Wallingford

Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Elections

DateCandidate
1386Robert Oxenford
 John Derby
1388 (Feb.)Roger Milborne
 John Derby
1388 (Sept.)Richard Brugge
 John Bernard II
1390 (Jan.)Roger Milborne
 John Coterell
1390 (Nov.)
1391Richard Horlok
 William Hende
1393William Cary
 John Coterell
1394John Derby
 John Coterell
1395John Derby
 John Coterell
1397 (Jan.)Robert Oxenford
 John Coterell
1397 (Sept.)Walter Colet
 John Coterell
1399Walter Hervy
 John Culham
1401
1402
1404 (Jan.)
1404 (Oct.)
1406Walter Hyndon
 William Essex
1407William Clowd
 John Culham
1410William Coterell
 John Coterell
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)William Ravenyng
 Lewis John
1414 (Apr.)Robert Deffonte
 Robert Carswell
1414 (Nov.)
1415
1416 (Mar.)William Ravenyng
 Thomas Swalwyk 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417
1419Richard Dalgate
 John Denby I
1420Richard Dalgate
 John Coterell
1421 (May)John Mercham
 John Coterell
1421 (Dec.)John Warfield
 William Bodyngton

Main Article

Wallingford, at the time of the Domesday survey the largest and richest town in Berkshire, had reached the peak of its prosperity by the end of the 12th century, declining thereafter, if only gradually at first. This regression, gaining momentum during the reign of Edward III, accelerated throughout the period under consideration until, by 1438, the place was practically deserted. By then the number of parishes in the borough had fallen from 12 to four, two of which, moreover, were so depopulated as to be unable to pay any tithes.2

The decay of Wallingford must be attributed to a number of factors, and is not difficult to trace. While the burgesses had long found it hard to pay the established royal fee farm of £42 p.a. this problem became especially acute under Richard II. In 1382 they were ordered to pay the farm ‘without delay or excuse’, but two years later, at the supplication of the King’s mother, Joan of Kent (who usually resided at Wallingford castle), they were allowed for a period of seven years a reduction by half of the amount due as being too poor to pay the whole sum.3 In 1391, after the townspeople had petitioned for a longer period of grace, on the ground of impoverishment by ‘pestilenz’, they were granted a further three years’ remission of half the farm. The situation plainly continued to deteriorate, for in 1396 a reduction of the fee farm for no less than 20 years was allowed, the burgesses claiming that they were unable to pay in full, partly because of the effect of pestilences, partly because of a loss of revenue occasioned by the death of Queen Anne and the removal of her entourage. Then, in 1416, relief was extended for yet another 20 years, this time on the basis of the ‘great charges’ which had ‘depressed and impoverished’ the inhabitants.4 When, in 1438, the burgesses were still unable to pay their farm, a royal commission, set up under the constable of Wallingford castle, William, earl of Suffolk, found that many people ‘through great charges falling on them by misfortune’, had left the town since 1416, others had died of plague or disease, and none had come to replace them, so that much of the town was in ruins and only 44 householders, many of them old men or widows, remained. The burgesses declared that no more than £10 p.a. could be paid, but even so, although the fee farm was eventually reduced, £15 a year was still demanded from them.5

The principal reason for Wallingford’s impoverishment appears to have been recurrent attacks of some epidemic disease—possibly bubonic plague, of which there was at least one serious outbreak in Oxfordshire and Berkshire in 1361—which killed or drove away many of the inhabitants. Among those who left the town for this reason may have been Walter Colet. Other factors no doubt helped to worsen the situation. One of these was the comparative lack of use of the castle as a royal residence after 1400. More important was the diversion of the road between London and the Gloucestershire wool towns from the bridge at Wallingford to the one built in 1416 at Abingdon. (Leland stated that the Abingdon bridge caused ‘a gret decay to Wallingford’.)6 The decline of the town appears to have resulted in a diversification of the trades followed by its inhabitants, who in happier times had been well known as weavers. In our period, several local merchants dealt in a wide variety of goods, suggesting that specialization of functions was no longer profitably feasible. John Derby and Richard Horlok, for instance, both traded in grocery, fish, meat and ironmongery.

Wallingford had been a royal borough since before the Conquest: it had always been responsible for its own fee farm, this rent being paid to the receiver of the honour of Wallingford, of which the borough was a parcel. It is not surprising, therefore, that the castle, an important royal residence and caput of the honour, literally dominated the town; nor that royal servants and their associates were influential in its government and parliamentary representation. John Derby, employed initially by Joan of Kent and eventually as receiver of the honour, was at least four times MP and twice mayor, while John Coterell, another crown official, sat in at least nine Parliaments and served as mayor for four terms, as well as occupying the receivership for many years. John Culham was engaged on works at the castle, and the influential Lewis John and John Warfield (nine times an MP), were both close associates of the then constable, Thomas Chaucer* of Ewelme. In fact, in more than two-thirds of the Parliaments between 1386 and 1421 for which the names of Members are known, Wallingford was represented by at least one royal servant or close associate of the constable.

As a royal borough, Wallingford enjoyed many liberties. Most of these were embodied in the charter granted to the town by Henry II in 1156 as a reward for its services during his war against King Stephen. Among other things, they were allowed a guild merchant, members of which enjoyed the exclusive right to trade within the borough. Burgesses were exempted from being called before the King’s justices or forced to engage in hard or menial work for the Crown. In addition, they were granted freedom from commercial tolls throughout England. This charter was several times confirmed during the period under review, although in 1403 an attempt to uphold the town’s right of free trading against the City of London proved unsuccessful. Among the duties of the burgesses was the upkeep of the bridge, for which they from time to time received grants of portage. By 1429, however, the decline of the town had rendered the bridge so ruinous as to cause accidents.7 The town was governed by the mayor with the assistance of two bailiffs, and three aldermen ruled the guild merchant, which comprised the whole community of burgesses. Other town officers proper were the two constables, two bridge wardens, and (at least after 1410) a town clerk. New members were admitted to the guild upon payment of a fine, which varied in size: Richard Brugge, for instance, paid 13 s.4 d. to enter the guild in 1383, whereas two years later Richard Horlok paid only 3s.6d.

Wallingford first sent representatives to Parliament in 1295, and continued to do so thereafter without intermission. On receipt of a precept from the sheriff of Berkshire, the burgesses proceeded to elect and then make a return to the same official. After the statute of 1406 this return took the form of an indenture, but such indentures as remain vary greatly: those of 1414 (Apr.), 1419, 1422, 1423 and 1425 were attested only by the mayor and aldermen; others include the names of bailiffs and up to 12 other witnesses (as in 1410 and 1413). The return usually recorded that the election had been made with the assent and consent of all the burgesses, although in 1420 and between 1422 and 1427 the assent ‘certorum burgensium’ is specified. Elections took place at the guildhall. That of May 1421 was held on the same day as was the county election, but in all other known cases it happened some time afterwards—between three and 20 days later.8

The names of Wallingford’s MPs survive for only 21 of the 32 Parliaments of this period, and number 26 in all. Over half the total, 14, may have sat only once, though two of these, Lewis John and Walter Colet, were subsequently returned by other constituencies; five are known to have sat twice, and three others three times. Roger Milborne was elected on six occasions, mainly before 1386, and John Derby on four between 1386 and 1395. John Coterell dominated the representation of the early part of the period with at least nine returns to his credit, although his record was to be equalled by John Warfield in the late 1420s and the 1430s. Coterell was elected to five consecutive Parliaments from 1393 to September 1397, having as his companion in both 1394 and 1395, at a time when the borough was pressing for a continuance of its reduced fee farm, another royal official, John Derby. Richard Dalgate was also elected consecutively in 1419 and 1420, and his fellow burgess on the latter occasion, Coterell, was re-elected in the spring of 1421.

The gaps in the returns are too numerous and dispersed to allow for any valid estimate of how many Members were novices, and for the same reason it is impossible to qualify experience. We can be certain, however, that in at least five Parliaments Wallingford was represented by two men with previous parliamentary experience, and in nine more one of the Members was qualified in this way. Most of the MPs were resident in the borough, though Richard Horlok and Richard Brugge, and probably John Mercham too, originated outside the town, and Walter Colet subsequently left Wallingford for Oxford. The only real outsider was Lewis John, who had no known association with Wallingford, but was a friend and plainly the nominee of Thomas Chaucer, the constable. John Coterell, John Derby and John Warfield, though extensively employed outside the town, nevertheless all appear to have lived there.

Eighteen out of the 26 known parliamentary burgesses held office in the town: 11 as bailiffs, eight as aldermen, six as mayor, two as bridge wardens, one as a constable and one as town clerk. Four of the mayors served more than one term. Only rarely, however, was a man currently occupying one of these posts actually returned to Parliament. The only known instances occurred in 1410 and 1421 (May), when the aldermen John Coterell and John Mercham were respectively elected, in 1420 when a bailiff, Richard Dalgate, was chosen, and in 1421 (Dec.) when William Bodyngton, the town clerk, was returned. Seven of the 18 first sat in Parliament before discharging local office. Of the 21 Members returned who were engaged in trade, four—a weaver, a draper, a mercer and a tailor—were connected with the clothing industry, three were victuallers, three were shoemakers, one was a general merchant, and there was a stonemason, a carpenter and a miller. Of the remaining five Members, William Coterell’s occupation is not recorded, Lewis John was a prominent London vintner and master worker of the London and Calais mints, John Coterell and John Derby were royal servants, and Warfield was a lawyer, a gentleman in his own right and the manager (for the Stonors) of a large estate. The last three were the only MPs known to have owned land or property outside Wallingford and the connected villages of Clapcot and Crowmarsh.

Few of the parliamentary burgesses of the period served the Crown outside the town, although Richard Horlok once assisted in the collection of a parliamentary subsidy in the county at large. Warfield held the elective office of coroner of Berkshire from 1430 to 1443, while the royal servants, John Coterell and John Derby, not only acted as tax collectors in the county, but also, and much more important, served as receivers of the honour of Wallingford, Coterell doing so for at least 17 years. For some time Derby was employed as purveyor of the works at Wallingford castle, and Coterell as controller and surveyor of the same. The latter, who served as a royal official in Wallingford for 30 consecutive years (during which he sat in the Commons nine times), was also appointed to royal commissions of inquiry.

A clear distinction can therefore be made between the 21 MPs who were townsmen proper and the five others directly connected with the honour of Wallingford or its constable. The former were all insignificant figures, who were not often returned, whereas the latter—the Coterells, Derby, Warfield and Lewis John sat 24 times between them. None of the townsmen proper (except Colet) appear to have had significant connexions outside the borough, whereas Warfield and John, and to a lesser extent John Coterell, too, were closely associated with that most powerful local gentleman, Thomas Chaucer. The increasing domination of Wallingford’s parliamentary representation by royal servants and friends or associates of the constable can be clearly seen in this period, and was directly linked to the rapid commercial decline of the borough. The tendency was to be accentuated in the period 1422-50, during which 11 of the 18 Members elected were nonresidents, many of them, like William Borde* or Henry Harleton, being closely connected with Thomas Chaucer and his son-in-law and successor in the constableship, William de la Pole, earl of Suffolk.

Author: Charles Kightly

Notes

  • 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1144.
  • 2. VCH Berks. iii. 533-5; CPR, 1436-41, pp. 317-18; E179/73/8, 40; C145/307/5.
  • 3. VCH Berks. iii. 533; CPR, 1377-81, p. 539; 1381-5, p. 448; T. Walsingham, Hist. Ang. ed. Riley, ii. 130; HMC 6th Rep. 581-2.
  • 4. CPR, 1388-92, p. 92, p. 448; 1391-6, p. 720; 1416-22, p. 60; SC8/78/3853.
  • 5. CPR, 1436-41, pp. 317-18, 361; C145/307/5.
  • 6. CPR, 1396-9, p. 588; VCH Berks. iii. 527-8; Hist. King’s Works ed. Brown, Colvin and Taylor, ii. 851; J. Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 306.
  • 7. VCH Berks. iii. 532-3, 535; Cal. P. and M. London, 1381-1412, pp. 270-1; CPR, 1381-5, p. 265; 1422-9, p. 542.
  • 8. C219/10/5, 11/2, 3, 12/3-6, 13/1-5, 14/1-5.

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