Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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In a late Henrician statute (35 Hen. VIII, c.4) Liverpool was included among ‘decayed’ towns, and at the beginning of the period it certainly seems to have been less prosperous than it had been a century before. Although Leland described it as having a ‘good haven’ and ‘good merchandise’, and dealing in ‘much Irish yarn, that Manchester men do buy there’, the town suffered, as a later historian observed, from being ‘hemmed into the most isolated corner of an isolated county’: bad communications and extensive marshes largely cut it off from inland Lancashire, while the neighbouring districts were poor and thinly populated. Early Tudor policy towards Ireland brought some quickening of activity, particularly during and after the campaign of 1534, but it was not until the growth of West Indian trade that Liverpool could be called a flourishing port. An official survey in 1557 listed 13 vessels, one alone of as much as 100 tons, owned by Liverpool men. The fee-farm of the borough had decreased steadily during the 15th century, and its leasing by the crown to one David Griffith in 1487 may have been prompted by the town’s constant arrears of payment, even though by this time the annual levy was well under £20.2

Since the accession of Henry IV, which united the duchy of Lancaster with the crown, Liverpool had come once more under direct royal control, as it had been for some time after its establishment by King John, but the feuds between neighbouring magnates were perpetuated within the borough by the two greatest families there, the Stanley earls of Derby, with their fortified residence called the Tower, and the Molyneux, hereditary constables of Liverpool castle. By 1545 Sir William Molyneux and his son Richard had acquired jointly the fee-farm of the borough, and in that year they also received a valuable office under the duchy, the bailiwick of West Derby hundred, in which Liverpool was situated. It was only by appealing to successive earls of Derby that the governing body of the town managed to keep even a measure of independence from Molyneux domination.3

Since the assembly books survive only from 1551 it is difficult to say precisely how Liverpool was governed at the beginning of the 16th century. The title of mayor is first found in a document of 1351, and by the early Tudor period there were always two bailiffs, one nominated by the mayor and the other elected by the assembly, a body officially composed of all freemen or burgesses, who could be fined for non-attendance. In emergencies, or for special purposes such as the collection of local ‘leys’ or ‘cesses’, the assembly could choose special officials, 12 or 16 being the favourite number. In 1558 an ordinance required a council of 12 to be elected annually, the number being raised in the following year to 24. There was also a body known as the mayor’s brethren or aldermen, perhaps originally composed of all former mayors, but sometimes also having 12 members and so being easily confused with the 12 burgesses of the ‘council’.4

In addition to the ‘great assembly’, held on or about St. Luke’s day (18 Oct.), when the mayor and bailiffs were chosen, there were also two ‘great leets’ or portmoots every year; at the one held soon after the great assembly the minor town officials were elected, as were the recorder and town clerk, who nevertheless in practice served for life or during good conduct. The portmoot, as the lineal descendant of the old manorial court, was officially held by the lessee of the fee-farm, but when he and the town authorities were on good terms the mayor seems to have presided there as well as at the assembly. After the Molyneux family acquired the fee-farm, relations between lessee and borough rapidly deteriorated. During a prolonged dispute in 1555-6, resulting in the imprisonment of the mayor in the Fleet, one of the issues was that Sir Richard Molyneux had tried to hold a portmoot without reference to the borough officers. Both parties appealed to early charters, but Molyneux gained a favourable decision on virtually all points from the duchy court, and the new charter granted to Liverpool in 1556 gave the inhabitants no advantage against him. Finally in the following year Henry, Lord Strange, eldest son of the 3rd Earl of Derby, and John Caryll, attorney-general of the duchy and a friend of Molyneux, persuaded him to grant a sublease of the fee-farm to the town for one year, renewable annually at the option of both parties; the borough was to pay £11 16s.8d. a year and to give a £200 bond for performance of the agreement. The first instalment of the rent must have been difficult to collect, as Liverpool suffered so heavily from the epidemic of 1557-8 that the annual fair could not be held, there were no markets for three months and 240 people are said to have died.5

Against this background of economic stagnation and political friction it is not surprising to find a strong element of patronage in Liverpool’s parliamentary representation. By Elizabeth’s reign it came to be generally accepted that the chancellor of the duchy and the Earl of Derby each nominated one Member, an arrangement which can already be seen in regular operation under Mary. The year when the borough began to return Members again, after an interval of perhaps a century or more, has not been determined; it may have been as early as 1536, although names survive only from 1545 when they are taken from the sheriff’s county return. The election indentures are extant thereafter except for 1558, and on each of them one of the Members’ names has been inserted in a different hand, sometimes over an erasure.

The indenture for 1547, when the contracting parties are the sheriff and the mayor and inhabitants, is similarly worded to those for the same Parliament in the other Lancashire boroughs, all of them being dated 26 Oct., soon after the shire election; but for the three succeeding Parliaments Liverpool adopted a different form, omitting altogether the sheriff’s part in the transaction. Among the indentures for the second Parliament of Edward VI is a torn, undated and unsigned fragment, in an official hand unlike that met with elsewhere in the Lancashire returns:

As touching the certificate to your mastership for the burgesses for the towns of Wigan and Liverpool I have unto you [in] my letters mentioned the same.

In the Liverpool indenture for this Parliament the name of one Member, Ralph Assheton, is in a different hand but the Wigan return shows no trace of insertion or alteration. The Liverpool indenture begins:

This bill indented made [on 16 Feb.]. Witnesseth that I, Ralph Balie, mayor of ... Liverpool ... with consent of my brethren the burgesses and commons have by virtue of the King’s majesty’s late proclamation elected and chosen ...

By a slight variation in the wording in March 1554 the mayor ‘and my brethren’ are said to have carried out the election ‘with the assent of the comburgesses and commons’. Thereafter the borough reverted to an indenture between itself and the sheriff.6

Both men returned in 1545 may have been nominated by or through the duchy, perhaps an indication (as at Wigan) that this was the first Parliament to which Liverpool returned Members and that the crown was the prime mover in its restoration. The senior Member, Nicholas Cutler, was a servant of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and a kinsman by marriage of Chancellor Wriothesley. His partner Gilbert Gerard was a Lancashire man then barely embarked on a distinguished legal career during which he would serve as counsel to the Earl of Derby, but he was probably beholden for his return to his uncle Sir Thomas Holcroft, nominal lessee of the Liverpool fee-farm, duchy receiver in Lancashire and Cheshire and knight for Lancashire in this Parliament; the earl may well have approved the choice since both Holcroft and the sheriff Sir William Norris were his close associates. Thomas Stanley, the senior Member in Edward VI’s first Parliament, was the assay master of the mint and thus doubtless a nominee of the Protector Somerset as treasurer. The identity of his fellow-Member is more obscure: the indenture names Francis Cave, the civilian brother of Sir Ambrose Cave, knight for Leicestershire in this Parliament and a future chancellor of the duchy. Francis Cave’s surname has been added in a different hand over an erasure and it is possible that the man originally named was Francis Goldsmith, a friend of the Cave brothers and a servant of Queen Catherine Parr. The list of Members prepared for the last session of the Parliament shows Goldsmith sitting for Queen Catherine’s borough of Chippenham, which would explain his replacement at Liverpool, but gives Richard Taverner as the junior Member for Liverpool. Since Taverner served with Nicholas Cutler’s son-in-law William Honing as a clerk of the signet and was known to another, previous, colleague in that office Sir William Paget, then chancellor of the duchy, it looks as if Taverner replaced Cave early in the life of the Parliament, but in the absence of further evidence this must remain a speculation. The deletion of Stanley’s name from the list, with the addendum ‘mortuus’, seems to reflect confusion in the compiler’s mind, but the answer may lie in some dispute between Liverpool patrons such as was to occur in Elizabeth’s reign.7

In the second Edwardian Parliament Ralph Asheton was almost certainly the Lancashire gentleman who was to become duchy receiver in 1558. His name was inserted in a blank space on the return and he was thus presumably a duchy nominee, especially as his partner William Bromley of Nantwich, Cheshire, was comptroller to the Earl of Derby. Bromley took the senior seat in the first three Parliaments of Mary’s reign but after ‘seceding’ from that of November 1554 he was replaced in 1555 by Sir Richard Sherborn, also a servant of the earl, as was William Stopford. Norris, the junior Member in the spring of 1554, was a member of the earl’s council but as he lived only seven miles from Liverpool and was elected mayor there later in the same year he may have been able to secure his own return. The other three junior Members came from outside Lancashire: (Sir) Giles Alington sat for his native Cambridgeshire in at least four Parliaments but was debarred by his shrievalty from doing so in the autumn of 1553, when he probably owed his return for Liverpool to his relationship with William Cordell, a close friend of the new chancellor of the duchy Sir Robert Rochester. John Beaumont was a Leicestershire lawyer and former master of the rolls to whom a seat in Parliament must have been a welcome aid in his financial difficulties. His patron is unknown, although he was well connected, but he had some difficulty (perhaps merely technical) over his second return. The indenture, to which the contracting parties are the sheriff, Sir John Atherton, and the mayor, burgesses and commonalty, is dated 28 Sept. and has Sherborn as the senior Member with a ‘blank’ in which Beaumont’s name has been inserted. The town books give the same day for the sealing of the indenture:

Wherein [Sherborn], knight and steward to the noble Earl Lord Edward Earl of Derby, was elected to be the one burgess for Liverpool and [blank] a place left open for the other to be nominated by Master [blank] Rochester ...

Adam Pendleton, the recorder or town clerk, took the indenture two days later to Lancaster castle, where the knights of the shire were to be elected. For an unexplained reason the under sheriff, Robert Shae, ‘would not receive it, but the said Adam brought it home again and deliverd it to Master Thomas More, then deputy mayor’. Several days after this More went up to London ‘on the town’s business partly’, taking the indenture with him. All this may have been in some way connected with the Molyneux dispute, by now at its height. Nothing is known of the under sheriff’s attitude toward either side, nor was Atherton, the sheriff, obviously connected with either the borough or Molyneux. George White, the junior Member in Mary’s last Parliament, was an Essex gentleman and an associate of Sir Edward Waldegrave, who was shortly to succeed his uncle Rochester as chancellor of the duchy.8

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. Hatfield 207.
  • 2. R. Muir, Liverpool, 1, 4, 63, 65-68; J. Touzeau, Liverpool, 11-14; VCH Lancs. iv. 13; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, v. 40-41; R. Muir and E. M. Platt, Municipal Govt. in Liverpool, 68.
  • 3. J. A. Picton, Liverpool Archs. pp. xi. 1-2, 18, 22; M. Beresford, New Towns in the Middle Ages, 461. Muir, 16, 59-63, 73-74; Somer ville, Duchy, i. 505; Muir and Platt, 70-76.
  • 4. Muir and Platt, 80-84; Liverpool Town Bks. ed. Twemlow, i. p. xxxix; VCH Lancs. iv. 15.
  • 5. Muir, 66, 71-74; Touzeau, 13-14; Picton, 14-15, 24, 68; Liverpool Town Bks. i. 33; VCH Lancs. iv. 15; Muir and Platt, 70-79.
  • 6. C219/18C/54, 19/50, 20/68, 70, 21/87, 22/38, 23/70, 24/89.
  • 7. Hatfield 207.
  • 8. Liverpool Town Bks. i. 52a-53.