Available from Boydell and Brewer
|William Marchaunt I|
|1388 (Feb.)||William Marchaunt I|
|1388 (Sept.)||William Marchaunt I|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Marchaunt I|
|1391||William Marchaunt I|
|1393||William Marchaunt I|
|1394||William Marchaunt I|
|1395||William Marchaunt I|
|1397 (Jan.)||Robert Coullyng|
|1397 (Sept.)||Richard Marchaunt|
|Thomas Edward 1|
|1413 (May)||John Rydon|
|1414 (Apr.)||John Marchaunt II|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Marchaunt II|
|1421 (May)||Walter Portman|
|1421 (Dec.)||Walter Portman|
In 1377 Taunton’s taxable population of those over 14 years of age was estimated to be 539. This indicates a smaller town than the nearby port of Bridgwater or than the cathedral city of Wells. However, Taunton still seems to have been commercially prosperous in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The charter exempting its burgesses from tolls throughout England, originally granted by Stephen, was confirmed to Taunton’s lord, Bishop Wykeham of Winchester, in 1381, and regulations affecting trade were prominent in the town’s custumal which dates from about the same time. Especially important were the limitations these imposed on strangers doing business in Taunton: their sale and even purchase of cloth and hides was restricted, and trade in wool, lace and meat was totally prohibited without the bailiff’s licence. As early as the 13th century the cloth trade in Taunton had become very important, the borough heading the movement in the West Country towards the use of new industrial processes with the introduction of mechanized fulling mills.2
Trade undoubtedly benefited from Taunton’s position as the administrative centre of the vast manor of Taunton Deane, which had been granted early in the eighth century to the bishop of Winchester. This manor was the largest and most lucrative of the episcopal estates; and since by Edward I’s reign a series of grants and charters had greatly increased the bishop’s jurisdictional powers there, the influence of successive bishops remained dominant throughout the medieval period. The fact that Taunton Deane with its appurtenances, including the liberty of Taunton and the borough itself, provided, on average, revenues of £900 p.a. (of which the borough contributed £40-45), ensured the bishops’ close interest in the area.3
The extent of the burgesses’ independence from episcopal control is difficult to assess. Development of municipal government was unusually slow in Taunton; the borough was to remain under the bishop’s rule, nominally at least, until its incorporation in 1627. It is also hard to discover whether the bishop’s officers exercised the same powers within the town as in the rest of the estate, and how far the choice of local officials was free from their interference. The most important posts were those of the steward of the manor and the constable of Taunton castle, and in the period under review both were occupied, from June 1406, by a cousin of Bishop Beaufort, namely Thomas Chaucer* of Ewelme, at a fee of £40 p.a. It was his subordinate, the clerk of the castle, who actively administered the area, presiding over all the courts except the ‘infaring lawdays’ at Michaelmas and Hocktide, and supervising the borough and manor markets. The clerk also held office by the bishop’s patent, but at a much lower annual salary of 20s. The bailiff of the liberty and the receiver at the castle were also vital components in the running of the estate, but more directly concerned with the government of the borough itself were the two portreeves who, although elected ‘par la communalte de mesme le Burgh’, were nevertheless also paid by the bishop, at the derisory rate of 4s. p.a. The long delay in the acquisition of self-government may perhaps be attributed to the absence of any internal organization such as a merchant guild to act as a stimulus to development.4
The depth of the bishop’s involvement in the borough’s affairs changed somewhat after the death of Bishop Wykeham and the translation to the see of Bishop Beaufort. Walter Puryham was Wykeham’s receiver at the castle in 1394-5, but there is no evidence connecting his election to Parliament in that year with his office; he had in fact sat in the Commons on three previous occasions before he entered the bishop’s employment. Generally, Wykeham appears to have allowed the burgesses to elect to Parliament whom they wished, but this was not apparently the case with Beaufort, whose cousin, Chaucer, would seem to have sometimes influenced or persuaded the community to choose friends of his own. In this way a few men who sat for Wallingford (where Chaucer had been constable of the castle since 1399) obtained election at other times for Taunton too. It can only have been through Chaucer’s prompting that the Welsh vintner Lewis John came to be elected by both Taunton and Wallingford in May 1413. Similarly, William Borde, the clerk of Taunton castle, who always kept in close contact with Chaucer, not only secured election for Taunton in 1420 and 1421 but also sat three times later on for Wallingford. Another official of this great estate, Thomas Bacot (bailiff of the liberty 1387-1410), almost surely owed his promotion as MP in 1410 to pressure from above. This particular election was held under unusual circumstances, and the evidence suggests that interference with the burgesses’ freedom of choice was always a possibility, although such as might require strong action on the part of the bishop or his officers. Certainly the townsmen were not on this occasion in a generally submissive mood. Bishop Beaufort alleged in February 1410 that, shortly before, Taunton men led by John Northmore, Robert Coullyng and the sons of two other sometime Members (Andrew, son of William Damarle and Thomas, son of John Osbern†) had assaulted his servants legitimately attempting to levy tolls at the fair, and threatened the lives of his tenants. There was indeed a well-planned conspiracy to resist the bishop which, it was alleged, 400 townsmen were induced to join, each taking an oath and accepting livery of a cap. The leaders of the riot were ordered to appear in Chancery to answer the charge, on pain of fines of £40 each. Perhaps the results of the local elections for the Parliament which had met on 27 Jan. represent something of an official reaction to the rebellious state of the town, or else had themselves played a part in provoking unrest. Neither of those returned had ever sat in the Commons before, nor were they to do so again. One of them, Bacot, was, moreover, to be assaulted and badly wounded later in the year, in an incident probably indicative of the continuance of popular animosity towards Beaufort and his officers. The other Member would seem to have been at first William Mott, for whose name that of Thomas Edward was substituted at some unknown stage in the electoral process. But the switch made little difference to the outcome. Both Mott and Edward were associates of Chaucer, and incidentally also of the latter’s two close friends, Robert James and John Golafre, who represented Berkshire in this Parliament, so in either case the party supporting the Beauforts in their bid to retain control over the government gained further strength. The electoral indenture was attested by seven Taunton men and, since one of these was none other than the rebellious Northmore, it is possible that the friends of the bishop’s cousin had been elected as a conciliatory gesture on the part of the townsmen, rather than as a result of pressure from above, but we cannot be sure. Although the next extant return was to favour another of Chaucer’s friends, Lewis John, it would otherwise appear that Beaufort and Chaucer seldom if ever dictated the choice of the borough’s representatives; perhaps in more normal times they did not need to do so. The attempt to dispute the bishop’s rights to toll had failed, and Coullyng was afterwards fined 66s.8d. for his attempt ‘ad gubernandum burgum de Taunton’. That he continued to enjoy popular support is indicated by his re-election as portreeve of the town in 1412. Northmore, too, was fined, in his case £5, but this was on some other pretext. Neither of these ‘rebels’ so far as is known was ever returned to Parliament again.5
Other connexions between the Taunton burgesses and magnates and gentry of the county were inherently less likely than those with the bishop and his local agents to influence parliamentary elections in the town. They do, however, indicate the local standing of certain of the Members. Three (Walter Portman and John and Richard Marchaunt) were known to the Luttrells of nearby Dunster, while Portman also had dealings with (Sir) John Stourton II*, a prominent member of Henry VI’s household. There is no evidence to show that any of these links affected the choice of MPs for Taunton, although it is possible that the burgesses favoured men with such associations because of their potential benefit to the town.
Taunton is not known to have elected representatives to Parliament before 1307, but two years earlier it had been one of 12 Somerset towns noted as making no return, which indicates that, although the borough had been then sent a precept by the sheriff, it had either failed to elect Members or else its response had arrived too late to be entered on the back of the writ. After 1307 the borough regularly returned two burgesses to the Commons.6 When, down to 1406, the sheriff of Somerset and Dorset made his return of the writ of summons, there accompanied it a separate schedule in which were listed the names of the knights of the shire together with those of the representatives elected for the boroughs of the two counties. From 1407, in accordance with parliamentary legislation, an indenture was also drawn up at each county court, and so far as Taunton was concerned usually four of its burgesses were party (exceptionally seven in 1410). The return stated that the election for each borough had been made with the assent of its whole community, and so it may be confidently asserted that the four delegates attending the Somerset shire court on behalf of their town were merely reporting a choice already made locally.7
In the period 1386-1421 returns for nine out of the 32 Parliaments are missing, making it impossible to obtain a full and accurate picture of parliamentary experience, the degree of re-election and repeated election, and the prevelance of novices. We do know that 22 individuals sat for Taunton in 23 Parliaments, the most experienced Members among them being William Marchaunt I, who appeared 12 times in Richard II’s reign, and William Portman, who served in 11 Parliaments all told. Their kinsmen, Walter Portman and John Marchaunt II, sat ten times and five times, respectively. However, since a high proportion of the MPs (ten out of 22) were seemingly elected only once for the borough, attendances averaged just two. Parliamentary experience was most frequent in two families, the Portmans and the Marchaunts, the only ones, moreover, to serve in successive generations. Taunton was represented in nine of the 23 Parliaments under consideration by William Portman and his son, Walter, and in 12 by William Marchaunt and his presumed sons, Richard and John. Few Parliaments of our period, in fact, lacked a member of one of these families. Gaps in the returns, notably between 1414 and 1417, make it difficult to decide whether election to consecutive Parliaments was so unusual as would appear. Re-election seems to have happened more often in Richard II’s reign, taking place on nine out of an overall total of 16 occasions, as compared with six out of a possible 18 under Henry IV and Henry V. Generally, the Members during the earlier part of the period were more experienced. William Marchaunt I is notable for sitting in four consecutive Parliaments from 1386 to January 1390 and four more from 1391 to 1395. Supposing him to have also sat in November 1390, this would make a total of nine appearances in a row. On three occasions both Members were returned to successive Parliaments: in February 1388, 1394 and November 1414. And some of those so re-elected served as pairs in the Commons at other times also, so that William Marchaunt and William Portman sat together in as many as six Parliaments; William Marchaunt and John Porter did likewise three times; John Marchaunt and Edmund Dyer twice; and Richard Marchaunt and John Northmore, similarly twice.
It is of interest to note, especially in view of the statute of 1413 which required parliamentary burgesses to be resident in the borough they represented, that hardly any of the Taunton MPs of this period were not so qualified. Most, indeed, not only held houses and shops in the town, but were also closely involved in its affairs. Even Chaucer’s protégé, William Borde, appears to have been living in Taunton when elected (having probably acquired property there through marriage to a local heiress), although later in his career he moved to Berkshire. Walter Portman acquired the manor of Orchard just outside Taunton, but nevertheless retained the property in the town his family had long possessed. However, doubt as to residence attaches to three of the Members of the period. Although the family of Rokes was certainly a local one, Thomas Rokes himself remains unidentified. The other two, Thomas Edward and Lewis John, were definite outsiders, neither of whom is known to have been personally connected with Taunton in any way, save, as already noted, as associates of the constable of the castle. Clearly, their interests were focused elsewhere, in Edward’s case most likely in Berkshire, and in John’s in the city of London. The latter was to appear not long afterwards as a knight of the shire, sitting once for Hampshire and five times for Essex.
Several of the MPs for Taunton held office in the town or otherwise assisted in its administration. William Borde, Thomas Bacot and Walter Puryham were employed by the bishop of Winchester, as clerk of the castle, bailiff of the liberty and receiver, respectively. No fewer than ten Members served in the elective office of portreeve at one time or another, generally before they first entered the Commons. It occasionally happened that one of the portreeves would be sent to the Lower House, as in January 1390 (John Porter), January 1397 (Robert Coullyng), September 1397 (Richard Marchaunt), 1407 (John Northmore), and 1420 (Robert Croke). On the other hand, no more than a few of the Members were ever appointed to royal commissions. Six were named as tax collectors in the county of Somerset, but only three gained such experience before their elections to Parliament. Walter Portman, the most eminent of the strictly local men, was to be appointed to several commissions of a legal nature in the shire (often as a member of the quorum), and towards the end of his career was to be made a j.p. Of the rest, it was only Thomas Chaucer’s associates who in any way excelled. William Borde served as deputy butler in the ports of Topsham and Bridgwater, escheator in Oxfordshire, deputy justiciar in South Wales and customer in Bristol, but he held none of these positions until his parliamentary service for Taunton was over. When returned for this constituency in May 1413 Lewis John had just relinquished office as collector of customs in London and secured that of master worker of the mints in the Tower of London and Calais. He went on to occupy several other prestigious posts (notably the receivership of the duchy of Cornwall), and to become a wealthy landowner in Essex. But Lewis John’s advancement owed nothing to his single appearance in the Commons as Member for Taunton.
The majority of the parliamentary burgesses were minor tradesmen and small property owners, the most prominent of this group being William Portman, a merchant who became involved in an Exchequer test case concerning the royal prisage of wines. As might be expected, in view of Taunton’s reputation in this, several of the burgesses were connected with the trade in woollen cloth, and seven of the 22 are known to have been engaged in the manufacture of this product. None could rival the mercantile interests of the outsider Lewis John, whose highly successful business as a vintner in London gave him a share in the lucrative supply of the households of Henry IV and Henry V. Only Walter Portman has been positively identified as a member of the legal profession, but his election to ten Parliaments between 1417 and 1435 clearly marks a change in the representation of the borough. Few MPs rose to a higher social position than that of burgess. William Borde, although only late in his career and after he had left Taunton, was designated ‘gentleman’, while Walter Portman attained armigerous rank, and Lewis John eventually achieved knighthood.
Author: L. S. Woodger
- 1. The indenture lists Thomas Edward, but the schedule gives William Mott: C219/10/5.
- 2. J.C. Russell, Brit. Med. Pop. 141, 143; CCR, 1377-81, pp. 447-8; Harl. 408, ff. 212-13; Procs. Som. Arch. Soc. c. 90; E.M. Carus-Wilson, Med. Merchant Venturers, 191, 196.
- 3. Rot. Hundredorum, 125, 135, 137; Med. Customs of Taunton (Som. Rec. Soc. lxvi), passim ; A.E. Levett, Black Death, Winchester, 178; H. Hall, Pipe Roll, Bp. of Winchester, passim .
- 4. Procs. Som. Arch. Soc. lxxxviii. 47-55; R.G. Hedworth Whitty, Ct. of Taunton, 68-72; Harl. 408, ff. 212-13.
- 5. CPR, 1408-13, p. 179; CCR, 1409-13, p. 38; E159/186 recorda Trin. rot. 12; C219/10/5; Hants RO, bp. Winchester’s pipe roll, 159414.
- 6. M. McKisack, Parl. Repn. Eng. Bors. 10, 17; Parl. Writs ed. Palgrave, i. 152, 188.
- 7. C219/9/11, 10/5, 11/4, 12/3; J. Toulmin, Taunton, 301.