Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Robin McCallum, English Towns & Parliamentary Representation, 1295-1350

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar Robin McCullum, of Queen’s University Belfast, gave a paper on ‘English Towns & Parliamentary Representation, 1295-1350’. Here Robin reports back on his paper…

The overarching aim of this paper was to explore how Bristol and Norwich exploited their growing participation at parliament to forge a new relationship with the English crown between 1295 and 1350. This was a period in which the crown’s perception of the urban polity was fundamentally transformed by both parliament and the demands of the ‘war state’. Edward I begrudgingly summoned burgesses to parliament from 1295 because he needed to acquire their consent to collect taxation in order to finance the defence of the kingdom. But by the eve of the Black Death, burgesses were no longer viewed simply as seigneurial subjects. Instead, Edward III consolidated their position within the political elite, viewing them as vital royal financiers and important participants in national government. This paper proposed that parliament was central to the transition in crown-town relations from a predominantly seigneurial nature to one in which the urban polity were intrinsically involved in government by the mid-1300s.

Bristol and Norwich adopted a fluid, flexible and often contrasting approach towards participation in the parliaments of this period. When towns had a particular corporate issue to resolve, they consciously elected specific burgesses who either had considerable parliamentary experience or a detailed knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the petition. For example, William Butt the Younger, William Bateman and Richard de Panes were deliberately employed as MPs because their contacts, status and links to the crown could prove decisive in the negotiations over a new borough charter or the reimbursement of loans. Yet, towns also returned a range of leading citizens when they did not have a particular problem to resolve. Urban rulers were fully aware that burgesses such as Henry Gare wanted to use parliament to represent their private interests. Furthermore, Bristol and Norwich were desperate to have their interests represented and thus elected MPs who were already traveling to London on private business. These contrasting views were indicative of the ad hoc nature of urban representation at parliament in the early 1300s. This was an evolutionary period for parliament and towns were still trying to understand the parliamentary process and their precise role within it.

Attendance was not a hindrance for many of the leading citizens from Bristol and Norwich in the early 1300s. Payment was an important, but far from decisive, factor in encouraging burgesses to serve their town as a MP. Instead, this paper proposed that there was a corpus of the urban elite who lobbied for re-election because it offered them the opportunity to form new contacts within the government and develop their careers as royal officials. William Butt the Younger, Thomas Butt, John Franceys junior and Robert Gyen were only some of the MPs who secured employment as crown officials, commissioners or customs collectors in the years following their appointment to parliament. As the fourteenth century progressed, an increasing number of MPs were re-elected and became more experienced and politically active in the process. Towns elected such ambitious individuals because they could best represent their interests at Westminster or on parliamentary committees and merchant assemblies. But to guarantee their services, towns offered an incentive and did so by allowing their representatives to pursue personal interests or advancement as royal officials, as long as these did not conflict with corporate aims. The early fourteenth-century parliament thus enabled burgesses to fulfill civic responsibilities, develop careers as crown officials, and experience an active role in national government.


Join us tonight for our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Sarah Ward of the Institute of Historical Research will speak on: ‘‘I am nothing discuraged to present you with the Parliament newse’: parliamentary news, personal interest and political action in north-east Wales, 1640-88.’ Hope to see you there!

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