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:



22 Nov. 1621RICHARD KNIGHTLEY vice Montagu, called to the Upper House
 Sir Lewis Watson , bt.*

Main Article

Northamptonshire, situated according to Camden ‘in the very middle, and heart, as it were, of England’, was divided by the River Nene into eastern and western divisions. To the east lay the soke of Peterborough, much of it fenland, and the royal forest of Rockingham; to the west rich farming country ‘beset with sheep’.1 Traditionally one Member was elected from each division, although exceptions occurred.2 The eastern division was dominated during Elizabeth’s reign by Sir Walter Mildmay†, chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Cecils; in the west the Knightleys of Fawlsey were the most influential family. However, a new pattern emerged in 1604, when Sir Robert Spencer† of Althorp began to assert electoral influence in the west, and Sir Edward Montagu, keeper of Rockingham forest, was able to revive an interest formerly exercised by his ancestors in the east. Lord Mordaunt, a suspected Catholic, may have hoped that he too could establish a claim to patronage, but he failed to impress the predominantly puritan gentry.3 The 1st earl of Exeter (Sir Thomas Cecil†), lord lieutenant of the county, is conspicuous by his absence as an electoral patron in the early Stuart period, perhaps because he was content to allow Montagu a dominant role. Generally, Spencer and Montagu worked well together with the aim of avoiding contests. Elections were held at Northampton, and during the 1620s some candidates openly canvassed the townsmen. The evidence suggests that candidates were endorsed at gentry meetings, at least at the beginning of the period, thus avoiding the expense and possible disorder of a poll.

Shortly after James’s accession an election was rumoured to be imminent, whereupon Spencer and Montagu decided to stand together. On 18 Apr. 1603 Montagu warned Spencer that Lord Mordaunt desired a seat for Sir Anthony Mildmay†, but in fact he need not have worried, as he and Spencer were nevertheless endorsed at a gentry meeting on the following day.4 Moreover, the bishop of Peterborough promised them his support.5 Thereafter neither Mordaunt nor Mildmay tried to intervene in county elections again. The rumour of an election turned out to be premature, as writs were not dispatched until January 1604, by which time Spencer had been raised to the peerage. Spencer’s neighbour Sir Richard Knightley† therefore wrote to Montagu to propose his son Sir Valentine for the junior seat. Montagu remained non-committal until he was sure of Lord Spencer’s approval, so the younger Knightley took the precaution of getting himself elected at Dunwich, Suffolk.6 This proved unnecessary, however, as Spencer wrote to Montagu on 6 Feb. assuring him that Knightley had his ‘absolute voices and furtherance’, and advising them to ‘raise as small numbers as may be for your elections, perceiving none to oppose you’.7

After they were returned, Montagu and Sir Valentine Knightley were charged by the freeholders to put the county’s grievances before Parliament, which Montagu did on the first day of business, 23 Mar. 1604.8 The main complaints were the oppression of the commissaries’ courts, the plight of deprived or suspended ministers, and depopulation caused by enclosures. A committee of grievances was appointed, but little progress was achieved before the end of the first session.9 During the prorogation, in February 1605, the two Members presented the king with a petition signed by dozens of Northamptonshire gentlemen, on behalf of deprived ministers.10 This alarmed and angered James, and the petition was denounced by Bishop Ussher as ‘the most ill-advised and rash act’ by the puritans in 20 years. Montagu and Knightley were both sent home in disgrace and dismissed from county office. In 1607 agrarian grievances erupted in enclosure riots across the Midlands and, as a largely pastoral county, Northamptonshire was particularly badly hit. Montagu, who had by this time been restored to the magistracy, helped to restore order and sat on the subsequent commission to inquire into illegal enclosures.11

Montagu was informed on 8 Feb. 1614 by his brother Sir Charles Montagu* that a Parliament would be summoned shortly.12 At the general election Montagu was returned again, together with Sir William Tate who, as sheriff, had been ineligible in 1604. Tate was among those who had signed the petition for the deprived ministers; his residence just outside Northampton gave him a great advantage in case of a poll, although on this occasion there was no contest, and as a westerner he balanced Montagu. In July 1620 a group of Northamptonshire gentlemen including Montagu petitioned the king again concerning ecclesiastical grievances, especially the deprivation of nonconformist preachers, and the leniency being shown towards recusants; unsurprisingly this incurred James’s ‘heavy displeasure’, but the petitioners refused to accept the Privy Council’s attempts to dilute their protests.13 At the general election later that year Spencer’s heir, (Sir) William was returned as the senior Member, with Montagu taking second place. During the summer recess Montagu was elevated to the peerage, and at the ensuing by-election Knightley’s nephew and heir, Richard, was returned, even though this broke the convention whereby the eastern and western sides of the shire shared the county’s representation.

Before the next election Lords Montagu and Spencer seem to have agreed that the same knights would be re-elected to the 1624 Parliament. However, the plan went awry when Montagu’s kinsman and neighbour Sir Lewis Watson*, a client of the royal favourite, the duke of Buckingham, expressed a desire to sit. Montagu wrote to Lord Spencer proposing that Watson might fulfil ‘the ancient course observed to have a knight on each side for the better service of the country, without any opposition’. Assuming that Sir William Spencer would take the senior seat, he asked Lord Spencer to ‘prevail so much with my cousin Knightley … that having had the honour already of it, he would now give way to Sir Lewis Watson, and so the business may be carried fairly without offence’.14 However, Spencer responded sharply on 7 Jan. that Knightley was ‘the far the fitter man for that place than the other’, and warned that ‘the opposition [to Watson] will be great, for we on this part will not sit down, except you can force us to lie down’. He termed Montagu’s assertion that each side of the shire should choose a Member ‘your new-erected custom’, pointing out earlier instances when it had not been observed. Nevertheless his real objection seems to have been to Watson personally, whom he disparaged as ‘the unfittest of any man on that part of the shire’, somewhat unfairly since Watson’s family had been seated at Rockingham for two generations. Watson seems to have also secured the backing of Sir Francis Fane*, who had succeeded to the Mildmay estate and interest. Normally Fane was at odds with Montagu over the forest of Rockingham, and Spencer sarcastically hoped that their ‘close combining’ over the election might reconcile them.15 In the event Watson found a seat elsewhere, and Spencer and Knightley were returned without a contest.

The same Members were re-elected in 1625. It is not known whether Montagu, who was suffering from ill health, attempted to intervene; he was probably unwilling to court another rebuff from Spencer. He may also have been reluctant to do anything that might weaken the opposition to Fane, now earl of Westmorland who, as custos rotulorum, had stirred up great hostility by attempting to move the quarter sessions from Northampton to Kettering.16 Any advantage such a move might have in strengthening the influence of the eastern part of the shire was outweighed in Montagu’s mind by the prestige it would give to his hated rival, and in conjunction with the Spencers and Knightley, he took the lead in opposing it. Despite their efforts, in December 1625 Westmorland managed to obtained the Privy Council’s authorization to hold the sessions at Kettering.17

It was against this background of east-west rivalry and conflicting interests that the election to the second Caroline Parliament took place. Knightley had been pricked as sheriff and was therefore ruled out. On 21 Dec. Montagu wrote to Lord Spencer, asking him to endorse Watson’s candidature and expressing the hope that the election might be ‘carried in love and with small charge, which otherwise may breed new distractions’.18 On the following day Sir William Spencer informed Montagu that ‘I intend not to stir or stand to be knight of the shire if there shall be a Parliament. I have had labour and travail enough in that kind’. Although he expressed no objection to Watson, he added that ‘I could wish that Sir John Pickering might not be forgot, who, I am sure, is equivalent in merit to the other’.19 Pickering, the son-in-law of Sir Erasmus Dryden*, lived at Titchmarsh on the eastern border of the county, and despite having no parliamentary background had been mentioned as a possible alternative to Watson in 1624. Now keen to stand, on 27 Dec. he wrote to Montagu, assuming that he would be elected unopposed with Spencer and Montagu’s blessing, to request that Montagu take care to ‘conceal the conclusion your lordships have made, lest the freeholders, whose birthright it is to elect, should take it ill, conceiving themselves to be concluded thereby’.20 This seems to have irritated Montagu, who noted that the letter contained ‘neither thanks for my goodwill proffered, nor request for anything’.21 Furthermore, he may have had misgivings about the pairing of Watson and Pickering, since both hailed from the east of Northamptonshire, and Lord Spencer had shown such great hostility to Watson in 1624.

The attitude of Westmorland is not known, although if his manoeuvrings two years previously are anything to go by, his preference was probably for Watson; but rumours were reported by Lord Spencer that the earl wanted a seat for his son, Mildmay Fane*, Lord Burghersh.22 On 30 Dec. 1625 Pickering informed Montagu that Sir William Spencer had apparently changed his mind and decided to stand after all. He asked if this were true, adding that he himself, ‘having by your lordship’s means and relation the more deeply engaged myself to stand … I cannot go back’.23 He wrote again on 2 Jan. 1626, denying that he had canvassed for himself alone, or that he had ‘preoccupated’ the town of Northampton; neither, he claimed, had he ‘dissuaded any from giving voice to Sir Lewis Watson, but rather, where I might be bold, have showed what my Lord Spencer and your lordship have agreed for the peace of the county’.24 On the same day a letter from Montagu’s agent, Thomas Jenyson, reveals that he was canvassing for Watson alone.25 Lord Spencer informed Montagu on 6 Jan. that his rival Westmorland was confident of winning the junior seat for his son, with Watson as his senior colleague. He therefore proposed to ‘let Sir John Pickering have the first place, then we are all secured that Burghersh cannot come in’, but omitted to say who, in this case, would take the second seat.26 Montagu may well have agreed that Fane had to be excluded at all cost; he was by this time entrenched in a Star Chamber suit against the earl, in which he had appealed to Buckingham for furtherance.27 Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to favour Pickering above Watson. Montagu therefore wrote on 7 Jan. to the corporation of Northampton informing them that the Spencers supported the joint candidature of Watson and Pickering;28 but two days later Jenyson reported to Montagu that ‘there is extraordinary labouring, and that very seriously, for Sir William Spencer openly, and privately for him whom Mr. High Sheriff [Knightley] shall nominate [Sir John Pickering], which is kept secret’. While canvassing hard for Watson, he added, he was caught in the act by Pickering, who was outraged to find himself without the backing he had taken for granted.29

The corporation of Northampton informed Montagu on 10 Jan. that they could not endorse Watson, having already resolved on Sir John Pickering for the east side and Spencer for the west, whose record as MP, ‘though his honoured father and himself should oppose, do much bind us to give our voices for him’.30 Richard Spencer*, who had represented Northampton in the last three parliaments, also wrote from the town to Montagu that same day. In his letter he observed that he had failed to persuade the corporation to support Watson, claiming that there would not have been ‘the least rub in this business if there had not been canvassing for voices … for Sir Lewis Watson against Sir John Pickering, and warrants sent to constables to get voices for Sir Lewis Watson and none other’.31 Sir William Spencer’s motives can only be conjectured. If his unwillingness to stand was genuine, he must have been put up to exclude either Burghersh or Watson. As Lord Spencer is the only authority for Burghersh’s candidature, it is possible the Spencers used the ruse that Burghersh intended to stand as an excuse for breaking their agreement with Montagu. It is not known whether there was a poll. In an outcome which represented a serious rebuff to Montagu, both Spencer and Pickering were elected. Writing to his brother after the event, Montagu attributed the debacle to ‘the potency of the west [division] by their strength of the town of Northampton, together with their distaste about the sessions’.32

The Forced Loan was bitterly opposed in Northamptonshire, even by such loyalists as Watson at first.33 Despite a visitation from privy councillors intent upon overseeing the collection of the Loan, ‘a strong combination of two and twenty principal gentlemen … drew after them near half the shire’ in flat defiance of the Loan commissioners. At a meeting on 12 Jan. 1627 Knightley, supported by no less than 205 freeholders, even presented them with a petition against it. Montagu’s compliance with the Loan ‘lost him the love of the country’, which, together with his humiliation in 1626 perhaps explain why he seems to have kept a low profile at the general election for Charles’s third Parliament.34 Sir William Spencer succeeded his father as the 2nd Baron Spencer in 1627, leaving the way open for Knightley to be returned as senior knight of the shire in the 1628 Parliament. The second seat went to a friend of Montagu, Francis Nicolls of Faxton, whose estate lay to the south-west of Kettering. Although Nicolls lacked the status usually expected of a county Member, he gained popularity as an open opponent of the Forced Loan, and was apparently returned without needing any public endorsement from Montagu.

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. W. Camden, Britannia (1772), i. 402.
  • 2. J.E. Neale, Eliz. House of Commons, 34.
  • 3. Sloane 271, f. 20v.
  • 4. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 73-4.
  • 5. Ibid. 74-5.
  • 6. HMC Montagu, 32; HMC Buccleuch, iii. 77-8.
  • 7. HMC Buccleuch, i. 237.
  • 8. Ibid. iii. 91.
  • 9. CJ, i. 151a.
  • 10. B.W. Quintrell, ‘Royal Hunt and the Puritans’, JEH, xxxi, 53-6; E.S. Cope, Edward Montagu (Amer. Phil. Soc. cxlii), 37-40.
  • 11. C205/5/5; Cope, 50-52; G. Clark, ‘Jacobean Northants.’, Northants. P and P, ii. 212-16.
  • 12. HMC Montagu, 90.
  • 13. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 220-1.
  • 14. Ibid. i. 259-60.
  • 15. HMC Montagu, 105-6.
  • 16. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 253-6.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Ibid. 257.
  • 19. HMC Montagu, 109.
  • 20. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 258-9.
  • 21. Ibid.
  • 22. J.K. Gruenfelder, ‘Northants. election 1626’, Northants. P and P, iv. 159-65.
  • 23. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 259.
  • 24. Ibid. 260-1.
  • 25. Ibid. 261.
  • 26. HMC Montagu, 110.
  • 27. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 264-5.
  • 28. Ibid. i. 259.
  • 29. Ibid. iii. 262.
  • 30. Ibid. iii. 262-3.
  • 31. Ibid. i. 259.
  • 32. Ibid. iii. 263.
  • 33. E407/123.
  • 34. R. Cust, Forced Loan, 111, 117-18, 168, 225.