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:

c.300 in 1640


 Sir George Hayward vice Bromley, appointed to office
c. Mar. 1614JOHN PIERSE , alderman
 RICHARD SYNGE , alderman
  Double return of Vernon and Paule

Main Article

Situated on a promontory overlooking the Severn, Bridgnorth was chartered in 1157 and returned two Members to the Commons from 1295. While regarded as ‘the second town of Shropshire’, its economic base was surprisingly modest: the medieval cloth industry declined under the Tudors, particularly after knitted caps, a local speciality, fell out of fashion, and in the 1630s the town’s Ship Money assessment of £50 was only half that of the comparably sized borough of Ludlow.1 The key to the town’s survival lay in its role as a service centre: the only bridging point on the Severn for ten miles in either direction, it was the premier market town in south-eastern Shropshire, particularly for horses and cattle, while the rise of coal mining at Broseley increased the river traffic passing through the town, and its large number of alehouses occasioned adverse comment.2 The corporation bolstered this role by ensuring that the town remained the regular venue for Shropshire’s Lent assizes, despite a challenge from Shrewsbury in 1621, and also received occasional visits from the Council in the Marches.3

The population of early Stuart Bridgnorth was probably not far short of the 2,940 recorded in a census of 1688; thus the 300 freemen who voted in the parliamentary election of March 1640 must have represented nearly half the town’s heads of household.4 Governed by two annually elected bailiffs, 24 aldermen and a recorder, in 1547 the borough also inherited the secular jurisdiction which the collegiate church of St. Mary Magdalen had hitherto held over the town and parts of four adjacent rural parishes.5 Yet this administrative autonomy was deceptive, as the corporation’s modest income, around £100 a year under the early Stuarts,6 meant that it was always susceptible to outside influences, and under the Tudors the retailers and craftsmen who dominated municipal life shared power with several neighbouring gentry families.

In the latter half of Elizabeth’s reign the parliamentary representation of Bridgnorth was monopolized by local lawyers. Edward Bromley of the Inner Temple was returned in 1586 on his father’s interest as recorder; the latter was dead by the next election, but in 1591 the family estates devolved upon Bromley’s infant nephew, leaving the MP as the effective head of the family. This ensured the continuance of his electoral interest until his appointment as Exchequer baron removed him to the Lords as a legal assistant in 1610. Until 1597 he was partnered with John Lutwich, a Lincoln’s Inn man from a Shropshire family who ceased to sit after his retirement to the 3,000-acre estate he purchased at Shipton, ten miles west of Bridgnorth.7 Thomas Horde, then recorder, was returned in 1601, but his service as bailiff rendered him ineligible at the next election, and in 1604 a complete outsider, Sir Lewis Lewknor, who had just been appointed to the newly created post of master of ceremonies at Court, was chosen in his stead. The latter was almost certainly recommended by his uncle Sir Richard Lewknor†, chief justice of Chester, upon whom the corporation bestowed a sugarloaf at around the time of the election, and from whom they sought assistance in establishing the town as a regular venue for the sittings of the Council in the Marches.8

Bromley’s promotion occasioned a contentious by-election in February 1610, the origins of which lie in the municipal politics of the intervening years. In 1604 the corporation confronted their neighbour Sir John Whitbrooke over the nuisance the latter’s weir on the Severn was allegedly causing to both the town’s bridge and river-borne traffic. Bailiff Horde, though accused of provoking this confrontation to facilitate the construction of a weir on his own estates a mile upstream, headed an inquiry which concluded that Whitbrooke’s weir should be demolished, a ruling endorsed by the Exchequer court. Three years later, Whitbrooke was prosecuted in Star Chamber for procuring the undue imprisonment of John Hayward in 1602 for non-payment of a debt of £50. Having originally loaned the money at the behest of Sir John Thynne* to save Hayward from debtor’s prison, Whitbrooke had ultimately been vigorous in his pursuit of repayment. Such behaviour was hardly uncommon among creditors, but Whitbrooke’s enemies combined this with other accusations concerning the demolition of the Horde family pew in St. Mary’s church, and a forcible entry instigated by him. None of these accusations was particularly damning on its own, but taken together they earned Whitbrooke fines totalling £200.9 This dispute clearly began as a family rift: the protagonists were related through the London alderman Sir Rowland Hayward†, and John Hayward had carried the order for the destruction of Whitbrooke’s weir down to Bridgnorth in 1605. Yet by 1607 a significant proportion of the town’s elite was prepared to take sides over the Star Chamber suits, partly thanks to Whitbrooke’s intemperate behaviour, but perhaps also because of underlying religious differences, as Whitbrooke was convicted of recusancy in 1609/10.10

With these tensions in the air, the by-election to replace Bromley was held on 14 Feb. 1610. As reported in the Commons on 7-14 Mar., the case ostensibly revolved around the borough franchise, with Bailiff William Capper returning Sir Francis Lacon on a freeman franchise, and bailiff Richard Sotherne backing Sir George Hayward’s return by a majority of the inhabitant householders. The parliamentary franchise had never previously been an issue of contention, and, perhaps because of the weakness of this charge, the debate shifted onto the inadequacy of the return, which Capper had sealed with the town’s ale seal, reinforced by the signatures of five aldermen; Sotherne complained that indentures were usually sealed with the town seal and signed by the two bailiffs. After a week’s examination the bailiffs were allowed to return home for the assizes, and while they returned to Westminster in May, no definitive decision was reached, allowing Lacon to keep his seat by default.11 Intriguingly, the battle lines in this quarrel echo the factional divides of the previous six years: Capper (or his father) had been tenant of Whitbrooke’s weir in 1604, while Lacon was another notorious Catholic. Hayward, meanwhile, was doubtless backed by his brother-in-law Sir Henry Townshend*, who succeeded Horde as recorder shortly thereafter.12

Echoes of these factional divisions can be detected in 1614, when two townsmen, Richard Synge and John Pierse, were returned, as Synge’s relative Humphrey Synge was Whitbrooke’s servant. However, it was clearly of more significance that Humphrey was then serving as one of the bailiffs, as was Rowland Pierse, brother of the other MP. During the parliamentary session another of Whitbrooke’s associates filed a Chancery suit accusing Sir Henry Townshend of malpractice, but the plaintiff failed to find anyone to corroborate the accusations he made in a subsequent Star Chamber suit, perhaps an indication that local tensions were declining. The dispute, which had probably always centred around the ambitions of Horde and Whitbrooke, was ultimately defused once Horde first mortgaged and then sold his patrimony to the Crown land speculator Sir William Whitmore between 1609 and 1620, while Whitbrooke’s local influence was neutralized after his estates were extended by his creditors in 1615.13

The demise of the Horde and Whitbrooke interests lent a very different complexion to the elections of the following decade. In 1621 (Sir) William Whitmore acquired one seat following his purchase of the Horde property, while the other went to Sir John Hayward, younger brother of the recently deceased Sir George. Shortly thereafter Hayward married a widow with jointure estates in Kent, and began selling his Shropshire lands. In 1624 the parliamentary seat thus vacated went to George Smyth, whose father had been one of Hayward’s bailiffs. Yet Smyth’s father did not lack an interest of his own: a substantial landlord within the borough, at the time of the election he was also serving as both master of the Mercers’ Company and town bailiff. As he was concurrently in dispute with Hayward over the settlement of his accounts as manorial bailiff, it is possible that he intended his son’s return to be seen as a snub to Hayward.14

In 1625 a fresh interest emerged in the shape of Sir George Paule, a courtier whose brother was a townsman. He challenged Smyth’s nomination of the lawyer George Vernon, uncle of the 1624 MP. The indenture recorded the return of Whitmore and Vernon, but the official Crown Office list noted a double return, which was never resolved. Vernon sat unopposed in 1626, while his preferment as Exchequer baron in November 1627 allowed Paule to take his place in 1628.15 Meanwhile, in 1626 and 1628 Whitmore gave way to solicitor-general Richard Shilton, a Buckingham appointee whom he doubtless found convenient to cultivate for professional purposes.

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. J.F.A. Mason, Bridgnorth, 10-17; T. Rowley, Salop Landscape, 187-91; J. Leland, Itinerary ed. L. Toulmin Smith, ii. 85; G. Bellett, Antiq. Bridgnorth, 114-15, 220-1; CSP Dom. 1635, pp. 364, 503.
  • 2. P.R. Edwards, ‘Cattle Trade of Salop’, Midland Hist. vi. 72-94; P.R. Edwards, Horse Trade of Tudor and Stuart Eng.; STAC 8/173/19; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. x. 144; R. Baxter, Autobiog. ed. N.H. Keeble, ch. 2; T.S. Willan, Inland Trade, 19-20; J. Hatcher, Hist. of Brit. Coal Industry, 141-8.
  • 3. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. iii. 282-350; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 151.
  • 4. Bodl. Blakeway 18, f. 110; Salop RO, BB/B6/4/1/1.
  • 5. Bodl. Blakeway 18, ff. 6, 68.
  • 6. Including the accts. of the chamberlains, bridgemasters and millmasters in Salop RO, BB/D1/2/1.
  • 7. C142/232/62, 142/354/95; PROB 11/125, ff. 325v-7.
  • 8. Bodl. Blakeway 18, f. 40; C219/35/2/38; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. x. 150.
  • 9. E112/116/151; E124/1, f. 320; E134/2Jas.I/Mich.30; E178/4423, 4436; STAC 8/166/5, 8/173/19, 8/176/22; Barnes, STAC Fines.
  • 10. PROB 11/83, ff. 178-80; C142/241/125; 142/381/158; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 592.
  • 11. CJ, i. 407-10; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 361 n. 6; C219/35/2/29. For the normal indenture format, see 38.
  • 12. E134/2Jas.I/Mich.30; Bodl. Blakeway 18, f. 40.
  • 13. STAC 8/56/3; Salop RO, 5586/5/5/1; Mason, 17-18; C142/381/158.
  • 14. C142/363/194; Mercers’ Hall, London, Bridgnorth Mercers’ Order Bk. ff. 12v-13v; Salop RO, BB/B6/3/1/4; C2/Jas.I/S37/2.
  • 15. Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 205; Vis. Cheshire (Harl. Soc. lix), 243-4; C219/39/167; Procs. 1625, p. 598; VCH Salop, iii. 244; Sainty, Judges, 32.