Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Main Article

By the early 16th century Brackley, once prosperous as a wool staple, was small and poverty-stricken. Leland noted ‘divers rows of housing ... about the quarters of the castle, now clean down’; he found the ‘castle plot’ but could not see ‘any piece of a wall standing’ and the former Wednesday market was ‘now desolated’. On the other hand, the dissolution of the monasteries and chantries did not seriously affect the town, since the lands and buildings of the most important chantry, the hospital of St. James and St. John, had earlier come into the hands of Magdalen College, Oxford, which regularly used them as a refuge from sickness at Oxford: Brackley grammar school owed its foundation to the college.2

On the attainder of the 9th Viscount Lovel in 1485 the manor and borough reverted to the crown, which granted them to George Stanley, Lord Strange; in 1547, when Brackley is first known to have returned to Parliament, its lord was Edward Stanley, 3rd Earl of Derby, who presumably secured its enfranchisement. The chief officials were the lord’s steward and bailiff. The town had long had a mayor, perhaps since the early 14th century, but he was sworn in before the lord’s steward at the Michaelmas court leet and may have been appointed by the lord. The term ‘burgesses’ is also a medieval one, found in a mid 13th-century charter from the Earl of Winchester to his ‘borough’ of Brackley. By Charles II’s reign there were to be 33 burgesses, with the sole right of electing Members of Parliament, but it is not clear how early this number was established; nor, in the absence of early 16th-century mayoral records, is it possible to say exactly how powers were divided between manorial and borough officers. It appears that the mayor, under the supervision of the steward, officiated at the court leet and the court baron, and that he and the burgesses were responsible for making bye-laws for the maintenance of law and order and the control of trade.3

Of the three surviving election indentures, all in Latin, those of February and September 1553 give the second contracting party as the sheriff of Northamptonshire; in the first the other parties are the mayor, bailiff and two named burgesses, but in the second (which is torn and dirty) the bailiff is not mentioned and about six ‘inhabitants’ are named with the mayor. In 1555 the contract form is superseded by a direct statement: ‘Memorandum that at a court held at Brackley in the county of Northampton ... proclamation having been made according to [the King and Queen’s] writ annexed to these indentures’, the mayor and 17 unstyled electors ‘freely and indifferently’ elected the Members, ‘in testimony of which election’ the electors and the sheriff affixed their seals to the appropriate copies. The separate seals of the electors on the indenture are an unusual feature of a borough return; the two earlier ones for Brackley had used the official town seal, bearing the Earl of Derby’s crest.4

The earl was clearly an active patron at Brackley and the nine known Members were probably all his nominees, although the first of them, Henry Sidney, may have been recommended to him by Edward VI. Sidney’s fellow Francis Saunders was joint steward of the borough for the earl in 1558 with his cousin Robert Saunders, and either or both may have held the office some years earlier. Drew Saunders, evidently their kinsman and perhaps a brother of Robert, settled at Hillingdon, Middlesex, where the earls of Derby held land and sometimes resided. In 1547 Francis Saunders may also have profited from his relationship with the sheriff Thomas Cave, and if he was indeed the junior Member in the following Parliament he could then have benefited from his half-brother’s Walter Haddon recent intrusion into the presidency of Magdalen and perhaps also from Haddon’s friendship with William Cecil, then one of the secretaries of state and a Privy Councillor. Thomas Fermor’s father, Richard Fermor, had been the Earl of Derby’s chief steward in Northamptonshire and the son was later to be a friend of Sir Thomas Stanley: his eldest brother Sir John Fermor was a knight for Northamptonshire in October 1553 and another brother and a nephew were to sit for Brackley in the reign of Elizabeth. Thomas Onley’s cousin Mary Cotton was to become the earl’s third wife. Richard Ardern was a former fellow of Magdalen and on vacating his fellowship he had settled at Whitfield, some two miles from Brackley, possibly as the college bailiff: he is not known to have had any connexion with Derby other than in respect of the borough, where he appears occasionally in the court rolls, but he was well connected in Northamptonshire and neighbouring counties. In the autumn of 1554 Onley yielded precedence to George Ferrers from Hertfordshire, who had begun his parliamentary career at Plymouth where Sir Thomas Knyvet, later Derby’s son-in-law, found a seat in this Parliament, possibly with Ferrers’s help. Thomas Boughton was a Warwickshire gentleman related by marriage to the Saunders family. As many as six of the nine Members for Brackley may have studied at an inn of court, all at the Inner or Middle Temple except Ferrers who was of Lincoln’s Inn.

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. The indenture (C219/20/89) is too discoloured for the second name to be read but the christian name may be Francis.
  • 2. Anon. Brackley (1874), 466-8; M. Beresford, New Towns in the Middle Ages, 468-9; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, ii. 35-38; W. D. Macray, Magdalen Coll. Reg. n.s. i. 64; ii. 11, 21, 36, 43; Baker, Northants. i. 560; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 141.
  • 3. Anon. Brackley, 465-6, 468; Baker, i. 564, 567; C142/37/147; Bridges, Northants. i. 143-4; Anon. Brackley Ch. Celebrations (1960), 15-17; Northants. RO, Ellesmere mss.
  • 4. C219/20/89, 21/113, 24/119.