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 inhabitant householders

Number of voters:

over 1,000


c.4 July 1607SIR JULIUS CAESAR vice Knyvett, called to the Upper House
c. Mar. 1614(SIR) HUMPHREY MAY
30 Dec. 1620WILLIAM MAN vice Doubleday, deceased
 Edward Forsett*
 (Sir) Robert Pye
 ?Sir Robert Cotton*

Main Article

Westminster’s economy revolved largely around the retail trades, beer-brewing and the letting of residential property.2 The law courts in Westminster Hall, and the king’s Court at Whitehall, brought a steady stream of people to the city. Whenever Parliament met business also boomed, as Members of both Houses, along with their wives and servants, descended on Westminster’s numerous inns and hostelries,3 as did lobbyists and petitioners, many of them from the London livery companies. In 1621 the officers of the Tylers and Bricklayers’ Company spent 5s. 5d. ‘about the Parliament business and certain other days going by water and at the Dog at Westminster’, while in April 1624 the Barber-Surgeons, having determined to submit a petition to the committee for grievances, instructed its representatives to meet ‘at the Three Tuns at Westminster on Friday next by eleven of the clock in the foreoon and dine there at the charge of this house’.4

Much of Westminster’s rented property was owned by the dean and chapter of the former abbey (then officially known as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter). Consequently the dean wielded enormous local influence, a fact which, before the mid-1580s, obviated the need for a municipal corporation. However, the enormous growth in the city’s population caused by immigration from the surrounding areas, and the attendant problems of poverty and disorder, exposed the weakness of the city’s government and prompted some of the townsmen, led by members of St. Margaret’s vestry, to present a bill to Parliament in 1585 for the creation of a corporate government comparable to London’s.5 This posed a threat to the abbey authorities, and as a result of pressure exerted by the dean and chapter ‘for the preserving of our liberties and privileges’ the bill was so watered down that most of the changes wrought by the subsequent legislation have been described as largely ‘cosmetic’.6

The 1585 Act divided the city’s four parishes into 12 wards and created a court of 12 burgesses and 12 assistants. It also likened the burgesses to London’s deputy aldermen. Such a comparison was inappropriate, however, for whereas the Court of Aldermen owned property and exercised the right to impose taxes on London’s citizens, Westminster’s Court of Burgesses lacked revenue-raising powers and was therefore unable to fund civic projects or pay for its own bureaucracy. Moreover, while London’s aldermen and common councilmen enjoyed a local legislative power, Westminster’s Court of Burgesses was largely restricted to the enforcement of ordinances drawn up in 1585. The 1585 Act did nothing to curb the powers of the dean and chapter, which if anything were enhanced by the new legislation. Not only were the dean and chapter excluded from its provisions, the Act vested the right to appoint the burgesses and their assistants both in the dean and the city’s high steward. Thus the efforts of St. Margaret’s vestry to create a powerful city corporation independent of the abbey were largely thwarted.7

At the start of each Parliament the Commons held a collective communion service. Before 1614 the normal venue was the former abbey of Westminster. However, in April 1614 the House resolved to switch to the parish church of St. Margaret’s, opposite Westminster Hall, since the abbey’s clergy ‘administer not with common bread’.8 When Parliament reassembled in 1621, the dean, John Williams, attempted to prevent the Commons from again resorting to St. Margaret’s, over which he claimed jurisdiction. However, he was eventually thwarted as the Commons obtained a licence from the king instead.9 Thereafter the undisputed venue for the communion service was St. Margaret’s, whose churchwardens were responsible for distributing the money collected from each Member to the poor of the city.10

The borough’s parliamentary elections were held in Westminster Hall, and were presided over by the city’s bailiff. In March 1621 this practice was challenged on the grounds that by a statute of 1445 only sheriffs were legally entitled to act as returning officers. However, by 168 votes to 155 the Commons ruled in favour of the bailiff’s right to discharge this duty, an outcome which one diarist described as ‘the upholding of a custom against the Common Law’.11 It is unclear who was entitled to vote at elections, but it seems likely that, as in the second half of the seventeenth century, the franchise resided in the inhabitant householders, as Sir Robert Pye was defeated in 1628 ‘by above a thousand voices’.

Nomination to the borough’s senior parliamentary seat was in theory the preserve of the dean, but in practice this privilege was exercised by the high steward. In February 1628 Dean Williams wrote to Sir Robert Cotton that his choice was ‘none other than was recommended unto me by my lord duke of Buckingham, our high steward’.12 The office of high steward was a Crown appointment, whose functions included the right to nominate the city’s bailiff. Between 1561 and 1598 the stewardship was held by William Cecil†, Lord Burghley. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign, Gabriel Goodman, then dean of Westminster and Burghley’s friend, secured the return of numerous Cecil candidates to Parliament. Following Burghley’s death in 1598 the stewardship passed to Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil†, later 1st earl of Salisbury, who by 1604 was also the borough’s bailiff.13 During James’s reign two members of Cecil’s circle were returned to Parliament for Westminster: Sir Walter Cope (1604) and Sir Julius Caesar (1607). Sir Thomas Knyvett, who served as a Westminster burgess from 1604 until his elevation to the peerage in July 1607 and whose niece, the countess of Suffolk, acted as one of Cecil’s informal contacts with the Spanish embassy, was probably also a Cecil dependent. Knyvett, too, was one of three officers of the Mint who represented Westminster during this period – the others were Edmund Doubleday and Sir Edward Villiers – but given that many government officials lived and worked in Westminster this may have been merely coincidental.

Salisbury’s successor as high steward was the royal favourite Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, through whose influence, no doubt, Sir Humphrey May, the remembrancer for Irish affairs, was elected to the Addled Parliament. Following Somerset’s disgrace the stewardship was conferred on the earl (later duke) of Buckingham, who procured the post of bailiff for his servant Thomas Fotherley* in 1622.14 Through his patronage, and with the co-operation of Dean Williams, seats were found for the duke’s half-brother, Sir Edward Villiers in 1621, 1624 and 1625 and Buckingham’s servant Sir Robert Pye in 1626.15 Interestingly, Pye was elected in 1626 even though Buckingham had obtained Williams’ dismissal as lord keeper in October 1625. Although Pye was subsequently heavily defeated in the 1628 Westminster election following a campaign lasting three days, this was largely the result of popular hostility to the Forced Loan rather than Williams’ attempt to persuade Sir Robert Cotton to stand.16

St. Margaret’s vestry traditionally enjoyed the right to nominate the borough’s junior Member. Three of its number were elected to the borough’s second parliamentary seat between 1604 and 1628: Edmund Doubleday (1614), William Man (1621, 1624, 1625) and Peter Heywood (1626). A fourth member of the vestry, Thomas Morice, took the senior seat in 1628 after the high steward’s candidate, Sir Robert Pye, was rejected by the voters. All four vestrymen-MPs were also members of Westminster’s Court of Burgesses. Only in 1604 did the vestry fail to secure the return of one of its own number, both seats being occupied instead by clients of Robert Cecil, the borough’s high steward. To some extent this failure may have been offset in November 1606, when Edward Forsett, a member of the Court of Burgesses and a resident of St. Margaret’s, was returned at a by-election for Wells. On the other hand, Forsett was not a member of St. Margaret’s vestry and, like the two Westminster Members, was a Cecil client. Forsett’s committee appointments included a bill designed to curb the number of buildings in and around London (8 Dec. 1606).17

Although St. Margaret’s vestry customarily controlled the borough’s junior seat, it was expected to seek the approval of the dean of Westminster for its nominee. However, the vestry jealously guarded its right of nomination. Writing to Sir Robert Cotton in February 1628, Dean Williams observed that whenever St. Margaret’s vestry ‘pitch upon any neighbour of their own, especially upon any one of the 12 burgesses, they are like that little God Terminus, that will not be removed from their opinions’.18 Yet while Williams realized that there was little point in trying to impose his own nominee on the borough for the second seat, he thought that the vestry might be capable of manipulation. He advised Cotton, who wished to secure the junior seat for himself, to seek the backing of the vestry on his own. Once this had been obtained, Williams promised to let the vestry know that he approved of its choice – provided that Cotton donated his printed books to the abbey library. However, this elaborate attempt at manipulation proved unsuccessful.

The vestry and the dean were not always at loggerheads in determining a candidate for the junior seat. Peter Heywood was elected in 1626 because he was a town burgess and a vestryman of St. Margaret’s, but he was may also have been acceptable to the dean, as he lived in property rented from the abbey. It is also noteworthy that the only committee to which Heywood was ever appointed was established to amend a bill prohibiting clergymen from becoming magistrates to exclude deans.19 The interests of vestry and dean coincided most clearly, however, in the form of William Man, who represented Westminster on three occasions. Like Heywood, Man was both a member of the Court of Burgesses and a vestryman but he was also a senior abbey administrator and its principal rent-collector. The circumstances of his election to Parliament in December 1620, following the death of Edmund Doubleday, who had been elected but not returned, indicates the degree of influence which, on one occasion at least, the dean was able to exercise over the electoral process.

According to a petition drawn up by 60 disgruntled voters living in the parishes of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, St. Clement Danes and St. Mary-le-Strand, it was the dean who nominated Man and set the date for the fresh election.20 In order to be sure of securing Man’s return, the dean also allegedly failed to notify the voters of these three parishes of the impending election, ‘but only private notice was given the night before about 7 or 8 of the clock to every particular home in the parish of St. Margaret’s’. The news that there was to be a fresh election nevertheless leaked out, and many of those who had not received official notification turned out to support their rival candidate, Edward Forsett, ‘though he never made suit nor stood for the same’. Forsett posed a threat not only to the dean but also to St. Margaret’s vestry, whose monopoly of the right to nominate the borough’s townsman Member was jeopardized by his candidature. According to the account of the election presented to the Commons by the aggrieved voters, Forsett was subsequently defeated because the dean permitted the voices of ‘serving men, apprentices, women, children, watermen [and] porters’ to carry the vote. However, when the matter came to be debated in Parliament, the main objection to Man’s election was held by some to be that he had been returned on the same writ that had been used to elect Doubleday.21

Apart from those hardy perennials, the oft-introduced bills to curb new buildings and overcrowding in and around London, the only measure of specific interest to the city of Westminster laid before the Commons during this period concerned the paving of Drury Lane. After receiving a first reading in March 1606, the bill cleared all its Commons’ stages in just two months and was subsequently enacted.22 Its sponsor is unknown, but its swift progress undoubtedly owed something to the fact that Boswell House – the London address of the then Speaker, Sir Edward Phelips – was situated in Drury Lane.

Author: Andrew Thrush


  • 1. On 14 Dec. 1620 John Williams, dean of Westminster, stated that the election had been held on ‘Monday last’: NLW, ms 9057E/926. For the other dates of election given here, see OR.
  • 2. Cf. G. Rosser, Medieval Westminster, 43-165.
  • 3. Croft estimates the number to have been at least 1,000: P. Croft ‘Capital Life: Members of Parliament Outside the House’, in Pols. Religion and Popularity ed. T. Cogswell, R. Cust and P. Lake, 66.
  • 4. GL, ms 3054/1, unfol. 1620/1 acct.; ms 5257/5, p. 30.
  • 5. J.F. Merritt, ‘Religion, Govt. and Soc. in Early Mod. Westminster, c.1525-1625’ (London Ph.D. thesis, 1992), p. 106.
  • 6. WAM, Chapter Act Bk. I. f. 200; Merritt, 102.
  • 7. Merritt, 108-16.
  • 8. CJ, i. 463b.
  • 9. Ibid. 510b, 515b, 516b; CD 1621, ii. 49, n. 16; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 14.
  • 10. H.F. Westlake, St. Margaret’s, Westminster, 99-100.
  • 11. CD 1621, ii. 256-7; v. 62, 317.
  • 12. Procs. 1628, vi. 1713.
  • 13. C219/35/1/28.
  • 14. Merritt, 148-9.
  • 15. For direct evidence that Williams secured Villiers’ election in 1620, see NLW, ms 9057E/926.
  • 16. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, i. 327. For Williams’ approach to Cotton, see below.
  • 17. CJ, i. 328b.
  • 18. CD 1628, vi. 171.
  • 19. CJ, i. 834a.
  • 20. Surr. Hist. Cent. LM 1989. See also ibid. 1331/27.
  • 21. CD 1621, ii. 126-7, 141-3; vi. 430-1.
  • 22. CJ, i. 279a, 287a, 303a, 306a, 307b.