Bury St. Edmunds


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

Number of voters:




Main Article

The town of Bury St. Edmunds, having grown up around a Benedictine abbey founded before the Conquest, not only survived but flourished after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, retaining its position as the venue of assizes and quarter sessions and the capital of West Suffolk.1 Though distant from any navigable waterways, Bury boasted a thriving market, and was known as ‘a great malting place’, where beer was brewed far above strength ‘to the extraordinary waste of malt and wheat’, and 300 alehouses found willing customers at 8d. a gallon (four times the statutory price).2 The town, noted by Bishop Bancroft for its firm alliance between ‘magistracy and ministry’, leaned towards puritan nonconformity; it was in a sermon preached there in 1599 that the term ‘Sabbatarian’ was coined.3 The strong religious views of many leading inhabitants fostered a spirit of independence, as Sir Robert Jermyn† wrote to Sir Robert Cecil† in 1601, ‘the townsmen of Bury, being mechanical and tradesmen, thirst for a corporation, not only to draw unto themselves their popular government … but also to exempt themselves from the common charges of the country, which now, being rich and able, they are subject to’.4 Their efforts are recorded in a memoranda book kept by one Thomas Bright, who held meetings at his house and raised subscriptions totalling £68 to cover the costs of lobbying for a charter. However, Jermyn, an influential puritan magistrate and landowner whose estate at Rushbrooke was less than four miles distant, staunchly opposed Bury’s bids for incorporation.5 Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk was granted the stewardship of the borough soon after the accession of James I, and may have helped the townsmen finally to obtain a charter in 1606. Two years later, after an outbreak of fire that destroyed many buildings, James granted the appropriation of tithes to the corporation.6 Regular royal visits to neighbouring Newmarket encouraged the growth of amenities which attracted both courtiers and local gentry to take up residence in Bury, though not to universal satisfaction, for it was claimed that prices rose in consequence. A Venetian physician set up practice in the town, a tennis court was licensed, and the enterprising corporation established a volunteer corps on the lines of the artillery company in London.7

Several of Bury’s demands, for example for a coroner, and its own court of quarter sessions, had not been met by the first charter; the corporation, headed by Bright, therefore continued to lobby for further privileges, petitioning King James, lord chancellor Ellesmere (Thomas Egerton†) and lord treasurer Dorset (Thomas Sackville†), and sending delegations to attend the king at London and Royston.8 These efforts led to factional divisions between those for and against a new charter, since some argued that the first had been ‘obtained by only a few persons against the will of the majority, and is made only a means for extorting money’.9 It was not until after Jermyn’s death in April 1614 that a second charter fulfilling the townsmen’s requests was finally granted. Dated September 1614, this enfranchised the borough, allowing the head alderman, 12 ‘capital burgesses’ and 24 common councilmen to elect two Members to the next Parliament.10 Jermyn’s successor, Sir Thomas Jermyn, apparently did not share his father’s disapproval of the charter, or was perhaps mollified by the offer of nominations in future elections. He took the senior seat at Bury in the first seven Parliaments after enfranchisement; at the 1621 general election he also bestowed the other seat on John Woodford, a diplomat and secretary to Lord Hay, Viscount Doncaster. Jermyn had accompanied Hay’s embassy to Paris in 1616, and undoubtedly became acquainted with Woodford during the visit. They were ‘freely and indifferently elected’ according to the indenture exchanged with the sheriff, which was signed by the head alderman, the coroner, eight ‘capital burgesses’ and 15 others.11

Ahead of the next general election, on 7 Jan. 1624, Prince Charles’s Council wrote to the corporation, nominating Sir Francis Cottington* for a seat at Bury, on the grounds that a small amount of property and some rent-charges in the borough were parcel of the duchy of Cornwall. The town clerk, John Mallowes, replied on behalf of the corporation that while they would be willing to elect Cottington on condition he take the freeman’s oath, they had already promised the first seat to Jermyn. The prince’s Council wrote again on 14 Jan. to accept these terms, but took the precaution of also nominating Cottington at three other boroughs.12 In the event Cottington was returned for Camelford on 30 Jan., and three days later, before the prince’s Council could substitute another candidate at Bury, Anthony Crofts, a younger son of a local gentry family, was elected as Jermyn’s colleague.

The duchy of Cornwall interest vanished with the accession of Charles I, and at the general election in 1625 Jermyn was joined by the puritan Sir William Spring, of Pakenham, five miles east of the town. The elections in the following year took place in two stages, with Jermyn’s re-election confirmed on 6 Jan. 1626, followed by the return of Emmanuel Giffard, a minor courtier presumably nominated by Jermyn, five days later.13 In an attempt to conceal this ‘straggling election’ Mallowes dated the return 30 Jan., the day on which the county court was to meet. On 23 Jan., however, Giffard was taken in execution by a creditor, and he was in detention when Parliament met. Privilege was claimed for him, but could not be granted until the sheriff and town clerk had altered the date on the indentures to 11 January.14 In 1628 Jermyn was able to secure the second seat for his brother-in-law, Sir William Hervey II of Ickworth. A bill was introduced in 1629 for paving the streets of the town and connecting it with the Great Ouse by a navigable canal, but never advanced beyond its first reading.15

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. R.S. Gottfried, Bury St. Edmunds and the Urban Crisis, 5, 8.
  • 2. HMC 14th Rep. VIII, 142, 143; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 484; APC, 1615-16, p. 623.
  • 3. P. Collinson, Eliz. Puritan Movement, 188, 338, 436.
  • 4. HMC Hatfield, xi. 351, 396.
  • 5. M. Statham, Book of Bury St. Edmunds, 57-60.
  • 6. R. Yates, St. Edmunds Bury, 243; app. 7, 14, 38.
  • 7. Add. 39245, f. 21; Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton ed. L. Pearsall Smith, ii. 467-8; Bury Wills ed. S. Tymms (Cam. Soc. xlix), 200; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 230; APC, 1615-16, pp. 101-2; 1621-3, p. 344.
  • 8. J. Craig, Ref., Pols. and Polemics: the Growth of Protestantism in E. Anglian Market Towns, 1500-1610, pp. 127-32.
  • 9. HMC 14th Rep VIII, pp. 140-1.
  • 10. Yates, 80; C66/2031.
  • 11. Suff. RO (Bury St. Edmunds), D13/1; Accts. of Feoffees of the Town Lands of Bury St. Edmunds ed. M. Statham (Suff. Rec. Soc. xlvi), 282.
  • 12. DCO, Prince Chas. in Spain, ff. 35v-6; P.M. Hunneyball, ‘Prince Charles’s Council as Electoral Agent 1620-4’, PH, xxiii. 317-18, 327, 329, 332, 335.
  • 13. Suff. RO (Bury St. Edmunds), D13/3.
  • 14. Procs. 1626, ii. 44-5, 55, 64.
  • 15. CJ, i. 931b.