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:

33 in 1621


26 Feb. 1621RALPH FETHERSTONHAUGH vice Robson, ineligible
19 July 1625(SIR) ARNOLD HERBERT vice Cotton, chose to sit for Great Marlow

Main Article

Morpeth grew up in the shadow of the Norman castle constructed to guard the Great North Road’s crossing over the River Wansbeck. The town was granted a fair and market in 1199, and achieved borough status by 1382. In the early seventeenth century Morpeth boasted a tollbooth, a moot-hall and a grammar school. A post-town on the main route from the Scottish border to London, it was a regular meeting-place for Northumberland’s magistrates and deputy lieutenants. Nevertheless, it was far from flourishing: the parish church was reportedly decayed in 1605, and Morpeth market, despite being one of only seven regular venues in the county, typically generated tolls of just £11 or £12 a year in the early 1610s. Only 17 inhabitants were assessed for subsidy in 1628, with £3 being the highest rating. Physically and politically, the town was still dominated by the castle, the administrative centre of Morpeth barony.2

Devoid of a royal charter until 1682, Morpeth remained a borough by prescription only, presided over by two bailiffs and seven aldermen, the latter representing the interests of the town’s seven trading guilds. This body, which termed itself a corporation, was further dignified by a serjeant-at-mace.3 Morpeth first sent representatives to Parliament in 1553. Elections were announced at the tollbooth, and presumably also held there, with the bailiffs acting as returning officers. Early Stuart election indentures were invariably made out in the name of the bailiffs and the burgesses. Five of the surviving six from this period carried the borough’s seal, but were not signed. The exception was the 1621 return, which followed a markedly different format, listing by name all the participating voters, the bulk of whom also signed or sealed the indenture.4

Almost all of the borough’s Members during the early seventeenth century were nominated by Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle, lord of the manor and barony of Morpeth, who acquired the title to these properties by marriage, and finally secured absolute possession of them in 1601. Although he was an absentee landlord, resident in Cumberland, the presence of his constable in Morpeth castle served as a constant reminder of his local power. Howard presented the borough with a new mace in 1604, but he was an aggressive landlord, who repeatedly sued the corporation to confirm his authority over the town.5

Morpeth was represented in the first Jacobean Parliament by Sir Christopher Parkins, master of Requests, and John Hare, attorney in the Court of Wards. Both men were nominated by Howard, on the recommendation of the secretary of state, Lord (Robert) Cecil†.6 In 1614, the borough returned Sir William Button and Arnold Herbert, two servants of Howard’s brother, the 1st earl of Suffolk.7 Howard was doubtless also responsible for the repeated elections from 1624 to 1628 of the courtier Thomas Reynell, a client of his nephew, the 21st earl of Arundel. Reynell was initially accompanied in 1625 by Howard’s son-in-law, Thomas Cotton, and when the latter opted to sit for Great Marlow instead he was replaced by Arnold Herbert. John Bankes, one of Howard’s lawyers, served as the junior Member in 1626 and 1628.8

Despite Howard’s virtual monopoly of electoral patronage, Morpeth’s voters rejected his authority in 1620-1. The cause of this surprising development was apparently mounting local resentment at his heavy-handed enforcement of his tenurial rights. In November 1619, after losing the latest of their intermittent legal battles with Howard, the bailiffs were forced to issue a humiliating declaration that the corporation would no longer claim title to the town’s courts, markets or tolls. Another major grievance concerned a 200-acre pasture near Morpeth, which the burgesses had been leasing from Howard at the steep annual rent of £500. Believing that this land rightly belonged to them by custom, the burgesses refused to renew the lease when it expired in 1619. While it cannot be proved that such events determined the course of the election in December 1620, the customary bonds of loyalty between the borough and its lord had clearly now broken down, and the voters pointedly opted for prominent figures within their own community: Robert Brandling, a gentleman from county Durham who owned the Newminster Abbey estate just outside Morpeth; and the local rector, John Robson. However, the latter proved unacceptable to the Commons on account of his clerical status, and his election was ruled invalid on 8 February. Indeed, the borough was almost fined for returning him, but was spared on account of its poverty. The corporation, apparently uncertain how to replace Robson, eventually turned to another county Durham man, Ralph Fetherstonhaugh, who was already in London to lobby for the enfranchisement of his county, and doubtless welcomed the opportunity of a platform inside the Commons. Unusually, the voters’ names were listed on the election indenture, a decision which may, perhaps, be seen as an act of continuing defiance towards Howard.9

The acrimony between Howard and the borough lasted until at least 1622, when the peer sought legal advice from John Bankes over the refusal of some tenants to use his corn mill at Morpeth. Although Howard’s nominee, Thomas Reynell, took the second seat in 1624, the senior place went to Sir William Carnaby, who owned a seat nearby at Bothal, and then had no discernible ties with Howard. It is therefore possible that on this occasion the borough again asserted itself, and accepted only one nomination from its irascible patron.10

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. OR.
  • 2. J. Hodgson, Hist. Northumb. pt. 2, ii. 371, 384-5, 400, 419-21, 423, 441, 454, 516; N. Pevsner, I. Richmond et al., Northumb. (2002), pp. 396-7; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 384, 405, 419; 1627-8, pp. 126, 214; 1628-9, p. 374; Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 209; APC, 1619-21, p. 219; S.J. and S.J. Watts, From Border to Middle Shire, 51; E179/158/95.
  • 3. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 428-30, 432, 517; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 209.
  • 4. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 531; C219/37/182-4; 219/38/187; 219/39/153; 219/40/41; 219/41B/183.
  • 5. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 381, 432-3, 516-17; Household Bks. of Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle ed. G. Ornsby (Surtees Soc. lxviii), pp. xviii, xxii; Watts, 58.
  • 6. APC, 1601-4, p. 499; H.E. Bell, Ct. of Wards, 26-7; H.V. Jones, ‘Jnl. of Levinus Munck’, EHR, lxviii. 250.
  • 7. J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 138; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 190; Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 381.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 54; CP, i. 46; Household Bks. of Lord William Howard, 114-15, 200, 209.
  • 9. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 414, 516-17; Watts, 174; CJ, i. 513a-b; CD 1621, ii. 41; v. 442; Vis. Durham ed. Foster, 119; R. Surtees, Hist. and Antiqs. of Co. Dur. iv. 157-8; C219/37/183.
  • 10. Household Bks. of Lord William Howard, 200; Hist. Northumb. (Northumb. Co. Hist. Cttee.), x. 408.