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  • The Electoral Patronage of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1604-28⋆
  • R. C. L. Sgroi

History of Parliament

In 1614 the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Sir Thomas Parry, was expelled from parliament after it was learned that he had used his authority unlawfully to determine the outcome of the Stockbridge election. In Parry's defence, the attorney general Sir Francis Bacon asserted, with some deliberate exaggeration, that it was 'the prescription of the chancellor to have the nomination of one of the burgesses in every of the duchy towns'.1 By suggesting that attempts by the crown's servants to pack the house of commons were a long-established and normal practice, Bacon intended to quash suspicions of a sinister 'undertaking' to manage this particular parliament in the interests of the king. Unfortunately, his comment has produced a tendency among observers both then and now to over-estimate the extent of duchy patronage in early Stuart elections. Following the lead of Colonel Wedgwood, historians such R. E. Ruigh in his study of the 1624 parliament, and J.K. Gruenfelder, whose Influence in Early Stuart Elections 1604-40 (1981) remains the only major study of the duchy's role in elections at this time, have erred on the side of assuming that the duchy always or usually made nominations in boroughs it owned. Gruenfelder tallied a total of 80 returns to parliament which he believed could be attributed to the duchy, of which 51 were in Lancashire boroughs. In reality fewer than half this number can be identified as duchy nominees with any certainty.2 The aims of this paper are therefore to examine the true extent of the electoral patronage of senior duchy officers between 1604 and 1628, as far as the evidence permits, and to re-evaluate the significance of the duchy of Lancaster as an electoral agent under the early Stuarts.

The estates of the duchy passed to the crown upon the death of the last duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, in 1399. Comprising extensive possessions not just in the north-west of England but throughout the realm, the duchy was retained as a separate administrative department, with its own officers and courts. This meant that by 1604 there were a total of 19 boroughs in which the duchy had at one time [End Page 310] exercised some control over parliamentary seats. As well as the Lancashire towns of Lancaster, Preston, Liverpool, Wigan, Clitheroe and Newton, and the Yorkshire boroughs of Aldborough, Boroughbridge, Knaresborough and Ripon, these included Newcastle-under-Lyme (Staffordshire), Higham Ferrers (Northamptonshire), Thetford (Norfolk), Sudbury (Suffolk), Stockbridge (Hampshire), East Grinstead (Sussex), Monmouth boroughs, Huntingdon, and Leicester.3 In a few cases the duchy itself was directly responsible for obtaining parliamentary representation for a borough on its estates, as it secured the franchise at both Newton and Sudbury in 1559, and at Stockbridge in 1563.4 On paper, the duchy would seem to have had extensive opportunities for parliamentary patronage at its disposal. However, this impression is misleading, because in practice duchy land-ownership did not guarantee influence over elections. The parliamentary constituencies of East Retford (Nottinghamshire) and Boston (Lincolnshire) also lay within the duchy's estates, but had never exhibited any sign of duchy electoral patronage. On the contrary, there was no real sense of a 'right of nomination' beyond the willingness of most boroughs to retain the goodwill of their patrons. Influence in reality depended to a great extent on the personal connexions and exertions of individual chancellors, and upon their interactions with other local patrons.

The inaccuracy of Bacon's representation of duchy influence is immediately apparent when earlier periods are considered. J.E. Neale once described the distribution of duchy electoral patronage under Elizabeth I as 'haphazard and chaotic'.5 Duchy influence seems to have stagnated after the chancellorship was kept vacant for six years following the death of Sir Thomas Heneage in 1595.6 The post was still in commission at the general elections of 1601, by which time the main duchy administration was in the hands of Elizabeth's cousin Sir John Fortescue.7 The History of Parliament's House of Commons 1558-1603 survey indicates that the...


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pp. 310-327
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Archived 2008
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