Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer


1566EDWARD ONLEY 3 vice Lucy, deceased
31 Oct. 1584JAMES CROFT
11 Oct. 1586JAMES CROFT

Main Article

The borough of Brackley, together with the large manor of Brackley and Halse of which it formed part, belonged for most of the sixteenth century to the Stanley family, earls of Derby. It was little more than a proprietary borough and almost certainly, as in later years, the mayor was appointed by the lord of the manor acting through his steward. The ‘Eagle and Child’ insignia of the Stanleys was used as the town’s common seal.4 Brackley was enfranchised during Edward Vl’s reign, probably at the 3rd Earl’s request.5 Parliamentary elections were by the mayor: it is likely that the burgesses, tew in number, were the only voters.

The earls of Derby, whose territorial strength lay in Lancashire and Cheshire, showed only occasional interest in elections at Brackley. For much of the reign the property was in the hands of successive countesses as dower lands, or was leased outside the family. When Ferdinando, the 5th Earl, died in 1594, leaving three daughters as his coheirs, Brackley was assiglaed to the second daughter, Frances, but Alice, the widowed Countess, retained a life interest as part Alice married (Sir) Thomas Egerton I, the lord keeper, while Frances, who had become Egerton’s ward, married his son John shortly afterwards.6

There can be little doubt that Edward, 3rd Earl of Derby, secured the return of Sir Thomas Knyvet in 1559. A Norfolk gentleman, Knyvet shared Derby’s conservative religious views and was later to marry his daughter. The other Member, Robert Saunders was steward of the borough. The Earl’s wife, Mary, who was estranged from her husband, enjoyed considerable influence in Brackley during the sixties and seventies. Edward Onley, returned at a by-election in 1566, and his brother Thomas (1572), were her cousins, and supported her in her struggle with Derby to acquire Brackley as part of her dower. Shortly after Derby’s death in 1572, the manor was leased to Edward Onley by the Countess. However, Thomas Onley had sat for Brackley before the accession of Elizabeth, that is before Derby had married Mary Cotton, so very likely there was at least an element of local interest in their return. Christopher Yelverton (1563) was son-in-law of the sheriff at the time of his election. His colleague during the first session, Richard Lucy, a member of the Charlecote, Warwickshire, family, was related to the Fermors, who supplied one of Brackley’s MPs during Mary’s reign and were to do so again in 1589. The senior Member in 1571 was Thomas Catesby of Whiston, Yelverton’s and Edward Onley’s brother-in-law. Matthew Mantell, who took the junior seat, was another local gentleman and was to be reelected, as the senior Member, in 1572.

The 4th Earl of Derby, who succeeded in October 1572, appears to have played a rather more active role in the choice of Brackley MPs. James Croft of Oxfordshire (1584 and 1586) was a well-connected man whose father, the comptroller of the Household, was associated with the Earl at court. His colleague in both Parliaments, George Whitton, was out of favour in his native Woodstock. It may well be that Croft, who lived near Woodstock on his wife’s manor of Weston, influenced Derby on Whitton’s behalf. Humphrey Davenport (1589), a student at Gray’s Inn, was to serve a later Earl of Derby as counsel and, at the time of his return, his family held lands in Cheshire from the Stanleys. The junior seat in 1589 went to Jerome Fermor, who had connexions with the Stanleys and whose influential brother-in-law, Sir Richard Knightley, represented the county in this Parliament. Local influence, particularly that of the related families of Knightley, Spencer and Montagu, seems to have prevailed in the 1593 election, one of the Members being Sidney Montagu, a younger son of Edward Montagu I of Boughton. Towards the end of January, presumably about the time the election took place, Knightley urged Sidney Montagu to visit ‘my neighbours of Brackley’ and ‘bestow some courtesies’ on them.7 Richard Bowle (1593) was presumably the ‘auditor and overseer’ who is found presiding over a court at Brackley in 1579. By 1597 the borough was in the hands of the 5th Earl’s widow, a daughter of Sir John Spericer of Althorp. She was probably responsible for the return of her nephew Robert Spencer in that year, and of Edward Montagu II, heir to Boughton and one of Robert Spencer’s close friends, in 1601. Egerton influence in the constituency, which was to prove lasting, began with the return of the lawyer Ranulf Crewe in 1597, and of the poet John Donne, who was the lord keeper’s secretary, in 1601.

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. E371/402(1).
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Folger V. b. 298.
  • 4. Bridges, Northants. i. 143, 148; Baker, Northants. i. 564, 567-9.
  • 5. Neale, Commons, 140 n.
  • 6. CP, iv. 213 and n.
  • 7. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 31.