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 inhabitants

Number of voters:

c.900 in 1628


20 Feb. 1604THOMAS LAWTON , recorder 
 HUGH GLASIER , alderman 
12 May 16061THOMAS GAMULL , recorder vice Lawton, deceased 
24 Sept. 16102SIR JOHN BINGLEY vice Glasier, deceased 
7 Mar. 16143EDWARD WHITBY , recorder 
25 Dec. 16204EDWARD WHITBY , recorder 
 JOHN RATCLIFFE , alderman 
 Sir Thomas Edmondes* 
 John Savage 
 Sir John Bingley 
19 Jan. 16245EDWARD WHITBY , recorder 
9 May 16256EDWARD WHITBY , recorder 
c. Jan. 1626EDWARD WHITBY , recorder 
 WILLIAM GAMULL , alderman 
10 Mar. 16287EDWARD WHITBY , recorder631
 JOHN RATCLIFFE , alderman570
 Sir Randle Mainwaringc. 300
 Sir Thomas Smith†c. 300

Main Article

Chester, situated on the River Dee, was the capital of a palatine earldom and an important port for the Irish trade, being only 11 miles inland.8 It received its first charter in 1354, and in 1506 was granted county status. However, Chester Castle and its surrounds (Gloverstone) remained under the authority of the chamberlain of the county palatine. Moreover, in 1541, when the see of Chester was established, the Cathedral precincts also became a separate entity. According to the 1506 charter, the corporation consisted of a mayor, two sheriffs, 24 aldermen and 40 common councilmen, but in fact another group was also involved in the governance of the city, known as the sheriff-peers, who were chosen from among the councilmen. After their election new councilmen were selected, which meant that the sheriff-peers could not return to being councilmen when their term of office ended. However, by custom they continued to attend and vote at corporation meetings, and this meant that the size of corporation tended to vary.9 Chester also had a recorder and a town clerk, known as the clerk of the pentice.10

In the early seventeenth century Chester’s population within the city walls numbered around 5,000.11 The local economy revolved around the leather industry, whose craftsmen comprised approximately 23 per cent of the freemen.12 Most trade was with Ireland, particularly Dublin. Some links with the Baltic developed during the period, but these were sporadic and did not involve large cargoes.13 Overseas trade was restricted to members of the city’s powerful Merchant Adventurers’ Company, founded in 1554.14 Despite being the dominant port in north-west England, Chester, or rather its corporation, was not wealthy. Rents from city lands, freemen admissions, and fees for grazing cattle on the Roodee accounted for under £100 p.a.15 Overall income ranged from between £283 in 1607-8 to just £130 in 1616-17.16 Chester’s poverty meant that corporation members were often surcharged to meet extraordinary expenses. King James’s visit in 1617 cost around £220, of which £130 was spent on the gift of a standing bowl, £40 on a banquet and £50 in assorted presents to members of the royal entourage.17 Repairs to the city walls in 1629 also necessitated a levy on Chester’s inhabitants.18

Although there was substantial contact between Chester and the Crown, especially over the dispatch of royal officials, troops and goods to Ireland, there was surprisingly little interference by the Crown in the city’s affairs. The most notable exception was in January 1606, when James attempted to have Hugh Mainwaring elected as Chester’s recorder. The corporation reminded the king that only the previous year he had confirmed the city’s charter, which gave Chester the right to elect its own recorder. Consequently, James decided ‘to forbear to press you any further in the suit’.19 Relations between the city and successive bishops and the dean and chapter were also generally harmonious, although in 1607 a major disturbance (the ‘sword incident’) threatened instability.20 Another substantial disagreement occurred in 1624, when Bishop John Bridgeman tried to make the pews in the corporation church of St. Oswald’s ‘more uniform and to re-align the pulpit, which was not conveniently situated’. The corporation objected, and the dispute rumbled on until 1638, when Bridgeman caved in.21 The argument with Bridgeman reflected the emergence of a strong puritan element in the city during the 1620s and 1630s, led by prominent corporation members such as John Ratcliffe, Peter and Robert Ince and the Bruen family, supported by the recorder, Edward Whitby.22

Chester first sent representatives to Parliament in 1283.23 However, Cheshire’s status as a palatinate with its own Parliamentum meant that Chester did not receive further writs until it was enfranchised by statute in 1543. The two sheriffs of Chester served as returning officers. Before 1620 voting seems to have been restricted to members of the corporation, though the freemen were not excluded either by statute or by the terms of the city’s charter.24 It is not known whether Chester paid parliamentary wages. The city traditionally elected corporation members, one of whom was normally the recorder.25 Thus in 1604 Recorder Thomas Lawton occupied the senior place and alderman Hugh Glasier the junior. The death of Lawton in 1606 necessitated a by-election, whereupon the new recorder, Thomas Gamull, was elected in his place. However, when Glasier succumbed to the plague during the fourth session of the Parliament he was replaced by Sir John Bingley who, though a native and freeman of Chester, lived in Westminster. Bingley, however, offered to serve without charge,26 and was elected again in 1614, when he was joined by Edward Whitby, appointed recorder after Gamull’s death.

The parliamentary election of 1620 was the borough’s first recorded contest and witnessed the first significant attempt to bring outside influence to bear on its seats. In mid-November Thomas, Viscount Savage, one of Cheshire’s greatest magnates, nominated his brother John, of Barrow, for the first seat and supported Bingley’s request to be re-elected as the junior Member.27 The Savages enjoyed a long connection with Chester and their father, Sir John, had served as mayor in 1607-8. However, this nomination was swiftly forgotten, for in December 1620 Prince Charles’s Council intervened. The prince had been created earl of Chester in 1616 and the Council therefore wrote to William Compton, earl of Northampton and lord president of Wales, instructing him to propose Sir Henry Carey I*, comptroller of the Household, for the first seat. Northampton complied, though he apologized to the corporation that ‘I do well know [this request] to be improper for me to make unto you’, he having previously had no connection to the city.28 The corporation preferred to uphold its tradition of returning the recorder as the senior Member, however, and drafted a response explaining that Carey, as a non-freeman, was ineligible.29 Before it was dispatched, recorder Whitby and Sir Randle Mainwaring brought news from London that Carey had found a seat at Hertfordshire. They also carried fresh instructions from the Council to substitute Sir Thomas Edmondes*, a privy councillor whose recent attempt to be returned for Middlesex had failed. On 21 Dec. the corporation composed another letter informing Northampton of this turn of events, disingenuously claiming that they would have been willing to accept Carey, though they had ‘feared much opposition in the commonalty’.30

The election was held on Christmas day, after the corporation met to endorse Whitby and Edmondes as its candidates. This ‘selection’ was announced to a large crowd outside the Common Hall. However, Whitby then announced that Edmondes, a non-freeman whose candidacy he had, up to this point, appeared to support, was ineligible. Instead he nominated his ally, alderman John Ratcliffe, of whom the mayor, William Gamull, and many others strongly disapproved. Familial and factional rivalries between Whitby and Gamull dated back to 1617, when the corporation, led by the powerful Gamull family, had obtained the dismissal of Whitby’s father and brother from the clerkship of the pentice, which they shared. In 1619 there had also been an attempt to oust Whitby himself from the recordership.31 The corporation’s dislike of Ratcliffe was motivated by religion and snobbery, as they described him as a puritan, a ‘chief countenancer of factions’ and a man whose ‘only profession is a beerbrewer’.32

Whitby and Ratcliffe achieved a landslide victory at the hustings. The Prince’s Council seems not to have been overly concerned at the rejection of their candidate, as Edmondes found a seat elsewhere, but Gamull was furious, alleging that Whitby and Ratcliffe had canvassed among the ‘basest sort’, many of the crowd being ‘labourers, hired workmen and beggars’. He informed the Prince’s Council that ‘the recorder’s tenants and servants out-swayed our good desires and carried the election for Mr. Recorder and Mr. Ratcliffe to be our burgesses, which we could not withstand by reason of the unappeasable and unruly carriages of this disordered multitude’.33 Gamull was urged by Sir Randle Mainwaring to petition the Commons for redress, claiming that the corporation could ‘easily have procured new writs’ had it complained about the lowly status of those who voted for Ratcliffe. However, the corporation ignored requests from both Mainwaring and Viscount Savage to know how many votes each candidate had received.34 This may suggest that Gamull and the rest of the corporation were actually secretly pleased at the outcome of the election, for though they disliked Ratcliffe outsiders had been excluded and Chester’s tradition of returning its recorder had been preserved. Possibly the corporation had even connived with Whitby all along, and the personal animosity between Gamull and Whitby may have been less important than has previously been thought.35

The suspicion that the corporation was not displeased at the outcome of the 1620 election is reinforced by events in 1624. On 1 Jan. the Prince’s Council instructed Sir Thomas Ireland*, vice-chamberlain of Chester, to nominate Charles’s secretary, Sir Francis Cottington*, but on 19 Jan. Whitby was re-elected, along with John Savage, son and heir of Viscount Savage.36 Following Charles’s accession in 1625, Chester was freed from further interference from London. Whitby and Savage sat again in 1625, and in 1626 Whitby was returned with his arch-rival, alderman William Gamull.

In 1627 Whitby caused a further rupture in local politics when he questioned the activities of Robert Brerewood, the new clerk of the pentice. Brerewood was the son-in-law of one of Whitby’s staunchest enemies, Sir Randle Mainwaring and a close ally of another of Whitby’s antagonists, Sir Thomas Smith.37 Mainwaring and Smith had been instrumental in removing Whitby’s father and brother from the clerkship of the pentice, and Whitby sought revenge by petitioning the Privy Council for Brerewood’s dismissal. After much wrangling, and with the assistance of Viscount Savage, who was aggrieved that Brerewood had been appointed ahead of his son’s servant, Richard Litler, Brerewood was dismissed and the Whitbys reappointed.38 A bitter contest ensued at the parliamentary election on 10 Mar. 1628, with Mainwaring and Smith standing against Whitby and Ratcliffe:

…[there] was great contention about the burgesses of the Parliament… both parties laboured all the city either freemen or householders to give their voices on one part or other. Yea many were laboured four or five times over. So great was the contention the one seeking to over sway the other many were threatened unless they gave their voices to Sir Randle [Mainwaring] and Sir Thomas [Smith] they should lose their houses. The two knights wrought so with all the country gentlemen that had tenants in Chester to give them their voices. Within the Common Hall had like to have been a mutiny but with much ado it was appeased and each man gave his voice particularly so that Mr. Recorder [Whitby] had 631 voices, Mr. Ratcliffe 570, Sir Randle and Sir Thomas had other 300 and odd apiece and far short which vexed them so to see the recorder so well-beloved that they would not subscribe to the commission which went to London. The like labouring was never seen for a city more divided in faction was never seen.39

In 1628 as in 1620, the election contest raised surprisingly few doubts about Chester’s franchise.

It is unclear whether Chester pursued many legislative objectives during this period, although under Elizabeth it had frequently promoted bills.40 During the first Jacobean Parliament the corporation certainly corresponded regularly with its Members at Westminster, and in 1604 it sought an exemption from the provisions of the Tunnage and Poundage bill based upon its charter. However, despite intense lobbying from Glasier and Lawton, the Commons did not approve any dispensation.41 In 1610 Chester asked its Members to find a way to prevent London merchants from buying and selling goods locally with the same privileges as Chester merchants and to have the impositions removed on yarn imported from Ireland.42 For the remainder of the period no other correspondence appears to survive.

Authors: Chris Kyle / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Cheshire Archives, SIE/7; C219/330/30.
  • 2. Cheshire Archives, SIE/8.
  • 3. Cheshire Archives, SIE/9.
  • 4. Harl. 2125, f. 53.
  • 5. Ibid. ff. 57v-8.
  • 6. Harl. 2150, f. 6.
  • 7. Harl. 2125, f. 59v.
  • 8. A.M. Johnson, ‘Political, Constitutional, Social and Econ. Hist. of Chester 1550-1652’, (Univ. Oxford D.Phil. thesis, 1970), chap. 1; J. McN. Dodgson, Place Names of Cheshire, v. (I:i), 2-7.
  • 9. M.J. Groombridge, Cal. Chester City Council Mins. (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. cvi), pp. viii-xi.
  • 10. Cheshire Archives, CX/3, f. 108.
  • 11. Johnson, 7.
  • 12. D.M. Woodward, ‘Chester Leather Industry’, Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, cxix. 66, 85-8.
  • 13. W.B. Stephens, ‘Overseas Trade of Chester’, Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, cxx. 23-4; G.M. Haynes-Thomas, ‘Port of Chester’, Trans. Lancs. and Cheshire Antiq. Soc. lxi. 35; T.S. Willan, ‘Chester and the Navigation of the Dee’, Jnl. Nth. Wales Architectural, Arch. and Hist. Soc. xxxii. pt. 1, pp. 64-7.
  • 14. Johnson, 229.
  • 15. Johnson, 91-2.
  • 16. Johnson, 96; Groombridge, 214-9; E.G. James, ‘Charity Endowments in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Cent. Eng.’, JEH, viii. 153-70.
  • 17. Cheshire Archives, CR60/83, ff. 28v-9; AB/1, ff. 336, 338.
  • 18. Johnson, 7.
  • 19. Cheshire Archives, AB/1, ff. 283, 288-9, 290; AF/7, nos. 4, 7; AF/6, no. 6.
  • 20. Harl. 2173, f. 11; Johnson, 18; R.V.H. Burne, Chester Cathedral, 87-8; T. Hughes, ‘City against the Abbey’, Jnl. Chester Arch. Soc. (ser. 1), xii (I), 433-7.
  • 21. Burne, 88-9; Johnson, 18-19; Groombridge, xxii-xxiii; G.T.O. Bridgeman, Hist. Church and Manor of Wigan, ii. 295-305, 406-8.
  • 22. J.S. Morrill, Cheshire, 19; STAC 8/21/6; CHES 38/48 Ratcliffe to Whitby, 10 May 1620; R.C. Richardson, Puritanism in NW Eng. 13, 83.
  • 23. M. McKisack, Parl. Rep. Eng Boroughs during Middle Ages, 7-8.
  • 24. VCH Cheshire, ii. 110; HP Commons 1509-58; HP Commons 1558-1603.
  • 25. VCH Cheshire, ii. 110.
  • 26. Cheshire Archives, ML/2, nos. 238, 263.
  • 27. Harl. 2105, f. 285.
  • 28. Ibid. f. 275.
  • 29. Ibid. f. 281; J.K. Gruenfelder, ‘The Parlty. Election at Chester, 1621’, Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs and Cheshire cxx. 37-42; several errors in Gruenfelder’s account are corrected by P.M. Hunneyball, ‘Prince Charles’s Council as Electoral Agent, 1620-24’, PH, xxiii. 325.
  • 30. Harl. 2105, ff. 271, 279.
  • 31. STAC 8/297/15; Cheshire Archives, CR/374; Harl. 2091, ff. 126v-37; 2105, ff. 152-9, 172, 174-5; Groombridge, xiii. 96, 98-9; D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 197.
  • 32. Harl. 2105, f. 277-v; STAC 8/21/6.
  • 33. Harl. 2105, ff. 277-8.
  • 34. Ibid. f. 283.
  • 35. Gruenfelder, 42; Hirst, 197-8.
  • 36. DCO, Prince Charles in Spain, f. 34v.
  • 37. Oxford DNB sub Brerewood; J. Hutchinson, Cat. Notable Middle Templars, 30.
  • 38. STAC 8/297/15; APC, 1627-8, pp. 7-8, 164-5, 179-80; SP16/57/12; 58/90; 84/8.
  • 39. Harl. 2125, f. 59v.
  • 40. D.M. Dean, Law-Making and Soc. in Late Eliz. Eng. 253.
  • 41. CJ, i. 233b, 237a, 237b, 238a, 239a.
  • 42. Cheshire Archives, ML/6, no. 38; ML/2, no. 233.