Bedfordshire

County

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of voters:

?c.1,000

Elections

DateCandidate
c. Mar. 1604OLIVER ST. JOHN I
 SIR EDWARD RADCLIFFE
c. Mar. 1614SIR HENRY GREY
 SIR OLIVER LUKE
11 Dec. 1620SIR BEAUCHAMP ST. JOHN
 SIR OLIVER LUKE
2 Feb. 1624OLIVER ST. JOHN II
 SIR OLIVER LUKE
25 Apr. 1625OLIVER ST. JOHN II
 SIR OLIVER LUKE
c. Jan. 1626OLIVER ST. JOHN II
 SIR OLIVER LUKE
c. Feb. 1628OLIVER ST. JOHN II
 SIR OLIVER LUKE

Main Article

A preponderantly rural county supporting a typical East Midland mixture of sheep and corn farming, with grazing for cattle along the Ouse valley, Bedfordshire’s chief products were barley, for malting; woollen yarn for the worsted weavers of Norwich; and butter, sold to London dealers at Woburn.1 By the later 1620s the county’s landowners included six earls (Kent, Bedford, Bristol, Bolingbroke, Cleveland and Peterborough), while another, Sir Edward Radcliffe, 6th earl of Sussex, had only recently sold his estate at Elstow. In an area notably short of borough seats this number of potential patrons might have been expected to provoke stiff competition for the knighthood of the shire, but with the possible exception of 1584 none of the county elections before 1640 seem to have been contested.

Bedfordshire’s Elizabethan elections were dominated by the Lords St. John of Bletsoe, who owned nearly 20,000 acres in the north and east of the county, and procured the return of at least one relative at every election during the reign.2 The Radcliffes of Elstow, just outside Bedford, also stood on at least four occasions. Their estate was relatively modest, but Thomas Radcliffe†, the unsuccessful candidate at the 1584 election, was backed by his cousin the 4th earl of Sussex (Sir Henry Radcliffe†), who probably sponsored the subsequent parliamentary career of Thomas’s younger brother Edward*.3 The Mordaunts and Cheyneys also represented the shire during Elizabeth’s reign, but thereafter the Catholicism of the 4th Baron Mordaunt rendered his family unelectable even before his imprisonment for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot; while Henry, Lord Cheyney† died without heirs in 1587.4 Two other major landowners did not field any candidates during Elizabeth’s reign: the Grey family, earls of Kent, who owned almost 15,000 acres across the centre of the county, but suffered from a shortage of male heirs; and the Russell earls of Bedford, who acquired 3,000 acres of ex-monastic land at Woburn after the dissolution, but did not settle in Bedfordshire until the later 1620s, and already wielded extensive borough patronage in Devon and Dorset.5

At the 1604 general election, as in 1601, Oliver St. John I, heir to the Bletsoe estate, took the senior seat, and Sir Edward Radcliffe the junior. Financial troubles prevented Radcliffe from standing again in 1614,6 when he was replaced by Sir Henry Grey, heir presumptive to the earldom of Kent. Had St. John, a baron’s son, stood again, he would have been expected to settle for the junior seat. Perhaps for this reason he stood aside in favour of his cousin Sir Oliver Luke, who had just succeeded to an estate of 2,500 acres in the east of the county.7 Luke sat for the junior seat for the remainder of his life, doubtless with the support of his Bletsoe relatives. His cousin, who succeeded as 4th Baron St. John in 1618, paired Luke with his heir, Oliver St. John II, from 1624. The latter, born only in 1603,8 was presumably considered too young for the county seat in December 1620, when St. John inserted his youngest brother, Sir Beauchamp.

Although the size of the Bletsoe estate gave St. John considerable influence within the shire, his success as an electoral patron during the 1620s was quite remarkable, and owed much to the disinclination of other local landowners to challenge him: Sir John Digby*, 1st earl of Bristol, whose wife held a jointure estate of 1,500 acres near Bedford, confined his electoral patronage to the vicinity of his main estate in Dorset, and the 1st earl of Cleveland, who inherited the Cheyney estate in 1614, is not known to have had any designs on the county seats, although he made an unsuccessful nomination at Bedford in 1628.9 The only other individual who could have challenged the Bletsoe interest was Sir Henry Grey, who succeeded his father as earl of Kent and lord lieutenant of the county in 1623. However, he had neither heirs to put forward for the county seat, nor interest in challenging the St. Johns, his closest local relatives.

The Bedfordshire electorate was undoubtedly greater than that of the neighbouring county of Huntingdonshire, which may have numbered 2,000 in December 1620.10 However, in the absence of a contest the number of freeholders attending the county court was probably much lower, perhaps under 1,000. The shire’s agricultural interests required little in the way of legislation, and only two bills of local interest were laid before Parliament during the early Stuart period: an Act of 1607 allowed trustees for Robert Thompson, a lunatic with lands near Luton, to make a jointure for his son; and a bill to confirm Luke’s purchase of lands in Huntingdonshire, which received a single reading in the Commons on 8 Mar. 1621.11 In 1626 St. John and Luke were both named to the committee for a bill to restrict the malting of barley in times of dearth (9 Mar.), proclamations for which purpose had caused friction within the county in 1608-9.12

Author: Simon Healy

Notes

  • 1. BEDFORD; Agrarian Hist. of Eng. and Wales ed. J. Thirsk, iv. 491; P.J. Bowden, Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart Eng. 34-6.
  • 2. C142/249/56; 142/376/126.
  • 3. Northants. RO, SS239.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 258.
  • 5. C142/349/172; 142/435/118.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 110.
  • 7. Vis. Beds. (Harl. Soc. xix), 39; C142/343/177.
  • 8. Bletsoe ed. F.G. Emmison (Beds. par. reg. xxiv), 2.