Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||John Parker I|
|1390 (Jan.)||John Parker I|
|1394||Richard Parker I|
|1395||Nicholas Sambourn II|
|1397 (Jan.)||Robert Newman|
|1397 (Sept.)||John Stowell|
|1414 (Apr.)||John Charlton|
|1414 (Nov.)||Thomas Hyweye|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Gore|
|Thomas Corbyn 1|
|1417||William Palmer II|
|1419||William Palmer II 2|
|1420||William Palmer II|
|1421 (May)||William Palmer II 3|
|1421 (Dec.)||William Palmer II|
During the period under review Malmesbury, with its important bridge over the Avon, was easily the largest town in north-west Wiltshire. Its taxable population of 402 in 1377 (only slightly less than that of Marlborough) suggests that it was considerably larger than Devizes or Chippenham and more than twice the size of the neighbouring towns of Calne and Cricklade. In the 13th century Malmesbury had been a local centre of both the leather and the woollen industries. By the end of the 14th century, however, the leather trade had declined, and woollen cloth was the inhabitants’ principal manufacture. It is worth noting in this connexion that among the 27 tradesmen listed in the poll tax returns of 1379, five were woolmongers, four were tailors, and two were fullers, while only two were leather-workers. The great days of Malmesbury’s prosperity as a clothing town (when ‘every corner of the vaste houses of office that belongid to thabbay be fulle of lumbes to weve clooth yn’, and the town produced 3,000 lengths of material a year) lay well into the future; and during our period the surviving records suggest that the borough was not a wealthy one. For instance, only nine burgesses out of a total of 245 taxed in 1379 were assessed at more than 6d. a head, and of those nine a mere three paid as much as 3s.4d.4
Leland remarked that ‘Nature hath dikid the toun strongely’ and Malmesbury, occupying a natural defensive site on high ground between two rivers, apparently originated as a British fortified camp. The continuous history of the town proper begins, however, with the foundation of Malmesbury abbey by St. Aldhelm in 680, for a settlement grew up round the monastery, and this was incorporated as a royal borough by King Edward the Elder in 916. Fourteen years later, as a reward for help given him by the inhabitants against the Danes, King Athelstan granted the borough exemption from the local levies of shire and hundred and, in addition, gave five hides of land two miles south-west of the town, called the King’s Heath, to be held by the burgesses in common. None of these privileges was lost at the Conquest. Indeed, William I awarded the town the privilege of a six-day fair held annually about St. Aldhelm’s day. At the time of the Domesday survey the town contained 51 burgesses who, corporately, held it at farm from the Crown. In 1215, however, by which time Malmesbury had a guild merchant, King John disposed of his rights, together with his interest in the three adjoining hundreds, to the abbot of Malmesbury, in return for an annual payment of £20; and this arrangement continued throughout the later Middle Ages.5 By the 14th century it had become customary for the fee farm to be paid to the queen as part of her dower. Thus, in 1383, Anne of Bohemia, in addition to her lands at Marlborough, Ludgershall, Devizes and elsewhere in Wiltshire, received the farm of Malmesbury. She also obtained the right to the fines and chattels of felons, and the franchise of return of royal writs. The same privileges were assigned to Henry IV’s consort, Joan of Navarre. So, evidently, although the abbot of Malmesbury was responsible for collecting the fee farm of the borough, considerable influence might be wielded there by officers of the queen, including her bailiff in Wiltshire.6
The complete lack of local records during our period makes it difficult to provide an exact description of the way Malmesbury was governed. Nevertheless, it is clear that the guild merchant, which comprised the whole community of burgesses, figured largely. The guild was under the direction of an alderman, assisted by two stewards and a body composed of other ‘capital burgesses’. The latter varied in number: in the reign of Edward I there were at least 17 of them, but by the 16th century no more than ten. In addition to ruling the town, the guild was responsible for administering the King’s Heath; and it also maintained a chapel where prayers were offered for the souls of King Athelstan and his queen, the burgesses, and all benefactors. Admission to the guild took the form of livery of seisin of a share in the King’s Heath, by means of a twig. New entrants also swore an oath of allegiance, undertaking to do nothing to the detriment of the rights and privileges of the borough.7
Disputes between the commonalty and the abbot of Malmesbury had occurred in the 13th century as a consequence of the abbot’s interference with the guild merchant’s trading customs, matters being complicated by the fact that the abbot had his own weekly market within the town. No such confrontations are known to have taken place during our period. Nor is there any evidence that the abbot (who after 1381 sat in the Upper House) ever sought to influence the choice of Malmesbury’s MPs.8 On the other hand, the queen’s bailiff in Wiltshire, who until 1406 acted as the borough’s returning officer, may well have had some say as to who should represent it. Indeed, one of the bailiffs, Alexander Oxenford, was himself twice sent to the Commons, most likely during his term of office; and John Parker I, who sat no less than ten times between 1373 and 1390, was a servant successively of Edward III’s daughter, Isabel, and Anne of Bohemia, who each in turn received the fee farm of the borough and held the franchise of return of writs.
Malmesbury, described as a villa mercatoria, first sent burgesses to Parliament in 1275. Members were again elected in 1295, and from then until 1377 electoral returns survive for nearly half the Parliaments called. However, on five occasions in that period (1332, 1358, 1360, 1361 and 1368) the borough was instructed to make an election, but omitted to do so. Thereafter, representation became fairly regular, although many of the returns are now missing. How, when, where, and by whom the Malmesbury elections were carried out is not known, although the number of local residents returned might well suggest that the hustings took place at a borough court. Whether in the period under review, as in the 17th and 18th centuries, the franchise was restricted to the alderman, stewards and other ‘capital burgesses’, or whether its basis was wider, it is not possible to say. The earliest electoral indenture for Malmesbury, which related to the Parliament of 1453, was witnessed by just two men, of unspecified office, ‘nominibus omnibus burgensium burgi’.9
Unfortunately, no more than 20 returns now exist for the Parliaments of this period, with those of 1419 and May 1421 being so mutilated as to reveal the name of only one Member in each case. Prynne, however, supplies otherwise missing names of the men elected in March 1416. Although summoned to do so, the borough failed to make a return to the Parliament of September 1388. Of the 20 MPs recorded, nine sat just once, three twice, and two three times, although these included Nicholas Sambourne II, who before representing Malmesbury in 1395 had been returned to the previous Parliament for Chippenham; Robert Salman, who after his election in 1399 for both Malmesbury and Calne sat in at least four more Parliaments for the latter borough; and Robert Newman, who, twice returned for Malmesbury, subsequently appeared once for Cricklade. The remaining six were more experienced: even allowing for the gaps in the returns, John Gore was elected four times, and William Blankpayn and John Stowell five each. Nicholas Weston and John Parker I sat, respectively, eight and ten times (most of these occasions falling before 1386), while William Palmer II made as many as 11 appearances, six of them after 1421. Re-election to successive Parliaments was by no means unusual: Parker served in all five assembled between 1381 and October 1383, and Weston, his companion in the House in four of them, went on to secure election to the consecutive Parliaments of 1384 (Nov.) 1385 and 1386. Alexander Oxenford was re-elected in February 1388, William Blankpayn in September 1397, and Thomas Hyweye in 1415. William Palmer II served as a Member in five Parliaments running between 1417 and 1421 (Dec.), sat again in 1427 and 1429, and ended his career by being elected to four consecutive Parliaments from 1432 to 1437. The gaps in the returns are too numerous and dispersed to allow us to assess how frequently newcomers got elected, or to judge the Members’ overall experience of the Commons. Even so, there was a tendency, at least between 1386 and 1417, for parliamentary duties to go to the rounds, although experienced men seem to have been preferred both before and after this period.
None of the Malmesbury MPs are known to have been members of families with a record of parliamentary service for the borough, although Richard Parker I may have been a relative of John Parker I. Yet of the 14 positively identified, at least eight were resident in the town. Four came from other parts of north Wiltshire: Robert Newman, who sat for both Cricklade and Malmesbury, lived between the two towns at Charlton; Thomas Hyweye most probably lived at Christian Malford; Robert Salman, who also sat for Calne, dwelt in or near that borough; and Nicholas Sambourn II held the manor of Lushill, north of Cricklade, somewhat further away. Where precisely Alexander Oxenford resided is not recorded, but he was possibly related to a Malmesbury burgess, and certainly lived in Wiltshire. John Parker I was the only one not permanently resident in the county, for he moved about from one to another of the manors belonging to his successive royal employers, Princess Isabel and Queen Anne, and in the latter part of his life seems to have made his home at Havering atte Bower in Essex.
No names of borough officers survive from our period, and comparatively little is known about the occupations of MPs. Of the townsmen proper, John Stowell and Nicholas Weston were merchants and William Blankpayn was a butcher. As already noted, John Parker I was a royal servant, and possibly Richard Parker I was also employed by the Crown. Alexander Oxenford acted as the queen’s bailiff in Wiltshire, and Nicholas Sambourn II officiated, at least for a time, as the abbot of Glastonbury’s bailiff in the same county. Robert Salman may have been a lawyer. Five Malmesbury MPs served the Crown outside the borough: John Gore, Robert Salman, John Stowell and Nicholas Weston were all made tax collectors in the county at large; Nicholas Sambourn II was appointed to at least three royal commissions of inquiry, all relating to Gloucestershire, and Salman was engaged as a verderer of the royal forests of Pewsham and Blackmoor. None of these men were appointed to undertake their public duties until after they had entered the Commons for the first time. Several Members held land outside the borough, though this was mainly in the immediate vicinity, and only two (Salman and Sambourn) acquired properties of much significance further afield.
As far as can be seen from the rather sparse surviving records, the Malmesbury MPs of our period fall into three loosely defined categories. The largest was composed of the resident burgesses, who occupied at least 17 out of a possible 38 seats. Men of this type were all probably tradesmen of no more than local importance, with few links outside the town (although William Palmer II was once described as ‘esquire’). It is likely that most of the six MPs who have not been properly identified (and who together account for ten seats) belong to this first category. Less numerous than they were the members of the minor gentry: Robert Newman, Robert Salman and Nicholas Sambourn II, who all told represented the borough on only four occasions (all between 1395 and 1399). A third group, the royal servants, was composed of John Parker I, Alexander Oxenford, and, less certainly, of Richard Parker I, these appearing for Malmesbury on at least five occasions in the period. As John Parker was the only real outsider, it is clear that the borough (unlike some of its neighbours) did not to any significant degree return non-burgesses or the nominees of great men, and this policy was continued in the period between 1422 and 1450, in the course of which only one non-resident (Walter Studley of Calne) is known to have been elected.10
Author: Charles Kightly
- 1. Return mutilated: see W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1055.
- 2. Second name torn off.
- 3. Second name torn off.
- 4. VCH Wilts. iv. 120, 133, 234, 237, 296, 303, 309; E179/239/193 m. 15; J. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 130-3.
- 5. Wilts. Arch. Mag. viii. 15-32; J. Moffatt, Malmesbury, 106, 128; Reg. Malmesburiense ed. Brewer and Martin, i. 329, 339-40; ii. pp. xxxi, xxxii, xliii, xliv; CPR, 1381-5, p. 54.
- 6. Reg. Malmesburiense, i. 430; CPR, 1358-61, p. 238; 1381-5, p. 126; 1401-5, p. 235; CCR, 1381-5, p. 328.
- 7. Wilts. Arch. Soc. Recs. Branch, v. 28-29; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xlvii. 322; C47/46/443; Reg. Malmesburiense, ii. 153.
- 8. Reg. Malmesburiense, ii. 393-4; CChR, i. 400; Wilts. Arch. Mag. viii. 32.
- 9. C219/9/5, 16/2; Moffat, 128.
- 10. J.T. Driver, ‘Burgess Repn. Wilts.’ (Oxf. Univ. B. Litt. thesis, 1951), and HP ed. Wedgwood 1439-1509, Biogs., both sub nomine.