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 until 1625; in the freemen aft. 1625

Number of voters:

42 bef. 1625


5 Mar. 1604ROBERT BARKER , town clerk
7 Mar. 1614ROBERT BARKER , town clerk
14 Dec. 1620WILLIAM TOWSE , town clerk
22 Jan. 1624WILLIAM TOWSE , town clerk
19 Apr. 1625WILLIAM TOWSE , town clerk
 Sir John Hobart II*
 (Sir) Alexander Radcliffe*
 WILLIAM TOWSE , town clerk
16 Feb. 1626SIR ROBERT QUARLES vice Grimston, chose to sit for Essex
  Double return of Alford and Masham. MASHAM declared elected 28 Mar. 1628

Main Article

An ancient walled town situated atop a hill overlooking the river Colne, Colchester in the early seventeenth century was the manufacturing centre of the new worsted draperies in Essex and had the largest population of any town in the county.2 The borough obtained its first known charter in 1189, which allowed it to choose its own bailiffs, who had previously been royal appointees. Edward IV awarded the town a fresh charter in 1462, which authorized the burgesses to elect their own magistrates and created the recordership, an office which, from 1579, equated to that of high steward elsewhere. It also established a ten-strong aldermanic bench, from which two bailiffs were chosen, and set up a 32-strong common council divided into two tiers of equal size. Elected annually by the wealthier freemen, these 42 principal officers formed the corporation. From 1283 the borough enjoyed parliamentary representation by prescription.3

During the early seventeenth century Colchester was wracked by a series of fierce quarrels between its native inhabitants and its Dutch-speaking community, which numbered more than an eighth of the total population of around 11,000.4 Established in the mid-1560s by refugees escaping Spanish persecution in the Low Countries, the Dutch Congregation had been warmly welcomed by a government desperate to arrest the crisis in the cloth industry. Whereas the English produced heavy broadcloths suitable only for export to northern Europe, the Dutch were skilled in manufacturing the lighter and cheaper worsteds, notably baize and says, popular in southern as well as northern Europe. As a result of the privileges granted to the Dutch by the Crown in the early 1570s, Colchester grew prosperous, as did the smaller, neighbouring clothing towns. By 1620 baize-making provided the single greatest source of employment in Colchester, and the town’s baize was highly regarded for its quality.5 However, by 1604 Dutch success had aroused native jealousy.6 A principal cause of friction stemmed from Dutch insistence on the right to inspect and seal all newly manufactured baize and says, including those of native workmen. English workers were also angered by the failure of their Dutch counterparts to serve apprenticeships in accordance with the requirements of the 1563 Statute of Artificers; by their insistence on levying taxes on English cloth production; by their use of foreign vessels to export their goods; and by their practise of trades other than clothmaking, such as weaving and stool-making, for which they were not legally qualified. In 1616 the Privy Council upheld several of these complaints, demanding, for instance, that goods be transported in English bottoms as the law required. However, it maintained the Dutch right to inspect and seal all new cloths, thereby helping to preserve Colchester’s reputation for high quality manufacturing.7

Hostility towards the Dutch community united the borough’s English majority, but the corporation and ordinary freemen were otherwise frequently at loggerheads. By 1603 a dispute over the municipal franchise had developed. In 1612 an attempt to increase the number of free burgesses eligible to vote was blocked by the corporation, which in turn was prevented from reducing the number of voters by the freemen.8 Not surprisingly, the Dutch community exploited these disturbances to obtain royal confirmation of their privileges in October 1612.9 Matters came to a head three years later, when the freemen, allegedly egged on by Sir John Sammes* of Wickham Bishops, displaced two aldermen and seven common councillors, prompting the corporation to appeal to King’s Bench. The matter was referred to the attorney-general, Sir Francis Bacon*, who ordered the restoration of the ousted corporation members.10 For several years thereafter the quarrel remained dormant, but in 1624 the corporation rashly tried to limit the electorate to its own members.11 In response, perhaps, the freemen raised the stakes by seeking to widen the parliamentary franchise. Parliamentary voting rights was a subject on which the town’s charters remained silent, but customarily the franchise had been restricted to the aldermen and common council.

The freemen scored an early success in their battle for the franchise. Writing in April 1625, the town’s bailiffs explained to the lord chief justice, Sir Henry Hobart*, that they had been unable to effect the election of his eldest son because ‘the company, consisting of a multitude’, had instead acclaimed the town clerk, William Towse.12 However, by the time of the 1628 election the corporation had decided to fight back. While the freemen gathered in a downstairs room to elect Sir Thomas Cheke and Sir William Masham, members of the corporation assembled separately upstairs, where they chose Cheke and Edward Alford. Their decision was supported by the sheriff, who returned only the names of Cheke and Alford, whereupon the ordinary burgesses complained to the Commons’ committee for privileges. At the ensuing hearing, the corporation argued that its power to pass ordinances, enshrined in the town’s charters, allowed it to determine the extent of the parliamentary franchise. However, the corporation failed to mention that, ever since 1588, its parliamentary indentures had declared that its representatives were elected by ‘the bailiffs, aldermen, Common Council with one unanimous consent of the commons’. Counsel for the corporation attempted to shrug off this inconvenient fact by alleging ‘that the commons is here mentioned but as involved in the Common Council, to whom they had given their right’. This was entirely unconvincing, because, as was pointed out, the bailiffs alone chose the Common Council, so how could it be argued that the commons had empowered the Common Council to act on their behalf? There was no answer to this, and consequently, on the recommendation of the committee for privileges, Sir William Masham was seated by the House.13 A humiliated corporation six weeks later resolved to petition Parliament and to seek ‘the most learned counsel they can get upon the charter’.14 However, Colchester’s franchise was not reconsidered by the Commons before the dissolution of March 1629.

Colchester was not accustomed to returning townsmen to Parliament. Indeed, under Elizabeth townsmen had been elected on just three occasions: in 1593 (Martin Bessell), 1597 and 1601 (Richard Symnell). Instead, from 1584 it usually returned its town clerk, an experienced lawyer. Consequently James Morice (1584-97), Robert Barker (c.1598-1618) and William Towse (1618-?34) all regularly sat, although only Barker lived nearby, at Monckwick. Twice only did the borough fail to return its town clerk. The first occasion was in 1597, when the town clerk’s deputy, Richard Symnell, was elected following Morice’s death. The second was in 1628, when it was apparently decided that Towse, being 77 years of age, was too old to serve in Parliament again. This represented something of a volte face, as three years earlier Towse had been rebuked for asking to be allowed to stand aside. When he did sit, the town clerk was invariably awarded the senior place. The single exception was in 1626, when the first seat was conferred on Sir Harbottle Grimston, a prominent local landowner. Grimston, however, stepped down after he was elected the junior knight of the shire and was replaced by Sir Robert Quarles, a landowner from the other side of the county, whose connection with the borough has not been established.

Colchester’s recorder played an important part in the borough’s parliamentary elections, since he enjoyed the right to appoint the town clerk.15 Robert Barker and William Towse owed their positions respectively to Robert Cecil†, 1st earl of Salisbury, and Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk. Cecil, moreover, should probably also be credited with the responsibility for the election in 1604 of the junior Member, Edward Alford, a Sussex resident who owned no property in Essex. This is because Alford’s father Roger† had served as secretary to Lord Treasurer Burghley (Sir William Cecil†).16 Alford’s association with Colchester proved so successful that it continued long after Cecil’s death. Indeed, it was not until 1626, when he was pricked to serve as sheriff of Sussex, that he ceased to be returned for the borough.

Between 1604 and 1625, then, Colchester conferred its senior seat on the town clerk and its second place on Edward Alford. Consequently there was little scope for outsiders other than the recorder to influence the outcome of elections. This was evidently well understood by the 1st earl Rivers, who was based at nearby St. Osyth’s, for, so far as is known, Rivers sought to influence Colchester’s voters only at county elections.17 As late as 1625, when Towse asked to be allowed to stand aside, the borough refused to countenance candidates nominated by the lord lieutenant, Robert Radcliffe, 5th earl of Sussex, and lord chief justice Hobart. Instead the freemen were reportedly ‘much discontented’ at Towse for being ‘so earnest in his request’.18 Not until 1626, when Alford was disabled from standing, were outside nominations considered.

In 1628 Towse’s inability to serve created an opening for the 2nd earl of Warwick (Sir Robert Rich*), the most extensive landowner in the county, whose parliamentary patronage already extended to Essex’s other constituencies. In place of Towse, Colchester’s voters chose Warwick’s son-in-law Sir Thomas Cheke. Warwick’s role in Cheke’s election is necessarily speculative, but like Quarles, Cheke came from the other side of the county, and the earl was certainly responsible for procuring a seat for Cheke at Harwich in December 1620.19 Warwick’s influence may have been exercised through his younger brother, the 1st earl of Holland (Sir Henry Rich*), who had been appointed to the recordership in 1627.20 The corporation intended that the second seat should revert to Edward Alford, whose term as sheriff had now ended. However, Warwick evidently wanted it for Sir William Masham. Although not directly linked to Warwick, Masham was the son-in-law of one of the earl’s most important allies in the county, Sir Francis Barrington*. To many of Colchester’s ordinary freemen, Masham may have seemed a more attractive candidate than Alford, as he had been imprisoned for refusing to pay the widely unpopular Forced Loan.

Colchester’s parliamentary elections were held at the town’s moot hall, and were presided over by the county sheriff. Election writs did not always reach the town promptly. In 1625 Colchester’s bailiffs complained that the writ took seven days to arrive,21 which meant that the borough’s election was not held until 19 Apr., one week later than at Maldon (though this was still much earlier than at Harwich, where the corporation delayed proceedings until 26/27th April). Successful candidates were not necessarily expected to attend the hustings. In 1628 Alford was informed by post of his controversial election, as was Sir Thomas Cheke. However, once notified, newly elected parliamentary burgesses were expected to travel to Colchester to swear the oath of a freeman if they had not previously done so. This requirement dismayed Cheke at least, who had hoped to take the oath at Chelmsford while attending the county assizes rather than make the long journey to Colchester from south-western Essex.22 The loss of most of the borough’s financial records makes it difficult to say whether parliamentary wages were usually paid, but the surviving accounts for 1620-1 suggest that they were not.23

Unusually, the corporation’s minute books indicate, by means of prick marks, which of its members voted at parliamentary elections. In some cases, the record of election in the minute book is followed by the voters’ signatures. In 1614 no signatures were required. Instead, each name recorded is accompanied by up to six unexplained prick marks and crosses. The minute books reveal that turnout at parliamentary elections was initially high: in 1604 all but two of the borough’s 42 voters attended the hustings, while in 1614 the entire electorate seem to have appeared.24 During the 1620s, however, absenteeism increased. In 1620 eight corporation members failed to cast their votes, while in 1624 the figure rose to 11. The worst attended elections of the period, however, were those of 1626. Fourteen members of the corporation failed to vote at the general election in January, while at the election in the following month there were 16 absentees.25 It seems unlikely that the cause lay in the severe plague outbreak which affected Colchester in 1626, as the first victims were not buried until June.26 Even in 1628, when the corporation might have been expected to mount a show of strength against the freemen, nine members refrained from voting. Uniquely, the record of the 1625 election indicates not merely the number of absentees – there were eight – but also the reason for their non-appearance, which included sickness and the duties of serving as a churchwarden.27

In May 1607 Colchester’s bailiffs wrote to Salisbury, the borough’s recorder, urging him to support a bill concerning the manufacture of woollen cloth, which had received a first reading in the Lords five days earlier.28 The fact that Salisbury was approached only after the bill was read makes it unlikely that this particular piece of legislation, which failed to progress, originated in Colchester itself. The 1607 clothing bill was by no means the only legislation in which the inhabitants of Colchester expressed an interest during this period. In March 1610 Edward Alford was petitioned by 16 of the borough’s ketchmen in favour of a bill introduced by Lowestoft aimed at curbing the jurisdiction claimed by Great Yarmouth over the East Anglian herring industry. The ketchmen asserted that, unless the bill was enacted, ‘we shall be enforced to leave our ancient trading with the fishermen’. Alford responded by proposing in the Commons that the bill be committed, and by helping to organize the campaign in its favour. Multiple copies of manuscripts supporting the bill’s proposals and opposing the privileges conferred by royal charter on Yarmouth in 1608 are certainly located among his surviving papers, which also include a copy of the bill itself and other related documents.29 However, despite his efforts, Alford proved unable to secure a third reading.

The enthusiasm with which Alford promoted the Lowestoft fishing bill may help to explain his remarkable electoral success at Colchester, which returned him to Parliament on five successive occasions. Alford continued to demonstrate a willingness to serve his constituents after 1610, for in 1621 he attempted to steer through the Commons a bill to allow the town to re-pave its streets30 and raise taxes to pay for the maintenance of its haven, which was so silted up that the landing place was becoming inaccessible. Based perhaps on a measure laid before the Commons by the borough in 1593, the bill was drawn up by William Towse on the corporation’s instructions.31 It received its first reading on 21 Feb., when Alford pointed out the adverse effects on the local economy and the king’s customs which would follow if the harbour was not repaired. However, the bill immediately encountered stiff resistance because of its proposal to raise funds by imposing duties for a 15-year period on goods landed in the port. Sir William Strode thought ‘it was pity it should trouble the House’ as ‘it lays more tax than ever I knew bill’ and merchants complained ‘that there are too many impositions already’. Someone else grumbled that ‘divers places were to bear the charge which should have no part of the benefit’. However, Alford received invaluable support from Sir Dudley Digges, who drew attention to the lack of harbours on the Essex coast. Despite calls to reject the measure, Digges persuaded the House ‘with much ado’ to allow the bill a second reading on the grounds that the criticisms which had been voiced ‘extended to parts of the bill, not to the whole’.32

It was not until 5 May that the bill received a further hearing, when it again came under fire for cutting across the House’s aim to free trade from unnecessary burdens. Furthermore, it was claimed that the town itself would not benefit, as merchants would choose to go elsewhere rather than pay Colchester’s landing charges. Finally, Sir Henry Poole complained that ‘it was unworthy the greatness of the House to take care of the paving of streets’. Once again the responsibility for rebutting these charges fell to Alford. There were, he said, plenty of merchants who were prepared to testify both to the necessity of the proposed taxation and their willingness to pay, and if the bill, once enacted, was found to produce harmful effects to Colchester’s economy the town would abandon its levy of increased duties on imports. As for the claim made by Poole, Alford pointed out that the House had previously authorized the paving of the Strand, St. Giles and Drury Lane. Thanks to this robust defence, the bill was committed, although the committee included critics of the measure, such as Strode and William Noye, as well as its leading advocates, Alford and Digges. The committee’s meetings were adjourned at least twice, which perhaps left insufficient time before the sitting ended on 4 June to allow the bill a third reading. No attempt to revive the measure appears to have been made after Parliament reassembled in November.33

When the Colchester paving and harbour bill was reintroduced in 1624, Alford played a critical part in ensuring its success, as did William Towse. In stark contrast to the slow progress made in 1621, the bill proceeded from first to second reading in just four days.34 There was now considerable more sympathy for the bill than in 1621, perhaps because of the continued crisis in the cloth industry. This was reflected in the committee’s composition, as it seems to have contained fewer opponents of the bill than its predecessor. In addition to Alford and Towse, who were specifically named, the committee appointed on 14 Apr. consisted of all other burgesses of port towns, many of whom were likely to be sympathetic towards Colchester’s problems, and the knights and burgesses of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. These categories excluded some of the bill’s most vigorous opponents, such as Strode, Member for Devon, and Sir Henry Poole, Member for Oxfordshire. When the measure was reported by Towse on 26 Apr. the only alteration made by the committee seems to have been a proviso added for the benefit of Thomas Lucas of Colchester. This was not included in the final version of the bill and its content remains unknown.35 It was not until the bill received its third reading on 4 May that it came under attack, and even then the only opposition was voiced by Sir James Perrot, Member for Pembrokeshire, who cautioned against setting a precedent of laying impositions upon imports. In reply, Alford argued that the legislation posed no danger as the proposed impositions were to be levied by consent, but he failed to respond to the retort, ‘that this consent was of the inhabitants only and the burden extended to all as well as [sic] strangers as inhabitants’.36 Nevertheless, the House passed the bill and ordered it to be sent to the Lords that afternoon.37

Once in the Upper House the bill apparently received more critical scrutiny than it had in the Commons. Three provisos were added, two of which went some way towards remedying the defect identified by Perrot, as they excluded foreigners and members of the Cinque Ports from payment of the proposed duties. The third proviso ordered the town’s bailiffs, who were to receive the money raised by the legislation, to draw up annual accounts for submission to four magistrates.38 Despite these alterations, the committee was sympathetic to the bill, partly, perhaps, because its members included Lord Howard de Walden (Theophilus Howard*) the son of the borough’s recorder, and Samuel Harsnett, bishop of Norwich,39 who had been born in Colchester, served as the town’s school teacher before studying divinity and was appointed rector of Shenfield, Essex by the Lucas family. Harsnett spent some time at Colchester during the mid-1620s, and on his death in 1631 he bequeathed his entire library to the corporation in trust for the use of the local clergy.40 Reported on 22 May 1624, the bill received a third reading two days later and shortly thereafter was returned to the Commons, where the amendments were approved on the 26th. The measure received the Royal Assent on the 29th.41

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb2, ff. 42, 131v; Gb3, ff. 1, 33, 44, 52, 68v.
  • 2. W. Hunt, Puritan Moment, 3.
  • 3. VCH Essex, ix. 48-9, 52, 54, 56, 111.
  • 4. Ibid. 67.
  • 5. Ibid. 81-2; R. Cust, Forced Loan, 264-5; E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 95.
  • 6. APC, 1601-4, p. 506.
  • 7. Ibid. 1613-14, pp. 238-9; 1615-16, pp. 381-2, 404, 420-3, 590, 633; 1616-17, pp. 59-60, 89-90, 96-8, 121, 303-4; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 247, 381; 1629-31, p. 200; Reg. of Baptisms in Dutch Church at Colchester ed. W.J.C. Moens (Huguenot Soc. xii), iii-iv, xi-xiii; Essex RO, D/B5 Gb2, ff. 150, 158, 160r-v.
  • 8. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb2, ff. 109v-12v, 115v-18v; VCH Essex, ix. 114.
  • 9. Dutch Church at Colchester, xi-xii. The English considered these to have been obtained ‘surreptitiously’: APC, 1615-16, p. 590.
  • 10. Essex RO, D/Y 2/4, pp. 23, 241.
  • 11. VCH Essex, ix. 115.
  • 12. Procs. 1625, p. 680.
  • 13. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb3, f. 70; CD 1628, ii. 162-3, 169.
  • 14. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb3, f. 73.
  • 15. Essex RO, D/Y 2/8/69.
  • 16. R. Zaller, ‘Edward Alford and the making of Country Radicalism’, JBS, xxii. 61.
  • 17. Procs. 1625, pp. 682-3; Procs. 1628, vi. 146. It has been claimed, incorrectly, that Rivers ‘regularly claimed a right to intervene in the disposal of freeholders’ votes in nearby Colchester’: Cust, 262.
  • 18. Procs. 1625, pp. 680-1.
  • 19. Harwich bor. ms 109/1.
  • 20. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 200; C181/3, f. 216v.
  • 21. Procs. 1625, p. 680.
  • 22. Essex RO, D/Y 2/4 (mis-transcribed by Procs. 1628, vi. 138).
  • 23. Essex RO, microfilm T/A 465/109, ff. 1-5v.
  • 24. Essex RO, D/B Gb2, ff. 42r-v, 131v-2.
  • 25. Ibid. D/B Gb3, ff. 1r-v, 33r-v, 51v-2, 53v-4v.
  • 26. I.G. Doolittle, ‘Plague in Colchester, 1579-1666’, Trans. Essex Arch. Soc.(ser. 3), iv. 136.
  • 27. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb3, ff. 44v, 69.
  • 28. HMC Hatfield, xix. 138; LJ, ii. 511a.
  • 29. Harl. 6838, ff. 226v-7, 228v-31, 232-41, 243-5, 247-8, 249v-52; CJ, i. 410a.
  • 30. The town had been paved, at least in part, by 1473: VCH Essex, ii. 335.
  • 31. Essex RO, D/B5 Gb3, f. 1v. For the 1593 bill, see Procs. in Parls. of Eliz. I ed. T.E. Hartley, iii. 134, 149.
  • 32. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 72-3; CD 1621, ii. 111-12; iv. 83.
  • 33. CD 1621, iii. 171, 250, n.39; iv. 306-7; CJ, i. 609b, 621a.
  • 34. CJ, i. 761a, 766b.
  • 35. Ibid. 690b, 775a.
  • 36. Ibid. 697b; ‘Pym 1624’, f. 87.
  • 37. CJ, i. 698a, 782b.
  • 38. HLRO, O.A. 21 Jas.I, c. 68.
  • 39. LJ, iii. 386a.
  • 40. Oxford DNB sub Samuel Harsnett; Essex RO, D/Y 2/4/159, 163, 167; CSP Dom. 1625-6, pp. 111, 117.
  • 41. LJ, iii. 400b, 403b; CJ, i. 711b, 712a.