Meyricke Serjeantson













Politics in Shrewsbury

One of the more interesting tasks that can be undertaken in an examination of the pre-Civil War period is the quest for signs of the growth of an organised opposition to the Crown before the recall of Parliament in 1640. In some areas this has been successfully carried out, notably in London and the Home Counties. A study of the activities of men such as the Earl of Warwick, John Hampden, and Richard Knightly, reveals a series of connections, both family and business, that includes a large number of the original leaders of the opposition to the Crown in the Short and Long Parliaments. The elaborate work produced by J.R.Hexter in this field does not include anyone with close links to Shrewsbury. 1

The nearest to a link between Shrewsbury and this 'party' that can be produced is based on a document from the Hunt Collection dated 1665. 2 This is an agreement concerning the marriage of Rowland Hunt, son of Thomas Hunt, colonel in the Roundhead army, and the daughter of Lord Paget. In addition to Hunt, the signatories include Richard Hampden, of Hampden, presumably the son of John Hampden. It would be convenient to conclude from this that the families had long-standing connections and that they kept in touch during the growth of opposition in the 1630s, but there is no more evidence to support this theory. Consequently it must remain as but an interesting possibility. It must also be remembered that connections of this sort can mean very little, especially in a society as parochial as that of the English gentry in the seventeenth century. The chances of two families becoming linked by marriage were large and links between families that were later to take opposing sides were as common as those between families of similar political outlook. The inter-connection of the leading families in Shrewsbury will be considered in due course.

Even if Shrewsbury was out of the main stream of national political opposition, it is possible to trace the growth of opposition purely within the town itself. The attitude of the local population to the King's arbitrary actions, especially the levying of 'illegal' taxes, reveals something of the nature of the opposition within the town. One of the defendants in the 'Five Knights Case' of 1627 was Sir John Corbet. There is some doubt as to whether this was the Corbet who was to become M.P. for the county in 1640, or the knight of the same name from Norfolk. Both men were to emerge as strong opponents of the Crown, with the Shropshire Corbet being imprisoned on several occasions. It would seem, however, that it was the knight from Norfolk who was destined to achieve national fame. 3 The state papers include several contradictory references to the collection of the forced loan in the county. In February it was recorded that all the commissioners subscribed and paid. 4 Entries for June and October, however, suggest that there had been some refusal to pay. 5

The main opportunity for open opposition came with the King's decision to levy ship-money on the inland counties. The details of the opposition in Shrewsbury have already been studied, so that it will not be necessary to give a narrative description. 6 It will suffice to examine a few of the more interesting facts that emerge from this opposition. Chief amongst these is that there does not seem to have been any opposition on theoretical grounds. The town authorities complained at great length about the amount that they had to pay but did not dispute the King's right to levy the tax. This suggests the absence of any important links with the main political opposition in the country, as symbolised by John Hampden.

The actual method of collection shows some of the weaknesses in the Crown's financial system. The tax had to be collected by the local officials under the direction of the sheriffs, often men of doubtful character. The involvement of the office with the collection of taxes made it unpopular and the powers available to the sheriffs were often insufficient to enable them to perform their tasks properly. The sheriff responsible for the collection of the first levy of ship-money, John Newton, was accused by the county of under-assessing the value of his own property. His successor, Sir Paul Harris, wrote in complaint to Secretary Nicholas that

“Newton kept no man in livery in his house, nor any horse in his stable, **** and has £700 per annum in possession, and £4000 at use. He was assessed at £15, and reduced to £9.” 7

In his turn, Harris complained that his powers were inadequate and that he was unable to speed up the collection of the tax. 8 Thus, even if there had been no doubts about the legality of ship-money, its collection would have posed many problems for the Crown.

Even when the sheriff had managed to collect the money he faced the great problem of how to deliver it to London. In Shrewsbury this problem was solved by using the financial machinery of the Drapers' Company. The sheriff of Montgomery also used the drapers, sending his money via John Prowde and Adam Webb, 9 both of whom were to become supporters of the parliamentarians and members of the first Shropshire classis. 10 That these men were prepared to assist in the collection of ship-money must surely indicate that they were not opposed to the tax on any matter of principle. If they were strongly opposed to the Crown at this stage, their opposition must have been based on religious grievances rather than on political ones.

Communications with London were not good. Newton, in 1635, complained that he could only send his letters once a fortnight and then, only by the common carrier. 11 His attempts to overcome the problems of collection by allowing his agents 6d in the Pound of the taxes brought in was vetoed by the government, on the grounds that previous taxes had been successfully collected without resort to this extra expense. 12 The main fact that can be learned from the attempt to levy ship-money in Shrewsbury would, therefore, seem to be that the Crown did not have the ability to raise money efficiently, regardless of the opposition. When this was present, as it was throughout the 1630s, failure was almost inevitable.

The raising of troops for the Scottish wars in 1639 seems to have caused little stir in the county as a whole, and there are no references to this levy in connection with Shrewsbury.

In addition to the above financial issues, and the religious ones discussed in previous chapters, there were two main sources of contention in the town and its surrounding area. The first of these was occasioned by the award of a baronetcy to Sir Thomas Harris of Boreatton in 1623. Harris was the grandson of William Harris, a yeoman from the village of Condover and the son of Roger Harris, who had been elected a draper in 1575. 13 The gentlemen of the county objected to Harris' elevation to their ranks and complained that they had been disgraced by this act. 14 After an investigation, the Earl Marshal declared that Harris was not, in fact, a gentleman but that he could not revoke a patent that was under the Great Seal. 15 There is no doubt that this case aroused much hostility within the county but it does not seem to have had the effect of turning the complainants away from the King. The local gentry were to be amongst the King's strongest supporters, as was the Harris family, with Sir Paul Harris being a royalist Commissioner of Array. 16

The years from 1637 until the outbreak of the war witnessed a considerable number of disputes within the corporation itself. The interesting feature of these disputes is the inference on several occasions that there were two bitterly opposed parties in existence within the town. Even if the cause of these disputes cannot be determined from the evidence, it is possible to learn much from them. To begin with  the two leading figures, Thomas Nicholls and Thomas Owen, took different sides in the Civil War. The basic divisions were outlined by Thomas Nicholls in a petition to the King.

“Petitioner is one of the two Bailiffs of the town, which is governed by two bailiffs as one head, and all Burgesses are admitted to give their voices in all elections, and other matters concerning the government of the town. The said two bailiffs seldom agreeing together in one vote, but being divided and adhering to the several parties, petitioner finds the town to be very much embroiled with contentions, and he, out of his experience, is persuaded that until the members thereof be better reconciled no uniformity of government can be observed."  17

In addition, Nicholls asked the government to withdraw the quo warranto which had been brought out against the corporation for not fulfilling its duties and hoped that the Council would grant the town a new charter which would end the present misgovernment whilst preserving the ancient privileges. The result of this petition was the granting of a new charter in 1638, which replaced the old system of government by bailiffs and burgesses with one of government by a mayor and twenty-four aldermen. This, however, did not end the controversy. The new charter had to be paid for and neither side was willing to do this. It was decided to raise the money by selling some land but this project collapsed before it had been completed. 18 A solution was not found until the summer of 1640, when the Council stepped in.

“Order of Council. The Lords having considered the differences between Thomas Nicholls, late head bailiff of Shrewsbury, and his party, and Thomas Owen, Town Clerk, and his party, touching the charges expended in obtaining their new charter, and having heard the certificate made by Sir Thomas Milward, Knt, Chief Justice of Chester, concerning that business, whereby it appears that Mr Owen and his party had opposed the new charter, and Mr Owen alleging that Mr Nicholls and his side did likewise oppose the charter, which did much delay the passing thereof and increase the expences touching the same. It was, therefore, now by the lords held fit that the charges of either side expended about procuring that charter be equally paid, and to that purpose it is ordered that Messers Nicholls and Owen be hereby required to make their several and respective accompts before Sir Thomas Milward, of all the particulars of the charges disbursed by either party in obtaining and passing the said charter, which sums are ordered to be equally assessed and levied upon the inhabitants of the town, and the accompts of both parties duely paid.” 19

The actual cause of the dispute between the two parties is not known. In 1642, however, the two leaders were to choose different sides. Owen represented the town in the Short Parliament and followed the royalist side, in spite of the fact that he acted as a witness against Archbishop Laud. He remained as town clerk until 1645, when he was dismissed by the parliamentarians as a delinquent. 20 Nicholls became one of the leading parliamentarians in the town. His arrest was ordered by the King in 1642, he was appointed mayor under the parliamentarian regime in 1645 and he was one of those considered fit to sit on the first presbyterian classis in 1647. Whatever the reasons, it cannot be doubted that the town was deeply divided, and that when the time came for a polarization of forces, in 1641 or 1642, two factions were already in existence.