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:

80 in 1614; 120 in 1624


15 Mar. 1604HUGH BEESTON
1 Nov. 1609ARTHUR INGRAM vice Beeston, deceased
 John Cooper
30 Nov. 1620MATTHEW CRADOCK , recorder
21 Jan. 1624MATTHEW CRADOCK , alderman
 RICHARD DYOTT , recorder
 Sir William Walter*
  Election declared void, 22 Mar. 1624
1 Apr. 1624Matthew Cradock , alderman
 Richard Dyott , recorder
1625MATTHEW CRADOCK , alderman
4 July 1625SIR JOHN OFFLEY vice Hatton, chose to sit for Sandwich
21 Feb. 16281MATTHEW CRADOCK , alderman

Main Article

For an English county town, Stafford in the early seventeenth century was surprisingly small. In 1622 its entire population was just 1,550, having increased perhaps by as little as 50 per cent over the previous 250 years,2 whereas that of contemporary Worcester was four times greater, while Exeter in 1638 boasted more than 10,000 souls. Moreover, Stafford was quite eclipsed by the cathedral city of Lichfield, which lay 15 miles distant. Whereas Lichfield was rated at £250 for Ship Money in 1635, Stafford, which enjoyed an annual income of less than £100, was assessed at just £50.3

During the early seventeenth century Stafford’s inhabitants were mainly ‘men of trade or mechanics, as maltsters, innkeepers, vintners, butchers, tailors, clothworkers, glaziers, plumbers, tanners, mercers, shoemakers, glovers, and the like’.4 The predominant industry was evidently the cloth trade, but the town did not prosper, as its cloth was inferior in both quality and quantity to Worcester’s and it had not yet recovered from the collapse in the capping industry that occurred sometime before 1570. By 1575 the town was so decayed that, despite being conveniently located in the centre of the shire, it temporarily ceased to host the assizes.5 The circuit judges were subsequently lured back by the erection of a new shire hall, and hence in 1606 the town witnessed the trial and execution of two of the Gunpowder plotters.6 However, despite the town’s restoration as the county’s administrative centre, it continued to experience severe economic hardship, occasioned by the slump in the cloth trade following the failure of the Cockayne Project. In 1621 rising unemployment led the municipal authorities to acquire the former county gaol as a house of correction. By the following year no less than a quarter of the town’s inhabitants were eligible for poor relief.7 It is scarcely surprising that, under such conditions, the borough seems never to have paid parliamentary wages during this period. Nevertheless, attempts were made to conceal the town’s underlying poverty when James I visited Stafford in August 1617 on his return from Scotland. The borough council resolved to give James the ‘most royalst’ [sic] reception it could, and accordingly it instructed the citizens to paint their houses, repair their roofs and sand the streets. It also had the windows of the town hall glazed and emblazoned with the royal arms, comfortable chairs and stools were purchased for the king and his entourage, and a specially made triangular scaffold was erected in the market-place,

whereupon was placed in the fore part a table covered with a carpet of broad green cloth, hanging down to the ground and fringed with Naples silk, and in the middle of the same the arms of all the kingdoms richly embroidered, and of either side the king’s arms were the arms of the town, richly embroidered.

On entering the market square, James acknowledged the efforts made to beautify the town by announcing loudly ‘that he was come into Little London’.8

Incorporated in 1206, Stafford was, by 1476, governed by two bailiffs and 25 capital burgesses. The bailiffs, elected each October by all the freemen, were chosen from among the capital burgesses. In 1604, for reasons which are unclear, the borough resolved that the number of capital burgesses should be reduced to 21. A fresh charter, costing more than £100, a sum greater than the corporation’s entire annual income, was accordingly obtained in March 1605.9 However, it soon became apparent to those who were dismayed that the multitude of voters ‘never made election of the worthiest sort’,10 that a much more radical overhaul of municipal government was needed. The trouble evidently began in 1599, when a lowly shoemaker inflicted a humiliating defeat on Hugh Beeston, a gentleman originally from Cheshire who had settled in Stafford after marrying into the wealthy Dorington family.11 Matters took a turn for the worse in 1604, when bailiff John Towers, a man described by the town’s coroner, Thomas Worswick, as irreligious and ‘a common adulterer’, caused the town acute embarrassment by being arrested by the county sheriff ‘with the white staff in his hand’. By about 1610, Stafford’s reputation for electing alehousekeepers as its bailiffs was widely lampooned by travelling players throughout the shire. The straw which broke the camel’s back, however, was the announcement by Towers in 1612 that he would seek re-election, alongside Nicholas Seckerson alias Woodhouse, the keeper of an unruly alehouse. In vain a horrified group of Stafford’s leading dignitaries, among them the Clement’s Inn lawyer Richard Drakeford, tried to persuade Towers to withdraw as they were concerned that, having recently been outlawed, he would heap further disgrace on the town. It was not long before Towers and Seckerson, both of whom were elected, revealed themselves to be as incompetent and irresolute as Drakeford and his allies had feared. They countermanded each other’s orders, failed to bind over one man who reviled them to their face, released a suspected horse thief and neglected to keep proper records.12 This was all too much to bear, and in April 1613 the rest of the corporation resolved to petition the king for a new charter that would establish a better form of town government. In place of the single body of capital burgesses it was proposed to erect a corporation consisting of 11 aldermen and ten chief burgesses, and to replace the office of bailiff with that of mayor, whose holder would be elected annually from the ranks of the aldermen. All corporation members would be entitled to vote in mayoral elections, but the rest of the borough’s freemen would be disfranchised. The recorder and six members of the corporation, including Drakeford, described by one of his colleagues as ‘the primo motor of all this business’,13 were assigned to pursue the matter.

Over the next 12 months Drakeford and his allies aroused widespread hostility. The ordinary freemen naturally objected to the plan to disfranchise them, while those on the corporation who realized that they would not be appointed aldermen (and thus mayor) were equally vociferous, fearing perhaps, as Worswick alleged, that ‘such men will be governors as will punish their disorders and idleness, suppress the multitude of alehouses and draw them and their children to spin and card’.14 In July 1613 no less than 60 of the borough’s 80 freemen petitioned the king to be allowed to retain their old charter.15 At around the same time the widow of Sir Thomas Crompton†, who nursed a personal grudge against one of the charter’s key supporters, Matthew Cradock, notified the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Richard Neile, that a clause in the charter would, in effect, turn the parish of St. Mary, Stafford, into an ecclesiastical peculiar. Neile was furious and threatened to use his influence with the king to stop the charter dead in its tracks.16 However, Drakeford and his friends had their own allies at Court, in particular the lord privy seal, the earl of Northampton, ‘who above any others’ they desired to be their high steward.17 By cultivating Northampton and inserting a proviso to protect Neile’s interests,18 they smoothed the charter’s passage. Meanwhile, back in Stafford, they suborned one of their principal opponents by adding his name to the list of prospective aldermen.19 Consequently, in April 1614, despite a last-ditch opposition mounted by some of its former supporters in the wake of that year’s parliamentary election (see below), the charter was finally enrolled. However, the difficulties associated with its passage had caused costs to spiral out of control, so that the final bill exceeded £300.20 This sum lay quite beyond the town’s own meagre resources, and were it not for the fact that Cradock, Worswick and (to a lesser extent) Drakeford pledged their own credit the charter would have proved unaffordable.21

Stafford had enjoyed the right to parliamentary representation from at least 1295. During the sixteenth century elections were dominated by two local noble families, the Staffords of Stafford Castle and the Devereux of Chartley. Consequently, no townsmen represented the borough in Parliament apart from the wool merchant Matthew Cradock the elder in 1554, and his son Francis, who served on four consecutive occasions between 1584 and 1593. This pattern of representation changed dramatically in 1604 as a result of the execution of the 2nd earl of Essex in 1601 and the death in October 1603 of the 3rd Lord Stafford (Edward Stafford I†). The 3rd earl of Essex was a minor, while the 4th Lord Stafford, who inherited a much diminished estate, proved unable or unwilling to exert the electoral influence formerly enjoyed by his father, leaving his kinsman Sir Edward Stafford, who had represented the borough in 1597 and 1601, to find a seat elsewhere. The borough’s choice instead fell on the former bailiffs Hugh Beeston and George Cradock.

Following the death of Beeston in May 1608, the borough was again obliged to surrender one of its seats to an outsider. Elected in November 1609, Arthur Ingram had no known connection with Stafford and was almost certainly nominated by Robert Cecil†, 1st earl of Salisbury, whose advocacy of the Great Contract led him to use his influence to return as many of his friends and supporters to the Commons as possible. At the next general election, in 1614, the borough again hoped to return Members without outside interference. It was widely expected that Matthew Cradock would sit, for having succeeded his father George in 1611 he was almost certainly the wealthiest man in the borough. The remaining place was set aside for John Cooper who, though neither a freeman nor a resident, was nephew to two of Stafford’s leading corporation members, the grocer Richard Dorington and the stapler Thomas Cradock. Shortly before the election, however, the borough received letters of nomination from the earl of Northampton and the 3rd earl of Essex, who had now reached his majority, in favour of two strangers, Thomas Gibbs and Sir Walter Devereux. These letters have not survived, but it seems likely that Northampton nominated Gibbs and that Essex supported his Warwickshire kinsman, Devereux. Thomas Cradock responded by urging his fellow voters to disregard the earls’ requests, ‘saying it was ordinary to deny noblemen’s letters’. However, Matthew Cradock announced that, in view of the earls’ nominations, he would not be standing. He clearly understood that it would be dangerous and ungrateful to rebuff Northampton, whose support in the continuing charter negotiations remained crucial, and that it would also be unwise to upset their near neighbour Essex, who was, after all, only reasserting his family’s traditional right of nomination. Thomas Cradock and Richard Dorington nevertheless refused to withdraw their backing from Cooper. In the ensuing contest the earls’ candidates were elected, whereupon Cooper’s sponsors threatened to prevent the passage of the new charter, despite having previously been among its keenest advocates.22 However, by the time Dorington and Cooper reached London the charter had passed the great seal.23

Before the intervention of Northampton and Essex wrecked their carefully laid plans, Stafford’s leaders had intended that the election result should reflect the balance of power between Matthew Cradock and Richard Dorington, the two most substantial men in the borough. In the event this balance was not achieved until the next parliamentary election, which was held in November 1620. Cradock, now recorder, was elected to the senior seat while the junior place was conferred on Dorington’s son-in-law, the Lichfield lawyer Richard Dyott, who had settled in Stafford after his marriage in 1615. Essex, who had replaced Northampton as the borough’s high steward on the latter’s death in June 1614, evidently failed to send the borough a letter of nomination, probably because he was then serving in the Palatinate. This result was repeated at the general election of January 1624, although Cradock had by then lost the recordership to Dyott after falling out with his corporation colleagues over the use of his malt mill. However, the outcome was questioned by an unsuccessful challenger for the second seat, Sir William Walter, a Surrey resident but a friend of the earl of Essex’s steward, William Wingfield*.24 Walter claimed to have received more voices than Dyott, whom he accused of securing his return ‘upon promise of saving the mayor harmless’. His complaint was duly investigated by the privileges committee, which said nothing about the distribution of votes but found that the election had indeed been flawed, ‘for the warning was given but at seven or eight of the clock in the morning, and within an hour or two they went to election, and of about 120 burgesses in the whole there were 24 absent’. The man responsible for this irregularity appears to have been none other than Richard Dorington, who had unexpectedly produced the precept from the sheriff during a meeting of the town council. In view of these findings, the Commons had little choice but to invalidate the entire election, thereby depriving Cradock as well as Dyott of his seat, although there was no suggestion that he had acted improperly.25 However, a fresh election held at the beginning of April merely confirmed the earlier result.

In 1625 Matthew Cradock retained the senior borough seat. Richard Dorington, on the other hand, briefly lost control of the junior place as Richard Dyott, though still recorder, preferred to represent Lichfield, where he had lived since the death of his father in 1622. The vacancy was filled, not by another of Dorington’s relatives, but by the archbishop of Canterbury’s steward, (Sir) Robert Hatton, who lived in Kent. It is not clear by what route Hatton secured election, but it may be significant that the bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Thomas Morton, had once been a house guest of his late brother, Sir Christopher Hatton*.26 Another possibility is that Hatton was nominated by the earl of Essex, a former comrade in arms of the 18th earl of Oxford, with whom the Hattons were closely connected. In the event, Hatton decided to represent Sandwich, where he had also been elected, enabling Dorington to reassert his interest. Hatton’s replacement was Sir John Offley of Madeley, in north-west Staffordshire, whose ancestors had originated in Stafford. Although the borough continued to benefit from a couple of charitable bequests left by members of his family in the sixteenth century, Offley was loosely connected to Dorington through Richard Dyott, having in 1619 presented Dyott’s younger brother Robert to the Staffordshire rectory of Darlaston. In 1640 Dyott would, in turn, be a party to the contract drawn up on the marriage of Offley’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth.27

Offley was not only re-elected in January 1626 but advanced to the senior seat. His progression was made possible because Matthew Cradock, who also served as clerk of the assize for the Oxfordshire circuit, decided not to stand, but to assign his interest to the young Bulstrode Whitelocke, the son of his colleague, the assize judge (Sir) James Whitelocke*. Cradock resumed his tenure of the senior seat in 1628, though by this time had settled ten miles away, at Caverswall Castle. Cradock’s junior partner that year was William Wingfield, Essex’s steward, who undoubtedly owed his return to his employer. Essex had failed to exert any influence over the previous two elections, probably because he was abroad when these were held. The return of Wingfield may have disappointed Sir Edward Littleton II, who had represented the county in 1624, as he may have approached Stafford for a seat. Certainly the borough’s accounts record that a letter was sent to him ‘concerning the choice of a burgess for the Parliament’.28

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. OR.
  • 2. VCH Staffs. vi. 186; HP Commons 1386-1422, i. 610.
  • 3. K.R. Adey, ‘Seventeenth-Cent. Stafford’, Midland Hist. ii. 152-4, 166. Annual income based on accounts for 1612, as this is one of the few years for which both bailiffs’ and chamberlains’ accounts survive: Staffs. RO, D1323/E1, ff. 62v-4v, 70v-1v.
  • 4. VCH Staffs. vi. 215.
  • 5. E. Kerridge, Textile Manufactures in Early Modern Eng. 21; VCH Staffs. vi. 186, 216.
  • 6. VCH Staffs. vi. 201; ‘Expenses of Judges of Assize’ ed. W.D. Cooper, Cam. Misc. IV (Cam. Soc. o.s. lxxiii), 53-7; J.S. Cockburn, Hist. of English Assizes, 35; M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot, 73.
  • 7. VCH Staffs. vi. 215; Staffs. RO, D1323/E/1, f. 111.
  • 8. J. Nichols, Progs. of Jas. I, iii. 414, 416; Staffs. RO, D1323/E/1, f. 89.
  • 9. VCH Staffs. vi. 222-3; T.J. Davies, ‘Ancient Stafford’, Birmingham Arch. Soc. Trans. xlv. 147; Charters of Stafford ed. J.W. Bradley, 108-32. Bradley mis-dates the charter to 1606.
  • 10. Staffs. RO, D(W)1721/1/4, f. 27v (2nd numbering).
  • 11. Ibid. f. 40.
  • 12. Ibid. ff. 12-13v, 134. Shortly after they left office they were amerced for their offences.
  • 13. Ibid. ff. 14r-v, 16.
  • 14. Ibid. ff. 22v, 24r-v.
  • 15. Ibid. f. 23r-v.
  • 16. Ibid. ff. 18r-v, 23, 38.
  • 17. Ibid. f. 18v.
  • 18. Ibid. f. 27.
  • 19. Ibid. ff. 29r-v, 30v.
  • 20. Ibid. ff. 11v, 29r-v.
  • 21. Ibid. ff. 20v-1, 112-13.
  • 22. Ibid. f. 37r-v.
  • 23. Ibid. f. 43.
  • 24. PROB 11/164, f. 137.
  • 25. J. Glanville, Reps. of Certain Cases (1775), pp. 25-7; ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 47, 91; CJ, i. 745b.
  • 26. DNB sub Morton.
  • 27. PRO, Institution Bks. ser. A, iv. 15; C2/Chas.I/O11/40.
  • 28. Staffs. RO, D1323/E/1, f. 162. We are grateful to Matthew Blake for this ref.