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|Richard Mayne I|
|1388 (Feb.)||John Sydenham|
|Richard Mayne I|
|1388 (Sept.)||John Palmer I|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Thomer|
|John Palmer I|
|1394||John Cole III|
|John Palmer I 1|
|1397 (Jan.)||William Thomer|
|1397 (Sept.)||William Thomer|
|1413 (May)||William Gascoigne|
|1414 (Apr.)||William Gascoigne|
|1414 (Nov.)||William Gascoigne|
|Richard Mayne II|
|1421 (May)||James Fitzjames|
|1421 (Dec.)||William Gascoigne|
Bridgwater was a thriving port situated a few miles up the navigable Parrett. In 1377 it had an adult population of over 850, comparable with that of Bath, but the lay subsidy returns of the earlier 14th century suggest that it had then been the wealthiest of the Somerset towns, higher in the list than Bath, Wells and Taunton, and perhaps this was still the case. ‘Bridgwater’ was the name given to a kind of broadcloth manufactured locally, and the port had trading connexions with Bayonne, Bordeaux and Ireland as well as a share in the coastal traffic. Besides cloth, agricultural produce such as beans, peas and wheat were shipped out of Bridgwater, while wine and fish were its main imports. The town boasted four annual fairs.2 At the beginning of Richard II’s reign two-thirds of the borough belonged to William Zouche, son and heir of Lord Zouche; the remaining third, together with the castle and the manor of Haygrove, to Edmund, earl of March. The Mortimer share comprised one third of the burgage rents, of the tolls charged on river traffic and in the market and fairs, and of the profits of the borough court, which usually amounted to over £15 a year. To these rights the earl’s son and grandson succeeded, respectively in 1381 and 1398. Then, until the latter (another Edmund) came of age in 1413, the property was held by his stepfather, Edward, Lord Charlton of Powis. The Zouche property, held by the heir to the title in 1377, passed in 1396 to his son, and in 1415 to his grandson. The last was then a minor, and his lands were placed in the custody of Ralph, earl of Westmorland.
There is no hint that relations between the burgesses of Bridgwater and the lords of the borough were ever troubled during this period. This was possibly because Bridgwater was never the centre of the Zouches’ estate organization, but rather a relatively isolated piece of property, and the same held true for the Mortimers, even though the castle at Bridgwater did serve as a focus for the administration of their territorial possessions in Somerset. Personal contact was a rare occurrence. The disputes of 1380-1, during which Zouche complained that the master and brethren of the hospital of St. John the Baptist in Bridgwater, along with Sir Baldwin Malet and others, had prevented his steward from holding a view of frankpledge and had otherwise trespassed on his rights of lordship, were never in essence conflicts between the burgesses and their lord; indeed, it is clear that some of the town’s inhabitants, at least, shared Zouche’s attitude to the hospital.3
The lords of the borough showed little interest in the affairs of Bridgwater, including its parliamentary representation. Apart from the lord’s steward, who was appointed directly by him, the borough officials, although technically the lord’s men too, were elected by the burgesses from among themselves. Bridgwater had been a ‘liber burgus’ since 1200, and by the end of the 14th century the portreeve, chose by the burgesses to collect the lord’s rents, was no longer very important in the town hierarchy. The most influential figures were now the two stewards of the guild merchant (often called ‘stewards of the community’), who had certain limited judicial powers to try and punish those who infringed local ordinances. It was to them that the accounts of the wardens of two town chantries and the bridge were presented, and it was they who authorized disbursements of communal funds. They were assisted by the bailiff of the guild (‘the common bailiff’). Two other bailiffs formed the executive arm of the administration, and below them were placed the receiver, the constables, and the wardens of the peace and of assize. The internal administration of the town had developed considerably during the century, in the course of which the guild merged into the community of burgesses, the bodies having in common a clerk, seal, mace and hall.
After 1406 the parliamentary returns for Bridgwater were sent to Chancery from the county court, in indentures containing the returns of all the Somerset boroughs, each being represented at the court by a committee or delegation of, usually, four local men. Presumably, they were responsible for reporting to the sheriff the results of elections held locally, but no evidence has survived to reveal how such hustings were conducted at Bridgwater. Returns are now extant for only 23 of the 32 Parliaments convened between 1386 and 1421, during which period Bridgwater was represented by just 16 men. Clearly, some of the burgesses were rich in parliamentary experience: John Kedwelly sat seven times, John Pitt eight, William Gascoigne 12 and William Thomer 13. Three of them also represented other Somerset boroughs on occasion: Martin Jacob appearing for Taunton, Richard Mayne II for Wells (both of them after this period), and John Palmer I once for Wells and twice for Bath, apart from nine times for Bridgwater. The average service was nearly five Parliaments each. To every Parliament for which returns survive Bridgwater sent at least one man with previous experience; and on no occasion were both Members novices. To 12 Parliaments the borough elected one tried and one inexperienced man, but on 11 occasions both those chosen had sat in the Commons before. On no fewer than 14 occasions men were elected to successive Parliaments; indeed, both Members of the Parliaments of 1386 and 1395 were returned to the assemblies immediately following. Of the nine Parliaments between 1390 and 1402 (inclusive) for which we know the names of representatives, William Thomer missed only one; and William Gascoigne was elected to every assembly convened between 1406 and 1422 (inclusive), a total of 12. Thomer and John Kedwelly were returned together four times, and Kedwelly and Gascoigne three, so evidently tried partnerships were welcomed. Clearly, the borough set much store on parliamentary experience. But perhaps the few were keen to serve, others only too ready to let them.
A surprisingly large group of five men, roughly a third of the MPs of this period, were not at all involved in the affairs of the town, and apparently did not live there: James Fitzjames held property in Bridgwater, but is better described as a local landowner than a burgess proper; Robert Boson acquired a manor near the town by marriage; Richard Mayne II owned many acres of land in Somerset, some situated near Bridgwater, but his chief interests were in Wiltshire; and Martin Jacob and John Palmer I were attorneys who lived elsewhere in Somerset. But these ‘outsiders’ (if so they may be called) occupied no more than seven of the 46 seats of the period. The remaining 11 Members were all resident in Bridgwater. Indeed, nine of them are known to have held some sort of office in the town, although apparently only six had experience of such employment before they first entered the Commons. Six MPs were sometime stewards of the guild, and it not infrequently happened that one of them was returned to Parliament during his term of office. Thus William Thomer was steward when elected in 1391 and 1402, Richard Ward in 1407, and William Gascoigne on nine occasions between 1413 and 1422. The town clerk, John Kedwelly, was returned to seven Parliaments (1395, 1397 (Jan.), 1399, 1402, 1410, 1414 (Nov.), and 1417). Indeed, a local office-holder of one sort or another was returned to 15 of the 23 Parliaments; and in 1402, 1410, 1414 (Nov.) and 1417 both Members were currently serving in this way.
By occupation at least seven MPs were merchants, and probably several more had commercial concerns. John Cole III, William Gosse and John Pitt were evidently quite prominent in this respect, while John Kedwelly, William Gascoigne and Richard Ward combined their interests in trade with other employment, as town clerk, attorney, and inn-keeper respectively. Cole was also engaged in the manufacture of cloth. Certainly two, and possibly four more of the Members were lawyers, presumably being chosen by the burgesses because of professional skill or, perhaps, a readiness to combine attendance in the Commons with their other business at Westminster. However, it was the mercantile interest which loomed largest in the representation of the borough. With regard to employment by the Crown, Richard Boson was described as a ‘King’s esquire’ only four years after his election in 1393, and may have been a member of the Household. Six others filled royal offices at some time in their careers, four of them as collectors of customs at Bridgwater. William Gascoigne and Richard Mayne II were returned to Parliament in 1410 and 1419, respectively, while engaged as customers of the port. William Thomer served as a coroner of Somerset and lieutenant to John Holand, earl of Huntingdon, the admiral of the west; and it is quite possible that he was holding the latter office when sent to six of the Parliaments of the 1390s. Nine of the 16 MPs were appointed to royal commissions of one kind or another, but only three had experience of such service before their first elections.