Available from Cambridge University Press
Right of Election:
in the burgesses
Number of voters:
13 in 1605
|27 Feb. 1604||SIR NICHOLAS HALSWELL|
|5 Nov. 1605||JOHN PORY vice Bucking, deceased|
|c. Mar. 1614||THOMAS WARRE , recorder|
|c. Dec. 1620||EDWARD POPHAM|
|ROGER WARRE , recorder|
|27 Jan. 1624||EDWARD POPHAM|
|ROGER WARRE , recorder|
|6 May 1625||SIR ARTHUR LAKE|
|19 Jan. 1626||SIR ARTHUR LAKE|
|5 Mar. 1628||SIR THOMAS WROTHE|
Located five miles inland on the River Parrett, Bridgwater owed its early prosperity to the manufacture and export of cloth, principally lightweight broad cloths known as Bridgwaters, but also coarser, narrow cloths, or kerseys, which were exported to France, Spain and Ireland. While its volume of trade was much smaller than that of Bristol, Gloucestershire, or the major Devon towns, Bridgwater was reportedly Somerset’s busiest port in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, and recovered strongly in the early 1600s after the disruption of the Elizabethan war years.1 However, by now cloth exports were dwindling, and the local economy was much more reliant on other commodities, notably beans and coal. Indeed, in 1622 the corporation claimed that ‘no merchant vessels are now employed in the town except to carry coal’.2 Trade was inevitably disrupted by the wars of the later 1620s, and when the Commons in June 1628 compiled a list of shipping lost at sea, Bridgwater was among a group of 20 towns noted as having suffered ‘great loss, whereof there is as yet no particular’.3
Early seventeenth-century Bridgwater was governed by a charter of 1587, which provided for a corporation consisting of a mayor, two aldermen, and 18 principal burgesses. A further charter was granted in March 1628, which extended the corporation’s jurisdiction to cover the whole parish of Bridgwater, and increased the number of principal burgesses to 24.4 The borough first sent representatives to Parliament since 1295. Early Stuart election indentures were made out in the name of the mayor, aldermen and burgesses, with 13 individual voters identified in 1605. Although it has been argued that the franchise was exercised solely by the corporation during this period, subsequent lawsuits on this issue suggest that a much larger number of the inhabitants were actually entitled to vote, even if in practice the corporation controlled the choice of candidates.5
For much of Elizabeth’s reign Bridgwater routinely returned its recorder, usually a local gentleman, along with a prominent townsman, both Members receiving parliamentary wages.6 However, in the early Stuart period the neighbouring gentry tightened their grip over the borough. Sir Nicholas Halswell of Goathurst, three miles from Bridgwater, took the senior seat in 1604, while his son Robert was elected ten years later.7 Sir Nicholas was partnered initially by Robert Bucking, the only townsman to serve during this period, who had also sat in 1593. He received wages of £16 for the first session, but died before the Parliament resumed in 1605.8 Bucking was replaced by a complete outsider, John Pory, who probably owed his nomination to the Pophams of Huntsworth, another gentry family resident just outside the town; the Pophams had frequently held the recordership in the late Tudor period. Robert Halswell was accompanied in 1614 by the then recorder, Thomas Warre.9
During the 1620s the Halswells gradually lost their local standing due to financial difficulties, and Edward Popham was able to secure a Bridgwater seat for himself in every Parliament between 1621 and 1626. On the first two occasions Popham was joined by Roger Warre, who had become recorder after the death of his brother Thomas.10 The first seat in 1625 and 1626 went to another outsider, Sir Arthur Lake, who was probably recommended either by his uncle, the bishop of Bath and Wells, or by his brother-in-law, Sir Edward Rodney*, an important Somerset gentleman.11 By 1628 Popham had himself succumbed to financial troubles, and consequently his role as the borough’s principal gentry patron passed to Sir Thomas Wrothe of Petherton Park, five miles from Bridgwater, who became recorder under the new charter of March 1628.12 Wrothe took the senior seat in 1628, while the junior place went to the 18-year-old Thomas Smyth on the nomination of the latter’s father-in-law, John (Lord) Poulett*, one of the county’s most powerful figures. It appears that the borough had been approached by other local gentlemen, possibly political rivals of Poulett, for on the day of the election the corporation wrote to the peer:
May it please your lordship that this morning we have elected Mr. Thomas Smythe … to be one of our burgesses for this next Parliament, and we shall entreat your lordship’s favour to further him and the town on those occasions that shall be needful. And we have some doubt that some may be offended at that which is done. If therefore it would please your lordship to afford us a word or two to Sir John Stawell*, that he may be pleased (if occasions require) to stead the town the best he may, we shall account ourselves bound unto your lordship.
Stawell, another leading Somerset gentleman, was Poulett’s close ally, and currently engaged in billeting soldiers around the county.13
The surviving records indicate that relations between the borough and its Members were generally cordial. Both Sir Nicholas Halswell and Roger Warre are known to have received regular gifts during their periods of service, typically wine or sugar loaves.14 Similarly, Thomas Smyth wrote to the corporation in September 1628, offering to provide a buck if the corporation held a dinner for its two Members. In response, the mayor suggested a gathering at Michaelmas, at which the borough might thank them both for their ‘worthy pains taken for this corporation in the late session of Parliament’.15
Little evidence has emerged about the specific tasks performed by Bridgwater’s Members, none of whom spoke directly on their constituency’s behalf in the Commons. However, in 1606 Sir Nicholas Halswell probably supplied the borough with its copy of the 1604 Act clarifing the power of local magistrates to set labourers’ wages, while in 1621 Roger Warre may have arranged for the town to obtain the Proclamation for the arrest of the fugitive monopolist, Sir Giles Mompesson*.16 One entry in the borough’s accounts, dated 13 Nov. 1621, indicates that the corporation sought to introduce legislation that year. Warre was paid 16s. for ‘drawing the books for a bill to be exhibited in the Parliament for the long casey’. Assuming that ‘casey’ was a mis-spelling of carsey or kersey, the borough was probably responding to a bill on cloth manufacture introduced in the first sitting of 1621. This measure, which would have restricted the types of wool that could be employed in the making of longer cloths, threatened the future of Bridgwater’s kersey industry, which routinely used inferior oddments known as ‘noiles’. If this reading is correct, Bridgwater was clearly seeking to defend its economic interests in Parliament. In the event, though, the measure on cloth manufacture failed to make further progress in the Commons, and the intended Bridgwater bill was never introduced, presumably because there was now no need for it.17
Author: George Yerby
- 1. VCH Som. vi. 218-19; E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 5, 18.
- 2. E190/1084/12, 21; 190/1085/4; 190/1086/4, 14; A. Friis, Alderman Cockayne’s Project and the Cloth Trade, 454-5; VCH Som. vi. 219; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 388, 578-9.
- 3. HMC Var. viii. 199.
- 4. Som. RO, D/B/bw 2409, ff. 34-9; CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 41.
- 5. C219/35/2/10; D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 213; Som. RO, DD/X/ME5.
- 6. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 235.
- 7. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 45.
- 8. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1589.
- 9. A. Brown, Genesis of US, ii. 969; Vis. Som. 87-8; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 235.
- 10. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 361; Sales of Wards 1603-41 ed. M.J. Hawkins (Som. Rec. Soc. lxvii), p. xix.
- 11. Oxford DNB (Arthur Lake); The Gen. n.s. xvii. 101-2.
- 12. E115/426/23; Som. RO, D/B/bw 2409, f. 38.
- 13. Procs. 1628, vi. 125.
- 14. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1589, 1592, 1598, 1609.
- 15. Procs. 1628, vi. 215-16.
- 16. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1591, 1609; SR, iv. 1022-4.
- 17. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1609; SR, iv. 1137-9; CD 1621, vii. 123-8; Kerridge, 26-7.