Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Military and political affairs, 1550-1642

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.

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'Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Military and political affairs, 1550-1642', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp113-115 [accessed 19 July 2024].

'Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Military and political affairs, 1550-1642', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Edited by C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online, accessed July 19, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp113-115.

"Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Military and political affairs, 1550-1642". A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker(London, 2003), , British History Online. Web. 19 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp113-115.

In this section



Although not involved in the rebellions following the Reformation, the city took precautions as fear of a Spanish invasion mounted during the mid 1580s: military supplies were purchased, foot soldiers trained, and a watch was kept for hostile shipping in the Dee. The defeat of the Armada was duly celebrated, but the authorities remained cautious and in the early 1590s required new freemen to arm themselves, reviewed the trained bands, and inspected munitions stored locally. (fn. 1)

After the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1579 Chester was the main port used for sending English troops levied in other parts of the country, who passed through the city frequently and in growing numbers. The mayor and other officials were often fully occupied with receiving them and arranging quarters, food, and money. Ships were requisitioned and provisioned, and supplies of food, drink, stores, and ammunition were sent to Ireland. The repeated demands strained local markets, especially during the shortages of the later 1590s: prices rose, ships' masters demanded large payments, there were difficulties with the authorities of Liverpool, disaffected men deserted in droves and were rarely captured, weapons were often found to be defective, moneys were embezzled, profiteering was rife, and Chester earned a reputation as a 'robber's cave'. The city's expenses were supposedly reimbursed by the treasurers-at-war, but funds were short or delayed and loans had to be obtained locally. Disorderly conduct was frequent, especially when troops were delayed by bad weather or lack of ships. To contain it, in 1594 the mayor erected a gibbet at the High Cross. (fn. 2)

Chester's military obligations grew when the Irish campaign intensified in the 1590s. During the two years from early 1600 many reinforcements passed through the port, the mayor received a stream of orders from the privy council, and there were further problems of supply and unruly behaviour. (fn. 3) Even after the effective end of the rebellion in 1603 the shipment of men and munitions continued periodically, and the mayor was called upon to collect funds for measures against pirates. (fn. 4)

The corporation remained responsible for the city's militia and vigorously upheld the right to organize it independently of the county, (fn. 5) appointing a professional soldier as muster master to train the men. (fn. 6) In 1626 the lord lieutenant of Cheshire was ordered to establish a magazine in Chester castle at the county's expense, and an artillery yard was eventually laid out near Cow Lane (later Frodsham Street), powder and match for the trained bands being bought from city funds despite the Assembly's reluctance to establish a precedent. (fn. 7)


In 1543 Chester was made a double-member constituency. It may have sent representatives to parliament in 1545, but its first recorded M.P.s were returned in 1547. It seems likely that until the later 17th century the electorate comprised all adult males. In practice, as there were perhaps no formally contested elections except those of 1621 and 1628, the franchise was initially exercised by the corporation, which selected or at least approved the candidates. In 1621 the victors were accused of canvassing people not qualified to vote, but there was no objection to non-freemen voters as such, and the number participating in 1628, over 900, suggests a male inhabitant franchise. (fn. 8)

The city resisted attempts by outsiders to nominate candidates or stand themselves. (fn. 9) Instead, leading townsmen were usually elected: between 1547 and 1659 only two of 32 M.P.s were neither aldermen nor fee'd lawyers. The recorder was almost invariably chosen, with the result that some, notably Richard Sneyd, William Gerard, and Edward Whitby, acquired extensive parliamentary experience. Otherwise, repeated election was infrequent. (fn. 10) During the later 16th century the city's M.P.s helped secure provisions favourable to Chester in legislation concerning recognizances, the removal of weirs in the Dee, poor relief, and the regulation of taverns. In 1554 they were asked to complain about the incorporation of the Merchants' company, during the later 1580s to secure a grant for the New Haven, and in 1610 to seek a reduction in the duty on Irish yarn imports. (fn. 11)

Sometimes local quarrels influenced the choice of M.P.s. During Mary's reign one of the seats alternated between Thomas Massey and William Aldersey, possibly because of the controversy over the Merchants' company. Similarly, the choice of William Glazier in 1571 and 1572 may have been an attempt to compromise in the dispute with the palatinate exchequer. (fn. 12) Factionalism focused upon the Whitby family played a large part in the contested elections of 1621 and 1628. (fn. 13)


Attempts to secure reductions in the city's tax assessment failed in 1611 and 1625-6. (fn. 14) There were also problems over a voluntary gift for a projected expedition against Barbary pirates in 1618-19, and over the corporation's attempt to make the inhabitants of Gloverstone liable to tax. Conversely, the forced loan of 1626-7 was paid quickly, perhaps because the various factions in the Assembly hoped to win privy council favour in their disputes. (fn. 15) More serious arguments arose about the assessments for Ship Money. (fn. 16) At the outset Chester was aggrieved at having to pay a quarter of the county's total under the first writ of 1634, a proportion later reduced. The city authorities then exempted citizens who had contributed to its own assessment from payment for property held in Cheshire, provoking the county to complain successfully to the privy council. Chester retaliated in 1635 by assessing the sheriff of Cheshire, Sir Thomas Aston, Bt., on profits received in the city from his farm of duties on French wine imports. The county backed Aston, and by 1636 also supported the dean and chapter, the inhabitants of Gloverstone, and Sir William Brereton, Bt., in their disputes with the city over liability. (fn. 17) In 1638 the privy council ordered Aston to pay with the city and declared Gloverstone exempt, and in 1639 the dean and chapter paid with the county. The arguments allowed both county and corporation to protect their interests without openly challenging the king. The dispute was mostly about jurisdiction and did not seriously disrupt collection. Chester's contributions were fully paid at first, though delays began in 1636, and by 1640 the privy council was upbraiding the corporation for widespread resistance.


During autumn 1640, with the Scottish army in northeastern England, the Assembly set up a nightly watch, strengthened the defences at the Eastgate, Newgate, and Bridgegate, and ordered members of the corporation and others to supply corselets, muskets, halberds, and calivers within a month. Arrears of an earlier assessment to replenish the magazine were called in, and ordnance and carriages were brought from Wirral. The trained bands were to be brought up to their full strength of 100 men and placed under the captaincy of Alderman Francis Gamull. (fn. 18) There were no military threats during the following months, but the Assembly did not meet between December 1640 and June 1641. During that time, however, the city's M.P.s seem to have followed a moderate and sometimes noncommittal line in the Commons. (fn. 19)

Defensive preparations remained half-hearted, with the arrears for the magazine never fully collected, (fn. 20) and funds for repairing the city walls having to be borrowed from the proceeds of the prisage on wines until an assessment could be levied. (fn. 21) Later in 1641, when the Assembly was transacting very little business, it faced growing threats to public order. First, the arrival of protestant refugees from the Irish rebellion set off anti-popish hysteria, (fn. 22) culminating in January 1642 in a skirmish just outside the city between Catholics and protestants, with loss of life on both sides. (fn. 23) By then troops bound for Ireland had begun to arrive in the city, (fn. 24) and the authorities were embroiled in the usual problems: shortage of shipping and delays in embarking troops, unruly and violent behaviour by waiting soldiers, rising prices of food and fodder, and delays in repayment for quarters. (fn. 25) The main puritan preachers had curtailed their ministrations and some of the lectureships had fallen vacant, although John Ley, Nathaniel Lancaster, and Thomas Holford were still in the district and in early summer were threatened with legal action for failing to publish royal declarations in their churches. (fn. 26)

The prevailing mood in Chester in summer 1642 was a wish for accommodation between Charles I and parliament, reflected in the city's neutralist petition in August and in its reaction to the parliamentary commission of lieutenancy and the royal commission of array. The Assembly stood fast against both an attempt by James Stanley, Lord Strange, to secure the county magazine in the castle for the royalists, and Alderman William Edwards's and Sir William Brereton's effort to take control of the city's trained bands for parliament. (fn. 27)

Nevertheless, Bishop Bridgeman, his son Orlando (vice-chamberlain of Chester), other lawyers, and prominent figures were apparently trying to encourage royalist sympathies among leading citizens. (fn. 28) On 6 September Mayor Thomas Cowper secured a majority vote in the Assembly for an immediate assessment of 100 marks to fortify the city. (fn. 29) The decisive event, however, was the arrival of the king himself in Chester on 23 September. In an upsurge of loyalty he was greeted with popular enthusiasm, pageantry, bellringing, and a loyal address. The king's supporters seized their opportunity. The houses of known opponents, such as Brereton and Aldermen Edwards and Aldersey, were searched for arms; county gentlemen favourable to parliament were rounded up; and parliamentary supporters in the corporation left. When the king departed five days later, with a gift of money from the corporation, the parliamentarian presence in the city had all but gone, and the royalist hold on Chester had finally been consolidated. (fn. 30)


  • 1. C.C.A.L.S., ZMMP 2 passim; Beck, Tudor Ches. 19-20; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 31-2.
  • 2. C.C.A.L.S., ZMMP 2-7 passim; Morris, Chester, 84-92; C. G. Cruickshank, Elizabeth's Army (2nd edn., 1966), 62-9, 83, 140-1; European Crisis of 1590s, ed. P. Clark, 46, 52, 55; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 32-3.
  • 3. Acts of P.C. 1599-1600, 101-4, 412-16, 558-9, and passim; 1600-1, 12-13, 86-7, and passim; 1601-4, 46-7, 71, and passim; Woodward, Trade of Eliz. Chester, 24.
  • 4. C.C.A.L.S., ZML 6/21, 35, 118-37; ZMMP 15 passim; Acts of P.C. 1615-16, 690-1, 700; 1616-17, 20; 1618-19, 358-9, 363- 4, 410; 1623-5, 371-2, 472-3, 485; 1625-6, 80-1; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1619-23, 24, 28, 43, 104, 412; 1625-6, 5, 8, 12, 54; Armour, 'Trade of Chester', 232-7.
  • 5. Acts of P.C. 1595-6, 284-5; G. P. Higgins, 'Militia in Early Stuart Ches.' J.C.A.S. lxi. 39.
  • 6. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 66-8, 92, 141 n.
  • 7. Ibid. 141, 163; J.C.A.S. lxi. 42; T.H.S.L.C. cxix. 52.
  • 8. Hist. Parl., Commons, 1509-58, i. 44-5; D. Hirst, Representative of the People? Voters and Voting in Eng. under Early Stuarts, 94-6; V.C.H. Ches. ii. 99-100.
  • 9. Hist. Parl., Commons, 1558-1603, i. 121-2; V.C.H. Ches. ii. 111-12; Morris, Chester, 191 n.
  • 10. Hist. Parl., Commons, 1509-58, i. 44-5, 302-3; ii. 205-6, 560, 585-6; iii. 334-5, 345; 1558-1603, i. 121-2, 405-6, 439, 486; ii. 164, 182-3, 186-8, 194-5; iii. 398, 577-8, 682; V.C.H. Ches. ii. 110.
  • 11. C.C.A.L.S., ZAB 1, f. 219; ZML 2/233; Hist. Parl., Commons, 1509-58, i. 45; Tudor Chester, ed. Kennett, 11.
  • 12. V.C.H. Ches. ii. 110-11; above, this chapter: City Government, 1550-1642 (Legal Administration).
  • 13. Above, this chapter: City Government, 1550-1642 (Office and Faction).
  • 14. B.L. Harl. MS. 2173, ff. 10, 17, 74; C.C.A.L.S., ZML 6/83-4, 87.
  • 15. C.C.A.L.S., ZML 6/118-37; Johnson, 'Aspects', 116-18; R. Cust, Forced Loan and Eng. Politics, 1626-8, 121-2.
  • 16. What follows is based on B.L. Harl. MS. 2093, ff. 90-173; Harl. MS. 2173, ff. 19-40; P. Lake, 'Collection of Ship Money in Ches. during 1630s', Northern Hist. xvii. 44-71; E. Marcotte, 'Shrieval Administration of Ship Money in Ches. 1637', Bull. John Rylands Libr. lviii. 148-9, 160-1; Johnson, 'Aspects', 120-37.
  • 17. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1637, 1, 4-5, 42, 116; Northern Hist. xvii. 47-8; J.C.A.S. xxviii. 187-8.
  • 18. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 205-6.
  • 19. Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 40-1, 43-4; M. F. Keeler, Long Parl. 1640-1: Biographical Study, 182-3, 341-2.
  • 20. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 208, 211.
  • 21. Ibid. 207.
  • 22. Armour, 'Trade of Chester', 237 sqq.; Fletcher, Outbreak of Eng. Civil War, 202; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 111.
  • 23. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 89; R. Clifton, 'Popular Fear of Catholics during Puritan Revolution', Rebellion, Popular Protest, and Social Order in Early Modern Eng. ed. P. Slack, 137, 155-6.
  • 24. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1641-3, 205.
  • 25. Letter Books of Sir William Brereton (R.S.L.C. cxxiii, cxxviii), ii, pp. 538-9, 541-2.
  • 26. Ibid. ii, p. 545; Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 62; J.C.A.S. lxviii. 112-13.
  • 27. Letter Books of Brereton, ii, App. X (iii); Tracts relating to Civil War in Ches. 1641-59 (Chetham Soc. N.S. lxv), 47-8; Morris, Siege of Chester, 23-4, 215; J. L. Malcolm, Caesar's Due: Loyalty and King Charles, 1642-6, 84; Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 59 n.; Fletcher, Outbreak of Eng. Civil War, 394; J.C.A.S. xxviii. 188.
  • 28. Edward [Hyde], Earl of Clarendon, Hist. of Rebellion and Civil Wars in Eng. ed. W. D. Macray, ii. 469-70; Morrill, Ches. 1630-60, 129.
  • 29. Cal. Chester City Cl. Mins. 1603-42, 211.
  • 30. Ibid. 212; Tracts relating to Civil War, 59-75; Morris, Siege of Chester, 25-31, 217; Fletcher, Outbreak of Eng. Civil War, 331, 333; J.C.A.S. xxviii. 188-9; Letter Books of Brereton, ii, pp. 592-3; Crisis and Order, ed. Clark and Slack, 208-10.