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 corporation bef. 1628; in the freemen from 1628

Number of voters:

30 bef. 1628; 96 from 1628


6 Mar. 1604ANTHONY IRBY  
18 Mar. 16141ANTHONY IRBY  
18 Dec. 1620SIR THOMAS CHEKE  
15 Feb. 1621SIR WILLIAM ARMYNE , bt. vice Cheke, chose to sit for Harwich  
8 Mar. 1624Sir William Armyne , bt. vice Cotterell, chose to sit for Grantham  
18 Apr. 1625SIR EDWARD BARKHAM , bt.  
c. Jan. 1626SIR EDWARD BARKHAM , bt.  
 Sir Anthony Irby1481
 IRBY vice Oakeley, on petition, 8 May 1628  

Main Article

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the decline of the Lincolnshire cloth industry and the silting of the River Witham had reduced Boston’s importance as an international port, though the town still enjoyed a modest prosperity as a centre for local trade.2 Throughout the early modern period the repair and maintenance of the sluice and bridge over the Witham, the improvement of the harbour, and the impact of local fen drainage schemes, were issues of paramount concern to Boston’s inhabitants.3 Incorporated in 1545, the borough first sent representatives to Parliament two years later. The right of election was exercised by the corporation, which consisted of 12 aldermen (from among whom the mayor was selected annually) and 18 common councillors.4 Under Elizabeth I the town was granted the right to hold its own Admiralty court, as a consequence of which it came into conflict with the duchy of Lancaster, which had extensive holdings in the area. Boston eventually succeeded in defending its privileges.5 A majority of the townsmen inclined towards puritan nonconformity during this period, and this, combined with economic stagnation, resulted in the town becoming a noted point of exodus for pilgrims to the New World during the 1630s.6

External influence over Boston’s elections had traditionally been shared between the Cecils and the earl of Lincoln, based at Tattershall, about ten miles north-west of the town. However, in 1604 neither Sir Thomas Cecil†, who held the recordership, nor the 2nd earl of Lincoln (Henry Clinton†), who was steward of the borough, appears to have made any nominations. The deputy recorder Anthony Irby, a resident lawyer who represented the borough in every Parliament between 1589 and 1621, was returned for the first seat, while the second place went to Francis Bullingham, principal registrar of the diocese of Lincoln, who was admitted to the freedom without payment on the same day as the election.7 Irby was entrusted with the town’s charters of Admiralty and incorporation, and received £40 to present these to Chancery for renewal and enlargement. A new charter was accordingly granted in August 1604, whereupon Irby was paid a further £36 12s. 4d., plus £10 for parliamentary expenses. This new grant conferred upon Boston the right to purchase lands not exceeding £100 in annual value, and also the right to hold quarter sessions and a yearly fair.8 The following year Boston appealed to Cecil, now 1st earl of Exeter, and his half-brother the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†), in a dispute over Admiralty jurisdiction concerning a beached whale.9

During the third session of the Parliament Boston resolved, on 23 Jan 1607, that Irby and Bullingham should be instructed to draw up a bill for repairing the sluice, which, it was hoped, would help to prevent the decline and depopulation of the town. They were also instructed to see ‘that this corporation may be put amongst the decayed towns’. There is no evidence that such a bill was ever laid before the Commons. Nevertheless, on 4 Apr. £3 6s. 8d. was granted to Irby for ‘his great charges and the neglect of his own affairs … in respect of his losses by his attendance at the Parliament’.10 Having presumably dissuaded the corporation from proceeding by bill, Irby later enlisted the support of the earl of Exeter in a series of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Lincolnshire sewer commissioners that the whole county should assume responsibility for building and maintaining the sluice.11

Irby was re-elected to the next Parliament in 1614, accompanied by Leonard Bawtree, another lawyer from a local family, who had earned the corporation’s good will by supporting Boston’s case over the Witham sluice, and was made a freeman without charge on the day of the election. Bawtree ‘promised to do his best endeavour for the confirming of the charter by Act of Parliament and for other business for the good of this corporation’, and received an advance of £30 towards anticipated expenses; however, no such bill was entered during the brief Addled Parliament, nor does it appear to have been pursued at a later date.12 Ahead of the next general election, in November 1620, the corporation wrote to Exeter concerning the writ of election, ‘whereby [it] is required that this house may make choice of two of their own freemen now dwelling amongst them’. These words have been read as an attempt by the borough to assert its independence from external influence, although the original letter itself is no longer extant and the minute book as it stands cannot support this interpretation.13 On the contrary, it seems more likely that Boston was appealing to the earl to provide a nominee. They duly returned Exeter’s kinsman, Sir Thomas Cheke, in first place, while Irby was re-elected for the last time, receiving an advance of £20 towards his expenses.14 When Cheke, an Essex gentleman, chose to represent Harwich, for which borough he had also been elected, Exeter recommended in his stead a courtier, Sir Edward Lewis. However, the 4th earl of Lincoln, who had recently succeeded to his title, also nominated Sir Alexander Temple*.15 Unable to please both aristocratic patrons, the corporation preferred Sir William Armyne, 1st bt., a strong puritan, whose £5 fee for the borough freedom was remitted ‘in regard he is a gentleman of note in this country and likely to do good service to this house without anyways charging them’.16 Armyne may not have been aware that he had been chosen until after the event, for immediately after the election it was resolved to write ‘signifying thereby to him his said election to the end he may take upon him that place’. The corporation placated Exeter with a resolution thanking him for securing the writ from the sheriff; they furthermore agreed to defray any charges he had incurred, and paid 20s. to his footman for bringing them the writ.17 Religious tension within Boston may have influenced the outcome of the election, for shortly afterwards Irby and Bawtree were instructed by the Privy Council to investigate the charge that the mayor, Thomas Middlecoate, a well-known puritan, had cut off the crosses from the mayoral mace. Despite Bawtree’s hostility, Irby was able to bring in a report exonerating Middlecoate, a verdict subsequently upheld by the solicitor general, (Sir) Robert Heath*.18 A minute of the corporation, mentioning ‘a draft in paper of an act which should have been procured in the last Parliament’, suggests that some townsmen still wished to pursue statutory confirmation of the borough’s charters. These were again delivered to Irby, but, in a Parliament clogged with legislation, there is no evidence that a bill of this kind was ever presented to the Commons.19

In 1623 the earl of Lincoln, having failed to deliver the concessions Boston desired over the sluice, resigned the stewardship of the borough.20 Meanwhile, the earl of Exeter died, whereupon Irby assumed the full duties of the recorder and stepped down as an alderman. He also requested licence to absent himself from Boston, which presumably explains why, for the first time in 35 years, he did not stand at the next general election.21 A new source of patronage now emerged following the appointment as bishop of Lincoln of lord keeper John Williams. A religious moderate, Williams acquiesced in the dropping of charges of nonconformity against Boston’s evangelical vicar, John Cotton, for whose learning he expressed great admiration. Perhaps in return for this favour, William Boswell, who combined the post of secretary to the lord keeper with a clerkship to the Privy Council, was elected for Boston in 1624. Boswell nevertheless had to concede the senior seat to Sir Clement Cotterell, vice-admiral of the county, who had married a Lincolnshire heiress. Cotterell, a servant of the duke of Buckingham, secured seats for himself at both Boston and Grantham, probably with the support of Armyne, who took his place at Boston when he plumped for the other constituency.22 On 26 Apr. 1624 a bill to establish a free school and poor-house near Boston received its first reading. Engrossed the next day without referral to a committee, it was presumably the measure ‘for almshouses in Lincolnshire’ taken up to the Lords by Sir Edwin Sandys on 1 May.23 During the session the inhabitants of Boston again petitioned the king concerning the maintenance of the sluice, over which they remained in dispute with the county sewer commissioners.24

At the 1625 general election the senior seat went to Sir Edward Barkham, whose father owned a large estate at Wainfleet, about ten miles north-east of Boston, while Boswell was re-elected in second place.25 Barkham, who was granted the freedom of the borough gratis, was returned again in 1626, accompanied this time by the bishop’s new secretary, Richard Oakeley.26 After the dissolution Boston received an unwelcome order to provide a ship for the navy; one-third of the cost was to be borne by the town, the rest by the county. All appeals against these instructions, citing the town’s poverty and the decay of trade, were unavailing.27 In addition, quo warranto proceedings were instigated to determine upon what authority Boston’s charters were founded. Having failed to carry through their intention to confirm their charters by Act of Parliament, the town was now threatened with ‘very chargeable expense’, if not ‘ruin and overthrow’, in order to protect its privileges. The king’s demand for the Forced Loan later in the year produced a split within the corporation, for while the mayor and several of the more puritan-minded townsmen were in favour of resistance, a majority wished to comply in order to retain the Privy Council’s favour. The latter group eventually overruled the mayor by a formal resolution assenting to the Loan.28 Not only the mayor, but also a handful of prominent local gentry, among them Armyne, were summoned before the Council. The tactics employed by the majority evidently paid off, as the charter was confirmed by royal inspeximus on 9 June 1627.29

At the 1628 elections Richard Bellingham II, a strong puritan who had succeeded as Boston’s recorder on Irby’s death in 1625, was chosen unanimously in first place, but Oakeley’s re-election to the second seat was contested by Irby’s grandson and heir, Sir Anthony Irby, a noted Loan refuser.30 Although Oakeley received 15 corporation votes to Irby’s 14, Irby appealed to ‘the commonalty’, presumably the freemen, 67 of whom voted for him. Bellingham and Oakeley were returned; but once the Parliament opened Irby and his supporters petitioned the privileges committee. Despite the corporation’s protests that Members’ wages were paid by the common council out of the town treasury rather than by the commonalty, and that the franchise had been exclusive for the last 46 years, on 8 May William Hakewill reported in favour of the wider franchise, on the grounds that ‘the election of burgesses in all boroughs did of common right belong to the commoners, and that nothing could take it from them but a prescription and a constant usage beyond all memory’.31 A similar election dispute at Colchester, Essex, had been resolved in favour of Sir William Masham* on 28 Mar., and on the basis of this precedent the House declared Irby elected without the need for a new writ, a decision which permanently enlarged the Boston electorate.32

Authors: Paula Watson / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Boston Corp. Mins. ed. J.F. Bailey, i. 148.
  • 2. Port Bks. of Boston ed. R.W.K. Hinton (Lincoln Rec. Soc. l), pp. xviii-xxxix; C. Holmes, Seventeenth-Cent. Lincs. 13-14; P. Thompson, Hist. Boston, 343-8.
  • 3. Thompson, 359-64.
  • 4. M. Weinbaum, Brit. Bor. Charters, 69-70; Boston Corp. Mins. i. app. 1.
  • 5. Boston Corp. Mins. i. app. 4; ii. 134-5, 305, 308.
  • 6. Holmes, 43, 95-6, 116; C. Brears, Short Hist. Lincs. 157.
  • 7. Boston Corp. Mins. i. 687-8; C219/35/1/33.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 130; Boston Corp. Mins. i. 698.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 210; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 169, 593.
  • 10. Boston Corp. Mins. i. 741-2, 745, 746.
  • 11. Ibid. ii. 33.
  • 12. Ibid. 148, 150-1, 155.
  • 13. Ibid. 315; J.K. Gruenfelder, ‘Boston in early Stuart elections’, Lincs. Hist. and Arch. xiii. 47-50.
  • 14. Boston Corp. Mins. ii. 318-19.
  • 15. Ibid. 323.
  • 16. Ibid. 322.
  • 17. Ibid. 322-3.
  • 18. APC, 1619-21, pp. 367, 381, 382, 384, 386; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 244-5.
  • 19. Boston Corp. Mins. ii. 321, 325.
  • 20. Ibid. 435.
  • 21. Ibid. 412, 444.
  • 22. Ibid. 442-3.
  • 23. CJ, i. 690b, 691b, 692a, 696a.
  • 24. HMC 7th Rep. 251-2; APC, 1623-5, pp. 112, 181-3, 344, 348, 366; Holmes, 99-101.
  • 25. Boston Corp. Mins. ii. 474.
  • 26. Ibid. 490.
  • 27. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 406; APC, 1627, pp. 156-61.
  • 28. Boston Corp. Mins. ii. 519, 526; R. Cust, Forced Loan, 131-2, 172, 298-9.
  • 29. APC, 1627, pp. 139, 252, 396; CSP Dom. 1627-8, pp. 39, 81, 138.
  • 30. Cust, 311; Boston Corp. Mins. ii. 537-8.
  • 31. CD 1628, iii. 325-6, 329, 331; Holmes, 107-8.
  • 32. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 93, 234.