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 freemen

Number of voters:

c.600 in 1628


20 Feb. 1604HENRY BRERES , alderman 
 JOHN ROGERSON , dep. alderman 
5 Mar. 1610SIR JOHN HARINGTON vice Rogerson, vacated his seat 
c. Mar. 1614SIR ROBERT COKE 
5 Dec. 1620SAMPSON HOPKINS , alderman 
 HENRY SEWALL , alderman 
27 Jan. 1624SIR EDWARD COKE , recorder 
 HENRY HARWELL , dep. alderman 
1625SIR EDWARD COKE , recorder 
 HENRY HARWELL , dep. alderman1 
1626HENRY HARWELL , alderman 
 ISAAC WALDEN , dep. alderman 
by 1 Mar. 16282RICHARD GREENE367
 ISAAC WALDEN , alderman29
 THOMAS POTTER , dep. alderman 
  Double return. GREENE and PUREFOY declared elected, 9 Apr. 1628 

Main Article

A town existed at Coventry by the mid-eleventh century, when it belonged to the famous Godiva. Made rich by the cloth trade, in 1377 it was England’s third biggest provincial centre, with perhaps 9,000 inhabitants. Growth continued into the fifteenth century, and in 1451 it was granted the status of both city and county. Around this time, however, the market for the local broadcloth contracted, and despite the development of alternative manufactures such as caps and blue thread economic decline set in. In the severe depression of the 1520s, the population shrank to about 6,000. Recovery was slow, as there were only 6,502 inhabitants in 1586, and a major outbreak of plague in 1604 claimed 494 lives. However, in 1611 the number of communicants in the city was estimated at 6-7,000.3 One factor behind this increase was apparently an influx of radical Protestants, who were attracted by the plethora of sermons in the city’s churches, and the corporation’s enforcement of religious observance. In 1605, for example, the court leet banned the playing of football in the street on Sundays. Four years later, it observed that although ‘by order from Mr. Mayor and his brethren, the constables and churchwardens … have taken pains in procuring and compelling the poorer sort of people to come to their parish church on the sabbath days’, nevertheless ‘many of them do lie in bed, and others do use to resort unto divers villages and alehouses near adjoining, there to spend the sabbath very profanely in tippling and drinking’. A fine of 12d. was introduced for this offence.4

The economy of early seventeenth-century Coventry remained largely stagnant. In 1609 the corporation refused to raise the local subsidy assessments, complaining to the Privy Council of ‘the general and great decay of our city … since the beginning of Her late Majesty’s reign, by reason that such as formerly used to traffic at Coventry now turn all or the most part of their dealings to London’. Although in 1615 a shortage of fullers obliged the court leet to relax restrictions on strangers, there was a general drive to protect the local workforce from external competition. In 1598 and 1602 the sale of cloth anywhere but in the appropriate cloth halls was banned so as to restrict openings for country traders, while in 1610 the aldermen were ordered to report any strangers taking up residence in the city.5 However, these measures did nothing to prevent increasingly cut-throat rivalries between Coventry’s trading companies within Coventry. In 1607 the Drapers surreptitiously obtained a new charter giving them a monopoly over the sale of all woollen cloth. This underhand move was designed to prevent the Mercers from participating in the lucrative market in new draperies, which had been developing in the city since around 1570. After a three-year battle, the Mercers managed to overturn the charter, but in the process found themselves accused of poaching business from the local hosiers.6 Defeated on this front, the Drapers went in search of new markets, and in 1608 obtained a ‘toleration’ from the Privy Council that allowed them to produce 1,000 cloths a year specifically for export. This grant had been intended by the government to benefit Coventry’s cloth producers in general, but the Drapers conspired to suppress this fact until 1622, instead managing the toleration solely in their own interests.7

At the start of the seventeenth century Coventry was governed by a tripartite structure of great (or mayor’s) council, common council and court leet. By far the most important component was the great council, which consisted of the mayor, all ten aldermen and approximately ten other leading citizens. Although the election of civic officers and the enactment of by-laws remained the preserve of the ad hoc jury assembled for the bi-annual court leets, it was the great council which made policy, and indeed made up the bulk of the jury. The common council still held a key to the chest containing the city’s seal, but between 1605 and 1614 a series of court leet rulings effectively reduced it to a rubber-stamping body. In June 1623, apparently as a token protest, the common council walked out of a meeting with the great council where the seal was to be used, and deliberately left their key behind.8

The 1451 city charter remained in force until 1621, even though the framework of local government had changed markedly in the interim. An attempt to obtain a new city charter in 1611-12 was abandoned, probably because of spiralling costs.9 However, in November 1620 the great and common councils resolved to try again, and their efforts were rewarded in the following July. The 1621 charter confirmed the existing arrangements, but also designated the mayor, recorder and aldermen as magistrates within the county of Coventry, and established two new fairs.10

The city jealously guarded its privileges and independence. In April 1623 the great ouncil had little choice but to comply when the king and two Warwickshire-based privy councillors, Lord Brooke (Sir Fulke Greville*) and Sir Edward Conway I*, requested the post of Steward for John Verney. However, all efforts to persuade Coventry to increase the scale of its contributions towards the militia and similar levies in Warwickshire were vigorously resisted, except in 1625 when the impressment quota was exceeded in order to rid the city of some ‘loose and unthrifty persons’.11 Between 1619 and 1622 the corporation held out against demands from Prince Charles’s Council for a rent-charge, which it believed was not justified in law.12 The city was equally reluctant to compromise over religion. When James I demanded an end to the local puritan practice of standing or sitting to receive communion in 1611, some of the more obdurate offenders responded that their behaviour was condoned by learned divines, and that the sheer number of communicants rendered kneeling impractical. Although the king got his way, he was still smarting over this affront when he visited Coventry six years later, and in 1621 he insisted on proof that his wishes were still being enforced before he agreed to grant the new charter.13 In general, the great council successfully maintained a common front against rival jurisdictions of all kinds, but it was also occasionally riven by bitter internal discord. In one extreme case which erupted in 1617, a dispute between Sampson Hopkins* and Matthew Collins led to the latter’s expulsion from the Council for three years, during which time he sued the corporation for alleged misappropriation of charitable funds.14

Given Coventry’s assertiveness, it is surprising that the city did not engage more fully with Parliament. In 1610 a bill to restrict the conditions under which chapmen and pedlars could sell cloth was introduced in the Commons, but it was rejected at its first reading on 24 February. While this measure reflected the interests of trading companies such as the Drapers, who wished to drive the chapmen out of business, the corporation probably donated £40 towards its costs. In the following May, the great council again set aside £40 to promote a bill ‘for the better relief of cities and corporations’, but nothing at all seems to have come of this. Possibly it was the lack of return on these investments which discouraged the Council from further efforts of this kind. In 1621, for reasons that are unclear, Coventry provided a certificate on the rising price of glass, which was produced in the Commons during a debate on 14 May about Sir Robert Mansell’s* glass-making patent.15

Until 1628 the great council maintained an iron grip on the selection of Coventry’s MPs. The normal practice was apparently for the mayor and some of his colleagues to nominate candidates in the guildhall, where the Council met. The names were then submitted to the assembled freemen, roughly one-tenth of the population, for ratification. In the unlikely event of a poll, votes were gathered in the nearby churches of St. Michael and Holy Trinity. The indenture recording the 1610 by-election was signed by the two sheriffs, but those for 1604 and 1620 were sealed instead. In the latter year the sheriffs also returned the election writ, annotated with the result.16 Wages were normally paid to Members chosen from within the city, but not to gentlemen such as Sir Robert Coke. The level of payment varied considerably. In 1604, 1605-6 and 1626 both Members received 5s. a day. However, Sampson Hopkins was paid at a daily rate of only 4s. in 1614 and 5s. 6d. in 1621, while Henry Sewall claimed 6s. 8d. a day during the first phase of the 1621 Parliament. Relative experience and seniority within the corporation may have been deciding factors, but Sewall in 1621 was almost certainly paid more because he was simultaneously conducting negotiations in London about the new charter.17

In each Parliament between 1604 and 1626, at least one of Coventry’s representatives belonged to the great council. Henry Breres in 1604 and Henry Sewall in 1621 both enjoyed the prestige of being its senior member, while John Rogerson (1604), Hopkins, Henry Harwell (1624-6) and Isaac Walden (1626-8) all achieved at least the rank of deputy alderman. However, seats were also distributed to other important officers or associates of the city. Sir Edward Coke secured a place for his son, Sir Robert, upon becoming recorder in 1614, and was himself elected in 1624 and 1625, although on the latter occasion he plumped for Norfolk instead, creating a vacancy that was apparently left unfilled. Similarly, when Rogerson became too infirm in 1610 to attend the Commons, the city replaced him with Sir John Harington, son of the then recorder.18 The great council did not welcome approaches from complete outsiders. In 1624 Sir Thomas Edmondes* was nominated for a seat by the Prince’s Council, but although the corporation made Edmondes a freeman to render him eligible for election, this was merely an act of diplomacy, and his candidacy went no further. The privy councillor Sir John Suckling* was similarly fobbed off in 1625 when he applied ‘divers times’ to fill the vacancy left by Sir Edward Coke, despite securing letters of commendation from the bishop of Lichfield and Coventry’s lord lieutenant, the earl of Northampton.19

In 1628 the great council’s control was finally broken. On election day, the mayor’s nomination of two of its members, Isaac Walden and Thomas Potter, met with a challenge from two rival candidates, Richard Greene and William Purefoy, the former a gentleman living at Wyken in the county of Coventry, the latter a Warwickshire squire based around eight miles away at Caldecote. As neither of these outsiders was a resident or freeman of the city of Coventry, they were not strictly eligible to stand. However, notwithstanding subsequent claims that Walden and Potter easily secured majority support inside the guildhall, the mayor was twice forced to concede a full poll, and amid chaotic scenes Greene and Purefoy emerged as convincing winners. The details of Purefoy’s victory have not survived, but Green overwhelmed Walden by 367 votes to 29. One of the city’s sheriffs, Richard Knipe, refused to accept these results because neither man was resident, and therefore returned Walden and Potter as properly elected. The other sheriff, Godfrey Legge, had no such qualms, and made out a rival indenture for Greene and Purefoy. The dispute was then passed to Parliament for a final decision.20

Several explanations have been proposed for these tumultuous events. The letter-writer Joseph Mead attributed the outcome to the political fall-out from the previous year’s Forced Loan. Writing on 1 Mar. 1628 to Sir Martin Stuteville, he observed: ‘at Coventry they have … admitted two gentleman recusants [ie. Loan refusers] in the county to be of their corporation [ie. freemen], that they might choose them and pass by, against their custom, all their own [citizens], as being not that way qualified’.21 This statement was inaccurate, insofar as Greene and Purefoy were never made freemen of Coventry, but Purefoy was indeed a Loan refuser, who had appeared before the Privy Council in February 1627. This doubtless raised his local profile, and may therefore have contributed to his election victory. However, there is no evidence that Greene refused to lend, although as late as January 1627 neither he nor Godfrey Legge had yet contributed. By comparison, Richard Knipe paid up promptly, along with most members of the great council. This is suggestive of the future electoral divisions, but it should be noted that another of the late payers was Isaac Walden. Thus the Forced Loan may have had some impact on the 1628 election, but it is unlikely that it was a decisive factor.22

Another possibility is that the election dispute was a product of long-standing resentment among Coventry’s poorer residents against the corporation, and in particular the way in which the great council managed the city’s common lands. Certainly this issue was a source of local friction. One consequence of the neutering of the common council was a steady increase in the great council’s control over the issuing of leases. This encouraged fears that the ordinary residents would lose their grazing rights, and the late 1620s saw rioting against enclosures erected on the commons.23 Even so, it is clear from accounts of the 1628 elections that they were not a straightforward battle between the local oligarchy and the wider population. During the polls, sheriff Legge and at least one member of the great council, the former MP Henry Harwell, rallied support for Greene and Purefoy, and presumably they and their allies also orchestrated the initial opposition to the nominations of Walden and Potter. Clearly there was a split within the corporation itself, and it is this which holds the key to the election dispute.24

It is important to understand precisely what Walden and Potter represented to the average Coventry voter in 1628. In addition to serving on the great council, they were also leading figures within their companies, the Drapers and the Dyers respectively. As such they were prime movers in a trade dispute which polarised opinion within the city in the latter part of the decade. Walden was closely involved with the implementation of the 1608 toleration for local cloth manufacture, and at least until 1622 seems to have kept possession of the grant himself. The government’s intention had clearly been to boost local employment by permitting surplus production for export, but the Drapers had utilised this concession primarily to boost their own profits. Walden in particular was an active partner in a consortium which brought in unfinished cloth from other areas such as Gloucestershire, so that it could be finished and sold on as Coventry cloth, ostensibly within the terms of the toleration. This operation resulted in heavy financial losses and unemployment among the city’s weavers and clothiers, and when it finally emerged in 1622 that the toleration had been granted, somewhat imprecisely, to Coventry’s ‘clothiers’, as opposed to the Drapers’ Company, the Weavers appealed to the Privy Council for redress.25 A compromise agreement was reached later that year to give the Weavers a greater share of the market, but the Drapers failed to honour it, and in 1626 the government was once again drawn into the quarrel. A fresh commission of inquiry was launched, and both sides in the dispute set about trying to influence its outcome. Here, Walden and the Drapers possessed a significant advantage, as they enjoyed a controlling majority on the great council. In June 1627 the corporation wrote to the Privy Council, backing the Drapers’ arguments, and forwarding supportive petitions from two allied companies, the Clothworkers and Dyers. It subsequently emerged that this initiative was the work of the Drapers on the great council, abetted by the then mayor, Walden’s brother, and that their colleagues had not been informed about the letter.26 Nevertheless, the Privy Council was taken in by this stratagem, and its final decision in November was relatively favourable to the Drapers. It was subsequently alleged that the Drapers had offered secret concessions to the Weavers which they then failed to honour. Whether or not this was correct, within months it was clear that the new settlement was not being implemented, and that no redress would be forthcoming from the great council. Consequently, the nomination of Walden and Potter as parliamentary candidates by the new mayor, Richard Clark, another leading figure in the Gloucestershire cloth consortium, amounted to an act of provocation against Coventry’s long-suffering weavers and clothiers.27 The tensions generated by this dispute within the great council explain why Henry Harwell broke ranks. Quite apart from the fact that he was overlooked as an MP, despite having served in the three previous Parliaments, as a Mercer he had been a key figure in his Company’s battle against the Drapers in 1607-10, and was therefore highly unlikely to sympathize with Walden’s faction. Similarly, the frustration felt by those who had repeatedly lost out in the cloth dispute accounts for the scale of the vote against Walden, who was regarded by the weavers and clothiers as being principally responsible for their misery.28

The election dispute caused considerable consternation in the Commons. Discussed by the committee for privileges on 20 Mar., the case was presented to the House on the following day, and the dilemma at its core was immediately apparent. Greene and Purefoy had a clear popular mandate, but if the statutes governing elections were applied strictly neither man was eligible to sit, since they were not resident freemen of Coventry. This was by no means the first time that this issue had been debated, and consequently Richard Taylor was able to cite the 1621 Leicestershire dispute to support his argument that the residence requirement was merely a guideline. Even Sir Richard Shelton, the solicitor-general, gave his backing to the majority verdict. However, Henry Sherfield warned that if the Commons upheld the election of Greene and Purefoy an important precedent would be set, and he successfully moved for the debate to be adjourned until the House was fuller.29 On 24 Mar. a petition arrived from supporters of Walden and Potter, alleging electoral malpractice, and the case was promptly referred back to the privileges committee, where it was considered on 8 April. The next day the committee’s verdict was reported in the House, and this time Sir Edward Coke, Coventry’s recorder, gave his backing to the popular vote, pointing out that he himself had served for Liskeard without being a resident freeman, and asserting that such qualifications were not obligatory if the corporation concerned chose to dispense with them. The House was not minded to argue with Coke, and Greene and Purefoy were therefore confirmed as Members. As Sherfield had predicted, a precedent was set, and the centuries-old requirement for the election of resident freemen, long obsolete in practice, was finally and formally abandoned.30

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Names of Knights, Citizens, Burgesses and Barons of House of Commons, 1625 (London, 1625), unpag. OR incorrectly states that Harwell replaced Coke in a by-election.
  • 2. Harl. 390, f. 356v.
  • 3. VCH Warws. viii. 256, 263; A. Dyer, Decline and Growth in English Towns, 1400-1640, pp. 28-9; B. Poole, Coventry: its history and antiquities, 401; Add. 11364, f. 13v; Coventry Archives, BA/H/Q/A79/97.
  • 4. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 173v, 181v-2v, 259v; BA/H/Q/A79/97; BA/E/F/37/2, pp. 35, 49.
  • 5. HMC Hatfield, xxi. 42; Coventry Archives, BA/E/F/37/2, pp. 20, 28, 77; BA/H/C/17/1, f. 177v.
  • 6. E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England, 34-5; C66/1750; 66/1846/8; HMC Hatfield, xix. 435, 438-9; Coventry Archives, PA/15/1, ff. 481-2v.
  • 7. SP14/40/25; Coventry Archives, PA/100/12/23.
  • 8. VCH Warws. viii. 263-5; Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/Q/1, ff. 143v, 149, 194r-v, 264; BA/E/F/37/2, pp. 23-4, 37-8, 51, 74-6.
  • 9. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 186v, 188v; BA/H/Q/A79/105-6.
  • 10. Ibid. BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 236, 244; A.A. Dibben, Coventry City Charters, 31-2.
  • 11. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/17/1, f. 259; BA/H/Q/A79/126, 141a-b; APC, 1601-4, pp. 191-2; Add. 11364, f. 15v.
  • 12. Coventry Archives, BA/H/Q/A79/128; BA/G/A/34/36; Bodl. ms Eng. misc. b.27, ff. 151-2; C2/Jas.I/W8/35.
  • 13. Coventry Archives, BA/H/Q/A79/35, 97; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 424; Bodl. ms Eng. misc. b.27, ff. 149-50v.
  • 14. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 220v, 221v-2v, 223v, 228, 234v; C2/Jas.I/C12/35.
  • 15. Salop RO, 1831/14; Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/20/2, p. 97; BA/H/C/17/1, f. 176; CJ, i. 399a; CD 1621, iii. 257; Nicholas 1621, ii. 71.
  • 16. Hants RO, 44M69/L39/35; C219/35/2/95, 97; 219/37/270-1.
  • 17. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/20/2, pp. 82, 114, 181, 186, 191, 239, 244; BA/H/Q/A79/92b-c.
  • 18. Ibid. BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 175v, 201v-2; CJ, i. 396b, 404a.
  • 19. Coventry Archives, BA/H/C/17/1, ff. 268, 276v.
  • 20. Hants RO, 44M69/L39/35; CD 1628, ii. 376.
  • 21. Harl. 390, f. 356v.
  • 22. APC, 1627, p. 52; Coventry Archives, BA/H/M/17/1; BA/H/M/24/1-2.
  • 23. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 51-2; Coventry Archives, BA/E/F/37/2, pp. 51, 92, 127; Add. 11364, f. 15v.
  • 24. Hants RO, 44M69/L39/35.
  • 25. SP14/40/25; C2/Chas.I/W39/53; Coventry Archives, PA/100/12/2, 7, 14.
  • 26. Coventry Archives, PA/100/12/3, 12, 15, 18, 26; APC, 1626, p. 383; 1627, p. 297; SP16/66/3.
  • 27. APC, 1627-8, pp. 152-3; Coventry Archives, PA/100/12/23, 29, 35; SP16/105/102.
  • 28. Coventry Archives, PA/15/1, f. 482v; PA/100/12/18, 31.
  • 29. CD 1628, ii. 37, 44-5, 49-50.
  • 30. Ibid. ii. 78, 91, 368, 374-6, 390.