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

Background Information

No names known for 1510


1515(not known)
1523(not known)
31 Jan. 1552JOHN RUST vice FANNE, deceased12
1553 (Oct.)JAMES FLETCHER 14
1554 (Apr.)JOHN RUST
 (aft. 4 Oct. 1558 not known)

Main Article

The history of the town of Cambridge, particularly after the Peasants’ Revolt, is dominated by its long series of disputes with the university, often erupting into armed conflict. Of the Members in the early 16th century only Robert Chapman and Alexander Ray had any known connexion with the university, except a trading one; almost all are recorded to have acted as spokesmen or representatives of the borough against the university, and many committed acts of hostility to the university’s authority, or insolence towards its representatives, beyond the call of municipal duty.

A royal borough from the earliest times, Cambridge paid a fee-farm of £70 a year to the crown; although earlier documents survive, the first charter giving Cambridge ‘most of those franchises which the chief boroughs of England enjoyed’ dates from 1201. The borough existed as a body corporate long before then, and an exemplification of earlier charters obtained in 1530 makes it clear that Cambridge was then regarded as being legally a borough by prescription; the first extant document purporting to create a corporation of Cambridge was the letters patent granted by James I in 1605. The borough’s effective government consisted of the mayor, four bailiffs, 24 councilmen and between four and eight aldermen, advised by a recorder who for 26 years was John Hynde. About 100 other freemen formed the commonalty. A record of matters brought before the council was kept by the town clerk and accounts of the borough’s revenue and expenditure by its financial officers. Neither series is complete for the early 16th century.16

Cambridge returned two Members to Parliament regularly from 1295 at the latest, being the only borough in the county which did so. The method of election was indirect. The mayor and ‘his assistants for the bench’ named one man and the commonalty or free burgesses another: these two electors then chose two men from each of the borough’s four wards, and the eight thus chosen elected the Members, apparently by simple majority. This method clearly enabled the mayor, with the help of the council, to thwart the election to Parliament of anyone to whom he objected, or even to secure his own election, as did John Erlich, Thomas Brakyn and John Fanne. In 1529 the outgoing mayor Edward Slegge unsuccessfully tried to prevent his successor Brakyn from being chosen by holding the election on the last day of his mayoralty. In 1549 the council resolved to take the oaths of the two men who chose the electors ‘that they were in no case laboured by Mr Mayor or any other person to choose any special person to be of the election’. Six years later the corporation ordered that the elector usually chosen by the commonalty should be chosen instead by the 24 common councilmen, four bailiffs, two treasurers and former holders of the last two offices ‘for this only time upon trial ... [to] prove what quietness may ensue hereof’; the experiment does not seem to have lasted. Indentures of election survive for the Parliaments of 1542, 1547, March 1553, November 1554 and 1555, all in Latin and three of them in poor condition. The contracting parties (where legible) are the sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire and the mayor, the four bailiffs and other (unnamed) burgesses, who in the indentures of November 1554 and October 1555 are described as ‘commorant and resident’.17

Cambridge appointed and paid a high steward, mainly to defend its interests against the university; it was perhaps the first borough to have such an officer. Successive dukes of Norfolk filled the office under Henry VIII and Mary, and the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland each did so during his period of supremacy in Edward VI’s reign. None of these noblemen is known to have influenced parliamentary elections in Cambridge—although the 4th Duke of Norfolk’s letter of 1557 asking for the return of his ‘servant’ Sir Nicholas Lestrange suggests that he thought the town amenable until it replied reminding him of its statutes—and no Member is known to have been a servant or connexion of any of them. At least six of the Members are usually described as tradesmen and three as gentlemen; of the rest, four of unknown occupation were probably tradesmen also, and Chapman and Hawes were more clerks than lawyers. The borough treasurers’ accounts include payments for day-to-day expenses of many Members and others who went up to London on legal business for the borough; these entries make it clear that the wages paid were insufficient to cover the Member’s daily expenses of food, lodging and incidentals, let alone those of his servants and horses. It may not be coincidence that Thomas Brakyn and Robert Chapman, who had the two highest subsidy assessments in 1545, were the two men most often elected. Of the others who sat more than twice, Richard Brakyn inherited his father’s wealth, while only in 1554 was John Rust the borough’s first choice; in 1545 he had been a replacement for Thomas Brakyn, who died shortly before the opening of the Parliament of that year, and in 1552 for John Fanne who died during the Parliament. Two others, Ray and Slegge, equalled Chapman’s assessment of £40 for the 1545 subsidy, yet Ray was elected only twice and Slegge once. As a Catholic, Ray was probably ineligible in Elizabeth’s reign, though he lived till 1592, and Slegge was evidently unpopular with his fellow-townsmen.

Like the town’s officers, the Members were supposed to be ‘continually and daily resident’ in Cambridge, but the condition seems in one or two cases to have been satisfied by a Member’s owning a house and maintaining an establishment in the borough although usually resident outside it. No complete stranger, however, was elected in this period; every Member either had been or later became mayor except Lawrence Hawes, who was for some years town clerk. The freemen and corporation of Cambridge were a small but wealthy minority of the town’s inhabitants; many owned land outside the town, but only Thomas Brakyn and Simon Trew sat on the bench for the county.

Cambridge regularly paid wages to its Members. The statutory rate of 2 s. a day was adhered to until 1427, when the sum was reduced to 1s. a day because of the town’s poverty. The full rate was not restored until 1563, although by the 16th century the borough was prospering, mainly from the receipts of Sturbridge fair and the rent of borough land and houses. In 1543 the town reimbursed Thomas Brakyn for his expenses in obtaining a Paving Act (35 Hen. VIII, c.15) on its behalf as well as the repeal (35 Hen. VIII, c.7) of an Act giving merchant adventurers virtually the monopoly of the sale of fish at Sturbridge and elsewhere; in 1554 it contributed 3s.4d. towards a bill introduced by James Fletcher ‘against malt bills’. The Act (2 and 3 Phil. and Mary, c.15) that purveyors should not take victuals within five miles of Cambridge and Oxford may have benefited the townsmen, but its preamble states that it was passed at the instance of the scholars only. The Taverns Act (7 Edw. VI, c.5) allowed four taverns in the town. Cambridge was designated the seat of a suffragan bishopric under the terms of the Act (26 Hen. VIII, c.14) of 1534, but nothing came of it.

Author: D. F. Coros


  • 1. Cambridge Bor. Docs. ed. Palmer, i. 48.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. C. H. Cooper, Cambridge Annals, i. 386.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Ibid. 394, 396.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid. 407.
  • 8. Ibid. 415.
  • 9. Ibid. 440 and n.
  • 10. Ibid. 422.
  • 11. Ibid. ii. 44, 17.
  • 12. Ibid. 65; Hatfield 207.
  • 13. The christian name, torn from the indenture (C219/20/15), is supplied from Cooper, ii. 82.
  • 14. Bodl. e Museo 17.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. Cambridge Guildhall reg. bk. 1539-82, treasurers’ accts. etc.; Downing Coll. Cambridge, Bowtell mss Liber Rationalis 1510-60; Cambridge Bor. Docs. i.
  • 17. C219/18B/13, 19/18, 20/15, 23/16, 24/15.