Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Background Information

Number of voters:



c. Mar. 1614SIR THOMAS PARRY (expelled the House, 11 May)
c. Jan. 1626EDMUND DUNCH

Main Article

Described by Thomas Fuller in 1662 as a county ‘perfect in profit and pleasure’,1 Berkshire in the early seventeenth century was one of the wealthiest shires in England, as well as being one of the smallest. It owed its prosperity primarily to the fertility of its two principal agricultural districts, the Vale of White Horse, in the north, and the Vale of Kennet, in the south; the cloth industry centred on Reading and Newbury, so vigorous in the sixteenth century, was badly affected by the trade depression of the 1620s. The natural richness of the two vales gave rise to many of the shire’s leading gentry families, such as the Dunches of Little Wittenham, the Fettiplaces of Childrey and the Parrys of Hampstead Marshall; while the eastern, or forest, division of the shire, which included the royal Forest of Windsor, boasted families such as the Nevilles of Billingbear, the Harrisons of Hurst and the Lovelaces of Hurley. By comparison, few substantial gentry families were settled in the Berkshire Downs, an area of poor, stony soil which divided the Vale of White Horse from the Vale of Kennet and was fit only for pasturing sheep.2

The most prominent figure in Berkshire was the county’s lord lieutenant, William Knollys†, who was successively created Lord Knollys (1603), Viscount Wallingford (1616) and earl of Banbury (1626). His patronage played an important part in the parliamentary elections for those boroughs where he was the high steward, but his influence over the county’s parliamentary elections seems to have been less significant. He may have been responsible for the return of his brother Sir Francis Knollys I in 1604 and 1625 and his nephew Sir Robert Knollys II in 1620, but both men were substantial landowners in their own right, and could probably have achieved election without the aid of their illustrious relative.3 Perhaps the main reason why Knollys was not as influential as one might have expected is that he lived not in Berkshire but in Oxfordshire, at Gray’s Court, a few miles across the county border. His tenure of the lord lieutenancy despite his non-residence is explained by a complete absence of indigenous noble families to Berkshire before the 1620s. Even after 1620 the peerage was poorly represented in the county. Francis Norris of Rycote, Oxfordshire and Wytham, Berkshire was created earl of Berkshire in 1621, but he died in January 1624 without male heir. Not until 1627 did Sir Richard Lovelace of Hurley and William Craven of Hampstead Marshall receive baronies, and Craven, an active soldier, was frequently absent abroad. The lack of an indigenous peerage meant that Berkshire’s leading gentry families exercised considerable power and influence over the county’s parliamentary elections.4

Berkshire’s elections were always held at Abingdon and were remarkably harmonious affairs. Indeed, of the 17 general elections held between 1558 and 1628, only that of 1571 is known to have been contested. The absence of conflict reflected the fact that the upper echelons of Berkshire society were not riven by serious feuds. It may also have owed something to the availability of parliamentary seats elsewhere for those who wanted them: six of Berkshire’s seven borough seats were usually conferred on members of the county gentry rather than on townsmen, for instance.5 Above all, it suggests that the leaders of county society struck agreements with one another ahead of each election, thereby obviating the need for contests. Certainly, in mid-December 1639 (Sir) Edmund Sawyer*, then a leading figure in east Berkshire, reported that he would be meeting his neighbour Sir Richard Harrison at Twyford before Christmas to consider who in the county should stand for election to the Short Parliament.6

Before 1597 Berkshire’s seats were usually monopolized by gentry from one area of the county alone. Thus in 1559, 1571 and 1588 all the Members were from the ‘Forest’, whereas in 1572, 1586 and 1593 they came exclusively from the ‘Vale’ (meaning either the Vale of White Horse or the Vale of Kennet). Only in 1563 and 1584 did Forest and Vale return one Member each. From 1597, however, the overall picture of representation became more sophisticated. At every general election held between 1597 and 1624 the county returned one Member from the Forest and the other from the Vale. In 1597 the Forest was represented by Sir Henry Norris II, whose father owned Bray, while the Vale was represented by Sir Francis Knollys I of Reading. In 1601 Sir Richard Lovelace of Hurley (Forest), woodward of Windsor Forest and later high steward of Windsor borough, was paired with his stepson George Hyde of South Denchworth and Kingston Lisle. Sir Francis Knollys I was again returned in 1604, when he was partnered with Sir Henry Neville I of Billingbear (Forest). Neville was re-elected in 1614, and was balanced by Sir Thomas Parry of Hampstead Marshall, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (Vale). Neville died in 1615 and his place was taken in 1620/1 by his near neighbour Sir Richard Lovelace, who was returned alongside Sir Robert Knollys II, who dwelt at the aptly named Stanford-in-the-Vale. In the final election of James’s reign, Berkshire returned Sir Richard Harrison of Hurst and Edmund Dunch of Little Wittenham, residents of the Forest and Vale respectively. The pattern of elections laid down between 1597 and 1624 seems to form the basis for the observation made in 1695 by James Bertie, 1st earl of Abingdon, that it was ‘the ancient custom of the county to have one [Member] in the forest and the other in the vale’.7

This neat electoral arrangement was set aside at the beginning of Charles I’s reign, as the gentry of the vales, particularly those in the Vale of White Horse, became more assertive. In 1625 and 1626 Berkshire’s seats were occupied by Sir Francis Knollys I (Vale of Kennet) Edmund Dunch (Vale of White Horse) and John Fettiplace (primarily Vale of White Horse, but with some lands in the Vale of Kennet). Although the county reverted to its previous practice of creating a balanced ticket in 1628, returning Sir Richard Harrison (Forest) alongside Fettiplace, the Vale of White Horse established a monopoly at the two elections of 1640, when Fettiplace was joined by Henry Marten of Shrivenham. At the Restoration the pattern of electoral politics recognized as normal by James Bertie in 1695 appears to have been re-established.

Change in the pattern of Berkshire’s electoral politics was not just restricted to the disappearance of the ‘balanced ticket’. Under Elizabeth the senior knight of the shire was invariably drawn from the Forest. The only family able to break the Forest’s stranglehold were the Untons, who lived at Wadley, in the Vale of White Horse, and they had done so on only three occasions, in 1572, 1586 and 1593. Forest dominance of the senior knighthood waned dramatically under the early Stuarts, however, for between 1604 and 1640 its representatives were senior knights on just three occasions out of nine: in 1620/1, 1624 and 1628. This further underlines a remarkable shift in the balance of power between Forest and Vale, a shift which is also reflected in the overall number of seats held between 1558 and 1640. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods there was an equal division of parliamentary places between Forest and Vale: each held seats on 15 occasions.8 In the following reign, however, the Forest’s influence collapsed completely: between 1625 and 1640 only one seat out of ten was conferred on a Forest resident, Sir Richard Harrison in 1628, whose election may have hinged on his ability to muster the support of his near neighbours in Reading, in the Vale of Kennet.9

One possible reason for the rising fortunes of the Vale of White Horse was suggested by Sir Edmund Sawyer in his letter of December 1639. Sawyer observed that because parliamentary elections were always held at Abingdon, on the eastern edge of the Vale of White Horse, ‘the men who dwell near there, and who come in the morning and go home at night, are those who usually carry the business’. One might have thought that this would also have been true under Elizabeth, when the Forest had achieved a position of dominance, but Sawyer pointed out that the forest voters were now ‘but a handful’ compared with those from the Vale, ‘and many will make excuses in respect of the long journey and charge’.10 Sawyer’s analysis, if correct, would help to explain why, with one exception, Forest men no longer represented the county after 1624. Reluctance to undertake the long journey to Abingdon may also have extended to the residents of the Vale of Kennet. In January 1624 the members of the corporation of Reading, a borough situated in the heart of Vale of Kennet which had fallen on hard times as a result of the trade depression of the early 1620s, evidently preferred to hold a council meeting rather than attend the hustings at Abingdon. It may be, of course, that the reason that so many of the inhabitants of the Forest region and the Vale of Kennet failed to turn out to vote was that they saw little point in travelling a long distance merely to vote for candidates who were drawn exclusively from the Vale of White Horse. Certainly it is noticeable that the members of Reading’s corporation showed no such reluctance to travel in 1628, when their neighbour Sir Richard Harrison decided to stand, for which courtesy they were rewarded with ‘a fat buck’.11

The motives which led most Berkshire Members to seek election can only be surmised. Sir Francis Knollys I, who was returned in 1604 and 1625, probably wanted a seat because he desired to meet the new monarch, while Sir Henry Neville, who sat in 1604 and 1614, undoubtedly hoped to win royal preferment by cutting a figure on the parliamentary stage. Neville’s colleague in1614, Sir Thomas Parry, was chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and as such would have been required to stand. A county seat befitted his rank and status, although in 1610 he had been forced to settle for St. Albans because Berkshire’s seats were already taken. Parry was expelled the House on 11 May for electoral misconduct, but owing to the shortness of the session he was not replaced.

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Fuller’s Worthies ed. R. Barber, 36.
  • 2. C.G. Durston, ‘Berks. and its County Gentry, 1625-49’, (Univ. Reading Ph.D. thesis, 1977), i. 1; VCH Berks. ii. 167, 213. A diagram showing the location of the principal families of the shire from 1625-40 and the four main divisions of the county accompanies C.G. Durston’s ‘London and the Provinces: The Assoc. bet. the Capital and the Berks. County Gentry of the Early Seventeenth Cent.’ Southern Hist. iii. 39.
  • 3. This is the conclusion of J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 154.
  • 4. Durston, ‘Berks.’, i. 32-4.
  • 5. The only seat regularly occupied by a townsman was the junior burgess-ship at Reading, which was generally reserved for the borough’s recorder.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1639-40, p. 162.
  • 7. BL, Trumbull Misc. ms 29, 4 Sept. 1695, Abingdon to Trumbull.
  • 8. The figure for the Vale includes John Cheyney, MP in 1563, who dwelt in a detached portion of the Downs between Hants and the Vale of Kennet.
  • 9. Reading Recs. ed. J.M. Guilding, ii. 415.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1639-40, p. 162.
  • 11. Reading Recs. ii. 167, 415.