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

Right of Election:

in the corporation and resident freeholders1


5 Mar. 1604GEORGE SNYGGE , recorder
11 Nov. 1605JOHN WHITSON , alderman, vice Snygge, appointed to office
c. Mar. 1614THOMAS JAMES , alderman
 JOHN WHITSON , alderman
c. Dec. 1620JOHN WHITSON , alderman
 JOHN GUY , alderman
c. Jan. 1624JOHN BARKER
 JOHN GUY , alderman
c. Apr. 1625NICHOLAS HYDE , recorder
 JOHN WHITSON , alderman
c. Jan. 1626JOHN WHITSON , alderman
 JOHN DOUGHTY , alderman
17 Mar. 1628JOHN DOUGHTY , alderman

Main Article

Bristol, as the Privy Council reminded it in 1620, when demanding a contribution of £2,500 towards the cost of a naval expedition, was ‘a port that ever hath been reputed to be the second of the kingdom’.2 With a population about one-twentieth of that of the capital, it came, indeed, a poor second; but it was foremost among the outports in its resentment of London’s trading monopolies, ‘as if God had no sons to whom he gave the benefit of the earth but in London’. A great part of its trade lay with the Iberian Peninsula, and in the later sixteenth century the leading Bristol merchants had been forced to join the Spanish Company, leaving their own Society of Merchant Venturers, incorporated in 1552, moribund or defunct.3 Bristol also looked westward to America, and the Newfoundland Company was inspired by one of its Members, John Guy, although it too was largely funded and controlled by Londoners. The port received its first charter in 1155, becoming a separate county with its own sheriff in 1373. The charter of 1499 added a second sheriff and established a council of 43, of which six members were aldermen, and also provided for a recorder who was to be one of the aldermen. Bristol became a cathedral city in 1542, and in 1581 the number of aldermen were doubled at the expense of the common councillors. Confirmatory charters were secured in 1604 and 1626 which did not change the local constitution.4 Bristol was exempted from the jurisdiction of the lord admiral,5 but subject to the lord lieutenant of Somerset for militia purposes. However it maintained its independence in its choice of Members, even when the earl of Pembroke combined the lieutenancy with the high stewardship of the city.6 The franchise lay in the corporation and ‘such others as are freeholders resident’. Three of the city’s seven Members in the period had passed the chair, and all save the two recorders, George Snygge and Nicholas Hyde, were also prominent members of the Society of Merchant Venturers, which was refounded or revived in 1605.7 Like the corporation, the society expected the Members to act for it in and out of Parliament, although it was careful to phrase its instructions as requests. Bristol paid them at the generous rate of 4s. a day, and was always ready to refund extraordinary expenses, including the occasional butt of sack for Mr. Speaker.8

Bristol had been accustomed to reserve one seat for its recorder, and in 1604 it accordingly returned Snygge for the third time. It fell to his colleague, Thomas James, a leading Spanish merchant, to open Bristol’s campaign against purveyance during the first session, and he also took charge of the general free trade bill. Snygge, appointed a baron of the Exchequer in October 1604, resigned the recordership. His replacement as recorder was Lawrence Hyde I, who was nominated by the earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†).9 Hyde was already sitting in the Commons for Marlborough, and Snygge’s seat was taken by John Whitson, another Spanish merchant, James’s deputy mayor, William Ellys†, seven other aldermen and 33 ‘citizens and burgesses’ signing the indenture.10 On 31 Dec. 1605, before Whitson could take his seat, the corporation gave its blessing to the revival of the Merchant Venturers,11 and in February 1606 the Members vainly sought to include a proviso to preserve the Company’s monopoly in the bill for free trade into Spain, Portugal and France.12 A year later they were instructed to seek royal or conciliar approval for a wharfage tax imposed by the corporation.13 After the dissolution of Parliament, the corporation sent Whitson back to London to offer the Crown 1,000 marks to purchase Bristol castle, which had become a refuge for outcasts and criminals; but he was unsuccessful.14 Bristol lavishly entertained the queen when she visited Bath in 1613, and was greatly dismayed at the exaction of wines and other goods for her Household.15 Hyde, however, may have used the occasion to angle for the senior post on her legal staff, and it is unlikely that he stood for Bristol at the next election. When James and Whitson were re-elected they were instructed to demand repayment from the Exchequer,16 and shortly after the dissolution of the Addled Parliament Hyde resigned his recordership in favour of his brother Nicholas, who is not known to have sought a seat, here or elsewhere, in the next two elections.

Thomas James died in 1619, but Whitson was re-elected to the third Jacobean Parliament, with Guy, who had recently returned from his Newfoundland venture, as junior Member. They were instructed by the corporation to seek a renewal of the city’s commission for Admiralty,17 and by the Society of Merchant Venturers, with the corporation’s approval, to use their ‘best endeavour’ to secure parliamentary confirmation of its charters. It presumed ‘that the several burgesses of Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Worcester, Bewdley, Shrewsbury and all other towns bordering upon Severn will readily assist you in this affairs’.18 No such bill was introduced, but both Members were active in Bristol’s interests. Guy wanted its Admiralty rights protected in the seamarks bill, and tenaciously defended the interests of the Newfoundland settlers in connection with the bill for free fishing off the American coast. Both Members were concerned to protect Bristol’s exports, of which lead and calf-skins were said to be the chief.19 Whitson strove to except the latter from the monopolies bill, while Guy blamed excessive taxation for the decline of the Mendip lead mines. In 1624 the senior seat was taken by John Barker, one of Whitson’s trustees, but Guy was re-elected to the junior seat. Between the Parliaments he had been employed in negotiations about the castle, and in a further protest against purveyance claims as revived by lord treasurer Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*). The Bristol Members gave sworn testimony accordingly in the impeachment proceedings against Middlesex, but again they failed to meet the request of the Merchant Venturers for parliamentary sanction or protection.

Nicholas Hyde at length claimed the senior seat in the first Caroline Parliament, and was joined by Whitson, now a septuagenarian. On the day Parliament met the corporation decided to instruct them to make suit to the Council to prevent Londoners attending Bristol’s fair ‘during the time that the sickness shall continue’.20 Shortly before the dissolution Whitson was ‘desired at his coming to confer both with my lord of Arundel and with the lord treasurer’ about a lease of the castle.21 Nothing has come to light concerning the context of the careful minute in November of the ‘laudable and ancient custom’ whereby the parliamentary franchise was limited to the corporation and the resident freeholders.22 Hyde was not re-elected in 1626, and Whitson again moved up to the senior place, the junior seat going to John Doughty, another of his trustees. During the Parliament they were instructed to ‘deal for the castle’;23 increasing preoccupation with this problem may account in part for the noticeable decline in parliamentary activity. In 1628 Doughty was re-elected with Barker, his kinsman and partner. After the first session they ‘brought in six paper books containing the several arguments made in Parliament house of the liberty of the subjects’, which the corporation ordered should be entered into ‘some of the register books of this city there to remain of record’.24 When they returned to Westminster for the second session, they were ordered to seek a fresh commission of Admiralty and to continue the negotiations for the castle,25 which was at last transferred to the corporation in 1630.26

Author: Alan Davidson


  • 1. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1608-27, f. 133v.
  • 2. APC, 1619-21, p. 121.
  • 3. P. McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 10, 19-20, 26, 52-53.
  • 4. Cal. of Chs. etc. of the City and Council of Bristol, comp. J. Latimer, 3, 77; Bristol Chs. ed. R.C. Latham (Bristol Rec. Soc. xii), 2, 4-5, 140, 144; W. Barrett, Hist. and Antiqs. of City of Bristol, 119.
  • 5. Bristol Chs. 70.
  • 6. Sainty, Lords Lieutenants, 31; Bristol Lists comp. A.B. Beaven, 231.
  • 7. McGrath, 22.
  • 8. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1610-13, p. 33; common council procs. 1608-27, f. 95.
  • 9. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, pp. 100, 102.
  • 10. C219/35/1/93.
  • 11. Recs. Relating to Soc. of Merchant Venturers ed. P.W. McGrath (Bristol Rec. Soc. xvii), 3-6.
  • 12. CJ, i. 275a.
  • 13. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, pp. 132, 135.
  • 14. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1608-27, ff. 21v-2; J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol in Seventeenth Cent. 43.
  • 15. Latimer, 48-50.
  • 16. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1608-27, f. 45v
  • 17. Ibid. f. 92.
  • 18. Recs. Relating to Soc. of Merchant Venturers, 9-14.
  • 19. HMC Hatfield, xxi. 123.
  • 20. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1608-27, f. 126v.
  • 21. Ibid. f. 128.
  • 22. Ibid. f. 133v.
  • 23. Ibid. f. 137.
  • 24. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1627-42, f. 6v.
  • 25. Ibid. f. 11.
  • 26. Bristol Chs. 150; Latimer, 113.