non-payment of wages could be of great importance to a borough, and sometimes, as at Dover, a direct correlation can be seen between the rising cost of representation and the election of outsiders. Where it is known that wages were paid by a borough to its Members the fact has been noted in the constituency account. The actual amounts are seldom straightforward, since, when wages were paid, they were often lumped together in the accounts with expenses, payment for work done for the borough in London, and so on. The Rye chamberlains’ accounts show that the wages went up from 2s. to first 4s., then 5s. a day. In 1597 a penny rate was levied towards this increase. Even if a borough returned a stranger, gifts of venison or wine were often thought needful to retain his goodwill. The Rye records show other expenses involved in sending representatives to Westminster: payment to the messenger who brought the writ, to the clerk of the Crown and, because Rye was one of the Cinque Ports, to the clerk at Dover castle; for the wax to seal the return; for the ‘fees for the serjeant of the parliament house’; for solicitors to canvass support to further the town’s interests in Parliament, and for the hiring of horses for the Members. One borough even paid for some luggage sent in advance by a man who was not in the event elected.12 When circumstances warranted it, a borough might have to instruct its MPs to make gifts to a representative of another constituency, as happened on 21 Nov. 1566 when the Rye Members were told to give Roger Manwood some fish which would be sent to London for that purpose, so that he would ‘speak for the liberties of the ports in the Parliament house’. Perhaps such gifts might sometimes be made to prevent the recipient speaking against a borough’s interests, or to ensure his neutrality, but on the other hand it is possible that employing an expert speaker (Manwood was a well-known lawyer) was not as uncommon as might be supposed. There is the suggestion that this sometimes happened in the Liverpool Town Books13 apropos of Ralph Sekerston:

where other town burgesses had and did retain speakers for them in the Parliament house, he retained none, but stood up after the manner there and was speaker himself, to the great grief of master chancellor [of the duchy of Lancaster].

Unfortunately it is not possible to see from the journals whether or not most of the burgesses remained silent in the House. Such figures as are available indicate that they spoke appreciably less frequently than the county Members.

The second reason why a borough might return a stranger is that it might have no option. ‘Few will bribe when they can bully.’ Denbigh could not stand up to the following from the Earl of Leicester, after it had brought in a Member without consulting him:

... if you do not ... appoint such a one as I shall nominate ... be ye well assured never to look for any friendship or favour at my hand in any of your affairs hereafter14

though, when a town expected that a great man might impose a candidate, it sometimes contrived to hold the election before the prospective patron’s intention could be known. Leicester was well aware of the trick; his rebuke continued:

It will haply be alleged that your choice was made before the receipt of my letters. In reply I would little have thought that you would have been so forgetful or rather careless of me as, before your decision, not to make me privy thereto, or at the least to have some desire of my advice therein.

Chichester complained to Lord Lumley in 1593 that William Ashby was ‘a mere stranger unto this place ... unknown to us all and only liked and allowed of by your lordship’s commendations’. But when the great city of Gloucester was asked by the Earl of Leicester in 1584 to send him the return ‘with a blank’ so that he could insert the name of ‘a sufficient man’, he was told that it was ‘not convenient’. This device of ‘blanks’ was common where the borough had to submit to a stranger nominated by a great man. Sir George Carey* made matters crystal clear to Newtown in 1601:

Inasmuch as I was the means and procurer of ... your corporation, you will ... send up to me your writ, with a blank, wherein I may insert the names of such persons as I then think fittest ...

The Cornish boroughs sometimes sent up two separate blank returns so that two magnates could each nominate one man. This led to such a muddle at Bossiney in 1597 that to this day it is impossible to state who were the legal Members.

It would serve little purpose to attempt too fine a classification of borough types in this period. Most boroughs, large or small, returned sometimes a local man, sometimes a stranger. But of the greatest importance in the long run were the independent ‘freeman’ boroughs, from which, in the eighteenth century, urban radicalism was to spring. These had a wide franchise, could afford to pay high wages, and were able to spend money to oil the wheels of the governmental and legal machines. Paramount among these was London, electing four MPs of whom the two junior were chosen by the common council; the two senior being one an alderman, the other, normally, the recorder. These four London ‘citizens’ ranked in the House with the knights of the shires. The franchise, variously described by contemporaries as ‘the immense multitude of the commons of the city’, or the ‘citizens in their grand livery’, was clearly very wide, more than just the common council, and very probably included the liverymen as well. No outsiders attempted to intervene in London elections. The city paid a retainer to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and in the chamber itself the London MPs, like those of York, had the privilege of sitting next to the Privy Councillors. Like London, York ranked as a county with its own sheriff and county day for elections, and its own (complicated) franchise. The only man to be elected for York in this period who was not a member of the city assembly (though he lived in York) was the chancellor of the diocese, and he was made a freeman within a week of his election. York went further than any constituency in this period in regarding its Members as delegates rather than as representatives. In strong contrast to the London MPs none made a significant contribution to the business of the Commons. Bristol, another city of county status, with a population of over 6,000, remained independent, despite its succession of eminent high stewards including the Earl of Leicester, in his time the city’s ‘chief governor and patron’. The franchise was in the mayor, aldermen, common councilmen, 40s. freeholders (another indication of county status) and principal merchants. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, again a county in itself, rich, independent and remote from the seat of government, was unwise enough to invite the Earl of Essex to become its ‘good lord’ (for £6 13s.4d. p.a.) so as to gain his support in an internal dispute. Essex seized the opportunity to have one of his servants returned there in 1597. as good an illustration as could be wished for of the unwelcome consequences for even a large and powerful borough when it incurred an obligation to an ambitious courtier. Sometimes an independent borough had to fight to retain its freedom, as Canterbury was doing when the burghmote decided, after being compelled to elect a courtier in 1581, that only ‘dwellers within the city and free of the same’ might be elected as Members of Parliament. At Exeter, where the population of 8,000 or 9,000 was even larger than Bristol’s, the franchise was in the ‘freeholders’, the ‘commons’ or the ‘citizens’ as the varying descriptions went, thus providing yet another example of the difficulty of classifying anything in this period of evolving and shifting definitions, customs and standards. Though larger, Exeter was less independent than Bristol, the local gentry sometimes contriving to insert a foot in the door, but its corporation could and did stand up for itself when the 2nd Earl of Bedford tried to get his man in there in November 1562. He wrote more in sorrow than in anger: ‘I thought I had for my goodwill towards you somewhat better deserved than in so trifling a matter to have such a repulse’, and suggested another candidate in case it was the man rather than the principle to which Exeter objected. But the city stood firm: it was no ‘trifling a matter’ to them. Both the Cecils, father and son, received pensions from the Exeter corporation; an Exeter citizen became Speaker in 1563; and the instructions the city gave its Members were explicit. Good performance was rewarded by cash or gifts in kind above the already generous wages.

Nottingham, though a county in itself, was possibly the least independent of the large boroughs, being subject to the earls of Rutland, high stewards and constables of Nottingham castle, who nominated at least one member in every Elizabethan Parliament but one. Interestingly enough on the one occasion when there was no outside intervention, 1571, there was a disputed election and a double return. That of the recorder and town clerk was accepted and that of the two opposing townsmen was rejected. Quite possibly there is a story here, now lost. Perhaps the two townsmen were taking advantage of the lack of interest shown by the young 3rd Earl of Rutland to make a bid not only for the return of two Nottingham men instead of one, but also for a franchise wider than that of the mayor, six aldermen and ‘clothing’. It is known that there was an attempt to enlarge the electorate at Nottingham, but its failure is apparent from the surviving returns which show no ordinary burgesses taking part in the elections.

Most boroughs of county status were large. An exception was Poole, whose 1568 charter, obtained by Walter Haddon, conferred this privilege, which was evidently granted by the Queen only reluctantly, for Haddon wrote to Cecil:

I have with much argument obtained the Queenþs Highness to sign the book for ... Poole ... the name of incorporation is so discredited with her that she told me plainly she signed the book for no liking of the matter, but only because they had been long suitors, and to save my reputation, as she termed it, in that I had given them hope. ... As I promised the Queen’s Highness so I will promise you, that it shall be the last incorporation that ever I will deal withal, except I be specially commanded.

There is some mystery here, for incorporation need not have been extended to county status. It is odd that the Queen should have allowed the extension; possibly the full story has not emerged. Haddon was an eminent scholar, puritan and master of requests in good standing with the Queen, but it is doubtful whether her liking for him would have carried the matter without further and substantial support. Perhaps the 2nd Earl of Bedford and/or Cecil arranged the principle, leaving Haddon to persuade the Queen. His resentment at having to submit to some sharp words from her is unmistakable in his letter. If Bedford was involved, why had he bothered, and what was his reason for wanting Poole to have county status? He already controlled elections and all other matters of moment in the borough.

Not all independent boroughs were large, but they usually had a wide franchise, and this, as with Salisbury and Worcester, could bring about an extraordinary record of independence. By contrast, a wide franchise, while it deterred bids from outside, might encourage the lesser merchants to set themselves against a self-perpetuating controlling oligarchy such as the ‘grand lessees’ at Newcastle or the ‘more substantial burgesses’ at Totnes. Some of these internal disputes make hilarious reading but they have little to do with Parliament, the end result usually being the intervention of the Privy Council in favour of the self-perpetuating oligarchy. If the lesser merchants protested too much their leader might expect a summons to London, followed perhaps by an opportunity to reflect on his position at leisure. This happened to John Brooke* ‘the chief disturber of the government of this town’ of Weymouth, who refused for years to accept the union between Weymouth and Melcombe Regis imposed by the Privy Council after the unflagging disputes between these boroughs had ‘wearied’ them. In London Brooke spoke ‘some hearty words’ against the union at the Boars Head tavern.

At the other end of the spectrum from the independent boroughs, whether large or small, were the proprietary boroughs, where the elections might be held in the court leet, presided over by the lord’s reeve or bailiff, and where the lord of the borough could put in whomsoever he or she chose, such boroughs as Appleby, Aylesbury, Downton, Gatton, Great Bedwyn, Hindon, Knaresborough, Newton, Shaftesbury, Tavistock and Wilton. Sometimes the election returns themselves were quite explicit, for example the 1572 Aylesbury return: ‘I, Dame Dorothy Pakington, lord and owner of the town of Aylesbury ... have chosen ... to be my burgesses of my said town of Aylesbury’. Or there might be joint patrons, as at Bossiney, or joint owners, as were the Marquess of Winchester and Lord Mountjoy at Bere Alston. Again the returns sometimes make no bones about this ownership, the return for 1584 stating that the Members were returned ‘at the request’ of the two noblemen, ‘chief lords’ of the town and borough. Just as the independent boroughs were frequently large, but some, exceptionally, like Salisbury, were small, so the proprietary boroughs were generally small, with an occasional exception such as Taunton, with a population of 5,000 or so, which, for part of this period at least, was owned by the bishop of Winchester. Nor were the proprietary boroughs always unincorporated. Wilton, under the control of the earls of Pembroke, had been incorporated since the reign of Henry I. Barnstaple was another incorporated borough, with an unusual voting system. It had a record of independence, but came under the influence of a local gentry family which bought the manor and borough at the beginning of this period and then re-sold much of the property to the corporation while retaining the ‘nomination of one burgess of Barnstaple at Parliament’. This interest passed on to the 3rd Earl of Bath, and by 1601 the corporation had surrendered both seats to outside patronage. Newton, Lancashire, was another borough sold with ‘the nomination, election and appointment of two burgesses of the Parliament’, and its brief constituency account shows, in a nutshell, links of patronage between the central government and the borough; why a Catholic might wish to be returned as late as 1601; and the difficulty of determining the extent of duchy of Lancaster patronage. Knaresborough was another duchy of Lancaster borough whose patronage was shared between that amorphous body and the local gentry. By 1572 the dominant local family was that of Slingsby, some of whom themselves held duchy posts. When William Slingsby was about to set off on a voyage in August 1597 he heard that there would be a Parliament called in the following October. He immediately asked his brother to arrange his return, never doubting his fatherþs ability to bring him in:

We have news here of a Parliament to begin 12 [actually it began on 24th] October next; if it be so, good brother, put my father in mind to make me a burgess of the Parliament, for it is [a] thing I do exceedingly desire.

Proprietary boroughs had their own part to play in the growth of parliamentary government, a contribution as important as that of the large freemen boroughs. As concise a statement as any about the nature of their contribution is that of L. B. Namier.15

Of what inestimable value were the rotten or pocket boroughs in the development of the British Parliament and the making of the nation! How dull the Commons would have been had the House consisted of none but typical country gentlemen and genuine representatives of prosperous boroughs! Moreover, representation would have preserved the local character which is its logical attribute, and which in France it has retained throughout—with deplorable results: for the greater the hold of the individual member over his constituency the more independent is he in Parliament (which in theory he should be), and the more difficult is it to form and maintain a stable, disciplined majority, which is the basis of parliamentary government. But while the ‘political nation’ had its proper representation in the knights of the shire and the burgesses of populous towns, the rotten boroughs formed a reserve of parliamentary seats at the disposal of the strong and of the interested: of the magnates while dominant in the country, of the Court or Crown or Executive, of economic and financial interests as they entered into the balance of forces. That peculiar interplay of influence and independence produced a House representative of the nation, though not of any rationally defined electorate. Moreover, the rotten boroughs, by enabling men in search of parliamentary seats to roam up and down the country, helped to unify it politically; which process was furthered by the rule that every member, wherever and however elected, sat in the House as representative of the entire nation and not as delegate of his constituency—the latter concept would clearly have been inapplicable to an Old Sarum or Gatton. Lastly, the rotten boroughs opened the door to men of ability and application needed in the House but, because of lack of standing, wealth, or of such personal qualities as appeal to an electorate, ill-suited to the test of a free election. In short, those boroughs discharged essential functions now taken over by the party organizations; and they prepared the ground for the party system which, though again open to clever criticisms and objections, seems indispensable to the proper working of parliamentary government and of constitutional monarchy as understood in this country.

Before concluding this consideration of the Elizabethan parliamentary boroughs, something must be said about those newly enfranchised in the period, and those whose franchise was restored after a lapse of time. New and restored boroughs are listed below, Parliament by Parliament:

15591615631571157215841586
ClitheroeBeverleyAldeburghCorfe CastleBere AlstonAndover
NewtonMaidstoneChristchurch Bishop’s Castle 
SudburyMineheadCirencester Callington 
TregonySt. GermansEast Looe Haslemere 
 St. MawesEast Retford Lymington 
 StockbridgeEye Newport I.o.W. 
 TamworthFowey Newtown I.o.W. 
  New Woodstock Richmond 
  Queenborough Whitchurch 
    Yarmouth I.o.W. 

 

The 32 boroughs enfranchised or restored during this period raised the total possible number of MPs from 398 in 1558 to 462 in 1586, an increase in the membership of 64 or 16% in 28 years. It will be observed that there was no rational basis to the geographical distribution of these boroughs: areas already over-represented received more parliamentary seats, those under-represented received none. Nor is there a real distinction between boroughs restored to the franchise after a passage of time varying from a few years (New Woodstock) to centuries (Beverley), and boroughs newly created. Even the most formal statement on the matter by the borough authorities cannot be taken at its face value. A few years after Haslemere had first been enfranchised it was stated that it had ‘sent two burgesses to Parliament from time whereof the memory of man was not to the contrary’. East Looe, plaintiff in an Exchequer case 14 years after it first returned MPs, claimed that it ‘now is and at all time heretofore hath been charged with the setting forth and finding of burgesses to her Majesty’s Parliament’. A defendant denied the right, though conceding that:

of late he hath heard (rather by usurpation than of any lawful right or authority as he thinketh) burgesses have been sent to divers Parliaments for the said town and he is induced so to think for that he never could learn, know or ever did see any letters patent concerning the incorporation of the said town or village.17

The position of Haslemere was regularized in 1596 and of East Looe in 1587. That of Maidstone and Richmond was regular from the start, each sending up Members to the next Parliament to occur after receiving a charter of incorporation with an appropriate enfranchising clause. But for a limited period it was quite common for boroughs to begin to return Members without any authority at all, for their right to do so to be challenged in the House, for the challenge to go by default, for the boroughs to continue to send Members and, sometimes, for the situation to be recognized in a subsequent charter of incorporation. All four of the new 1559 boroughs, as far as can be seen, merely assumed the right, although someone, presumably the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in the cases of Clitheroe, Newton and Sudbury, must have arranged matters with the clerk of the Crown, who, as already explained, had to certify the Members in his official list. None of the new 1559 boroughs is known to have been challenged in the House at the time.

Of the seven new 1563 boroughs, Beverley, which had been granted to Sir Robert Dudley in 1561,18 and Maidstone, which had obtained a new charter giving it the franchise in 1559, were not challenged, the others were, and so was Tregony, which had not been challenged in 1559. On 21 Jan. 1563 the Speaker

declared to the House that the lord steward agreed they [the burgesses of these six boroughs] should resort into the House and with convenient speed to show letters patent why they be returned in this Parliament.19

Of course no authority was produced and the Members continued in the House. In 1571 all nine boroughs were specifically challenged (6 Apr.) and allowed to remain (9 Apr.), the validity of their ‘charters ... is elsewhere to be examined’.20 The House was not yet master of its own affairs.

The only new borough of 1572, Corfe Castle, went unchallenged, so did the ten boroughs enfranchised in 1584, though it appears that by now the Queen was alert to the situation, for she refused an application by the Earl of Rutland for Newark in 1579 on the ground that there were ‘over many’21 already, itself an indication that these widespread enfranchisements were, with a few exceptions, happening behind her back. The last borough to be enfranchised in the reign, Andover, was probably a concession on her part to Leicester, as Corfe Castle had been to Hatton and Poole’s enhanced status had been to Haddon or Bedford. Attempts to enfranchise Doncaster by the back door in 1597 and Harwich in 1601 both failed.22

There is of course only one explanation for the arbitrary manner in which these boroughs were enfranchised. It must be assumed that the Queen, though sometimes ready to oblige a fortunate courtier, was either indifferent towards or altogether against any increase in the size of the Commons. The boroughs for their part were mostly small and impoverished, ‘divers decayed towns’,23 perfect pocket borough material. The men behind the enfranchisement of these boroughs (and the details will be found in each constituency account) were people like Leicester, Hatton, the Earl of Derby, Bedford, the Marquess of Winchester, Lord Mountjoy, and Sir George Carey*, whose letter to Newtown has already been quoted, and who, as governor of the Isle of Wight, obtained the enfranchisement of no less than three boroughs, Newport, Newtown and Yarmouth. If boroughs could be enfranchised with the Queen’s approval (Corfe Castle, Andover), so much the better. If not, then it had to be by arrangement with the clerk of the Crown in the knowledge that if the matter came to light, the House itself would probably fail to take effective action. But the game came to an end, for this period, when on the one hand the Queen decided that things had gone far enough, and, on the other, the House became master of its own membership. It may not be a coincidence that the last batch of irregular enfranchisements occurred in 1584 and that the so-called ‘parliamentary pawns’24 survive from 1586. These provided ready access to written precedent as to those persons and places entitled to receive writs of summons to a Parliament, and so prevented fraud or slackness by the clerk of the Crown over the admittance of unqualified individuals from unenfranchised boroughs. Nor was it by chance that the last borough in this period was enfranchised in 1586, and that a committee was appointed in the following Parliament, 8 Feb. 1589, to prevent ‘corrupt courses in sundry of the returns’. When this committee was appointed to meet ‘in the Exchequer chamber upon Monday next at three of the clock in the afternoon’ Mr. Rowland Watson, clerk of the Crown, was ordered to attend, ‘with the returns of the sheriffs as with his own book of the same returns certified by him unto this House’.25 By 1601 the Commons control over the clerk of the Crown was complete, the solicitor-general stating in debate 14 Nov.:

the clerk of the Crown is our immediate officer. He is to be attending between the two doors of the upper House, and lower House, when any warrant general is required he is to subscribe to it, to certify it etc. He is to convey our minds, and messages to the upper House.26

What sort of men were the borough Members? Their main occupations are shown below:

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%

country

gentlemen

34314136353734333435

merchants/

tradesmen

23201919151418171514
lawyers16191720232624222627
armed forces3123332622
servants of great men61077656777

government officials/

courtiers

10101010101091088
other4532635465
not known4413222122

 

About one third of the borough Members in each Parliament were country gentlemen by main occupation. There were probably two factors at work here, the increasing tendency of the old-established country gentlemen to come in for boroughs, and the aspirations of the successful burgesses or merchants which led them to buy land, a phenomenon well understood by contemporaries such as John Hooker alias Vowell , who described them as those

who attain to great wealth and riches, which for the most part they do employ in purchasing of lands and by little and little they do creep and seek to be gentlemen.

So it was that, while the status of the county Member remained higher than that of the borough Member, the social distinction between some of the men involved no longer existed. There being over three times as many borough seats as county, enough country gentlemen were ready to serve as borough MPs for this trend to develop. The very man who was championing the cause of resident burgesses in 1571 as MP for Hereford, James Warnecombe, had sat for Herefordshire in an earlier Parliament. The Member for Northamptonshire in 1593 was Christopher Yelverton, the recorder of Northampton, an ambitious lawyer who had married into a county family, making his only appearance as a knight of the shire. The MP for the insignificant Cornish borough of Mitchell in that same Parliament was Sir Walter Ralegh, no less, the Queenþs captain of the guard, making his only appearance as a borough Member. This does not imply that Ralegh would have deferred in any way to Yelverton, but it does underline the fact that any statistics compiled on the Members of that Parliament will show a certain social fluidity. Even the average age of the county MPs (40.6) approximates to that of the burgesses (39.4). There is therefore no point in asking the general question of each biography, was its subject a county or a borough Member? Most were sometimes the one, sometimes the other. Each Parliament must be looked at separately.

The following table showing offices held in the same year as a Parliament is drawn up in the same form as that for the county Members. There are more municipal office holders among the borough MPs than among the county Members; a substantial minority (about a third) of borough MPs were on the county commission of the peace; a rather smaller minority had minor government office, and very few indeed had major office, were members of the Privy Council, or held the highest county offices. It is a little surprising that so few held legal office, and distinctly surprising that the figures remain so consistent: they had been expected to show a greater penetration of county offices towards the end of the period.

Overall the greatest difference between borough and county Members is probably in the absolute numbers of each holding office during their time in Parliament, i.e. about 90% of county MPs and only 65% of burgesses; and there were 2.4 offices per head among the county Members as opposed to 1.2 among the burgesses.

 

Offices in same year as Parliament - borough MPs

 1559  
1563  
1571  
1572  
1584  
1586  
1589  
1593  
1597  
1601
 %%%%%%%%%%
central government minor17181622151517171519
legal3324133323
duchy of Lancaster3234332432
military/naval4313222342
deputy lieutenant*111121343
j.p.34332840343629363432
sheriff3427211121
other county office14161016111112121513
mayor4537352552
recorder/deputy recorder3746356666
other municipal office2719211921151620181916
government official1111221*11
no office34334127353538303539
central government major28 one per cent or less in each parliament
lord lieutenant one per cent or less in each parliament
custos rotulorum one per cent or less in each parliament

 

Each borough election has been looked at in order to establish where Members lived at the time of their election (the residential relationship), and how they came to be returned (the electoral relationship). In both the following tables the percentages are shown in brackets, rounded to the nearest whole number.

 

Residential relationship of borough MPs to borough for which returned

 1559  
1563  
1571  
1572  
1584  
1586  
1589  
1593  
1597  
1601

number of

borough Members

314351352422377377376374380376

resident in

borough

93

(30)

86

(25)

82

(23)

108

(26)

93

(25)

88

(23)

89

(24)

80

(21)

89

(24)

75

(20)

resident in

same county

as borough

109

(35)

118

(34)

125

(36)

137

(33)

120

(32)

137

(36)

127

(34)

110

(29)

136

(36)

132

(35)

resident in

adjacent county,
riding or division

13

(4)

17

(5)

17

(5)

23

(5)

15

(4)

15

(4)

9

(2)

8

(2)

14

(4)

17

(5)

stranger

94

(30)

114

(32)

119

(34)

140

(33)

134

(36)

128

(34)

141

(37)

157

(42)

127

(33)

136

(36)

not known

5

(2)

16

(5)

9

(3)

14

(3)

15

(4)

(92)

10

(3)

19

(5)

14

(4)

16

(4)

 

It will be seen that figures have been obtained for 95% of elections, and, again, there is a surprising consistency throughout the period. Approximately one third of the borough Members were strangers, rather less in the special circumstances of the first parliament of the period.

 

Electoral relationship of borough MPs to borough for which returned

 1559  
1563  
1571  
1572  
1584  
1586  
1589  
1593  
1597  
1601

number of

borough Members

314351352422377377376374380376

own or

family interest

66

(21)

70

(20)

72

(20)

90

(21)

78

(21)

89

(24)

82

(22)

73

(20)

89

(23)

86

(23)

wife’s family

interest

10

(3)

11

(3)

9

(3)

7

(2)

7

(2)

11

(3)

11

(3)

10

(3)

11

(3)

20

(5)

corporation

interest

94

(30)

90

(26)

86

(24)

109

(26)

84

(22)

84

(22)

83

(22)

91

(24)

101

(27)

83

(22)

‘natural’

influence

25

(8)

20

(6)

32

(9)

34

(8)

46

(12)

152

(14)

38

(10)

39

(10)

28

(7)

25

(7)

influence of

a great man

92

(29)

130

(37)

124

(35)

139

(33)

131

(35)

113

(30)

129

(34)

131

(35)

122

(32)

129

(34)

duchy of

Lancaster

14

4)

10

(3)

8

(2)

10

(2)

7

(2)

7

(2)

8

(2)

12

(3)

11

(3)

9

(2)

not known

13

(4)

20

(6)

21

(6)

33

(8)

24

(6)

21

(6)

25

(7)

18

(5)

18

(5)

24

(6)

 

In the above table, showing the electoral relationship, ‘own or family interest’ means that the borough Member concerned or his family could bring in a Member there when they wished. The proportion remains almost constant, at rather under a quarter. ‘Wife’s family interest’ refers to the Member’s then wife’s family interest or connexions, 5% or under in each Parliament. A man has been noted as being returned through ‘corporation’ interest if he held or had held office in the borough, whether or not it actually was a corporate borough. Frequently it was the case that a man might hold office in a borough but reside elsewhere. Thus a recorder might be classified as ‘stranger’ in the first, residential table, and ‘corporation interest’ in the second; a mayor as ‘resident in borough’ in the first table, ‘corporation interest’ in the second. The percentage of men returned by ‘corporation interest’ was 30% in 1559, 22% in 1601.

‘Natural’ influence is used to indicate own or family influence, short of interest. It could persist, for instance, even if a family sold its interest in the borough. The local standing of the family together with their former ownership might easily account for a man’s return, as with Richard Edgecombe II at Totnes in 1589. ‘Natural’ influence is used also to indicate ties of friendship with a locally influential person, including a former wife’s family; ties of landed interest, such as having estates in or near the borough insufficient to give the MP an unqualified right to be returned there; certain ties of employment with a borough short of corporation interest; and lastly, cases where a borough returned someone known to them who happened to be resident in London, but who would otherwise have had small claim to be elected. Figures in this category are highest in 1584 and 1586.

‘Influence of a great man’, after the exceptional circumstances of the first Parliament of the reign, becomes the largest single determinant of borough elections throughout the period, responsible for about one third of all borough Members. The category includes those Members returned through personal connexions of friendship or employment with eminent national figures other than the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, whose comparatively few nominees appear in the last category. A man is included under ‘duchy of Lancaster’ only if the central administration of the duchy was involved: for him to have held a local duchy office does not in itself warrant inclusion, for this was the case with many country gentlemen.

It may be noticed that, though ‘central government’ occurs in the offices category of this analysis, there is nothing corresponding to it in the electoral relationship section. This is because no unmistakable central government or court influence has been detected in any of the 3,699 borough elections examined. The influence was that of individual great men who, of course, often co-operated in filling borough vacancies—Sir William Cecil and the 2nd Earl of Bedford in the west country for example. Admittedly, there is room here for different interpretations, and whoever thinks a stronger case can be made for central government patronage will find much supporting evidence in the biographies of the Cecils, father and son. If a borough patron, great or small, sat in the House of Commons at any time during this period, the borough patronage he exercised has been set out in his biography—see, for example, the biography of Sir Robert Dudley. Some great men, however, did not sit in the Commons during this period, and so have no biography to which the reader may refer. Among them was Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. The greatest concentration of parliamentary borough seats in England was in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Wiltshire, and it was in the first three, sending 60 or 70 MPs to the Commons, that Bedford was most active. His name has been associated with about 40% of the borough Members of these three counties. But caution is necessary in assessing the extent of the patronage of any great man, for this is often illusory. Bedford was a Privy Councillor, warden of the stannaries, lord lieutenant of all three counties and of Exeter city, a puritan in a part of the country where puritanism had remained strong even during Mary’s reign, a man held in high esteem for his personal qualities, and the man entrusted by the Privy Council with the supervision of the elections of 1571 and 1572 in Cornwall and Devon. It would have been surprising if his patronage had not been extensive, but it will not do to say that because a man shared his religious views, or had fought with him at St. Quentin, as many west countrymen had, Bedford must have nominated him at such and such a borough in a certain year.

All aspects of association are pertinent to a Member’s biography and care has been taken to notice them, but they may fall short of proving the identity of a patron, or the need for a patron at all. Take the case of Exeter in 1562-3, already mentioned above p. 51. In a period where so much is obscure, it is positively known that Bedford asked for and was twice refused a nomination there. Yet the man the city in fact elected, Thomas Williams, had been returned at Bedford’s own proprietary borough of Tavistock in 1559. Now, unless the evidence of this refusal had come to light, it would have been easy and convincing to suggest that Williams, an obvious nominee at the one place, was Bedford’s nominee at the other, more especially as Bedford was lord lieutenant of Exeter and a friend of the city. Moreover, a re-examination at this point of the evidence for Williams’s return at Tavistock discloses that his return was due not to Bedford, but to Sir Richard Edgecombe. While Bedford lived, Williams was the one man he did not return at Tavistock in this period. Another point must be noticed. If a man might have been nominated by patron A and was not, it does not follow that A was that man’s enemy, or even, in this period, his political opponent. He may have been, but not necessarily. Williams was no doubt acceptable to Bedford in every way, but he was not his ‘man’, and he was not nominated by him in the two instances mentioned. Dartmouth provides a different story. In 1571 the senior Member was a Yorkshire country gentleman brought in by Bedford as a favour to Lord Burghley, the junior was a local merchant. In 1572 Bedford again obtained the nomination of the senior man, an Essex lawyer, and the same local merchant occupied the junior seat as in 1571. This man, Thomas Gourney, died before the 1576 session, and Bedford obtained the nomination of his replacement, who in turn died before the 1581 session. Bedford now went one better and asked the mayor to send him a blank indenture, upon which he inserted the name of a lawyer in his service. At Bridport, too, near one of his large estates, Bedford mostly had his way, so that it would be easy to write something on these lines: ‘at Bridport in 1559 one Member was a Bedford servant and the other a wealthy local merchant linked with the earl’, indicating that the Bedford interest brought both men in. Not so; William Page was assuredly Bedford’s servant, but Robert Moore’s father was bailiff of the town, and because of this he came in. The Strodes lived near Plympton Erle, where they worked the tin mines. Members of the family frequently represented the borough. Bedford was their social superior, their superior in the hierarchy of the stannaries, a sharer of their religious views. No doubt there was respect, perhaps even affection on both sides, but to the plain question, ‘How did Richard Strode come to be returned for Plympton Erle in 1559’, the answer must be ‘Through his own family influence’. If the question be asked whether Bedford was ‘associated with’ or even ‘approved of’ Strode, the answer has of course to be in the affirmative. The figures given below for Bedford’s influence in the west country are therefore maxima, and if the point has been laboured, it is to demonstrate the pitfalls awaiting any too enthusiastic attempt to highlight the influence of great men, or even to speculate about electoral patronage in general in the absence of positive evidence. Bedford’s electoral patronage in the west country was considerable and does impress. Together, the three western counties—Cornwall, Devon and Dorset—returned 346 borough Members to the first five Parliaments. Of these, 138 Members (40%) can certainly be associated with Bedford and their returns attributed to him, alone or in conjunction with Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

It will be noticed that though he was only 58 when he died in 1585, Bedford’s influence had by then already declined. The west country was less puritan than in the first few years of the reign, and most of his original lieutenants were dead, or, in the persons of Sir John Chichester and Sir Arthur Bassett, to die in 1586. Little influence survived him. Such as there was continued in the hands of his son-in-law the Earl of Warwick, brother of Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Outside the west country Bedford’s patronage had always been small. As high steward of Oxford in 1563, he succeeded in foisting on the city one of his servants, William Page, but Oxford was as intent on defending its privileges as Exeter, though less successful, and in November 1568, when another election was expected, the corporation resolved that future Members of Parliament must have resided in the city for at least three years. Possibly Bedford nominated at Minehead in 1563, at Bedford itself in 1572 and at Appleby in 1584. He was certainly responsible for the return of his son at Chipping Wycombe in 1571, when he was asked by the Privy Council to supervise the Buckinghamshire elections, but in 1572, when he was not, his son had to move to one of his west country boroughs, Bridport. Bedford’s acceptance of a borough seat for his son in 1571 probably resulted from his commitment to William Dormer for one of the Buckinghamshire seats. More interesting is it that, asked by the Privy Council to supervise elections there, he should have supported a Catholic. Sir William Dormer was the father of Jane Dormer, one of Mary Tudor’s ladies, who married the Spanish ambassador, Feria. She and her mother remained Catholics and went abroad on Elizabeth’s accession. Possibly Dormer and his son Robert, whom Bedford returned at Tregony in 1571, conformed, though, as Sir Francis Englefield had put it the year before, they were ‘beset with heretics and breathing their spirit’. It says much for Bedford that he should have continued Dormer’s ‘chief friend’ so that, again according to Englefield, it was through Bedford that Dormer ‘enjoys all that he now has’. Robert Dormer married a Catholic, went on to represent the county in 1593, and was given a peerage in 1615.

 

Electoral influence of the Earl of Bedford

  1559 % 1563 % 157129 % 157230 % 1584 %
 

No. of

borough

seats

Earl

of

Bedford

 

No. of

borough

seats

Earl

of

Bedford

 

No. of

borough

seats

Earl

of

Bedford

 

No. of

borough

seats

Earl

of

Bedford

 

No. of

borough

seats

Earl

of

Bedford

 
Cornwall32123836311439403215384018454233717
Devon144291464314750148571634638
Dorset168501695616850183595018739
Total622439662944703043723549762026

 

Another parliamentary patron, for a short time only, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, whose plot to marry Mary Stuart was the cause célèbre of the early 1570s. He had been condemned to death by the time of the 1572 election, and was executed during the course of that Parliament. Already in 1571 he was under a cloud for his implication in the Northern rebellion, so that his influence appears strongly only in the Parliaments of 1559 and 1563:

 

Electoral Influence of the Duke of Norfolk

 1559  %1563  %1571  %
 

No. of

borough

seats

Duke

of

Norfolk


No. of

borough

seats

Duke

of

Norfolk


No. of

borough

seats

Duke

of

Norfolk


Norfolk108801088010660
Sussex1884418105518633

 

The Duke of Norfolk had no patronage in Suffolk until the enfranchisement of Aldeburgh in 1571, which he may have brought about.36 Both 1571 MPs were his men. In this year also he nominated two men at Morpeth, Northumberland, through the interest of his late wife. Most of the men brought in by the Duke of Norfolk were his household servants.

The third major borough patron to be considered here was the Queen’s favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex was not a territorial magnate like Norfolk, nor, like Bedford, was his patronage based on association through social standing, local offices, religious sympathies and personal qualities. Where so many statements have to be qualified, where so much remains obscure, it may be stated unequivocally that Essex was the one man in this period, not excepting his great political rival Sir Robert Cecil, with whom parliamentary patronage became an obsession. Essex did not have to start from scratch, for he took over some patronage from his step-father Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but to extend his influence he used two most interesting methods, both anticipating the practice of later centuries. He collected high stewardships and he exploited the Welsh constituencies through some trusted henchmen in that country.37

As things turned out, Essex’s own high stewardships were too short-lived to have lasting effect, though in the following centuries the device was widely used under two main sets of circumstances. The office was granted by a corporation as a pledge of confidence to a great man already powerful in the borough; conversely, when a new charter of incorporation was granted by the Crown, the great man sponsoring the application would almost certainly be named high steward, and he would afterwards exploit this position for electoral purposes. Essex was not the first to use the office to increase his electoral influence—Leicester had done the same—but Essex may have been the first to seek high stewardships specifically for this purpose, albeit not all his acquisitions brought the expected advantage. It is worth looking at some examples. Essex began nominating at Tamworth in 1584 before he was 18 years old. The high steward was then Sir Humphrey Ferrers of Tamworth Castle. In October 1588 Essex obtained a new charter for Tamworth, naming himself as its high steward. When Ferrers tried to protest he was warned off by Burghley, and both the 1589 MPs were Essex nominees. The corporation of Leominster elected Essex high steward in 1591, and he returned one man in 1593, and, probably, another in 1597. In 1593 he became high steward of Dunwich, Oxford and Reading. Dunwich brought in one of his men in 1593 and 1597, Oxford and Reading one each in 1597. Before the 1597 election Essex became high steward of Andover (enfranchised only in 1586, probably through the influence of Leicester) and brought in his secretary, Edward Reynolds. At Hereford, where Essex was high steward in 1597, his request for ‘the nominating of your burgesses’ was rejected, but after he became high steward of Ipswich in 1597, he was given one nomination. Finally he became high steward of Great Yarmouth, too late for the 1597 election, and he never nominated there.

As to Essex’s second string, his intervention in Wales, his starting point may have been his father’s father’s good relations with Carmarthen, where he chose to be buried. Essex was himself steward of the crown manors in Cardiganshire, and he intervened in the boroughs there in 1588, 1593 and 1597. With the assistance of his Welsh steward Gelly Meyrick, and followers such as Alban Stepneth, Essex constructed a parliamentary interest that extended also into Brecon, Haverfordwest, Pembroke and Radnor, so that, at its height in 1593, half the Welsh borough seats returned his men. Meyrick was himself elected for Pembrokeshire in 1597, though he was away with Essex on the so-called Islands voyage, another instance of their strength in Wales. Though Essex was already fitting out at Plymouth during this election campaign, he did not neglect to organize his parliamentary patronage, as Leicester had under similar circumstances in 1586. He sent letters to his boroughs requesting nominations, and made arrangements for Reynolds to deal with the replies. But his absence did make a difference, and only 14 MPs were clearly his in 1597 as against 18 in 1593, nine in 1589, two in 1586 and one in 1584. The total is not impressive when weighed against Essex’s Essex’s commitment to borough patronage, and it is idle to speculate whether he would have been more successful or less in 1601: he was executed on 25 Feb. 1601 aged 34, after his abortive coup d’état earlier in the same month. The conflicting accounts of that impetuous episode given by his associates make exact computation impossible, but it would seem that about 26 of the MPs in these pages were involved, their average age 37. Quite a high proportion of them (5) were Catholics or crypto-Catholics. Three of the 26 were executed: Gelly Meyrick on 13 Mar., Sir Christopher Blount and Charles Danvers on 18 Mar. John Lyttelton was reprieved at the last moment and died in prison soon afterwards. Edward Baynham was condemned, reprieved and died abroad. Seven were fined: Gray Bridges, who succeeded as 5th Baron Chandos in 1601, 1,000 marks; Thomas Crompton III, £400; Christopher Heydon, £2,000; Edward Michelborne, who admitted being with the rebels in Essex House, but maintained that he had gone there to hear a sermon, £200; Henry Neville, £10,000 and two years in the Tower; Thomas Smythe II, heavily fined and deprived of the shrievalty of London; Thomas West III, 100 marks. On the whole the punishments were light. Edward Reynolds was deeply implicated, but escaped with 14 days in prison and no fine. Francis Knollys was reinstated in his county offices by the following August. Alban Stepneth, Essex’s Welsh lieutenant, was not implicated, and was appointed a commissioner for the disposal of Essex’s goods after his master’s execution.

There remains to be considered the activity of the borough Members in the House. The defects in the early journals and the obscurity surrounding the early development of the committee system make it possible to offer only tentative figures, but from them it appears that the borough Members as a whole were only a third as active as county Members. This was ascertained by compiling an ‘activity index’ based on an average percentage activity for both groups covering speeches and committees. That for county Members was 21.0, borough Members 7.1. The contemporary system was of course weighted in favour of the county Members, who were automatically included in some committees such as those on the subsidy and those especially concerning their vested interests. Thus 69% of county Members were eligible to attend the 1584 subsidy committee, and only 2% of borough Members. But even in areas where the committee membership was voluntary the county Members took more part in the proceedings.38 No less than 90% of the 1597 county Members were on committees dealing with social and economic legislation, as against 45% of borough Members. They also contributed more frequently in debate—9% of county Members spoke on monopolies in 1601, 5% of borough Members. In 1584, 10% of county Members spoke on social and economic questions, 3% of borough Members. However, in 1572 the table shows that 6% of county Members spoke on social and economic questions against 9% of borough Members, and there is no other reason to be adduced for this beyond the existence of some excellent journals for that Parliament. It may well be, therefore, indeed it is practically certain, that a full set of journals would give an entirely different picture of the relative activity of county and borough MPs. No claim is made for the figures except that they are the best available.

 

Borough Members appointed to committees

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%
religion21101511621075
subsidy115724 9151**

social and

economic

legislation

34183711812404522
legal questions1312231167131816

main business of

the parliament

(see appendices)

113412192*127
other subjects115157578l1519

* see subsidy

** not known

 

Borough Members who spoke on various subjects

 1559156315711572158415861589159315971601
 %%%%%%%%%%
religion**156331426
subsidy**121111314

social and

economic

legislation

**1493223711
legal questions**
135312236

the main business of

the parliament

(see appendices)

**
338241*25
other subjects**
1372244510

* see subsidy

** not known

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler

End Notes

  • 1. Folger Bagot mss L. a. 863, ex. inf. Mrs. Sybil Jack.
  • 2. CPR, 1558-60, p. 127.
  • 3. Add. 41140, f. 87.
  • 4. D’Ewes, i. 398, 399.
  • 5. For borough members see corresponding tables on pp. 66.
  • 6. Heads of great departments, Privy Councillors and major household officials.
  • 7. Excludes high stewards.
  • 8. The Spanish ambassador, writing to Philip II on 2 Sept 1570 to tell him that a parliament was imminent, mentions that Cecil wished to adopt a new rule forbidding the towns to elect Members other than residents in the towns themselves. CSP Span. 1568-79, p. 273. Thus it is clear that the question of resident burgesses was under discussion before the 1571 Parliament began. It is interesting that the ambassador thought Cecil was in favour of a residential qualification. The fact that no Privy Councillor was appointed to the bill’s committee indicates that the bill under discussion here was not a government bill.
  • 9. D’Ewes, 168-71; Cott, Titus F.I. 137 seq.; CJ, i. 84, 85.
  • 10. G. Prothero, Select Statues, p. 281.
  • 11. Dunwich minute bk. 1595-1619.
  • 12. Winchelsea mss.
  • 13. ed. Twemlow, i. 216-19.
  • 14. J. Williams, Denbigh, 98-99, 105, 121
  • 15. ‘The Elizabethan Parliament’, Avenues of History (1952), pp. 104-5. The ‘few will bribe when they can bully’ quotation (p. 49 above) is taken from p. 109.
  • 16. Berwick-upon-Tweed and Taunton are not known to have returned Members in 1559. Perhaps they did, and the names have not survived. If they did not their failure to do so may be regarded as an isolated case and they have been omitted from the list. Their four Members have been included in the possible maximum number of MPs for 1559, which is 405.
  • 17. E11