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:



 Sir Miles Corbet
 Sir Arthur Heveningham
 (Sir) Henry Rich*
 (Sir) Nathaniel Bacon
 Mr. Jenkinson
 Sir Robert Gawdy†
 Sir Roger Townshend , bt. (proxies: Robert Catelyn and Henry Gawdy)
 Sir Robert Gawdy
 Sir Charles Le Gros*
 Sir John Corbet , bt.
 Sir Roger Townshend , bt. (proxy: Rice Gwyn*)
18 Feb. 1628SIR ROGER TOWNSHEND , bt.

Main Article

Norfolk in the early seventeenth century boasted the second largest city in England (Norwich) as well as two major seaports (Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn). It was also the centre of the new drapery trade, with a large, fertile hinterland criss-crossed with navigable waterways.1 Thomas Fuller noted that ‘all England may be carved out of Norfolk’,2 and certainly the county possessed three distinct regions: the Fenlands of the western and northern borders; the sheep-grazing and corn-growing area of the north; and a southern wooded region, where cattle raising and dairy farming predominated. The foldcourse system of sheep grazing, developed in Norfolk, allowed large flocks to be efficiently managed, and consequently wool production formed an important part of Norfolk industry, especially in the manufacture of worsted cloth and the new draperies.3

Norfolk’s inhabitants, noted Aubrey, were ‘the most litigious of all England: they carry Littleton’s tenures at the plough-tail’;4 while Fuller considered that he if had to go to law, ‘I wish them rather my counsel than my adversaries’.5 Many of the county’s senior gentry built their fortunes on the law, including the Bacons, Bells, Cokes, Gawdys, Hobarts and Yelvertons. There were so many lawyers in Norfolk that in the 1580s several bills to limit their number were laid before Parliament.6 As well as enjoying a reputation for being litigious, Norfolk’s inhabitants were known for their puritan tendencies, an image reinforced by an influx of refugees from the Low Countries under Elizabeth and bolstered by a number of home-grown Protestant sects, especially the Brownists. However, a handful of Catholic families, such as the Bedingfields and Pastons, continued to flourish.7 Adherence to Catholicism seems to have had little effect on personal relationships within the gentry; nor did it prevent Sir Henry Bedingfield’s election to Parliament in 1614.

Before 1572 the largest landowners in the county were the Howard dukes of Norfolk, who presided over county affairs from houses at Kenninghall, Norwich, Castle Rising and Framlingham. However, following the execution of the fourth duke in 1572, Howard influence waned, giving rise to increasingly bitter divisions within the gentry. In the second half of Elizabeth’s reign, shire elections were strongly contested by two rival factions, one led by Sir Arthur Heveningham of Heveningham, Suffolk and Ketteringham, Norfolk, and the other by Nathaniel Bacon of Stiffkey, in Norfolk, and his brother Sir Nicholas of Redgrave, Suffolk. The Bacons’ main allies were Sir Edward Coke* of Mileham and their cousins the Gawdys. This factional division continued into James’s reign. Shortly after the king ascended the throne, canvassing started in anticipation of a Parliament. Nathaniel Bacon and Henry Gawdy† of Claxton both announced their intention to stand, but as neither would accept the junior seat Gawdy withdrew by July 1603, leaving Bacon to pair up with Sir Charles Cornwallis, who had recently purchased the estate of Horsham St. Faith’s, near Norwich, and agreed to accept the junior place.8 Heveningham was unable to stand against them as he was then serving as sheriff, and therefore he proposed that his place be taken by his son John. He also suggested that Thomas Knyvett, son of Sir Thomas Knyvett† of Ashwellthorpe, Norfolk, should put himself forward for the other seat. On the surface, this proposal looked unpromising as both sons were young and neither of them held county office. Moreover, Knyvett was closely allied with the Bacons, and neither Heveningham nor Knyvett could muster the freeholder support needed to defeat the Bacon/Gawdy/Coke alliance. Heveningham hoped to prevail by a ‘trick of office’, which probably meant that he intended to exploit his position as sheriff to move the election at the last minute to the south of the county, where his support was strongest.9 An early election did not materialize, however, and by the time that writs were actually issued, in late January 1604, Heveningham was no longer sheriff and thus able to stand. He paired himself with an ally among the south-Norfolk gentry, Sir Miles Corbet of Sprowston, the grandfather of Sir John* and Miles Corbet*. Meanwhile, the Bacon/Cornwallis partnership was in danger of collapsing, as Cornwallis demanded the first seat. Bacon was so alarmed at his colleague’s behaviour that he considered asking for the election to be moved to Dereham, where his freeholder supporters were most numerous, but at the last minute Cornwallis seems to have agreed to accept the second position. At the subsequent election, held in Norwich, Heveningham and Corbet were defeated.10

The 1604 election was the only occasion during the period when the factional divisions that had dominated Elizabethan elections are evident.11 By 1614 Bacon was elderly and feared he was dying, while Heveningham, who was perhaps disillusioned by his failure at previous Norfolk elections dating back to 1593, had retired from the political scene. Despite the demise of these dominant factions, fierce rivalry between the leading members of the gentry remained the norm. On the day of the 1614 election a contest was subverted by the last minute re-location of the hustings. An outsider, (Sir) Henry Rich*, armed with a letter of nomination from the lord chamberlain, the earl of Suffolk (Thomas Howard), had assembled the support of up to 4,000 freeholders in Norwich. The under-sheriff opened the sheriff’s court there but adjourned it half an hour later to Swaffham, 20 miles to the west, where the sheriff, Sir James Calthorpe, was waiting to preside over an election held before 8 am at which his nephew Sir Hamon L’Estrange of Hunstanton and Sir Henry Bedingfield of Oxburgh were returned. Both L’Estrange and Bedingfield had connections with the Howard earls of Northampton and Arundel, though there is no evidence that the earls were directly involved in sponsoring them on this occasion. The decision to switch venue benefited both candidates, as Swaffham lay near Bedingfield’s residence and was conveniently located for L’Estrange’s allies and freeholders from the north of the county. A petition from various freeholders to Parliament, disputing the legality of shifting the venue and pointing out the impossibility of covering the 20 miles from Norwich to Swaffham on bad roads in less than half an hour, was referred to the privileges committee. As it was illegal to hold elections before 8 am, the committee may have sympathized with the complainants, but in the event it never reported its findings to the House, possibly because it was too busy investigating several other cases of electoral malpractice, such as those at Northumberland and Stockbridge.12

The next election, in December 1620, was held in the county town but was again contested. Sir Hamon L’Estrange stood once more, and paired himself with his kinsman, Dru Drury. L’Estrange probably enjoyed Arundel’s backing, and Drury mobilized the support of his wife’s relatives the de Greys of Merton and the Calthorpes of Hempstead.13 Ranged against him and Drury was the powerful but now ageing Sir Nathaniel Bacon and a certain Mr. Jenkinson, possibly Richard Jenkinson of Tunstall. According to Philip Calthorpe, Bacon tried to upset L’Estrange’s plans by concealing the writ, ‘so that he hath had little warning of it, as I think verily the fift[h] p[ar]t of those that would have been with him must now fail him because they know not the day’.14 This tactic did not succeed however, as L’Estrange won the first place and Drury took the second.

The 1624 election saw the most protracted and bitter contest of the period. Strenuous efforts were made to persuade Bacon’s grandson and successor, Sir Roger Townshend to put himself forward. Indeed, he received letters urging him to stand from such prominent members of the East Anglian gentry as Sir Henry Spelman* of Congham; Sir John Hare* of Stow Bardolph; and the sheriff, Sir L’Estrange Mordaunt of King’s Lynn.15 Sir Hamon L’Estrange also approached Townshend after learning that Sir John Hobart II*, the son of L’Estrange’s kinsman, Sir Henry Hobart*, could secure a seat elsewhere. L’Estrange believed that Townshend and Sir John Corbet of Sprowston would be elected by the ‘acclamation of the county without exception’. Although he had heard that Sir Thomas Holland had considered standing, he thought that Holland would prefer to serve ‘his lord [the earl of Arundel] in the country [rather] than in Parliament’.16 However, Townshend preferred to remain aloof from national politics and instead supported the candidature of his two close friends, Corbet and Holland, who put himself forward despite L’Estrange’s doubts. Townshend’s reluctance to be nominated was disregarded by his uncle, Sir Robert Gawdy, who intended to stand himself. As well as canvassing ministers in Norfolk to support his own nomination from the pulpit, he sought a proxy to act on Townshend’s behalf.17 This did not meet with the approval of Townshend, who considered it ‘an insufferable wrong’ to have his name made ‘the instrument of Sir John Corbet’s disgrace’.18

Election day witnessed great confusion and much tactical manoeuvring. After the writ was read, Holland and Corbet waited until Gawdy declared his candidature before announcing their intentions to stand as a pair. In response Gawdy’s supporters attempted unsuccessfully to persuade L’Estrange to stand as Gawdy’s ally, and then in desperation sought a proxy for Townshend. Sir Henry Hungate*, Thomas Knyvett, Sir Charles Le Gros, John Potts and one Mr. Rennell, all refused before Robert Catelyn was finally drafted in to stand as Townshend’s proxy. The polls for both seats were then held, amid much confusion. It took the sheriff and magistrates over an hour to count the votes. Once this was done, they adjourned to the Shirehall with the four candidates, where it was determined that Holland had secured the first place. Catelyn, in Townshend’s name, objected to the outcome and demanded a recount based on the total number of votes that each candidate had received. The sheriff refused, and reiterated that Holland was duly elected, but did agree to a fresh poll for the second place.

Catelyn and Gawdy continued to protest, whereupon the sheriff asked the magistrates to determine collectively who should serve for the second seat. With the exception of Framlingham Gawdy and a Mr. Shepherd, all of them decided that Corbet had the most support. Again Sir Robert Gawdy and Catelyn objected, and pressed for a vote of all the freeholders. Their supporters, among whom were some described by Corbet as ‘papists’, had in the meantime informed Holland’s company that they could disperse as they were no longer needed. When Holland learned this, he chased after them, and, aided by Dru Drury and John Potts, managed to persuade many to return and support Corbet. Meanwhile, Gawdy urged Hungate to replace Catelyn as Townshend’s proxy, hoping thereby that Hungate’s standing would draw more voters. However, Hungate remained loyal to Townshend’s wishes. Catelyn then withdrew, and Gawdy’s son, Henry, was drafted in as his replacement. By now the sheriff had lost control of the election, for when he tried to call for another poll he was overruled by the magistrates, who had already decided that Corbet would serve as the junior knight. While Holland and Corbet were carried to the King’s Head, the Gawdys went ‘in triumph’ to the marketplace, where the assembled multitude chanted Townshend’s name. Sir Robert Gawdy invited all those who had supported himself and Townshend to the Maid’s Head for free food and drink, an offer which, as Corbet noted, ‘did draw many of our side’.

Following these chaotic scenes a petition was drafted to the king challenging the outcome of the election. Although it contained between 500 and 600 names, L’Estrange informed Townshend that only one of the signatories was a gentleman, the rest being ‘the dregs of the people’.19 Shortly after Parliament assembled, Sir Robert Gawdy complained to the privileges committee that the poll had been peremptorily conducted and no proper count had taken place. Witnesses, counsel and proofs were heard for two days, as were Holland, Corbet, Drury and Sir Robert Gawdy. The chairman, John Glanville, argued that a new writ should be dispatched, but by a majority vote the committee ultimately decided that the election should stand. The Commons, however, proved unhappy with the committee’s report, which failed to outline its reasons, and consequently the committee was obliged to re-examine the entire case. It was therefore not until 24 Mar., after witnesses had been heard again, that Glanville reported back. Once more, the committee decided to allow the election to stand. In the ensuing debate, Glanville and Christopher Wandesford argued for a new writ but were opposed by Drury, William Coryton and Sir George More. The subject was further complicated by Sir Henry Poole, who doubted the validity of Corbet’s election but not Holland’s. This raised the question whether it was possible to nullify the election of one candidate without declaring the entire election invalid. The House determined that the election must be considered as a whole, and after further procedural wranglings it was finally decided, by 200 votes to 129, that the election was valid.20

The opening Parliament of a new reign did not dull the appetite of Norfolk’s gentry for contested elections. In 1625 Sir Edward Coke and Sir Anthony Drury stood together, apparently against Sir Robert Gawdy and Sir Charles Le Gros.21 Sir John Corbet again offered himself as a candidate but managed to attract only about 100 votes. Coke and Drury defeated their rivals, although by what margin is unclear. Katherine Paston of Oxnead reported that ‘he that had the least had 1,100 and he that had most had 1,610’, but her observation, which took no account of Corbet’s poor showing, is not entirely helpful.22 Coke evidently expected his return to be challenged, for a week after the election he unsuccessfully appealed to the bailiffs of Scarborough for one of the borough’s seats, and subsequently secured a place at Coventry, where he was recorder. When Parliament opened, on 22 June, he asked for time to decide which seat he would represent, and did not finally plump for the county until 4 July, by which time it was apparent that no petition from Norfolk was forthcoming.23

On 6 Dec. 1625, prior to the next general election, Sir John Spelman* informed his father that John Hobart II was already canvassing for a Norfolk seat. However, Hobart’s father died on 26 Dec., the date on which the election writs were actually issued, and was presumably persuaded to stand down, as he was eventually returned as a borough Member for both Thetford and Brackley, plumping for the latter. Coke stood again and was returned as the senior knight of the shire alongside Sir Robert Bell of Beaupré Hall, Outwell, the grandson of Coke’s predecessor as Speaker of the Elizabethan House of Commons. The election was contested by Rice Gwyn* of Little Snoring, who put himself forward as a proxy for Townshend. Following the poll, John Yates informed Townshend, who was again uninterested in standing, that he had been elected, but although he certainly gathered 600 votes from among those described as the ‘most substantial freeholders’, he seems to have been easily defeated by Coke and Bell, who were supported by Sir John Corbet and Sir Hamon L’Estrange.24 Unfortunately for Coke, however, the king had earlier pricked him as sheriff of Buckinghamshire in order to exclude him from the Parliament. Charles expected the Commons to order a fresh election, but Coke’s son, Clement, made an impassioned plea on behalf of his father, arguing that the king was trying to usurp the privileges of the House. Many Members clearly found this claim persuasive, for although the Commons’ rules clearly prohibited the election of sheriffs the House declined to resolve the issue one way or another.25

The election held in 1628 was the first to be uncontested in Norfolk since 1588. Widespread anger and resentment against the Forced Loan persuaded former rivals to bury their differences. The first seat was taken by Townshend, who was finally convinced to stand. Townshend was disturbed by the death of his close friend, Sir John Corbet, who had been imprisoned for refusing to contribute to the Loan. The second seat was occupied by Sir John Heveningham, another of the ‘Five Knights’ who had steadfastly opposed the Loan.

Norfolk’s elections are characterized by several unusual features, namely the large size of the electorate, the absence of external influence, the existence of factions among the gentry, the independence and political awareness of the freeholders, the frequency with which seats were contested, and the necessity for pre-election campaigning.26 The exact size of the electorate is difficult to determine, but in 1593 Coke claimed to have been elected by more than 7,000 supporters, while in 1614 Rich marshalled around 4,000.27 The absence of outside interference stemmed largely from the fact that no member of the peerage lived in Norfolk. Of course, many of the gentry, such as L’Estrange and Holland, were closely connected with the Howards, but neither the earl of Northampton nor the earl of Arundel were usually active in shire elections, perhaps realizing that their influence only extended to boroughs such as Castle Rising and Thetford. An attempted intervention by the earl of Suffolk in 1614 ended in humiliating failure. Although Norfolk was a predominantly puritan county, its gentry preferred to acquiesce in the election of Bedingfield, a known Catholic, rather than return Suffolk’s nominee. The gentry were divided along regional lines, for in most elections one Member was elected from the north of the county and the other from the south. Only in 1624, when both successful candidates came from the south, was this pattern interrupted. Gawdy’s intervention that year was perhaps motivated in part by a desire to achieve ‘a better-balanced ticket’.28

Throughout the period, Norfolk’s representatives paid particular attention to matters regarding agriculture and the cloth trade, especially the Act of 1607 which regulated the making of cloths, including East Anglian new draperies, and the 1621 and 1624 bills for the regulation of Norfolk and Norwich weavers.29 In 1606 Norfolk’s Members were appointed to consider bills for the relief of the poor (23 Jan.) and for the better maintenance of ministers in Norwich (13 February).30 In 1610 Norfolk’s Members were appointed to consider bills concerning the continuing fishing dispute between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth (13 Mar.), fen drainage (20 Mar.), the sale of lands by Charles Waldegrave (14 June) and Thetford school (15 June).31 In 1621 they were eligible to attend committees to consider the sale of the estate of Martin Calthorpe (17 Mar.), cart-taking (21 Apr.) and the sale of Peyton Hall manor (27 April).32 Three years later, Norfolk’s Members were named to bill committees on the transportation of butter and cheese (3 Apr.), the naturalization of a Norwich grain merchant, Peter Verbeake (12 Apr.), Calthorpe’s bill (14 Apr.), the repair of Colchester haven (14 Apr.) and improvement to the two new drapery cloths, serges and perpetuanas (20 April). In 1626 they were appointed to consider bills concerned with citations from ecclesiastical courts (1 Mar.), the sale of Sir Henry Clere’s land (4 May) and confirmation of a Chancery decree for Feltwell manor (6 May).33 In the last Parliament of the decade the Norfolk knights were eligible to sit on the bill committee for the preservation of timber (21 May).34

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. A.H. Smith, County and Ct. 1-20; R.W. Ketton-Cremer, Norf. in Civil War, ch. 1.
  • 2. T. Fuller, Worthies, ii. 444.
  • 3. K.J. Allison, ‘Flock Management’, EcHR, xi. 98-112; K.J. Allison, ‘Norf. Worsted Industry’, Yorks. Bull. Ec. and Social Res. xii. 73-83; K.J. Allison, ‘Sheep-corn Husbandry of Norf.’, Agric. Hist. Rev. v. 12-30; J. Thirsk, Agrarian Hist. of Eng. and Wales, iv. 40-9.
  • 4. J. Aubrey, Hist. Wilts. 12; Ketton-Cremer, 21.
  • 5. Fuller, ii. 446.
  • 6. D.M. Dean, Law-Making and Soc. in Late Eliz. Eng.: Parl. 1584-1601, p. 214.
  • 7. Ketton-Cremer, 21-6.
  • 8. Norf. RO, NNAS C3/1/9/5; FSL, L.d.102, 105.
  • 9. Norf. RO, NNAS C3/1/9/5.
  • 10. Smith, 330: FSL, L.d.107.
  • 11. G.L. Owens, ‘Norf. Local Govt. 1620-41’ (Univ. of Wisconsin Ph.D. thesis, 1970), pp. 33-5.
  • 12. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 38, 46-7; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 518; Eg. 2804, f. 208.
  • 13. Norf. RO, WLS XVII/2, ff. 30-1v.
  • 14. Ibid. f. 31.
  • 15. Norf. RO, RAY 429; FSL, L.d.543.
  • 16. Off. Pprs. of Sir Nathaniel Bacon ed. H.E. Saunders (Cam. Soc. xxvi), 38-9.
  • 17. FSL, L.d.238.
  • 18. L. Campbell, ‘Sir Roger Townshend and his Fam.’ (Univ. E. Anglia Ph.D. thesis, 1990), p. 82.
  • 19. FSL, L.d.215, 238, 418, 543; HMC Townshend, 21; Off. Pprs. of Sir Nathaniel Bacon, 38-41; Add. 63082, f. 31; Norf. RO, RAY 429, 484.
  • 20. ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 65v-6, 110; ‘Pym 1624’, i. ff. 40v-1; CJ, i. 749a-b; J. Glanville, Reps. 3-6.
  • 21. HMC Gawdy, 122.
  • 22. FSL, L.d.418; Corresp. Lady Katherine Paston ed. R. Haughey (Norf. Rec. Soc. xiv), 82, 126.
  • 23. Procs. 1625, pp. 216, 297, 701.
  • 24. Norf. RO, RAY 484; W. Prest, ‘Bacon-Townshend Pprs. at the Univ. of Adelaide’, Norf. Arch. xxxvii. 121-2; HMC Townshend, 23.
  • 25. Procs. 1626, ii. 34, 39; iii. 407. See also SURVEY, sub ‘Rules of Membership’.
  • 26. Smith, 314.
  • 27. J.E. Neale, Elizabethan House of Commons, 78; Harl. 6687, i. f. 14.
  • 28. Campbell, 86.
  • 29. SR, iv. 1137-40; Kyle, thesis, 108-20.
  • 30. CJ, i. 258b, 267b.
  • 31. Ibid. 410a, 413a, 438b, 440a; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, i. 10, n. 1.
  • 32. CJ, i. 559b, 585b, 593b.
  • 33. Procs. 1626, ii. 158; iii. 155, 180.
  • 34. CD 1628, iii. 512.