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 freemen

Number of voters:

several hundred


2 Mar. 16041JOHN COUCHER
10 Jan. 16052ROLAND BERKELEY (BARTLETT) vice Dighton, deceased
15 Dec. 1620JOHN COUCHER
3 Feb. 1624ROBERT BERKELEY (BARTLETT) , recorder
 JOHN COUCHER , alderman
26 Apr. 1625SIR WALTER DEVEREUX , bt.
10 Jan. 16264JOHN SPELMAN
20 Jan. 16265JOHN HASELOCK
26 Feb. 16286JOHN COUCHER , alderman
 JOHN HASELOCK , alderman

Main Article

An inland port, Worcester benefited from trade along the Severn between Shrewsbury and Bristol, and also acted as an entrepot for the pastoral Marcher counties and the arable west Midlands. It was also a centre of the cloth industry, producing high quality broadcloth, mostly for export, and as a cathedral city and county capital it was a significant administrative centre. Between the 1560s and 1640s the population rose from around 4,000 to about 8,000. In 1590 the clothiers, fullers and weavers were incorporated into a new united company, which played an important role in Worcester politics; four of the city’s MPs were prominent members.7

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Worcester was governed in accordance with a charter it had been granted in 1555. At the centre of the corporation was the common council, usually called the chamber or convocation, consisting of a senior and junior branch, known as the Twenty-Four and Forty-Eight respectively. Vacancies were filled by co-option. Each year the chamber elected two bailiffs and two aldermen from the Twenty-Four who, together with the recorder, comprised the city bench. In addition two chamberlains, administered the corporation’s finances.8

From the 1590s the corporation began lobbying for a new charter to extend its powers.9 On 2 Mar. 1604 the chamber established a committee, including its newly elected Members, Christopher Dighton and John Coucher, to discuss ‘the defects and imperfections in the charter of this city and to consider reducing this corporation to a mayoralty and certain number of aldermen and for enlarging the liberties’. Three weeks later the chamber agreed to lobby the king to make the city a county borough, and referred the matter to Roland Berkeley, who had been appointed to the earlier committee.10 However the bishop of Worcester, fearing that the enlarged corporation would encroach on his powers, successfully opposed the city.11 A new charter was eventually procured in 1616, but as it merely established a court of record and gave the justices the right of gaol delivery it made little difference to the government of the city. Consequently in January 1621 a new committee was established to campaign for an extension of their liberties.12 This proved successful, for on 2 Oct. 1621 a new charter was issued which elevated the city to county status. Moreover a mayor replaced the bailiffs and the number of aldermen increased to six.13

The 1555 charter placed the franchise in the hands of the chamber, whose minutes record every election except that of 1624.14 However under Elizabeth, in accordance with pre-charter practice, an assembly of freemen was called at the Guildhall to endorse the chamber’s decision.15 It is likely that elections continued to be conducted in this way during this period. This may explain why the 1605 and 1628 indentures bear dates later than the elections themselves. Both candidates were normally elected on the same day, but in 1626 Spelman and Haselock were chosen at two different meetings of the chamber, ten days apart. Before the 1621 charter, returns were made in the name of the bailiffs, aldermen, chamberlains and citizens of Worcester, although only the six officeholders were personally named.16 Although the 1621 charter did not mention parliamentary elections, subsequent indentures took a different form. In 1625 14 people were named ‘with many other persons’. Those named included the mayor, three aldermen, six members of the Twenty-Four and at least two of the Forty-Eight, but one of the remaining parties, the city’s attorney in the Common Pleas, was not a member of the chamber.17 In 1628 24 parties are named, including the mayor, two aldermen, four members of the Twenty-Four and at least seven from the Forty-Eight. The others, including the sword-bearer, do not seem to have been members of the chamber. The post 1621 indentures perhaps made explicit the existing practice, namely that a wider group of citizens participated in elections, if only to rubber stamp the chamber’s decision.18

In the Jacobean period Worcester retained the electoral independence that had been established in the late sixteenth century.19 All its Members belonged to the corporation and were clothiers, except the recorder, Robert Berkeley, who owned property locally. The election of Berkeley in 1620 and 1624 established a precedent that the recorder had a right to a seat, and consequently the city temporarily lost its independence after the attorney-general Sir Thomas Coventry* was appointed recorder in 1624. Although Coventry was not eligible for election to the Commons, he clearly considered that he now exercised rights of patronage. In 1625 the city returned Sir Henry Spelman, a friend of Coventry’s son-in-law, Sir John Hare*.20 The following year Spelman’s son John was elected at Coventry’s request.21 Coventry’s influence may have created something of a backlash, for in 1625 the city returned Sir Walter Devereux, who had served for the country the previous year, suggesting that the chamber was seeking allies among the county gentry to counter-balance its recorder. A further factor which may have influenced the 1625 and 1626 elections was a dispute between the corporation and the foundation of the ‘Six Masters’, the governors of the free school and almshouses. The masters, who included the former Members John Coucher and Thomas Chettle, were appointed by the corporation, but in 1624 the chamber procured a commission of charitable uses to investigate the administration of certain bequests by the masters. The commission, whose members had been nominated by the chamber and included Sir Walter Devereux, concluded that the bequests should be administered directly by the corporation. The ‘Six Masters’ appealed, but in November 1626 the lord keeper, by this date Sir Thomas Coventry, ruled in favour of the chamber. This dispute may explain why Coucher was not elected in 1625 and 1626. On the latter occasion John Haselock, who had acted on behalf of the chamber in the dispute, was chosen instead.22 There is no evidence that Coventry made a nomination in 1628, and the election of Haselock and Coucher together may have been a conscious attempt to mend the rift between the chamber and the six masters.

The corporation took an active interest in parliamentary proceedings, writing to Coucher in 1628 to thank him for keeping them up to date with his parliamentary activities as well as informing him of the disorders of locally billeted soldiers.23 There is no evidence that the chamber sponsored any legislation, but in 1621 Coucher and Berkeley worked together to amend the bill for free trade in wool in the interests of Worcester’s clothiers.24 In 1606 Worcester weavers promoted a bill to confirm an order made by the justices of the assizes. This was intended to enforce provisions in a Henrician statute which fixed the rents of those working in the cloth industry in Worcester.25 However rather than going through the city’s Members the bill was introduced in the Lords on 19 February. It is possible that Coucher and Berkeley, who owned property in Worcester, did not support the bill. The Lords did not like it either and drew up another in its place, which would have empowered the lord chancellor to appoint a commission to fix the rents. This bill received its first reading on 13 May but proceeded no further.26

Members were paid at the rate of 2s. 6d. a day, and, as was usual in cases of Worcester’s municipal expenditure, the costs were divided equally between the members of the chamber and the commoners of the city, on whom a fifteenth was levied.27

Authors: Glyn Redworth / Ben Coates


  • 1. Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester ed. S. Bond (Worcs. Hist. Soc. n.s. viii), 82.
  • 2. 31 Dec. 1604 in bor. mins. Ibid. 87.
  • 3. Ibid. 125.
  • 4. Ibid. 202.
  • 5. Ibid. 203.
  • 6. 18 Feb. in bor. mins. Ibid. 222.
  • 7. A.D. Dyer, City of Worcester in Sixteenth Cent. 26-7, 58-62, 93, 115.
  • 8. CPR, 1554-5, pp. 81-6; Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 26.
  • 9. Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 5.
  • 10. Ibid. 83.
  • 11. Ibid. 6-7.
  • 12. Ibid. 8-9, 168.
  • 13. V. Green, Hist. and Antiqs. of City and Suburbs of Worcester, ii. pp. lxxxi-xcvi; Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 12.
  • 14. Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 82, 87, 125, 167, 196, 202, 222.
  • 15. Dyer, 215-16; HP Commons 1558-1603, i. 279-80.
  • 16. C219/35/2/132; C219/37/321.
  • 17. C219/39/214; Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 54-67, 192-3.
  • 18. C219/41B/32; Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 219, 54-67.
  • 19. Dyer, 214.
  • 20. Norf. RO, Hare 5633.
  • 21. Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 202. In the bor. mins. ‘Henry’ is deleted and ‘John’ interlined.
  • 22. Ibid. 41-2, 189, 190, 215-18; Dyer, 168-9.
  • 23. CD 1628, ii. 402.
  • 24. CJ, i. 552b (13 Mar.), 627b (26 May).
  • 25. HMC Hatfield, xix. 487-8; J.S. Cockburn, History of English Assizes, 268; SR, iii. 459-60.
  • 26. LJ, ii. 377, 392, 423, 431.
  • 27. Chamber Order Bk. of Worcester, 49.