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

Number of voters:



c. Mar. 1614SIR THOMAS GERRARD I , bt.
10 Mar. 1628SIR RICHARD MOLYNEUX II , (bt.)

Main Article

Lancashire owed its special status as a semi-autonomous palatinate to the fact that it had once been a border territory, vulnerable to invasion from Ireland or Scotland.1 Day-to-day administration of the county was shared between the Westminster-based duchy of Lancaster, which appointed sheriffs, magistrates and assize judges, and the Stanley earls of Derby, hereditary holders of the lieutenancy of Lancashire and Cheshire.2 There was little contact between the county’s magistrates and the Privy Council, and this fact, coupled with the distance from London, gave Lancashire a sense of separateness that was heightened by differences of religion and local custom.3 The population stood at around 95,000 in the mid-Elizabethan period, and rose to over 140,000 a century later.4 There were no large cities and few towns of note; the county’s economy was based on the grazing of livestock.5 Industries such as woollen cloth and linen manufacturing were established around Manchester and Bolton during the sixteenth century, and ‘new draperies’ including fustians began to be produced in Bolton, Blackburn and Oldham under the early Stuarts.6 Nevertheless, Lancashire remained vulnerable to subsistence crises, and in the early 1620s bad harvests and grain scarcity coincided with low prices in the wool and cloth trades.7 Lancashire’s gentry were fewer in number and poorer than their southern counterparts, a fact reflected in the low subsidy assessments for the county.8 Some gentry households supplemented their incomes with the profits of coal extraction: collieries were opened in Wigan in the 1600s, and the coalfields around Prescot and Chorley are thought to have yielded up to 13,000 tons a year. However, costs were high and coal was yet to become a significant factor in the local economy.9 Only one Lancashire magnate, Sir Richard Molyneux II*, was raised to the peerage during the period, confirming his status as second only to the Stanleys in terms of local power and influence.

Lancashire’s parliamentary representatives played little recorded part in the Commons, perhaps because neither the county nor any of its boroughs were the subject of particular legislation during the period. Most of the committees to which the county’s Members were collectively appointed concerned private measures, such as the York gaol patent bill (May 1624), which drew many comparisons with Lancaster gaol.10 On the few occasions that Lancashire was mentioned it was as a sink of recusancy. A typical example is (Sir) Henry Spiller’s report on 24 Feb. 1621, that

there were certified out of Lancashire 1800 papists: of these there were recusants in Qu[een] El[izabeth]’s time 900; the most of the rest very poor men, and not able to pay anything. Insomuch as commissioners being sent down to value their estates, they certified that their estates in lands were but £50 and in goods but £40.11

Unsurprisingly, Lancashire’s Members did not respond, for many of their gentry neighbours were tainted with Catholicism. The county as a whole was notorious for its Catholic survivalism, and reported recusancy rose sharply after 1603.12 Both Sir Richard Molyneux I and Sir Richard Houghton had recusant wives and were themselves crypto-papists, though they outwardly conformed and were keen to demonstrate their loyalty: they were listed as second and eighth respectively among those who purchased baronetcies in 1611. Sir Thomas Gerrard, another staunch Catholic and brother of the notorious Jesuit Fr. John Gerrard, also became a baronet at the same time.13 Sir Richard Molyneux II was, like his father, known to temporize in religion. Sir Cuthbert Halsall was briefly dropped from the bench for being ‘popish’ early in James’s reign but later conformed, while Sir Thomas Walmesley was among those who gladly compounded for recusancy during Charles’s Personal Rule.

As well as Catholicism, Lancashire also had a reputation for superstition and witchcraft. Not surprisingly therefore, Sir Richard Molyneux I was one of the committeemen appointed to consider a witchcraft bill in May 1604.14 There was a sense that the established church, under the auspices of the remote bishopric of Chester, lacked solid foundations in Lancashire.15 In 1626 Sir Benjamin Rudyard resorted to a familiar stereotype when he deplored the example of ‘two ministers in Lancashire found to be unlicensed alehouse-keepers’, during a debate about the standards of the clergy (10 February).16 Nevertheless, there were pockets of intense puritanism to be found in the clothing towns around Manchester and Bolton. It was while travelling through Lancashire in 1617 that James I issued his ‘Declaration of Sports’, a response to the Sabbatarian orders imposed by a few local puritan justices.17

Lancashire received its election writs from the chancellor of the Duchy, and elections took place at Lancaster outside the castle. The indentures were returned to the chancellor, who then passed them on to Chancery.18 Though the chancellor claimed the right of nomination in most of Lancashire’s six boroughs, and many of the personnel of the Duchy’s local administration were members of the Lancashire gentry, there is no evidence of Duchy influence in county elections. The earls of Derby, by contrast, traditionally played a role in county elections, but from 1594 until his death in 1642 the 6th earl took little interest in politics and, with a few rare exceptions, kept his involvement to a minimum. This meant that, during this period, the selection of knights of the shire fell to a close circle of old gentry families. Seats were distributed between the leading gentry and their sons, and contests were avoided. In 1604 the first seat was awarded to Sir Richard Molyneux I despite his non-attendance at the election as he had already set off for London.19 The second seat went to Sir Richard Houghton, one of the few Lancashire men who regularly attended the Court. The 1614 elections were also dominated by the heads of Lancashire’s ancient families. Sir Thomas Gerrard of Bryn, another courtier, sought entry to Parliament to escape from financial problems, as did Sir Cuthbert Halsall, who took the remaining seat in the same year. Halsall was perhaps backed by the earl of Derby, to whom he was related by marriage.

In 1620 the senior seat was taken by Sir John Radcliffe, whose ancestors had long been adherents of the Stanleys. The junior place went to Sir Gilbert Houghton, a courtier who had supplanted his father Sir Richard Houghton in the Duchy offices of steward and master forester of Bowland and Quernmore, though it is unlikely that this Duchy connection was responsible for his election. Radcliffe was re-elected in 1624, together with Sir Thomas Walmesley of Dunkehalgh. Though aged only 23, Walmesley was the heir of a vast estate, and was connected to several influential families: his stepmother was Sir Richard Houghton’s sister, and his father-in-law was Sir Richard Molyneux I. Radcliffe was elected for a third successive time in 1625, but conceded the senior seat to Sir Richard Molyneux II, who in 1623 had inherited not only his father’s estates at Sefton and Croxteth but also the general receivership of the Duchy.

In 1626 the earl of Derby desired a seat for his second son, Robert, then aged around 18, who was paired with Sir Gilbert Houghton in first place. Molyneux II took the senior seat again in 1628, leaving the junior place to Sir Alexander Radcliffe, the 19 year-old heir of Sir John, who had died the previous year. Between the first and second sessions Molyneux was ennobled as Viscount Maryborough, but as an Irish peer he was not required to relinquish his seat in the Lower House, and so remained in the Commons until the dissolution.

Author: Rosemary Sgroi


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