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

Right of Election:

in the freemen

Number of voters:



16 Dec. 1620RICHARD ROSS

Main Article

Dominated by its Norman keep and cathedral, and bounded by medieval walls and the meandering River Wensum, Norwich was the second largest city after London, and one of the major provincial capitals of England. It boasted over 30 churches, and supported a growing population, which rose from about 12,000 in the 1580s to approximately 20,000 in 1620.1 One reason for this remarkable increase was the economic boom of Elizabeth’s reign, which continued into the seventeenth century, especially in the cloth trade. Another factor was the city’s stranger community, which grew rapidly after 1565, when Elizabeth allowed 30 families from the Low Countries to settle in Norwich in order to introduce the manufacture of new drapery cloth. By 1583 the community exceeded 4,000 people,2 and by the early seventeenth century Norwich, helped by a fertile hinterland and the foldcourse method of sheep farming, had become the centre of England’s new drapery trade. Indeed, some new types of cloth even came to be known as ‘Norwich stuffs’.3

Described by Sir John Harington† as ‘another Utopia’,4 Norwich was incorporated under Henry II, when it was also granted county status.5 A charter of 1417 established the form for civic elections and declared that the city was to be governed by a mayor, two sheriffs, 24 aldermen and 60 common councillors.6 The mayor was chosen annually by the aldermen from two of their number nominated by the commonalty. The latter enjoyed unique powers in English city government, as they also nominated the aldermen and both nominated and elected the common councillors and one of the sheriffs. The city was divided into four great wards, each of which were subdivided into three lesser wards. The sub-wards elected aldermen for life, while the great wards chose the common council each year, based upon a proportional system which reflected the demographic situation of early fifteenth century Norwich.7 Various town officials, such as the recorder, town clerk, steward, and legal officers on retainer, were chosen at meetings of the mayor, sheriffs, aldermen and councillors. Elections to the mayoralty occurred in the Guildhall on May Day. Problems in 1618 arose when the citizens nominated two junior aldermen, Richard Rosse* and Henry Fawcett.8 Fawcett was senior to Rosse, but the aldermen ignored custom and picked Rosse instead. The following year three sub-wards elected aldermen who were young and inexperienced.9 The city was subsequently rebuked by the king for elevating men above their status, and was ordered to adopt the practice followed in London, where the senior alderman was automatically elected as mayor.10 However, there was some resistance to this demand, and the chief justice of the Common Pleas, Sir Henry Montagu*, and two of Norfolk circuit judges were ordered to investigate.11 Their solution effectively rode roughshod over the town’s charter, for they abolished elections entirely and ordered that from henceforth nominations could only be of ‘two of the ancientest aldermen in rank as have been sheriffs of the said city and have not before that time borne the office of mayoralty’.12 There were further disturbances in 1627, when the freemen attempted to elect John Kettle as sheriff, ‘a basketmaker, a man so unworthy of a place of magistracy [and] so rude and uncivil as he is not fit for common society, a man so addicted to railing and drunkenness as he hath been bound to his good behaviour, and yet never reformed’.13

The wealth of the city was reflected in the grandeur of the houses and fortunes of its leading merchants. According to (Sir) Thomas Wilson*, the aldermen were ‘esteemed to be worth £20,000 apiece, some much more’.14 However, despite the generosity of the mayor’s salary (£100 p.a.), the corporation enjoyed only a modest income. This stood at £419 in 1605, and £750 in 1622.15 By comparison, King’s Lynn, a town with one quarter of the population of Norwich, generated an annual income of over £1,000.16 Norwich often protested its ‘poverty’, and in 1615 the city was rebuked by the 1st earl of Suffolk for its meagre contribution towards the Benevolence.17 On the other hand, the collectors’ accounts demonstrate that the city eventually paid £488, more than any other city apart from London.18 Norwich contributed a further £270 towards the Palatine Benevolence in 1620,19 but throughout the 1620s and 1630s it continually complained of its inability to raise money for the Crown, pleading the high charge to which it was continually put in maintaining and repairing Yarmouth haven.20 In 1626 Norwich flatly refused to provide two warships for the Navy,21 and in the following year asserted that the Forced Loan could not be collected unless the earlier requirement for ships was lifted.22 As only a third of the money for the ships was collected, and almost nothing of the Loan, two writs of quo warranto were brought against the mayor, but in 1629 the courts ruled in Norwich’s favour.23 Relations between the government and Norwich deteriorated even further in late 1627, when 200 Irish soldiers were billeted there. By March 1628, the corporation, fed up with their behaviour, ordered them to be disarmed and only given weapons during exercises.24 This order was later repealed, but the corporation feared that more ‘outrages and disorders’ would ensue.25 The city fell further out of favour in October 1629, when the 3rd earl of Pembroke complained that the herring pies sent as the city’s annual fee-farm rent were baked in a thin pastry. Many were also broken on arrival, too few had been sent and many contained only four herrings instead of five!26

During the sixteenth century Norwich was a nonconformist stronghold.27 Its two most important lectureships were at St. Andrew’s, where the advowson was held by the corporation.28 In 1619 the anti-Calvinist, Samuel Harsnett, became bishop of Norwich and attempted to suppress the lectureships. Instead, he required the population to attend sermons at the cathedral.29 In response, a petition was presented to Parliament in 1624 in the name of the ‘citizens of Norwich’. Advocated in the Commons by Sir Edward Coke, the petition was a clear attack on Harsnett’s suspected Arminianism.30 The Commons requested a joint conference, and after the meeting Archbishop Abbot summed up the charges against Harsnett to the Lords.31 The matter was referred to the High Commission,32 but no further action seems to have been taken and preaching did not increase in Norwich until after Harsnett was translated to York in 1629.33

The attack on Harsnett was not the only business pursued by Norwich in Parliament. An Act of 1610 for new draperies or ‘Norwich stuffs’, sought to remedy the embezzlement of wool and yarn, but had little effect in East Anglia, so that in 1616 Norwich’s worsted weavers complained to the Privy Council about the quality of wool and yarn they received. The weavers claimed that they were forced to falsify the cloth and ‘afterwards to sell the same privately, unsealed, to the prejudice of His Majesty in the duties and subsidies due for the same stuffs’.34 Another petition by the weavers in 1618 led to an investigation by Sir Edward Coke and Sir Julius Caesar*.35 The problem remained, however, and in 1621 the corporation of Norwich resolved to introduce a bill in Parliament to regulate the trade:

One inconvenience is that the Norw[i]ch commodities are made in Canterbury [and] other places of less length and breadth whereby they undersell the city. Another inconvenience is the yarn-men who do buy up false wares [and] carry them into the country for sale. It is moved that the weavers of the city and country and the merchants may meet [and] confer of some courses to be taken for a law to be sued for at the Parliament for reforma[ti]on of abuses.36

However, the matter then seems to have lapsed until 1628, when Coke introduced a bill ‘for the sealing and searching of divers new stuffs called new draperies’ (21 March). This received a second reading and was committed (1 Apr.), but was never reported.37

In 1624 the weavers and merchants, probably reluctant to involve the corporation after it failed to take action in 1621, drafted their own regulatory bill based upon a mid-fifteenth century statute, which controlled the worsted industry in Norwich. This sought to reorganize the Company of Norfolk Worsted Weavers and place the manufacture of all new draperies under their aegis.38 The corporation wrote to their Members at Westminster informing them that the bill had been exhibited and enclosing a copy of the measure.39 The bill received only one reading, however, and did not appear again in the Commons.40

The Norwich weavers were themselves the subject of a hostile bill introduced by the Norfolk woolgrowers. The woolgrowers complained that foreign (non-Norfolk) wool was unsuitable for the manufacture of worsted, and that it was the use of such wool which partly accounted for the deceits complained of by the weavers. They also noted that, as Norfolk woolgrowers, they were prohibited by statute from selling their wool outside the county. The bill therefore sought to forbid the Norwich weavers from using any foreign wool.41 However, in the anti-monopolistic atmosphere of 1624, the weavers had little to fear, and at the second reading in the Commons (23 Apr.) the bill was ‘wholly [and] unmindfully rejected and cast out of the House as a monopoly’.42

The Norwich Company of Dornicks Weavers laid a bill before the Commons in 1610. The measure, which sought to incorporate the Company, was sponsored by the Norwich Member (Sir) John Pettus, but failed to proceed even to a first reading.43 The Company tried once more in 1621, when the bill received one reading, and again in 1624, when the measure was committed.44 Although the committee included both Norwich Members, the bill subsequently failed to return to the Commons. The reason for the bill’s repeated failure to progress is unclear, but the Norwich Dornick Weavers had never exceeded more than 20 members, and there must be some question as to whether a small provincial company needed to be incorporated by Parliament to remedy the problems in their trade.45 It may also be significant that the bill, which was termed a private measure by John Pym*, does not seem to have received active backing from the Norwich corporation.46

The Norwich Members, often incorrectly referred to in the Commons Journal as the ‘knights and burgesses of Norwich’, were appointed to three bill committees in 1604, all of which reflected the city’s interests.47 The True Making of Hats and Felts (31 Mar.) concerned a type of cloth manufacture practised in Norwich, while Edward Downes’s land sales’ measure (2 May) dealt with lands in which the corporation had an interest.48 The third bill sought to establish that children born in England to foreign parents were denizens and not citizens. This was a matter of interest to Norwich because of its large stranger population, although the bill was probably aimed at Scots rather than foreign artisans.49 In 1605-6, ministers in Norwich petitioned Parliament to increase their stipend, and then introduced a bill to that end, which rated every rented house, shop and stall at 2s. per pound.50 One of the city’s Members, John Pettus, was thoroughly alarmed, and wrote to the mayor on 6 Mar. 1606 that ‘there have not been so many committees together on any private bill since the beginning of the Parliament, and the more part were for passing the bill, had not Sir Henry Hobart* [Norwich’s steward] given them to understand the inconveniences that might grow thereupon’.51 The committee agreed to draft a new bill, but Pettus intervened, and with the assistance of one of Norwich’s legal counsel he persuaded the ministers to accept a city ordinance. This was subsequently drafted, but only after pressure was applied by the Privy Council.52

The Norwich Members’ committee appointments in 1610 all concerned Norfolk bills, apart from a general measure for the suppressing of idleness (19 Apr.), which was of interest to all corporate towns.53 They were also eligible to sit on the committees concerned with the perennial dispute between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth (13 Mar.), fen drainage in Norfolk and Suffolk (20 Mar.), the sale of lands of Charles Waldegrave (14 June) and the bill to establish Thetford school (15 June).54 In the Parliament of 1614, the Norwich MPs were included on measures to repair the highways (7 May) and the false dyeing of silk (24 May).55 In 1621 the Norwich Members were not named as a group to any bill committees, but as representatives of Norfolk constituencies they could attend committees for the sale of the estate of Martin Calthorpe (17 Mar.), cart-taking (21 Apr.) and confirmation of the sale of Peyton Hall manor (27 April).56 Three years later they were eligible to attend committees on the transportation of butter and cheese (3 Apr.), the naturalization of a Norwich grain merchant named Peter Verbeake (12 Apr.), Calthorpe’s bill (14 Apr.), the repair of Colchester haven (14 Apr.) and the better making of two types of new draperies, serges and perpetuanas (20 April).57 Indeed, as a principal clothing town, Norwich would have had an interest in all bills throughout the period which concerned wool or cloth.

Norwich had sent Members to Parliament since at least 1298. Writs for parliamentary elections were directed to the sheriffs of Norwich, and the indenture was drawn between the sheriffs and around 20 or 30 citizens. The elections followed the form in the city’s Liber Albus:

That burgesses … shall be chosen by the common assembly, and the persons so chosen their names shall be presented and published in plain shire and within the city to the mayor [and] sheriffs and to the council being in the Guildhall.58

This meant that the Norwich electorate comprised the freemen, who numbered approximately 1,500 in the early 1620s.59 It is not known whether any elections were contested, but given the volatility of both civic and county elections it would be surprising if only two candidates were presented at each election. Norwich usually returned its own citizens to Parliament, and eight of the nine Members who represented the city during the period were freemen – the steward William Denny being the exception. Of these nine, only three were not aldermen: Sir Henry Hobart, whom Denny succeeded as steward; Denny himself; and the comptroller of the Household, Sir John Suckling. The latter, elected in 1626, had been born in Norwich, and his father had twice represented Norwich under Elizabeth. Although he no longer resided in Norwich, Suckling claimed the freedom as his birthright on 28 Jan. 1626, just two days before the election.60

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. J.T. Evans, Seventeenth Cent. Norwich, 4-5; P. Corfield, ‘Provincial Capital of Norwich’, Crisis and Order in Eng. Towns ed. P. Clark and P. Slack, 265.
  • 2. A.H. Smith, County and Court, 9.
  • 3. D.C. Coleman, ‘New Draperies’, EcHR, (ser. 2), xxii. no. 3, pp. 417-29; K.J. Allison, ‘Norf. Worsted Industry’, Yorks. Bull. Ec. and Social Res.’, xxii. no. 2, pp. 73-83; E. Kerridge, Textile Manufacture, 42-59, 66-88.
  • 4. J. Harrington, Nugae Antiquae ed. T. Clark, ii. 170.
  • 5. Recs. Norwich ed. W. Hudson and J.C. Tingey, i. 31-6; CCR, v. 421.
  • 6. Recs. Norwich, i. 36-7.
  • 7. Evans, 34.
  • 8. Ibid. 66-73.
  • 9. Ibid. 68.
  • 10. SP14/108/80; Norf. RO, NCR case 16/A/15, f. 234.
  • 11. APC, 1618-19, p. 484.
  • 12. Norf. RO, NCR case 16/D/5, f. 119.
  • 13. Evans, 75.
  • 14. T. Wilson, ‘State of Eng. 1600’ ed. F.J. Fisher in Cam. Misc. XVI (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lii), 20.
  • 15. Norf. RO, NCR Press E, case 18/A (1603-25), ff. 40-7v, 346-55v.
  • 16. Norf. RO (King’s Lynn), KL/C39/97-101.
  • 17. F. Blomefield, Hist. Norf. iii. 366.
  • 18. E351/1950.
  • 19. Norf. RO, NCR case 16/A/15, f. 319.
  • 20. Ibid. NCR case 16/D/5, ff. 138, 144v, 145, 214.
  • 21. Ibid. NCR case 16/A/16, f. 63; case 16/D/5, ff. 225v, 228; SP16/24/44; 16/35/1; 16/51/1; APC, 1625-6, pp. 150-1.
  • 22. SP16/61/83.
  • 23. VCH Norf. ii. 505-6; Blomefield, iii. 374.
  • 24. Norf. RO, case 16/D/5, f. 229v.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 238v.
  • 26. Blomefield, iii. 375-6.
  • 27. P. Collinson, Eliz. Puritan Movement, 172, 174, 176, 188.
  • 28. Evans, 85.
  • 29. N. Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists, 164-5.
  • 30. CJ, i. 699b; LJ, iii. 388.
  • 31. CJ, i. 699b, 705a.
  • 32. LJ, iii. 388-90.
  • 33. Evans, 86-7.
  • 34. 7 Jas.I, c. 7; APC, 1616-17, p. 35.
  • 35. APC, 1616-17, pp. 252-3; 1618-19, p. 316.
  • 36. Norf. RO, NCR case 16/A/15, f. 327.
  • 37. CD 1628, ii. 42, 47, 227, 510.
  • 38. Kyle, thesis, 117; HLRO, main pprs. 26 Apr. 1624.
  • 39. Norf. RO, NCR case 16/A/15, f. 526v.
  • 40. CJ, i. 775a.
  • 41. Kyle, 117; HLRO, main pprs. 17 Apr. 1624.
  • 42. ‘D’Ewes 1624’, f. 111v; CJ, i. 689a.
  • 43. CJ, i. 424b.
  • 44. Ibid. 619b, 768a, 769b.
  • 45. Kyle, 119-20.
  • 46. ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 69.
  • 47. Under the terms of the town’s charter, they were ‘knights of the shire for Norwich’.
  • 48. CJ, i. 160b, 195a.
  • 49. Ibid. 197b.
  • 50. Bodl. Tanner 290, f. 102; CJ, i. 261b, 267b; M. Wren, Parentilia, 112; K. Sharpe, Personal Rule, 315.
  • 51. Blomefield, iii. 361.
  • 52. Ibid. 361-2.
  • 53. CJ, i. 419a.
  • 54. Ibid. 410a, 413a, 438b, 440a.
  • 55. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 170, 330.
  • 56. CJ, i. 559b, 585b, 593b.
  • 57. Ibid. 753a, 757a, 762b, 766a, 766b, 769a, 771b.
  • 58. Norf. RO, Liber Albus, unfol.
  • 59. Evans, 10-11.
  • 60. Blomefield, iii. 373.