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 to 1624; thereafter in the freemen

Number of voters:

27 to 1624; 155 on 28 Apr. 16241


c. Oct. 1605ROWLAND COTTON vice Bowyer, deceased 
19 Mar. 16142EDWARD WYMARKE 
19 Dec. 16203SIR JOHN DAVIES 
19 Jan. 1624SIR EDWARD VERE16
 John Keeling94
28 Apr. 16245CHARLES GLEMHAM vice Vere, disabled 
 John Keeling 
23 Feb. 1628SIR GEORGE GRESLEY , bt. 

Main Article

Situated in north-west Staffordshire, close to the borders with Cheshire and Shropshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme grew up around a castle built in the 1140s in a lake fed by Lyme Brook, a tributary of the Trent. The town, which lay on the main road from London to the north-west, hosted a weekly market, three annual fairs, and perhaps also a separate corn market.7 In the seventeenth century the dominant industry was the making of felt hats, but iron-working and tanning were also important.8 The town’s population was probably growing rapidly. In the early Elizabethan period it had an estimated 390 or so inhabitants, a figure which rose to about 870 by the eve of the Civil War.9

Newcastle-under-Lyme was represented in Parliament from 1354.10 A new charter was granted in 1590 through the intercession of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex. Political authority was vested in a common council of 27, consisting of the mayor, two bailiffs and 24 capital burgesses. The mayor and bailiffs held office for a year, while the capital burgesses served for life. Former mayors were styled aldermen, but enjoyed no specific powers. New capital burgesses were co-opted by the council, which was empowered to regulate the election of officers. In 1599 the council agreed that eight freemen, to be chosen by the council itself, should join the capital burgesses to elect officers. However, in 1620 this limited element of popular participation was abolished. Before 1590 the franchise at parliamentary elections lay with the freemen, but thereafter the corporation, believing that its exclusive right under the new charter to elect borough officers also extended to the election of Members of Parliament, confined the franchise to itself. If the vote was tied, the mayor was entitled to cast a second vote.11 The oligarchy was not universally respected, as is shown by a steady stream of offenders who were fined for showing contempt towards the town’s officers. There was also probably considerable factionalism on the council, and in the 1590s regulations were made to ensure secrecy of its proceedings and to prevent the bribing of electors and canvassing of votes.12 Despite his role in procuring the 1590 charter, Essex appears to have nominated only one of the borough’s Elizabethan MPs.13

More influential in the Elizabethan elections were the local gentry. Newcastle was, in theory, an urban oligarchy, but in practice it could not afford to ignore the local gentry, from among whom the mayor was frequently chosen. Gentry mayors were so common that, in 1596, the borough ordered that ‘if any foreigner dwelling without the town be chosen mayor or burgess of the Parliament for the town, by means whereof he is burgess for his life … his children … shall not have any freedom within us in respect of their father’s burgess-ship’. The inclusion of Members of Parliament in this ordinance indicates that it was common for the borough to choose members of the gentry as its parliamentary representatives, and indeed, probably for this reason, there is no evidence that any of the borough’s Members was ever paid. It also suggests that those chosen from among the gentry were routinely created freemen on election. However, this is certainly known to have happened only to Sir George Gresley during this period; Richard Leveson was not made free until he was re-elected in 1640.14

Another significant factor in the borough’s electoral politics in the sixteenth century was the duchy of Lancaster,15 whose influence over the borough derived from Henry III’s grant of the manor of Newcastle-under-Lyme to Edmund, 1st earl of Lancaster in 1267. Technically the borough was distinct from the manor, but the townsmen were obliged to grind their corn at the castle mills and many townsmen and local gentlemen were copyholders in the manor. For instance, John Brett, three times mayor, had 41 acres of copyhold.16 Up until 1624 the duchy continued to play a part in the borough’s electoral politics, but no letters of nomination from the chancellor of the duchy have survived, and it is not always clear through whom the duchy operated.

The Sneyd family, local landowners who lived at Keele, three miles from Newcastle, may have played an important role as power brokers between the duchy and the borough. When the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†), a former chancellor, tried to influence the 1605 by-election, he contacted the then head of the family, Ralph Sneyd the elder.17 Ralph had been mayor in 1574, as had his brother George in 1592 and his eldest son William in 1599. The Sneyds held an important stake in the manor of Newcastle, as they were connected with the castle mills from 1537, and were lessees of the castle and farmers of the manorial court from 1609. Walter Chetwynd, who secured the prime seat in 1604, was closely connected with the Sneyds. His aunt had married Ralph Sneyd the elder, and he made Ralph Sneyd the younger the overseer of his will. It is possible that Ralph Sneyd the elder utilized the duchy’s influence on Chetwynd’s behalf. However, Chetwynd also had other family connections with the borough, which he had represented in the 1580s.18

Following the earl of Essex’s disastrous rising in 1601 the Devereux interest, such as it was, was entirely in abeyance. Consequently, in 1604 the second seat went to a prominent local figure, John Bowyer, who lived seven miles away and worked closely with the corporation. Following Bowyer’s death in 1605, Salisbury tried to nominate the replacement, but the corporation had already promised the place to Rowland Cotton. Cotton’s family owned considerable property in the borough, where his uncle endowed a school. The corporation seems also to have rebuffed lord treasurer Dorset (Thomas Sackville†). The borough’s determination to keep control of the junior seat adds weight to the supposition that Chetwynd was regarded as the duchy’s nominee.19

In 1614 Chetwynd, then mayor, secured for himself a county seat, leaving the borough to find a suitable replacement. There can be little doubt that the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Sir Thomas Parry*, was responsible for nominating Edward Wymarke in his stead, since Wymarke was one of Parry’s clients and had no known connection with the borough.20 The second seat was bestowed on Cotton’s erstwhile brother-in-law, Robert Needham.

Sir John Davies, a prominent lawyer originally from Wiltshire, took the first seat in 1621, and was probably also a duchy of Lancaster nominee. However, he may have owed his return to William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke rather than to the chancellor of the duchy. Pembroke had been appointed steward of the manor of Newcastle in 1616 as successor to his father-in-law, the 7th earl of Shrewsbury (Gilberty Talbot†), and is known to have been electorally active in other constituencies where he had inherited influence from Shrewsbury. Moreover, Davies and his family had long-standing connections with the Herberts.21 On the other hand Davies was also connected with the Sneyds through his wife’s family. The 1621 election saw the first example of Devereux influence in this period, as Edward Kirton, who took the remaining seat, was the servant of William Seymour, Lord Beauchamp*, brother-in-law of Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex.

Like Davies, Sir Edward Vere, a professional soldier who may have been in the Netherlands at the time of the 1624 elections, had connections with both Pembroke and the Sneyds. In addition, he may have had been known to Essex, who also served in the Netherlands in the early 1620s. However, his election in 1624 proved highly controversial, and the resulting dispute overthrew the restricted franchise and the influence of the duchy.

The election took place in the upper room of the guildhall, and involved no contest in respect of the second seat, which went to Richard Leveson, a prominent local landowner. However, the first seat was contested by Vere and John Keeling, a London lawyer and the son of a member of the Newcastle corporation. On losing the poll of the capital burgesses Keeling called out of the window to the assembled inhabitants, 30 or 40 of whom then entered the guildhall to protest at the result. Unmoved by this tactic, the corporation returned Vere and Leveson. However, the privileges’ committee later ruled that, despite the 1590 charter, the corporation had no right to monopolize the franchise, which was restored to the freemen. The election of Vere was therefore quashed.22

In the subsequent election 155 men participated, including 27 non-resident freemen. However, many of the electors were freemen of very recent standing: in 1623-4 21 sons of existing freemen and seven non-residents were made burgesses. This was many more than was usual, for the previous year only one new freeman had been admitted. As all the newly created foreign freemen and all but three of the freemen’s sons participated in the election, this looks suspiciously like an attempt to pack the vote. Prominent among the foreign freemen attending the election were Ralph Sneyd the younger and Walter Chetwynd, who may have influenced the outcome in favour of Charles Glemham, a Buckingham client who had decided to stand. Glemham probably enjoyed the support of the duchy, as Pembroke was in an uneasy alliance with Buckingham in 1624. It is striking that Chetwynd’s daughter had recently married George Digby at Buckingham’s instigation. Perhaps Chetwynd and Sneyd used their influence to bring in new freemen in order to prop up the duchy’s influence. If so, they enjoyed only short-term success. It is almost certain that Keeling again contested the election for, on 25 May, he again petitioned the privileges committee. However, there was not sufficient time to hear his case, despite the fact that the House acknowledged that his grounds of complaint were ‘very considerable’.23

Keeling’s candidacy may have been part of a campaign to allow more popular participation in the government of Newcastle, although Keeling himself clearly had the support of elements within the ruling oligarchy, of which his family were a part. In the first election in 1624 he received support from nine of the capital burgesses. Discontent about the running of the corporation from around this time is be found in a council order suspending the payment of the £4 p.a. gratuity previously given to their minister Nicholas Richardson until ‘he clear himself of certain wrongs and abuses, which he hath attempted against Mr. Mayor and the rest of the town, concerning the government of this corporation’. However, in all respects other than the election of Members of Parliament the powers of the capital burgesses remained intact until 1834.24

After 1624 there is no evidence of duchy influence. Keeling’s complaint against Glemham’s election may have led to a reluctance to use what remaining power the duchy still had. Certainly, by the late 1620s most of the non-resident freemen seem to have ceased participating in elections. In 1625 and 1626 the local gentry took control of the senior seat, while Keeling held the junior. Edward Mainwaring, elected in 1625, was a student at the inns of court, but his father lived close to the borough, which he had himself served, both in Parliament and as mayor. It is perhaps significant, too, that Mainwaring’s father had not participated in the second 1624 election. In 1626 the first seat went to Sir John Skeffington, brother-in-law of Sir William Bowyer*, the son of the 1604 Member. In 1628 the pattern of influence changed again, as a client of the earl of Essex, Sir George Gresley, took the first seat, while the second went to Rowland Cotton, who was presumably the choice of the borough. The numbers participating in elections fell to 116 in 1626 and 92 in 1628.25

Author: Ben Coates


  • 1. T. Pape, Newcastle-Under-Lyme, 259, 265-6.
  • 2. Ibid. 252.
  • 3. Pape, 259. The indenture is dated 6 January. OR.
  • 4. CJ, i. 759a.
  • 5. Pape, 265-6.
  • 6. Ibid. 269.
  • 7. VCH Staffs. viii. 2, 45, 47; Pape, 1.
  • 8. VCH Staffs. viii. 51-2.
  • 9. P. Clark and J. Hosking, Population Estimates of English Small Towns (Cent. for Urban Hist. Working Pprs. v), 133.
  • 10. VCH Staffs. viii. 42.
  • 11. Pape, 53-61, 66-7, 217-18, 228, 252, 257.
  • 12. Ibid. 215, 217-8, 258, 259, 261.
  • 13. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 242-3.
  • 14. Pape, 219, 276, 304.
  • 15. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 243.
  • 16. VCH Staffs. viii. 15; DL43/8/34, f. 2; C142/289/97; Pape, 2, 78.
  • 17. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 358.
  • 18. Staffs. Hist. Colls. ed. H.S. Grazebrook (Wm. Salt Arch. Soc. v. pt. 2), p. 274; PROB 11/181, ff. 31v-2; Pape, 201, 213, 229, 256; VCH Staffs. viii. 14, 48, 184-5.
  • 19. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 358.
  • 20. R.C.L. Sgroi, ‘Electoral Patronage of the Duchy of Lancaster’, PH, xxvi. 316.
  • 21. Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders ed. R. Somerville, 161. See EAST RETFORD; NOTTINGHAM; DERBY.
  • 22. Pape, 265; CJ, i. 714b-15a, 759a, 798a; ‘Pym 1624’, i, f. 55; DL43/8/34, f. 1.
  • 23. Pape, 264-6; CJ, i. 714b-15a, 798a; T. Cogswell, Blessed Revolution, 156.
  • 24. Pape, 71, 267, 270.
  • 25. Ibid. 270-1, 275-6.