The borough of Kings Lynn: Introduction

The Manuscripts of the Corporations of Southampton and Kings Lynn Eleventh Report, Appendix: Part III. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1887.

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'The borough of Kings Lynn: Introduction', in The Manuscripts of the Corporations of Southampton and Kings Lynn Eleventh Report, Appendix: Part III, (London, 1887) pp. 145-151. British History Online [accessed 24 April 2024]


Few of our provincial boroughs possess muniments of greater value to the constitutional historian than the manuscripts to which public attention is here invited. Perhaps no borough of moderate population and importance has been so fortunate as Lynn Regis in the number and quality of the literary illustrators of its records. Years have passed over the graves of Mr. Hudson Gurney, who in 1832 called the attention of the Royal Society of Antiquaries to certain "Proceedings of the Corporation of Lynn Regis from 1430 to 1731;" of Mr. Daniel Gurney, who made the archives of the borough a subject of long and careful study; of the Reverend G. H. Dashwood, F.S.A., who concontributed to the first volume of "Norfolk Archæology" the well known "Remarks on Subsidy Roll (temp. Edward I.) in the possession of the Corporation of Lynn Regis;" of Mr. Alan Swatman, a native of Lynn, whose researches in the rolls of the borough enabled him to discredit and disperse long-enduring misconceptions respecting the nature and conditions of Queen Isabella's residence at Rising Castle; of Mr. Charles Wycliffe Goodwin, another native of Lynn, who in the pages of "Norfolk Archæology" vindicated the genuineness of Cnut's charter to the monks of St. Edmundsbury, whilst imparting new interest to the so-called Hardecnut's charter of confirmation, which he demonstrated by internal evidence to be nothing more than an ingenious forgery; and Mr. Harrod, whose published " Report on the Deeds and Records of the Borough of King's Lynn" (1874), enlarged the world's knowledge of a singularly instructive body of municipal evidences. These eminent antiquaries have passed from us. But in Mr. E. M. Beloe, the learned coroner of his native town and the luminous author of "Our Borough" and "Our Lady's Hill," who was the first writer on the antiquities of the borough to display the peculiar constitution and special functions of the council of "the Twenty-Seven," Lynn is still fortunate in having a man of letters signally qualified to produce what still remains to be written, an adequate history of King's Lynn.

Lying in a county, whose antiquaries have for several generations figured in the van of archæological enquirers, it is needless to say that the Lynn archives were found by the present reporter in good preservation and order. The dark and narrow chamber in which they are kept is, no doubt, scarcely worthy of its treasures; but the late Mr. Harrod some years since catalogued and arranged the various records so effectively, that any competent searcher can without difficulty put his hand on any writing of the collection which he may wish to peruse. For the purposes of this report, the historic manuscripts so well kept and cared for may be divided into four groups,

(a.) Books,

(b.) Charters, Letters Patent and Privy Scal Writs,

(c.) Rolls, from the time of Edward I. to 1656 A.D., and

(d.) Miscellaneous Writings, viz. Deeds of Gift, Acknowledgments, Agreements, Memoranda &c.

Whilst the Chamberlains' Rolls and Gild Rolls afford a large number of noteworthy particulars, touching the social manners, commercial affairs and political interests and vicissitudes of the burghers of Bishop's Lenne in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the charters, letters-patent and miscellaneous writings are especially instructive in what they tell us of the burghers' relations with their "lord" the Bishop of Norwich, and of the town's internal dissensions, rivalries and conflicts, when its people of the laity were divided into three mutually suspicious and antagonistic classes—the Potentiores, Mediocres and Inferiores—who throughout successive generations scowled at one another daily in their narrow lanes or by their wide water's side, and nursed their animosities in petty quarrels, that were not the less bitter for being under ordinary circumstances bloodless. To some gleaners of facts for social history, these muniments will perhaps be chiefly entertaining for their exhibitions of the fireside feuds and contentions of a medieval borough. But to graver students, more especially to writers of Constitutional History, the Lynn archives will appear in a higher degree valuable for their abundance of information respecting the ways in which the parliamentary representatives of the borough were elected and rewarded from the earlier half of the fourteenth to the later half of the seventeenth century.

It is no news that in olden time the burgesses of parliament for Bishop's Lynn were now and again chosen by a committee of twelve persons, specially appointed at a Congregation or Hall Assembly for the purpose of the election. The discovery that John Waterden and Thomas Spicer were thus chosen to represent the borough at the national council in the 11th year of Henry the Sixth, and that two years and seven months later Thomas Burgh and John Warryn became burgesses of parliament for the borough, was the occasion of the communication made in 1832 to the London antiquaries by Mr. Hudson Gurney, who gained his knowledge of these elections, and of the other municipal matters noticed in his letter, not from the records of the corporation, but from Mr. Lane's manuscript-book of notes and extracts from certain of the Assembly or Congregation Books, described in this report. Mr. Gurney's letter being published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, its numerous items of curious information passed to the cognizance of our writers of Constitutional History, whose recognition of the value of the data thus put at their service does not appear to have moved them to seek further instruction in the Hall Books, from which the successive compilers of Mr. Lane's volume took their memoranda. It has been left for Commissions on Historical Manuscripts to ascertain the extent of the period during which the Burgesses of Parliament for Lynn appear from the borough records to have been usually, if not invariably, chosen by a committee of twelve, and the extent of the far longer period, during which the ordinary freemen of the borough had no direct voice in the election of their members of parliament, and indeed had no influence whatever on the parliamentary representation, apart from their influence in the yearly elections of the town-councillors who had a voice in the elections of the burgesses of parliament.

The earliest of the extant records touching these elections-by-committee is the Certificate [vide the ensuing catalogue (d) Miscellaneous Writings], from which it appears that, at an Assembly held in the Guildhall of Bishop's Linn, in the 7th year of Edward the Second, for making provision in respect to the business of the community in the King's parliament and elsewhere, authority was given to a committee of twenty-six persons to elect twelve of the more sufficient persons of the borough, to be a committee for taking order and action in the matter; that the committee so appointed by a larger committee had warranty under the common seal that their arrangements for the town's business should be adhered to by the community; and further that the whole community concurred in this assembly-order. Though the certificate makes no express mention of an election of burgesses of parliament, it may be assumed confidently that in making the order the municipal congregation had such an election in view. It may also be observed that, though the order (according to the certificate) was for the appointment of a committee of twelve for the conduct and execution of municipal business, the committee of twenty-six appointed a committee of thirteen individuals. Possibly this apparent discrepancy between the instructions and action of the larger committee was due to a clerical slip in the certificate. On the other hand, it may be that the committee of twenty-six deliberately exceeded their instructions, and elected a thirteenth man for the sake of his casting vote, in case the committee proper should be evenly divided on any question of the affairs. The record of the whole community's concurrence in and assent to this arrangement is a noteworthy feature of the certificate, as it affords at least presumptive evidence that in the earlier time of Edward the Second the members of the Municipal Assembly did not presume to act definitively in so important a matter without the consent of the rest of the community. It is the more worthy of consideration, because in the near future it became the practice of the Assembly to appoint from themselves a committee for choosing burgesses of parliament, without consulting the general body of the burgesses, who in the records of a later period, viz., the seventeenth-century Hall Books, are slightingly designated "the burgesses at large." The fragmentary records afford no precise information as to the commencement of the long term of generations, during which "the burgesses at large" had no personal part in the selection of their burgesses of parliament, and seem to have been wholly excluded from the parliamentary franchise by custom, that probably originated in the readiness of the inferior burghers to assent to whatever the chiefs of the community did in respect to the affairs of the king's parliament. On the 9th of October in the 48th year of Edward the Third (vide The Red Register), a committee of twelve members of Assembly—viz., John Wyth, Hugh de Ellyngham, Geoffrey Sharyngton, Edmund Berston, Richard Honton, John Penteney, Geoffrey Fransham, Walter Dunton, John Grantham, John Stalworth, John Loke, and Nicholas Bukworth—was appointed and sworn to elect two prudent and discreet men for the King's parliament, to be held at Westminster on the morrow of St. Edmund the King and Martyr; the result being that Robert Bathe and John Waryn were chosen and sent to represent Bishop's Lenn at the national council. The earliest memorandum of a parliamentary election in the Red Register, this entry in the Corporation's oldest book of municipal acts and proceedings is also the earliest of the borough's records of an election of two persons, with names duly given, to represent the borough at the sovereign's parliament. But henceforth such entries are frequent in the Red Register and the subsequent Assembly Books. To say that, from the closing years of Edward the Third's time to the opening of Henry the Eighth's regnal term, the Members of Parliament for Bishop's Lenn were invariably chosen by a committee of twelve would be to say something more than is certified by the fragmentary records. But the entries of the Red Register, the series of Assembly or Congregation Books, and the imperfect series of Assembly or Congregation Rolls, interlying the final date of the Red Register and the commencement of the earliest of the extant Assembly Books, justify a statement that from the time of Edward III. to the time of Henry VIII. the parliamentary representatives of Bishop's Lenn were usually chosen by a committee of twelve members of the municipal Assembly. Of the various ways in which the committee was chosen, and of the Mayor's part in choosing the committee and conse quent influence on the result, adequate information is afforded by the extracts from successive Assembly Books, printed in ensuing pages of this report.

The practice of electing members of parliament by a committee of the Assembly was continued to and into Henry the Eighth's reign. On 7th January of that king's first year, a committee of twelve chose Thomas Guyborn and Francis Mondeford for burgesses of parliament. Two years later (28 January, 3 Henry VIII.) Thomas With, then mayor of the community, and Francis Mondeford were elected in the same manner to represent the borough in parliament. But on 31 March, 14 Henry VIII., instead of being elected by a committee, Thomas Miller and Richard Bewshere were chosen for burgesses of parliament. by the Burgesses of Congregation, viz. those of the burgesses who had voice amongst the rulers of the borough, either as members of "the twenty-four" or as members of "the twenty-seven." The record of this election runs thus in the Assembly (or Congregation) Book No. IV. "31 March, 14 Henry VIII. Congregation of the Burgesses held in the Gild Hall of Bishop's Lenn:—Thomas Miller (gubernator), Richard Bewshere, Thomas Leyghton, William Castell, Christopher Brodbank, Richard Peper, John Holyour (sic), Roger Bowesey, Robert (sic) Parmenter, Edward Baker, Thomas Palmer, William Crampe, William Olyett, John Dunston, William Gerves, John Judde, Humfrey Wolle, John Odam, William Wygan, William Kenette, Robert Roughton, William Hall draper, Henry Duplak, William Locklay, William Hall taylor, Peter Mowthe, John Malby junr., Robert Candeler, William Baxter, William Mowthe, Simon Thompson,—The greater part of whom, viz., Richard Peper, John Holys (sic), Peter (sic) Parmenter, William Olyett, William Gerves, John Judde, Humfrey Wolle, John Odam, William Wygan, William Kenette, Peter Mowthe, John Malby junr., Robert Candeler, William Baxter, Thomas Water, William Mowthe, Simon Thompson, Thomas Herryson, John Whyte, Robert Lambard, John Suff, John Knappe elected these two under-written for burgesses of Parliament.—Mr. Thomas Miller, gubernator, and Mr. Richard Bewshere"—two of the persons who voted with the majority being omitted from the preceding list of members present at the assembly.

Henceforth the parliamentary elections were made by the burgesses in Assembly, voting or otherwise agreeing together personally, instead of authorizing a committee to act for them in the matter. On the substitution of a court of aldermen for a court of jurats, and a common council of eighteen for a similar council of twenty-seven members, the elections of burgesses of parliament were made by the Mayor aldermen and common-councilmen, whose acts and proceedings in Assembly are often designated the acts and proceedings of "the House" or "this House," in the successive Hail Books. Chosen by "the House," acting without reference to the views and wishes of the inferior burgesses, i.e. the burgesses who were not members of assembly, the burgesses of parliament received their authority and instructions and wages from "the House," and on returning from the national council rendered account to "the House" of their doings at, and of the measures ordained by, the parliament. The period of their revolutionary troubles had been entered by our ancestors of the seventeenth century, before the ordinary freemen, the burgesses at large, of King's Lynn, were suffered to take a direct and personal part in the choice of their parliamentry representatives; and a noteworthy memorandum in the Assembly (or Congregation) Book No. IX. indicates with sufficient clearness, that the part taken by the burgesses-at-large in the election of members of the Long Parliament was resented by the superior people of the town as an offensive novelty and a dangerous intrusion on the ancient privileges of "the house." From this memorandum it appears that on 2 January 1642 an Order of the Commons in Parliament, dated 15 Oct. 1642, "was brought and produced in the howse" (i.e. the municipal house) "by Mr. Percevall and Mr. Toll, aldermen, in hec verba sq.:— It is this day Ordered by the Commons now assembled in Parliament, That the Maior, Aldermen and Common Counsell of the Towne of Kinges Lynne in the county of Norfolk, Shall pay and allowe out of the Towne Stock as formerly, unto John Percevall and Thomas Toll their Burgesses, For this present Parliament as lardge an allowance per diem as they have heretofore allowed any of their Aldermen that hath bene Burgesses in Parliament for that towne, Notwithstandinge the Freemen of that towne had their voyces in the choice of the said John Percivall and Tho: Toll to be their Burgesses for this present Parliament. If the Mayor of Lynne can shew any cause to the countrary, we shalbe ready to heare him;" on the receipt of which mandate from the Commons, it was ordered by the municipal Assembly "that Mr. Maior, Mr. Recorder, Mr. Doughty, Mr. May and Mr. Leake with all convenient speede shall consider of and draw up a Fittinge Answeare to present to the Honourable Howse of Commons upon the said order, and offer the same to be allowed by the howse."

At subsequent elections, however, the burgesses-at-large had no voice in the choice of members. The memorandum of the affair in Assembly (or Congregation) Book No. IX. perhaps leaves it questionable whether the mere freemen of the borough had a voice in the election in September 1649 of the Earl of Salisbury to be one of their burgesses of parliament, though I am disposed to infer their participation in the election from the terms of the order,—"That a letter be written to the Right Honble the Earle of Salisbury by the Mayor from his house, to give him knowledge that this house hath graunted him the freedom of this Burgh, and that the Cominalty of this Burgh hath elected him a Burgess of the Parliament of England." Had the earl been elected for a parliamentary burgess by the same exclusive body, that conferred the municipal franchise upon him, his election for parliament would scarcely have been attributed to the action of the "commonalty." Later elections are however expressly declared by memoranda of the same Hall Book to have been made by "the house." On 18 August 1656, Generall John Desbrow and Maior-General Phillipp Skippon were "chosen in this House to serve as Burgesses for this Burrough, in his Highnes next parliament at Westminster."

In the following month (26 September 1656) it was ordered by the municipal House, "that Mr John Horsnell of London be sent unto by this House as their Solicitor in this behalfe to attende upon the Committee of Priviledges at Westminster to make good this house's auncient Custome of electing of Burgesses to set in Parliament, and that an abbreviate of the Records be sent up to him in order to his prosecution of the same, And that in order therunto Mr New-elect Mr Joshua Greene Mr Benjamyn Holly aldermen the Towneclarke Mr Robinson Mr Pope and Mr Clampe or any four or more of them and any other of the house that please be a Committee And are desired to meete this afternoone . . . . to draw up instructions and state the buisnes of election clearly betweene this House and the Comons of this Burgh and make their report to this house the next Hall Day." This memorandum is followed in the same register by other entries touching the conflict between the municipal house and the mere freemen, as to the right of the latter to vote at elections of members of parliament.

Generall John Desbrowe (otherwise spelt, Disbrowe) having decided to sit in parliament for the county of Somerset, and declined the seat for Lynn Regis, Sir John Thorowgood on 19 Dec. 1656 " was by this house chosen to be one of the Burgesses to serve in this present Parliamt" for the borough. Two years later (3 Jan. 1658) Mr Thomas Toll and Captain Griffith Lloyd were chosen to be burgesses of parliament for the borough by "the Mayor Aldermen and Common Councell." Touching the demand of the ordinary and mere freemen to have a voice in this election, the Assembly (or Congregation) Book No X. gives this remarkable note,—" 3 January 1658. About Election of Burgesses to sett in Parliament:—Whereas severall Burgesses of this Burrough of the Commons at large have this day made their requestes to this house that they might be admitted to joyn with this house in the election of Burgesses to sett in the next Parliament to be houlden at Westminster the 27th day of this instant January, It is thought fitt and ordered that the resolves of the Comittee of Priviledges of the last Parliament and the Parliamentes Orders thereupon concerning Elections be first read unto them in the open hall which is done accordingly. This day alsoe upon further debate of the aforesaid business of Election of Burgesses to sett in the next Parliament for this Burrough, it being adjudged by this house that the right of election of the said Burgesses is at present in this house according to the aforesaid order. It is therefore ordered that this house doe proceed to an election accordingly, And that in case the said Commons at large shall after such election persist in theire desires to have the precept for election of Burgesses to be read unto them, That the same be read unto them for theire satisfaction."

If the precept for the election was read to the burgesses-at-large for their satisfaction in accordance with this order of the municipal council, and afforded them any degree of momentary contentment with their electoral position, it certainly failed to reconcile them for any considerable time to their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise. For in April 1660 they renewed their demand to be regarded and dealt with as parliamentary voters, and urged it so effectually that the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council decided to waive for once, and without prejudice to them and their successors in the future, the right of keeping elections of members of parliament to themselves. "Whereas," it is recorded in Hall Book No. X., under date of 16 April 1660, "Mr. Mayor hath this day caused a Common Hall to be warned in order to the election of Burgesses to serve in the next Parliament to be houlden at Westminster and severall of the members of the house being mett together in this house divers of the free Burgesses of this Burgh came and requested that they might be admitted to elect Burgesses for the said Parliament as their right which being taken into consideration this House doth think fitt for the present satisfaction of the people to suffer the Commons to elect, and to wave the election in this house for this present election."

The right of freemen to vote at the parliamentary elections does not appear ever again to have been seriously opposed or openly questioned. Having waived their especial and choicest privilege for once, the dominant class of the burgesses deemed it prudent and politic to surrender it altogether. Admitted to the vote on sufferance and by the special grace of their municipal betters for a single turn in 1660, the burgesses at large ever afterwards voted at the elections from which they had been so long excluded. In practice, if not in legal theory, they were admitted to the parliamentary franchise without an act of parliament for their parliamentary enfranchisement.

Though less new and striking than the data respecting the ways in which the burgesses chose their members of parliament, the memoranda of the Hall Books, touching the payment of the chosen representatives, afford numerous matters of interest together with several particulars not wholly wanting in novelty. It is well for writers on the payment of members of parliament to know that candidates for a seat in the Commons sometimes urged their readiness to occupy it gratuitously, as a reason why their ambition should be gratified. In James the First's time, when he sought the place of Member for the Norfolk borough, Sir Robert Hitcham, the Queen's Attorney-General, commended himself to the enlightened electors of Lynn Regis by offering to serve them for nothing,—an offer of financial advantage that would doubtless be rated as corrupt practice, should the custom of paying members of parliament for their services be revived in these days of severe electoral purity. But though he took the place for nothing, the Corporation thought right to give Sir Robert at least on one occasion a handsome gratuity for his service. "Whereas," it is recorded under date of 23 July 1610, "Sir Robert Hitcham knight, the Queenes Majesties Attorney Generall is purposed to come to this Towne from the Assizes att Norwich to take his jorny to Elie where he is Judge of that Cownty Palatyne, and that the said Sir Robt. Hitcham is one of the Burgesses of this Burgh this present Parliament, and promised to take no wages for the same when he was elected, Therefore itt is agreed that the Town shall bestowe upon hym (as a gratuity) Twenty Powndes, and that he shall be intertayned by the Mayor and that the charge thereof and of his horsemeat shall be borne by the Towne."