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Number of voters:
|27 Feb. 1604||SIR THOMAS HOLCROFT|
|SIR ROGER ASTON|
|c. Mar. 1614||SIR WILLIAM BRERETON|
|SIR ROGER WILBRAHAM|
|11 Dec. 1620||SIR WILLIAM BRERETON|
|SIR RICHARD GROSVENOR|
|1 Feb. 1624||WILLIAM BOOTH|
|25 Apr. 1625||SIR ROBERT CHOLMONDELEY , 1st bt.|
|SIR ANTHONY ST. JOHN|
|30 Jan.-2 Feb. 16261||SIR RICHARD GROSVENOR , (1st bt.)|
|c. Feb. 1628||SIR RICHARD GROSVENOR , (1st bt.)|
|SIR WILLIAM BRERETON , 1st bt.|
Though it was a county palatine, the administration and governance of Cheshire was broadly similar to that of any other shire. Influence and power was largely controlled by the local gentry and administered by the lord lieutenant, deputy lieutenants and magistrates. However, Cheshire remained largely outside the Westminster legal system: it maintained its own courts and justice was administered in the name of the earl of Chester, a title bestowed ever since 1301 on the prince of Wales at his creation. Not surprisingly, the county has been described as an imperium in imperio.2 The senior legal officer was the chamberlain, who presided over Cheshire’s Court of Exchequer.3 In the early seventeenth century this was William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, who from 1607 also served as lord lieutenant. However, as he was non-resident the office of vice-chamberlain became more prominent.4 Apart from its separate status, Cheshire was also remarkable for the antiquity of its leading families. ‘There is no county in England more famous for a long continued succession of ancient gentry than this of Cheshire,’ wrote Daniel King in 1656.5 Five families could trace their ancestry back to Domesday, while a further 71 had ties to the county stretching back to the thirteenth century or earlier.6 This, combined with a high proportion of intermarriage, gave Cheshire an insular quality which it was keen to protect.
Elections were held at the Shirehall within Chester Castle. Since its enfranchisement in 1542, Cheshire’s representation in Parliament had generally followed a pattern. The senior seat was occupied by a prominent member of the gentry while the junior place went to someone with Court connections. This can be seen both in 1604 and 1614. In the first Jacobean Parliament Sir Thomas Holcroft of Vale Royal served as the senior knight, while Sir Roger Aston, gentleman of the king’s bedchamber, took the junior seat. In 1614 the senior Member was Sir William Brereton of Brereton, while his colleague was the master of Requests, Sir Roger Wilbraham. However, from 1620 the pattern changed, perhaps a sign of increasing opposition to the Court. Both Members were drawn from the senior ranks of the Cheshire gentry: Brereton was again returned for the first place and was joined by Sir Richard Grosvenor of Eaton Hall, who lacked Court office. Seats were shared between the leading families on an almost rotational basis, though it was not unusual for someone to be elected more than once: Brereton sat in 1614 and 1620, Holcroft had previously sat in 1593 and 1601, while Grosvenor served in 1621, 1626 and 1628.
The 1624 election again saw Cheshire return two senior members of the local gentry, neither of whom was connected with the Court. This election was remarkable for the fact that the sheriff, Sir Richard Grosvenor, delivered an address to the assembled voters in which he outlined the responsibilities of Members at both local and national levels. His speech provides the first conclusive evidence of the existence of what has been termed ‘caucus politics’ in the county,7 as it contains the assertion that the two candidates, William Brereton of Ashley and William Booth of Dunham Massey, represented ‘the opinion and resolution’ of the leading members of the gentry. Since most of the county’s elite were seated behind Grosvenor on the platform, his claim carried great weight, and it is therefore not surprising that Brereton and Booth were unanimously elected, even though Grosvenor was at pains to inform the voters that they had ‘free liberty to discover [their] minds’.8
This consensual Cheshire politicking, in which senior members of the gentry met before the election and divided the seats between their families, did not survive long into the next reign. The 1625 election appears to have been uncontested with Sir Robert Cholmondeley being returned for the first place and Sir Anthony St. John for the second. However, thereafter Cheshire politics became polarized. One faction was led by those who had (or later acquired) Irish peerages, and included the Breretons of Brereton, the Cholmondeleys and the Needhams. The other group was led by men who had obtained baronetcies, and included the Breretons of Handforth, the Booths, the Wilbrahams and the Grosvenors. This conflict, while part of a wider national controversy, had a substantial impact on Cheshire elections.
In 1626 Grosvenor, who was allied with the ‘baronet’ group, was unanimously elected to the first place. Two of the baronet group, Peter Daniell of Over Tabley (Grosvenor’s son-in-law) and (Sir) William Brereton (1st bt.) of Handforth (Booth’s son-in-law) sought the second seat, but were persuaded to draw lots and consequently Brereton was eliminated. Daniell was then opposed by Cholmondeley’s brother-in-law, John Minshull. The election itself was described as a ‘very great stir such as the like was nev[er] observed in Cheshire before’. Both groups cried out the name of their favourites but the sheriff could not decide who had prevailed. After failing to quiet the proceedings, he adjourned the election from the Shirehall to Flookersbrook Heath, because neither the hall nor the Castle Court were capable of holding the numbers present; he then divided the voters in two and restarted the count, which took two days. Before polling was completed, however, ‘it was mediated by gentlemen on both sides and at last it was thus concluded in the Constable’s chamber that Mr. Daniell should in loving terms desire Mr. Minshull to yield unto him without any more loss of time and money, which Mr. Minshull was persuaded to do’.9 Despite the drawn out nature of this contest, it would seem, as Morrill has noted, that ‘nothing seems to have been at stake except local prestige and precedence’.10 In 1628 another contest was envisaged and local traders stocked Chester with supplies, but the ‘barons’ withdrew at the last minute.11 Grosvenor was again elected to the senior seat and Sir William Brereton, 1st bt. served with him.
Owing to its palatine status, Cheshire had certain privileges and institutions which it was keen to protect in Parliament. In 1621, for instance, Grosvenor requested the inclusion of the prince of Wales in the concealments bill because he enjoyed jure regalia in Cheshire.12 When the Commons debated whether to enfranchise county Durham, which was also a county palatine, Grosvenor was anxious to ensure that it should not have more Members than Cheshire. During the same Parliament Brereton and Grosvenor both sought to include Cheshire in the bill for fees in courts of justice.13 Cheshire does not appear to have promoted any legislation on its own behalf during this period, though matters pertaining to Wales or Ireland certainly interested its Members, particularly in 1621, when both MPs fervently supported the Irish cattle bill which was designed to limit the import of cattle, most of which came through Chester, and the export of specie.14
Author: Chris Kyle
- 1. Cheshire Archives, CR63/2/18, unfol.
- 2. VCH Cheshire, ii. 5; W. Stubbs, Constitutional Hist. of Eng. i. 294, 392.
- 3. VCH Cheshire, ii. 38; J. Morrill, Cheshire, 1-2.
- 4. VCH Cheshire, ii. 38, 54.
- 5. Vale Royal of Eng. (1656) ed. D. King, quoted in Morrill, 3.
- 6. Morrill, 3-4.
- 7. VCH Cheshire, ii. 107.
- 8. Pprs. of Sir Richard Grosvenor ed. R. Cust (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. cxxxiv), 1-7.
- 9. Cheshire Archives, CR63/2/18, unfol.
- 10. VCH Cheshire, ii. 107.
- 11. Harl 2125, f. 59.
- 12. CJ, i. 534a; CD 1621, v. 18.
- 13. CJ, i. 606a; CD 1621, iii. 149; iv. 294.
- 14. V. Treadwell, Buckingham and Ire. 161.