Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
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A place of considerable importance in the sixteenth century and ‘one of the ancientest and greatest towns’ belonging to the duchy of Lancaster—the description dates from 1587—Leicester was governed in Elizabeth’s reign by a close oligarchic corporation consisting of the mayor and aldermen (known as the 24) and 48 councilmen or comburgesses. The latter body, selected by the mayor and 24 from ‘the most wise and sad commons only’, represented the commonalty in municipal and parliamentary elections; they could be replaced ‘as often as seems necessary’. This system was confirmed by the town’s first charter of incorporation in 1589, while a second charter ten years later recognised Leicester’s right to elect a recorder, and tried to meet the corporation’s demand to choose the town steward and bailiffs, hitherto duchy appointments. The borough’s attempt to acquire the status of a county in itself failed.1

Parliamentary elections were conducted in the common hall, the former hall of the Corpus Christi guild. Most of the surviving returns apparently record all those who voted. The return for the 1584 Parliament, for example, lists at the foot the names of the mayor, 11 aldermen, the two coroners and two chamberlains (chosen from the 24 and 48), and about 30 councilmen. A simple majority seems to have sufficed. The recorder was also present: in 1597 he urged the name of one candidate on the electors.2

Left to itself, the assembly would probably have preferred to return townsmen to Parliament, but there were strong external pressures, the most notable coming from the Hastings family, earls of Huntingdon. Seated at Ashby-de-la-Zouch and with a town house in Leicester, the family exercised immense influence in the affairs of the county and of the borough, an influence that reached its peak under Henry, the 3rd Earl (1560-95), steward of the honour and of the town of Leicester. Next was the influence of the court, exerted through the chancellor of the duchy but less clearly discernible because most of the duchy offices in the county were held by members of the Hastings family. The Leicestershire country gentlemen formed a third outside influence, and here too, Hastings support could be crucial.

The relationship between John Hastings (elected in 1559) and the senior branch of the family is uncertain, but as a former Marian exile and a strong protestant he may have had the backing of Sir Ambrose Cave, chancellor of the duchy, as well as of the 2nd Earl of Huntingdon. His colleague Robert Breham, who had sat in Mary’s last Parliament, was recorder of Leicester, known to the Cave family, into which his daughter married, and to the future 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, who appointed him deputy steward of the honour of Leicester in 1562. Breham was returned again in 1563 and 1572. Robert Brokesby (1563) and Thomas Cave (1571) belonged to well established Leicestershire families; each may have had support from Huntingdon, while Cave, considered to be a ‘favourer’ of the town, nephew of the late Sir Ambrose Cave, could also rely on the influence of his father, Francis, knight of the shire in 1559. Sir Ralph Sadler, chancellor of the duchy, intervened directly in the 1571 election on behalf of Stephen Hales, a land speculator and minor duchy official. John Stanford I (1572), the son of a leading townsman, was himself to become mayor.

The 1584 election, the first for which we have detailed evidence, illustrates well the corporation’s plight when requests for seats came from all sides. Sir Ralph Sadler, perhaps remembering his success in the 1571 Parliament, sought both seats. Sir George Hastings, the Earl’s brother, asked for the return of one of the Queen’s serjeants-at-arms, Thomas Johnson, a Leicestershire man who had already written on his own behalf. There were also ‘divers other letters from private persons’, all of which were read out at the meeting in common hall. Evidently the mayor, with ‘the advice of certain of my brethren’, had hoped from the start to return the recorder or some other local man, but in the end the Hastings candidate was elected and the other seat was offered to Sadler. He chose a royal servant, Henry Skipwith, ‘one of your own countrymen ... not unacquainted with the state of your town’.3 The same two were re-elected in 1586, following the Privy Council’s recommendation, but in a letter emphasising the need for ‘well-affected’ men, the Earl of Huntingdon added an unsuccessful request of his own: ‘I have thought good to require you that I may have the nomination of one of the said burgesses’.4

In 1588 two local men were elected. John Chippingdale, a civilian, may have been chosen because the borough wished to push a private bill through Parliament; he was also a puritan and there is some evidence that he enjoyed Huntingdon’s favour. Robert Heyrick, mayor three times, belonged to one of the more prominent merchant families in Leicester. Shortly before the 1593 election the mayor, John Stanford, must have been surprised to receive a letter from Sir Thomas Heneage, chancellor of the duchy, asking the corporation to ‘leave the choice of both your burgesses to me, as heretofore it hath been to my predecessors in that office’. Heneage assured the mayor that the Members would ‘be as careful for your causes, and the good of your town, as any that can be chosen’. Here was a direct threat to Leicester’s independence. At the assembly which met soon afterwards ‘five or six of the elders’ suggested giving the chancellor one seat, but the majority decided to elect two townsmen, namely the mayor and James Clarke II, another member of the corporation. Stanford’s ensuing letter to Heneage was polite but firm. He reminded the chancellor that Sadler’s demand in 1584 could not be paralleled ‘to any man’s remembrance in our corporation’ and that a seat had been offered on that occasion because the candidate was well known to them.5

The safe policy of electing two men with local connexions was adopted again in 1597 when George Parkins, son of the recorder, and John Stanford II, son of the 1593 Member, were returned. By this date Sir George Hastings had inherited his brother’s title but not, apparently, his popularity. Because his candidate, Thomas Beaumont, had been rejected, he accused the corporation, particularly the recorder, of bad faith. He assured them that he had no desire to become ‘a placer of burgesses’, but felt that Beaumont was a suitable choice. The corporation replied that Beaumont’s name had in fact been urged by the recorder, but that his reputation as an ‘encloser’ had led the assembly to reject him.6

The last parliamentary election of the reign produced an even more serious clash with the 4th Earl, whose main desire, evidently, was to prevent the election of a Leicestershire gentleman, George Belgrave, whom he regarded as a bitter enemy. Huntingdon wrote to the mayor demanding that he be speedily certified who they are, and how many they are, that do yield to his [Belgrave’s] proud and saucy enterprise ... Good Mr. Mayor, be careful of this, as you and the rest will look to make account to me.The mayor had put forward two candidates for the Earl’s approval, George Parkins again and William Heyrick, a prosperous London goldsmith and brother of the 1589 Member. Of these, Heyrick, who had visited the Earl, was acceptable, but Huntingdon wished to see a Mr. Bromley elected with him. Some days later he learned that Belgrave had been chosen as the senior Member. Belgrave had appeared at the election in Huntingdon’s livery, claiming to be his servant; the majority of the electors were won over by his deception and returned him. The Earl, as in 1597, accused the corporation of trickery and poured his wrath on them for believing the ‘treacherous device of that cunning practiser’. His protest was to be heard further in the Star Chamber and in the House of Commons itself, but as far as Leicester was concerned its electoral history under Elizabeth had ended with a notable example of the ‘miscarriage of influence’.7

Leicester paid wages to some of its MPs, though it avoided the burden whenever possible. There is record of a payment to Breham in 1572 and it was agreed in 1576 that Stanford was to receive what ‘by law he ought in that case to have and by his conscience he shall think sufficient’. When the chamberlains’ account for 1582 was read out to the assembly, however, some members reminded Stanford that he had undertaken to accept wages for the 1576 and 1581 sessions only ‘if he did good to the town’. This condition they claimed had not been met. Some later Members were paid, including Johnson in 1586 and Clarke in 1593.8

Author: M.R.P.


  • 1. Leicester Recs. ii. pp. xlvii seq., 324; iii. pp. xvii-xxi, xxiv seq., 247-52, 359-64; Rol. Parl. vi. 432; Materials for Reign Hen. VII, ed. Campbell, ii. 456-7; VCH Leics. iv. 61-64, 68-75.
  • 2. C219/26/50; 28/73; 29/76; 30/50; 31/103; 33/117.
  • 3. Leicester Recs. iii. 208-10; Thompson, Hist. Leicester, 273-6; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1, 431; Neale, Commons, 171 seq.
  • 4. Thompson, 276-8.
  • 5. Thompson, 294-5; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1, 432; Leicester Recs. iii. 289-90.
  • 6. Leicester Recs. iii. 336-7; Thompson, 300-1.
  • 7. Leicester Recs. iii. 435-6; Thompson, 316-23.
  • 8. Leicester Recs. iii. 137, 163, 167, 186, 187, 188, 210, 241, 290, 336.