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|1388 (Feb.)||John Keen|
|1388 (Sept.)||Thomas Thickness|
|1390 (Jan.)||William Colclough|
|1393||John Cook II|
|1397 (Jan.)||Thomas Thickness|
|1402||John Joce II|
|William Lee II|
|1413 (May)||Hugh Wildblood|
|William Lee II|
|1414 (Nov.)||Richard Colclough|
|William Lee II 1|
|1416 (Mar.)||William Skitby|
|Thomas Chamberlain II|
|1421 (May)||Thomas Baron|
|1421 (Dec.)||Hugh Stanford|
|Thomas Lee III|
Taking its name from the ‘new castle’ built by the Crown in the mid 12th century, the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme began as a small settlement designed to serve the needs of the garrison, but because of its situation on the main route between London and Chester it soon became a flourishing market town. The burgesses obtained their first royal charter in about 1173, and although this document was later lost, it seems to have made provision for the holding of regular markets. Both in 1187 and 1209 (when the population stood at 800 or more) Newcastle was the most heavily taxed and, therefore, presumably the most prosperous town in Staffordshire. Wool, finished cloth, leather and agricultural produce from the surrounding countryside were all sold there. A second charter of 1235 recognized the existence of a guild merchant which from then onwards fought hard, if not always successfully, to protect its monopoly of the retail trade. The borough authorities derived additional revenues from water-mills. In 1285, for example, they agreed to lease the earl of Lancaster’s mills at an annual rent of 70 marks, although they found it difficult to raise such a large sum, and were eventually able to secure a substantial reduction. By 1380, if not before, iron ore was being smelted in the Newcastle area, and the town attracted a number of ironworkers who built up a thriving local industry.2
By a third royal charter, awarded in 1251, the mayor and burgesses were allowed to farm the borough at a rent of 40 marks a year. In 1267 Henry III granted the farm, together with the castle and manor of Newcastle, to his younger son, Edmund, earl of Lancaster, and this resulted in a temporary loss of independence on the part of the townspeople. However, by 1322 they had regained control of their revenues and were paying only £20 a year at the Exchequer. The governing body of the town was clearly well established by 1369, the date of the first of a series of borough records which enable us to document its workings in some detail. Authority was vested in a mayor and two bailiffs who were elected annually on the Tuesday after Michaelmas. They were assisted in the routine business of administration by 24 senior burgesses or aldermen. We may be reasonably certain that this select group also directed the guild merchant which was run by a prima duodena and secunda duodena composed of 24 leading members of the community. The guild merchant played an important part in the government of Newcastle: it was responsible for the drawing up and enforcement of regulations concerning the franchise, and those admitted to its ranks automatically became freemen of the borough. The fee demanded upon enrolment varied considerably, although most newly elected members paid between 10s. and a mark for the privileges thus conferred upon them. Sometimes, as a special mark of favour, the authorities saw fit to dispense altogether with the fine. The admission of Thomas Thickness to the freedom of Newcastle in 1379, two years after he first represented the borough in Parliament, was one such case; and ten years later, in 1389, the young Thomas Podmore was similarly honoured, no doubt because his distinguished father then headed the prima duodena of the guild. It has been suggested that the borough council of later years developed from the guild merchant, a supposition borne out by the similar roles which these two bodies performed. One of the major occasions for law enforcement in the borough was the court leet, at which the mayor, the 24 and two juries (the great and small inquests) transacted a wide variety of business, often on behalf of the guild. Although the government of Newcastle was essentially hierarchical, the community as a whole appears to have been consulted on matters of general importance, such as the need to prevent ‘foreigners’ from trading in the borough.3
Henry III’s award to the earl of Lancaster had notable consequences for the burgesses of Newcastle, since although the borough itself was not absorbed into the duchy of Lancaster, the castle and manor of Newcastle eventually became the property of John of Gaunt, who held them in the right of his wife, Blanche of Lancaster (d.1369). Yet, as we shall see, the influence of the duchy and its officers was not strongly felt in the borough during our period, partly because of the decline in strategic and administrative importance of the castle, which was replaced by Tutbury as the main centre of the duchy’s Staffordshire estates.4
Newcastle first sent representatives to Parliament in 1354, perhaps through the influence of Henry of Grosmont, recently created duke of Lancaster. The borough made regular returns after this date, although not all have survived, and we have no record of who was chosen to sit in 12 of the 32 Parliaments here under review. Because of these large gaps it is impossible to speak with any degree of certainty about the parliamentary experience of the 25 men known to have sat for Newcastle between 1386 and 1421. Even so, the pattern of representation seems to have changed noticeably at the turn of the century, for whereas only two newcomers to the House of Commons evidently served before 1400 (in 1393 and 1399), 16 apparent novices, whose parliamentary careers were for the most part of short duration, represented the borough after that date. All of the five known cases of re-election (both Members in 1386 and one in September 1388, 1393 and January 1397) occurred in the 14th century, as indeed did the seven Parliaments (including that of 1386) to which the burgesses returned two men who had sat before. In contrast to this, Newcastle may have been represented by two novices in the Parliaments of 1404 (Jan.), 1406, 1407, 1416 (Mar.) and 1419; and it is possible that in six other Parliaments between 1404 (Jan.) and 1421 (Dec.) one Member was without previous experience of the Commons.
According to the admittedly limited evidence at our disposal, over half the men considered here (14 in all) sat only once for Newcastle and five were returned twice. William Lee II was elected to three Parliaments and Hugh Stanford to four, but only a few Members could boast longer terms of parliamentary service. William Colclough, Ralph Hough and William Thickness each had a minimum of six returns to their credit, while Thomas Thickness attended nine Parliaments over a period of 34 years. The four Members who represented other constituencies at some point during their careers were, significantly, returned for Newcastle towards the end of our period, when either through necessity or choice fewer resident burgesses were being sent to Parliament. Both William Lee II and John Mynors represented Staffordshire after first sitting for the borough, but Hugh Stanford had already been twice made MP for Bridgnorth before his first election at Newcastle. Some 24 years elapsed between Richard Fitton’s appearance as Member for Newcastle (in 1406) and his later return for Dorset (in 1432), his selection by two such far-flung constituencies being almost certainly the result of his kinship with John Fitton, whose distinguished career in the Church took him first to Lichfield and then to Salisbury. It is interesting to note that Lee and Stanford alone appear to have been lawyers, while Mynors and Fitton were by far the most influential figures to represent the borough during our period.
Thanks to the survival of several late medieval borough records, we can be reasonably sure of the number of MPs who held municipal office or had other strong connexions with Newcastle. At least 12 of the 25 came from families already established in the town, and a minimum of 11 appear to have lived there for most of their lives. Almost all the Members who did not form part of the local community are known either to have owned property in other parts of Staffordshire or else to have been retained by prominent landowners in the county. John Hardhead was, for instance, a follower of John Mynors, while John Cook II wore the livery of the earls of Stafford and was paid from the profits of a neighbouring manor. Of the four MPs who cannot now be identified with any degree of certainty (Thomas Joce, Thomas Lee III, John Tatenhill and Thomas Chamberlain II), two (Joce and Lee) were probably the kinsmen of parliamentary burgesses whose associations with Newcastle are better documented, and one (Tatenhill) may perhaps have lived in the Staffordshire village of that name. The Cheshire landowner, Richard Fitton, appears to have been the only real outsider to represent the borough during our period, although as a relative of Canon Fitton of Lichfield he was not without influence in Staffordshire; and in any case his manor of Gawsworth was close to the Cheshire boundary with Staffordshire.
At least five of the men considered here served one term or more as bailiff of Newcastle before they first sat in the Commons, while Thomas Thickness was appointed during the course of his parliamentary career. Four of their number went on to become mayor, and it is interesting to note how often the current holder of this office was chosen to represent the borough. Both Thomas Podmore (who had never been bailiff) and John Biddulph were elected during their mayoralties (to the Parliaments of 1399 and 1419 respectively), although both had relinquished office when they arrived at Westminster. John Colclough attended the Parliaments of November 1384 and January 1390 while mayor of Newcastle; and William Thickness sat four times (in January 1380, October 1382, and February and September 1388) in this capacity. The latter’s half-brother, Thomas, enjoyed two terms in office between periods of parliamentary service. On the other hand, John Keen had probably become steward of the guild merchant by the time of his second return in February 1388.
Because far fewer municipal officers or known residents of Newcastle were returned after 1399, it has been assumed that the governing body of the borough had ceased to have any say in the choice of parliamentary representatives, and that henceforward the elections were controlled from Tutbury by senior employees of the duchy of Lancaster.5 Yet no evidence has survived to suggest more than an occasional interest, which certainly did not extend to the nomination of at least one ‘official’ candidate at every election. Of all the men returned between 1399 and 1421 only one, John Mynors, was currently an employee or retainer of the duchy of Lancaster, and he had recently been involved in a particularly brutal vendetta against some of its leading officials. The election in May 1413 of Hugh Wildblood, who, like Mynors, had been a follower of the notorious Hugh Erdeswyk*, may perhaps mark the latter’s reconciliation with his erstwhile enemies in the service of the duchy, although it seems hard to believe that this did not involve a significant concession on the duchy’s part. The same readiness to compromise probably resulted in John Hardhead’s return to the Parliament of 1420, since he too had a violent career as one of Erdeswyk’s henchmen behind him. Thomas Baron’s ownership of property in Tutbury might, perhaps, have brought him in contact with duchy officers, but most of the MPs chosen during the early 15th century had other patrons or connexions to thank for their success. Both William Lee II and Thomas Thickness had protracted dealings with the Audleys (to whom Thickness was related), while Hugh Colclough and Hugh Stanford wore the Stafford livery before sitting in Parliament. Moreover, although neither Hugh Colclough nor his kinsman, Richard, owned property in Newcastle itself, they belonged to a family whose members dominated the parliamentary representation of the borough from 1384 onwards. William Bowyer, William Skitby and John Biddulph were also well known in Newcastle, as was William Lee II, whose friendship with the Colcloughs predated his first election in 1406. Thus, although there can be little doubt that a growing number of local landowners came forward for election as the century progressed, this tendency seems to have resulted more from a widespread desire to sit in Parliament on the part of the gentry as a whole rather than a systematic attempt by the duchy to return its own nominees. Nor can it be assumed that the burgesses of Newcastle ceased to exercise their franchise as before: on the contrary, since they were presumably anxious to be represented by men whose influence extended beyond the confines of the borough, they could only welcome such a change. Hardly anything is known of the electoral procedure employed there as the names of the successful candidates and their mainpernors were customarily noted without further detail on the dorse of the original writ of summons. An indented return made in 1407, jointly with the borough of Stafford, was witnessed by the mayor, Thomas Thickness, and other members of the guild merchant, as well as one duchy of Lancaster official and representatives of prominent local clergy.6
With one or two notable exceptions, the Members returned from 1402 onwards belonged to the middle rather than the upper ranks of county society, and only a few held office of the Crown. Both John Biddulph and Hugh Stanford served as escheators of Staffordshire before they first sat in Parliament. William Lee II occupied the same post shortly after his first return for Newcastle, but it was not until much later that he became a member of the local bench and the regular holder of royal commissions. Richard Fitton was forester of Chirk in Cheshire when elected in 1406; John Mynors sat as bailiff-feodary of Staffordshire for the duchy of Lancaster in 1419 and 1422; and Hugh Stanford, who had served one term as under sheriff of the county before his first return for Newcastle in 1420, attended the Parliament of December 1421 (and possibly that of 1422) while again in office. All seven of the Newcastle MPs to serve on royal commissions did so after they had first entered the House of Commons. Hugh Colclough likewise became coroner of Staffordshire when his parliamentary career was over; and his kinsman, William Colclough (the only MP returned before 1400 to achieve public office), spent a term as escheator of Shropshire long after the date of his last election. Colclough was one of the few Members to possess interests outside Staffordshire. Both he and Hugh Stanford owned property in Shropshire, while Thomas Thickness, Richard Fitton and possibly Thomas Lee III acquired land in Cheshire. Fitton, who spent the last 18 years of his life as a j.p. in Dorset, and also served as bailiff of the bishop of Salisbury’s estates there and in Somerset, must have had some holdings in the south-west, too, probably near Sherborne where he was buried. John Mynors seems to have been the only Newcastle MP with estates in Derbyshire, thus adding considerably to his influence in the area. He and Stanford appear among the small group of Newcastle burgesses who eventually took part in the county elections, a privilege not enjoyed by the majority of their less distinguished colleagues.
- 1. C219/11/5.