Cambridge University


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 ‘chancellor, masters and scholars’

Number of voters:

at least 350


2 Apr. 1614SIR MILES SANDYS , bt. 
 Barnaby Gooch74
 Clement Corbett64
 SIR ALBERTUS MORTON also returned for Kent, 2 May 1625 
by 21 Jan. 1626(SIR) JOHN COKE 
11 Mar. 1628(SIR) JOHN COKE 

Main Article

During the early Stuart period Cambridge University consisted of 16 colleges and halls which, between them, housed 2,270 staff, students and servants. The largest college by far, with a population of 340 scholars and servants, was Trinity,2 which alone was spacious enough to accommodate the Court whenever the king came to visit.3 During the mastership of Thomas Neville (1593-1615), most of Trinity’s medieval buildings were demolished and a new hall erected, the cost of which was met in the first instance by Neville himself, who loaned the college £3,000. Neville’s ally in refashioning Trinity was Sir Edward Stanhope†, one of the college’s longstanding fellows. During his lifetime, Stanhope donated £100 for a library, and on his death in 1608 he left a further £700 for the same purpose, plus a small collection of manuscripts and more than 300 books. As a result of the transformation wrought by Neville and Stanhope one observer concluded that Trinity had become ‘one of the most goodly and uniform colleges in Europe’.4

Attempts to secure parliamentary representation for the universities were made at various times during Elizabeth’s reign, but without success.5 In the absence of such representation the universities were poorly placed to oppose legislation which contravened the ordinances governing individual colleges, or to resist parliamentary assaults on their privileges led by the representatives of the enfranchised boroughs of Oxford and Cambridge. Following the accession of James I in 1603, however, the prospects for enfranchisement markedly improved. James was anxious to please and gratify his subjects, and his learning inclined him to ‘favoureth and respecteth the universities’. Sensing that the time was ripe, the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke*, himself a graduate of Trinity, advised Neville and Stanhope to try a fresh approach. They subsequently contacted the principal secretary of state, Lord Cecil (Robert Cecil†) who, as chancellor of Cambridge, was inclined to be sympathetic. The matter was accordingly brought to the attention of James, who signed the appropriate letters patent on 12 Mar. 1604, just seven days before Parliament assembled. These bestowed upon the universities the privilege of returning two Members each, ‘who from time to time shall make known to that supreme high court of Parliament the true state of the same university and of each college, hall and hospice there, that no statute or Act may prejudice or injure them generally or any one of them separately, without fair and due notice and information there’. The letters patent further vested the franchise in the ‘chancellor, masters and scholars’ of the universities. The meaning of this phrase is not entirely clear. It has been argued that ‘scholars’ should not be taken to include undergraduates, nor even bachelors of arts, but only the holders of higher degrees and bachelors of divinity. The inclusion of the latter is questionable, however, as elections were always held in the senate of the university, a body which consisted exclusively of masters of arts.6 Whatever the precise composition of the electorate may have been, it seems likely that it included the fellows of each college, of whom there were 350.7

The letters patent offered no guidance as to the manner of holding elections, and since Parliament was due to commence within a matter of days neither Canbridge nor Oxford universities had sufficient time in which to formulate their own rules. It was with this consideration in mind that Coke advised Cambridge how to proceed ‘for this time’. First, he suggested that the university should avoid choosing a member of Convocation (by which he meant the parliament of the church rather than the governing body of the university), ‘for I have known the like to have bred a question’. Secondly, it should refrain from returning the vice-chancellor, because ‘he is governor of the university where the choice is to be made’. He proposed instead that it should elect ‘some professor of the Civil Law or any other that is not of the Convocation House’.8 Coke’s advice was evidently heeded as two prominent civil lawyers were returned, Henry Moutlowe, professor of Civil Law at Gresham College, London and Nicholas Steward, a judge in the Courts of Admiralty and Delegates. Both men had attained their legal qualifications at Cambridge, while Moutlowe had been a fellow at King’s College for over 20 years and had held several university offices. Steward must have seemed an especially good choice, because he was then in favour with Sir Edward Coke. However, neither Moutlowe nor Steward was still technically a member of the university, whereas the king’s letters patent required the universities to choose members ‘of their own body’.

By 1614 a method of electing the university’s parliamentary representatives had been agreed between the college heads, who claimed that there had been disagreements in 1604. Collectively they issued a decree, entitled De modo eligendi Burgenses, which proclaimed that the university would follow the rules which governed the annual elections of its vice-chancellor.9 By this system the senate was offered the choice of one of only two candidates, both of whom had been selected beforehand by the heads. The decree understandably caused consternation among ordinary voters, who desired to exercise the same right to choose from several candidates as they enjoyed when electing the university’s chancellor. It was obvious to them that the heads were attempting to gain a large measure of control over the university’s parliamentary elections. Equally apparent was the fact that the heads had exceeded their powers by imposing a system without reference to the university’s senate. While they were entitled to interpret anything in the university statutes which seemed to them obscure, the heads had no right to act as interpreters of the king’s letters patent. Not surprisingly, therefore, the heads’ presumption was brought to the attention of the earl of Northampton, who had succeeded Cecil as chancellor of the university in 1612. Northampton entered into a now vanished correspondence with the vice-chancellor on the matter, after which he issued instructions that the university was to elect its burgesses ‘after the form of the choice of the chancellor’.10

Northampton’s ruling was a severe setback to the heads, but they remained determined to control the outcome of the 1614 election. From the detailed account of the election left by the deputy vice-chancellor, Dr. John Duport,11 it is clear that the heads tried to manipulate proceedings to ensure the election of either the master of Magdalene, Barnaby Gooch, or the vice-chancellor, Clement Corbett, whose selection was in blatant disregard of Coke’s earlier prohibition. Their plans were upset, however, by the appearance on the scene of two rival candidates: the attorney-general, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Miles Sandys of Wilburton, in the Isle of Ely. Events on the hustings were to show that, although the heads were reluctantly prepared to concede one seat to Bacon, they were determined to thwart Sandys, even though the latter had once been a proctor of the university and had held fellowships at Peterhouse and Queens’.

The election was held at eight o’clock on the morning of 2 Apr. in the university’s Senate House. There the assembled electors were addressed by Duport who, in view of Corbett’s candidacy, was obliged to preside. Duport began by reminding his audience that they were required by their letters patent to elect only members of the university, and by statute law to return only residents. These requirements had not prevented the university from electing Moutlowe and Steward in 1604, however, and by drawing attention to them now Duport was quite obviously trying to exclude Sandys, and perhaps also Bacon, who like Sandys was nonresident. (Bacon, however, had recently been appointed counsel to the university and could therefore claim to be a member of the university). Duport’s address was shortly followed by an intervention from one of the masters of arts, a Mr. Browne, who announced that it was rumoured that some among them wished to elect a man ‘not eligible by the charter [sic]’, and declared his wish that ‘there might be none such admitted’. Browne’s speech, which seems to have been aimed directly at Sandys rather than Bacon, prompted one of Sandys’s supporters to announce that Northampton’s secretary had signalled in writing that Northampton wished that Sandys should be returned. Duport endeavoured to brush this damaging revelation aside, declaring that ‘he was not to take knowledge of his lordship’s pleasure from any private man, having his lordship’s own letter to direct him’. As the arguments became more heated, Duport announced that he would void the election of anyone chosen contrary to the king’s letters patent, statute law or Northampton’s letters addressed to him. Despite this warning, Bacon and Sandys proceeded to top the poll by a large margin, leaving Gooch and Corbett trailing in third and fourth place respectively. An unnerved Duport thereupon ordered the votes to be recounted, so arousing suspicions that he intended to alter the result. He quickly realized his mistake, however, and, faced with large numbers of angry voters whom he feared would turn violent, decided to bring the proceedings to a swift conclusion. Before the recount could be completed, he stepped into his chair, declared Sandys’s election invalid on the grounds of nonresidence, pronounced Bacon and Gooch elected, and dissolved convocation. At this there was uproar. Chanting ‘you do us wrong’ and ‘a Sandys, a Sandys!’, Sir Miles’s supporters made such a din that they could be heard ‘a great way off’. Meanwhile, Duport had to be escorted from the rostrum by the bedells. In the ensuing confusion the slips recording the votes cast in favour of Bacon and Sandys were seized by the angry voters, who proceeded to make their way ‘in great heaps’ towards King’s College. There they drew up a certificate in favour of Bacon and Sandys, having, according to Duport, ‘procured aforehand the sheriff or his deputy … to join with them therein’. The heads, who remained behind, drew up their own return, but were unable to persuade the sheriff or under-sheriff to sign it.12

The heads seem never to have protested to the Commons at the return of Sandys, but instead acted to prevent any recurrence of their humiliation. Sometime before January 1621 they again sought to gain control over the nomination process. Their task was undoubtedly made easier by the appointment as chancellor of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, following the death of Northampton in May 1614. As patron of Magdalene College,13 Suffolk cannot have been insensitive to the electoral humiliation which had been inflicted on that college’s master, Barnaby Gooch. Certainly he seems not to have objected when the king, presumably in response to an appeal from the heads, directed that in future elections should be held ‘juxta formam electionis procancellarii’.14 James’s intervention seems to have been accepted with quiet resignation by the rank and file voters. In contrast to the turbulent scenes witnessed in the Senate House in 1614, the election of January 1621 was held ‘without tumult or any opposition’, according to the registrary, James Tabor. However, soon after Parliament assembled Tabor and the vice-chancellor were made nervous by a rumour, apparently unfounded, that the university’s MPs ‘are questioned in the Parliament for the manner of their election’.15

The heads used their new powers of nomination to bestow the junior seat on Barnaby Gooch. They thereby avenged their earlier humiliation, but given their treatment of Sir Miles Sandys in 1614 their decision to return Gooch was a breathtaking piece of hypocrisy, as the master of Magdalene no longer resided in Cambridge but was now settled at Exeter, where he had been chancellor to the bishop since 1615. The senior seat was conferred upon the king’s principal secretary of state, Sir Robert Naunton. The latter was almost certainly nominated by the royal favourite, the marquess of Buckingham, as it was Buckingham’s patronage secretary, John Packer*, who notified Naunton of his election.16

James’s role in establishing a voting system favourable to the heads served to render the university vulnerable to royal interference. Henceforward the university assumed the status of a royal pocket borough, at least so far as the senior seat was concerned. In 1624 Naunton was re-elected, this time at the request of Buckingham’s client, lord keeper Coventry (Sir Thomas Coventry*),17 while the junior seat was again taken by Gooch. At the following election the university bestowed both its seats on government ministers. Naunton, newly promoted master of the Wards, occupied the senior place, while the junior was made available to secretary of state Sir Albertus Morton.

Following the summons of the second Caroline Parliament, Dr. John Collins, the anatomist, evidently offered to bestow a seat upon one of the sons of the university’s chancellor, the earl of Suffolk, who was now fast approaching death. On 8 Jan. 1626 Suffolk’s wife gently declined the offer as her sons were ‘all sure of places in the west country’, and instead threw her husband’s weight behind the Crown’s nominees, Naunton and secretary of state Sir John Coke, ‘which are men able to do the university good’.18 The heads, however, were evidently determined to prevent the Crown from monopolizing both seats as it had in 1625. Since Gooch was now close to death they bestowed the junior seat on the master of Trinity Hall, Thomas Eden II, who had some knowledge of Parliament’s workings, having served as a legal assistant to the Lords in August 1625. However, they were willing to accept Morton’s successor Sir John Coke for the senior seat in preference to Naunton, perhaps because Coke had enjoyed a distinguished university career at Trinity College, where he had once taught rhetoric. A rumour that Coke was likely to face ‘some competition’ for the place evidently proved unfounded.19 Eden and Coke were both re-elected in 1628 without a single vote being cast against them.20

Although the university ultimately managed to retain control over one of its seats, the election of a string of government ministers during the 1620s had the effect of weakening its representation in Parliament. Ministers of the Crown were generally far too busy with the king’s business to attend to the affairs of the university, which therefore were left to the junior Member. When, in June 1626, the Commons attacked the university for electing Buckingham, now a duke, as its chancellor in succession to Suffolk, it fell to Eden rather than Coke to attempt to lower the temperature of the House.21 With the notable exception of Coke, those Crown ministers who served for the university were often not even in the House. In 1621 Naunton was under house arrest on the orders of the king, and although he had been released by 1624 he resolved not take his seat unless the king bestowed on him an office of equal or greater importance to the secretaryship, which he had been forced to surrender in 1623. It was not until September 1624 that James conferred the mastership of the Wards on Naunton, but by that time Parliament had been prorogued, never to reassemble. Consequently Naunton did not finally set foot in the Commons as Member for the university until 1625, in which year his fellow Member, Morton, was kept from Westminster by ambassadorial duties. Morton’s absence meant that, for a third Parliament in succession, Cambridge University was deprived of one of its parliamentary representatives. Under these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that the college heads moved to regain control of the junior seat in 1626.

The successive election of government ministers made a mockery of the idea that membership of the university was a vital qualification for election to the university’s seats. Although Naunton, Morton and Coke had all been educated at Cambridge, none were members of their alma mater at the time of their election and thus all were technically ineligible. Naunton at least understand this, for in 1621 he considered declining his election on the grounds that he was ‘now none of that body’.22 That said, it should be noted that in 1621 it would have served Naunton’s purposes to disclaim his election, as Naunton was then looking for a way to avoid a damaging confrontation between king and Commons over the matter of his confinement. Neither in 1624 nor in 1625 did he express the same sense of disquiet at his eligibility.

A striking feature of Cambridge University’s parliamentary elections is that electors were required to record their votes on slips of paper, known as suffrages. These were counted by the procurators, and handed to the official known as the registrary after the election for safekeeping.23 The registrary, whose presence was required at meetings of the senate, attended parliamentary elections in person, and was the university’s archivist.24 Voting slips were used even when an election was uncontested. Following the 1621 election, at which neither candidate was challenged, the registrary noted that ‘all the suffrages are in my custody but seven or eight, that Reding [?the esquire bedell] slyly stole away as they were reading’.25

It was unusual for the university to pay its parliamentary representatives wages. The only Member to receive a fee for his services during this period was Henry Moutlowe, a man of such limited means that, as Millicent Rex has remarked, he may actually have needed the money. Until 1606 Moutlowe was paid regularly, at the rate of 5s. a day, but the emptiness of the university’s coffers meant that he did not receive the remainder of his wages until 1614. This sum, amounting to £60, was paid in full only because Moutlowe’s friend, Dr. John Cowell, had earlier bequeathed £30 to the university to help it pay off the debt.26

The interests of the university required it to keep a close eye on the legislative business of the Commons. Evidence that the legislation laid before the Commons was monitored is provided by a single surviving letter written to one of the university’s parliamentary representatives by the registrary, James Tabor on 28 Feb. 1621, one month after Parliament had commenced sitting.27 The identity of the addressee is not stated, but given Naunton’s confinement and the undeferential tone of the letter the recipient must have been Barnaby Gooch. Tabor sought to draw Gooch’s attention to those bills which concerned the university, to instruct him how to respond to such legislation and to require him to furnish additional information where necessary. The first and most important issue brought to Gooch’s attention was that of fen drainage. Tabor had correctly heard that a new fen drainage bill was shortly to be laid before the Commons. This was a matter of keen interest to the university, because it had a direct bearing on the provisioning of the colleges. The waterways in and around Cambridge had begun to dry up as a result of the activities of unscrupulous fen drainers such as Sir Miles Sandys, and consequently it had become increasingly difficult for traders to bring their goods to market. This inevitably led to shortages of foodstuffs and fuel, which in turn led to higher prices, to the anger of the colleges.28 Tabor was well acquainted with these problems, for as well as being registrary he was clerk to the Cambridgeshire sewer commissioners.29 Nevertheless, he was ignorant of the contents of the new drainage bill, and was anxious to discover its provisions so that he could acquaint Gooch ‘with some material points to be stood upon for us’.

The second item on Tabor’s list was a bill for the maintenance of vicars of impropriate parsonages, of which Gooch was advised to take ‘some care’ because the university owned several parsonages. Gooch was further instructed to oppose a bill to prevent tradesmen from conducting their business without licence from their local corporation, on the grounds that it would be ‘against King James’s charter, where a scholar or scholar’s servant may use any trade without contradiction or composition’. Finally, Gooch was ordered to ensure that the university was granted its traditional exemption from the Subsidy Act.

University interest in the activities of the Commons was mirrored by the Commons’ own concern for the business of the university during the later 1620s. In June 1626 several Members expressed distaste at the election of the duke of Buckingham as chancellor of the university. Buckingham’s election was interpreted both as a deliberate snub to the Commons, which was then busy drawing up articles of impeachment against the royal favourite, and as evidence of the rising influence of Arminianism within the university. Speaking for the university, Thomas Eden denied that Cambridge had intended any affront to the House, and claimed that it was free of Arminianism, a defence so unconvincing that it drew from Sir Alexander Temple the caustic response that ‘he could as easily believe there was not one whore in the town of Cambridge as that the university was without an Arminian’.30

The election of the Arminian Matthew Wren as vice-chancellor of the university in November 1628 can have done little to allay parliamentary suspicions that Cambridge was fast becoming hostile to Calvinism. In February 1629 the Speaker, Sir John Finch II, wrote to both universities requiring them to send up the names of all those university members who had written or published any doctrines contrary to the true or generally received sense of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and to report what punishment, if any, had been inflicted upon them. At Cambridge, Finch’s letter resulted in the appointment of an investigative committee. However, it proved unable to compile a detailed return because of the inadequacy of the university’s records, and because Wren had circulated a reminder that the recent reissue of the Thirty-Nine Articles forbade members of the universities to explore ‘those curious points in which the present differences lie’. The committee’s report, such as it was, recorded 14 cases, of which only two were relevant to the issue of Arminianism. It was never presented to the Commons, for by the time it was completed the Parliament had already been dissolved.31

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. CUL, UA, Elect. L.5, no. 3.
  • 2. Harl. 4017, ff. 26v.
  • 3. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Camb. iii. 71, 84, 156, 170; LC5/132, p. 91.
  • 4. Oxford DNB, xl. 544-5; HP Commons 1558-1603, iii. 438; Harl. 4017, f. 18.
  • 5. M.B. Rex, Univ. Rep. in Eng. 22, 24-8.
  • 6. Ibid. 60-2; Cambs. Antiquarian Soc. Procs. xvii. 208.
  • 7. Calculated from Harl. 4017, passim.
  • 8. Rex, 351-2.
  • 9. J. Heywood and T. Wright, Camb. Univ. Trans. ii. 258-9.
  • 10. Rex, 58-9; Cambs. Antiquarian Procs. xvii. 205.
  • 11. Cambs. Antiquarian Procs. xvii. 204-9.
  • 12. CUL, UA Elect L.5 no. 1. The heads’ indenture is written on paper rather than parchment, and so may be a copy. The sheriff, Thomas Baldwin, is named as a party to the indenture, but neither his signature nor any other is appended to it.
  • 13. Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 5), vi. 57.
  • 14. Rex, 355. Rex says that this edict bears the date 28 Feb. 1621, but in fact it is undated: CUL, CUR 50, no.1(a).
  • 15. Rex, 355.
  • 16. Ct. of Jas. I ed. G. Goodman, ii. 226.
  • 17. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 148.
  • 18. King’s Coll. Lib. Camb., ms KCAR/1/2/16, vol. iv. no. 59. On Collins see Oxford DNB.
  • 19. HMC Cowper, i. 252.
  • 20. Procs. 1626, iv. 262; Gonville and Caius Coll. Camb., ms T44/249, f. 178.
  • 21. Rex, 112-13; Procs. 1626, iii. 370-1.
  • 22. Ct. of Jas. I, ii. 226.
  • 23. Cambs. Antiquarian Soc. Procs. xvii. 205-7.
  • 24. Historical Reg. of Univ. of Camb. to 1910 ed. J.R. Tanner, 50.
  • 25. Rex, 355.
  • 26. Ibid. 88; Harl. 7046, ff. 76v-7v; PROB 11/118, f. 87v.
  • 27. CUL, CUR 50, no. 2. Part of this letter only is printed in Rex, 355.
  • 28. CUL, UA, Lett. 11A, no. C18a (fair copy at CUL, T.XII. 1, no. 3); UA, T.XII, no. 17.
  • 29. CUL, UA, T.XII.1, no. 23.
  • 30. Procs. 1626, iii. 370-2; iv. 292.
  • 31. N. Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists, 51-2; Heywood and Wright, ii. 367-8; Add. 5852, f. 162v.