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


31 Mar. 1604SIR THOMAS SMYTHE I vice Knightley, chose to sit for Northants.2
21 Mar. 16143PHILIP GAWDY
18 Dec. 1620CLEMENT COKE
24 Jan. 1624SIR JOHN ROUS I
20 Apr. 1625SIR JOHN ROUS I
18 Jan. 16264SIR JOHN ROUS I
 Sir John Rous I 6

Main Article

Dunwich had been one of the most important Saxon ports in East Anglia and the seat of a bishopric, but coastal erosion and the silting of the harbour had reduced it to a shadow of its former self by the early seventeenth century.7 In 1628 the corporation stated that their entire town had been ‘swallowed up by the sea, save one parish whose inhabitants are grown so poor that they live only by fishing upon the sea coast in small boats’.8

Incorporated as a royal borough by King John, Dunwich claimed in 1628 to be ‘one of the ancientest corporations of this kingdom’. In the medieval period a mayor governed the town, but by the sixteenth century the corporation consisted of 12 capital burgesses, called the portmen, from whom two bailiffs were annually elected, and a subordinate body known as the Twenty-Four.9 It had sent two Members to Parliament since 1298. The indentures, or at least those which have survived, were signed by the two bailiffs on behalf of the ‘burgesses’ and the ‘proved’ or ‘honest’ men – presumably the freemen – of the borough.10

Canvassing for the first Stuart election began within a month of the death of Elizabeth. (Sir) Robert Brooke, a newcomer to the neighbourhood, applied for a seat on his own behalf, but on 19 Apr. 1603 the corporation resolved in favour of (Sir) Valentine Knightley, a Northamptonshire knight proposed by Sir Edward Coke*, the attorney-general, who owned property nearby and had controlled the nomination of a seat at Dunwich since 1597. The deputy vice-admiral of Suffolk, John Talbot, whom the corporation had recently decided to reward for his friendship to the town, put forward for the remaining seat one of the Stanhopes, almost certainly the vice-admiral, (Sir) Michael*. The corporation agreed to this request, but only if Stanhope would undertake to ‘serve and supply the place in his own person, and by no other by his appointment’. However, ‘if he should refuse to serve as before’ they would elect Brooke. Presumably a seat had been offered to Stanhope previously and he had nominated a third party, whom the borough had felt obliged to return.11

In the event the first Jacobean Parliament was not summoned until 1604. There is no evidence that either Stanhope or Brooke tried to renew their candidacies, and on 12 Feb. the borough elected Knightley together with Philip Gawdy, a Norfolk courtier whose brother was a friend of Coke’s. Gawdy was presumably referring to himself when he wrote to his elder brother, Sir Bassingborne* eight days later that ‘I know a poor younger brother that had a free election for a place without the opposition of any one body’. 12 Knightley was also returned for Northamptonshire and consequently waived the lower status borough seat. Ironically, in view of the borough’s previous insistence on Stanhope not nominating a third person, it was presumably Knightley who persuaded the borough to return Sir Thomas Smythe I at the ensuing election on 31 March. Smythe had been a close friend of Knightley’s brother, Edward, whose son Richard*, Knightley’s heir, was in his care.13

On 6 Feb. the borough had received a proposal from the bailiffs of the neighbouring town of Southwold and the inhabitants of Walberswick for a joint petition to Parliament to allow them to appeal for funds to every parish in England to pay for the repair of the harbour. The borough seems to have been mostly concerned with protecting its privileges, which formed the first two of the ‘special points’ they outlined for a proposed meeting between the three towns. Nevertheless, on 31 Mar. they agreed to a combined suit, on condition that it was made in the name of the ‘port of Dunwich’, and their neighbours shared the costs. On 18 Apr. the borough sent a representative to London with instructions to consult Smythe and Gawdy and to lobby for the harbour repairs. He was also to seek a renewal of the town’s charter. In the event only the latter was forthcoming. Indeed there is no evidence that the repair of the harbour was ever broached in the first Jacobean Parliament. In 1609 the cliffs crumbled to the south of the town, and the main highway disappeared beneath the sea.14

In 1614 Smythe was returned for Sandwich on the nomination of Henry Howard, earl of Northampton. Gawdy was re-elected with the support of Coke, by now chief justice of King’s Bench and a privy councillor, alongside Henry Dade, who had replaced Talbot as deputy vice-admiral. Dade was nominated by the lord chamberlain, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk and ‘others’, who probably included Stanhope. Six days after the election, the borough agreed to levy a rate of £10 towards the cost of sending another representative to London to lobby for the repair of the harbour. On 24 May they resolved to write to one of their former bailiffs, John Harper, who may have been the representative sent two months earlier, to petition the king and Parliament for assistance in improving the harbour, and it was agreed that ‘for the better furthering thereof we perceive some gratuity is to be bestowed’. However, the Addled Parliament was dissolved a fortnight later, and there were no recorded proceedings on this matter in the Commons.15

On 23 Feb. 1619 the Privy Council initiated a national collection to raise money for the repairs, and in the following year it was ordered that the receipts should be deposited in Fishmongers’ Hall in London. The result was disappointing. An undated note in the corporation records that whereas £6,000 was needed only £33 3s. 6d. was received, of which £17 3s. 6d. was incurred in expenses.16

Sir Edward Coke was dismissed from office in 1616, but he was partially rehabilitated the following year. The Dunwich corporation continued to believe he was worth cultivating, and in 1618 they expended 30s. 2d. on wine and sugar for his sons and their friends.17 Consequently, when Parliament was summoned again in 1620 the borough elected Sir Edward son Clement, possibly one of the 1618 visitors, along with Thomas Bedingfield, a young lawyer whose father and namesake was an influential member of the local gentry. Bedingfield was described as ‘junior’ in the return to distinguish him from his parent. Once again the borough Members made no documented efforts to aid their constituency, but the bill for repair of the haven received a first reading on 11 May 1621, possibly thanks to Speaker Richardson, the town’s recorder. It was supported by William Denny, a Norwich lawyer who was later himself recorder of Dunwich, but made no further progress before the summer recess. During the second reading debate on 3 Dec. Sir Thomas Riddell, the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, objected to the proposed imposition on coal, corn and other produce intended to finance the project. The bill was rejected, although only after the question was put three times ‘because the voices [where] doubtful’.18

Sir Edward Coke seems to have lost his electoral interest at Dunwich after the 1621 Parliament, possibly because he was again removed from the Privy Council and suffered a period of imprisonment. In 1624 the borough elected two local knights, Sir John Rous and Sir Robert Brooke. There was no attempt to revive the bill for repairing the haven in the remaining parliaments of this period. Rous and Brooke were re-elected in 1625, but Bedingfield, who by 1627 was the borough’s recorder, replaced Brooke in 1626.19

Brooke was re-elected in 1628, but by that date the town had lost a significant proportion of its maritime population as a result of the wars with France and Spain. Consequently, the corporation, fearing that the local economy would be ruined if more of their fishermen were pressed into service, was anxious to please the lord admiral, the duke of Buckingham. They therefore rejected Sir John Rous, who complained bitterly on 3 Mar. ‘how vilely they have used me’, and elected instead Francis Winterton, a servant of Buckingham’s sister, the countess of Denbigh. A damaged entry in the corporation minute book records the admission of Winterton to the freedom on 24 Feb., and also refers to his election, which presumably took place on that day. On 4 Apr. 1628 the corporation drew up a petition to Buckingham asking for their seamen to be exempted from royal service, but the upshot is not known.20

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. HMC Var. vii. 89.
  • 2. C219/35/2/71. Omitted from OR.
  • 3. HMC Var. vii. 93.
  • 4. Suff. RO (Ipswich), HD1538/208/6.
  • 5. Suff. RO (Ipswich), EE6:1144/11, f. 7.
  • 6. Procs. 1628, vi. 145.
  • 7. J.A. Steers, ‘Suff. Shore’, Procs. Suff. Inst. Arch. xix. 9-11; T. Gardner, Historical Acct. of Dunwich, 43.
  • 8. Suckling, Suff. ii. 251-6; SP16/100/38.
  • 9. A. Ballard, Brit. Bor. Chs. p. cxl; Suckling, 251; T.H.B. Oldfield, Rep. Hist. of Gt. Brit. and Ireland, iv. 561; HMC Var. vii. 86.
  • 10. OR; C219/37/234; 219/38/337; Suff. RO (Ipswich), HD1538/208/6.
  • 11. HMC Var. vii. 86, 88; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 247.
  • 12. Letters of Philip Gawdy ed. I.H. Jeayes, 142.
  • 13. PROB 11/92, f. 317v
  • 14. HMC Var. vii. 89-91.
  • 15. Ibid. 93.
  • 16. HMC Var. vii. 93, 95; APC, 1618-19, p. 378; 1619-21, p. 245; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 17.
  • 17. HMC Var. vii. 95.
  • 18. C181/3, f. 9; CJ, i. 616b, 655a.
  • 19. C181/3, f. 236.
  • 20. CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 584; Procs. 1628, vi. 145; SP16/100/38.