Oxford 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 masters and scholars

Number of voters:



21 Oct. 16091WILLIAM BYRD vice Crompton, deceased
 Francis James*
29 May 1621SIR JOHN DANVERS vice Bennett, expelled the House
 Sir Francis Stewart
23 Mar. 1626SIR FRANCIS STEWART vice Edmondes, election declared void
 Michael Oldisworth*

Main Article

Writs were issued to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for the Parliament of 1301, and after the failure of several petitions during the reign of Elizabeth they were re-enfranchised by letters patent on 12 Mar. 1604, exactly a week before the meeting of the first Parliament called by James I.3 The reason given was the need to protect the colleges against legislation, such as the frequent bills against pluralism, since benefices provided the only means of support for married scholars, the majority of whom were in orders.4 Another motive may have been the need for protection against their neighbours, the city of Oxford and the town of Cambridge. Significantly, the only voice known to have been raised in protest against the enfranchisement came from one of Oxford’s borough Members, Thomas Wentworth I*.5 The election of Members was entrusted to ‘the chancellor, masters and scholars’, the customary legal description of the universities, as employed in their Act of Incorporation in 1571.6 In practice, the right of election at Oxford lay in convocation, with the doctors and masters of arts, with the addition, as the election petition of 1626 shows, of at least the bachelors of divinity. Since the fifteenth century the chancellor had almost always been a non-resident magnate, chosen for life in convocation to protect the university’s interest at Court; the executive head or ‘governor’ of the university was the vice-chancellor, nominated annually by the chancellor from the heads of colleges and confirmed in convocation. Provision was made for the university to bear the ‘charges or costs’ of its Members, but no payments are known to have been made in this period, when all those returned had private or official residences in the London area.7

Sir Edward Coke*, the prime mover in obtaining the enfranchisement, transmitted the letters patent to Oxford (as to Cambridge), enclosing a letter of explanation and advice to the vice-chancellor. He acknowledged the assistance of Sir Daniel Dunne, dean of Arches, in preparing the petition at a time ‘when His Majesty, exceeding all his progenitors in learning and knowledge, so favoureth and respecteth the universities’, and also urged the university to thank its own chancellor, Lord Buckhurst (Sir Thomas Sackville†), and lord chancellor Ellesmere (Sir Thomas Egerton†) for furthering the petition at Court. Coke recommended the election of ‘some professor of the Civil Law, or some other that is not of the convocation house’, a suggestion which Wood and later writers interpreted to mean that the enfranchisement itself had been designed to encourage the faculty of Civil Law.8 There was no stipulation that the university’s representatives must be resident members, and in practice none were, not least because most of those who would have been of sufficient standing were clerics.

In 1604 the university, following Coke’s advice, chose two leading civilians, Dunne and Sir Thomas Crompton, the advocate-general. There is no evidence of any outside influence being brought to bear. Measures passed during the Parliament included an Act of 1606 against recusancy (3 Jas. I, c.5), which disabled convicted recusants from being presented to livings, and divided their rights between the two universities. Another Act of the same year (3 Jas. I, c.20) was intended to facilitate the navigation of the Thames between Oxford and London, ‘to the great commodity, ease, benefit and enrichment ... of the university and city of Oxford’. Furthermore two colleges, Corpus Christi and Oriel, secured private Acts confirming their incorporation.9 Crompton died in 1609, and was replaced by another civilian, William Byrd, who was distantly related to Dunne and may have been recommended by him.

In 1614 the civil lawyer Sir John Bennet, judge of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, was elected in the senior place, presumably in recognition of his benefactions to the university made in association with Sir Thomas Bodley†. There was a contest for the other seat between Dunne and yet another civilian, Francis James*, who was probably more prominent in Parliament than in his profession. When it became clear that Dunne could not count upon re-election, Ellesmere, now chancellor of the university, wrote in his favour to the vice-chancellor, but there is nothing to show that this recommendation was formally communicated to convocation.10 Its records do show that the vice-chancellor was at first doubtful whether the greater part of the voters were crying for Dunne or James, but that a division gave Dunne the election.11 The newsletter writer John Chamberlain nonetheless heard that he won it more through the favour and partiality of the senior members of convocation than ‘by multitude of voices’.12 This favouritism accounts for the placing of Dunne’s name before Bennet’s on the return.

In 1620 Bennet was re-elected in first place. His colleague Sir Clement Edmondes, a clerk of the Privy Council, may have had the support of the new chancellor, the 3rd earl of Pembroke. Although his return broke with the pattern of civilian representation, Edmondes was a former fellow of All Souls and had a reputation for learning. When Bennet was expelled from the House for corruption in May 1621, he was replaced by Sir John Danvers, whose elder brother founded the Physic Garden for the university and who eventually made his chief residence at Cornbury Park, only a dozen miles away. Danvers had matriculated from Brasenose, but never took a degree. His wife, however, had resided at Oxford with her son Sir Edward Herbert*, and was much esteemed in the university. A bill to confirm the new foundation of Wadham College passed both Houses in 1621, under the charge of William Hakewill in the Commons, but failed to receive the Royal Assent at the abrupt dissolution.13

Both Members elected in 1624, Sir George Calvert, secretary of state, and Sir Isaac Wake, a diplomat, were Oxford alumni, and Wake had two years earlier been a candidate for the wardenship of Merton college. During the Parliament Calvert wrote to the university about a further Thames navigation bill, successfully promoted by the university and the city.14 The revived bill for Wadham College was steered through committee by Arthur Duck*, and finally enacted.15 A bill against simony, intended to restrict Crown patronage in the universities, was sponsored by Sir Walter Earle*, but did not pass into law, and met with an equal lack of success when reintroduced in 1625, 1628 and 1629.16 The 1624 Parliament also considered charges of financial irregularity and moral turpitude brought against Dr. Anyan, president of Corpus Christi College, and these likewise became a perennial source of concern.17

In the elections to the first Parliament of Charles I the chancellor, for the first time on record, claimed the right to nominate at least the senior Member. Pembroke’s nominee, Sir Thomas Edmondes, treasurer of the Household, also had the support of Archbishop Abbot, expressed in a private letter to the vice-chancellor. Pembroke drew attention to the ‘affectation’ that Edmondes had shown Oxford in sending his son there, a somewhat maladroit attempt to gloss over the candidate’s own lack of a university education.18 He was nonetheless returned, and Danvers was re-elected in second place. Oxford was chosen as a place of refuge when the Parliament adjourned to escape the plague in London in August 1625; the university’s public buildings provided adequate accommodation for the session to continue, although the services of Dr. Anyan as preacher, on the appointment of the university, were firmly refused.19 According to Wood, it was observed by some that the meeting of the Commons in the divinity school ‘did first put them into a conceit that the determining of all points and controversies in divinity did belong to them’.20

In 1626 Sir Thomas Edmondes again presented himself to convocation on the nomination of Pembroke, who was now able to describe him as one ‘of whose integrity and care to advance the affairs of the university you have had experience this last Parliament’. Abbot likewise sent a letter of support, which was read out in convocation.21 According to its record, Edmondes was elected to the senior seat without any other nomination being made, although some masters shouted ‘non’.22 In fact there was another candidate, Sir Francis Stewart, a Christ Church graduate who had become a courtier and naval officer. On the ‘division’ or view, it was claimed, ‘a greater part by much went on Sir Francis Stewart’s part or side’, but the vice-chancellor twice refused a ‘scrutiny’ or poll, and returned Edmondes and Danvers.23 A petition was subsequently lodged in the Commons by some of the masters and bachelors of divinity, and on 17 Mar. Edmondes’s election was declared void.24 Stewart, who had in any case been returned as Pembroke’s nominee at Liskeard in Cornwall, was chosen at the Oxford ensuing election, and on 4 Apr. he asked for the ‘direction’ of the House. On 19 Apr. the university election was again referred to the privileges committee, but no action seems to have been taken to clarify the situation. Stewart continued to occupy both seats while Edmondes remained in the House and was named with Stewart, but not Danvers, to consider an unsuccessful bill to void a lease made by Merton College.25

In the 1628 election Pembroke nominated the elderly civilian Sir Henry Marten, indicating a reversion to the earlier tradition. To the other points in his favour, Pembroke added that he would not ‘put the university to any charge for his attendance upon the service’, being ‘tied to a necessary abode in these parts’ as an Admiralty judge. Pembroke ventured in a later letter to make a second nomination, of his own secretary, Michael Oldisworth*.26 However, the poll, by scrutiny, went in favour of Marten and Danvers; as in the earlier contests the voting figures are unknown. During the 1629 session, on the motion of Sir Benjamin Rudyard*, the Speaker was instructed on 10 Feb. to write to both universities for details of their proceedings against ‘popery or Arminianism’.27 It was not until Laud succeeded the Calvinist Pembroke as chancellor in 1630 that Oxford itself became a hotbed of Arminianism.28

Authors: Alan Davidson / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. R.L. Poole, Univ. Archives, 34.
  • 2. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. K. (22), f. 139v.
  • 3. OR; K. Fincham, ‘Oxf. and the Early Stuart Polity’, Hist. Oxf. Univ. iv: Seventeenth-Cent. Oxf. ed. N. Tyacke, 196-9; M.B. Rex, Univ. Representation in Eng. 1604-90, pp. 22-36.
  • 4. A. Wood, Univ. Oxf. ii. 281.
  • 5. HMC Buccleuch, iii. 81; CJ, i. 151a.
  • 6. VCH Oxon. iii. 22.
  • 7. T.L. Humberstone, Univ. Representation, 25.
  • 8. Ibid. 21.
  • 9. Enactments in Parl. ed. L.L. Shadwell (Oxf. Hist. Soc. lviii), 225-41.
  • 10. Bodl. Tanner 74, f. 34.
  • 11. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. K. (22), f. 139v.
  • 12. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 525.
  • 13. CJ, i. 576b, 626a, 631a.
  • 14. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. N.(23), f. 177v; Oxf. Council Acts ed. H.E. Salter (Oxf. Hist. Soc. lxxxvii), 325; C. Russell, PEP, 194.
  • 15. CJ, i. 677b, 686b.
  • 16. Ibid. 735b; Russell, 198, 234, 406.
  • 17. CJ, i. 693b, 707a, 777a; Shadwell, 245-57.
  • 18. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. N. (23), f. 203v.
  • 19. Procs. 1625, p. 380.
  • 20. Wood, ii. 355.
  • 21. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. N. (23), f. 214v; Procs. 1626, iv. 247-8.
  • 22. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. N. (23), f. 215; Wood, ii. 356-7.
  • 23. Bodl. ms 594, ff. 133-5; Rex, 356-9.
  • 24. Procs. 1626, ii. 55, 305-7.
  • 25. Ibid. ii. 427.
  • 26. Oxf. Univ. Arch. Reg. Convoc. N. (23), ff. 251-2v.
  • 27. Russell, 410; CD 1629, p. 137.
  • 28. Origins of the Eng. Civil War ed. C. Russell, 120, 133.