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

Number of voters:

at least 324 in 1614


c. Mar. 16041SIR RALPH GREY
 Sir Ralph Grey
?12 May 1614SIR WILLIAM SELBY II vice Selby, ineligible to sit
14 Dec. 1621SIR WILLIAM GREY , bt.
12 Feb. 1624SIR WILLIAM GREY , 1st bt.
c. Mar. 1624SIR JOHN FENWICK vice Grey, called to the Upper House
4/6 March 16282SIR JOHN FENWICK

Main Article

Prior to James I’s accession in 1603, Northumberland’s history was dominated by its location on England’s northern border. Following centuries of intermittent war with Scotland, the county was run effectively as a military zone, divided into Marches, and exempted from national taxation so that local resources could be utilized for defence purposes. Under the early Stuarts, with peace now supposedly assured, serious efforts were made to develop a more conventional administrative framework. However, although James appointed a lord lieutenant, the earl of Cumberland, in the opening months of his reign, the local militia was not brought into line with the national model until the late 1620s, and the Crown relied on special Border commissions to enforce law and order until 1625.3 The routine processes of government were further hampered by the fact that Northumberland’s two biggest towns, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, were independent jurisdictions, while the north-east of the county was officially part of the palatinate of Durham.4

Northumberland was also fragmented socially and economically. The sparse population of around 85,000 was unevenly distributed, the eastern lowland region being more densely inhabited, while the poorer highland zone was widely considered to be a hotbed of crime.5 Local recusancy levels were habitually exaggerated during this period, but several of the most important gentry families, such as the Greys and Widdringtons, displayed strong Catholic leanings. This naturally caused tensions within the county elite, particularly at such times of crisis as the Gunpowder Plot.6 Northumberland’s economy was still primarily agricultural, but food production scarcely met local needs, while the wool from the region’s sheep was so coarse that it was unsuitable for cloth, and had to be exported in its raw state.7 The burgeoning coal industry, an isolated success story, was virtually monopolized by Newcastle’s merchants, and competition elsewhere in the county was severely restricted by the heavy capital outlay required for mining.8 Despite these difficulties, Northumberland’s tax exemption was ended in 1610, and Parliament rejected efforts to protect the wool trade in the 1620s.9 The struggling population could expect little leadership from its aristocratic landlords, who were almost exclusively non-resident, and whose rent demands drained the county of coin. Instead, the key figures were the major gentry, whose continuing hold over their own extended kinship groups perpetuated clan-like local rivalries. For example, the effects of Ralph Grey’s bitter disputes during the 1590s with Henry Widdrington and Ralph Selby were still being felt in the county’s parliamentary contests several decades later.10

Northumberland’s elections were held at Alnwick, the official county town. The average number of voters is unclear, for the surviving indentures ordinarily just list the principal gentlemen present, then add a phrase such as ‘many other electors’. However, more than 300 people attended the first election of 1614, and the turnout was probably even higher at the second. On that occasion there was a serious attempt to record all the voters. Although the indenture has faded badly, nearly 200 names can still be identified, while those that are now illegible probably amounted to a similar total. This indenture is also untypical in that it was written in English, rather than the customary Latin.11

During Elizabeth’s reign, Northumberland’s electors routinely awarded at least one seat to an outsider linked to the county’s military establishment or the Council in the North.12 However, with the accession of James I, and the formal end to hostilities with Scotland, this pattern changed. The 1604 election saw the returning of those two prominent gentlemen, Sir Ralph Grey and Sir Henry Widdrington, both of whom had been knighted in the early days of the new reign.13 The same result seemed likely in 1614, but while Widdrington was safely re-elected, Grey was unexpectedly defeated, apparently through malpractice by the sheriff, Sir Ralph Selby, with whom Grey had quarrelled in the 1590s. According to subsequent complaints in the Commons, Selby failed to announce the choice of candidates until half-an-hour before the election, and ignored around 300 voters who had turned up to support Grey. He then extended the election by another half-hour, until he had counted 24 votes for his own brother-in-law, Sir George Selby, a wealthy Newcastle gentleman, whom he duly returned. In the event, this stratagem foundered because Sir George was currently sheriff of county Durham, and therefore deemed ineligible by the Commons. Nevertheless, in the subsequent election in early May Sir George’s brother, Sir William Selby of Shortflatt, was chosen to replace him. Grey’s complaints about the management of the original election were not discussed at Westminster until 24 May, and even then Sir Ralph Selby’s alleged fraud in discounting legitimate voters excited Members less than his indisputable offence in returning a fellow sheriff. Although Widdrington, a kinsman of the Selbys, distanced himself in the Commons from the whole affair, he was probably not sorry to see Grey defeated, and may well have helped to muster the opposition to him. It was noted in the House that a certificate defending Sir Ralph Selby’s conduct was signed mainly by the electors whom he had counted, and that around a third of these belonged to the Selby and Widdrington families.14

These rivalries continued in December 1620, when Widdrington was elected for a third time, but had to yield the senior seat to Grey’s son, Sir William, who was a baronet. Widdrington felt this indignity very strongly, and on 27 Apr. 1621 he pointedly complained in the House about people who achieved higher social status by purchasing honours.15 By 1624 Widdrington was dead, clearing the way for Sir William Grey to be returned again, alongside his own brother-in-law, Sir Francis Brandling. However, this double triumph was short-lived. Grey was created an English peer one day before the election, which rendered him ineligible to sit in the Commons, and he was replaced by Sir John Fenwick, another prominent local gentleman who had formerly been one of Widdrington’s closest associates.16 Fenwick retained his seat for the remainder of this period. He was again partnered by Brandling in 1625, but the new Lord Grey was now spending increasing amounts of time in London, and his electoral influence apparently ended at this point. The junior knights of the shire in 1626 and 1628 were Sir John Delaval and Sir William Carnaby, minor Northumberland gentry who were active figures in local government.17

Of the eight legitimate Members, only Widdrington proved to be an effective spokesman for his county. Appointed a commissioner for the Anglo-Scottish Union treaty in 1604, he campaigned successfully in the Commons in 1607 against the practice of remanding, whereby an Englishman accused of committing a crime in Scotland could be tried under Scottish law.18 By comparison, Sir Ralph Grey’s principal initiative in 1604 was a short-lived bill to ease the financial pressure on recusants, which would primarily have benefited his own circle, while in 1610 he failed to convince the House that Northumberland should continue to be exempted from paying subsidies.19 In 1621 both Widdrington and Sir William Grey opposed a ban on the export of local wool, but they were merely supporting a motion by a Berwick-upon-Tweed Member, Sir Robert Jackson, which was in any case rejected.20 Thereafter, Northumberland’s knights rarely contributed to the Commons’ proceedings except in connection with the presentment of local recusant office-holders.21

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. SP14/7/82.II.
  • 2. OR.
  • 3. S.J. and S.J. Watts, From Border to Middle Shire: Northumb. 1586-1625, pp. 14-15, 30, 136, 201; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 102; 1627-8, p. 214.
  • 4. Watts, 15; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 113; 1625-6, p. 165.
  • 5. Watts, 23-4, 40-1.
  • 6. Ibid. 84-6; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 457-9; xix. 3-5; CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 313, 543.
  • 7. Watts, 49-51; CJ, i. 653a; CD 1621, ii. 478; APC, 1618-19, p. 137.
  • 8. Watts, 51-4.
  • 9. CJ, i. 449b, 628a, 653a.
  • 10. Watts, 59; W. Brereton, Travels in Holland, Eng., Scotland and Ireland ed. E. Hawkins (Chetham Soc. i), 89; CBP, 1560-94, p. 463; 1595-1603, pp. 250-1, 278, 286-7.
  • 11. C219/36/7; 219/37/177; 219/38/186; 219/40/2; 219/41B/182; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 337.
  • 12. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 219.
  • 13. WARD 7/70/192; C142/242/95; Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 100.
  • 14. Som. RO, DD.SF1076; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 30, 37-40, 74, 78, 332-4, 336-7; Watts, 263-5.
  • 15. CD 1621, v. 109.
  • 16. WARD 7/70/187; Hist. Northumb. (Northumb. Co. Hist. Cttee.), xiv. 328; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 465; 1623-5, p. 161.
  • 17. C142/300/185; Hist. Northumb. xiii. 181; Recs. of Cttees. for Compounding in Durham and Northumb. ed. R. Welford (Surtees Soc. cxi), 144.
  • 18. CJ, i. 208b, 1047b-8b; HMC Hatfield, xix. 155.
  • 19. CJ, i. 449b; 948b.
  • 20. Ibid. 653a; CD 1621, vi. 214.
  • 21. CJ, i. 776b; Procs. 1626, ii. 81; CD 1628, ii. 41.