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 freemen

Number of voters:

139 in 16281


 WILLIAM BROMLEY (not returned)  
 SIR JOHN PULTENEY vice Bromley, deleted from the return by the chan. of the duchy of Lancaster  
4 Jan. 1621SIR THOMAS GERRARD I , bt.  
28 Feb. 1621GEORGE GARRARD vice Gerrard, deceased  
23 Jan. 1624SIR ANTHONY ST. JOHN  
18 Jan. 1626SIR ANTHONY ST. JOHN  
1 Mar. 1628SIR ANTHONY ST. JOHN651
 Robert Gardner112
 Edward Boulton 1
 Peter Houlford 1
 ?Sir William Poley 1
 William Prescott 1

Main Article

Wigan’s history during this period is dominated by disputes between the corporation and the rector of the local parish, who was also the lord of the manor. At issue were such matters as tithes, market tolls, corn mills, charitable uses and, by 1628, control of the borough’s parliamentary elections. The background to these quarrels lay in varying interpretations of the town’s original charter, granted in 1246 by the rector John Mansell and confirmed that same year by Henry III, which ordained that a mayor, two bailiffs and the burgesses would constitute a ‘free borough for ever’, with a merchant guild, port moot court, and other municipal arrangements.2 Under Elizabeth this charter was confirmed twice, first in 1561 by the rector, Thomas Stanley, who was also bishop of Sodor and Man, and again by the queen in 1585.3 However, differences remained, and from 1616 hostilities were resumed after the appointment as rector of John Bridgeman, who claimed that the townsmen had unlawfully usurped his manorial rights. Bridgeman maintained that he exercised ultimate authority over the town and its courts, since under the charter the mayor derived all his powers from the rector’s grant. Indeed, he once angrily asserted that the mayor was ‘his mayor, and hath not authority to whip a dog’.4 In 1618 the town petitioned the king against Bridgeman, but the four judges appointed to review the case, Archbishop Abbot, Lancelot Andrews, then bishop of Ely, lord chief justice Sir Henry Montagu*, and Sir Henry Hobart*, ruled in the rector’s favour.5 Even after he was promoted to the bishopric of Chester in 1619, Bridgeman continued to reside at Wigan for many years, and kept a ‘ledger book’ that, in the absence of any surviving corporation records, is our main source for the continuing controversy between himself and the town.

Wigan first sent MPs to Westminster in 1295, and after a long pause it resumed this practice in 1547, since which time the borough’s electoral patronage had generally been shared between the duchy of Lancaster and a series of local landowning interests, including the earls of Derby and the nearby Gerards of Ince. This pattern continued during the early parliaments of James’s reign, but broke down in the 1620s once Bridgeman began to assert his right of nomination. The corporation, resenting Bridgeman’s interference, appealed to the chancellor of the duchy in 1626, but despite this call for assistance the duchy apparently withdrew its interest in 1628. The final Parliament of the period saw Wigan’s first recorded contested election. Both seats attracted multiple candidates, and the election resulted in the compilation of a poll book. It also established a new pattern for future elections, as further contests ensued in April and November 1640. On the latter occasion a dispute over who was entitled to vote was resolved by the mayor and bailiffs’ ruling that, since the ‘memory of man’, the franchise had encompassed all the enrolled freemen of the town.6

In 1604 Wigan’s mayor and returning officer was Sir Thomas Holcroft*, a distant relation of Lord Cecil (Robert Cecil†). It was probably through this connection that the borough accepted Sir William Cooke, the secretary of state’s kinsman, as its first Member. The nomination for the second seat was offered to the chancellor of the duchy, Sir John Fortescue*, and at the election held on 2 Mar. the corporation returned William Bromley, the duchy’s vice chancellor in the palatinate of Lancaster.7 However, when the indenture arrived in London it was altered by Fortescue, to whom the returns of all the Lancashire boroughs were sent before being passed on to Chancery.8 He deleted Bromley’s name from the indenture, which is now illegible, and substituted his son-in-law, Sir John Pulteney, who had originally been Fortescue’s nominee for the borough of Leicester.9 Pulteney had previously represented Wigan in 1601 aged only 16, and he was still a minor on his re-election in 1604. The election went unchallenged in the Commons despite being noted among a list of ‘unlawful’ returns circulated by Arthur Hall†.10

The pattern of electoral patronage remained much the same in 1614. The first seat was taken by the under-age son and heir of Sir Richard Molyneux I* of Sefton, a powerful local magnate residing 12 miles west of Wigan. The Molyneuxs were second only to the earls of Derby in terms of county influence, and as receiver general of the duchy the elder Molyneux may also have had the backing of chancellor Sir Thomas Parry* for his son’s return. The second seat went to the duchy’s candidate Gilbert Gerard, clerk of the duchy council, who was distantly related to the Gerards of Ince. In 1621 both seats were taken by local gentlemen, one of whom, Roger Downes of Wardley, was probably also the duchy’s choice for the second seat. The first seat went to Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt. of the Bryn, close to Wigan, perhaps with the help of Molyneux I, whose daughter was married to Gerrard’s son and heir. Gerrard died within two weeks of the start of the session and was replaced on 28 Feb. by George Garrard, a courtier who was perhaps acquainted with the new chancellor of the duchy, (Sir) Humphrey May*. Despite the similarity in their surnames, Gerrard and Garrard were unrelated.

Bishop Bridgeman’s influence is not easily discernible in the 1621 election, perhaps because he was absent from Wigan. However, in 1624 he told the townsmen that they had ‘no power to elect burgesses but by my sufferance’.11 How the borough responded is unclear, but the first seat went to Sir Anthony St. John, a gentleman of Chester, who was almost certainly nominated by the bishop since he had no known connection with either Wigan or the duchy. The second seat went to Francis Downes, the under-age second son of former Member Roger Downes, presumably through his father’s connections with the town, and perhaps with the backing of the duchy. The latter furnishes a further example of Wigan’s tendency to elect very young Members.

In 1625 Francis Downes was re-elected, this time taking the first seat which had been left vacant following St. John’s return for Cheshire, while the second seat went to the bishop’s younger brother, Edward. The first sign of resentment at the bishop’s involvement in the electoral process appeared in 1626, when the election coincided with a dispute concerning the mayor, Hugh Ford, and his father William Ford, whom Bridgeman had accused of misappropriating charitable funds. A commission of inquiry was being conducted by the duchy, but in order to ensure a favourable outcome the mayor allegedly promised one of the parliamentary seats to ‘one of the chancellor’s friends’.12 Although his suit against the mayor was eventually successful, the Fords being ordered to repay £100 they had taken, Bridgeman believed that the townsmen had offered the nomination to the duchy deliberately in order to thwart his brother Edward, who was instead returned for Liverpool two days later.13 Sir Anthony St. John once again took the first seat, and the second went to Sir William Poley, the father-in-law of chancellor Sir Humphrey May.

Bishop Bridgeman was determined to claim at least one nomination for himself, but the corporation was equally determined to hold its own against his influence. Consequently there was a contest in 1628, at which votes for a total of seven candidates were recorded. The poll book of that year takes the form of a list of 139 freemen of the town, of whom at least 74 voted. Votes for the first and second seats are given alongside each name, although the document itself is partly damaged, obscuring a few entries. It was dated 1 Feb. though the actual return was not signed until 1 March. Sir Anthony St. John received almost all the votes for the first seat, leaving two other candidates, Edward Bridgeman and Robert Gardner struggling behind. The second seat was more fiercely contested. At least 17 freemen voted against the bishop’s brother, who nevertheless won comfortably. These protest votes were distributed among six contestants, most notably Robert Gardner, who attracted 12 supporters.14 Gardner, although not a freeman of Wigan, may have been related to the Gardners of Aspull, a neighbouring minor gentry family. Despite his defeat Gardner stood again in 1640, but without success.

Of the remaining candidates who each received one vote for the second seat, all were natives of Wigan except St. John and ‘milus Poley’, who was almost certainly the town’s former Member, Sir William Poley. Edward Boulton and William Prescott were freemen, but neither voted for himself despite the fact that they had been put forward as rival candidates. Boulton was a churchwarden and had served Bridgeman as a tithe collector in 1626.15 Prescott was the father-in-law of the tenant of Bridgeman’s corn mill, Miles Leatherbarrow, and was involved in a lengthy dispute over the tenure of the corn mill on behalf of his daughter, enlisting the support of James Stanley*, Lord Strange, via his wife, one of Lady Strange’s midwives.16 Bridgeman’s response to pressure from Strange was to complain bitterly of his tenants’ disrespect, in particular writing on 29 Feb. that they ‘began to rebel against me and would do nothing at my motion, nor would choose a burgess for this Parliament whom I commended’.17 However, there is more evidence that Bridgeman was behaving in a paranoid fashion than there is of a concerted movement against him. Only three of his tenants at will voted for Gardner rather than Edward Bridgeman, and the majority supported his candidate, at least for the second seat.18 Overall the most popular combination was the pairing of St. John and Bridgeman in first and second places respectively, but a total of six voters chose St. John first and Gardner second, while another five preferred Bridgeman first and Gardner second. St. John was therefore returned as the first Member with Bridgeman as the second. This would have happened even if the votes had not been cast separately for the first and second places, as St. John received 66 votes in total, two more than Bridgeman, who got 64.19

Author: Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. D. Sinclair, Hist. Wigan, i. 197-9.
  • 2. VCH Lancs. iv. 72; G.T.O. Bridgeman, Hist. of Church and Manor of Wigan, i. (Chetham Soc. n.s. xv), 138, 147-79.
  • 3. C54/1200.
  • 4. HMC Kenyon, 24-5.
  • 5. Bridgeman, ii. (Chetham Soc. n.s. xvi), 216-23.
  • 6. Sinclair, i. 221-23.
  • 7. Wigan AS, D/DX Ap.G.3; Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders ed. R. Somerville, 94.
  • 8. R. Somerville, Hist. Duchy of Lancaster, i. 326, J.S. Roskell, Lancs. Knights of Shire (Chetham Soc. xcvi), 26-8.
  • 9. C219/35/1/58.
  • 10. SP14/7/82.II.
  • 11. Wigan AS, D/DZ A13/1, pp. 112, 173.
  • 12. Bridgeman, ii. 294.
  • 13. R.C.L. Sgroi, ‘The Electoral Patronage of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1604-28’, PH, xxvi. 322.
  • 14. Sinclair, i. 197-9.
  • 15. Wigan Par. Regs. 1580-1625 (Lancs. Par. Reg. Soc. iv), 64; Wigan AS, D/DZ A13/1, p. 193; Wigan Court Leet Recs. AB/CL, Roll 2, f. 25.
  • 16. A.J. Hawkes, ‘Wigan’s Part in the Civil War’, in Trans. Lancs. and Cheshire Antiq. Soc. xlvii. 84-138.
  • 17. Wigan AS, D/DZ A13/1, pp. 210-11.
  • 18. D. Hirst, Representative of the People?, 126-7; Bridgeman, ii. 308-18.
  • 19. Sinclair, i. 197-9; Hirst, 114-5, 124-7.