This week is Parliament Week, a programme of events and activities that connects people across the UK with Parliament and democracy. To mark it, every day this week we are publishing a blog on ‘unlikely parliamentarians’ – the men and women across history who became parliamentarians only unexpectedly.
Our second blog written by Dr Linda Clark, editor of the Commons 1422-1504 Section, describes the life of William Veysy, an MP of obscure origins who was a rather unusual member of a medieval Commons full of Knights of the Shire, merchants and lawyers…
William Veysy, returned to the two Parliaments summoned in 1449, respectively for Lyme Regis and Wareham, was unique among fifteenth-century MPs in being a manufacturer of bricks. It has been speculated that he was a German who had learned his skills on the continent, where brick-making was further advanced, yet if he was indeed a foreigner, he would almost certainly have sued out letters of denization to provide legality to his office-holding, and no such letters have been discovered.
Nothing is recorded about him before October 1437. This was soon after the fifteen-year-old king, Henry VI, came of age and enthusiastically embarked on plans to expand his palace at Sheen, one of his favourite residences. As the ‘king’s brick-maker’, Veysy was assigned the tasks of searching for suitable deposits of clay and building kilns on site. In 1440 he supplied 9,500 bricks for the works at Sheen and his kilns near St. Albans also provided the ‘creste’ of a stone wall at the Tower of London. Veysy was then commissioned to impress bricklayers for the major works at Eton (a project close to Henry VI’s heart), and between 1443 and 1452 he provided some 2.5 million bricks from his kilns at Slough for the college buildings. Meanwhile he had also sold bricks to various members of the king’s Household, at a total cost of over £256 – an enormous sum which was still owing to Veysy in 1448, when he was granted a royal licence to export shipments of tin free of any customs’ duties until he recouped this amount. He is thought to have been responsible for building the ‘green court’ at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex for Sir Roger Fiennes, the treasurer of the Household.
In 1441 Veysy had received another unusual appointment – indeed, one without precedent – then sharing with one other man a grant for life of the post of surveyor of all the beer-brewers in England, wherever they lived. Hitherto, no crown officials had ever been empowered to enforce the assizes of bread, wine, or other victuals nation-wide. Orders sent out in 1443 stipulated to brewers throughout the realm the required quality of the malt, hops and grain they had to use, the processes to be employed and the prices they might charge. (This pre-dated by some 40 years any similar legislation in Germany.) The two men were to receive a fee of ½d. for every barrel of beer brewed, to keep as their own personal profit. Naturally, the London authorities opposed the appointment, fearing it would directly impinge on the liberties of the City. Mollified by a royal charter of 1444 which promised that when Veysy died they might dispose of the office as they thought fit, they had to accept Henry VI’s opinion that Veysy’s ‘merites’ and exemplary service should be rewarded by them with the post of water-bailiff in the Thames.
Through his involvement in the works at Sheen and Eton, Veysy came into close contact with Henry VI’s personal physician and mentor, Master John Somerset, an inspirational guide for the King in planning the foundation of his colleges at Eton and Cambridge. The two men became friends, and Veysy helped further Somerset’s election for Middlesex to the Parliament of 1442, an assembly preoccupied with the handsome endowment of the establishment at Eton. He also lent his support when Somerset founded a chantry in the London church of St. Stephen Colman Street. This connexion with Somerset, who was chancellor of the Exchequer, undoubtedly lay behind Veysy’s own two elections to Parliament in 1449, at a time of major crisis in the crown’s finances as Normandy fell to the French.
Following Henry VI’s mental collapse in 1453 and Somerset’s death a year later, the final years of the reign were ones of obscurity for Veysy, as for so many men to whom the King had once extended generous patronage. Henry’s deposition in 1461 marked the end of his career and the loss of his lucrative post as supervisor of the breweries.
We’re also running a live Parliamentary History Q&A over on twitter this afternoon, Tuesday 15th November, between 4-5pm. So if there’s anything you’ve wanted to know about parliamentary history, here’s your chance to ask! Find out more.