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


1566CLEMENT PASTON, ROGER TOWNSHEND 3 vice Woodhouse and Warner, deceased
 Edward Clere
1581SIR ROGER WOODHOUSE vice Wyndham, became a judge
26 Oct. 1584(SIR) DRU DRURY
26 Sept. 1586THOMAS FARMER
 Christopher Heydon
 New election ordered soon after 8 Oct. 1586
 Double return. FARMER and GRESHAM seated by order of the House 11 Nov. 1586
 Sir Arthur Heveningham
 Sir Arthur Heveningham
 Sir Robert Mansell

Main Article

At the time of Elizabeth’s first Parliament, the Duke of Norfolk, then only 20 years of age, appears to have confined his and his househoid’s influence to the boroughs, the two knights of the shire being Sir Robert Dudley (Lord Robert, he was usually called) and Sir Edmund Wyndham. Dudley had sat in Parliament twice before. Though under age on both occasions, he had been senior knight of the shire for Norfolk in compliment to his parentage and social standing. At that time he had a wife and home in Norfolk and held offices there. In 1559 his connexions with the county were slight (he was living at Kew in 1560)4 though if he had to be in Parliament it is hard to imagine what other seat he would have aspired to.

The second Norfolk Member, Sir Edmund Wyndham, had sat for the county as long ago as 1539. He became one of two deputy lieutenants to the Duke of Norfolk in 1559. Like Dudley his affiliations were with the protestant party. One, or maybe two, of his sons were Marian exiles and another was to marry a daughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon.

Dudley’s associations with the shire were rudely severed in September 1560 when his wife, Amy Robsart, fell to her death in mysterious circumstances at Cumnor, Oxfordshire. The scandal of that tragedy must have made election at any county court in 1563—particularly in the Robsart county of Norfolk—out of the question. The 1563 MPs were Sir William Woodhouse of Hickling, who had represented the shire in Mary’s last Parliament, and Sir Edward Warner of Plumstead, the lieutenant of the Tower. Both Members died before the second session of this Parliament, and in 1566 there was a by-election to replace them. The sheriff at the time was William Paston. On 28 Sept. 1566 he received a letter from the Duke of Norfolk, now of age and the natural leader of the county, desiring him ‘to nominate those I talked with you of’, namely, Roger Townshend, a prominent official in the Duke’s household—who was duly elected—and either Clement Paston, the sheriff’s uncle, or Sir Richard Fulmerston, the Duke’s treasurer, who was already MP for Thetford. In a postscript the Duke, on further information, ordered that Fulmerston be elected for the county and assumed that Clement Paston had replaced him at Thetford.5

No one seems to have doubted that the Duke could decide the outcome of the election, least of all the Duke, who once claimed that he was as good a prince at home in his bowling alley at Norwich as the Queen of Scots (significant juxtaposition) in the midst of Scotland.6 However, Clement Paston did not want the Thetford seat—ostensibly because business prevented him from going to London at the time, in reality probably through pride: a borough seat was not good enough for him.7 If pride was the stumbling block, presumably Sir Richard Fulmerston gave way to Paston, and the Duke and everyone remained happy.

In 1571 and 1572 Norfolk was in disgrace, and the Privy Council considered that his treasonable activities necessitated their supervision of the elections in his county. This task was certainly entrusted to the lord keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon in 1572 and probably also in 1571.8 The two county Members in 1571 were Sir Christopher Haydon of Baconsthorpe and Sir William Butts of Thornage, both appointed deputy lieutenants by Norfolk’s successor as lord lieutenant, Sir Thomas Wentworth 2nd Lord Wentworth.9Significantly, the two men favoured by Bacon as knights of the shire in 1572 were Henry Woodhouse and Francis Wyndham. The former was soon to become the lord keeper’s son-in-law, the latter already was. However, the fears of the Privy Council were well-grounded, for the election was contested, and by a connexion of the Duke—the son-in-law of his treasurer, Sir Richard Fulmerston, already mentioned. This son-in-law, Edward Clere, was one of the leading landowners in the county. Though not unsympathetic to puritanism, he was a grasping, ambitious man, with many enemies, and was soon to become a rallying figure for conservative forces in Norfolk, consorting in local politics with gentlemen who were ‘backward’ in religion or even recusants. In the 1571 Parliament he made ‘a staggering speech’ when a bill against Mary Queen of Scots was being debated. By 1572 Clere had sat as a borough Member in three Parliaments and been sheriff in 1567-8. He might reasonably think that the time had arrived to stand for the county and he cannot have welcomed the thought of two men allied to Sir Nicholas Bacon monopolizing the county representation. Moreover, he was at feud with Sir Francis Wyndham’s brother—‘his mortal enemy’;10 and it was probably Wyndham whom he hoped to defeat in the election.

Clere’s activity is revealed in a group of letters between him and his ‘warm’ friend and neighbour, the Catholic Richard Southwell.11 The correspondence opens with a letter from Clere, intimating that sundry friends had invited him to stand for election and asking for the support of Southwell and his tenants and neighbours, if not already pledged elsewhere. Southwell wrote a friendly reply, explaining that he was already committed—presumably to Woodhouse and Wyndham. So far as is known, he was guilty of no offence; but the humiliation of the election day proved too much for their friendship, and a series of recriminatory letters followed. Further light is thrown on the contest by a letter to Lord Paget, written from Norwich on the eve of the election by Thomas Cornwallis, a Catholic sympathizer who became a recusant and might therefore be thought to have little respect for two such candidates as Woodhouse and Wyndham. Cornwallis took a dim view of Clere’s chances:

Here is great preparation and working to obtain the suffrages of the freeholders of the shire for such as be competitors to be knights of the same. Mr. Clere leaveth no stone untouched that may further his part having nevertheless as I am credibly informed no great cause to follow his enterprise (finding a great number of the shire evil affected towards him) were it not Mr. F[rancis]* Woodhouse joined all his force and friends with him. The absence of Mr. Paston may be the cause he may be disappointed, and his adversary to be placed. It is but weakly handled by him and his friends.12

Wyndham was appointed a judge in 1579 and thus removed from the House of Commons. His place as knight of the shire for Norfolk was taken by Sir Roger Woodhouse of Kimberley, who had sat for Aldeburgh in 1571 and, after representing the county for the last session of the 1572 Parliament in 1581, sat again for a Norfolk borough, Thetford, in 1586, his last Parliament. Evidently Sir Roger Woodhouse’s election was peaceful, and the county continued its new practice of selecting its Members from the radical rather than the conservative ranks of the gentry.

The same practice prevailed again in 1584, when two of the county’s most notorious puritans were elected—Sir Dru Drury and Nathaniel Bacon—both of whom had previously sat for west country boroughs, probably as nominees of the 2nd Earl of Bedford.

Perhaps this election really was as peaceful as the silence of the sources might imply. Trouble, however, was on its way, for during the 1580s the various quarrels and feuds in the county were coalescing into two factions, reflecting primarily the religious split in the county, though personal enmities resulted in some odd alliances. One of the factions was the ‘lieutenancy group’, led by two of the deputy lieutenants, Sir William Heydon and Sir Edward Clere. These two, appointed to their strategically powerful office in 1585 and backed at court by their conservative-minded lord lieutenant, Lord Hunsdon—Privy Councillor, lord chamberlain, and cousin to the Queen—were unceasing in their efforts to weaken and frustrate the leaders of puritanism in the county, the chief of whom was Nathaniel Bacon, son of the late lord keeper, Sir Nicholas. This division among the gentry constituted the background to another disputed election in 1586.

The two successful candidates who secured the backing of the anti-lieutenancy group were Thomas Farmer and William Gresham, neither of whom had sat in Parliament before, or been sheriff of the county. Farmer belonged to a Norfolk family whose fortunes were declining. He had wasted his estate and was conducting a feud with Sir William Heydon. At the beginning of August the Privy Council had taken the extreme step of removing him from the commission of the peace. Gresham was a Surrey gentleman who moved to Norfolk in 1579 as heir to his uncle, Sir Thomas Gresham, and moved back to Surrey about 1594. It is hard to understand why the radical group supported such men, instead of re-electing the former Members, Drury and Bacon, in conformity with the Privy Council’s circular letter to all sheriffs. Perhaps there was insufficient time to prepare for a factional contest, and maybe this was why the leaders on neither side risked their reputation. For the lieutenancy group the notice may have been less than for the others, as there is a suggestion that the sheriff, who belonged to the radical or Bacon group, adopted a device that was to become common in later centuries, that of delaying the arrival of the writ. Sir Edward Clere might have contested the seat, but was ill, and Sir William Heydon, the other deputy lieutenant, was also unwilling to stand. Unable to tolerate the prospect of his enemy, Thomas Farmer, being elected, he therefore put up his son Christopher, who claimed it was only ‘the immoderate brags’ of Farmer that provoked him to contest the election.13 The lieutenancy group found no candidate to pair with him, but organized themselves to resist Farmer.

Though held with inadequate official warning, the election was expected throughout the county, and, according to the sheriff, some 3,000 people were present. Farmer and Gresham were elected and their return subscribed by a strange combination of puritans and near-Catholics, banded together against the Heydon-Clere party, who retorted by appealing to the Privy Council. No doubt their influential lord lieutenant, Hunsdon, lent them his support in the Privy Council. On 8 Oct. 1586 the Privy Council wrote three letters on the Norfolk election. The first ordered the lord chancellor ‘to grant a new writ ... for a new election’. The second ordered the sheriff of Norfolk to proceed to a new election which may be ‘free and not solicited’. They found it ‘strange’ that the county had elected one (meaning Farmer) whom they had ‘for his misdemeanors thought unfit to be of the commission of the peace’, and though ‘her Majesty had no meaning to impeach any way their free election’, yet she thought ‘some regard should have been had to such letters as were sent from hence by her directions’. The Privy Council’s third letter was to (Sir) Edward Clere and Sir William Heydon, deputy lieutenants, requiring them to ‘assist’ at the forthcoming election so that ‘fit men’ might be chosen.14

For this second election, Clere tried to persuade his relative, Bassingbourne Gawdy, to stand, probably hoping to put up two candidates;15 but Gawdy must have declined and the lieutenancy group, whose animus was against Farmer, apparently resolved to support Gresham, thus pairing him with young Heydon. The rival party probably boycotted the new election, hand certainly asked their friends in the House of Commons—where radical views were in the ascendant—to raise the issue there. The consequence was a collision between the Crown and the Commons over their respective rights in disputed election cases. In the upshot the second election was invalidated and Farmer and Gresham retained the two seats. This was also the verdict of the lord chancellor and judges when they too investigated the facts, but ostensibly the two Members owed their seats to the House of Commons, whose humour the government could not afford to ruffle at that moment. The lieutenancy group, and Sir William Heydon in particular, must have felt very sore at the triumph of their opponents.16

So far as the evidence goes, the next election, in 1588, was peaceful: indeed, the names of the two knights of the shire, Sir Henry Woodhouse and Christopher Heydon, suggest that the two groups were now content to share the representation. By 1593, however, a new personality had emerged in local politics—Sir Arthur Heveningham. The Heveninghams were an old-established family with estates both in Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Arthur took up residence in Norfolk only in 1574, when he succeeded his childless elder brother at Ketteringham. He was an ambitious, litigious, tenacious person, temperamentally a party leader. By 1588, when he became one of Lord Hunsdon’s deputy lieutenants in Norfolk and Suffolk, he had already provoked the hostility of the strong puritan group of gentlemen in both counties; and in the 1590s, supported by Hunsdon’s influence at court, he and his adherents indulged in a series of struggles and feuds with their opponents of almost Homeric quality. In both counties the puritan justices of the peace blocked him in quarter sessions and frustrated him in the exercise of his authority in a way that reduced law to a farce. Since Heveningham made himself an instrument of prerogative rights, the story of obstruction reads like an introduction to the monopoly debates in 1601 or the parliamentary opposition in early Stuart Parliaments. (Sir) Francis Wyndham (Norfolk 1572), now a judge, and Edward Coke (Norfolk 1593) aided the opposition with all their skill, authority and obstinacy, while the two brothers, Nathaniel Bacon in Norfolk and Nicholas in Suffolk, furnished active leadership.

It was typical of so ambitious a man, that Heveningham should want to represent the shire in Parliament, and doubtless the factional struggle also impelled him to seek election. Eighteen days before the election in 1593 he wrote to Sir Thomas Knyvet, canvassing support. Heveningham’s opponents faced him with two formidable candidates: Edward Coke himself; solicitor-general and destined to be Speaker in the Parliament; and Nathaniel Bacon, who had sat for the county in 1584. Coke, in some autobiographical notes, says that there were more than 7,000 present at the election—more than double the number present at the celebrated election of 1586, thus suggesting that the factions strained themselves for a decisive contest. If Coke is right in stating that he himself was elected without even soliciting support, then the contest must have been confined to the junior seat: Heveninghamversus Bacon. Heveningham was defeated: in fact, this ambitious man, who did not cease to yearn for the honour of representing the county, never did get into Parliament: which is a measure of where he stood in popularity, as distinct from power. He had another try in the following election, held in September 1597. Thinking an election near in the previous December, he again canvassed Sir Thomas Knyvet, and while it is not known for certain that it was he who contested a seat when the election actually occurred in September 1597, contest there was, for Coke, now attorney-general, journeyed up to Norfolk to support the two anti-Heveningham party candidates. Coke stayed the ‘fury’ of ‘the common people’ by his ‘great diligence and discretion’, and he and Sir Nicholas Bacon headed the list of supporters signing the election return. The two successful candidates were (Sir) John Townshend, son-in-law of Nathaniel Bacon, and Henry Gawdy, one of Coke’s friends, prominent in the opposition to Heveningham.17

Another Parliament was expected early in 1601, and though the Essex rebellion postponed the summoning of it until the autumn, preparations were being made in Norfolk in January 1601, and even months before that. The factional divisions in the county were more intense than ever, and the tendency of these disputes was to marshal the gentry into two rival groups. Sir Arthur Heveningham, striving for power through exploitation of the royal prerogative, was still the leader of one group. His most prominent colleague at this time was Christopher Heydon, who had been one of the rival candidates in the 1586 county election and Member in 1589. Their activities, like their estates, straddled both Norfolk and Suffolk. Opposed to them were the Bacons—Nathaniel in Norfolk and Sir Nicholas in Suffolk—with their several relatives by marriage, their friends and all those who, through conviction or self-interest, shared their views on the constitutional issue of common lawversus prerogative. Coke remained a staunch upholder of this group, using his influence as attorney-general to prevent the Heveningham party from securing such strategic offices as that of justice of the peace. Inevitably the struggle in Norfolk was reflected at court. Oddly enough, when this local faction strife got caught up in the wider contest between the Earl of Essex and the Cecilians, it was the Heveningham party that had the closest ties with the Earl, while the radical Bacon group tended to link up with his opponents, among whom were the lord admiral and Coke himself. Christopher Heydon, who was on the Cadiz expedition, was knighted by Essex in 1596, and his younger brother, John, by Essex in Ireland in 1599. Both were to take part in the Essex rebellion, which folly marked the eclipse of their family, already reduced in wealth and power during the Elizabethan period.

In 1600 a violent personal feud existed between (Sir) Christopher Heydon and (Sir) John Townshend. The Privy Council intervened to stop a duel between the two, but failed to prevent Heydon’s brother John, and another Bacon son-in-law Sir Robert Mansell, from fighting, in October 1600, a duel in which Heydon lost his hand. Mansell, aged about 30, was vice-admiral of Norfolk—that is, a deputy of the lord admiral Howard, Earl of Nottingham—and a justice of the peace. Very properly, after the duel the Privy Council removed him from the commission. In this situation, and with the further drawback that he was a newcomer to Norfolk who as yet had not sat in Parliament, Mansell offered himself for the next county election. Perhaps he arrived at this decision before the duel: to persist in it afterwards was to invite the bitterest factional struggle. Heydon sent out letters to the Heveningham party asking them to hold their votes in suspense, rather than promise them to Mansell. Although not minded to stand himself, Heydon was sure that they could find someone ‘more sufficient than any stranger that shall unworthily seek his own glory, to our general disgrace’.18 If an election had taken place early in 1601, perhaps Heydon’s friend and leader, Sir Arthur Heveningham, would have risked his prestige again, rather than see Mansell prevail. In fact Mansell could only continue his campaign because he had found in the Bacon group an ally who could not be deflected from his promise to pair with him, in the person of Sir Bassingbourne Gawdy, a member of one of the county’s most remarkable families. Through the legal ability of his great-grandfather and that of three brothers in the succeeding generation, the family had risen from obscurity to the first rank in both Norfolk and Suffolk. No less than five of its members sat in the Parliament of 1597. Sir Bassingbourne—called ‘junior’ to distinguish him from his father—had fought, and was still fighting successfully a prolonged battle with his neighbours, the ancient family of Lovell, for dominance in their area of Norfolk. Married to a daughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, his interests and outlook tied him to the Bacon group, while his Lovell connexions aligned him with the Heveningham group.

To Sir Bassingbourne, who had previously sat for a Norfolk borough in 1593, the distinction of being chosen as first knight of the shire was evidently a matter of prestige. Perhaps he paired with Mansell because the latter was content with second place. Gawdy had evidently discussed his ambition with Nathaniel Bacon well in advance, in the summer of 1600, and Bacon, then sheriff, had agreed, though not readily. Bacon may have had a similar ambition himself; perhaps he thought Gawdy arrogant in wanting the senior seat. By the end of the year, when the election was thought to be impending, and it was known that Gawdy intended to pair with Mansell, Bacon advised Gawdy to withdraw his own candidature if he felt tied by his promise to Mansell, only recently removed from the commission after the notorious duel. ‘I am resolved’, wrote Bacon, ‘that Sir Robert shall not have my voice, and if I cannot give it you’ without giving it to him, ‘then blame yourself if I give it not you.’ To this letter Gawdy replied that he would dispense with Bacon’s support rather than desert a ‘friend and kinsman’.19

Though Gawdy was optimistic enough to think that, whether Bacon supported him or stayed away from the election, there would be no opposition, the Heydons and their friends would certainly have opposed Mansell. It also seems likely that some of Gawdy’s friends would have voted against Mansell: certainly Clipsby Gawdy, Bassingbourne’s relative, was anxious to have the second seat for himself.20 However, the Essex rebellion stayed the election, eliminated the Heydons, and presumably discredited the opponents of the Bacon group in the county. Nevertheless, when the election did come, in the autumn of 1601, it found Gawdy’s friends and supporters still of two minds. His great-uncle, Francis Gawdy the judge, though unable to be at the election himself, canvassed for both Bassingbourne Gawdy and Mansell. He was confident about the result, though he noted that some few whom he approached reserved their vote for the second seat.21 As for Nathaniel Bacon, after his correspondence with Bassingbourne Gawdy in the previous December it seems unlikely that he could have changed his mind.

Thus the 1601 election was probably completely in the hands of one of the two great Norfolk parties, though with reservations about the second seat. Possibly at the last minute, perhaps at the county court on election day, Mansell was persuaded to release Bassingbourne Gawdy from his commitment, and to retire from the contest. Or, less likely, the sheriff may have separated the elections for first and second place, thus enabling the selection of another partner for Bassingbourne Gawdy. However it came about, Henry Gawdy, who had also sat as junior in the previous Parliament, was again elected to that place. He was later to say that he was chosen ‘against his will’. ‘How untrue that is’, commented Sir Arthur Heveningham, ‘the world knoweth’, and when Henry Gawdy proposed once more to stand for the county in 1604, Heveningham commented: ‘I hope he will get a patent’ for it. As for Mansell, he was returned for King’s Lynn four days after the county election.22


This account is based upon the published and unpublished work of A. Hassell Smith.

  • 1. E371/402(1).
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. Folger V. b. 298.
  • 4. G. Adlard, Amy Robsart, 39 n. 1.
  • 5. Bodl. Douce 393, f. 94.
  • 6. State Pprs. ed. Murdin, 180.
  • 7. Add. 27960, f. 2.
  • 8. Add 48018, ff. 282v-283, 294v.
  • 9. G. Scott Thomson, Lds. Lts. in 16th Cent. 50.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 575.
  • 11. Add. 27960, ff. 9-10v.
  • 12. Plas Newydd gen. corresp. box 11/35, ex inf. Mr. J. P. Cooper, Trinity Coll. Oxford.
  • 13. Add. 27960, f. 22; Egerton 2713, f. 190.
  • 14. APC, xiv. 242.
  • 15. Add. 27960, f. 27.
  • 16. Neale, Parlts. ii. 184-7; Egerton 2713, f. 190; Add. 27960, f. 27.
  • 17. Norf. and Norwich Arch. Soc. Lib. C3, shelf 1; Coll. Top. et Gen. vi. 115.
  • 18. Add 23007, f. 10, which shows that the undated letter, conjecturally ascribed to 1593 in Neale, Commons, 31, belongs to Jan. 1601.
  • 19. Norf. and Norwich Arch. Soc. Lib., Bassingbourne Gawdy letter bk. ff. 49v-50v.
  • 20. Add. 36989, f. 12; HMC Gawdy, 72.
  • 21. Gawdy letter bk. f. 71 HMC Gawdy, 74; Add. 36989, f. 11.
  • 22. Norfolk and Norwich Arch. Soc. Lib. C3 shelf 1, Heveningham to Sir Thos. Knyvet, 1, 3 Apr. 1603; HMC Gawdy, 74, Henry Gawdy to Sir Bassingbourne Gawdy, wrongly dated Sept. 1601.