Much Wenlock


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 of Wenlock liberty

Number of voters:

152 in 1599


 Rowland Lacon
 ?Henry Mytton

Main Article

Sited on a ridge west of the Severn, Much Wenlock’s prosperity was founded upon the sale of March wool from sheep grazed on Wenlock Edge. However, the town itself, with a population of no more than 600-700 in the early Stuart period, was in decline: the prosperity which had built its magnificent market hall in the fifteenth century was but a memory, while the borough was not even designated a staple market for the wool trade in 1617. Meanwhile, such industry as the town did possess was being eclipsed by the growth of coalmining at nearby Broseley.2

Wenlock secured parliamentary representation under its charter of 1468, which granted the borough civil authority over the parish of Holy Trinity. As this church had originally served all the priory’s estates, the municipal jurisdiction was tacitly extended to cover the entire monastic liberty, comprising several dozen manors on both sides of the Severn. This broad interpretation of the charter opened the borough to the gentry of a substantial swathe of south-eastern Shropshire: a burgess list from 1599 shows only one-third of the 152 burgesses as residents of Wenlock proper.3 Thus gentry families who had invested in ex-monastic estates in the liberty were easily able to intervene in municipal politics. Many of the borough’s bailiffs were drawn from the gentry of the liberty, while parliamentary election indentures include a cross-section of the liberty’s elites as attestors, and habitually describe the electorate as the burgesses of the ‘town, borough and liberty’.4

Almost all of Wenlock’s early modern MPs can be linked to the liberty, particularly the Lawleys, who acquired the site of the priory and several manors in the immediate vicinity of the borough in the 1540s.5 The head of the most influential branch, Thomas Lawley†, augmented his local influence through the purchase of Wenlock manor and ex-chantry lands within the borough in 1600, and at the general election of 1604 he secured the return of two of his brothers. This was the only occasion on which the family took both seats, and there may have been some dissent, as the bailiff, John Lutwich†, departed from usual practice in neglecting to include the names of any attestors upon the indenture. It is unlikely there was a contest, as the only credible alternative was Lawley’s 18-year-old heir, Edward, who was admitted a freeman at around the time of the election. However, his father ultimately decided to send him to Oxford rather than Westminster.6

Edward Lawley subsequently represented his home town in the Parliaments of 1614 and 1621. The other seat in 1614 went to Rowland Lacon, heir to Sir Francis Lacon* of Kinlet, whose ancestral home at Willey lay within the borough’s liberty. In 1618 Lacon sold this property to the Worcestershire lawyer John Wylde*, whose influence at Droitwich meant that he had no need of a parliamentary seat elsewhere.7 Thus the junior seat at Wenlock in 1621 fell to a comparative outsider, Thomas Wolryche, whose main seat at Dudmaston lay on the other side of Bridgnorth. However, Wolryche had recently acquired the liberty’s manor of Hughley as part of an agreement to restructure the debts of his uncle William Gatacre, and he was admitted burgess on the day of his election. His return was doubtless arranged by the town’s recorder, (Sir) Edward Bromley*, a trustee of Wolryche’s estates under the terms of his father’s will.8

The Lawleys’ electoral interest at Wenlock underwent a major upheaval during the 1620s. Thomas and Sir Edward Lawley died in quick succession in 1622-3, and their estates passed to Sir Edward’s under-age daughter, Ursula. Sir Edward’s widow also died in December 1623, leaving Ursula to the custody of her mother and Henry Mytton, a gentleman of the privy chamber and uncle of the local man Henry Mytton of Shipton, who had been borough bailiff in 1622-3.9 Within a month, the courtier had become a freeman and MP for Wenlock, but his subsequent decision to carry Ursula off to his Leicestershire home alienated her grandmother, while he apparently upset the Wenlock corporation with a ham-fisted attempt to influence the election of the borough bailiff in September 1624.10 The corporation revenged themselves upon Mytton at the next parliamentary election in May 1625, when they returned Thomas Lawley, a London Draper descended from another branch of the local family, who had recently inherited the Spoonhill estate just south of Wenlock. Mytton may have put himself forward as a candidate, but, probably to quash any notion of a challenge, the bailiff endorsed Lawley’s return with the words ‘nemine contradicente’.11

Although he remained a London resident, Lawley was re-elected at Wenlock in both 1626 and 1628. However, Wolryche, having served in three Parliaments, was replaced by Francis Smalman II in 1626. It is possible that Wolryche contested the election, but the most straightforward explanation for his disappearance from the hustings is the failure of Recorder Bromley, who died only months later, to nominate his protégé. Smalman’s family had estates at Wilderhope, which abutted the liberty’s manor of Shipton, while he and his father were both burgesses of Wenlock, and had formerly lived with the Lawleys at Spoonhill.12 In August 1626 the corporation appointed the Gloucestershire lawyer Sir John Bridgeman as recorder in succession to Bromley. His eldest son George was made a freeman in the following month, and succeeded Smalman as MP in 1628.13

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 275.
  • 2. VCH Salop, x. 429-30; J.U. Nef, Rise of the Brit. Coal Industry, i. 64-5, 96-7; Stuart Royal Procs. ed. J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, i. 367.
  • 3. P.J. Bowden, Wool Trade in Early Modern Eng.; VCH Salop, x. 195-6, 203-5; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 270-3.
  • 4. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 263-79; C219/35/2/39; 219/40/228; 219/41A/51.
  • 5. VCH Salop, x. 416-17, 420-1; HP (Commons) 1558-1603, i. 232-3.
  • 6. C219/35/2/38; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 273.
  • 7. Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 308; VCH Salop, x. 450.
  • 8. C142/345/135; C3/389/9; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. vi. 274-5, 277.
  • 9. C142/393/142; 142/401/105; PROB 11/142, f. 502.
  • 10. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. vi. 275-6; WARD 10/43/1.
  • 11. C142/431/98; C219/39/166.
  • 12. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. xi. 12; ibid. (ser. 2), vi. 276.
  • 13. Vis. Glos. (Harl. Soc. xxi), 27; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 277.