This month we’re turning our attention to Oxfordshire in our local history blog series. Kicking things off today is Dr Charles Moreton, Senior Research Fellow for our Commons 1461-1504 project. In the reign of Henry VI this was one of the wealthiest constituencies in England, but how did they select their representation?
While unspectacular in landscape, Oxfordshire was one of the wealthiest and most fertile of the late medieval English shires, and its county town, Oxford, was by far the biggest and most important urban settlement in the middle Thames valley. The Crown possessed extensive interests there, including the honour of Wallingford, the manor of Woodstock, estates belonging to the duchy of Lancaster and large royal forests. Over the centuries, the forests drew successive monarchs to use the county as a place of residence, although Henry VI’s preference was for Windsor in neighbouring Berkshire.
For most of Henry’s reign, the practical exercise of royal authority in Oxfordshire and the wider Thames valley lay with two leading advisers and ministers of the Crown, Thomas Chaucer, son and heir of the poet Geoffrey, and Thomas’s son-in-law, William de la Pole, earl (afterwards marquess and then duke) of Suffolk. A figure of national importance, Chaucer’s immediate influence in the county rested on the important offices he held on the Crown’s estates there. For 35 years from the accession of Henry IV in 1399, he was constable of Wallingford castle, steward of the honours of Wallingford and St. Valery and steward of the four-and-a-half hundreds of Chiltern. In the last few months before he died in 1434, he shared these offices with William de la Pole, who afterwards exercised them jointly with other co-grantees, among them his wife, Alice, and his son and heir, John de la Pole. After Suffolk’s murder in May 1450, the Crown granted them to another peer, only for them to return soon afterwards to Alice and John. While never titled, Chaucer was a lord in all but name and he and his son-in-law were an immediate presence in a county which otherwise lacked a resident noble family with large-scale landholdings within its boundaries.
A good indication of Chaucer’s importance is his record of parliamentary service, since he represented Oxfordshire in as many as 14 Parliaments of the earlier fifteenth century, including five of Henry VI’s reign. He was also Speaker of the Commons in no fewer than five of these assemblies, a record not equalled until the eighteenth century. Apart from Chaucer, at least 22 other men sat for the county in Henry’s reign. All of them had at least some link with Oxfordshire when elected, and several, like Drew Barantyn, the brothers, Sir Robert and Richard Harcourt, and another family pairing, Thomas Stonor and his son and namesake, were of families long established there.
Whatever their origins, all of these MPs counted other parliamentarians among their relatives, whether of blood or marriage. In consequence, most of them are likely to have possessed a reasonable knowledge of Parliament and its workings before first entering the Commons. Several of them became experienced parliamentarians, not least because the electorate in Oxfordshire often returned Members who had sat before, when such candidates were available. The county therefore enjoyed considerable continuity in its representation in the Commons, especially in the earlier Parliaments of Henry’s reign.
As befitted their status, almost all of the MPs served in local government at some stage in their careers. Several of them also received other Crown appointments in Oxfordshire. Throughout his time in Parliament, for example, Edmund Hampden, four times an MP for the county in the late 1440s and 1450s, was surveyor and keeper of the royal manor of Woodstock and parker of Beckley, and Edmund Rede, who sat in the Parliament of 1450, was keeper of the King’s forests of Bernwood, Stowood and Shotover in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
It is possible that Rede owed his office in the forests to his membership of the royal household, although he comes across as a somewhat apolitical figure. By contrast, Hampden was both a household man and a committed supporter of Henry VI. Reflecting the strong royal interests in the county, a majority of their fellows among the other MPs likewise joined the household or enjoyed other close links with the Crown, even if not all of them possessed such ties before they entered the Commons. It does not, however, automatically follow that these household men were royal placemen, and direct evidence for the Crown’s active intervention in Oxfordshire’s parliamentary elections is lacking. On the other hand, one may confidently deduce that several of them were returned in the interest of the Crown. It was surely no coincidence that those elected to the Parliaments of 1447, 1453 and 1459, all assemblies called in favourable circumstances for the Crown, possessed links, some of them very strong, with the royal establishment. Of course, an attachment to the household did not guarantee undying loyalty. Although Hampden would die fighting for Henry VI in 1471, one of the other courtier MPs, John Norris, who sat for Oxfordshire in 1442, was no political diehard. Adapting to events, he kept his estates after the Yorkist Edward IV toppled Henry from the throne in 1461. Another household man among the 23, Sir Robert Harcourt, also provides a contrast to Hampden. Jettisoning his attachment to the court while Henry was still on the throne, he joined the Yorkist opposition within a decade of sitting for Oxfordshire in the Parliament of 1450. Harcourt’s younger brother, Richard, also went over to the Yorkists, and it was surely no coincidence that he and John Stokes, another supporter of that faction, represented Oxfordshire in the final Parliament of the reign, that of 1460-1, an assembly called after the Yorkists had seized control of the government and the person of the hapless and soon to be deposed Henry VI.
Keep an eye on our feed for more Oxfordshire blogs in the coming weeks, and head to the Local History section of our page to read our previous posts.
All of the MPs mentioned feature in our recently published Commons 1422-1461 Volumes. Find out more about the publication here.