East Retford


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:

83 in 1624


 ?George Lassells* 
20 Jan. 1624JOHN HOLLES 
 ?(Sir) Edward Wortley 
9 Mar. 1624JOHN DARCY vice Rich, chose to sit for Harwich47
 (Sir) Edward Wortley361
c. May 1624SIR FRANCIS WORTLEY , bt. vice Darcy, deceased 
3 May 1625JOHN HOLLES , (Lord Houghton) 
20 Jan. 1626JOHN HOLLES , (Lord Houghton) 

Main Article

Situated on the River Idle in the north-eastern Nottinghamshire hundred of Bassetlaw, 32 miles from Nottingham, East Retford was an important market town and administrative centre, whose suburbs stretched into the neighbouring parishes of West Retford, Clarborough and Ordsall, though these lay outside the corporation’s jurisdiction. A regular location for meetings of the county magistrates, and the centre of the local deanery, East Retford also boasted a significant textile industry, although this declined during this period, as a result of which the urban population contracted from about 1,150 in 1603 to about 850 in the late 1620s.2

East Retford was not incorporated until 1607, when it received a charter which confirmed the previous structure of a common council comprising two bailiffs, who each served for a year, and 12 aldermen, who served for life. However, the charter also restricted the previously untrammelled power of the freemen over the election of borough officers. When vacancies occurred among the aldermen, the freemen’s choice of replacements was restricted to nominees chosen by the council. The same was true in respect of the office of junior bailiff, and in the case of the senior bailiff the council alone determined the matter. It also appointed a steward ‘instructed in the law of England’ to preside over the borough court, who became known as the ‘learned steward’, and a high steward, who was described in 1624 as the borough’s ‘protector’.3

East Retford was represented in Parliament once in the early fourteenth century but did not subsequently return Members until 1571.4 The franchise rested with the freemen, the two bailiffs acted as returning officers and elections were held at the Moothall. Returns were made in the name of the bailiffs and burgesses, and were signed by the bailiffs.5 There is no evidence that the corporation tried to promote any legislation in Parliament or that its Members were ever paid.

Of the 11 Members elected in this period, none were townsmen and only four – Cavendish, Holles, Stanhope and Thornhaugh – were Nottinghamshire residents. Of these four, Stanhope lived in the south of the county. As many Members came from the West Riding of Yorkshire (John Darcy, the Wortleys and Sir Edward Osborne) as from Nottinghamshire, which was probably attributable to East Retford’s location close to the Yorkshire border. In 1624 Darcy was described as ‘a neighbour’.6 Of the remaining three Members, Darrell lived in Gainsborough, just across the border in northern Lincolnshire. Only Sir Nathaniel Rich and Sir Walter Chute were not in any sense local men.

In an account of the second 1624 election among the Clifton manuscripts it is stated that the borough’s high steward had ‘always at every parliament recommended to the town some gentleman of worth for one of the burgesses’. This recommendation, ‘being all the courtesy the town hath been able to afford’ the high steward, had ‘always been yielded to without contradiction’.7 For most of the Jacobean period this claim appears to have been accurate, as one Member at each election can be identified as the known or probable nominee of the high steward, while the other was usually drawn from the local gentry. At the beginning of James’s reign the office of high steward was held by Roger Manners, 5th earl of Rutland, whose family had secured the borough’s enfranchisement in 1571.8 He almost certainly secured the return in 1604 of Sir John Thornhaugh, whose father was his deputy warden of Sherwood Forest.9 Thornhaugh’s junior colleague was Sir Thomas Darrell, whose son had acquired the manor of West Retford, situated across the river from the borough, by marriage. When the 5th earl of Rutland died in 1612 the title passed to his younger brother, Francis Manners. As he was suspected of recusancy,10 the common council preferred to elect as the new high steward the 7th earl of Shrewsbury (Gilbert Talbot†), who in 1614 nominated his under-age nephew Sir William Cavendish II, assuring the council that:

what he shall want in the gravity of grey hairs to do your town any good or to defend it from any prejudice I dare undertake will be supplied in the love and good affection that he beareth unto the welfare thereof and unto all you his good neighbours the inhabitants there, wherein he shall be most assured of my best help and assistance.

In March 1614 Sir Richard Williamson*, the borough’s learned steward, wrote to the council requesting the other seat, arguing that if the borough elected a stranger it might be thought that he was ‘either unwilling or unworthy to be employed … which may be some disreputation to myself but (which I more regard) some disgrace to the body of your incorporation’.11 In the event the remaining seat went to a Kentish courtier, Sir Walter Chute, the son of an old friend of Sir John Holles*. A wealthy local landowner, Holles was elected for the county in 1614.

On Shrewsbury’s death in 1616 the Talbot estates were divided up between the earl’s three daughters. East Retford’s next high steward was thus not a peer but Sir Gervase Clifton* who, ‘being a near neighbour’, was someone ‘from whom the town had received many favours’.12 However, despite a promising beginning, Clifton subsequently found it difficult to maintain the high steward’s parliamentary patronage in the borough, perhaps because of his lower social status. In 1620 he almost certainly nominated the Essex gentleman Sir Nathaniel Rich, a connection of his first wife, who took the senior seat. Sir John Holles, by now Lord Houghton, sought the remaining place for his eldest son, John, but warned the latter on 16 Nov. 1620 that William, 3rd earl of Pembroke, whose wife was one of Shrewsbury’s heirs, and Pembroke’s principal local agent George Lassells, had already ‘spoken to those of Retford for their burgess before I sent to them’. 13 This strongly suggests that Pembroke had nominated Lassells for the seat, but if he did so then Lassells was either rejected or was defeated after a contest, as the place went to Edward Wortley, whose mother held considerable property in the neighbourhood in jointure and whose second husband, William Cavendish†, 1st earl of Devonshire, owned the advowson of the East Retford parish church.

In 1624 Clifton again nominated Rich, who was elected, according to the town clerk Robert Browne, with ‘not one voice dissenting’. However there was ‘great opposition’ for the other seat, indicating that John Holles was only chosen after a contest.14 The other candidate or candidates were not named in Browne’s account, but it is likely that Edward Wortley, now knighted, also stood. Following the election Rich agreed to serve for Harwich, where he had also been returned, at the request of the countess of Devonshire to make way for Sir Edward Wortley.15 However this private agreement cut across the rights of Clifton as high steward and consequently on 23 Feb., the day after Rich formally plumped for Harwich, Clifton’s messenger, a Mr. Saunderson, arrived in East Retford. Having determined that the bailiffs, who were unaware that Rich had been returned twice, had not already promised the vacant seat to someone else, Saunderson presented Clifton’s letter recommending John Darcy, the son of the 3rd Lord Darcy and nephew of Clifton’s close friend Sir Peter Frescheville*. The bailiffs thereupon convened a meeting of the aldermen and freemen for the following day, at which Clifton’s letter was read out. According to Robert Browne, the assembly ‘generally approved’ of its contents, ‘not one burgess gainsaying’ the choice of Darcy. The next day, however, saw the arrival of the countess of Devonshire’s messenger, Philip Spurling, with her nomination of Sir Edward Wortley. On learning that the corporation had already committed itself to Darcy, Spurling refused to withdraw and ‘requested a fair election’. In order to accomplish this, however, he needed time in which to build up a party in the town for Wortley. Fortunately for him he possessed the means to delay the election as, before leaving Westminster, he had obtained the writ for the election which, naturally, he refused to hand over to the bailiffs, claiming that he was first owed a fee for its carriage. When the bailiffs refused payment, on the ground that no fee was due for writs conveyed on the king’s business, Spurling delivered the writ to the sheriff, whose precept did not reach the borough until 5 March. Consequently, the election was not held until 9 March.16

Between his arrival in East Retford on 26 Feb. and the date of the election Spurling succeeded in building up an impressive political machine which, if not successful in securing the election for Wortley, did seriously alarm Clifton’s supporters. The core of Wortley’s support came from townsmen connected to the countess of Devonshire and those disaffected with the corporation. The former group included the bailiff of the countess’ nearby property and the vicar, who used his Sunday sermon to sing the praises of his patroness, ‘naming the countess divers times …, pressing what good her honour had done to him and intended to the town’. In addition the family of Richard Elsam, a prominent supporter of Wortley, came from the manor of Ordsall, part of the countess’ property near the town. Wortley supporters also included Thomas Draper, who had been dismissed as alderman ‘for his miscarriage and evil government’ in 1622, and Richard Welch, a butcher who had long been in dispute with the corporation about commercial premises in the borough.

Spurling used various forms of persuasion to reach beyond his core support. He argued that Darcy was too young to be elected, claiming that he was only 16, whereas he was probably 22. He also alleged that Clifton was actually indifferent to the outcome of the election, said that Clifton was not ‘great enough’ to act as patron for the borough, ‘for he could not speak to the king for the town if need be’, and questioned the legality of Clifton’s office, arguing that ‘the town had no power to make a high steward’. This was presumably a reference to the fact that the office of high steward was not actually mentioned in the 1607 charter. Furthermore, Spurling made various threats and promises on behalf of the countess of Devonshire. She would, he declared, establish a workhouse in the town to relieve the poor if Wortley were elected, but if she did not get her way any enclosures on property leased by freemen from the earl or countess of Devonshire would be levelled and actions brought for trespass. Moreover, the poor would lose their rights to glean in her fields and gather fuel in her woods. Although the poor had no vote, Spurling was clearly hoping to intimidate them into coercing the freemen. Spurling also used more direct inducements to influence the voters. According to Browne, the town clerk, Spurling’s faction ‘spent bravely and entertained their burgesses that they won with brave merriments at the tavern’, inviting their wives as well ‘to make their husbands faster’, and running up a bar bill of £40. Direct bribery was also used to buy the votes of the ‘poorer burgesses’, the going rating varying between £2 and £4 a vote, so that by the eve of the election the ‘common speech through the town’ was ‘ten pounds for three voices’. To prevent any backsliding, those whose votes were purchased were forced to sign an agreement and threatened with prosecution in Star Chamber if they broke their promise. Naturally, Wortley’s supporters subsequently cast doubt on the charge that they had bought votes, claiming that the allegation was ‘slenderly proved by persons of mean condition’, and that there was only one witness per each incident.

To counteract Spurling’s threats and rumours the bailiffs convened a meeting on 1 Mar., at which Clifton’s messenger, Saunderson, reassured the freemen that Clifton was serious in his support for Darcy, and how ‘fearful Sir Gervase was to hazard my Lord Darcy’s honour and his son’s upon the strength of his letter now in absence’. In addition, the bailiffs and aldermen, ‘fearing that … the town should receive an incurable blemish to have a burgess place thus bought and sold’, tried to pack the electorate at this meeting by enrolling new freemen sympathetic to Clifton. The town clerk Browne claimed that all the new freemen were legitimately enfranchised, being the sons of aldermen, but in a paper apparently drawn up for the Commons’ privileges committee, Wortley’s supporters claimed that only one of the 11 new freemen created was a householder and thus eligible to vote: the rest were ‘foreigners and sojourners’. When Wortley’s supporters presented their own sons to be made free, they were rejected on the grounds that they had not given prior notice and had not brought proof of their sons’ dates of birth. The meeting ended in ‘a great uproar’ and the ‘bailiffs were enforced in all haste to adjourn the court and speed themselves away for fear of some mischief’.17

On the day of the election the town authorities took steps to maintain order and overawe Wortley’s supporters. The bailiffs posted a guard of 10 or 12 armed men to stand at the door of the Moothall. Sir George Lassells ‘and other gentlemen that were comed [sic] to the town as well wishers to Mr. Darcy’ were asked to patrol the market place during the election to ‘stay the multitude’. Lassells, presumably a relation of George Lassells*, was a Nottinghamshire j.p. and friend of Clifton’s, who had been sued by Wortley’s elder brother Sir Francis in Star Chamber in 1620 for beating his servant. In addition the bailiffs and town clerk had the serjeant-at-mace arrest two prominent members of the Wortley party. Only the freemen were allowed into the hall, but then, according to Browne:

just as it was plotted beforehand, all the poor of the town, with some others of the commons were brought into the market place accompanied with Vicar Watt and Welch his wife, who emboldened and encouraged them to cry ‘a Wortley, a Wortley’, telling them, that if were not ‘a Wortley’ they and all the town were undone. There upon begun a great cry and noise, with whooping and shouting so loud that we in the hall could not hear one word when the king’s writ was read.

Indeed, the disturbance was so great that Browne was forced to stop reading the writ until the noise had died down. When he finally resumed he was again interrupted, this time by the noise from the market place. Nevertheless the bailiffs were eventually able to proceed to the election, and Darcy was returned, winning the seat by a margin precisely equal to the number of new freemen created by the corporation.18

In his account of the election, Browne constantly emphasized the poverty of Wortley’s supporters. This allowed him to emphasize the use of bribery and threats in Spurling’s campaign, which would have had more influence on the poor freemen, and to portray the Wortley campaign as socially subversive. However, while it is true that only two of the 12 aldermen voted for Wortley, the latter’s supporters included other prominent townsmen, among them at least three former bailiffs.19

In the aftermath of the election both factions considered how to continue their struggle. During the Easter recess Clifton wrote to the corporation thanking it for ‘preserving my reputation withal which hath ever been of more esteem with me then all I possess’. He also supported a proposal by Browne to have ‘some exemplary punishment … mediated, for avoiding this tumultuous and corrupt carriages of elections hereafter, and to reduce the inferior sort to terms of better conformity’. Browne seems to have been thinking along the lines of a prosecution in Star Chamber, probably because he considered that Wortley’s supporters were essentially guilty of riot. However, Clifton advised a petition to Parliament ‘because it is the proper court for complaints of that nature’. He may also have heard that Wortley’s supporters were preparing to petition the committee for privileges, and consequently wanted to bring a counter suit. The corporation agreed with Clifton, and borrowed £60 to fund their own petition, which was subsequently termed ‘the second or cross petition’ by Wortley’s supporters.20

One of the most interesting features of the Wortley petition is that its authors never claimed that their candidate had been rightfully elected. Instead they charged Browne with ‘divers misdemeanours’ and sought a new writ. Clifton himself acknowledged the importance of Browne’s ‘endeavours throughout the whole passage’, praising him as not merely ‘firm and cordial’ but also ‘ingenious’. Before the case could be heard, however, Darcy unexpectedly died. The committee nevertheless considered that ‘the misdemeanours, on either side, touching the undue preparation or disturbance of the election remained fully examinable’, and consequently it proceeded to a hearing. As well as complaining of the creation of the new freemen, Wortley’s supporters protested against the arrest of prominent members of their faction by the town serjeant, who apparently told one voter that ‘he would pull the flesh from his bones if he gave his voice for Sir Edward Wortley’. They also argued that the bailiffs had been openly opposed to Wortley and that the security measures adopted on election day had been unnecessary. The committee decided that offences had committed by both sides, but that three Wortley supporters, Spurling, Watt and Welch, were particularly culpable, as was the serjeant. This finding was reported by John Glanville* to the Commons on 28 May, but he also recommended that as Darcy was dead, the session was drawing to an end and ‘the offences committed were not very enormous, nor proved for the most part, other than by single testimony’, it would be advisable to ‘pass by the matter’. According to Glanville’s own account the House agreed to these suggestions, but the evidence of the Commons Journal suggests rather that it was decided to let the matter sleep until the next session which, in the event, never transpired.21

The election of Darcy proved to be a pyrrhic victory for Clifton. At the by-election held to choose Darcy’s replacement Sir Edward Wortley’s elder brother Sir Francis was returned. Sir Francis was re-elected in 1625, and Sir Edward himself was returned again in 1626, when Sir Francis was a candidate in the Yorkshire county election. As Holles was returned for the other seat on both occasions it would seem that Clifton had lost his influence over the borough. He did not recover it until 1628, at which time Holles was abroad and the influence of the countess of Devonshire may have been diminished by the death of her husband. Clifton brought in Sir Peter Frescheville’s son-in-law, Sir Edward Osborne, bt., and probably supported Sir Henry Stanhope in return for his father’s interest in the county election.22

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Ben Coates


  • 1. P.R. Seddon, ‘Parlty. Election at East Retford, 1624’, Trans. Thoroton Soc. lxxvi. 31.
  • 2. D. Marcombe, English Small Town Life, 10-11, 26-7, 112-13.
  • 3. Ibid. 47-51; J.S. Piercy, Hist. Retford (1828), pp. 31-49; Nottingham UL, CL/LP51.
  • 4. OR.
  • 5. C219/39/149.
  • 6. Nottingham UL, CL/LP51.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 224.
  • 9. Marcombe, 74
  • 10. Oxford DNB sub Manners, Francis, sixth earl of Rutland.
  • 11. Marcombe, 75.
  • 12. Nottingham UL, CL/LP51.
  • 13. Letters of John Holles ed. P.R. Seddon (Thoroton Soc. Rec. ser. xxxv), 247-8.
  • 14. Nottingham UL, CL/LP51.
  • 15. HMC 8th Rep. pt. 2 (1881), p. 29.
  • 16. Nottingham UL, CL/LP51; PROB 11/165, f. 333v.
  • 17. Ibid.; Seddon, 31.
  • 18. Nottingham UL, CL/LP51; Harl. 6806, ff. 253v-4; Marcombe, 77; Seddon, 31; STAC 8/303/17.
  • 19. Marcombe, 84-6.
  • 20. Nottingham UL, CL/C378; Marcombe, 82; Harl. 6806, ff. 253v-4.
  • 21. J. Glanville, Reps. of Certain Cases Determined and Adjudged by the Commons in Parl. (1775), pp. 128-32; Nottingham UL, CL/C378; Harl. 6806, ff. 253v-4; Seddon, 32-3; CJ, i. 797b.
  • 22. Letters of John Holles, 373; HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 569.