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|13 Jan. 1559||JOHN AYLWORTH|
|19 Apr. 1572||WILLIAM BOWERMAN|
|30 Jan. 1576||ASHTON AYLWORTH 1 vice Aylworth, deceased|
|2 Nov. 1584||JAMES BISSE|
|WILLIAM SMITH I|
|4 Nov. 1588||THOMAS PURFREY|
|16 Sept. 1597||LEONARD CROSSE|
|13 Oct. 1601||JAMES KIRTON|
The borough of Wells was dominated by the bishops of Bath and Wells. The town had received its first charter from a twelfth-century bishop and successive bishops resisted all attempts by the townsmen to increase their privileges. It was not until 1589 that the borough was incorporated. Before 1589 the principal officer in the town had been the master of the guild of merchants, elected annually, but under the new charter a corporation was established consisting of a mayor and 23 common councilmen, from whom seven were chosen as ‘masters’.2 Parliamentary elections were held in the bishop’s court. Until 1588 the electorate consisted of the master and burgesses; from 1593 the mayor, masters and burgesses. Thomas Godwyn was the only bishop to play a dominant part in elections during Elizabeth’s reign.
All the MPs in the first four Parliaments of this period were either borough officials or legal advisers to the borough, with the exception of Ashton Aylworth, who replaced his father at the 1576 by-election. In 1571 the town received a letter from Sir Hugh Paulet, who had been instructed by the Privy Council to ensure that ‘well-qualified’ men were returned for Somerset boroughs, but Paulet himself made no attempt to nominate at Wells. In 1572 it appears from the Wells act book that a short list of four candidates was drawn up. Aylworth and Bowerman were chosen in preference to Richard Godwyn and Thomas Leigh, two former masters.
When Thomas Godwyn became bishop in 1584 the pattern of elections changed at once. James Bisse (1584) has been identified as the canon of Bath and Wells, presumably returned through Godwyn’s influence. George Upton (1584) was a freeman of Wells, brother-in-law of Bisse, and a hanger-on of the bishop’s son, Thomas Godwyn. In the following Parliament Thomas Godwyn himself took the senior seat and William Smith I, a borough official, took the junior seat. In 1588 a similar pattern emerged with Thomas Purfrey, Bishop Godwyn’s son-in-law, and John Ayshe, a freeman and official of Wells, being returned.
By 1590 Bishop Godwyn was dead. His successor made no known attempt to influence elections. The 1593 MPs (cousins, but not related to Bishop Godwyn) were both borough officials: Richard Godwyn, the rejected 1572 candidate, was now recorder of Wells; James Godwyn was mayor. Both MPs in 1597 were borough officials and in 1601 James Kirton, the recorder, was elected along with George Upton, presumably returned this time on the strength of his local standing.3