Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1386William Clerevaux
 Thomas Bedford
1388 (Feb.)William Clerevaux
 Thomas Frereman
1388 (Sept.)Roger Kempston
 William Barber I
1390 (Jan.)William Clerevaux
 Thomas Frereman
1390 (Nov.)
1391Henry West
 John Wright
1393Thomas Bedford
 John Tyringham
1394Thomas Bedford
 William Cotterstock
1395Thomas Bedford
 William Cotterstock
1397 (Jan.)Thomas Bedford
 William Cotterstock
1397 (Sept.)Thomas Jordan
 William Brown
1399Richard Bethewater
 Ralph Pyrewelle
1402Thomas Bedford
 Roger Tunstall
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406John Grey II
 John Kent II
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Bedford
 William Cotterstock
1414 (Apr.)
1414 (Nov.)William Dowe
 William Wallyngton
1416 (Mar.)Henry Sparke
 William Welburn 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417John Frepurs
 Richard Marston
1419John Lyt ...
1420Thomas Hunt II
 William Hunt II
1421 (May)Thomas Ferrour
 John Leighton
1421 (Dec.)Thomas Bole
 Thomas Kempston I

Main Article

Because of its defensible position on a fording place over the river Ouse, the site Bedford occupied was in continuous use from the Romano-British period. It assumed particular importance as a fortified burgh during the 9th and 10th centuries, and a market soon grew up within its walls for the sale of surplus produce from the surrounding farmland. Like Chipping Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, whose situation and history are in many ways similar, it lay far enough from London to enjoy an independent existence as a trading community, while still retaining valuable commercial links with the capital. Although it remained the most important town in the county throughout the Middle Ages and alone returned burgesses to Parliament, Bedford’s almost total dependence upon the trade in dairy produce, cereals and wool which were sold locally made it particularly vulnerable during periods of agricultural depression. The loss of guild merchant accounts and borough records prevents all but the most general discussion of Bedford’s economic position during our period, but there is enough evidence to suggest that it never fully recovered from the gradual falling-off of trade and the more dramatic depopulation which occurred during the early and middle years of the 14th century. Coming as they did after more than three centuries of growth and prosperity, these changes had a marked cumulative effect. With a population of about 420 in 1086, Bedford then far surpassed all the other small settlements in the county: moneyers lived in the town from Saxon times until the 13th century, and there was a sizeable Jewish community which, by 1255, seems to have been more prosperous than that of either Nottingham or Cambridge.2 Much of this wealth was generated by the activities of a guild merchant, first recognized in a charter of Henry I, which operated on rigidly protectionist principles, and thus encouraged the expansion of local markets.

The Black Death was undoubtedly a contributory factor in Bedford’s subsequent decline, although a recession had already set in well before 1348. The number of taxpayers had, in fact, fallen by approximately one-third over the years 1309 to 1332: this may have been a temporary phenomenon occasioned by the detrimental effects on trade of a series of bad harvests, but there was probably some truth behind the more general complaints of poverty, low yields and overtaxation voiced throughout the county eight years later. (Dunstable and Luton, the only other towns which threatened to usurp Bedford’s position, were certainly affected in this way.) In 1376 the burgesses of Bedford joined with those of Derby, Nottingham, Northampton and Chichester in petitioning the King about the problems of collecting rents from tenants who held property of the Crown, and it appears that they already found it difficult to raise the full fee farm of £46. None the less, they had to wait over 70 years before obtaining a significant reduction in the farm. Their claim to have lost valuable trade and other ‘strays, chattels [of] waives, chattels of felons, fugitives and outlaws, tolls and customs’ because a new bridge had been built over the Ouse at Barford implies that, even though it may not have recovered its former prosperity, the town was by no means totally impoverished before this date.3

During the later Middle Ages Bedford remained relatively free from outside intervention by the noble families with interests in the borough. This was partly due to the destruction in 1224 of Bedford castle, which had previously given the powerful Beauchamp family a stronghold within the town walls, although the partition of the barony of Bedford between the three female heirs of John Beauchamp in 1265 marked the real turning point in the burgesses’ assertion of their independence. One-third of the barony passed to the Mowbrays, who exercised their right to hold a court baron every three weeks on the site of the ruined castle throughout our period; but the family was beset by a series of minorities during the late 14th and early 15th centuries and enjoyed very little practical authority in Bedford at this time. John Neville, Lord Latimer, inherited his mother’s share of the barony in 1395, but does not appear to have played any part in local affairs between his coming-of-age in 1400 and his death 30 years later. The remaining third of the barony had been further subdivided in 1315, with the result that no single family was able effectively to exploit the limited franchise allotted to it. The priors of Newnham, on the other hand, had gradually set out to establish themselves within the borough, so that by 1400 the judicial privileges, tithes, plots of land and rents which had been acquired piecemeal over the previous century made them more influential there than any other Bedfordshire landowners.4 Not even the Lords Grey of Ruthin, from 1325 onwards the richest and most powerful rentiers in the county, could boast such strong connexions with the townspeople: indeed, there is no evidence at all of any attempt by the Greys to win the support of the more important burgesses until the escalating rivalry between Reynold, Lord Grey of Ruthin, and John Cornwall, Lord Fanhope, led both men to enlist retainers in Bedford itself. Their struggle for local hegemony falls outside the period under review, although it is interesting to note that at no time during this confrontation, which began in about 1432 and culminated in the Bedford sessions house riots of 1439, does either nobleman appear to have exercised any control over the return of burgesses to Parliament. Admittedly, Thomas Kempston I had joined Lord Fanhope by 1439, but as an experienced parliamentarian and former mayor his election to the Parliaments of 1435 and 1437 can have owed nothing to the workings of patronage.

It is unlikely that the burgesses of Bedford ever obtained charters from William I and William II, as they alleged in 1226, but a lost charter of Henry I was confirmed by his grandson in 1166 on payment of 40 marks. This bestowed the same ‘liberties and free customs’ as were enjoyed by the burgesses of Oxford, namely, freedom from paying tolls and pleading outside the borough and the right to have a guild merchant. That the townsmen of Bedford already possessed a strong corporate feeling may be argued from a unique reference to ‘the whole commune of Bedford’ made shortly before the award in 1189 of their second charter. They were certainly anxious to obtain a more precise definition of their status, and at about the same time achieved a measure of financial independence by paying their own fee farm of £40 p.a. into the Exchequer. Their right to do so was formally recognized in a charter of 1227, which again rehearsed the liberties which they shared with the burgesses of Oxford. The borough charters were produced during the quo warranto proceedings of 1330, when an inquiry was held into the rights and privileges of the guild merchant at Bedford. It appears that any burgesses or other persons then resident in the town might be admitted to the guild once they had taken an oath to preserve its liberties; they were then free of tolls and could sell any kind of merchandise by retail within the borough. Economic circumstances no doubt intensified the undisguised hostility felt by members of the guild towards merchants from other parts of the country as well as foreigners trading in England, and in 1338 a royal commission was empowered to inquire into complaints about their attacks on outsiders. Relations between the King and the burgesses had not always been easy, but from 1349 onwards the townspeople obtained successive royal grants of pontage and pavage, which they collected themselves. Their loyalty during the Peasants’ Revolt was eventually rewarded by Richard II, who in 1396 confirmed the borough charters and extended the burgesses’ existing liberties. This charter was the first to make specific reference to the part played by the mayor and bailiffs in the government of the town: their right to hold courts and biannual views of frankpledge (which had, in fact, been exercised from 1385 if not before) and to complete independence in the running of local markets was fully recognized, as were the legal and economic privileges enjoyed by the borough as a whole.5

By 1400 Bedford had been divided for administrative and fiscal purposes into 12 wards; each had its own constable, who was in turn answerable to the mayor and bailiffs at every view of frankpledge. The office of bailiff was probably the oldest in the borough and may well have predated the grant of the fee farm to the burgesses by Henry III. In 1246 the alderman, or chief burgess, two bailiffs and 12 jurors appeared before the justices in eyre on behalf of the town and again, in 1276, the alderman and bailiffs testified in a case concerning the return of writs. At this time it was declared that, since the bailiffs were elected by the entire community, then the entire community should be responsible for any negligence on their part. The chief burgess of Bedford was first designated mayor in a royal letter close of 1264, although nothing is known of the men who held office until the end of the 13th century.6

Bedford first sent burgesses to Parliament in 1295, and continued to do so regularly after this date. An Act of 1406 required that henceforth electoral indentures should be returned with the parliamentary writ; and although the Act specifically concerned shires, indentures survive for the borough of Bedford from 1413 (May) onwards. Whereas previously one return alone had served for the counties of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, together with the boroughs of Wycombe and Bedford, after 1413 four separate returns for the two shires and two boroughs were made. The Bedford indentures were attested by burgesses of the town varying in number between 12 and 18. The offices of witnesses are recorded on only one of these indentures, although other evidence shows that the mayor and bailiffs were invariably among the first named, while the remainder included many former officials. Despite the fact that the burgesses of Bedford (who in 1399 numbered 84)7 were alone entitled to participate in the borough elections, the wages of parliamentary representatives were traditionally paid by the community as a whole. This was greatly resented by the other townspeople who, in 1424, refused to meet a particularly heavy claim for £11 3s. on the grounds that they were in no way responsible for either the choice of MPs or the cost of keeping them at Westminster. A compromise solution was finally reached in February 1425, but only after two justices of the court of common pleas had been called upon to settle the dispute. The mayor, bailiffs and burgesses were to choose four representatives and the non-burgesses two: between them these six men were to assess each resident’s contribution on the basis of his financial standing in the town. The task of raising this money now lay with the mayor and bailiffs, who were to deposit any surplus revenues in a common chest: in this way it was hoped to set up a permanent fund for the payment of MPs’ expenses and offset some of the criticism.8 Both the county and borough elections always took place at Bedford. Those for the Parliaments of 1417, 1419, 1420 and 1421 (May) were held on the same day (although not necessarily at the same place or by the same person), but the borough elections of 1413 (May), 1414 (Nov.) and 1421 (Dec.) followed at least two days after the shire knights had been chosen.

Returns for Bedford have survived for only 20 of the 32 Parliaments summoned between 1386 and 1421, while Prynne supplies the names of the two MPs who represented the borough in the Parliament of 1416 (Mar.). Since a third of the returns have been damaged or lost, any statements about the parliamentary experience of the burgesses or the continuity of representation enjoyed by the borough between the years 1386 and 1421 are necessarily open to qualification. The names are known of 29 men who sat for Bedford over this period (although one is incomplete). Of these, 16 apparently sat only once, six not more than twice, and three not more than three times; William Cotterstock was returned to four Parliaments and William Clerevaux to five. Only two burgesses had longer parliamentary careers: Thomas Bedford’s seven returns were spread over a period of 27 years (1386-1413), but four of them were to successive Parliaments (1393-7). Although Thomas Kempston I sat for the first time in 1421 (Dec.), at the very end of our period, his subsequent record of 11 returns, including six instances of reelection to all of the Parliaments between 1429 and 1437, stands unequalled by any other Bedford MP during the Middle Ages. Despite all these gaps, it is clear that, whereas during the first half of the period the burgesses preferred to elect men with previous parliamentary experience, from 1414 onwards their choice fell, perhaps by necessity, upon younger candidates who had never been elected before. In only one Parliament (1399) between the years 1386 and 1402 was Bedford represented by two complete newcomers to the parliamentary scene; there were, however, six instances of one new MP being returned together with a more experienced colleague over the same period, and in the Parliaments of 1388 (Feb.), 1390 (Jan.), 1391, 1395 and 1397 (Jan.) both men had sat before. Thomas Bedford and William Cotterstock were returned together to three consecutive Parliaments; and we find at least two other cases of continuity in representation, namely the re-election of William Clerevaux to the Parliament of 1388 (Feb.) and that of Thomas Bedford in 1394. Cotterstock and Bedford sat for the borough together again in 1413 (May), but, in marked contrast to what had gone before, none of the other MPs returned between 1406 and 1421 (Dec.) appears to have had any previous experience. Three of these newcomers went on to sit in one more Parliament, Thomas Hunt II attended two more, and Thomas Kempston I ten, but none of them were re-elected during the period under immediate consideration.

Predictably in a borough where successive generations of the same family played a prominent part in local affairs, a number of MPs seem to have followed their fathers or grandfathers to Parliament. Thomas Kempston I, for example, may well have been the son or grandson of Roger Kempston; and both Thomas Bole and William Brown were related to men who had previously served in the Lower House. Thomas Hunt II and William Hunt II, who together represented Bedford in 1420, were probably brothers; and the same may be true of Thomas Ferrour and the John Ferrour returned in 1422. Only two of the 29 parliamentary burgesses under consideration here (William Welburn and John Lyt ...) remain unidentified, although the strong tradition of representation by local men, almost always burgesses themselves, suggests that they, too, lived in or near the borough. There is clear evidence of residence (for a few years, if not longer) in the case of every other MP except for John Tyringham, who, as a wealthy landowner with property in five English counties, was completely atypical of the rest. Of these, 16 became either mayor or bailiff at least once during their lives and eight occupied both posts, often two or three times within a few years. John Grey II, who does not seem to have held either of these offices, was keeper of Bedford gaol. Only two men, William Brown and Roger Tunstall, were chosen as mayor before being first sent to Parliament, although it was quite usual for Members to be returned after occupying the rather less prestigious and demanding post of bailiff. There are no known instances of office-holders actually sitting in the Lower House during our period, but mayors and bailiffs did occasionally return themselves at other times.

At least 11 parliamentary burgesses held land outside Bedford, albeit on a generally modest scale, having presumably invested surplus capital from trade, or, in the case of Thomas Bedford and William Cotterstock, the profits of a flourishing legal practice, in a few tenements or acres of farmland. With the exception of Thomas Frereman, who shared the farm of a small property in Cambridgeshire, and John Tyringham, whose extensive holdings have already been noted, none of the MPs for the period appear to have bought, sold or owned land in any county other than Bedfordshire, although Thomas Bedford must have retained lodgings at Westminster during his long period of service as a clerk of King’s bench. Even Tyringham, the only country gentleman to represent Bedford between 1386 and 1421, had strong local connexions, since his four principal manors lay in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and he also owned some houses in Bedford itself. Seven MPs are known to have acquired messuages and tenements within a few miles of the town, while Thomas Bole and Richard Marston were rather more substantial landowners. The latter, who may perhaps have enjoyed the benefits of a legal training, and certainly commanded a greater standing in the county than most of his fellow burgesses, spent the last years of his life at Shefford. Bole, on the other hand, is known to have lived at Eyworth before becoming successively bailiff and mayor of Bedford.

Many of their parliamentary colleagues were probably engaged in trade of some kind: William Brown was a tailor, Roger Kempston a fishmonger, John Frepurs a mercer, and John Wright a dyer. Both Frepurs and Ralph Pyrewelle are known to have been on good terms with tradesmen of London; and, in view of the strong economic links between Bedford and the capital, similar connexions may well have been established by other MPs with commercial interests. Thomas Bedford and William Cotterstock, two of the men most frequently returned to Parliament during our period, were lawyers, and it is possible that Richard Marston and Thomas Kempston I were also members of the legal profession. In this event, although the proportion of lawyers to laymen was quite small, Bedford may have been represented by a lawyer in almost half of the 21 Parliaments for which information survives. These four men were among the relatively small group of six MPs who held royal offices or commissions outside the town, although neither Kempston, with his single appointment as under sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1421, nor Marston, a collector of taxes in the same county on only one occasion, in 1442, seem to have been greatly burdened with administrative responsibilities. In view of his position as a local landowner, it is surprising to find that John Tyringham received only one royal commission during his lifetime—that of array for Buckinghamshire in 1403. As well as holding a clerkship in the court of King’s bench for over three decades, Thomas Bedford was actively engaged in the business of local government for most of his life; and he sat in every one of his seven Parliaments as an employee of the Crown. His strong attachment to the duchy of Lancaster, first as an attorney of John of Gaunt, and then as feodary of the duchy estates in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (where he was also clerk of the peace), likewise marked him out as a man of considerable power and influence. William Cotterstock’s career appears almost as impressive. He was three times made a justice of assize in the south-east (1392, 1393 and 1397) and sat on a number of royal commissions of inquiry and oyer and terminer between 1406 and 1408. He also served on the Bedfordshire bench for at least 12 years, although he was only once (in 1413) returned to Parliament while in office.

Author: C.R.


  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 916. That Sparke and Welburn were elected to this Parliament rather than the previous one is clear from the appearance of Welburn’s name as a burgess for Bedford on the fragment of the writ which has survived (C219/11/8).
  • 2. VCH Beds. iii. 1-2; J. Godber, Hist. Beds. 3, 5, 10-11; J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 50; CPR, 1247-58, p. 443.
  • 3. Godber, 98-102; Nonarum Inquisitiones ed. Vanderzee, 11-22; A.C. Jones, ‘Customary Land Market Beds.’ (Soton Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 31-55; RP, ii. 348; CPR, 1446-52, p. 36; E368/235 m. 288.
  • 4. VCH Beds. iii. 11-15; Cart. Newnham Priory (Beds. Rec. Soc. xliii), passim.
  • 5. Godber, 53; Recs. and Docs. Corporation of Bedford (1883), 5; Beds. Hist. Rec. Soc. vii. 44, 55, 64; ix. 177-9; CChR, i. 26; v. 356-7; C. Gross, Gild Merchant, i. 37-38; ii. 16-18; RP, ii. 100; CPR, 1334-8, p. 36; 1338-40, p. 179; 1340-3, pp. 447, 522-7; 1343-5, pp. 404, 547; 1348-50, p. 254; 1358-61, p. 252.
  • 6. Bedford Town Hall, Bedford ct. bk. 1400-1, passim; VCH Beds. iii. 19; Godber, 55.
  • 7. C.F. Farrar, Old Bedford, 111.
  • 8. Ancient Chs. and Muns. Bedford (1895), no. 20.