Great Yarmouth


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 corporation

Number of voters:



1 Mar. 16041THOMAS DAMET , alderman
 JOHN WHEELER , alderman
18 Mar. 16142GEORGE HARDWARE , alderman
12 Dec. 16203BENJAMIN COOPER , alderman
 EDWARD OWNER , alderman
28 Jan. 16244GEORGE HARDWARE , alderman
27 Apr. 16255Sir John Corbet , bt.
 EDWARD OWNER , alderman
26 Jan. 16266Sir John Corbet , bt.
 THOMAS JOHNSON , alderman
 MILES CORBET , recorder

Main Article

Situated at the mouth of the Yare on the southern border of Norfolk, Yarmouth had been an important fortified town and a major fishing port since Saxon times. The epithet ‘Great’ was added during Edward I’s reign, probably to distinguish it from Little Yarmouth, in Suffolk.8 Built around a large central marketplace, the town’s most unusual feature was that it comprised a single parish.9 In the nineteenth century the huge church of St. Nicholas was the 26th largest in England, making it bigger than some cathedrals.10

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Yarmouth supported a population of 6,000-7,000, and was governed by two bailiffs, an inner council known as the Twenty-Four, and a common council referred to as the Forty-Eight, assisted by an under-steward and various minor officials. The office of high steward was filled by Charles Howard†, 1st earl of Nottingham (1601-24), and later by Sir James Ley*, 1st earl of Marlborough (1625-9). Yarmouth also retained numerous lawyers. In 1603 there were five, including Sir Edward Coke* and Sir Henry Hobart*, and by 1624 there were nine, each one retained at a cost of 40s.11 In 1608 Yarmouth obtained a new charter, which replaced the under-steward with a recorder and renamed the members of the inner and common councils as aldermen and councillors respectively.12 This form of government went unchallenged until 1627, when aldermen Benjamin Cooper* and George Hardware* asked the king to replace the bailiffs with a single mayor. Many of their colleagues were furious at this unauthorized action, and consequently both men were removed from the aldermanic bench. The king, concerned at this dissension in a major town, ordered that they be restored, and instructed that Yarmouth’s charters be brought to London for examination. However, the displaced aldermen were only reinstated after the direct intervention of attorney-general (Sir) Robert Heath* and Secretary Dorchester (Dudley Carleton*). Although a new charter was drafted, which would have installed a mayor and halved the size of the town’s governing body, it was held in abeyance by the Privy Council as its provisions were contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of the corporation.13

Yarmouth’s corporation during this period enjoyed an annual income of more than £1,500 p.a., and was able to contribute £120 to a royal aid in 1611 and more than £270 towards the Benevolence of 1614.14 However, more than £500 was needed every year to maintain the haven.15 In 1622, following an inquiry, the town was granted the right to export 4,000 tons of beer duty free to raise funds for repairs. This produced a windfall of £1,800, and in 1626 a second licence, to export 1,000 tons, was issued with the help of the town’s steward, lord treasurer Marlborough.16 The additional revenue was undoubtedly welcome, for in the mid-1620s, when fears of invasion were rife, the corporation was forced to spend £300 a year to keep its fortifications in good repair. This was not enough, but the town pleaded poverty, claiming that its merchants had lost goods and shipping to the Dunkirkers worth £25,000 in the space of two years.17

Yarmouth’s prosperity was based largely upon the herring industry. The annual herring free-fair, held between Michaelmas and Martinmas and administered jointly with two representatives of the Cinque Ports, attracted huge numbers of vessels.18 The tolls and customs collected during the fair were vital to the town’s economy, as was the money spent by the influx of mariners.19 However, for many years Yarmouth had been engaged in a bitter dispute with nearby Lowestoft over fishing rights. The history of the conflict is well documented and illustrates how the outports could utilize the forum of Parliament to gain superiority.20

The quarrel with Lowestoft was re-ignited in 1608 by Yarmouth’s new charter. As well as modifying its form of government, the new charter granted Yarmouth Admiralty rights between Easton Ness and Winton Ness, a distance of over 14 leagues, placing Lowestoft firmly under its jurisdiction. Yarmouth’s high steward, lord admiral Nottingham, appears to have been instrumental in obtaining the charter. In return for 40 barrels of herring and 100 lings a year for life, he surrendered his Admiralty rights to the king, who then transferred them to Yarmouth.21 Lowestoft was horrified, and drafted a bill to be laid before Parliament, which attracted support from fishermen as far away as Brighton.22 The measure, a copy of which survives among Yarmouth’s records, was similar to a bill introduced by Lowestoft in 1597-8, which sought to limit Yarmouth’s jurisdiction to a radius of seven miles.23 Following the bill’s first reading, on 26 Feb. 1610,24 the corporation dispatched two aldermen to London to assist its Members and prepare documents illustrating the bill’s faults.25 One of Yarmouth’s Members, Thomas Damet, who had led the opposition to Lowestoft under Elizabeth, subsequently denigrated Lowestoft as ‘a town of small importance to [the] state’, whose inhabitants were poor ‘by their idleness’.26 These tactics ensured that the bill did not return from committee after its second reading on 13 March.27 Lowestoft may have introduced another bill to the same effect in 1621, but if so it failed to receive even a first reading.28

Yarmouth not only had to contend with legislative attacks from Lowestoft but also from its other perennial opponent, the London Fishmongers’ Company. In 1604 the Fishmongers supported a bill against the drying of summer herrings – a method used in Yarmouth – by sending some of its members to the parliamentary committee meeting.29 In 1610 they also sponsored a bill designed to overturn an Elizabethan statute on barrelled fish.30 The main dispute between Yarmouth and the Fishmongers, however, was over the granting of the annual herring licence to Yarmouth by the Privy Council. This licence enabled Yarmouth to transport 600 lasts of herrings in strangers’ bottoms, and was of considerable importance because of the foreign shipping and customs it brought to the port. In 1613 the licence came under attack from a combination of the Fishmongers, Deptford’s Trinity House, and London merchants and shipowners. They claimed that Yarmouth’s export of herrings in foreign ships was contrary to statute, led to the decay of English trade, and left many English mariners unemployed. After much wrangling, the licence was renewed, but another sustained attack in 1615 not only persuaded the Board to revoke it, but to forbid the town from seeking a further renewal, ‘it being resolved … that none at all shall be hereafter granted, as a thing every way prejudicial and inconvenient’.31

This state of affairs lasted only until 1617, when the Privy Council, alarmed that ‘such strangers as were accustomed to buy their herrings do now altogether forbear to buy and provide herrings at that town as heretofore’, restored the licence.32 It was again revoked in 1624, however, despite the support of (Sir) John Suckling* and the duke of Buckingham, after the Fishmongers and merchants said they were prepared to buy the 600 lasts at the same price as foreign merchants paid.33 Despite these assurances, the Londoners failed to fulfil their part of the agreement, and in 1627 Yarmouth’s right to ship herrings in strangers’ bottoms was, with some difficulty, restored.34

Writs for parliamentary elections in Great Yarmouth were directed to the sheriff of Norfolk, who issued a precept to the bailiffs. The franchise was vested in the corporation, and an oral vote was taken during the meeting. After the election, a committee of aldermen was appointed to consider what instructions to give the burgesses before they departed for Westminster.35 Yarmouth’s Members seem to have been expected to report events at Westminster to their constituents, both verbally and by letter, and indeed they often supplied copies of speeches and other proceedings.36

From about 1584 Yarmouth had generally returned aldermen as its representatives. This pattern continued into James’s reign, for before 1625 the only outsider to be returned was Sir Theophilus Finch, who was chosen for the junior seat in 1614. Finch, though not resident in Norfolk, had married into the Heydon family of Baconsthorpe, and his mother-in-law was the widow of Sir Edward Clere of Ormesby, four miles north of Yarmouth. Interest in Yarmouth’s seats rose sharply in 1624, however, when the borough received several letters from outsiders. The corporation resolved that only aldermen should be elected,37 but in 1625 it gave way after four outsiders, all of them knights, approached the borough. At the election on 27 Apr. it was decided, by a majority vote, to return Sir John Corbet of Sprowston as senior burgess. Corbet’s manor lay close to Norwich, and his brother, Miles, was Yarmouth’s recorder.38 Corbet was returned again in 1626, but this time ‘without any opposition or contradiction’.39 At the 1628 election the corporation decided to confer both its seats on outsiders. Sir John Wentworth, who lived at nearby Somerleyton in Suffolk, was awarded the senior place, while Miles Corbet, the recorder, was returned as junior burgess. It is unclear why the borough was prepared to elect outsiders on a regular basis from 1625, but losses suffered during the wars with Spain and France, and the expense of maintaining the town’s fortifications, may have made it willing to look more kindly on men prepared to serve in Parliament without wages. Townsmen who were elected received 10s. per day in travelling costs, and 6s. 8d. for every day they were in London.40

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5. f. 39.
  • 2. Ibid. f. 125.
  • 3. Ibid. f. 228.
  • 4. Ibid. f. 292v.
  • 5. Ibid. f. 323.
  • 6. Ibid. Y/C19/6, f. 10.
  • 7. Ibid. f. 89v.
  • 8. F. Blomefield, Hist. Norf. xi. 255.
  • 9. Cott. Augustus I (i), no. 74.
  • 10. E.J. Lupson, St. Nicholas, 8.
  • 11. Norf. RO, Y/C21/1, f. 260v; C21/1, unfol.
  • 12. Norf. RO, Y/C2/12; Y/C18/4, ff. 67-76v.
  • 13. Blomefield, xi. 302-7; H. Swinden, Hist. Gt. Yarmouth, 477-514; SP14/180/45; SP16/147/56-9; 16/148/58, 60-1, 74, 88; Norf. RO, Y/C19/6, ff. 126, 127, 129, 161v.
  • 14. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, f. 93; E351/1950.
  • 15. Norf. RO, Y/C18/4, f. 66v.
  • 16. Norf. RO, Y/C19/6, f. 124.
  • 17. Blomefield, xi. 359.
  • 18. W.F. Crisp, Chronological Hist. Gt. Yarmouth, unpag.; D.M. Dean, ‘Yarmouth-Lowestoft Fishing Dispute’, Albion, xxii. 41.
  • 19. A.R. Michell, ‘Herring Fishing’, Camb. Economic Hist. of Europe ed. E.E. Rich and C.H. Wilson, v. 143-7; A.R. Michell, ‘Port and Town of Gt. Yarmouth’ (Univ. Camb. Ph.D. thesis, 1978), esp. pp. 387-8.
  • 20. Dean, 39-64; R. Tittler, ‘Eng. Fishing Industry - Gt. Yarmouth’, Albion, ix. 40-60; A. Saul, ‘Herring Industry - Gt. Yarmouth’, Norf. Arch., xxxviii. 33-43.
  • 21. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, f. 66r-v.
  • 22. Harl. 6838, ff. 215v-16, 219, 221.
  • 23. Norf. RO, Y/C36/7/2.
  • 24. CJ, i. 400a.
  • 25. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, f. 77.
  • 26. Ibid. Y/C36/7/2, 21, 25; Harl. 6838, ff. 230v-1, 243; Suff. RO (Lowestoft), M18/06/1, ff. 42v-54v, f. 68v.
  • 27. CJ, i. 410a.
  • 28. Norf. RO, Y/C20/1, f. 12v.
  • 29. GL, ms 5570/1, p. 376.
  • 30. Ibid. 5570/2, p. 1.
  • 31. APC, 1613-14, pp. 594-5; 1615-16, pp. 327-9; GL, ms 5570/2, pp. 94-5, 123; Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, ff. 116, 119-20.
  • 32. APC, 1616-17, p. 350.
  • 33. Ibid. 1623-5, pp. 317, 321-2, 367-8; Add. 12496, ff. 375-6v, 377, 379-82v; Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, ff. 299, 304, 308, 312v; D.R. Butcher, ‘Development of Lowestoft’ (Univ. E. Anglia M.Phil. thesis, 1991), p. 261.
  • 34. Norf. RO, Y/C19/6, f. 78v; APC, 1627-8, pp. 53-4.
  • 35. Norf. RO, Y/C19/5, ff. 231, 293.
  • 36. Ibid. ff. 132v, 234, 296, 331v; C19/6, ff. 20, 24v, 95.
  • 37. Ibid. f. 292v.
  • 38. Ibid. ff. 228, 323.
  • 39. Ibid. Y/C19/6, f. 10.
  • 40. Ibid. Y/C19/5, f. 292v.