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|1388 (Feb.)||Henry Ford|
|Thomas Russell I|
|1388 (Sept.)||Thomas Walsh I|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Northovere|
|Thomas Russell I|
|Robert Veel 1|
|1397 (Jan.)||Robert Calche|
|1397 (Sept.)||William Helier|
|William Coventre II 2|
|1399||Thomas Cole II|
|1404 (Jan.)||Robert Penne|
|William Clerk I|
|1407||Thomas Cole II|
|1410||John Ford II|
|... Lane 3|
|1413 (May)||Ralph Burnage|
|1414 (Apr.)||Henry Barbour II|
|1414 (Nov.)||William Pyne|
|John Gardener II|
|1421 (May)||William Benefield|
|1421 (Dec.)||William Walkeden 4 or|
Melcombe Regis, which is situated on the north bank of the Wey estuary and in the parish of Radipole, was founded in the 13th century. Unlike Weymouth, which lies on the opposite bank, it became a crown borough, receiving its charter from Edward I in 1280. This entitled the inhabitants to all liberties enjoyed by the citizens of London. Other privileges followed: in 1314 the burgesses were granted a weekly market and a fair at the feast of the Translation of St. Edward, to which was added, four years later, another fair lasting eight days; in 1331 the port was made a separate centre for the collection of customs on wool; and in 1365 a Staple was established there.5 The town declined, however, in the late 14th century. This was due initially to competition from Weymouth (whose merchants proved so successful at diverting ships to their own quayside that in 1366 a quarrel broke out over dock dues [cullagium] and jurisdiction over the waterway), although an assault by the French in 1377 was much more detrimental in its immediate effects. From then on Melcombe’s burgesses frequently drew the government’s attention to their poverty. In December 1378 they petitioned to be allowed more time in which to pay their parliamentary tenths, on the ground that the town had been ‘lately burnt and destroyed’ and ‘no man was dwelling there’. A petition sent to the Parliament of the following year sought permission to fortify the town, and to this end asked that the burgesses might levy murage and be freed from the prisage on wine, the fee farm (eight marks p.a.) and all other taxes, until the local economy had managed to recover. The expedient adopted by the Exchequer, in 1384, of appointing bailiffs who were to account for any items of revenue they might raise in Melcombe without oppressing the inhabitants, met with little success. Then, in May 1388, the burgesses were granted pardon of the arrears of the fee farm, together with its remission and a release from parliamentary subsidies for the next seven years. Before this term had elapsed these arrangements were extended for a further 12 years, but Melcombe remained ‘poor and desolate’ and a petition addressed to the Parliament of 1407 claimed that the inhabitants had never before known such hardship.6 A commission, which was then set up to test the validity of their claims, and took evidence from people living outside the immediate area (the jurors were all Dorchester men), found that whereas in Edward II’s reign Melcombe had been inhabited by 120 burgesses and other tenants, by 1394 this number had dropped to 20, and that since then even more residents had left because of insupportable charges, so that there now remained only eight burgesses. At the most the inhabitants might manage to pay £1 a year as fee farm, and half a mark for tenths. For the time being the sheriff of Dorset was instructed to cease demands for the farm; and following further petitions, to the Parliament of 1410, the burgesses were again pardoned their arrears and permitted to hold the town at the recommended reduced rate of £1 p.a. for the next ten years. More pleas of poverty, however, were sent to the Parliaments of 1421 (May), 1426 and 1433, the last informing the King of the ‘feblesse and nonsufficeance of youre Porte of Melcombe, nouht enhabited, ne of strengthe to considere the goodes and Marchaundises of youre Marchauntz it usyng’, and its ‘lakke and scarcete of helpe of people to withstande and resiste the malice of youre Enemys’, with the consequence that Melcombe was degraded from its status as a ‘head port’ to a creek, and thereafter customs duties were collected at Poole instead. If the contents of the petitions are accepted at face value, it is surprising that Melcombe had continued to function as a port at all in the late 14th century. Yet there are signs (the regular appointments of deputy butlers and customers there, the fact that borough courts continued to be held at the supposed peak of the burgesses’ troubles, 1396-1400, and the uninterrupted election of bailiffs), that the extent of the disruption of business was perhaps exaggerated, or, at least, that there were periods of relief.7
Melcombe did not send representatives to Parliament until 1319. In 1305 it had been entered on the writs as having made no return in response to the precept, and a year later the sheriff of Dorset wrote, ‘in order to cause two burgesses to be elected from the liberties of Lyme and Melcombe the Lord King’s writ was sent to the mayor and bailiffs of those liberties, but they have not troubled to reply (qui nullum mihi responsum dare curaverunt)’. However, from the beginning of Edward III’s reign the burgesses showed less reluctance to elect Members of Parliament, even though in the period under review they were clearly either unwilling or unable to pay them very much for their services. Robert Calche and William Helier each received only 13s.4d. for their expenses in travelling to Westminster for the Parliament of 1395, which lasted 20 days.8
Returns have not survived for eight of the Parliaments assembled between 1386 and 1421, but even despite the gaps it is clear that the burgesses of Melcombe usually chose at least one man with some previous experience of parliamentary service. In 16 or 17 of the 24 Parliaments for which returns are extant one Member had been elected before, and in five of these both men chosen had such experience. This need not have been obtained by acting as a representative for Melcombe itself, however: Robert Penne and William Clerk I, who were elected for Melcombe in 1404 (Jan.) and 1406, respectively, had both been returned at least once for Weymouth, in Penne’s case to the Parliament immediately preceding. There were seven known instances of re-election: John Northovere in 1386, Henry Ford in 1388 (Feb.), Robert Veel in 1394, Robert Calche in 1395 and 1397 (Jan.), Ralph Burnage in 1414 (Apr.), and Robert Abbot in 1421 (May). Nevertheless, of the 31 or 32 men who are known to have sat for Melcombe in this period as many as 26 were returned only once or twice, and it is possible that in eight Parliaments both Members were newcomers. Ralph Burnage, Robert Calche, Henry Ford and Thomas Russell I were each elected three times, William Helier four, and John Northovere six; but none of the representatives were remarkable for their parliamentary service on behalf of Melcombe alone. Indeed, as many as eight of them sat for other boroughs also: Robert Penne and William Clerk I for Weymouth, John Alysaundre and Thomas Lond for Lyme Regis, Robert Calche and Walter Reson for Wareham, and Robert Veel and John Ford II for Dorchester. Penne sat in seven Parliaments in all, Ford in eight, and Reson in nine, but all of them sat for Melcombe only once.
None of the eight who also sat for other boroughs actually lived in Melcombe; they resided and had their main business interests elsewhere. Of course, in view of the low population and poverty of Melcombe, it is hardly surprising to find so many outsiders (at least ten) returned for the borough. All but one of these, however, were certainly Dorset men: Robert Calche and Walter Reson lived at Wareham, Robert Penne and William Clerk I at Weymouth, Nicholas Pury, John Alysaundre and John Ford II at Dorchester, Thomas Lond perhaps in western Dorset, and Robert Veel at Frome Whitfield (although he sometimes lived at Shepton Beauchamp in Somerset). Even the possible exception, William Coventre II, whose principal landed interests were situated in Berkshire and Wiltshire, was occasionally described as ‘of Dorset’. Although Melcombe managed to send resident burgesses to most of the early Parliaments of Richard II’s reign, at least one outsider sat in as many as 13 of the 19 Parliaments for which returns have survived between 1393 and 1422, and there may well have been more. (Six representatives remain unidentified.) In fact, only 15, less than half the total number of MPs, have been found to be burgesses of Melcombe proper, and three of these are known to have acquired landed holdings beyond the bounds of the town.
The names survive of only a few of the mayors and bailiffs of Melcombe in this period. It is possible that elections were not held regularly: this was certainly the case from October 1384 to 1389, when two royal nominees, Henry Ford and John Northovere, monopolized office as bailiffs. These two, both local men, were often returned to Parliament during their term of service: Northovere, who had sat for Melcombe in April 1384, was returned to the next Parliament (November 1384) summoned after his appointment, and, indeed, was again re-elected in 1385 and 1386; and Ford was returned with his fellow bailiff in 1386 and then re-elected in 1388 (Feb.). In fact, this pair dominated the representation of the borough in the years immediately following its devastation by the French. In more normal times, the town’s officers were elected in the borough court annually on the feast of the Nativity of St. Mary (8 Sept.), by 12 sworn men. They consisted of a mayor, two bailiffs, two constables and two under bailiffs. The names of only three mayors of this period are known; and all three (John Abbot, Thomas Cole II and Henry Ford) sat in Parliament for the borough, although none when in office. Seven Members are recorded serving as bailiffs, after election by the normal precedure. Their bailiffships occasionally coincided with their parliamentary service: William Helier was a bailiff at the time of his elections in 1395 and 1414 (Nov.), Henry Barbour II in 1414 (Apr.), William Benefield in 1421 (May), and possibly Nicholas Moigne in 1421 (Dec.)—if, indeed, it was he who was then returned and not William Walkeden.
Most of the burgesses proper elected to Parliament for Melcombe were merchants or tradesmen of some sort, and so, too, were some of the outsiders, who probably used the port. Only three lawyers have been noted, and all were outsiders: John Ford II of Dorchester, William Coventre II of Denford in Berkshire, and Robert Veel of Frome Whitfield. Both Veel and Coventre served for a while as keepers of the rolls of the King’s bench (and were closely acquainted with the chief justice, Sir Walter Clopton). Veel was in the process of moving the court’s records from York to Nottingham on 23 Nov. 1392, the day of issue of writs for the Parliament of 1393, and might therefore have been away from Dorset when elected. Similarly, Coventre was probably still keeper at the time of his return in 1397 (Sept.). Veel was also clerk to the j.p.s in Dorset on the two occasions of his election for Melcombe (1393 and 1394). He went on to hold the same post in Somerset, where he served for almost a quarter of a century. Four of the burgesses proper held royal offices, all of them concerned with the collection of revenues at Melcombe itself: Henry Ford was warrener there; Ralph Burnage was deputy to the chief butler (but only for eight months); Thomas Cole II served as controller and then collector of customs, subsequently acting as searcher in the port; and Eustace Kymer was a searcher and tronager, being appointed to both posts in November 1399, when he was sitting in the Commons for the first time. To the Parliament of 1407 the burgesses of Melcombe returned two of these royal officers (Cole and Kymer), requiring them to present an important petition seeking further exemption from payment of the fee farm. Two of the ‘outsiders’ also held crown office in Melcombe itself: Robert Calche spent 16 years in royal service, for the most part as a deputy butler in the ports of Dorset, and he was occupying this post at the time of his third consecutive return for Melcombe (January 1397); Walter Reson was customer of Melcombe for over ten years (1417-27) and deputy butler in the port from 1418 to 1427, and it was while he was discharging both offices concurrently that the borough elected him to the Parliament of 1419. Only Reson and Robert Veel were appointed as commissioners in the shire at large: the former acted four times as a collector of parliamentary subsidies, and Veel was named on several commissions of a more varied nature, not only in Dorset but also in Somerset. Moreover, he served as escheator of those shires in 1411-12, and William Coventre II was to officiate as escheator of Hampshire and Wiltshire and of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The lawyers Veel and Coventre were the only representatives for Melcombe in this period to form connexions of more than local importance. Both, for example, were associated with Sir Humphrey Stafford I* and Sir William Hankford c.j.KB.
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1057.
- 2. The name on the return is now illegible (C219/9/13) but J. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 452, has William Coventre.
- 3. The name is torn: C219/10/5.
- 4. The name of William Walkeden appears on the schedule accompanying the writ and indenture returned to Chancery, having been evidently written over an erasure. Nicholas Moigne’s name appears on the indenture itself: C219/12/6.
- 5. M.W. Beresford, New Towns, 429-30; CChR, ii. 223; iii. 274, 375; RP, ii. 288, 304.
- 6. CPR, 1364-7, pp. 362-3, 444; 1381-5, p. 465; 1385-9, p. 445; 1391-6, p. 383; 1399-1401, p. 170; 1405-8, p. 421; CCR, 1377-81, p. 223; SC8/19/922, 170/8504; RP, iii. 70, 443, 616.
- 7. CIMisc. vii. 368; C145/286/9; CCR, 1405-9, p. 332; RP, iii. 639; iv. 445, 468-9; CPR, 1408-13, p. 201; 1413-16, p. 151; SC8/125/6246, 126/6267, 128/6338; HMC 5th Rep. 576-8.
- 8. M. McKisack, Parl. Repn. Eng. Bors. 10, 12; HMC 5th Rep. 577.