Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
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Knaresborough castle was for centuries the headquarters of the duchy of Lancaster honor of Knaresborough, and in the 16th century the town was still closely involved in duchy administration; its nearness to York also exposed it to the influence of the council in the north. After its enfranchisement, presumably in response to a petition from the duchy and the council in the north, the magnates best placed to exercise parliamentary patronage were Sir Robert Rochester, chancellor of the duchy, the 2nd Earl of Cumberland, chief steward of the honor, and the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury, president of the council. The Percy earls of Northumberland, who owned two parks near the borough, do not appear to have shown interest in its elections, although their intervention could have been obscured by their marriage connexions with Cumberland and Shrewsbury.4

Leland wrote that ‘the town is no great thing and meanly builded, but the market there is quick’. The Reformation had removed one source of income, the pilgrimages to the ‘dropping well’, the medicinal spring which according to legend flowed from the tomb of St. Robert the hermit. The 13th-century house of ‘Robertines’ or Trinitarian friars remained at Knaresborough until December 1538. One of the friars, Robert Ashton, an instigator of the Pilgrimage of Grace, had fled to Scotland after the failure of the rising, and although the master of the house remained loyal there was no future for the institution. The immediate post-Dissolution history of its property is obscure, but in the last year of Edward VI this was granted to the 5th Earl of Shrewsbury, from whom it soon passed to the Slingsby family. The Slingsbys shared local pre-eminence with their relatives the Burnands or Brennands, one of whom appears as an elector on all the surviving indentures of the period.5

To the south of the town lay the royal forest of Knaresborough, which had formerly yielded the lead, iron and coal sold at the weekly market and at the fairs, of which by 1611 there were four a year, although the mines started in the forest by nearby Fountains abbey are not known to have been worked after 1529 and the destruction of timber hampered the iron industry. The townsmen had common rights in the forest and other lands, and Camden was to remark on the amount of liquorice, valued for its medicinal properties, which grew in the surrounding fields. Although the cloth and linen industries were in temporary decline, tanning and the manufacture of leather goods, bits, spurs and nails remained active. The castle, still in good repair when Leland wrote, was a source of employment; the office of constable usually went with that of chief steward of the honor.6

The manor of Knaresborough was ancient demesne, and the town’s courts still bore the marks of manorial jurisdiction. Since 1311, although never incorporated, it had been a ‘free burgh’, and the term ‘burgesses’ was used regularly from the 14th century. The ‘ancient customs of Knaresborough’, as formulated in 1611, mentioned two bailiffs, one for the borough and the ‘liberty bailiff’, presumably the duchy official, who ‘never of right ... hath any intermeddling with the borough’— although both offices were then held by Sir Henry Slingsby. The ‘King’s borough court’ was held by the borough bailiff, and there were two ‘head courts’ at Easter and Michaelmas, presumably the old courts leet, which all burgesses were required to attend. The sheriff’s tourns were still held twice a year at the castle. The two ‘leets’ each year which met ‘at the prebend house’ within the town were part of the judicial system of the parish, a peculiar of the prebend of Knaresborough and Bickhill in York minster. The ‘customs’ recited in 1611 were probably those obtaining a century before.7

The term ‘burgesses’ was almost certainly restricted to the holders of ancient burgage tenements. There were ostensibly between 84 and 88 of these, but no more than eight to 14 names of electors appear on the surviving 16th-century returns along with that of the returning officer, the borough bailiff. Three indentures of election survive from the reign of Mary, dating from September 1553, March 1554 and 1558. The first of them is the earliest known for Knaresborough, unless an almost illegible one for the Parliament of 1300 is for the borough. Whether it marked an enfranchisement or a restoration, the summoning of Members to Mary’s first Parliament must have been designed, as it was at Boroughbridge and Ripon, to increase the government’s following in the Commons: an election in a small non-incorporated borough, as unwilling as unable to pay wages to its Members, was bound to rest with either the duchy or the council in the north, or both. It is significant that the first indentures for the three boroughs bear the same date, that they appear to be in the same hand and that all three contain the unusual statements that the sheriff had sent his ‘warrant’ to the ‘borough-holders’ and that the men elected had been given full power to ‘dissent’ as well as to consent and act in Parliament. At the next election, when the indenture for Boroughbridge is missing and those for Knaresborough and Ripon are in different hands, the Knaresborough one, again in English, has the name of John Burnand as the first one in the agreement with the sheriff. Burnand was probably the bailiff; the office is only mentioned in an indenture in 1558, when it was presumably held by Anthony Frankeshe, who signed that document. The electors are styled differently in September 1553, when two of the ten are described as gentlemen and the others as ‘borough-holders’, from March 1554, when about the same number ofinhabitors are particularised as merchants, yeomen or innholders. The Latin indenture for 1558 is badly torn but does not appear to have included the name of any voter except Frankeshe. As for the names of the Members, in 1553 these were inserted by whoever wrote the document, whereas both names for April 1554 are in a hand different from that of the indenture, and in 1558 Henry Darcy’s is certainly, and Thomas Colshill’s probably, a later insertion.8

Those elected are not easily classified. In respect of age they formed a young or early middle-aged group, with Reginald Beseley and Colshill probably the only ones over 40 when first elected for the borough. Of the nine known Members (if it was George Eden who sat in 1555) six had been to either a university or inn of court or both. Socially and occupationally they varied: Beseley and Ralph Scrope were lawyers, John Long and Henry Darcy country gentlemen, Chaloner was a crown servant and member of the council in the north, Colshill, Eden and Henry Fisher held minor public offices, and Edward Napper was a servant of Sir William Petre. None lived at Knaresborough, and only Beseley, Chaloner, Darcy and Scrope are known to have owned property in Yorkshire. There is no discernible pattern in their parliamentary experience: Napper and Scrope sat exclusively for Knaresborough, all Beseley’s eight elections were for Yorkshire constituencies, but the remainder, who like him sat only once for Knaresborough, found their other seats outside Yorkshire.

If such variety confirms the impression given by the indentures that most if not all of these men were official nominees, their individual sources of patronage are generally a matter of inference. Beseley’s election can be confidently ascribed to the Earl of Shrewsbury on the strength of their known connexion, as can Long’s and, probably, Scrope’s on both occasions. The responsibility for Chaloner’s nomination has to be deduced from the evidence relating to his or George Eden’s election in 1555. The indenture does not survive, but the sheriff’s endorsement of the writ, which contains at least one obvious mistake, gives the names as Henry Fisher and Sir Thomas Chaloner (misread by the compilers of theOfficial Return as Chalys). On the other hand a letter to Shrewsbury from his servant John Crych, written on the day after Parliament met, gives the ‘new’ Members for Knaresborough as George Eden and Henry Fisher. The clue to what happened may lie in another letter to Shrewsbury, this time from Sir William Petre, written on 25 Sept. 1555 and containing the sentence: ‘for the matter you wrote me, to have one of the council there in Mr. Chaloner’s place, my lords have not yet resolved, nor moved the Queen’s majesty.’ If this means that Shrewsbury wished Chaloner to remain in the north instead of attending the Parliament, it seems to favour the view that Chaloner’s nomination had been the work of the duchy of Lancaster, as had his earlier returns for Wigan and Lancaster. Both Eden, who may have replaced Chaloner, and Fisher, who filled the other seat, are more likely to have been nominees of the duchy than of the earl, although Eden’s immediate patron may have been Gardiner. Of the remaining Members, Napper must have owed his election to his master Petre, and Darcy his to his father Sir Arthur, a duchy official, while Colshill, a customs official, could have been commended to the duchy by the lord treasurer, the Marquess of Winchester.9

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. Huntington Lib. Hastings mss Parl. pprs.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. C219/24/59v; HMC Shrewsbury and Talbot, ii. 39.
  • 4. Somerville, Duchy , i. 525-6; Leland, Itin. ed. Smith, i. 86; VCH Yorks. i. 520.
  • 5. Leland, i. 86; M. Calvert, Knaresbrough , 113, 130-2; W. Wheater, Knaresburgh , 313; VCH Yorks. i. 97; iii. 90, 296-300; E. Hargrove, Knaresbrough , 40-41; Somerville, i. 517, 525-6; CPR , 1553, pp. 230-1; 1555-7, p. 412.
  • 6. Hargrove, 3, 8; Somerville, i. 268, 310 and n. 5, 525; VCH Yorks. i. 508-9; ii. 331, 335, 346-7, 408; iii. 482; Calvert, 149, 158; Wheater, 165; Camden, Britannia (1695), col. 715; Leland, i. 86.
  • 7. Hargrove, 2, 9, 43; Calvert, 146-58; Yorks. Arch. Jnl. xxxiv. 217; VCH Yorks. iii. 27, 88.
  • 8. Yorks. Arch. Jnl. xxxiv. 215-17; C219/21/60, 61, 62, 22/21, 22, 24/59v, 62, 25/44.
  • 9. HMC Shrewsbury and Talbot , ii. 41.