The rise of Roger Thornton, Royalist, Mayor and MP

The Thornton Brass
The Thornton Brass

THE number of Parliamentary boroughs grew rapidly in the half-century before Morpeth was raised to the honour in 1553.

The number fluctuated, but before 1400 there were never more than 90.

There were 110 in 1509, when Henry VIII became King, and 164 in 1558 when Elizabeth I came to the throne, an increase of nearly 50 per cent in the space of 50 years.

Edward VI alone created 25 new constituencies and Mary about 14. Most of these were boroughs.

Few of these new boroughs could muster men of substance to represent them.

They were simply a device to bolster the royal majority in the House of Commons.

Contrast this with great medieval towns like Lincoln, York and Newcastle, which sent members to Parliament from its earliest days.

Their leading citizens were rich merchants and capitalists.

It was easy for them to find suitable representatives from amongst their own number.

One such was Roger Thornton. As legend has it:

At the West Gate came Thornton in,

With a hap and hap’ny and a lambskin.

He may have come from Hartburn, or Netherwitton, or Thornton in the West Riding. Nobody knows.

Wherever it was, somebody of the same name was already established in Newcastle by the time he got there.

John Thornton was a collector of customs and pontage (i.e. bridge toll) at Newcastle in the 1370s, and was appointed one of the four bailiffs in 1382.

They were probably of the same family, John being perhaps Roger’s father or older brother.

Roger himself first appears in 1385 as an exporter of wool and later of lambskins. It was a risky business.

In 1394 he was part-owner of the ship Goodyear, trading in the Baltic in red wine and woollen cloth. She was attacked by pirates from Wismar and Rostock, and some of her complement taken captive. The towns of the Hanseatic League took responsibility for suppressing piracy around their coasts, but the men of Newcastle found it impossible to get redress.

They eventually persuaded the King, Henry IV, to send an embassy for the purpose in 1405, but they never did get proper satisfaction.

Significantly, however, Richard Welford says that the Goodyear was impounded by the Hanse so it may be that the distinction between pirates and honest merchants defending their own interests was a fine one.

Quite apart from the risks of foreign trade, the merchants of Newcastle were under constant threat from the Scots by land and sea. Faith Thompson, in A Short History of Parliament, shows how serious this was.

She quotes the return made by the Sheriff of Northumberland to a Parliamentary summons in 1327:

‘The community of the county of Northumberland reply that they are so far destroyed by their Scottish enemies that they have not wherewith to pay the expenses of sending two knights to the council to be held at Lincoln; and the bailiffs of the liberty of the town of Newcastle upon Tyne reply that they are so heavily burdened with the safe keeping of the town that they can spare no one from the said town. So the execution of this writ is not possible at present.’

Another problem was the stranglehold that the Staple of Calais had over the export of wool.

In 1400, Thornton and some others got royal permission to export 2,000 sacks of wool to Flanders, provided it was grown north of the Tees. This was of poorer quality and presented little threat to the trade of Calais.

But before the Newcastle men could exercise their privilege, the rules changed and the whole consignment rotted on the quayside.

There was no such monopoly in coal and lead. Newcastle was well placed to trade in them, and it was to these that Roger increasingly turned his attention.

He became a major supplier of coal to the London market, where he had a house in ‘Secolelane’ and other properties beside.

In 1401 he leased the lead mines of Weardale from the Bishop of Durham and became a major producer of lead and silver.

He never kept all of his eggs in one basket however, and also dealt in the dyestuffs woad and madder.

He was a bailiff of Newcastle in 1396, and MP for the town in 1399. Newcastle tended to elect experienced MPs who could best serve the town’s interests so Thornton was actually the junior of the two members.

But it was he who was credited with pulling off a tremendous coup when the new King, Henry IV, constituted Newcastle a county of itself, separate from Northumberland. Newcastle henceforth had its own sheriff.

The bailiffs were discontinued, and Roger Thornton was the first mayor under the new regime.

As constable of the Staple of Newcastle and collector of customs, he was also a trusted royal servant, and in 1405 defended Newcastle against the rebel Earl of Northumberland.

He was nine times mayor and represented Newcastle four times in Parliament.

Thornton lived in Broad Chare, near where the law courts and Trinity House are now.

He had no property in Morpeth, but large estates in the surrounding area.

In 1411 he bought the manor of Witton-in-the-Waters, or Netherwitton. With it went Wingates, Witton, Stanton, Horsley (presumably Longhorsley) and Stannington. Also Benton, Killingworth and Plessey.

Amongst his many benefactions, he gave lead to mend the roof of Newminster Abbey church, for which the abbot and brethren said Mass every day for his soul.

Netherwitton became his chief residence.

It descended along with his estates in Yorkshire and Durham to his son, also called Roger, who married the daughter of John, Lord Greystock.

Through their descendants, the bulk of the Thornton lands passed to the Lumleys and the Salvins. After his wife’s death, Roger II had other children and this side of his family inherited Netherwitton, which ten generations later came to the Trevelyans by marriage.

To return to the point that we began with, the new boroughs that the Tudors created were not in the same class as the great mercantile towns.

Unlike Newcastle, Morpeth had no special interest in the proceedings of Parliament nor inhabitants of sufficient wealth and standing to represent it so it usually elected a member of the local gentry.

Being an MP held few attractions, but a gentleman of the county might offer to serve as a burgess in Parliament in the same way that he might serve as a magistrate or a sheriff.

And if he had business of his own in London, this would lessen the inconvenience.

As far as the burgesses proper were concerned, however, the important consideration was that he should pay his own expenses.

Everything changed after the Restoration in 1660.

Being an MP became sought-after, either as a career or a source of profit, or as a training ground for the sons of the aristocracy.

A lucrative market grew up in both seats and votes, hence the first contested election in Morpeth in 1695, and the first known instance of bribery in 1714.